Posts by Gilly:

remembering autumn

Red and yellow trees, Winkworth Arboretum

Every so often I go through a spell of not being able to do any photography – something in me just dries up and doesn’t want to know.  It’s happened often enough now that I don’t worry (much) any more, as it usually leads (eventually) to a leap forward of some kind.  I’m in the midst of one of these dry spells at the moment, and finding it hard to know what to write about because of that.

Sometimes I find I’m quite happy processing or re-processing old images even if I don’t feel like taking new ones, but this time I’ve found I don’t even want to do that. I think it’s because that’s what’s actually the problem – no matter what I do, I’m not liking my processed images.  I’d be hard pushed to say exactly what it is that’s wrong, but I do know I’m not achieving the look that I want.  And worse, I don’t know what to do to make things better.  All I know is that when I see the finished work of other photographers that I admire, it looks so much better than mine.  And I don’t mean by this the composition or anything like that, just certain qualities that the image itself possesses.  It’s possible that this is due to the camera or lens that they’re using, but I think most of it is down to the processing.  Their images just look so much more polished and they have a look about them that mine don’t have..

For most images, I know I want a certain softness married to a degree of clarity, and some photos I’ve seen have a kind of glow about them that I’d like to emulate..  Sometimes I get close to this, but then I look and wonder if they’re actually a bit over-processed.  The problem is that the more I look at them, the less objective and discriminating I’m able to be, and then I begin to disappear up my own tutu (as a previous mother-in-law used to say).  It’s hellishly frustrating, so I end up not even wanting to try.

I thought perhaps I needed to expand my Photoshop skills so I subscribed to Scott Kelby’s training website.  It’s very good, and I did learn quite a few little bits and pieces that I didn’t know, but it still wasn’t giving me what I want.  Kelby himself has a certain processing style that’s totally at odds with my own desired result, so although it was very useful to see how he does what he does, and the techniques can obviously be applied in different ways, it didn’t really help me do what I want to do.  I’m thinking now that I need to start talking to some photographers whose work has the look that I want and ask them how they go about things.

It always strikes me as odd that the person in the street doesn’t realise how vitally important post-processing is, and how much you can change the outcome by using it.  I think until you’ve seen before and after shots of the same image, you don’t realise what a difference it can make.  And photography must be one of the only arts where a lot of people expect you to get it spot on without doing anything beyond the first pass.  A composer will go on tweaking or even drastically changing his original composition until it sounds right; a writer will do revision after revision until she gets what she wants; an actor wouldn’t expect to be ready for a finished performance after the first rehearsal.  The initial RAW file is really a first draft rather than a finished product.

Having said all this, in the midst of a grey winter I’m finding a set of photos I took in late autumn last year quite appealing, simply because they’re so colourful.  Some had already been processed and I’ve done some work on the rest.  These were taken at Winkworth Arboretum in late autumn last year, and the colours were incredible.  You’d think I’d bumped up the saturation, but in some cases I actually had to tone it down because it looked so unreal.  It’s energising and refreshing to see a bit of colour at a time of year when things are grey and bleak.

For a look at what a bit of processing can do – with lots of before and after shots – plus an argument for why professional photographers shouldn’t let people have their unedited photos, this article by Caleb Kerr is interesting and enlightening.

 

Red tree, Winkworth Arboretum

Autumn lake, Winkworth Arboretum

Autumn colours, Winkworth Arboretum

Red tree, Winkworth Arboretum

Autumn rust, Winkworth Arboretum

poetry is easier

Winter leaves with reflection

Why it’s easier to be a poet than a photographer:

