Monthly Archives: September 2013

Three Little Words

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I just finished the audiobook, “Three Little Words” yesterday. It’s read by the author, Ashley Rhodes-Courter. I found it on my library’s audiobook website, and was surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. I’m always interested in the stories of foster/adopted children. The book’s description said that it would open my eyes to the truth of the foster care system, which instantly intrigued me.

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The cover of the book, featuring a little girl in angel wings, was what first grabbed me. There’s something about it that is both innocent and haunting. When I began reading it, I discovered that that was an accurate assessment. Ashley’s innocent life was haunted with some very real and frightening horrors.

The book begins with the story of a teenage mother whose twin sister and she take on the  responsibility of raising her child, Ashley. The mother isn’t sure who the father is, and struggles to come up with the necessary requirements for raising a child (food, housing, etc.). She begins dating and later has two children with a man who isn’t always the best to her, but helps to take care of both her and her children. She overlooks the sour aspects of the relationship in favor of the sweet. These two young people do their best (at times) to raise these children, yet are often overcome with difficulties and hardships. Poor choices, including drug abuse, aid in the making of the storm which causes the child protective services to come in and take custody of the children (at this point there are only two children, as one of them died of SIDS shortly after birth). The children long to be reunited with their mother; however, they are placed in the foster care system with no explanations given to them. They are puzzled, scared, and anxious for their futures. As they move through the foster system, their situation seems to only grow worse. They are placed in overcrowded homes, where children are often neglected. Their worst experience comes when they are placed at the Moss family residence, which is actually more of a torture chamber. Mrs. Moss is an evil woman who gets a sick satisfaction out of terrorizing children. It’s terrible to listen to how horrifically she treats the children, then when the case workers come around, she bakes cookies and acts perfect and pleasant. It’s stomach-turning, really. Eventually Ashley makes her way to a home in which her future adoptive parents spot her and begin the process of taking her into their family and lives. Ashley is hesitant to believe that these people truly care about her due to the letdowns and mistreatments she’s experienced in the past. She acts out when she begins to live with them, expecting them to give up on her, too. But they don’t. They accept her, work with her, love her, and reassure her that she’s there to stay.

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With their help they are able to bring her case to court to prevent any more children from being taken in and abused by the Moss family. They fight for not only Ashley but for all foster children who are mistreated and abused every day in America. The impact she has is extraordinary, earning herself a ticket to the White House to meet the president, as well as another meeting with J.K. Rowling (who she admires due to Harry Potter’s orphan status, and the similarities between Hogwarts and Ashley’s experiences at the children’s home). Ashley becomes a confident and impassioned speaker who travels sharing her story in an attempt to encourage social workers, foster care workers and families, the court system, and anyone with an interest in the well-being of children, to keep their eyes and ears open, to listen to the children, provide the care the children need, and get them into a stable forever home as soon as is reasonable. She honors her guardian ad litem, Mary Miller, for how hard she fought for her to keep her safe and find her a good and loving home. (The picture below is of Mary Miller and Ashley)

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This book inspired me in many ways. As I mentioned, I’ve always had a special interest in foster/adopted children. I would absolutely love to get personally involved in foster care someday, with the hopes of adopting a child or two. I love kids and have such compassion for children who have been through difficult times. Hearing stories like Ashley’s makes me all the more passionate about fighting for these children to have a chance to become who they can be, nourished with the love and respect they deserve that will help them grow. It’s really an extraordinary book, but what’s even more outstanding is how wonderfully this young lady turned out, despite the painful things she has gone through. She’s an inspiration not only to foster children/adopted children, but to all people, as we are all interconnected in the human family. “Whatsoever you do for the least of these…”

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Ellen Hopkins – Impulse

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I’m a big fan of Ellen Hopkins. My favorite book of hers is entitled “Impulse.” I’ve read a few others of hers, and I have definitely enjoyed them. However, I could not put “Impulse” down. It was delightfully consuming.

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There are several things to love about Ellen Hopkins’ writings. The first, at least for me, is her writing style. The way the words are laid out on the page is extraordinary. She writes in verse, and many times the verse takes on a shape significant to the content of the text. This adds such visual interest that you can’t help but be intrigued. And secondly, her subject matter is edgy, is graphic, is surprising, and is GENUINE. She has a keen sense of the struggles many young people encounter in today’s world, and expresses them in a way that helps to give voice to what they are going through, as well as helps to communicate these things to those who are invested in helping and caring for them.

