The Mysteries of Pi

I’d actually meant to write this post in order to upload it on March 14. But I got distracted yesterday, and so missed that boat. But I figured I would go ahead and post it anyway. After all, it’s not like it is anything serious — just a bunch of musing.

I had been idly musing about a number of things: the Holy Trinity and the nature if infinity. And into those thoughts dropped the matter of pi, and its apparently never ending supply of decimal values.

It started as I was thinking about the Holy Trinity and how to explain this nature of God to people outside of Christianity. How to convey the concept of a unity of identity, while also talking about a trinity of persons and yet not meaning a polytheistic gathering?

For me, one of the best descriptions of the Trinity, in terms of helping the reader understand the concept, is in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker. Although I don’t quite agree with the terminology she chose to use, the structure she explains works quite well. Father, Son, Holy Spirit — Concept, Manifestation, Communication Energy: the three elements work as a single unity.

That led me to consider how the number three has importance in so many belief systems. Some even consider three to be a perfect number.

So, I thought, if three is so significant, why did God create the world so that the value of π isn’t exactly 3? What is with the infinitely long extra fraction value to it? Why is pi rendered 3.14159265359 and on and on into infinity, with no repeating patterns?

As a bit of whimsy, I wondered if it wasn’t God’s sense of humor using it as a description of the relationship of humanity to the divinity. The Trinity is sufficient in itself. But on the other side of the decimal point of pi, there is this infinite string of numbers. The string will never be enough to equal the Three, or change it in any way. The string is something added to the universe, but no matter how long the string is, it will never cross over the decimal point to change the Three. We are God’s creation, but we will never be His equal. We will always be on the other side of the decimal point — included, but not really part of the unity of the Three.

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Libraries: Treasure Boxes – Part One

Jackson Libraries

The Jackson, Michigan Carnegie Library

When I was growing up in Jackson, the city’s Library was housed in a handsome blockish building downtown on Michigan Avenue. I’m not sure what age I was when I was first taken there and introduced to the wonders of libraries. But there was a certain pleasure walking up the steps into the library and then making my way to the Children’s Department.

Jackson Michigan District Library Carnegie Building

The Carnegie Building of the Jackson Michigan District Library

The building is one of the Carnegie libraries built in the early 20th century, funded by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish businessman funded 1,689 libraries in the United States between the years 1883 and 1929. The Jackson library received a donation of $70,000 in 1901. When it opened in 1906, the building had been given features that graced most of the Carnegie libraries: entryway stairs that were to symbolize the visitor’s rising through learning, and a lamppost at the front to symbolize enlightenment. The other notable thing about the libraries built by Carnegie donations is that most all of them are architecturally unique.

Of course, the child that I was had no awareness of these historical facts. All I knew was that the library was a beautiful building that had wonderful books in it.

Jackson, MI Carnegie Library front desk

Main reference desk in the Jackson Carnegie Library

On entering the building, straight ahead, you’d find the main reference desk. Enticingly behind the broad counter were library stacks – the adult section that seemed a forbidden kingdom to the child-visitor. On either side of the lobby on the ground floor were the main reading rooms. But the goal for the young me was the Children’s department, which when I was young was upstairs on the west side of the building.

Jackson, MI Carnegie Library lobby and stairs

Lobby and staircase of the Jackson Carnegie Library

The stairs always held an enchantment over me. This old picture shows plants in it, but in “my day” I don’t think they were there. Instead, I remember sunlight pouring in on the white marble of the stairs and banister. Going up that staircase felt like being in some special palace.

It was in the Children’s department of the Jackson Library where my early fascination with world myths expanded. I had read (children’s versions) of Greek & Roman myths, and Norse myths. But it was a book in this library about Hawaiian/Polynesian myths that introduced me to the goddess Pele. The volcano goddess intrigued me then, and still is one of my favorites. It was also in this wide, high-ceilinged chamber where I found the Mushroom Planet books and began many science fiction adventures.