  1.  It is not expected that you go somewhere exotic, grand, or far-flung in order to write a poem.  You can make one anywhere, about anything.  It will not be seen as a worse poem for being about your toddler looking at the moon (Ted Hughes), a fork in a woodland path (Robert Frost), a blade of grass (Brian Patten), or a haggis (Robert Burns). It is recognised that something big can be said by writing about something small.
  2. A poem is not thought to be better because you climbed a mountain and trekked through thigh-deep snow for hours in order to write it, nor because you had to get up before dawn or risk your life on the edge of a slippery precipice.  It is not thought better because you hefted several kilos of pens and notepads to the location where you wrote it.
  3. It is not necessary to keep upgrading your pen and paper to be any good.  Nobody will think any the less of you, nor judge your poems according to whether you write them with a biro or a Parker pen.
  4. Nobody ever asks what kind of poet you are and expects you to define yourself as a landscape poet, or a street poet, or to say you specialise in sonnets or villanelles.  It is enough to say that you write poetry.
  5.  A poem is not thought to be good because its grammar is exact and perfect, and its spelling exemplary.  A good poem breaks as many rules as it keeps and it needn’t be instantly clear and obvious.  It is recognised that there are many ways of creating a good poem and that all good poems do not have to conform to a single ideal, but are allowed to be good in their own way.
  6. A poem is not expected to describe exactly, but to distill its subject down to its essence and, by changing it, show it as it is.
  7. It is expected that a poem be edited and polished before it is released.  It is not regarded as some sort of cheating if you change the words of the first draft and crop out superfluous phrases.
  8. Finally, nobody ever says: ‘that’s a great poem, you must have a really good pen.  Oh, and what sort of notepad do you use?’

 

 

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winter blues

Lamplit window, Newark

The colour has gone from the world.

December drips and drabs along into the dark time,

grey rain drizzles from an oozing sky,

and the murky light glooms its way to nightfall.

Birds are silent; the world smells only of damp dead leaves.

In houses, in streets, squares of warm yellow – reminders of an absent sun.

Gilly Walker

I don’t mind the cold of winter, or even the rain as such – it’s the grey gloominess of it all that gets to me.  I would welcome snow and ice, sparkling frost, tumultuous skies full of stormy life, pale blue skies with a wintry sun, even rain that comes down in torrents – anything other than this drip and drizzle and monotonous greyness. It’s the one time of year when I regret our temperate climate and long for some ‘real’ weather.

I woke up one December morning – very early, I thought, but it was after 8.00am and the light was so dim and poor that it didn’t seem as if the day had got started yet.  My heart sank a bit on seeing how dreich it was (Scots: dreich: – a combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather; at least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich) .  I’ve been writing bits of poetry lately – usually in the middle of the night, and this certainly felt like the middle of the night – so I wrote a little word picture and got it out of my system.  I found this photo that I took a while ago, and it worked quite well with the words. Sometimes you just have to go with things as they are and make something of it, and by doing that you can rise above it.  The great thing about writing and photography is that everything is fuel for creating, even the bad and the dull.

Some of you may have seen the film of The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name.  A man and his son make their way through a grim world inhabited by survivors who are quite likely to kill you, or even eat you in order to ensure their further survival.  It’s a sombre film, made more so by the unrelenting rain that teems down on father and son, and the lack of any colour but greys and browns.  This alone is enough to make you wonder about your motivation to stay alive in such a world, even without the threats and danger from others, and the whole would have lost much of its power without the absence of colour and that endless soaking dull rain. No wonder the ancients worshipped the sun.


 

I have big changes in mind for this blog, although it may take me some time to implement them.  The first thing is to change hosts as Hostgator is getting ridiculously expensive for a simple blog that doesn’t make any money.  But changing hosts is the easy bit – I hope – as I’ll get someone to do that for me.  I also want to expand the scope of what I write about to more than just photography, and that will involve a new name for the blog and a new design, too.  I’ve found a theme I like, but it’s pricey and January has been full of unexpected expenses, so I may have to wait a couple of weeks for that.  I know that the theme I’m using has problems and I’m not tech savvy enough to know how to solve them.  I hope the new one will be a big improvement.

 

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hereby hangs a tail (or two)

Fingal, black and white kittenFingal

I have two kittens.  My early morning quiet is punctuated by the drumroll of eight tiny paws hurtling up and down stairs, on and off furniture, in and out of rooms.  Set free from the confines of their overnight room, all that energy demands release.  A thrown-away crumpled ball of paper becomes a delight – prey to be batted around, pounced on, chased.  Once, they found the ultimate prize under the sideboard – a dead bumblebee!  Pot plants rustle delightfully when playing tag through them, one at each side, and any object on a high surface is guaranteed to make a fascinating noise as it crash lands on the floor, if they can only get up there to knock it off.  Curtains are made for climbing on, and for having mock tussles with each other while both cling on with claws hooked into the fabric.