In “Impulse,” there are three main characters who meet at a residential facility for teenagers in need of intensive psychiatric care after having attempted suicide. The three characters do not know each other, nor are they all that similar (at least, at face value). However, their lives become interconnected through their therapy sessions, daily activities, and shared struggles. Each character’s story is incredibly personal and compelling; however, the one that I related to most was Vanessa. Her story opens with her suicide attempt in which she slits her wrists in her family home and is found by her younger brother. Her grandma, a nurse, provides the immediate care necessary to keep her alive until the ambulance arrives. As her story unfolds, we learn that she has a complicated family history involving an absent father and a bipolar mother. Her way of dealing with the pain she feels is acting out sexually, which ends up in a pregnancy she chooses to abort. She’s so overwhelmed by the shameful and painful feelings she has both from what causes her to act out, as well as the aftermath of how she feels from the abortion that she gets involved in self-injurious behaviors. She cuts herself to deal with the emotions she has but cannot handle.

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If anyone reading this blog is familiar with self-injury, you may be aware that once a person begins using it as an escape from the reality which they cannot face, it becomes the knee-jerk answer for any time of discomfort. Vanessa, once she has begun hurting herself, finds it impossible to stop. What’s more is that she doesn’t see a reason to stop, since she no longer sees a reason to be alive, let alone healthy.

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In my own experience struggling with mental health issues (one of which is self-injury), I can attest to the truth of the quote above. The knowledge that one is not alone, that this struggle and this drive and this confusion is something shared by many, is a huge relief. Because the nature of self-injury is often alienating, due to the fact that many people do not know how to respond to the notion, and are often repulsed by the scars left from self-injurious episodes, many sufferers find themselves feeling rather alone and isolated. The need to hide the wounds and scars is often synonymous with the need for the self-injurer to hide their own thoughts and feelings.

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In the book, Vanessa learns to connect with the other characters, who, although their struggles are different, are actually quite similar to her. This connection brings them a certain comfort that was previously unavailable to them, since they previously were not in daily communion with young people facing these types of challenges and concerns. As the quote above says – there is a “simple” need to connect with someone who might understand. It’s funny that this need is considered to be simple, especially when you think of how complex and crucial these relationships can be.

Yet, in the end, Vanessa learns that she can, in fact, overcome the self-loathing and guilt she feels. She can, like a lotus, blossom from the mud where she stands. It is at this point that Vanessa realizes the following:

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Personally, I find this quote to be a motivator – something to spur me on into a future filled with hope. It is of no use for us to wail over the past, for it is gone and there is no changing that. What we have is the here and now, in anticipation of what good may come. And of course we will come across trouble, and find ourselves stumbling and losing our direction at times, but the idea is to not allow that to become the way we live our lives. For it is through this cycle of falling down and getting back up that we learn the value of peace and happiness. And, as Vanessa says: our happiest memories we have yet to create.

Jen Lancaster Love, Part Two

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Well, I finished “Here I Go Again” by Jen Lancaster.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that it was different than the other two I have read (“The Tao of Martha” and “If You Were Here”), so I wasn’t sure about how I’d like it. It did take a little bit of settling into – but not too long. In Jen’s characteristic style, the personalities developed in the story are incredibly endearing. I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to relate to the main character, Lissy Ryder, due to her popular-superficial-mean-girl role. And yet, I did. In the book, Lissy’s life is not going so great – she lost her job and her husband, and no one likes her. Life’s pretty rough for her when  she is given a chance to go back in time to her high school days (she is now at her 20th high school anniversary, so it’s been some time), and “gain clarity.”

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She thinks this means changing her behavior for the better and does exactly that. But, she comes to discover that upon returning to the present (or going “back to the future” – wink, wink) she has made life infinitely better for herself; however, the lives of everyone she knows and cares about have drastically changed…for the worse. She battles with the selfish desire to allow things to stay as they are – wonderful for her, dismal for others, or whether to try to go back in time again and do a redo, in which she is unable to do the right thing (as she did in her previous journey to the past), but to stand aside and/or behave in the typical self-centered cruel way she did in high school, thus allowing everything to go back to “normal.” (by the way, I’m really sorry if I’ve lost you at this point – it’s not this confusing in the book, I promise!!!) She decides she cannot handle having everyone else’s lives end up so miserably, and would rather have the life she previously had – the life she deserves. She has indeed begun to “gain clarity,” as was the goal. It is in this trip through yesteryear, where she now has become aware of the feelings of others, that she realizes just how horrible her actions, thoughts, and words were. As she repeatedly has these ephiphanic moments, it’s sort of like the end of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” where the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes.