By the time I reached the junior high grades (what are now called “middle school”), I had become more familiar with other areas of the city library. I remember checking out books on handwriting analysis from the “adult” section. There was also the ground floor west reading room, where periodicals were kept. I recall one social studies project where the students were encouraged to include images. This was back in the dark ages, before everyone had a copier/printer in their home. The library’s photocopying machine (an early public model) would provide you with a negative image for twenty-five cents. As I remember, some students just went with the negative image for their reports. I, however, coughed up another twenty-five cents to get the positive image (by photocopying the negative image). Life was hard, working with “bearskins and stone knives.”

The Hunt Junior High School Library

There was another library that affected me in an important way when I was growing up in Jackson. That was the library at Hunt Junior High.

Main entrance to Hunt Elementary School

Entrance to the Hunt school building

Although the building has now been converted to an elementary school, it was built as a junior high school. A very modern design of individual buildings on the hillside, joined by enclosed walkways. The library was situated to the right of the entry lobby. It actually had a pretty good selection of books for a school library.

Interior of the Hunt Elementary library in Jackson

Current staff in the Hunt school library

This photo of the current staff of the school’s library shows the room looking much as I remember it. It was significant to me for a specific treasure I found on those shelves along the wall to the left. The fiction books were arranged there, alphabetically by author. I remember one day strolling along the shelves, idly looking for something interesting to read. My attention was caught by the title of one rather large book. Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was already familiar with some of Shakespeare and knew that the line came from Macbeth. I checked it out, and fell in love with the lyrical prose of one Ray Bradbury. I think it was my first encounter with Bradbury’s work. His prose would have a profound effect on my own writing, though I would not be aware of that for many, many years.

Libraries have the ability to enrich our lives. And these two libraries in Jackson were just the beginning for me.

(My thanks to librarians Elizabeth Breed and Debby Sears for their help in finding interior images of the Carnegie Building of the Jackson District Library.)

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The Treasury of Words

Roget's Thesaurus cover
A few weeks ago on Facebook, someone commented in passing that they really needed to find a good thesaurus. The commenter was a friend of a friend, and so I don’t recall who it was. The pertinent fact was that she was a writer and was dissatisfied with the thesaurus she’d been using.

I read her comment and thought “I’ll bet that what she’s been using up to now has been a newer styled ‘dictionary’ type thesaurus, where it’s just a word list of synonyms.” But I also understood the challenge that she, as a writer, felt in the face of opening up that imposing hoard of words, Roget’s ORIGINAL Thesaurus.

The Dictionary Style

I seem to recall being taught somewhere around 8th or 9th grade about how to navigate the Roget’s original presentation. But at the time, it seemed awkward and confusing to me. I didn’t need the sophistication of it (although I didn’t realize then that’s what it was). I just needed a list of synonyms.  I suspect a great number of people felt the same way. Roget’s original version got set aside, perhaps as being “old fashioned,” and hence useless.

Indeed, when I searched online in preparing this blog post for “how to use a thesaurus” what I found was the following:

1: Choose a word as a starting point.
2: Like a dictionary, find the word in the alphabetic arrangement.
3: Once you find the word, look at the words that are listed alongside the main word.
4: Choose another word that will work to replace your starting word.

Now the thing about this is that it only really satisfies if you want to keep your original sentence structure, even if that sentence structure doesn’t quite get you to the exact point you want. You can substitute “mansion, bungalow, chalet, residence,  or lodging” for “house” in sales copy, depending on the size of the building (for a mansion is going to be larger than a bungalow). But otherwise, you don’t need to change the structure of your sentence.

But if you are a writer — or even more intensely, if you are a poet — simply replacing one word with a synonym isn’t going to satisfy you. And I really suspect that the complaint I mentioned at the start sprang from that dissatisfaction. A writer who is serious about the craft wants to wield the language with more certain effect. And unfortunately, word lists of synonyms don’t help that desire.

Peter Mark Roget used list-making as a way of dealing with depression. It was from his lists that he built his thesaurus, arranged by topics. It was originally published in 1852. It is the topical arrangement that gives his thesaurus its strength.

I confess that I didn’t have much use for the thesaurus throughout most of my education. I happily had a fairly large vocabulary to start with, so I wasn’t really too much at a loss for the right word most of the time. But the other thing that kept me from using the thesaurus was that I didn’t really understand how to properly use it. Even though I was vaguely introduced to it around 9th grade, apparently that introduction was not particularly effective.

