Conversations that Count

Talk Amongst Yourselves…

The best laid plans of mice, men, and me. Instead of a new essay for this week, I am going to take a breather and enjoy visiting with our new granddaughter, her devoted big sister and her overjoyed parents. Worry not. I am reprising the past three weeks’ essays and offering you the chance to have a great conversation this week on a subject of your choosing.        (OK, one of three choices below.)

You might recall that the topics for this  25-essay series are inspired by the cards in our Picture a Conversation deck of prompts. Gorgeous photo (by Martin) and theme (by yours truly) on the front. On the back, three questions guaranteed to  jumpstart the kinds of conversations we so frequently enjoyed before the world went digital.

Below you’ll see a link to each of the past three columns paired with one of the questions that appears on the back of the card. Yes, I do grasp the irony that I am using the web to encourage you to get off the web. The means justifies the ends. Let me know how it goes for you. With whom did you have a great conversation?  Or did you go inward, using the questions for journalling/self-dialogue?

  1. Is there a difference between a broken heart and a heart that has been broken open. Here is the link to the essay and the image that inspired this question.







Is “”giving in” submission? Or accommodation? What’s the difference?   Here is the link to the essay and the image that inspired this question.







Share what it’s like to have a child whose traits mirror yours. Or who is your total opposite. Here is the link to the essay and the image that inspired this question.





I’ll be back next week with a new essay, new stories and a new conversation.

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Three Little Words in the Land of See and Say

I went to play with Olivia this week while her mom was readying the family for an upcoming road trip. Olivia is talking up a storm, nay a veritable cyclone of words. When her brain outpaces her speech, she sets forth a garbled hurricane of language that only she can decipher. I am in heaven!

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. I’d add that if you’re spending time with a toddler, speech is the window to her mind and her perception of the world in which she lives.  I’ve been waiting for this moment.  Olivia is not only speaking words, but speaking her mind, speaking her observations, speaking delightful conclusions based on her experiences. 

At this age there are no filters, no hesitancy to share whatever percolates within.  This is the age of See and Say. The first time my younger brother saw snow, he said the stars had fallen from the sky. When Olivia’s daddy was her age, he called me into the dining room and began pointing to the topmost shelf where a set of tissue-thin crystal goblets rested safely out of reach.  “Bubbles, Mommy! Bubbles!” Sure enough the glasses, iridescent in the afternoon light, looked exactly like bubbles floating upon slender crystal stems.  To be with a child at the threshold of speech is to be party to magic around every corner. “Doesn’t the snow make you think of God?” Elliot asked me his third winter of life. I don’t even know how much we had talked about God at that point, but the sight of the falling snow called forth something deep within him and he put the feeing into words. An unforgettable gift.

Olivia has the concept of “now” down pat.  Ditto “no” and “Olivia do.” This makes moving from A to B more of a challenge. But that’s a small price to pay for the fun of making silly rhymes and the astonishment I experience when she repeats back to me something she heard weeks before.  (You can bet I am quite judicious in what I say to drivers who misbehave on the road these days.)  Our walks in her neighborhood are filled with notations on the moon, airplanes and clouds. When I bring Olivia to synagogue, the first thing she says when she enters the sanctuary is, “Torah!”  

She slept over for the first time recently and called to us around five in the morning. We brought her into our bed hoping for a bit more shut eye.  It worked until 6:30 or so.  “Olivia, it’s still dark out; still night time.”  “Night over,” she replied quite firmly. “Breakfast.”  Down we went for Cream of Wheat and fruit.  

What must it feel like to be able to express her opinion and be listened to? For that is the other side of speaking, perhaps the more crucial side. Being heard. Having her words acted upon gives Olivia a sense of agency in her life, a sense of trust that those charged with her care take her words, and thus her, seriously.  Not all toddlers are so fortunate. She is surely not conscious of the dynamic but its seeds are being planted in every exchange she has with us and with her parents. It won’t always be smooth. The family definition of cooperate — “Mommy say, Livvy do.” — doesn’t always leave room for the preferences of an opinionated and willful toddler. 

