Khanversations

Rukhsana’s thoughts on her journey of life, writing and sometimes—when she dares—a bit of politics.
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Burning the candle at both ends…

I know I’ve been scarce in terms of blogosphere and that is always good news in some ways because it means the writing of fiction is going well!

Alhamdu lillah, it is.

I’m working on two projects and strangely enough one makes me laugh and the other makes me cry.

They kind of balance each other out.

I had some trouble with my email recently.

Couldn’t access it from my desktop only my phone which meant I couldn’t do the myriad business things I have to do as an author, couldn’t send invoices, couldn’t read pdf’s of upcoming  engagements, stuff like that.

But alhamdu lillah all that’s been resolved.

I had been working hard on a project dear to my heart but because of all the tech stuff I spent a day not able to access my Word program and that particular project, so… I cracked open the other one. The one that makes me laugh, really guffaw, a bit like a hyena!

Hysterically!

Even as I write this I’m chuckling.

I know though that some people in my life would not approve. One person dear to me is always warning me about jumping from project to project like a rabbit nibbling patches of clover.

And to a certain point I agree.

Multi-tasking is not very efficient, they have found that to be true.

And yet…

How fresh I feel!

My stories are usually either incredibly sad or rib-ticklingly funny. I’d been working on the sad one so long it was quite refreshing to be able to laugh.

And then I remembered something rather interesting. Way back, about ten years ago, this is how I wrote. I would work on one project till I got stuck on it and felt tired, and then I’d switch to another until I got stuck on that and went back to the first project.

The point I’m trying to make is each artist has to find whatever works for them. No two artists have the same process and it’s okay to do things differently as long as you’re making progress.

In fact I’m so excited there’ve been some days I’ve worked on both projects!

Now that’s burning the candle on both ends!

I just hope that come September I have a lot, insha Allah, to show for it!

 

On the eve of Canada Day 150…

I confess I feel a little conflicted celebrating the sesquicentennial of Canada!

I’ve been reading a graphic novel about Louis Riel, and I think all Canadians can put away any smugness we might feel about being ‘kinder’ to the native Americans. We weren’t.

And a hundred and fifty years later, we have a handsome charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau who talks nice but hasn’t done anything to remedy the situation yet!

Like every other prime minister before him!

Whether tory or liberal, doesn’t matter, they all neglect the native population because frankly, we the people of Canada allow them to.

I read an interesting quote on the definition of patriotism being the admiration for my country, thinking it’s superior to every other, simply because I was born there.

For the most part that’s pretty accurate I think.

Except I wasn’t born here.

I was born in Pakistan.

And I do believe Canada is superior only because there is a little more justice here.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some corruption.

And we can still be vulnerable to xenophobic forces, but for the most part, it’s the best place in the world to live.

Canada has been kind to me.

And I love Canada!

Yay Canada!

Flag of Canada.svg

 

Investing in yourself…

I recently got back from my first Highlights Foundation workshop.

Highlights Foundation is located on a family homestead in eastern Pennsylvania, a small town called Honesdale.

For years they’ve been running writing workshops, retreats, that are lauded as some of the best writing intensives around.

They’re affiliated with Boyds Mills Press, a publisher that has been around for many many years and they produce the Highlights magazine!

You’ve probably seen it!

I remember rushing to it in the library especially for the Hidden Pictures puzzle. It was always in demand!

For years I’ve been on their emailing list, drooling over the workshops they offered, wishing I could go.

For the past seven years I’ve been working really hard but with little to show for it. I’ve written the equivalent of about five full length novels only to rack up rejections!

And I can’t even count the picture book manuscripts I’ve written.

It was an article I read on the Highlights email, some advice one of their faculty gave about not just writing for yourself that really clicked for me.

You see the problem is, I had changed! In the process of acquiring knowledge, researching everything from psychology to terrorism, I had expanded my mind and begun to see things in a different light and that reflected in my writing. I can see past the behavior of some pretty unlikeable characters and I find them a bit more fascinating in some ways.

But…most readers would not.

Well the article I read was written by Deborah Heiligman and called Writing for Yourself AND the Reader.

I highly recommend it!

Well with all the frustrated failures I’ve been experiencing I was looking at their workshops, somehow I was drawn particularly to the graphic novel workshop! I knew nothing about graphic novels and yet a friend had suggested we collaborate on one.