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In the end, she tries to make amends for the wrongs she’s committed, and with her newfound clarity, decides to live her life in a genuine and heartfelt way.

While reading (or actually…listening to) the book, I couldn’t help but think back on my own school experiences, what with the drama and ordeals that took place. I began to wonder about if the possibility to go back in time and change things were presented to me – as they were to Lissy – would I do it? Would I attempt going back hoping to go to those situations where I could have done something differently, and which may have had a lasting impact? The times where someone said something hurtful to me (or someone I cared about), and I didn’t stand up for myself (or them)? The times I was the person who said those terrible things? The choices I made that ended up causing problems? Would I choose differently? And if I did change anything, would I be prepared to deal with how it affected the future, and all those involved? I think this question comes up frequently in literature and movies because we do wonder what life would look like…if only. We often spend lots of time on the “What if?” questions in life.

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It’s as if we all know we can’t change things, but can’t help but wonder what life might be like if we could. It can end up being a waste of time, of course, since there is no magical time machine…but it can also give some perspective into what we can do in the present/future to try to not repeat the mistakes of the past. In this book, though it was distressing for her to see how horribly she behaved once her perspective had changed and she was no longer as self-centered, she did have the advantage of having had this experience and being able to carry what she had learned forward. I think we, too, can do this through reflection on our own lives, decisions, and experiences by seeing what worked and what didn’t and how we can improve in the future. In the end, though Lissy chose to have her life not be perfect so that her loved ones could have their original lives back, I think she truly gained more than even they did, because she came to understand how we are all interconnected, and how each person’s impact can make a huge difference.

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Wild

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I work a second job doing commercial cleaning, and since it’s just me by myself when I’m working, I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks on my iPod. The local library has a decent-sized audiobook selection (it’s actually pretty lacking, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers), so I’ve been able to listen for free, which is always a plus. A book I listened to earlier this year comes to mind on occasion, and in my eyes, when you keep thinking of it long after you finished it, well, that’s how you know it was a good book. It’s called “Wild” and it’s by a woman named Cheryl Strayed.

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I am not entirely sure what first drew me to this book. I don’t generally care for books about anything that resembles sports. I’m not a sporty person. And with a big bold hiking boot on the front, well, I would usually find that sort of thing off-putting. However, I decided to look into just what this book was all about. I had seen recommendations of it in magazines, and knew that Oprah was a fan, so I figured perhaps there was something to it. I’m not really an Oprah’s Book Club kind of gal, but I’ll take a look at her recommendations every so often, just because. When I read that this book was about a young woman (around my own age) who goes through some personal hard times and decides to work it all out by going off on her own and pushing herself to the limit of what she can stand, I was intrigued. So, I decided to give it a shot. After all, it was a library book, and if I didn’t like it, I wasn’t out anything other than the time I’d spent listening to it.

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It wasn’t long before I realized I loved the book. I felt like I was hiking alongside her. I tried to imagine the weight of her backpack, her hunger, her thirst, her blisters and torn up feet. I drew up pictures of what it would look like to be hiking the landscapes she was describing. And I felt a connection with the trail acquaintances she made, who ended up being a makeshift community for her along her way. Most of all, I could feel the internal anguish she experienced as she hiked her way through her muddled-up mind. Of course I didn’t understand a lot of it in the “I’ve been there” sort of way (my own mother is alive, I’ve never been married, etc.). But at the same time, I could empathize with her situation via the personal struggles I’ve gone through, drawing on those emotions, hurts, and hard-fought triumphs. I was (and still mostly am) completely unfamiliar with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), but after this book I sort of want to at least hike a part of it.

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I think it would be beautiful to walk amongst the nature and animals and quiet. I love being in nature (so long as it’s not sweltering outside), and could spend hours taking in the sights and sounds of a forest. I like to hike my local area, but was unable to this year due to a broken ankle in February that still bothers me. I guess perhaps I hiked vicariously through Cheryl, at least a little bit.