While her mom waded through her packing lists, Olivia and I built towers with her letter blocks and then toppled them into haphazard jumbles of vowels, consonants, roosters, dogs and sheep.  Come snack time, I picked her up, hugged her, and tickled her neck with kisses.  

“I love you,” she said. I simultaneously froze and melted.  “I love you too, Olivia. I love you, too.” 

In the Land of See and Say, snow becomes stars, crystal becomes bubbles and it all makes me think of God. 

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Literary Conversations are for Kids, Too

Book clubs aren’t the only place literary conversations take place.  My granddaughter Olivia and I discuss books every time I read to her.  Our deepest and most prolonged discussions take place around Over in the Meadow, a counting song beautifully illustrated with Ezra Jack Keats’ stunning collages. It has been a treasured favorite since my own kids were read-to-me age.  

In Over in the Meadow, ten mother animals and their babies dig, caw and buzz their way through the sand, nests and  beehives. This book’s version of the song (based on an original text attributed to Olive A Wadsworth) includes, among other creatures, turtles, fish, crickets and an old mother muskrat and her little ratties four. For whatever reason Olivia is obsessed with the muskrat. Our book club conversation begins like this:

“Muskrat!  Muskrat!” she shrieks the minute I arrive, gesturing with her hand a motion of diving into water. I take Olivia into my lap. First we examine the book’s cover. I point to the title and read it aloud; she responds  by pointing to the three baby birds peeping out from the tree.  

“Sing!” says Olivia, recalling from our prior readings that is what the baby birds do when we get to their page. 

Next we turn to the title page, a beautiful collage  of a green field. We examine ferns, maple leaves, and clover before  identifying the two “O’s” in the book’s title.  When we get to the dedication page (to Bernice), Olivia points to the blue dragonfly flitting across the page. “Dagafy,” she says. The dagafly reappears on page two and the baby bluebirds from the cover illustration are still singing to their mother on page three. We depend on and appreciate the illustrator’s foreshadowing of the text by cuing the reader through his art. 

Page four is where our conversation really gets going.  “Muskrat!” Olivia shouts and dives into the text the way Old Mother Muskrat’s little ratties four dive into the reeds on the shore. She identifies a detail of the story not referenced by the text but is a fact she can infer from her own life experience.. “Mommy muskrat hands?” Olivia asks pointing to the mother muskrat’s paws. 

“Yes,” I reply, “Mommy muskrat hands.” Next time I’ll introduce the word “paw.”

Olivia comments on the action in these two pages.  We agree there is a whole lotta diving going on.  We observe that each character is doing something different: swimming, diving, watching from the shore. We extrapolate from the illustration, moving from Mommy muskrat hands to her own and then to mine.

Come the seven crickets, I offer up brief comments about poetry’s convention of visual or sight rhymes (even/seven) and how later in the verse this visual rhyme is repeated in reverse (seven/even.)  We could also discuss how words in the English language evolve, meaning one thing in one era and something else in another. For now though, I leave the gay mother cricket to chirp cheery notes as all mothers — gay or not, crickets or not — chirp with their children. Eight, nine, and ten we bask with the lizards, croak with the froggies and finally shine with the fireflies. 

Although Olivia is not yet two, our conversations about books are lively and expansive. Through them, the English language becomes a word-meadow where a devoted grandmother and her curious granddaughter run free with love and delight. 

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Big Lessons from a Tiny Person

Conversations with my granddaughter are expanding beyond burbles and trills to delicious mispronunciations that will become the stuff of family lore.  Ohdor means Please open the door. UpDown is a request to read the Olivia book about opposites. More than her darling gymnastics with the English language, Olivia’s actions speak potent lessons. In a single week, this little being who doesn’t yet weigh even 20 pounds, has taught me much.

Lesson 1 —Blissful experiences deserve endless repetition. 

Olivia and her mom were visiting one afternoon when Olivia discovered the little slope of grass abutting our patio. Down she toddled, gathering speed. When she reached the bottom, she lay on her back, threw her arms wide and grinned up at the sky in utter bliss.  If there’d been a cartoon balloon above her it would have read, “Ain’t life just the BEST!!!”  