But the workshop was beyond my means. $1199 USD.

And then saw a message saying that they had scholarships available.

I have taken a scholarship to a writing retreat before. It was to Kindling Words, another fantastic writing workshop I highly recommend!

But the problem with scholarships like this is they make me feel so obliged! I feel so indebted, and I hate feeling indebted! That I usually find a way to donate back the funds I received so someone else can benefit.

Well, I applied for a scholarship! And I got one for $900! I only had to pay $300, and voila I was able to go.

Sometimes you need to invest in yourself!

If you’re spinning your wheels, working hard but not getting any traction, you need to do something to jump start the process. That’s what this workshop turned out to be.

It was a toss up between the graphic novel workshop and verse novel workshop. I knew less about graphic novels so I chose that, and when I got there, for the four days, it was SO intensive, so exciting, I was learning SO much I could barely sleep!

I don’t know when I’ve felt this revved up!

I took one of the projects that had received more than twenty-two rejections, and am currently reworking it as a graphic novel. The process has been fascinating!

Thinking visually has made me drastically overhaul it!

It’s been very eye-opening!

I highly highly recommend any author or illustrator attend one of the Highlights Foundation workshops!

Oh…and the food was amazing!

And as a Muslim the staff did SO much to accommodate my needs! It was so moving!

(I just noticed how many of my sentences end in exclamation marks! Normally I would go back and edit, but what the heck! They are definitely called for so I’ll leave them. ;o))

On another note, I was recently visiting a relative and we were talking about career advancement or something and this elder relative kept saying, “It’s who you know… It’s who you know…”

Like me she’s an immigrant. And I found it surprising.

And it got me thinking.

I grew up at a time when society was more upwardly mobile. We had hope. I worked hard, I learned harder, I never gave up and I got a lot of my dreams to come true, alhamdu lillah, and yet, I didn’t know anyone in this business.

I’ve come to know people, but when I was starting up, nope. I knew no one!

I don’t believe it’s always ‘who you know’.

You can rise above the slush pile.

I did.

And yet, in the process I’m happy to say I have helped others.

I’m so proud that one of my dear friends’ S. K. Ali’s debut novel has just been released. It’s called Saints and Misfits and I just finished reading it, and loved it!

It’s quite different from what I first read from her. And it deserves all the starred reviews it’s earned so far!!! (3 Yay!)

You go girl!

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Direction!!!

It’s so funny that my last blog post was wondering about direction!

Yesterday I returned from the Highlights Foundation workshop on Graphic Novels. It was their first workshop on the genre and it was absolutely amazing!

The Highlights Foundation is the same that has been putting out Highlights Magazine for more than forty years!

The retreats and workshops are held at their facility in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It’s a very small town, rural setting, gorgeous views and hiking trails, idyllic!

I had never been!

The price can seem steep. The price for the Graphic Novel workshop was $1199 for Sunday to Wednesday.

But oh…it is worth it!!!

I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship. They are available. I got a scholarship for $900 so I ended up paying $299 ($300). That might have covered the food, which was gourmet and delicious!

Thing about scholarships though is that they always leave me feeling indebted. I had gotten a scholarship to Kindling Words which is another fantastic writing workshop you should look into, way back! And I was able to send them a cheque later on, to contribute towards future scholarships. I intend to do the same for Highlights Foundation.

As soon as I got there, I felt excited, and I did something I never imagined I would do.

You were supposed to take a project with you. Something short  you could work on and get feedback on. Well I took a project but at the last minute I stuck another story of mine, one I’d written about fifteen years ago, in my handbag.

Wouldn’t you know, that’s the project I ended up working on!

I had to leave home by 4 am on Sunday morning and I arrived at Highlights Foundation by around 1 pm, exhausted. I had planned to take a nap but instead of sleeping I ended up doodling a graphic novel dummy based on the second project I’d stuck in my bag.

All afternoon, I created panels of a graphic novel/comic book even before the first session began.

I figured I’d tire myself out and sleep well that night.

What a mistake!

Oh talk about intense!

We began the workshop at 5:30 Sunday June 11th. Basically getting to know each other, and it was led by Matt Phelan who is an accomplished graphic novelist and illustrator. He did the illustrations for the Newbery Award-winner The Higher Power of Lucky.