However, when I was in graduate school, one semester I began writing a long narrative poem. It was a creative recreation, a release from the pressures of the heavy course load I had that semester. I had chosen to write in iambic pentameter blank verse. The demands of the prosody made me stretch my verbal constructions. Issues of sound, of rhythm, all combined with the need for precise meaning, meant that I needed to find exactly the right words for the lines. I would check the thesaurus for my options in synonyms and then check the dictionary to make sure the meaning of the selected word was indeed exactly what I meant. Both my thesaurus and dictionary saw more use in the few weeks of composition of that poem than they ever had before.

And along the way, I learned how to use the classic form of Roget’s Thesaurus.

Using the Original Roget’s Thesaurus

The first step in using the classic thesaurus, is checking the index listing in the back of the volume. It resembles the “dictionary style” thesaurus, with an alphabetical listing of words accompanied by a selection of synonyms. Sometimes, just checking this far will give you the word option you need for whatever you are writing.

However, if you need to go further then you have to learn the significance of the section numbers that are given with the alphabetical options.

In the example shown here, you can see the variety of options for the word “intelligence.” That word, the word you are starting with, is printed in boldface. Then follow the variations of significance. I’ve highlighted the various options. You can see that “information” and “news” have different numbers, even though they are similar topically.

That similarity and closeness in meaning also shows in how close their section numbers are to each other (551 and 552), highlighted in red.  The same thing holds true for meanings about smartness and brain power (918 and 919), marked with yellow. The uses that reflect espionage show in the green highlighting. The section numbers will lead you the user to an even wider selection of word options.

When you go to the section number of the option that seems closest to what you want, in the front part of the thesaurus, you will find a wide range of options, presented according to the various parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This is where the strength of this format of the thesaurus lies. Instead of just finding a substitute word for the sentence structure of your originally composed sentence, you may find that the meaning you want to convey might be better served with a different part of speech.

In the sample shown, you can see the options for “innocence.” As you look through the options for “innocence” as a noun, you can see the gradations of options, from very specific synonyms to casual expressions. The subsections in the entry are further topical divisions.

Sometimes, in the search for the right word with the right meaning, you may find that being too specific does not solve the problem you are wrestling with. That leads to the next option in the arrangement of the original thesaurus. When you pull back and see the sections that are grouped together in a larger sense you may find what you are looking for. In the case of “innocence,” when you pull back you can see additional sections titled “good person,” followed by “bad person.”

This is the wonder of the English language. There is so much coloration to it. It is a language built by borrowing from other languages and making those words carry specific meanings, in addition to the words that grew organically in English from its Anglo-Saxon roots. The arrangement of the original Roget’s Thesaurus opens up the flexibility of the English language for the writer – once you learn how to explore its presentation. It truly is a treasury of words, worthy of its place in your reference books.

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Walking Toward Christmas Now Published!

Cover of Walking Toward ChristmasI spent some time a few years ago, writing an Advent devotional for myself. I had selected verses to take me from the beginning of the Advent season all the way to Epiphany. When I was growing up, in our house, the Christmas season lasted until January 6.

At the time I did the writing, I faced a lot of challenges. So thinking about what the verses meant in terms of how we prepared for Christmas made me stretch my faith – in a very good way.

So now, I have edited those meditations, mostly just to correct the occasional typo or grammatical error, but also to make them slightly less tied to my then-immediate circumstances. I do not pretend to be a trained theologian, just a serious Christian who has worked to study the scriptures throughout her life, always seeking to understand what the Lord might have to say. For now, it is published just on Kindle — but doesn’t that work well for a daily devotional format? I think so.

I hope others will find this a worthy endeavor to explore. Come take this walk with me, this walk toward Christmas, preparing our hearts for the celebration of the advent of our Lord.

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Photography As Art

On Sunday, I went to an exhibition of photos taken by my friend Norris Archer Harrington. It was his first real exhibition, but you wouldn’t know that by the quality of his work. The exhibition was held downtown at LA Artcore in Little Tokyo.

