Meaningful Conversation

An Afternoon of Conversation at All Seasons

huge-2016_04_21_3728No matter how much you plan, when you’re doing something for the first time, you never know if reality will match up with your vision. The goal of the Picture a Conversation ™ program my husband and I created for the senior residents at All Seasons of Birmingham (MI) was to inspire a sense of community and encourage the residents, many of whom were newly arrived, to begin to get to know one another.

Martin and I planned a short talk about our own “creative conversation.” He spoke about his philosophy as a photographer and what draws him to a scene. I talked about the inspiration I draw from his images that guides me in writing the meditations and discussion questions featured on each Picture a Conversation card. Following this short Powerpoint presentation, our plan was for the residents, in groups of three or four, to use individual cards and engage in some talk and sharing. My description sounds so artificial and staged.  But I knew from our testing days that when people just take that first step and start talking, everything flows.

Those were the hopes for our afternoon at All Seasons, although there was a moment that gave me pause. A man with a walker looked into the room and said, “I’m not sitting with any women.  I’m tired of hearing about grandchildren and gall bladder operations!”  He hesitated in the doorway until I gestured toward three men sitting together.

After watching a few more residents slowly make their way to the various places we had arranged around the room, I realized that my plan to have them move to different tables for each conversation session would be a disaster.  Instant modification — instead of having them change tables, we’d just bring a new topic to them.  That worked. Seven women had gathered themselves together despite our setting up tables of three and four.  I knew this would hinder conversation, but they insisted on staying put.

L. J., Williams, the Life Activities Director, timed the program right before dinner in hopes that some new table companions might be forged. There were snacks, lemonade and wine on hand to help oil the skids.  Martin and I went from table to table, sharing in the conversations a bit, helping to move things along when needed.  When I came around to the group of seven women, I saw that they had divided themselves into three and four and were talking away. After about fifteen minutes, we called a short break for more food and drink and to distribute a new conversation card.

By the second conversation session, everyone was comfortable and jumped right in.  We looked around the room, thrilled to see all the residents, even the gallbladder averse man, engaging with one another.  There were smiles on people’s faces, They were animated and laughing together. I worried that there was so much talking going on that it might be hard for some to hear.  No matter.

What does fun look like to you?

What does fun look like to you?

For the third round, we moved from small-group conversations and opened the last question up to the entire room.  The card we chose features a snowman on the front; the reverse offers three questions about making time for fun in our lives.  I invited L. J.  to speak first and he talked about walking his dogs and the opportunities those walks bring him for connecting with his new neighbors.  He called out for other responses and several hands reached for the mike. One woman talked about the activities she enjoys at the residence. Another spoke of family times. The last woman rose to speak said this, “We all have come from different places.  We all have families.  But you are all my family now.  I have fun with you.”  Applause sounded from all corners of the room.  IN that moment, reality bested my imaginings.

As I reflected on the afternoon, the 1985 movie Cocoon came to mind. If you’ve seen it you know the scene when the aging residents of the retirement home dive into the pool of the house next door and are instantly rejuvenated as they swim through the life-force infused water. It doesn’t take Hollywood. It doesn’t take magic water.  All it takes to come alive is to have a great conversation with people eager to listen and share from the heart.

 

If you’re interested in our hosting a similar program, please contact us —                                              debra at pictureaconversation dot com.

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The Conversation Beneath the Conversation

debra-emma-walking-down-the-streetWe weren’t sworn enemies but we had had words. Well, she’d had words with me while I held my tongue. At the time, my daughter thought I was a being wuss, especially because I’d never called this mother about the times her daughter had hurt mine. During the conversation in question, I said what I thought was appropriate — that our daughters, at fifteen, could settle their own differences; if she wanted to meet with me we could do so with our girls and the school counselor. She said I was an unfit mother and a phony. In my mind I was taking the high road but was my daughter right? Should I have responded in kind,  recounting  the times her daughter had mean-girled mine to the point of tears? My pounding heart closed my throat on a whole ton of words, all justified. For months I silently castigated myself. What kind of a mother doesn’t stand up for her daughter, or herself, in the face of such an attack?