There was Kelly Light author/illustrator of the Louise Loves Art books who gave us insight into her process. She was such a hoot! At one point we were singing cheesy seventies songs together! Like: Billy Don’t be a Hero! and One Tin Soldier!

And there was Merrill Rainey, who’s a graphic artist and showed us how to show emotion!

And David Saylor the head of Scholastic’s Graphix imprint came by on Tuesday afternoon so we could pick his brains and he could give us a one-on-one session about our work. It was SO hard not to fangirl him!!!

I wasn’t the only author there. There were at least three of us who couldn’t much draw. But yeah mostly it was illustrators and I felt at a deep disadvantage.

It felt like my mind was literally opening up! Like my cranium was splitting open to dust out the cobwebs in my brain and let some sunshine in!

It was both painful and exhilarating at the same time!

That night, I was too excited to sleep. I started to see the possibilities of repackaging so many of stories that weren’t quite working!

If I’d spent the entire $1200 it would have been worth every penny! As it was I was bending over backwards with profuse thanks and gratitude for the opportunity to the point I kept telling myself, “Okay, shut up already!”

Too much gratitude can be kind of cloying. The best thing I can do is pay it forward!

I highly highly recommend the workshops at Highlights Foundation!

Here’s their website: http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/

 

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Direction???

It happened again.

The freeze!

I was giving the keynote at the SCBWI Canada east conference in Montreal and the audience was completely motionless, completely silent, and it was unnerving a bit.

It’s ideal, don’t get me wrong. It means they’re intently listening, but it’s kind of weird.

Again I had that feeling that I was speaking to a tableau, and then a guy picked up the pitcher of ice water on the table and poured himself a glass, and the sound was LOUD in the room!

I kind of smiled to myself as I continued on.

It’s funny what you see when you’re up there in front of seventy-eighty people!

At some points I saw people dabbing at their eyes and I told myself, no, they’re not crying! Are they? And then I saw the tweets which said I had indeed made some of them cry.

I have family members who keep telling me to focus more on the public speaking.

They keep telling me there’s money to be made, and of course there is!

But darn it! I got into this thing to write!

I’ve got three projects very close to fruition and I’m not sure what to do. I feel like if they just got me…

I don’t know.

All I know is that the public speaking seems to be getting easier and easier and I’ve had to turn away gigs. I was invited to do a presentation on Eid day at a Muslim community out of town. I said sorry, no. I don’t work on Eid.

I think it’s the right decision.

You do have to draw a line right?

I think the most frustrating thing is that I like the pieces I wrote. To me they work. They say exactly what I want them to say.

But… and this is the big question…are they marketable?

Perhaps not.

I need to adjust yet again, I need to shift the angle of what I’m saying.

I’ve always believed it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, I just need to say it properly.

And I realized something even as I was standing there.

There’s some kind of disconnect between the way I speak and the way I write.

When I speak I can usually connect with the audience almost immediately.

Tone of voice, cadence, subject matter… I can usually engage them. It’s been very seldom that I’ve failed.

And I read somewhere that people can tell within seconds of meeting you whether you’re trustworthy or not, and that, more than competence, more than almost any other metric is what they judge  you on and decide whether to engage with you or not.

Of course I didn’t win everyone!

I’ve learned you can’t.

They handed out evaluations for the conference and over the day and a half of intense sessions and stuff, my keynote was a highlight for at least sixty-five attendees!

One person didn’t like it!

One person!

And when I heard the news, of course I will perversely wonder what I did to anger the one person instead of rejoicing that the sixty-five people loved it!

It gives me both hope and pause.

Hope in that I must have the intrinsic ability to tailor my content to people’s needs.

I mean I did a lot of research for that keynote and I included some really good quotes from George Bernard Shaw (mind you George Bernard Shaw, despite being brilliant had some very horrible ideas too! But his writing quotes are well worth quoting!) I talked about approaching your story, about not forcing your characters to do your bidding, and that writing is like stepping off a cliff and hoping the story catches you.

And then since I write picture books to young adult novels I spoke about the creative process of both Big Red Lollipop and Wanting Mor, both stories being connected by my older sister and her death.

