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Talking to Your Kids About Race, Racism, and Antiracism

10 Things 6

Racism wasn’t something I chose to experience as a kid.

My first memory of racism directed at me was the summer between Kindergarten and 1st Grade. I was flying alone to Hawai’i or returning to Seattle from Hawai’i. An older woman, who I remember as having short curly brown hair and was probably in her 40s, was seated next to me on the flight. At some point in her talking to me she complimented my English. “You speak English so well. Where did you learn to speak it?”

I knew, even at my young age, that she assumed because I’m Asian I wasn’t born here—this is a racist trope that BIPOC have to deal with, particularly Asian-Americans as we’re treated as perpetual foreigners in our own country. “I was born here.” [insert 5-year-old eye roll]

I thought that would end the conversation but she kept going, calling me “exotic.”

Pro-tip: don’t call anyone exotic. We’re not objects. I don’t even like calling places exotic. People call my home state exotic but the tropical climate, the plants and flowers and trees and fruit, and the brilliant green of the mountains in contrast to the red dirt are all normal to me. Exotic, to me, has always mean unusual, not normal. But the things (and people) that get called exotic are entirely usual and normal for those who live with them daily. The other problem with “exotic” is it sexualizes and objectifies the women it’s being used to describe. No five-year-old should ever be called exotic and for BIPOC women, it feeds into the stereotypes that lead to the increased violence against, kidnapping, trafficking, and deaths of our sisters.

“What nationality are you?” she asked as a follow up to the exotic comment.

Again, at 5, I knew the difference between nationality and ethnicity. I thought she was stupid for asking me that when I had just told her I was born here. “I’m American.”

“No. What’s your ethnicity?” Understand that this is just another form of “Where are you really from?”

“Filipino.” [insert another eye roll] I don’t remember exactly how the conversation ended but I do remember being done with her at this point.

I’m pretty sure this experience is the basis for my dislike of conversing with strangers on planes, buses, trains, and out in public in general. I have a friend who I think is fearless in striking up conversations with people she comes across in public.

The same summer or the summer after, I was in California visiting my maternal grandparents and my mother’s late younger sister (Auntie Boogie, if you’ve read previous blogs). While I identify as Filipinx, I also identify as hapa (mixed-race for those of you unfamiliar with the term). My mother’s side is predominantly European and we can trace Papa’s lineage back to Mary Queen of Scots. Papa was a locksmith with his own business in Tustin. I loved going into the shop with him. I would sweep up the metal shavings for him and as I got older I would clean the bathroom, make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch in the toaster over like he taught me, and cut keys for customers. One day, his good friend came into the shop and they were both leaning on the glass counter, each on opposite sides, as I was sitting on it. They were telling jokes that I didn’t understand and Papa stopped to explain one. Pointedly, he taught me the N-word and what it meant to him. I didn’t understand at the time that the meaning was bad, so when they told another joke, I laughed. Now imagine all the overt racists, comfortable with slinging slurs around doing this with the next generation. This is one of the ways kids learn overt bigotry, through jokes because jokes are easily accessible and also a way to tell if someone is part of your in-group or open to being part of your in-group. I learned soon enough what the N-word really meant after returning home and telling my parents the joke. I’ve never used it since.

We are often exposed to racism at a young age and these memories become indelible. I often see comments from White parents either about not knowing how to talk to their kids about racism and/or not wanting to “expose” them because they want them to keep their innocence. For the most part, BIPOC kids don’t get to keep their innocence. Once we have that first experience, it’s gone. Our world is now informed by knowing people are going to treat us that way for the rest of our lives. Not to mention, Black parents have to have The Talk with their children about how to interact with police so they come home alive at an age in which White kids get to remain innocent. My parents weren’t there to intervene with the woman asking me racist questions. The flight attendants didn’t intervene either. I was on my own and I was lucky enough to have been taught the difference between nationality and ethnicity so I knew how to respond to the woman. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for.