LA Artcore building.
Norris is the husband of Barbara Nicolosi, who I’ve know for a considerable time. Since they got married, I had not really had much occasion to get to know Norris except in passing. Then three years ago, I was going to be house-sitting for them during Thanksgiving, so I went to their place a day or two before their departure.

It was simple courtesy to try and get to know Norris better. I knew that he was a former Navy man. So I asked after his other interests, and he mentioned photography. I grew up with a family of amateur photographers, some pretty good ones. My grandfather loved taking pictures, and my father did also – to the point of doing his own developing frequently. My brother was/is an avid photographer (going to the point of getting himself a Nikon), and his son Justin has really taken to camera work. Me, I have dabbled with photography, almost entirely with “cheap” snapshot cameras. So, I felt I knew at least a little bit about photography.

Vincent Thomas bridge

“Night Bridge” – the Vincent Thomas bridge

Looking at Norris’ photos was … startling. It was like having been out in thick, odoriferous air and stepping into a chamber of fresh, clean, cool air. Breathtaking. Norris has a natural gift for composition. He likes shooting (older) settings that most people would easily overlook. But he makes the viewer see surprising beauty in these settings. Indeed, the title for his exhibition is “Hidden Beauty.”

Many of Norris’ photos are presented in black & white (okay, greyscale). That often highlights the composition of his pieces – like the “Night Bridge” photo above. But when he chooses to feature color, it is usually to let some detail stand out.

The photo he used for the Exhibition invitation does that. The red doors in the midst of the shadow have a satin-like quality in their color.

Red doors

Alas, my photo of the invitation doesn’t capture that effect — that’s the problem with taking photos of photos, or in this case, glossy postcards.

Anyway, it was really a pleasure to see Norris’ work being shown off in a gallery – and getting the appreciation his work deserves. I hope this is just the start for him, and that more exhibitions and opportunities come his way.

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Remembering My Parents

afterimage-cover-copyAugust 27th would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. I didn’t post anything anywhere about it, but I thought about it a lot. She died in 2007 a little more than a month after her 90th birthday. Thinking about the time of her passing refreshed my intentions to write a memoir. My parents were not much for telling stories on themselves or about their growing-up, so I had decided to write down as much I could remember of things they’d said, so that I and my siblings and their families would have at least a bit of a record of family history.

I still have a lot to write, but I decided to post the opening of it, since the incident is what prompted me to write the memoir.

It was just a sales receipt and I nearly threw it out.

Thanksgiving Week in 2007 marked a gathering of my siblings. We had not been all together in one place since 1991, when my father had died.  I lived in Los Angeles, my brother David lived in the Philadelphia area, my sister Charlotte lived north of Detroit, while my sister Joan lived in Houston.  Indeed, in the recent years, Joan and her family had been living with Mom, taking care of her.

But Mom had passed away at the end of September.  When we had gathered for the funeral, there was no time – and certainly no energy – to tackle the task of clearing Mom’s house.  We decided to return Thanksgiving Week, since David and I could get the extra days off work before the holiday.

We are a family of pack-rats, but Mom’s practice of it had gotten excessive in her later years.  Perhaps that was understandable, as she had reached the age of 90 and toward the end been afflicted with a mild degree of dementia.  It would have been difficult for her to cope with the sudden removal of so much of her surroundings while she was alive.  Thus it was that we were faced with the task of sorting through everything during that holiday week.

And it was necessary to sort through every single pile.  Mom had the habit of making piles which could include junk mail and important documents, even envelopes of cash, all mixed together.  We couldn’t just pick up a pile and toss it out.  We had to look at every piece of paper.

So there I sat, looking at this sales receipt.  I almost threw it out, but looked at it again.  It was from a local jeweler, and had been folded up with a smallish note card.  The receipt was for a necklace of jade beads, costing (if I recall correctly) about $170.

In her later years, Mom liked to wear those beads for special occasions.  They were new to her collection since I had moved to Los Angeles, but I had noticed them during a visit to Houston I had made around 2003 and in photos Joan would send to me from time to time.

I looked at the note card, and suddenly realized that the jade necklace had been an anniversary present from Dad to Mom.  In fact, the last anniversary present he had purchased for her.

That realization was powerful enough, but what really struck me was that in the note card, Dad addressed Mom as my darling.