It was an amazing experience!

And even though I was sick, sick, sick while I was giving the keynote, the fact that people came up to me for the rest of the conference telling me how much they’d loved it, really warmed my heart.

So right now I’m feeling really torn.

Good and frustrated, and that is the essence of uncomfortable which is exactly how you should feel when you’re writing.

So I guess that’s good…

Right?

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Thinking about Creativity…

I’m giving a keynote address this Saturday at the SCBWI Canada east conference in Montreal, and my topic is creativity and the creative process, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Whenever I am to do something like this, I always think of the audience. What do they need to hear? What would I want to know if I was sitting there listening to me?

It’s not about me. It’s about them.

It doesn’t help that my head is muzzy because I’m sick, sick, sick.

Been working too hard, stressing myself out, and plus Ramadan begins on Saturday so I might very well be fasting.

I am exempt because of the traveling, but hey, that would mean I’d need to make up the fast and that’s just so hard.

But if I’m still feeling sick and I’m traveling, well then, it just makes sense to take the exemption and make it up!

So I will.

Thinking of the creative process makes me go back to how I created my best work and how I approach my new projects. So much of it comes down to taking out the ego, getting past the marketing and whether anyone will want to read this, but rather exploring a story because something about it drives your own curiosity. You just can’t help it.

What kind of head space do you need to be in in order to approach your project with the right attitude?

I find ego is a definite no-no. Don’t let your imagination start going wild with all the awards and recognition you might get. That’s like the worst thing  you can do!

Doesn’t it have to be about curiosity?

And yet can’t you eventually get ‘too enlightened’ for mass appeal?

Face it, what author doesn’t want their work to have mass appeal? To be read widely? And yet a lot of mass appeal books are quite shallow because they’re appealing to the lowest common denominator. I remember reading Gone Girl after watching the movie because part of the movie just didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t. The whole reasoning for the guy to stay with ‘Amazing Amy’ at the end just doesn’t make sense, and maybe that’s part of the appeal of the story? I don’t know.

I thought the book might be more elucidating but nope, it’s where the story breaks down for me. But there seems to be something in the author who insisted on that turn of events. For her, it was probably the point. That this married  couple is bound together in a dysfunctional push-pull kind of relationship but her commentary on the media and the way stories are spun was what I found most fascinating.

I think that’s what I’ll focus on. The approach to story.

It should be interesting!

I just wish my head was clearer but then it’s only been a couple of days of the antibiotics and I should have enough time by Saturday to feel better insha Allah.

 

 

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High School Trauma…

Met a very interesting librarian this week.

He spoke of how the librarians who are the most gung ho about bringing diversity and inclusion to their schools are often the ones who were ‘outsiders’ when they were growing up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘outsiders’ these days. From S. E. Hinton’s iconic novel to all kinds of ways this ‘outsidering’ is still going on.

So many ideas, so many observations are whirling around in my mind. If I could just settle down and capture them in simple stories, that would be great!

So while I was waiting for the kids to arrive for my presentation, I was looking at those spinning paperback book holders so many libraries have. Looking at the titles, many of which I’d read and thinking so many of them were rather simple stories and not all that good. And then I caught myself. Was I being snobbish?

Hmm.

Possibly.

And yet they’d accomplished something that has eluded me lately and I got to thinking of how you can ‘overthink’ things.

During one of our conversations, I spoke to a librarian who’d also been bullied in high school, as I was. He told me how the captain of the football team had taunted him in front of his girlfriend. He’d held a knife to his throat wanting him to pee his pants in front of the girlfriend.

Such cruelty!

Oh the things we survive!

During the first week of grade nine, I can’t remember what they called it but it was kind of like frosh week. It’s usually a week of friendly pranks that the grade nine students have to participate in or else they’ll be punished in some way. I remember we had to wear our clothes inside out one day. I didn’t, so I got punished.

At the end of the week the students who didn’t comply and had the most points against them were sold as ‘slaves’. I remember I got ‘sold’ for about $1.50 and the worst thing my ‘master’ made me do (a tall guy with curly blond hair) was stand on a cafeteria table and sing O Canada. Then someone suggested I do it with a cherry tomato in my mouth, and so the cherry tomato was added.

That was about it.