We’ve bumped into each other from time to time. I decided long ago to take a page from the “kill ’em with kindness” rule book.  When I saw her at the post office a few years ago, she hesitated. “Come,”    I said moving toward her. “It’s time for a hug.” We caught up on where our daughters were and what they were doing. Hers wields a scalpel; mine a very cool iPad stylus. They are both healing lives and spirits in their chosen professions.

When I saw her this week at a show, I moved from behind my table to greet her and give her a hug. She hugged me back. She looked good; I looked good.  The kids are good.  All is good. Thank God.

I knew way back then the source of her pain, and that’s why I had held my seemingly chicken-hearted tongue. I knew then, as now, that I wasn’t walking in her shoes.  This week I heard more consciously another layer of the conversation that had kept me quiet all those years ago. Because this is likely what the mother was really saying: “It’s not fair your daughter is healthy and mine had cancer. I’m furious that your daughter has gorgeous long dark hair because I’ll never forget the months my daughter had none. You are unfit because in the darkest parts of my soul I fear I am unfit, else why did my daughter have to suffer through chemo? You may think you have all the answers but I cannot find the answer to this question: What did I do to make my daughter get cancer before she even got her period?

In our rational moments we all know how little of this great big life we can control. And yet as mothers, we still feel we should, and ought to, have the power to keep monstrous things from hurting our children.  So when X and I cross paths, I greet her kindly.  I hug her because were her shoes ever on my feet, I don’t know how I could cope. Maybe on some level, my hug is an irrational talisman of hope that my kindness today will bless my daughter, keeping her and even her one-time nemesis,  safe for a lifetime of tomorrows.

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Sign Me Up

See you on the roads!

See you on the roads!

It felt weird.  Squirmy. Way out of my comfort zone to say the least. My husband thought it was a terrible idea, convinced it wasn’t worth the money. I’m used to that being his set point. It’s what happens when a creative marries a realist. The creative is all about taking chances, each one a stepping stone to something greater; the realist is all about the cost of the mortar and being sure everything stays safe. He shared my feeling that doing this was a wee bit déclassé. But it wasn’t like I was planning to walk up and down Woodward Avenue dressed in a panda suit, flailing my arms and shouting at passersby.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

All we were talking about was ordering a magnetic sign for my car. Thirty bucks tops. I’m sure I could have gotten it cheaper online but supporting our local business owners matters to me. On a whim I stopped into Fast Signs Birmingham and got a sense of what was possible. Two days later I had my sign.

Andy walked me to my car and waited as I decided where best to position it.  Once it was affixed, I realized this sign was as much car art as it was advertising. I was offering up to my fellow drivers a beautiful photograph that would dance through the traffic as I went about my day. Maybe someone wavering about making a life change will see the sign and take it as a message (a sign!) meant just for her. Or him.  Perhaps the butterfly will bring a smile to someone having a bad morning. Will this generate orders or increase my website traffic?  Time will tell. For now every time I get into my car, I’m reminded that if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you’ll never take flight.

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Time for Some Chutzpah

Wisdom Card

Whose wisdom has made a difference in your life?

When I have three conversations in a week, all variations on the same theme, I know something is afoot.

Conversation number one was with a fellow writer.  Some years ago she wrote a beautiful memoir about raising her severely disabled son.  She told me that she had decided to stop giving the book away because it was just too much trouble.  I asked her what she meant that she was giving the book away.  Just that she said.  She wasn’t charging anything.  Not even postage.  Someone asked for ten books and out they went.  I asked her why and she said that she didn’t feel comfortable asking for money and she was OK with that.  But she was tired of shlepping to the post office. Her compromise is to send people a link to a free book download from her website.

Conversation number two was an email exchange with a friend, a brilliantly creative calligrapher who also paints and has designed tile and glass installations as well. In last week’s blog she described her participation in her city’s beautification project thus:  This summer I was asked to put paint on a utility box.

“Putting paint on a box” is how she devalued her creation and execution of four vibrant murals painted on an enormous metal utility structure.  I couldn’t help but reframe reality and send it to her: She, among other superlative artists who reside in this major North American city, was chosen to be a part of said city’s beautification plan.