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What struck me about this book, though, is her openness and honesty about her personal struggles. It wasn’t in a “look how much of a train wreck I am!” way, all “cover of US Weekly magazine”-style. It was a genuine sharing of self – a willingness to be real and say “Here’s what happened. Here’s how I felt. Here’s how I screwed up trying to make myself feel better. And here’s how I actually got better.” That spoke to me, because that’s basically the story of my life. I generally try things the hard way first, then learn from my mistakes. I suppose I could think of it as the “scenic route,” or possibly the “road less traveled.” That makes it sound a little more refined than “I totally effed this up!!” Haha. But in all honesty, this is something that really does speak to me. I have read some reviews of the book that clearly have been written by people who either a) aren’t inclined toward empathy or compassion or b) have never tried and failed over and over until finally getting it right. However, those are not the people I know, nor are they the people I am interested in knowing. In these reviews, the author and the book are made to sound whiny, spoiled, impulsive, stupid, and irritating. I don’t necessarily disagree with this – the author can be all of these things – but then again, who isn’t (at times, anyway)?? I know I can be all of those things – and more! I also think that part of the process of working through personal struggles and challenges is experiencing those less-than-savory feelings and behaviors. It is in living these difficulties, and subsequently reflecting on them, that we are able to learn and grow. I think if you read this book and get caught up in such things…well, you’re missing the point. Cheryl has beautiful insights when she thinks her way through how she feels about the death of her mother, and her childhood, and her family situation, and her ex-husband, and her whole mess involving toxic drugs and even more toxic men. She realizes the goodness in herself, in others, and in life. She emerges from the trail a different person, ready to not start over, but to continue forward – progressing, growing, changing, and blossoming. It truly is a book worth reading.

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Speak

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In an attempt to blend my last post (about education) with my general theme, I have decided to write about the book, “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson. I read this book probably around 2006, after stumbling upon the 2004 movie. Both the book and the movie captured my mind and my heart.

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Now, I do realize the movie features Kristen Stewart, and that may be off-putting to people who are anti-Twilight (or just are tired of the media circus involving the cast of that movie series). But, before I lose you to this, let me remind you that this is a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart. She is still sullen and expressionless, but with good reason in this particular story. And since she wasn’t “famous” at the time “Speak” was made, she seems more…genuine.

This book (and movie) features an average teenage girl, Melinda Sordino, about to begin high school. She goes to a party where she doesn’t really know anyone (except her best friend). A cute boy notices her and pays her special attention, and when she allows herself to be alone with him, he takes advantage of the situation…and her. Afterward, she’s in a state of shock and confusion, and needing help, calls 911. The police show up to find a bunch of underage teens drinking alcohol (obviously problematic). When the teens find out who called the police, they instantly shun her without ever finding out the reason she made the call. The plot continues with Melinda beginning high school with everyone (including her now ex-best friend) hating her. While reading/viewing, I couldn’t help but place myself in her situation and feel the pain of isolation, misunderstanding, and shame. It’s heart-wrenching. Her saving grace comes in the form of art class. The teacher is an oh-so-typical art teacher, (played by Steve Zahn) who encourages her to think about life and the world in a new and original way.

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After picking the word “tree” from the globe (as shown above), she is asked to draw it on the board. She draws a simple tree, and the teacher tells her that that is a good start. It is this challenge that sets her on a path to self-discovery through art. Her art becomes her release, her focus, and ultimately, her voice.

It’s an inspiring story, and one that I in particular find meaningful, due to the personal connections I can draw. I admire the teacher who encourages Melinda to change her perspective, to challenge herself, and to grow. I have had similar “teachers” in my own life (though not all those who have taught me life lessons have been educators in the traditional sense). These people often do not realize they are throwing a life preserver to a person who is on the verge of drowning. Also, I can relate to the expressive nature of art, and how it can be a source of consolation and healing. I love art. I love to make art, and I love to view art. Art is a fascinating concept to me, really. I’m not a student of art, and I’m certainly not blessed with any particular artistic gifts. But, to me, that doesn’t matter when creating art for art’s sake. My works will never be in a gallery or admired by many (or even few…ha). But they matter to me. They’re a way for me to communicate myself without the going through the trouble of selecting the appropriate words. I pour my feelings onto paper, canvas, even coloring books, and feel a great sense of relief. And, when I find myself feeling things that I am unable to vocalize – unable to speak – I find that, like Melinda, art gives me a voice.

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Thank You, Mr. Falker

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As the beginning of the school year is getting underway, I thought I’d do a quick post on one of my favorite children’s books. In my opinion, classic children’s literature contains lessons that are not only applicable to children, but adults, too. A prime example of this would be the book “Thank You, Mr. Falker” by Patricia Polacco.