Some people would find that incredibly embarrassing but I actually didn’t mind that much. I guess even back then I had the ‘performer’ bug in me.

But then I heard of what they did to this small Jewish guy. Some guys decided it would be hilarious to dangle him by his ankles out the third story window.  I can’t imagine!

When the librarian was telling me about the knife incident I remembered what another teacher had told me who’d also been brutalized. She said that all her attackers were now unemployed nobodies.

And I wasn’t surprised. And it occurred to me that maybe they do that because they’re jealous of the brainy kids.

Hmmm.

So much to consider! So much to observe.

I’m sure it’ll find its way somehow into the next project.

Sometimes I think it’s a wonder we even make it to adulthood!

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Being of use to those around you…

In Islam we believe that when someone dies the angels go around recording ‘witness statements’ from others on what the person was really like.

There’s a sentiment I remember reading in Western fiction that echoes this idea, referring to not speaking ill of the dead.

It’s best to just keep quiet if you didn’t like the person who died because anything you say against them will work against them.

Last Sunday a friend of mine died.

It was so strange. She’s not that close, I suppose. Hadn’t seen her in years and yet all of the week before, I kept thinking of her, thinking I should call her and invite her over for lunch, and then, being busy, I never did.

Last Sunday morning the weather was fine, so we, as a family went for a walk. Oh the sky was blue, the gentle breeze smelled fresh, of spring.

My friend went walking too. In Dundas, the town in which I grew up, and where she lived. And when she was done with her hike, she turned to another friend of mine, said a few words, then collapsed and died of a heart attack.

Quite a nice way to go if you ask me. On a beautiful day, after a lovely walk, to just have a heart attack and die…

I wouldn’t mind.

And then there was the outpouring of shock and disbelief from all her other friends.

She was only 69.

That used to be quite old to me, but now, as I get closer to the age, it’s not that bad.

Contrast that to what I read online about a celebrity I do follow sometimes. Mostly because I think she’s interesting.

She’s quite the bully, and she’s quite stupid, she’s probably going to jail for trying to defraud the government of taxes. She was caught hiding about three quarters of a million dollars from bankruptcy court. I’m talking about Abby Lee Miller.

Hey, before you judge, everyone has their vices and yeah, watching her on Dance Moms is one of mine. *g*

When my family members would accost me saying why I would watch such a trashy show, I tried to explain it’s about understanding an alien mindset. The people on the show, the loud vulgar Abby Lee and the loud vulgar dance moms are so alien to me. They’re so driven in pushing their children forward to make them all famous, it’s quite disgusting and quite fascinating at the same time.

It’s not something I was every exposed to. My parents never dreamed of doing anything like that! We had quite a ‘boring’ unremarkable childhood and I think that’s important! Why pressure children into an adult competitive mindset at such a young age!!! Goodness no wonder so many child actors become deranged!

Anyway, Abby Lee is fifty years old, obese and she was supposed to go under the knife for weight loss surgery and she complained that she had nobody in her life that cared whether she lived or died.

Her parents and dog are dead. And she’s alienated about everyone else.

And I just couldn’t feel sorry for her.

And this past week I was wondering what people would say about her if she died, and then I wondered what they’d say about me.

I think it’s so important to live your life in a way that you do no harm to anyone else.

The older I get, the more apt I am to let go personal injury. If someone hurts me or uses me badly, I just move on for the most part. I try not to think about them. I just avoid them and chalk it up to them not being trustworthy.

The older I get the more I seem to realize that holding onto anger and grudges just isn’t worth the energy! It’s so true that the best revenge is living well!

And especially when I deal with family members who betray me, I take the approach that I do my best to minimize any impact that untrustworthy individuals can have on my life, but for the most part I avoid them and just make sure that I don’t do anything wrong to them.

I don’t want to ‘owe’ them in any way if you get what I mean. It’s okay if they’ve been horrid to me. I can forgive that. But I don’t want to be in the wrong toward them.

And I’d rather err on the side of personal injury than having done them an injustice.

I find it’s a pretty nice way to live. Very peaceful for the most part. Of course I’m not perfect. But I do my best.

And with all the hard work I’ve been expending, I’m finally seeing some results!

So perhaps some good news to share soon insha Allah.

In the mean time, just keep on keeping on.

