A Favorite Tree

When I was in grade school, one of my most memorable homework assignments was to choose a tree and watch it over time. We were to draw a picture of it in a notebook, observe bark, branch, and leaf, note seasonal changes, and describe clearly. What kind of tree was it? Could we estimate its height, or the circumference of its trunk? Did birds or squirrels find a welcome in it? Were there sounds if we listened, smells if we sniffed? It was, in retrospect, a high quality lesson in science, language arts, and observation.  And especially in view of the fact that we were living in the thick of urban Brooklyn, it was a wise teacher who guided us to focus on nature.

I believe my tree was a maple, and it was a very young tree then. I remember its general location and even went back and looked for it once, fifty years later, but I couldn’t recognize it. As I thought about it while writing this blog post, I began to wonder about Brooklyn’s trees, and if I might be wrong in remembering a maple tree growing in this particular neighborhood, whether a maple could actually thrive in that environment. And here is something truly amazing I found: http://jillhubley.com/project/nyctrees

Forgive a minor digression here, but that link, which will take you to a map of New York City street trees by species, is an example of a magnificent use of the internet. I’ve often wondered how we can we use technology to elevate, connect, and encourage our better selves rather than the worst of us. The fact that someone has lovingly compiled a map of New York trees and it’s there for all to see…well, that’s a use that delights and inspires me.

Anyway, I zoomed in on my old neighborhood near Coney Island Avenue, traced my path to P.S. 179, and sure enough, there are maples here and there. Who knows? One of them might even be mine.

Thanks to all teachers who point city kids to trees and to the natural world still thriving at the edges of things, and sometimes in the midst. I’m worried about the planet these days, as I’m sure all enlightened humans are, but it occurs to me that unless children are taught to notice and appreciate the natural environment, they won’t know what we stand to lose. So, I’m putting in a word here for outdoor education…another digression.

Back to trees. The oak pictured above is my friend Kelley’s favorite. This one has its own plaque nearby, because it’s a historical tree, planted in the 1850s, and next time I go back, I’ll remember to jot down the details and add it to this post. When we go for a walk in that particular area of the Santa Ynez Valley, Kelley always stops to sort of drink it in with pleasure. “My tree,” she says, with an almost-sigh.

I’m with Merwin on this topic:

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth

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I Figured That Was Just The Way It Was

The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and coercion is not new, but suddenly we’re talking about it. I wrote the following thoughts to a friend of mine, an impressive young journalist, as a comment to something she posted on Facebook:

It’s been an amazing thing, seeing this unfold. I’m in my sixties now, but I’m sure most women my age remember in our younger days being targets of unwanted advances and male commentary about our physical attributes, whether at work or even just walking down the street…basically it was constant. The married manager of the grocery store where I was a checkout girl, office executives in suits and ties who held superior positions, random construction workers, a guy on the subway…any man could do this. (And here I must acknowledge gratitude for the ones who did not, the ones who were respectful and professional.) But after a while, you just figured that harassment was the norm…just the way it was.

One response technique was to sort of pretend it wasn’t happening. And maybe sometimes we might have even been naive enough to find it flattering, or to tell ourselves it was meant as a compliment. It was confusing, because sometimes you might misconstrue the attention for recognition or see it as the opening to an opportunity…you didn’t want to over-react. I always doubted my own instincts, tried not to embarrass men or hurt their feelings, even while feeling terribly embarrassed myself. But mostly it was humiliating, and sometimes scary, and I can see only now in retrospect how much it devalued us, and altered the way we saw ourselves and our ways of navigating in the world. But we didn’t complain. It was the norm! So I’m so glad that women are beginning to speak out and be believed, and to declare that this should NOT be the way it is.