So simple.  So direct.  After nearly 50 years together, for my father that was still his first choice of addressing his wife.

My darling.


The illustration attached here is the cover I intend for the memoir. The photo is one I took of my parents when we still lived in Michigan. It’s my favorite of the ones I took. And those are the jade beads mentioned in the passage above.

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House-sitting with a Puppy

Merlin in profile.

Puppy Merlin in profile.

I have taken on a house-sitting turn for some friends while they are away.

Yesterday, I drove from the San Fernando Valley to San Clemente. I’m really going to have to do something about the broken air conditioner in my car. It got very hot during the drive, which is debilitating. But, I arrived in one piece, and not even melted down.

My friends were still gathering their things together in preparation of their departure, so I got to relax a little bit. But I was introduced to my charge, and he accepted me.

Merlin chewing on plastic bottle.

Merlin, his plastic chew bottle, and his Lamb Chop.

Merlin is still a puppy, about 4 months old. So he is still learning things.

Another friend who has had dogs suggested that at this age, he’s teething, which would explain his desire to nip and chomp on things. One thing that he likes to chew is a plastic bottle. But he has a number of other toys, including a large stuffed Lamb Chop. I was told that he is a breed called a Mexican Shepherd, so having Lamb Chop makes sense.

He may still be far from having mastered such commands as “sit”, “stay”, “heel”, but he has learned other things. Most especially, where his treats are kept.

Merlin knows where the doggy treats are.

Merlin knows where the puppy treats are.

He is sweet tempered though.  I think we will get along fine during this time.

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The Illusion of Another Time or Place Through Words

Make your language use in your story illuminating.I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of words lately. I’ve had a number of editing jobs, covering different types of material: a biblical fantasy, a children’s book, an academic thesis, and a scholarly analytic volume. Each required a different type of “language.” After all they are talking to very different audiences. But they aren’t the only prompts for the musing.

I’ve also been going through the manuscript of my own (currently unfinished) fantasy novel The Ring of Adonel. As one way of working my head back into it (in order to finish this opus), I’ve been creating a database of people, places and things mentioned in the story. This includes the specialty terms I’ve created for that fantasy world. The thing is, when you’re building a fantasy world of your own, and you want to consider certain types of issues, you want to avoid “real world” terms that might pull the reader out of your imagined one.

So, the other day, one of my friends posted a link to an excellent blog about words to avoid when writing a period screenplay. And I agree with all the points made – especially the use of “okay.” That one word especially, when it shows up in a non-modern fantasy story, can bounce me out of the fantasy realm. It just does not fit. But I do understand for the writer how easy it is to pop that in during the flush of pushing the prose forward.

Several years ago, I wrote a column about style in writing for fantasy.  When I look back at it now, even the prose of the column itself makes me smile. It’s a bit on the stilted side, as it was written during the height of my scholarly days. But the points are still reasonable.  The language we use helps create the illusion of the world we are spinning into creation.

Now, certainly, there are plenty of films that break this mold. Certainly there have been period films that have not attempted to get rid of modern phrases or concepts (the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for one). But that very fact tends to keep the audience at a distance from the world. By contrast, the History Channel series Vikings, works much harder at keeping modern references out of the mix. The results there are immersive: we are drawn into that world, where even with its multilingual setting everything remains clear.

Some writers get anxious about this whole issue. They don’t feel confident about their mastery of the phrasings of another era, or familiar with the slang of a different age. But you don’t have to have all of that down. It’s possible to create the feel of an “other where” or “other when” just by avoiding too many modern references, metaphors, and clichés and contractions. “Pedal to the metal” belongs to the automotive age, especially once racing became prevalent, for instance. Know what the references are in the phrases you use, and you should be able to keep your historical period tale or fantasy or science fiction story uninfected by our present day effects.

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Check It Out – Throughout the Website

Check it outI realized this week that people who check out this news blog on my website, might not be aware of other things happening on other sections of the site – especially if I don’t mention it on the main blog. So I’ve come up with this new method of making general announcements.