Conversation number three was with a friend I’ve known for 40 years. She knows me better than anyone but my husband. I was sharing with her an ongoing frustration with a loved one. Although we were speaking over the phone, I could feel how intently she was listening.  She offered her response in broad terms about the human condition and the ebb and flow of all loving relationships.

“You are so wise,” I said. “You have such a way of listening carefully, without judgement. Some how you invite people to see their situation from a slightly different perspective, shifting maybe only five degrees, but it makes such a difference.”

“You said that once long ago,” she replied.  “You called me wise. I had the chutzpah to believe you.”  She is now in rabbinical school and is training for chaplaincy work with hospice. The world is already a better place because in that moment when I praised her for her wisdom, she chose to own her gift.

We have to have the chutzpah to believe in and to claim our strengths!  Not dismiss them as insignificant, but all out recognize that we have each been given something that is distinctly ours with which we can better our corner of the world. Whatever it is, it is of value. We shouldn’t feel dirty asking to be respectfully compensated. We shouldn’t minimize or downplay what we have to offer.

Having the chutzpah to own our gift doesn’t mean we’re better than anyone else. I’m a good writer. I move people with my words. I enlighten and entertain. I’ve even caused a few conflagrations. I’m taking that gift in a new direction with Picture a Conversation™ — inspiring people to deepen their relationships through the simple act of having a conversation. I’m a good writer, yes, and one who can be peevish, short tempered, a procrastinator. I’m still working on not offering unsolicited advice to my beautifully adult children. But I do not duck when praised for my writing ability. I’m good at what I do and am thrilled when I hear my advice column has helped someone or that my children’s book is a treasured favorite.

Enjoy your gift. Share it joyfully. Revel in it and grow it. Be comfortable expecting compensation. You’ve been given something no one else has been given. Have now the chutzpah to own it.

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Reveling in Lupine

In this week’s post, the conversation veers a bit. With pictures, lots of pictures.

UnknownTo visit Maine in June is to slip into the pages of Barbara Cooney’s glorious children’s book, Miss Rumphius. Fans will recognize the eponymous Miss Rumphius as the one who made the world more beautiful by scattering lupine seeds through the fields and headlands, along the highways and country roads and tossing them into hollows along stone walls. Of all her books, this remains my favorite, not only for the lupines, but for the gentle admonition to leave the world a more beautiful place.

We were visiting our former neighbors and forever friends who moved to Maine four years ago. When Shelby left, I gave her a copy of Miss Rumphius. Her first spring, she began planting lupine in the field beyond her barn. We arrived last month just in time for the blooming. I was ecstatic. Color does this to me. Somehow those shades of blue and purple send my spirit soaring and I walked the edges of Shelby’s lupine field in utter color ecstasy.

Shelby's lupines beyond the barn.

Shelby’s lupines beyond the barn.

I always thought that the flower got its name because its bushy blossoms resembled a wolf’s tail. (Lupine is wolf in Latin.) Reading a wildlife journal I learned the plant was so named because of the mistaken belief  the plant wolfed down the soil, depleting it of all nutrients. In fact, it is just the opposite. Lupine, similar to the soy bean, returns nitrogen to the soils where it is planted.

Years back, Shelby and I tried growing them here in Michigan. We’d get a halfhearted stalk or two that would never reseed and soon moved on to hardier choices. As with people, flowers do best when planted where they can bloom. For lupine, this means Maine’s salty air and wide open fields of dry soil. For the rest of us, well, it’s our life’s journey, to find the right conditions for blooming.

For those of you also smitten with these glorious spikes of cobalt, purple, and rose — enjoy!

 

IMG_0476

And now a conversation topic to get you texting less and talking more — What would you do to make the world more beautiful?

 

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Picture a Conversation — Tell vs. Sell

Picture A Conversation - 25 CardsWhen my first book was published back in 2003, I was thrilled. Seven years, 60+ interviews, two publishers, 10 months with Toastmasters learning how to tame the butterflies in my stomach. Finally, the books arrived. Review copies were sent out. It was time to start selling the book and begin recouping at least some of the costs and time I’d expended for so many years.