Again and again she toddled up the slope, ran down and collapsed, looking skyward. She was utterly in the moment, reveling in the joy of her body, in the speed her chubby legs could now take her, perhaps even in the wind caressing pink cheeks. She exulted in the realization that she could experience this again and again and again.

Delight in your experiences. Repeat them. And then again. 

Lesson 2 — Share your love with insistence. 

It was bedtime.  Olivia had been bathed, diapered and PJ’d, read to and read to again.  

“Kiss Aviva good-night,” her mother said, holding her out to me. Olivia covered my face with kisses. She planted sweet love on each cheek, on my chin, on my forehead. She stopped for a minute and I stepped back to leave.  Olivia squealed her displeasure.  I got the message loud and clear.  “I’m not finished, thank you very much. I’m not done giving you my kisses!”  I moved within kissing range and was rewarded with three more, light as a butterfly’s wing. 

The love we give is precious; give it joyously.  If you are fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such love, for Pete’s sake, hang around!

Lesson #3  — Love yourself. 

I can’t draw; lots of skeletons in my creative closet. What my eye sees and what my hand renders do not align. But one day, determined to silence the ghosts, I set out to sketch Olivia from one of my husband’s photos. 

I worked on it for the better part of a morning, studying the fullness of her cheeks, the little round point of her chin. What was the proportion of her forehead to her features? Where do the ears go? The eyebrows? And those eyes! They are swirled with brown, green and blue. Someone called them little earths. I struggled to show the way each strand of her hair feathers across her forehead.  When I was done, it wasn’t an exact likeness but I had captured something about her that was familiar.

One afternoon I showed her the drawing. 

“ME!” she shouted touching a tiny finger to the page .  “ME!!” Then she leaned over and kissed the drawing. 

I was stunned. She recognized herself! Even more moving was the immediate kiss she planted on the drawing. When you look in the mirror, is your first reaction joy or criticism? When was the last time you kissed the mirror when you saw your reflection? I see the lines in my face, not my smile and warm brown eyes. I bemoan middle age spread instead of being grateful for the strong body that takes me hiking and allows me to crawl on the floor with Olivia. I pine for what was, instead of celebrating ME! ME!!  HERE!! NOW!!

Olivia has no reference of what was.  She simply is.  She doesn’t know or care that three months ago she had no hair and now has just enough to make a bonsai-sized palm tree atop her head. She saw a likeness of herself and went to town exulting.  “That’s me! I’m wonderful! I’m OLIVIA!” 

Offer huge smiles and spontaneous kisses to the person in the looking glass. She is to be treasured!

Dearest Olivia, what lessons will you teach me this week?  

Your willing and loving student, 


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Of Poetry, Hiking Trails and Spring

A lovely bonus of our hikes out west are the unexpected conversations that come our way. Readers of this column may remember the conversation Martin and I had with a fellow hiker and his sudden revelation of his wife’s recent death. More common are the less intense where-are-you-from? exchanges or the serendipitous six degrees of separation chats that inevitably reveal a connection.

Hiking West Fork late last month, a friend and I were discussing books we had loved as children. I mentioned a favorite and began quoting to her a poem  from Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s Prayers from the Ark. It is a stunning book of poems voiced from the perspective of Noah’s menagerie. The edition my mother gave me when I was a child has an introduction by Rumer Godden, the book’s illustrator who was fortunate enough to meet the author, a Frenchwoman who became a Carmelite nun toward the end of her life. Trying to recall The Prayer of the Monkey, I recited what I could from memory, “Oh God, why did You give me a face so comical that no one will take me seriously?”

One of the two hikers coming our way overheard me and seamlessly joined our conversation.  “Oh, man,” he replied, “I would take you very seriously! I would never mess with you!” Well, at that point, I had to stop and give the backstory. He wrote down the title (Ha! Wrote down. He took out his cell phone and started tapping.) His friend asked if we’d read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. (Out came our cell phones.) We talked a few minutes more about books and then parted. My friend and I marveled at the cool exchanges that are just a natural part of our hiking experiences. It’s one of the magical things I miss now that we are home and there is concrete, not red earth, beneath my shoes once again.