Here’s her reply:

Thank you for sharing this, Cynthia. I think it captures how much *work* women have to do to find a way to survive in the workplace — any workplace — when men have so much license to do so much damage with so few consequences. I really hope that is changing, but I’m not yet convinced. And I really think it falls on men to take a long look at themselves, at their present and past behavior, and at the way they respond to other men who engage in a whole range of behaviors associated with sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I heard this interview on the Brian Lehrer show yesterday, and I think the interviewee captures some of what you describe here, about the way women want to be truly seen in the workplace, recognized for their accomplishments, and often encounter men in positions of power who are simultaneously mentors and perpetrators. It can be terribly confusing and distressing. And again, the work to reconcile these things falls to women, and we have better things to do. Like, our jobs. I guess that’s my point here: we need a shift in responsibility, so that it’s men — ALL men — doing the work of listening and then figuring out how to be better men and better humans. http://www.wnyc.org/story/post-weinstein-reality-check/

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Filomena

In the course of doing research about our family history, my brother recently managed to locate some relatives who sent him the above photograph of our great-grandmother. Her maiden name was Filomena Rossi. She was born in Italy, and came to New York in the 1880s. She married another Italian immigrant, named Traiano Miranda, and they had five children, the eldest of which was Assunta, my father’s mother.

Seeing her face feels a little like traveling back in time for a kiss. I never knew what she looked like, but she was immediately familiar to me. The eyes especially…my father had eyes like that…also the nose, and the line of her jaw. I see something of her features in my siblings, and I see her in myself, and  I wish I knew more of her story, but I know that it beats in my heart.  I recognize the kindness and sorrow and love in the face of Filomena, and it gives me a sense of continuity and comfort. I carry her hopes, and I feel her strength.

I know she crossed an ocean and bore children and lived in a Brooklyn tenement, and now, as implausible as it seems, the daughter of one of her grandsons is sitting in a house above an orchard in the California hills, thinking about her. 

A verse from John O’Donohue’s beautiful Beannacht comes to mind:

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

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Civic Duties

This week I had jury duty, or, more accurately, I was summoned to a court to sit in a room filled with potential jurors, hoping not be chosen.

Welcoming me to town was an irritable and officious parking attendant who set down his newspaper and came out from his kiosk to chide me because I didn’t know I was supposed to hold up my summons at the entrance. Then he came out again, even more ruffled, because I had backed my car into a parking space, which apparently is not allowed. He seemed disproportionately annoyed about everything, but I resisted the impulse to growl back. He was, after all, an old guy with a boring job. So instead, I handed him a tangerine and wished him a good day, and I hope that this will have a ripple effect and there will soon be world peace.

We sat through an orientation about jury duty and what an edifying experience it is, then were led to another building, where we lined up to go through security, removing belts, cell phones, and keys, walking through a scanner. “It’s just like at the airport,” someone said, “except we aren’t going anyplace fun.”

“Let’s all be positive about this,” suggested a woman in line behind me, to no one in particular. “Our attitudes are contagious. Let’s turn this into a good experience. We don’t need more cynicism.”

She was right. Jury duty is one of those things that are largely defined by how we approach them. It is never convenient, and there is no one present who would not prefer to be doing something else, but it’s a small service, really, for the rights and privileges of living in a democracy. I still hoped I wouldn’t be chosen, but I decided to accept my fate with a sense of duty and dignity.

It seemed like an unusually long selection process. The judge and the lawyers introduced themselves, and prospective jurors were given an opportunity to request that the judge excuse or defer them from service. The judge was reasonable but stern; a few were allowed to leave, and a few sat back down, disappointed. We were told a little bit about the case, and then twelve people were called to the front. There were explanations and admonitions, questions and cross-questions, folks excused and replaced. We listened to thought-provoking discussion along with stretches of get-me-outta-here tedium (I hate to sit still) and then proceedings broke for a recess when I am sure most of us would have preferred to just get through and wrap up. We were called back for a second day.

But you know? If I am ever charged with an offense and subject to a jury trial, I am grateful to know how thorough and careful the process is, and how diligent the effort to be fair. And it was humbling to see so many citizens taking time out from their regular routines and responsibilities, taking their civic duty seriously. They were young and old, and from all kinds of work backgrounds: a computer technician, a lumberyard worker, a fire fighter, a manager of a fast food place, a retired teacher, a retired car dealer, a retired pastor. They seemed thoughtful and articulate, honest and respectful. I was impressed.

So all in all, it was a positive experience. And I think this has to be the new civics, the new way of living in a democracy: engaged, attentive, willing to step up, not cynical. A year after the debacle of the 2016 election, we saw glimmers of hope on Tuesday in polls nationwide that America is not going to be defined by divisiveness and hatred. We don’t need perfection. We need decency. Democracy is us.