Peace out.

Juggling, juggling…

It feels like it’s been a while since I posted, and it’s because I’ve been busy with writing.

When the writing is going well… the blogging gets sidelined. I guess it’s understandable.

It’s been such an interesting past few weeks.

That it’s been very busy, goes without saying.

And yet I find myself doing a lot of contemplating.

Looking at what really makes a story stand out, what really makes someone sit up and take notice.

More and more I seem attracted to the subtleties.

I think subtly showing a person’s character is so much more effective than blatant stuff.

I decided to write a biography.

Me!

A fiction writer!

But it was just such a compelling story! I couldn’t resist.

It’s basically a real story with a fascinating villain and a story arc. The villain made me so furious! And yet he doesn’t actually do anything ‘wrong’.

Isn’t that weird?

Isn’t that fascinating?

I thought so.

I decided to make it the crux of my story.

And I resisted every temptation to deride him for it.

I thought no, I have to understate it. It’s a much more powerful way to tell the story.

Understate. Let the reader feel the impact of the myriad ways this person is controlling and destroying the life of the other.

I found with all the stuff happening in the media, I’ve been turning more and more to my work. It’s almost a comfort.

You can’t concoct such glaring stupidity in a work of fiction than what is transpiring in real life politics these days.

In fiction, nobody would give someone who’s unethical and incompetent such a high position in government.

After I finished the biography and sent it out to be judged on merit, I pulled out a recent project and found myself really enjoying it!

I was surprised.

Didn’t expect to like it that much.

It didn’t even feel like I’d written it!

And it kept reminding me of what happened to L.M. Montgomery. I heard she’d put some story ideas, written on snippets of paper in a box in the closet, and one day while she was looking for something to write about, she took out the box and saw one of the snippets about a girl who comes by mistake to an old couple on a farm, and she thought something like, “hmm. that looks interesting.” She started writing it and it became Anne.

I’m still waiting for something like that to happen. But I know it’s beyond my control.

All I can do, is write the best I can.

In the meantime, I’m just enjoying the story.

The process.

And trying to make it shine.

It’s not easy.

 

 

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I think the most charming situation I’ve ever encountered has to do with people trying to outdo each other in politeness!

I mean talk about rivalry! That’s something to strive for!

I went to a school recently, they were having a multicultural festival and I guess I was part of it.

At the beginning, when they were introducing me, my host, a Parent Volunteer, got the kids to say ‘Assalaamu alaikum.’ It means “Peace be on you.”

Of course they mangled it a bit, but gee! The gesture was so cute!!!

I replied to them, “Wa alaikum assalam.” ‘On you be peace too.” and translated for them.

Then during lunch my host told me about a Japanese tradition that apparently the Japanese way of handing someone your card is to do with with both hands, and it’s considered impolite if you take it with only one hand. And before you put it away, you should look at the card. Anything else is rude.

I thought that was so interesting.

The Japanese are kind of known for their politeness and I socked it away as a piece of information to apply if and when dealing with Japanese people.

It didn’t occur to me to wonder if my host was Japanese Canadian.

And then in the rush of leaving, and I gave her my card, I used only one hand. And she said something about ‘two’ and I said, “Oh I don’t do that.” And then I remembered, and I realized what I’d done, and it was almost too late to say anything, even though I should have.

That was a few days ago, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

It’s a little gesture, and it would have meant a lot.

But I’d had no idea she was actually Japanese, I thought she just knew the cultural tradition like she’d known the Muslim greeting. Yes she looked Asian, but I didn’t assume she was. And we were in a ‘Canadian’ setting. But still…

I will get over it.

And I will chalk it up to experience for next time.

It was a small thing, one of those things that happens way faster than I can describe it.

Sigh.

And maybe I’m being hard on myself, my intentions were definitely not to cause any sort of offense. And the biggest thing I learned from the whole incident is how easy it is to inadvertently offend.

I meet a LOT of people who are super polite, and it occurs to me in those exchanges with each other we each are trying to vie for being the most polite.

Not in any sort of bad way, but in a good way.

I put this out there to counter some of the negativity and hate in the world.

We can choose what we focus on.

I like to focus on the positive.

Be aware of the negative, but strive for the positive.

Life’s just a bit more fun that way.

 

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