But yesterday, I was rewarded with a trail exchange. It was a glorious spring day — blue skies, white puffy clouds, the trees just greening up in a way that would inspire me, once upon a time, to recite to the kids Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay. A woman was coming out of the bank as I entered.  Our eyes met and then our spirits.  

“Isn’t this a glorious day!” she exclaimed. “It’s simply beautiful.”  

I agreed and mentioned that it was the kind of day  that called me to share a poem with my kids. Taking the kind of chance that is no chance on the trails, but de rigeur, I asked “May I share the poem with you?” She smiled her assent and I began, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold…”

After the recitation she agreed and said at this time in spring she looks at the leaf packets with such happy anticipation.

“Leaf packets!” I said. “What a wonderful phrase!”  

“Yes,” she replied. “That’s how they always seemed to me, these little packets of beautiful green just waiting to burst open.” I thanked her for the phrase; she thanked me for the poem and we went our separate ways on the day’s trail.

Magic can happen anywhere, even in a bank parking lot, if you stay open to its shimmer and share a bit of your own sparkle dust along the way.

Prayers from the Ark (This looks to be the edition my mother gave me.)
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Dandelion Wine

The “boulders” in the foreground are actually the reflection of the canyon walls above.

This is a shot from the West Fork hike. What you are actually looking at is the canyon wall reflected in just six inches of water along the edge of Oak Creek. The reflection was so perfect, so mirror-like that when I approached, the fight-or-flight center of  my brain took over and slowed my steps, so convinced it was that I was at the edge of a precipice and just inches from cascading into the canyon itself. The brain bamboozlement between my eyes and my limbic brain was a hoot. 



The Prayer of the Monkey
Dear God,
why have You made me so ugly?
With this ridiculous face,
grimaces seem asked for!
Shall I always be the clown of Your creation?
Oh,who will lift this melancholy from my heart?
Could You not, one day,
let someone take me seriously,

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Counting the Numbers

Our teacher looked out at the yoga students doing warm-up stretches on their mats.  “Success!” he exclaimed. “This is the first class to ever top 20 students.”  Twenty-two pairs of hands began clapping. “Way to go!” someone shouted out. “Yeah!  All right!” chirped another.

As I joined the applause a very un-yoga thought surfaced.  Hey wait a minute! What about all those mornings I and a handful of others showed up for your first Kundalini yoga classes? No crows of success back then.  Quick as a vinyasa sequence, other peevish thoughts bubbled up.  What about those of us who used to get up at 5:30 AM to make it to a 6:00 AM class? Today’s “success” is built on the arched backs of a devoted few who began practicing Kundalini yoga nearly a decade ago. Without us back then, none of you would be here today. 

At the same time I was thrilled for our teacher.  Becoming a Kundalini instructor takes huge commitment. I admired, and was grateful for, his dedication. And it was indeed cool to look out and see yoga mats fanned out across the entire room.  I understood his excitement.  Bigger numbers meant additional income and more secure teaching slots, two quite tangible yardsticks of success.

Deep into this second year since we launched Picture a Conversation, I have my own yardsticks of success.  I’m nowhere close.  My largest sales have come from toy stores and a hospital gift shop for ten boxes each.  Exciting at the time, but I have my sights and hopes set on much higher numbers. Yet to discount those orders, to discount the orders of ones and twos is to ignore the full arc of hard work we have put into this venture. Every order matters.  Every order is valuable in and of itself even as it is a stepping stone to something larger.

The deeper lesson is to celebrate the immeasurable successes, to inhabit proudly and gratefully the territory where numbers are irrelevant. Every time a person has a meaningful conversation inspired by one of our cards, there is success.  How could I measure the value to a mother who learned things about her adult children that she never would have known had she not ordered one single set?   How long into the future will their conversation continue to resonate, bringing delight and comfort?  There’s no quantifying the love and wisdom that were brought forth the afternoon a pre-teen daughter fanned through the entire set of cards, drew one out and said, “Mommy, I want you to answer these questions. I want to know this about you.”  That one card sparked a conversation that might not have happened otherwise.  These are the true success stories.