For those of us who are hapa, who have extended family from different races, particularly European, there’s the additional trauma of dealing with the bigotry within the family. There was no question Papa loved me, but I often wondered how when he would spew such awful, racist things about Asians and Black people in front of us, as well as using racial slurs. How had he done the mental gymnastics to keep himself from directing that racist venom at us (me, my dad, and siblings) but still be okay with saying those things in front of us? How could he say he loves us and show that he loves us while still holding so much hatred for people who looked like us? There’s trauma in that, in coming to terms with and dealing with the racism or bigotry of someone who loves you. I was the one who confronted him every time he started the racist comments and slurs. I was the one who made it clear, while still a kid, that what he was saying was unacceptable when others would not. Deep inside, while he was making those statements about others, it felt like they were directed at me because I cannot separate myself from being Asian. It’s why now when I call a friend on using Asian stereotypes and they say, “I didn’t mean you” I respond with “Yes, you did.”

While we don’t get to opt-out of these experiences as BIPOC children, it’s also important to understand that children as young as 5-years-old are already forming racial biases whether we recognize it or not. They already recognize that some groups have higher status or more value than other groups by the time they start Kindergarten. “But I taught my children to love people for who they are!” Please refer back to my first post in this series where I defined colorblind as an ideal and not a reality. It’s important to talk to your kids about the reality of world, not just Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for us. Opt-in on these conversations so they understand why we can’t opt-out of the experience.