That was my focus — selling. I was thrilled to be on book tour, to be a keynote speaker, to give a lecture at my son’s college and more. But the yardstick of success I carried with me in those days was how many books I sold at the end of each event. If I didn’t reach my target, I didn’t feel successful. I never allowed myself to feel deep in my bones the glow of satisfaction that I would have, had I only shifted my focus from selling books to absorbing just how much the book and my talks inspired people.

Yes, I was gratified when a woman approached me after a lecture on pursuing dreams, and said she was going to start painting, something she had always longed to do. Yes, it was thrilling when a college student, now a cardiologist in Boston, told me he had decided to do what it took to go to med school despite bombing his MCATs the first time around. Another young man, whom I met in Russia, said my book inspired him to reclaim a religious heritage he knew nothing about save for a few hazy stories from his grandmother during his childhood.  It was quite moving to hear how my words had transformed people’s dreams into action. But was that success? Back then I didn’t think so, because I was so obsessed with transforming the numbers in the red column into the black.

This time around it’s different. I’m a good deal older. Time and experience birth perspective. Instead of seven years, it’s been one long and intense year of researching, beta testing, meeting with fabricators and printers. It’s been the assembling of 27,000 cards and the folding into shape of 1000 boxes to create 1000 sets of Picture a Conversation that yes, it is now time to sell. There’s no escaping the red numbers in the debit column.

Except this time I do not feel that old compulsion to sell. Instead I want to tell. I want to tell people of our journey.  I want to share why I believe it’s crucial for us to text less and talk more. I want to tell mothers, Here are great conversation prompts. Create a weekly dinner ritual that will inspire the conversation you crave. I want couples to know, Here’s something to spark conversations. Find your way back to each other by talking.    I want to tell any and everyone who will listen that having meaningful conversations recaptures the closeness that true conversation can bring.

Sure I want those red numbers to turn black, but that’s not what gets me out of bed each morning. What gets me out of bed is the message Text less. Talk more. What gets me out of bed is my belief in the power within each card to inspire fun and enlightening conversations where they might not otherwise happen. What gets me out of bed each morning is the joy that I feel in telling, not selling.

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Mindfulness Alights in the Everglades

Mindfullness
We are often asked, “Where did your husband take these photos?” Truth is, we considered including a card detailing the locale of the 25 images in each Picture a Conversation set, but the economics of doing so this time around was prohibitive. Duh, I finally realized that I can share that info here. So here goes:
Darvick-Eveglades- alligatorA few years ago Martin and I decided to divide and conquer.  I flew to LA to be with our son. He flew to Florida for a week’s visit with friends and family. While there, Martin headed to Everglades National Park. I’ve never been and hope to go one day.  But as you might imagine, and might have experienced yourself, having Martin’s photos of a beautiful place is the next best thing to being there. He spent the whole day and into early evening, walking, bike riding, giving the alligators wide berth and reveling in the myriad of birds that make the Everglades their home.

When I saw the photo above of the anhinga in flight, I knew I had an image for our His Lens/My Pen greeting cards and a rich discussion prompt for Picture a Conversation. Mindfulness is part of our cultural zeitgeist today. The way Martin captured this image — freezing the anhinga in flight and rendering the background as a whir of green — spoke to me of the challenge of staying mindfully focussed upon a single important task, even as the world attempts to propel us maniacally forward. I love that he was able to capture the bird’s eye.  I just adore this one!

Crafting the questions to accompany this image for the Picture a Conversation set was an easy flight. We are all faced with demands of multi-tasking, stirring any number of pots at one time. We know it’s good to slow down and pay attention, better to meditate first and write a column second, best to devote our complete attention to the matter at hand instead of scattering our attention hither and yon. The first question on the back of this card asks, “What does mindfulness mean to you?”  The next two questions will take your conversation deeper and your insights higher.   Order your set now and enjoy a mindful face-to-face conversation!

 

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Sometimes a Hug Says More Than Words

Darvick-Chicken-Point-SedonaMy husband and I had just returned to Sedona, a place we both love and whose trails we have spent many months and untold miles hiking.  It was early February, unseasonably warm even for this mountain town.  We were hiking Broken Arrow on the way to Chicken Point which has a breath-taking overlook and a cozy spot for lunch tucked in among the red rocks.