We can’t escape the numbers game. The numbers matter. As long was we don’t forget that what cannot be numbered matters more.

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Conversations that Count — Baby Talk

This week I thought I’d share a conversation that counts in my own life.                                                  Fifth in series from Picture a Conversation™.

very parent has his or her favorite childhood stage. For some it’s infancy. For others it’s when the terrible twos have passed and the fearsome fours are far on the horizon. For me it was when my kids first began to speak.  If they thought it, they said it. No filters; no holding back. It was a magical time of spontaneous poetry when crystal goblets were likened to bubbles and a snowfall prompted my son to ask, “Doesn’t the snow make you think of God, Mommy?”  What better gift than the year my daughter said she would give me her laughter for my birthday?  

I’ve been anticipating the conversations my seven-month-old granddaughter and I will have one day. What will her spontaneous poetry be? What questions will she ask? What marvelous word mash-ups will become part of Olivia’s family lexicon, the way “sing-a-God” became ours when our daughter couldn’t quite pronounce “synagogue”?

I never imagined that Olivia’s and my first conversation would have arrived so soon.  Strapped into her magenta high chair, she was exploring finger foods scattered on the tray in front of her. She held something aloft — a soft spear of zucchini?   “B!” she said, and looked up at me.    “B!” I replied smiling back. She froze, and I could see the wheels turning as she processed the implication of our one-letter exchange. “B?” she asked. “B!” I replied.  She responded with an alphabet soup of sounds that I mimicked back to her. She smiled and waved chubby banana-smeared fists.  I smiled back. 

In any conversation one party speaks and the other affirms. One party takes the conversation in a new direction and the other party follows. Emotions are exchanged. New terrain of thought is explored. There is engagement, eye contact. A small sweet universe of communication comes into being, spinning on an axis of sharing and active listening. 

Fortified with nothing but a consonant and some babble, Olivia and I had our first conversation.      It was delicious. I eagerly await the next course.  


(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com.  I’ll get in touch to interview you about your on conversation that counted.)  



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Conversations that Count — Watching is Learning

Two years after her own husband died, Chelsea’s mother worried that her daughter would turn to the drugs and alcohol readily available on campus as a way of managing her grief over her father’s death. A client put her fears to rest. Fourth in series from Picture a Conversation™.


Chelsea was only fifteen when her dad died. Somehow we got back on our feet. In the months and years that followed, I never wanted her to feel I was pressuring her, so I let Chelsea come to me when she wanted to talk.

But as time passed and she began applying to college, I was so afraid that whatever Chelsea hadn’t shared since Dave died had been building up inside. When she got to college, I would have no way of knowing how she was doing. I was so fearful that she would use drugs and alcohol to escape whatever feelings and memories she was keeping inside.

One day, I was in the middle of cutting a client’s hair and told her my fears. Our eyes met in the mirror and she told me to put down my scissors.  She spun her chair around to face me and said, “Are you serious? Are you kidding me?”  

I didn’t know what to say back. Of course I was serious.  How could she have missed that?  I just kind of looked blankly at her and stammered something like, “Yeah, I’m serious.”  

What she said next changed everything.  “Tina,” she said.  “You are the strongest woman I know.  You have met the worst that life can throw at you — your husband’s long illness, his death, financial worries, all of it — with incredible strength.  Chelsea has been watching you. She doesn’t need drugs or alcohol.  You have shown her how to handle whatever she needs to handle. Chelsea will be fine. Chelsea is fine.”

I kid you not, I had never, not even once, thought about it in that way — that Chelsea could have been watching me and taking her cues from me.  I’d shared my fears with a lot of clients.  Not one of them had ever said anything like what this client said. My mom dealt with breast cancer. My father had a nervous breakdown. He lost his job.  Mom never complained. I watched her make it through all that and more, but never considered that Chelsea would be watching and learning from me as I had watched and learned from my own mother.  