  1. Be honest with your kids and don’t sugarcoat the reality that BIPOC live with. You know your child(ren) the best so I’m not going to tell you exactly what to say or how to adapt what has largely been considered “adult conversation” to their learning level. Truthfulness is going to be the key in every conversation you have with them on race, racism, and antiracism.
  2. Give them the basic vocabulary to understand that racism isn’t just slurs and hate speech, but includes excluding us based on our race, judging us by stereotypes and treating us as if we are those stereotypes. They need to know that acts of racism aren’t just between individuals but can be perpetuated by their schools in how they discipline their BIPOC peers at disproportionately higher rates than White peers, even for things as small as dress code violations which then feeds these peers into the school-to-prison pipeline. Make sure they know what creates skin color and that it has no bearing on our intelligence, skills, or temperament as has been taught by racists for generations. Talk with them about how these harmful myths were used to set up harmful systems to oppress BIPOC. Discuss colorism and White beauty/speech standards that affect BIPOC from treating lighter-skinned BIPOC as more valuable and beautiful to conforming to White beauty/dress standards to standard English being the default demand with use of vernacular languages being seen as uneducated rather than a first language or just another method of communication. One thing you and your kid(s) need to understand is that like racism, colorism isn’t unique to the United States. It’s a global issue.
  3. Teach them that while you don’t have to have The Talk with them, Black parents have to do this with their children, often at a young age and doing so is never a guarantee they’ll return home alive. Tamir Rice was killed immediately upon the arrival of police who pulled up on the playground he was playing at alone. It was less than 2 seconds. He was never given a chance to “comply.” Let your kids know that compliance is a narrative of victim blaming. We’ve seen too many videos of Black people killed while “complying.” Instead, they need to understand that police shouldn’t be killing people at all. Don’t get mired in the hypocrisy of taking armed mass murderers alive or allowing a group of men to takeover and occupy a federal building for over a month, but Black people aren’t afforded that courtesy, armed or unarmed. Valuing the life of the young White man who took the lives of 9 Black Emmanuel AME Church members in Charleston, S.C. over the life of the Black veteran, Micah Johnson, who took the life of 5 Dallas police officers after recent deaths of Black people by police officers is the point. A White mass murderer will be taken alive because he has more value than the Black one who was killed by a bomb that police sent in on a robot. Black children are also not afforded the luxury of maintaining their “innocence” by police when their parents are stopped by them or are refusing to let them in their home: Philando Castile and Korryn Gaines are two examples of parents who were killed by police in front of their child; Korryn’s son was shot as well. The Hate U Give is an excellent resource to help you teach this. You can either read it with them, watch it with them, or both. An extension of this is that Black children are more likely to be treated as and charged as adults by the legal system than White children; they are old enough to know right from wrong versus the defense used by many White defendants that their brain isn’t developed enough to know better. When They See Us, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, 13th, and Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story are resources you can either watch to help yourself understand the subject matter better to teach your kid(s) or to watch with them.
  4. Teach them how they can use their privilege when they witness a peer experiencing racism. I think this can make a huge difference. While it’s not strictly about racism, remember the story about the 11-year-old boy who told his substitute teacher last year that he was thankful that he was being adopted by his two dads? That teacher faced consequences because three of his peers walked out of class and went straight to principal’s office when efforts to intervene as the teacher berated the student were unsuccessful. This is why teaching them the vocabulary is necessary, so they can identify acts of racism that aren’t overt slurs/hate speech that are happening right in front of them and can help squash any gaslighting that occurs when the person is confronted—sometimes BIPOC won’t say anything because we know we’ll be gaslighted and no one will back us up. I’ve been in that position many times.
  5. Know their educational materials and if they are lacking in diversity, supplement them with primary sources and texts that provide BIPOC narratives. While this will mostly apply to social studies/history materials, it can include English and literature. I know younger teachers are working to diversify their materials so BIPOC are more represented but there are going to be teachers who are entrenched in their way of doing things and refuse/are reluctant to change. To piggyback on this, diversify their bookshelves and their screens. Make sure they’re reading stories that center kids NOT like them, this builds empathy and helps fight stereotypes. While you’re doing this for your kid(s), make sure you’re doing it for yourself too. Don’t just read those non-fiction antiracism books, read fictional stories by BIPOC authors that feature BIPOC characters. I post the books I’ve read for the month at the end of the month/beginning of the following month on Instagram. You can build a list from that or my Goodreads bookshelf (links to both are on the sidebar). The books range from Young Reader (7-12) to Young Adult to various fiction genres and non-fiction. I also tend to focus on a specific group for the corresponding history month: i.e. Black authors or stories about Black people during Black History Month and LGBTQIA+ authors/stories during Pride Month. One thing I do want to point out is my fondness for the YA “history” books. Not texts, but books written for teenagers (sometimes younger) like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You or An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. They’ve made history a bit more digestible than the boring social studies and history textbooks we’re used to in school. Learning doesn’t have to be a drag and you, as the adult, don’t have to slog through Non-fiction history books that are so dry you find yourself re-reading the same page 10 times because your eyes started glossing over. These books are for us too. Take advantage of that.
  6. Make space for your child(ren) to ask questions, even if those questions are uncomfortable for you or challenge an implicit bias that they’ve observed in you. Kids notice our actions, especially when what we say and what we do do not align. This might mean you need to also be more aware of your own actions and whether or not they are antiracist. If something comes up that exposes an implicit or explicit bias of yours in the process of teaching your kid(s) you will likely need to pause the lesson and sit with it alone as you confront it. You know your kid(s) the best and should know if it’s something that can be processed through with them or not. I think the most important part is to ensure you come back to them and acknowledge that bias and how it’s wrong (based on stereotypes, based on a bad experience that doesn’t represent the race, etc.). One of the best things I think we can do for kids is show them we’re not perfect and we all have room to grow and learn. Prepare yourself for that uncomfortableness. Will you be able to explain why most of their classmates are White like them? Why your neighbors are White like you? Where are all the BIPOC in your life? Why you’re pushing for diversity when your social circles aren’t diverse? It’s okay that you aren’t living a perfectly antiracist life, but you have to be honest (back to #1) about why. Don’t make stuff up because it will make you look better in their eyes. It’s okay to tell them, “I didn’t know…” or “It wasn’t a priority when we moved here…” Again, show them there is room for growth.
  7. Acknowledge when you don’t know something. Don’t make stuff up when your kid(s) ask a question and you don’t know. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know. Make it an opportunity to learn together, to teach them that it’s okay to not know everything there is to know, to go learn something you may not have thought about but they did and return to them with an answer.
  8. Costumes for Halloween or other activities (school dress-up days, community festivals) is one thing friends ask me every year as Halloween rolls around. What’s appropriate? What isn’t? If a group of people are discriminated against or killed for wearing their traditional clothing then a “costume” is inappropriate. If there’s a bodysuit your kid(s) can take off or makeup they can take off but it’s akin someone else’s skin that they cannot take off–think the Maui full-body costume or the girl dressed up as a Geisha giving a tea party in full makeup. Plus kids should not be dressing up as sex workers. It’s not an inherently bad profession, that’s a different story. Sexualizing kids is just plain inappropriate. G*psy costumes are a no because g*psy is a slur (the group should be referred to as Romani) and they are an oppressed group. There are plenty of professions and characters and things kids can dress up as. Taking away options that appropriate oppressed groups is not the end of the world. If kids can dress up as a Princess Darth Vader and go viral on social media for it we’ll all be just fine.