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Sunday Plans

Last night I seriously slept, unassisted by even a flake of pharmaceutical. And I dreamed in two distinct installments. In one I crouched behind a rock and witnessed a mountain lion skulking around; in the other, I was adjusting the umbrella of an elderly lady in a café in Italy, filling her water glass, reassuring her that I would be right back. It’s almost too easy to read meaning into these, but I woke up refreshed and absurdly proud of myself for having achieved sleep. I guess my bar is set pretty low these days.

I asked my husband if he had plans for today. His reply: “I’m going out between 9:30 and 10:30 to catch the little wave that happens when the tide is high.” Apparently this particular little wave occurs in a specific spot, and only when certain conditions exist. It’s an ethereal thing, he said. It sounded more like a poem than a plan.

I have a few plans myself, paltry rather than poetic, but I’m sticking to the sea-foam of this day rather than seeking depth. Speaking of foam, I have a yeast mixture bubbling in a bowl right now, proving its potential, and I’m going to make pizza dough, rendering the day one of accomplishment right there. Our young neighbors are coming over for dinner this evening…pizza, of course.

I think I’ll go out on my bicycle for a while too. I can see that it’s breezy outside, but not prohibitively so, and the act of pedaling somehow puts my brain in gear, and I come home with ideas. I have a friend who is participating in National Novel Writing Month…the goal is to complete a 50,000-word novel in thirty days, and there’s not much said about how good it has to be, but I suppose the act of completing a novel is a pretty major achievement in itself. As for me, I don’t think I can even get out thirty blog posts, and I’m not going to diminish my already shaky self-esteem any further by declaring arbitrary goals I will inevitably fail to meet. I guess I am not an ambitious sort of person.

But wow. It isn’t even 9 a.m., and I’m dressed and on my way. I’m calling this a wrap.

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A Front


Yesterday a front moved in…a wall of white cloud and cold air that seemed to alter everything. The light was  tinged with blue, and dim, like a too-soon dusk, and the hills looked frosty, and everything felt strange.

Everything is strange…isn’t it? The route has been recalculated. Please drive onto a digitized road. But where? I can’t see past the front.

I used to pray at night, an earnest hybrid of a prayer, and one of the things I used to say was, “Let me be an instrument of love and light.”

I don’t even know what that means. These are ugly, disillusioning times.

I liked being out of the country for a while. When I was far away, what is happening to our democracy was easier to mute.  We’re living with an illness now, a collective trauma, a debilitating daily onslaught.  I know we need to act, but sometimes I feel helpless.

A friend of mine tells me that my writing is always sad. But I think I’m just being honest, trying to write through to some sort of sense…to that band of light behind the clouds.

A month ago, I was in Paris. I was walking along a street in Paris called Rue de Turbigo, and suddenly, completely out of context, I remembered my mother looking up at me from her bed not long before her death, and she could hardly speak, but she mouthed the words, “I love you so much.”

Oh, those sudden flashbacks…they bring an almost physical pain.

Did I say, “I love you so much” back? I honestly can’t remember. And would saying it have mattered? It’s as if I was in some kind of trance. There are so many things I wish I had said, and so many questions I wish I had asked, so many things I wish we had talked about over the years. (I wonder if my daughter will feel this about me someday.)

But I said the words out loud in Paris on Rue de Turbigo. I said it to the air:  “I love you so much.”

My voice blended with the traffic and noise and cacophony of the city. It radiated outward and floated upward and dissolved into sound-waves and molecules moving through time.

I am putting up a brave front.

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In The Peaceful Valley

When we first moved to Santa Barbara County, we lived for a year or so in a little  apartment on a horse ranch on the outskirts of Solvang, and we used to enjoy wandering from there through miles of fields and vineyards, coming out at the gardens of the Mission Santa Inés, or the river, or the base of the mountains, or the town of Solvang, which seemed somehow more charming in those days. Anyway, yesterday I had reason to go to the Santa Ynez Valley, and it was a fine opportunity for a little stroll.