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This book tells of a young girl who struggles in her schoolwork. The kids make fun of her and call her names, which of course causes her to feel badly about herself. The young girl is brought under the wing of a special teacher, Mr. Falker, who teaches her that she is not unintelligent, nor is she worthy of the criticism and bullying she’s been receiving from her classmates. He teaches her she is smart and she is good. He also discovers she is dyslexic, and this is causing her to not be able to learn at the same pace as everyone else, due to the fact that the words just aren’t coming together in the right way for her. Together they work to come up with strategies to overcome this challenge, and she gains confidence in her ability to learn, grow, and achieve. At the end of the book, the reader discovers that this is a true story, and that the struggling little girl is none other than the author herself. You can read Patricia’s own words here.

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Books like this make me think of the wonderful teachers I had in my life who inspired me in ways they’ll never know. I had such terrific teachers growing up – men and women who inspired me, encouraged me, motivated me, challenged me, and most of all…put up with me! They were truly a blessing to the students they nurtured and taught each day. I can remember when I was in third grade my teacher used to give me the extra copies of worksheets so that I could play “school” at home with my younger brother and neighborhood friends. I had my own little classroom, complete with schooldesks, walls decorated with informative posters that I made myself, and even a gradebook that I begged my mom to take me to the teacher supply store to buy. I looked up to my teachers so much that I couldn’t help but imitate them. And, from that point on, I wanted more than anything to share my love of learning with everyone. I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. When I went to college, during my interview with the Education Department, I was asked “Why do you want to become a teacher?” I responded “Because I love to learn.” The woman conducting the interview looked up at me, smiled, and said “That is the perfect answer. A good teacher first must love to learn.” I have never forgotten that statement. When I was a classroom teacher, I tried to keep focused on my love of learning when presenting information to my students. If I am interested in it, there’s a much greater chance that they will be, too. That energy, enthusiasm, and drive is what makes people passionate. My goal was to create life-long, passionate learners.

I am not currently teaching in the classroom (long story), but I do try to keep my love of learning active and alive. I am forever grateful for the teachers who took time out for me, and who were my very own “Mr. Falker”s. For noticing me, for reassuring me, and yes, for pushing me, I too must say to each of them – “Thank You.”

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Bravery of Women

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I belong to a book club composed entirely of women. It’s only natural that we occasionally should run across and decide to read books about strong, brave women. The most recent book that fits this description was one that I personally recommended to the club. It is called “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” and was written by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

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Reading this book was truly an eye-opening experience. As an American who (sort of) keeps up with current news, I feel that it would be fair to say that the present situation with America and the Middle East, particularly the Afghan people, is one of severe pain, but also serious misperceptions. Yes, it’s true that America was dealt a devastating blow during the horrific tragedy of 9/11 – I do not intend to diminish this in the slightest – please understand me on this one(!!); however, we must be consciously aware of the fact that not every Afghan person is part of the Taliban. Now, yes, of course we all *know* this, but at the same time, I know I am guilty of second-guessing people or situations out of fear, and well, probably a bit of prejudice. Since I am the type of person who seeks to understand rather than judge, I was most certainly intrigued by this book. The author shares the (true!) story of this family of women who, left to their own devices in a world that has quite literally changed overnight, chose to survive – even thrive – under the most challenging and dangerous of circumstances. The fact that these women not only crafted a way for them to earn a living but also taught their neighbors and friends how to do the same (in secret, of course, out of fear of the penalties of being caught by the Taliban walking outside without a male chaperone), truly speaks to the giving, nurturing, caring nature of women. After reading this book I began to research around the internet for more information. It was at this point that I discovered this little gem.

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I emailed for information, and was surprised to hear back from Meena Nanji, the director of the “View from a Grain of Sand.” She was very excited to hear that I was interested in learning more about the current situation of women in Afghanistan. I ordered the movie from her, eager to show it to my book club.

Let me assure you: this film will open your eyes to the tragic lives of women in Afghanistan in an unforgettable way. It will break your heart to see the hardships and abuses they endure as a part of their daily lives. And yet, the resistance that has arisen in response to these horrible events is inspiring. In the film you meet three Afghan women who are changing their world in their own way. Each of them encounters many risks and dangers; yet, each of them is firm in her resolution to fight for the freedom of Afghan women once again. It’s a very sad, yet very beautiful picture.

I recommend this book and this video in conjunction with one another. I think they helped me to open my worldview just a bit wider, and to see beyond the scope of my Midwestern American life.

And, while you’re reading and watching, you might as well be eating. Go on and cook yourself up some Kabuli Pulao, the national dish of Afghanistan. It is deeeeelicious. Yum.

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