Resources:

Study: Black Children More Likely to be Seen as Angry by Student-Teachers Than White Children

Why Keisha Can’t Write”: The Marginalization of Black Student Writing

African American Vernacular English is not Standard English With Mistakes

De-stigmatizing Hawaii’s Creole Language

“I’m is talking right”: How The Stigma Around Black Language Holds Us Back From Liberation

The Limits of Standard English

The “Pidgin Problem”: Attitudes About Hawai’i Creole

The Costs of Code-switching

Five Reasons Why People Code-switch

Code-switching is not Trying to Fit In to White Culture, it’s Surviving it

How Culturally Responsive Lessons Teach Critical Thinking

Early Chapter Books with BIPOC Characters by BIPOC Authors

16 Ways to Help Children Become Thoughtful, Informed, and BRAVE About Race

What is “The Talk” White Parents Should Have With White Children?

20 Picture Books for 2020: Readings to Embrace Race, Provide Solace & Do Good

7 Ways to Support the Young Activists in Your Life

Your 5-Year-Old is Already Racially Biased

Teaching Tolerance (Note: I’ve used this organization as a resource for almost 20 years & they have a Facebook page you can follow)

Antiracist Reads for Kids and Teens

School Dress Codes Unfairly Target Black Girls

Black Girls in US Pushed Out of School Over Racist and Sexist Dress Codes, Study Finds

The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained

The School to Prison Pipeline

How the School to Prison Pipeline Functions

When School Feels Like a Prison

The Problem with White Beauty Standards

What’s Colorism?

The Gender of Colorism: Understanding the Intersection of Skin Tone and Gender Inequality

A World Without Black History

You Can’t Sound White

12 Racist Halloween Costumes FOR KIDS!

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

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Real Settings

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The Encinitas sign at night.

I never planned on setting Family Ties in Encinitas, or even in California. Unconsciously, the settings I was imagining as I wrote the first draft were familiar to me. In the end, connecting my characters to a setting I knew helped me to better connect with them. The same thing with The Downward Spiral. I didn’t intend to set it in San Diego, it just made sense to me that I set it there which led to me connecting the story and characters to characters from another book I’m working on and its fictional setting in Southern California – if you’ve read The Downward Spiral feel free to guess which characters you’ll see again in the future.

There are more real settings in Family Ties than in The Downward Spiral. While in Southern California on our road trip I took some pictures of places mentioned in Family Ties along with some pictures that inspired a scene in The Downward Spiral.

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The fictional Encinitas High School and La Costa High School in Family Ties are based on different areas of San Dieguito Academy (formerly San Dieguito High School). The parking lot is where Sara gets picked up and dropped off at La Costa High School. It has changed a bit since I went to school there but not too much.