As it was early in the season; the trails were pretty empty. Hiking for over an hour already, we’d not encountered another person.  We took a water break along the trail and while we were resting, another hiker came up to chat.  We went through the usual run of questions — exchanging where we were from, how long we planned to stay, what trails we’d done and the inevitable and grateful exclamations of how gorgeous red rock country is and how fortunate we were to be in this special place. All pretty standard fare for these brief exchanges before parting ways.

This hiker was alone, in his early forties perhaps. He was a big burly kind of guy in Sedona for the day, having just attended a work conference in Phoenix. He had a few hours to hike before returning to Sky Harbor Airport and his flight back home somewhere in the Midwest.  Just as he was about to start off again he stopped and said, “My wife died four months ago. I miss her so.” And then he broke down sobbing.

In a single moment a casual conversation on the trail, like dozens we had had before, veered onto another path. My husband and were both a bit stunned. This big muscled guy, shaved head, in a white T-shirt and a pack slung over one shoulder began to tell us about losing beloved wife of twenty plus years.  They were high school sweethearts. They had two  teenaged boys, one off to college in the fall. She had been battling breast cancer for over a dozen years. I did the math and realized she had been ill most of their sons’ lives.

“I feel so guilty for wanting her to die at the end,” he said through choked cries.  “Just so she would stop suffering. Am I a monster for praying for that?  She fought so hard. I love her so much. I’m so lost now.” This stranger, who was no longer a stranger but a fellow human being stripped raw by grief standing before us in such pain. A moment opened and I took a chance.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. “It looks like you need a hug.” In an instant, this big burly man just fell onto me, collapsed onto me the way a child might, utterly spent and vulnerable. I wrapped my arms around him and held him for longer than I ever thought he would allow.  The moment passed. We all kind of awkwardly regrouped. We introduced ourselves properly, kind of laughing self-consciously at where we found ourselves. He mumbled something about the grieving process. I said something about how crucial it is to give himself the time and permission to grieve, that there is no timetable when processing such a life-altering devastation.

I shared that I was Jewish and had benefited from the structure of reciting Kaddish daily for the traditional eleven-month period of mourning. Having gone through the process when my mother died, I understood the wisdom of follow the timetable as our sages laid it out. I urged him to find a community, whether within his church or elsewhere in his circle, where he might continue to find a place and the support to grieve.

He walked on and we followed soon after, making it to Chicken Point and our little niche in the rocks for lunch.  We didn’t see our friend until we climbed back down and ran into him on the plateau below.  I was astonished to see how much lighter he seemed. He was smiling and came up to us, arms wide, and hugged us each once again with thanks for listening and being there.  We wished him a safe flight back home.

You never know where a seemingly simple conversation can lead.  A total stranger opened up and revealed his suffering right before us. I offered him a hug and held him as cried.  We had been put upon one another’s path by some Divine intention.  What an extraordinary moment of humanity and communion.

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This links to an interesting article about grief and the grieving process.

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Eat Your Own Dog Food

How would you answer these questions?

How would you answer these questions?

You gotta eat your own dog food, Mom,” my son said to me one day.  We were in the midst of creating the set of Picture a Conversation cards and were making up questions, matching them with photos, sharing them with families, women’s groups and therapists to use and test.  I had participated with some of the women-only focus groups but hadn’t actually used them with my friends or family.  Ergo my son’s dog food comment.

He was right, as he usually is with his mom’s endeavors.  Elliot is a great sounding board and idea bouncer off-er. He designed my first website and over the years has amazed me as he stays a few steps ahead of emerging technologies.  He told me about Twitter when the phenom was still wet behind the feathers; and years before it came to pass, he realized that privacy would be the world wide web’s next great commodity.  So when Elliot talks, I listen.

Martin and I began taking the cards with us on our walks, and as we meandered the trails in Sedona, our conversations began to take on similar movement. We’d start with a question only to have it branch into conversations and sub-conversations like tributaries splitting off from a river. Some questions let us to reminisce about loved ones, now gone, whose wisdom helped shape our choices and thus our lives.