I’d forgotten how pleasant the area is…there’s a whole other world behind the streets and houses and businesses. My friend and I started along a narrow trail, passed a small thicket of trees, traversed a broad grassy field, and ascended a steep dirt path. Then we climbed over a wooden fence and stood before the Mission, a place of peace despite a painful history.

Here and there on the grounds were religious statues housed within flower-strewn shrines, and explanatory signs painted in handsome calligraphy. By the entrance to the church there was a table of photographs and offerings for Dia de los Muertos, and in the cool shadows of the sanctuary within, three women sat with heads bowed, murmuring prayer. A feeling of refuge and comfort prevailed, and no matter what one’s beliefs, a welcome sense of having stepped away from the world.

Founded in 1804, the Mission Santa Inés was the nineteenth of the twenty-one missions established by the Franciscan Padres in California. Here’s how the Mission website describes their intent: The Franciscan Padres established missions to teach the native population (the Chumash at this mission) the Spanish culture, Christianity and a trade. The military viewed the missions as a source of provisions and man-power. Only the zeal and protection of the Franciscan Padres kept the military from exploiting the population. At the end of ten to twenty years, the mission was to become a pueblo, the Chumash would receive lands, and the padres would become parish priests.

That was the plan, anyway. And of course it didn’t always go well. There was in fact a short-lived Indian revolt in 1824 that started at Santa Inés. About ten years later, in 1835, the Mission was secularized by the Mexican government, which meant that instead of management by Padres, there were government-appointed overseers, and Mexican Franciscans whose role was to provide only for the “spiritual needs” of the Chumash. The Chumash were increasingly subject to mistreatment, and began to leave if they could. It is believed that nearly 2,000 Chumash people were buried there, and ongoing searches have recently revealed new evidence of unmarked mass burials.

And so it was with mixed feelings that we wandered the cemetery grounds a bit, where wooden crosses and other humble markers offer mere hints of untold stories. Olives have dropped from the trees, and there are scents in the air of autumn, of dry leaves and herbs, and we walked respectfully and silently, acknowledging the sadness and the sacredness.

And it was admittedly a perfunctory and impromptu look at the Mission, but an interesting detour. It’s worth remembering that even the everyday places in our lives, the familiar scenes and structures that loom like backdrops, almost unnoticed, are layered with history and infused with meaning.

We climbed over the fence and descended the dirt path back to where we had started, and we were very soon at our cars and ready to resume whatever was our ordinary business. I turned on the radio and heard the day’s variation of the ongoing assault, and nothing was better, but nothing was worse. The sun was shining on the mountains in the distance, and there was a farmer’s market in progress.

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Light and Shadow

It had been a busy day of errands and a doctor’s appointment, and we decided to have dinner out. The restaurant we chose is an unpretentious storefront place in a strip mall in Goleta, but we like it fine. We placed our orders at the counter and chose a table outside, because the afternoon light was beautiful and golden. It was early for dinner, and the tables around us were empty, and although the parking lot was busy, we had a pleasant sense of being separate from all the comings and goings.

Looking back through the glass door of our restaurant, we could see a square of sunlight on the wall inside. I held up my hands and formed a wolf with snapping jaw, and there it was, projected crisp and clear, an animated feature in black and white.

“Remember doing that?” I asked Monte. Back in the Brooklyn days, my brother Eddie and I had a patch of light on the wall of the bedroom we shared, and we were big on shadow games. (Oh, there’s that pang of missing Eddie, a different sort of shadow.)

But this was a happy childhood memory, and I was surprised how readily my little repertoire returned. I linked my thumbs and formed a beautiful bird with outstretched finger-wings. Not to be outdone, Monte proceeded to make a shadow-shape of his own. “What is it?” I asked. “An animal,” he said vaguely, pointing out an ear. We laughed. Then the wolf attacked.

Dinner came, and it was quite satisfactory, and I thought how delightful it can be, eating dinner by a parking lot with someone you love. Who needs Paris?

An elderly couple walked out of the restaurant and came over to our table. “I just wanted to tell you we really enjoyed the shadow show,” said the man. “Haven’t seen a movie like that in a good many years.”