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This is the courtyard of the school where Sara, Arissa, Jason, and Damien spent many lunches.

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Outside the fictional biology room and where Sara and Jason spent lunch alone further down.

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Magic Mountain which was mentioned but did not have a scene. I took this as we were driving to L.A. from Napa.

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A view of Moonlight Beach from the parking lot. This is the first beach mentioned in Family Ties.

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The picnic tables at Moonlight Beach where one scene took place in Family Ties.

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Cardiff State Beach where a couple of nighttime scenes were set. It wouldn’t be nearly as pretty if I tried to take a picture of it at night, though.

For more on Encinitas, you can check out this video from the Encinitas Coast Life Blog.

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Entrance to Hotel Del Coronado.

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The backside where Sara and Jason would’ve walked through to get to the beach…

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There were more places I wanted to take pictures of after leaving Coronado but we got called away and had to go back up to Carlsbad. Included in what I wanted to take pictures of was San Diego Bay, which had a scene in The Downward Spiral.

While researching Jason and Sara’s apartment in L.A., I searched for buildings within walking distance to UCLA and found the Levering Arms. They included floor plans in their photos and I chose one of them as their new home.

The other real setting I used in The Downward Spiral was Balboa Park. We met up with my friend and fellow author, Richard D. Mellinger, one afternoon and spent several hours wandering through the park while chatting. I’ll share more about that in another post. What’s important for this post is that I was inspired to write a scene that takes place in the Japanese Friendship Garden on the deck of the Inamori Pavillion. The garden is rather large and Inamori Pavillion, if you take the same route we did, is a natural stopping point before returning to the entrance.

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This bridge is one of several in the garden. One of my favorite things to photograph in Japanese gardens are the bridges, particularly drum bridges.

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Ikebana inside Inamori Pavillion.

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Last but not least, the koi that inspired a funny moment in The Downward Spiral.

My next book takes place in mostly real settings but it’s also set in the 1990s, so many of the businesses that I use are no longer around. In some cases, the buildings themselves have been torn down. Intrigued? I’ll give you a little peek of one location in closing…

Make Horse

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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The Downward Spiral: Chapter One

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The blank canvas taunted him, chided him. Whatever you do to me will amount to nothing. You can paint whatever you want, no one will want me. I’ll sit in the corner of this studio collecting dust until you paint over worthless little ol’ me.

He shut his eyes, listening to Seether—willing the music to drown out the negativity. He pursed his lips, raising his hand to strike.

You’re no artist. You’re a waste of oxygen.

He slashed the brush across the canvas and then diagonally upward, putting his whole body into it like a taiko drummer. He continued the wild strokes until the brush emptied of color. After dropping the brush in the black jar on the table next to him, he pulled one out of a jar of crimson paint. He attacked the canvas again.

Stepping back, he surveyed his work. A fucking trainwreck.

He threw the brush at the canvas in frustration, it hit with a dull thud. The brush fell to the floor as he dropped into his chair, spent physically and emotionally.

 

Kyra tossed her keys on the table in the entry, dumped her briefcase underneath, and thumbed through the mail. The house was quiet, absent the usual rock music playing and aromas of food cooking in the kitchen.

“Ky! I’m home!” she called upstairs. Her twin brother didn’t answer.

She kicked off her black patent leather pumps and climbed the stairs, entering the first room on her right. Three of the walls were set with large windows, allowing natural light to flood the room during the day.

Kyle was slumped in a chair, arms hanging at his side with a glass of red wine in his hand. His short burnt sienna hair was messy and his jeans and white t-shirt were spattered with paint. An easel with a large canvas, full of angry, dark brush strokes was in front of him.

“Hey, Ky,” Kyra said, leaning against the doorjamb with her arms over her chest.

He startled in his seat, almost spilling his wine, and then glanced at her. “Hey, Kyr. I didn’t hear you.”

“What’s up with that?” She gestured to the canvas with her chin. “It looks like roadkill.”