A few weeks ago Chelsea and I were watching a movie. One of the characters had lost a parent and was blaming her bad choices on the parent’s death. “I just HATE when they show it like that,” she said.  “It’s just such a stupid way to behave!

Chelsea had to join the Life-is-gonna-throw-some-bad-stuff-your-way club way too early. There are no guarantees life won’t throw more bad stuff her way.  But if it does, Chelsea will be fine. She is fine. Just like my client said.


(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com.  I’ll get in touch to interview you about your on conversation that counted.)  

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Conversations that Count — My Brother Is My Friend

Having maintained their sibling connection through phone calls and occasional visits, two brothers switch gears. The ensuing face-to-face conversations bring them closer as brothers and transform them into valued friends as well.

Alan (l.) and Larry

For 68 years my brother (six years my junior and my only sibling) and I have always enjoyed a pleasant relationship, one full of harmony and cooperation in family matters and lacking in conflicts. Living far apart during the past few decades, we nevertheless have managed brief visits and regular phone chats. Although we have been pretty friendly, I did not feel we were close friends. Our approaches to life were different, and so I believed there were limits to how deeply we could share, which to me is the hallmark of a real friendship.A few months ago, Alan texted me, asking that we be more than just brothers but genuine friends, too. In a phone chat, he said he has recently been seeking spiritual guidance to discover more about his life and improve it in several ways, as I have been doing for a well over a decade. He wanted to pay me a visit for several days — just him — without other family members around. I was a bit surprised and greatly elated for us both.

During our four days together, Alan and I did touristy things: ate good meals, hung out with some of my friends, hiked the trails here in Sedona. But mainly we had conversations – long and leisurely, deep and wide, emotional and spiritual. We addressed personal and philosophical topics that we’d never really discussed before, sharing much more from the heart than the head. In short, we crossed a bridge from being casual brothers to true friends. 

I am moved when I ponder how significant this transformation of our relationship has been for me. I always knew Alan was a nice guy; now I know him to be a treasure of a friend. Since our face-to-face meeting, we have deepened our connection with longer-than-normal-for-us phone conversations. We have rebooted our awareness of the love, joy and peace we share. The evidence is our longer and deeper phone conversations and plans to visit each other more often.

                                                             by Larry Rosenberg, Inspirational Entertainer, The Larry Show


(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com)  

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Conversations that Count — What it means to be heard

When we consider the word “conversation” what usually comes to mind is the talking. On the cusp of adolescence, Lynn Margolis experienced a conversation’s crucial other half — being listened to. It set the course of her life. Second in a series from Picture a Conversation™.

Ernest Ludwig Kirchner

My parents were Holocaust survivors. As it has for many American-born children of immigrants, the role of pseudo-adult fell to me — translating for my parents when necessary, interpreting the myriad of customs and expectations of their new lives here in America, learning much younger than my peers how to negotiate the purchase of a car. My parents were loving but had so much to cope with. In addition to being immigrants, they were  grieving the utter decimation of their entire families at Hitler’s hand. In many ways, I did not have the luxury of being just a regular American kid. In the role of family communicator, I had no adults in my life who I could talk to about life’s larger issues.

My brother’s father-in-law was a very warm and loving man who was a professor of psychology at MSU whose family stretched back five or six generations.  One afternoon I tagged along with my brother to visit his wife’s family. This must have been 1968 or ’69 and at one point during the afternoon, his father-in-law was discussing with his two daughters the professions and various paths open to women in the work world. He took me into that covenant of daughters that afternoon, making space for me to contribute to the conversation even though I was not his daughter and no more than thirteen at the time.  I experienced being listened to in a way my parents had never been able to do. I’d never known any parents who listened to their kids the way this man listened to me that afternoon.

It was nothing in particular that he said, no words of wisdom, or offering of his perspective on what I might or should do one day. He simply saw me, recognizing who I was at the time and giving me the space to find my voice. The way he listened to me allowed me to feel that what I was saying mattered. I decided then and there to become a social worker.  We can say say so very much simply by listening, truly listening. 


(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com)  


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