“Check It Out” will point out new things added to the site over a recent stretch of time. Right now, I’m just going to point out some things added to the site fairly recently – or that have been updated. I just completed a massive revision of the site, moving content from HTM pages to the various WordPress platforms on the site. It gives the site a more unified look and much, much easier to update. Each of these notifications will have the graphic check mark as the post image (though they will all look slightly different – must have variety, after all).

With that in mind, here are some recent things for you to check out (and I hope you enjoy them!) —

First off, for my editing and writing consulting information, the page has been totally revised and updated, including an updated rates page worked out on word count now, rather than page count (except for scripts).

On the Graphics blog, I posted a preview of some (quick) digital artwork I did to illustrate a Arveniem short story I’ll be posting soon.

Back in March, I posted a collective review of Chuck Dixon’s novel series Bad Times. Given that I just finished reading the latest volume, I’m going to have to update that review.

So, my visitors will in the future be able to use the “Check It Out” posts for what’s going on elsewhere on the site.


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“She’ll Never Be….”

Like many people, there are memoirs I want to write. Even if they are only for myself, to explain to myself what I see in my past. I have become very aware that the incidents that truly shape our characters are frequently invisible to those around us. They can be minor incidents in the eyes of the “outsiders,” but they can be tremendous to us.

Once such event happened to me when I was still very young. The following is from a memoir I’m slowly working away on (Making Everything Count), about those things that I believe influenced me to become the writer I am.


I took two years of ballet lessons when I was ages 5 through 6.  I loved dancing, and would lark about our living room to whatever classical music was playing on the radio or on my father’s record player.  As with the swimming lessons I was given during that period, my parents decided to give the natural inclination some formal training.  I was very happy to go along with this idea, since I had a book about ballet, and I loved the pictures of the ballerinas.  I wanted to be one.

Unfortunately, the two years of lessons became merely “just for myself” right at the very beginning.

At the end of the first class, when the instructor spoke with my parents about how I had done, he did it in front of me, in my hearing. There I was, the small child standing in the midst of a trio of tall (to me) adults. They were conversing way “up there.” I was way below their line of sight. The instructor commended me to my parents on my abilities, I believe.

But then he spoke the deadly words, telling them I would never be a ballerina, because even then it was obvious that I was going to be too tall.

I don’t know if they were aware that I was listening or that I understood. The little pitcher with big ears was too short to be noticed at that moment. But it stuck with me, to a negative effect, killing that ambition to be a ballerina. There’s a melancholy sorrow to a child receiving lessons in something she loves, all the while knowing her dream will not come true, because “the person who knows” had said it was impossible.

Nureyev and Gregory rehearse Raymunda

Rudolf Nureyev choreographed the ABT production of Raymunda.

The memory of that moment came back at me many years later when I attended a performance by the American Ballet Theatre of the ballet Raymunda, choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev.

My final height is five feet, eight inches.  Most male ballet dancers are under six feet in height.  A ballerina of my height, when she is en pointe, will be over six feet tall, towering over her partners.  This is why, traditionally, ballerinas are petite.  But in the performance I saw of the ABT, the prima ballerina was the dazzling Cynthia Gregory – who just happened to be five feet, eight inches.

Unlike an experience with my second grade teacher and reading (she had not believed my claim that I could read at a third grade level, especially after I botched reading aloud, even though I’d been reading an advanced level silently all summer), whether I might be able to become as a dancer was not something I knew for sure.

He was the expert.  And apparently there was a factor that would have nothing to do with my ability: how tall I would be.

Cynthia Gregory as Raymunda

Cynthia Gregory as Raymunda.

So, right from the beginning, I knew that taking the dance classes would be only for my own satisfaction, for I would never be that ballerina I had wanted to be.  All because of what the instructor said in my hearing.

I have occasionally wondered what I would have done if I had not heard that.  Would I have pushed on, and been like Cynthia Gregory?  I don’t know.  But it did instill in me an outlook that would become much stronger later: not to quash the desires of others, just because they don’t fit the expected pattern.  If someone has the desire to pursue an ambition and is willing to do the work, I will not be the one to turn them away.  There is enough of that little wannabe-ballerina in me still, and she remembers how it stung to hear those words.

Young dancer seated

Never say “She’ll never be….” — especially not in the hearing of the child.

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