“Elisha broke up with me again.” He took a sip of wine.

“What was it this time?” She’d lost count of how many times Elisha broke up with him, and couldn’t keep track of the myriad reasons she gave when she did so.

“I don’t pay enough attention to her.”

“You don’t pay enough attention to me either,” she joked, smiling. “Maybe I should breakup with you too.”

“You couldn’t if you tried.” He chuckled. “We share too much DNA.”

“Lucky for you.” She paused with a slight smile. “I’m guessing you didn’t cook dinner.”

“Sorry.”

“Order some Chinese while I change and pay the bills.”

“What do you want?”

“Shrimp with snow peas. And pour me a glass,” she said, nodding at the wine. “No reason for you to be drinking alone.”

“You bet.” He grabbed the phone off the table next to him.

Kyra returned downstairs to the master bedroom, stripping out of her black pencil skirt and ivory blouse. She donned a pair of black yoga pants and a lavender tunic sweater—it was almost spring in San Diego and she got chilly at night—then pulled her hair into a ponytail. She sat at the desk in her office as her twin brought her a glass of Tempranillo.

They sat on the floor in front of the coffee table with their white takeout boxes and glasses of wine, watching a rerun of Game of Thrones. Kyle slouched and peered into his box of Beef Broccoli while Kyra picked out a snow pea pod with chopsticks from her box.

“Are you going to try to get her back?” she asked.

“I’m done with women.”

She laughed. “If I had a dollar for every time you said that.”

“I’m serious, Kyr. I’m tired of relationship drama. I’m going to focus on my art.”

She chewed her food, pondering his declaration. She had never been fond of Elisha, but she never voiced that to Kyle. He needed a supportive sister, not another person to question his choices. She wouldn’t argue with him focusing on his art though. Anything to keep him out of the clutches of his ex.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“The usual fun day of contracts and meetings.” She winked at him. She was a lawyer for a tech company, focusing on their contracts. She didn’t do litigation—it wasn’t her thing. Not every lawyer belonged in a courtroom. She preferred writing and pouring over legalese. Analyzing suited her.

He cracked a smile and snickered. “Want to go to the museum with me this weekend? They have a Picasso exhibit for a few weeks I want to see.”

“Sure.” She settled against the sofa, cradling the wine glass in her hand with the stem between her middle and ring fingers.

Kyle lifted his glass, stopping before taking a drink. “Do you think I’ll meet someone else?”

“Only if you don’t hide in your studio.” She sipped the Tempranillo, pressing her tongue to the roof of her mouth.

He refilled his glass and then hers. They sat in comfortable silence, nursing the wine and watching Tyrion’s trial.

Kyle let out a deep sigh and poured another glass, emptying the bottle. “Do you want more?” he asked Kyra. “I can open another bottle.”

“Sure.”

She watched him stroll to the wine rack in the dining room. She knew he would be moody. After the other breakups, he hid in the studio most of his waking hours and then drank himself to sleep when he was done. This would be no different.

Being each other’s twin for the last thirty years was never easy. Where Kyle was emotional and given to temperamental outbursts, Kyra was rational and thought everything through before acting. Maybe it was what made him a good artist and her a good lawyer.

But others expected them to be the same, and that would never happen.

 

Kyle gazed at his twin as she sipped her wine. They looked enough alike that if someone was paying attention, they’d notice the familial resemblance in the shape of their oval faces and long noses. But no one ever guessed they were twins because they noticed the differences first—her darker hair and her light hazel eyes compared to his light brown eyes.

He slid his arm around her, resting his head on hers.

How can I have a relationship while working on my art? Will other women feel the same as Elisha about me and my work? Or will they be more respectful of my time and process?

His ex didn’t like his intense focus when he was into his work. It’s not that he forgot about her, it’s that he was driven to see his vision take form. Once the idea was in his head he had to get it on canvas, otherwise he ruminated over it.

Ruminating led to madness.

© 2016 Debi V. Smith, LLC

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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