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The Doll Doctor

There is a little shop in Paris on Rue Parmentier where for more than half a century self-taught master Henri Launay has been repairing dolls, particularly French porcelain poupées. I first glimpsed him through the storefront window at work in the dusty shadows within. He was wearing a white lab coat, and he held a celluloid baby doll in his hands that he was assessing with the bespectacled tenderness of an old-fashioned country doctor. All around him were piles of broken dolls and various parts: eyeballs, limbs, and torsos. Here and there was a well-loved Teddy bear too.

I walked by the shop a few times in the course of the days that followed, and finally I pre-composed a sentence or two in French, and steeled myself to enter. I wanted him to know that I respected and admired him, and that his work reminded me of a time when things were still deemed worthy of repairing rather than discarding, when craftsmanship had value, and work was done with care.

I understood, too, that the ancient dolls and stuffed animals come to him with names and stories, and in restoring them to life he is restoring memories and continuity, providing comfort to someone. Also, I think there is great beauty in finding one’s passion, even an odd one like doll repair, and doing it well. It was clear to me that Monsieur Launay is a treasure–and he’s ninety years old. I felt I must pay homage.

He was standing at the counter when I entered, wooden file drawers behind him, and shelves crammed helter-skelter with doll heads, spools of cord and thread and wire, a bit of wig and stuffing, a chubby leg with a pink knit bootie on its foot, a pair of tiny red shoes, and a few tools, like scissors, files, and pliers––although he has said that his favorite tool is simply his hands. From a boom box came the sounds of classical music, through the front window, sunlight slanted, and the busy street outside receded into unreality. Time seemed to have stopped inside this shop.

I stammered out my well-intentioned sentiments, and I’m sure he understood. He’s heard this sort of thing before, and I was just another fan. He pointed out a newspaper clipping from the New York Times published about decade ago…”en anglais”…and I learned some basic facts about him from that. He started out as a young man repairing umbrellas and belts, and gradually shifted to dolls, accumulating very specialized expertise. But the dolls he repairs are real ones, dolls of quality and character, dolls that have been cherished companions. (He is disdainful of the mass produced modern dolls–Barbies, for example–which he can do nothing to fix.)

He has amassed an inventory of doll parts over the years from defunct stores and factories, and can make eyes open, limbs move again, and broken shards whole. The dolls he repairs are so beloved to those who bring them in, he views his clinic as humanitarian. His skill and patience are breathtaking.

The journalist who interviewed him when he was eighty years old asked him if he thought about retirement. His response: “This is like an arm or a leg. If didn’t have the boutique I would miss something, I would feel mutilated.”

Ten years later, he’s still here.

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Ranch Girls In Paris

While we were in Paris, we met up with a childhood friend of Miranda’s named Katie who is now a student here. These two were California ranch girls, and it’s so interesting to see what impressive young women they have become, living such cosmopolitan lives after having started out in the sagebrush. At the same time, there is something refreshingly down-to-earth and familiar about them, and also spirited and strong. You can take the girl out of the ranch, but you can’t take the ranch out of the girl…something like that.

Katie grew up in a male-dominated enclave of surfers, translated those skills to skiing, and moved to Aspen for a time. She recently traveled in Estonia and Norway, spent a couple of years in London, and has decided to take on Paris for a while and learn about art and design…because she can. “I am the first woman in my family who could literally do whatever I want,” she says, and she intends to take advantage of that freedom.

The day of our visit happens to be her birthday, and she’s turning thirty-one, “a cuspy age”, she calls it, which is a fitting term. (I remember a defining journey I myself made at the age of thirty-one, my great migration West.) One might say too that we are in a cuspy time of history right now, and we can wring our hands about that or face it with courage. Katie seems up to the challenges. I am intrigued by the Millennial generation and how they navigate through shifting landscapes, and Katie is smart, articulate, and brave. “When we’re very young,” she muses, “we think we are the center of the universe, and then we begin to realize that there are so many universes…and we are not the center of any except the one in our own head.”

She’s living in an AirBnB apartment in La Marais district, a place too pricey to keep for long, but a good base for now. She explains her initial criteria for living in a foreign country: Healthy. Safe. Happy. (As opposed to risky, sketchy, stressful.) “After settling in a little, then I can ‘off road’ and test boundaries by staying in weird places or checking out the borderlands,” she says.