Fingal is a black and white ‘tuxedo’ kitten, with a white bib, paws and underbelly, and a smudged diagonal white mark across his nose.  His eyes are as round as the hole in a polo mint and full of kittenish wonder.  He’s a floppety sort of cat, constantly falling off things, utterly relaxed, toppling and rolling onto his back at every opportunity, softness personified.

He thinks everyone is his friend, and so far that’s the way it’s worked out.  He loves people, and will start up a deep rattling purr like the waves breaking on a pebble beach, at the slightest hint of attention from a human.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe such a sound can come from such a small creature.  He loves to cuddle, and his greeting to me is to come close to my face and very, very gently touch noses.  This makes him – and me – very happy.

Flora, tabby kittenFlora

Flora is a tabby who looks a lot like a snow leopard – she’s exquisitely beautiful (this photo doesn’t do her justice).  Her eyes are almond shaped and full of bright intelligence – while Fingal plays the clown, she is the brains of the outfit.  She’s fussy about who touches her.  When she first arrived I thought she was nervous, but then I realised she’s not scared of much at all, although she exercises a sensible caution in her interactions.

It took nearly a week before she’d let me stroke her, although she consented to play-fight my finger from the beginning.  She did this with grace and gentle politeness, claws immaculately sheathed, never hurting me, just the velvet bat of her pads against my hand.  It turns out she prefers men to women – she was all over Geoff the minute she saw him, eyes squinting shut in ecstasy as he rubbed behind her ears.  That made me happy as well, if a little jealous.  She adores Fingal, too, and tenderly puts an arm round his neck as she uses the other paw to wash his face.   There’s no doubt she prefers men, but she’s getting to quite like me anyway, despite my gender.  Last night she curled up on my lap and slept, and I’m now permitted to stroke and pet most areas although not, for some reason, her head and face.

They have brought such joy into my life.  I still have Wicca, my cat of almost twenty years old, but it was making me terribly sad to see her so frail and old.  She’s my first cat love and will always be very special to me, but I needed to bring some life and promise and joy into the house and the kittens have done just that.  Wicca is being coddled, with hot water bottles on a comfy chair and everything she needs in one room, and we’re doing our best to make her remaining time as comfortable and happy as possible.  I still feel sad to see her so reduced, but the fun and freshness of the kittens counteract that to a large extent, and promise a future where I won’t be left alone in a home empty of animals.

Photographing kittens is so difficult!  These shots aren’t great, as I had to use an ISO of 1600, and even that wasn’t enough to get a truly fast enough shutter speed that would totally avoid camera or subject movement.  Unfortunately my old camera only goes this far up the scale – I was using it because I think there are some focussing issues with the new one.  I hope to get some better shots soon – the kittens are changing and growing so fast and I want to capture the cuteness before I find they’ve grown into full-size cats without me noticing.  And it seems to me that sometimes it’s good enough for a photo’s to function as memory, and that a shot is worth having if it brings those to mind when you look at it, even if it’s sorely lacking in technical merit.

 

 

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good wishes to all

Yoko Ono, Tate Liverpool, 2012Yoko Ono, Tate Liverpool, 2012

I’m taking a break now, until early in the new year.  I’d like to wish everybody a wonderful Christmas – or whatever your festival or holiday is – and hope that 2017 brings you dreams come true, inner peace, and lots of love, laughter and abundance.

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52 trees – week fifty-two

Autumn colours, impression, ICM

Yay! – the last one!  It certainly won’t be the last tree picture you’ll see here, as I’ve got several in the pipeline already, but this week marks the end of the 52 Trees project.  I was so hoping to be able to come up with something a little different for the last one, but I thought for a while that it just wasn’t going to happen.  However, I’ve just spent a few days in Surrey visiting Geoff, as he now works down there, and we went to Winkworth Arboretum for the day.

I was in paradise.  The colours were sensational and it was like being a child in a sweet shop.  I’d had a bad night’s sleep and I was very tired and a bit cranky, but I was so overwhelmed with delight at this beautiful place that I forgot everything else.  It’s difficult for me to play and experiment when I’m with someone else – I can’t switch off enough – but I had taken my ten-stop neutral density filter with the idea of trying out some intentional camera movement and I have Geoff to thank for insisting that I at least gave it a go.