New BudOne day our daughter surprised us and brought the set to a restaurant.  Like a Vegas dealer, she deftly dealt us each a couple of cards.  “I know some of these answers,” she said, “but I want to hear what you’ll say, anyway.”  Over a leisurely meal we looked back on our early days of parenting. To the question What advice would you give new parents? Martin answered that babies aren’t as breakable as he had feared. We talked about the traits of ours our daughter shares, and the qualities she’s developed by following her own path.  By the time dessert arrived, we three had shared experiences past, present, and future on a new and valuable level.

When I was coming up with Picture a Conversation’s 75 questions, I knew they were good. I strove for depth and breadth, wanting to give our future users opportunities for meaningful self-reflection and sharing. I wanted there to be a lot to mull over each time someone chose a card. My son was right — you gotta eat your own dog food. But not just to discern what is gold and what is lead. Eating your own dog food can be a reward in and of itself. It’s the process by which you reckon with your creation and deem it worthy.

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Out of the Box and Keeping it Local

The box was the crux of it all.

The box was the crux of it all.

When we decided to take the plunge and create Picture a Conversation, the idea of staying with local fabricators wasn’t my prime concern. I did have a printer who did a wonderful job on our greeting card sets, but he didn’t have the capability to fabricate a box. I set out to find someone who could do both jobs.

I cast the net wide, getting estimates from companies in Florida, Maine, New York and even an artist in Santa Fe who called herself a “creative doula.”  That title was pretty enticing; I’d created something and it needed some big-time birthing. By having factories in China, each of these firms could give me the kind of box I wanted — hinged top, magnetic closure. But international shipping would have taken up 20% of our production budget, and I was getting cold feet working with people I hadn’t met face-to-face. I began looking closer to home again.

A friend gave me the name of a colleague who could print not only our cards, but the boxes, too.  His office was a ten-minute drive from my house. He couldn’t make the kind of “presentation” box I wanted, but he could manufacture what’s called in the trade a “doughnut” box. Think Krispy-Kreme and the way that lid lifts.

In the end I split the job between two local companies — family-owned Skip Printing with whom I already had a solid business relationship, and family-owned Tepel Brothers Printing whose representative came up with a wonderful box design and walked me through every stage of production. (The image at the left is the very cool backsplash designed by Harriet Tepel who assembled old type pieces.)  Beyond the fact that I needed boxes at a reasonable cost, it felt right to stay in Michigan, to keep the jobs in my home state.  In fact, when I called the salesman from the Maine factory to thank him and tell him I was staying local, he said, “God bless you! We need to keep jobs in America.”

I didn’t know it then, but using local firms was the right move for reasons beyond our bottom line. Being able to meet face to face during this process was crucial. There were glitches along the way; I was learning things I had no idea even existed. Rob (from Skip) and John (from Tepel Brothers) never stinted on the time they gave me explaining things each step of the way. Our job was small, probably minuscule, in comparison to their other jobs but I always felt our project was important to them. They were dedicated to making sure every detail came out exactly as we wanted it to.

On the Friday afternoon after I had signed off on the boxes, hours before we were going to print, John called me. “I think your bar code is too small to be scanned.” This wasn’t his job in the least but he was right, and he had just saved my derriere from disaster. Had I gone the Chinese route, I would have taken delivery of 1000 boxes whose QR code would have been worthless. It wasn’t John’s job to enlarge the bar code but he did that too, and still kept us on schedule.

Over the course of creating Picture a Conversation, I got a tour of the Tepel Brothers factory. I saw in action what a great group of people they have working for them. I learned from Rob that his dad was one of Detroit’s Mad Men who left the advertising business in the early 70’s to start Skip Printing. Rob now runs the business. His aunt, Sue, has done some great graphic design for us and even used one of our greeting cards as her family Christmas card last year. Small as our job was, it felt good to realize we were playing a part in supporting two Michigan companies meet their payroll.

We might be small now, but nothing says we won’t be mighty in the future. As we grow, that growth will spill over locally. Picture a Conversation merits Made in Michigan status, a designation that will open up new opportunities for us. I aim to keep it that way. Someone mentioned she has “resources in China” for when we get “big enough.” I don’t ever want getting big to mean disengaging from those who supported us when we were small. That’s one box I’m staying out of.

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