Katie has no particular man in her life, is enjoying her singleness, and is not afraid of solitude. All in all, she’s a gracious, charming, grounded person. (Another of her maxims: “Don’t let your mood affect your manners.” I like that.) Although she’s taken an intensive language course, she’s far from fluent in French, but she’s open and game, and has some friends at school. I sometimes wonder if not having the language may render some of the visual and sensual input more immediate, but that’s probably my own self-justifying delusion. (In truth, I wish with all my heart that I knew a second language.). Anyway, it was a treat seeing these two young women in Paris, both of them having grown up in an isolated rural environment, both now so at ease in cities, such accomplished and interesting people.

Inevitably, we talked about growing up on the Ranch. Katie was lured to surfing, although her brother was the one who was encouraged in that arena. My own daughter chose the horse route…I can still picture that brown-haired little girl astride her beloved Appaloosa, Tommy, happy days. These kids knew trails and vistas, chaparral and woods, grassy hills and seashore; they were at home in the natural world, at the edge of the wild, serenaded by coyotes in the night. My impression is that most of the girls were avid readers, having learned early on the power of books to transport them and the need to be transported. And I’ve recently discovered some old slides from an impromptu theatrical performance that testify to the importance of dress-up and invention in their play.

Talking about childhood play led me to mention that the previous day, while exploring the neighborhood in which we were staying, I had come upon an old-fashioned doll hospital on Rue Parmentier. (More about that in  the next post.) This led to chatting about dolls…and in particular, Barbies. (Barbies, by the way, were nowhere to be found in this doll hospital.)

I remember playing with Barbie dolls in my own childhood, when they were still a new thing. My friend Carol and I created quarters for the Barbies on the tile-floored vestibule of the building I lived in on Coney Island Avenue. There were shoe box beds, thimble cups, wooden spool stools. Giant people had to step carefully to get to the door when the Barbie games were in session. To this day, I see miniaturization in relation to Barbies. A Brussels sprout, for example, is a Barbie cabbage…is it not?

Much has been written about the strange message Barbie dolls convey about the female body image…the absurdly large boobs, miniscule waist, long thin legs on tiny feet perennially on tiptoe. Carol and I enjoyed changing their outfits and tapping them around the lobby, and we didn’t grasp the implicit (and distorted) sexuality of these dolls, but at one point we decided a boyfriend was necessary. Carol volunteered a baby doll named Ben, whose proportions were all wrong, but whose molded hair was short, and was therefore vaguely male, and he became the man in all sorts of peculiar scenarios. I suspect that many little girls played risqué and perverted Barbie games, prurient but infantile.

But Katie had more enlightened and rebellious Barbie memories. The grandfather of  yet another of the Ranch girls, Elise, worked at Mattel, the motherlode source of Barbies, and Elise was the recipient of these well-meant but dubious gifts…and I’ll let Katie tell the story from here:

“Elise in particular really hated them. So a lot of hair chopping ensued, coloring the Barbies with pens, I think some limbs might have gone missing. Burying Barbies under mud happened a lot. Especially if the boys were involved,  and they were the majority.  They could never really be convinced to play our games and toys, so more often than not it would be some version of toy soldiers in the mud, and Barbie definitely got abused then.”

“I don’t recall hating Barbies quite as much as Elise did,”she continues. “But my mom claims that she once found me when I was very little, maybe four or five, tying a belt around my own waist to make it look like the doll’s. And Nick [a neighbor boy] actually used to take the heads off my Barbies and poke out their eyes. I wasn’t very happy about that.”

So here we are in Paris, of all places, sort of free-associating, but I am delighted by these stories, and by the healthy, instinctive skepticism these girls had about Barbies from the get-go, and about the way their Ranch childhoods helped to form their personalities. I see defiance and intelligence there, a preference for creativity and real world challenges over objectification and other people’s nonsense. I love how they look at things, wherever they are, ask questions, then dive in wholeheartedly, not just standing by, but trying, and doing. I love these ranch girls all grown up. They give me hope.

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