I only took a few shots with it – although it wasn’t sunny, it was still quite bright and I needed to cut out so much light to get a slow shutter speed that I couldn’t actually see what I was taking through the viewfinder.  I tried a few shots and then got a bit cross with it all (you don’t want to be around me when I haven’t slept, believe me) and decided just to go with  straight shots for the rest of the time we were there.

I almost deleted this one when I saw it on the back of the camera, but then I had a better look at it onscreen and it suddenly seemed to have potential.  There was some blown out sky that detracted a bit so I played with some cropping and came up with this version, which I’m rather pleased with.  Seeing it bigger revealed the lovely soft purples and blues in the shadows, which contrast so well with the unbelievably vivid yellows and reds of the leaves.  I think it captures the feeling of an autumn day, and the glorious colours that we’ve seen this year.  Most of all, it’s very ‘me’ and I’m more than happy to finish with this.

I’ve no idea where I’m going from here.  I might start another 52 project, but I have some reservations. It’s relatively easy to keep up and it ensures I write a weekly blog post, but at times it’s felt restrictive and sometimes even a little tedious.  I’ve posted the occasional image that I’ve thought was just OK, because I needed something and it was all I had, and I don’t like doing that.  I’m playing with ideas at the moment, and I think I’ll just coast for a little and trust that the right thing will make itself known to me if I let things simmer.  And if you’ve stuck with me all the way through, thank you! – it’s encouragement from you that has kept me going.

 

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52 trees – week fifty-one

Autumn leaves, LensbabyJust one more week to go, and I’m finished 52 trees!  I can’t say I’ll be sorry, as I’m getting a little tired of it now.  Another Lensbaby shot today – I’m longing for a very fast, prime lens, but in the meantime the Lensbaby is my only option if I want that sort of effect.  I don’t normally crop these shots, as you lose a lot of the blurred Lensbaby effect, but in this instance it needed it.

It’s been such a pretty autumn this year, with beautiful soft colours everywhere.  The garden is littered with leaves, and I know I should sweep them up, but it looks so lovely, albeit in a slightly disheveled way.  I’m spending a few days in Surrey this week, and intend to go to Kew gardens, so I’m hoping there’s still some late season colour there – with luck, I might be able to finish off this series with something lovely.

 

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photography, truth, and fiction

Tree grafittiTruth or fiction?

I like writing just as much as I like photography, and in fact have been doing it for much longer.  I always scribbled, even as a child, and as a child I often wrote poetry.  I don’t do that much these days, and I don’t usually share my poetry for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it’s often intensely personal and more than I feel willing to share publicly, and the second is that I sometimes cringe at some of the poetry I read online and am a little worried that my own efforts might create the same effect.

(Many years ago we went to the opening of an art exhibition where someone read some of the worst poetry I’ve ever heard.  Since then, we refer to this kind of thing as Vogon poetry – the Vogons were characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide books who liked to torture their captives by reading them their exceptionally bad poetry.  Bad poetry is so much worse than any other kind of bad writing!)

I’ve just joined a writer’s group – which is quite challenging for me as it mostly does involve writing poetry – and as the evening progressed I remembered what strong analogies there are between writing and photography.  On a simple level, for instance, picking up a pen doesn’t make you a writer any more than picking up a camera makes you a photographer.  And we wouldn’t doubt that the ability to write with perfect grammar and spelling says little about how good the writing is, so why do so many people think that technical perfection in photography makes a great image?  However, just as our writing will benefit from being able to spell and write grammatically, so will our photos undoubtedly benefit from technical mastery, even if it’s not enough by itself.

Taking a more sophisticated view, documentary-style photography could be compared to a non-fiction book, with each photo a chapter and the whole creating a ‘true’ story.  Like writing, the way the story is told depends as much on what’s left out as what’s included and there are many ways to tell the story. There are also many ways to read it, and our own filters often determine how we absorb it. Truth is malleable and not the objective thing that many people would like it to be and documentary isn’t so far removed from fiction, even when based in an external reality.

But how can that be?  Picasso is often quoted as saying ‘art is a lie that helps us realise the truth’ and it sometimes seems that fiction can be more ‘true’ than non-fiction.  The best fiction is not just a story, but reveals a truth to us about the world, our place in it, and how we react to it.  And although the world in a fictitious book has come straight from the mind of the author, the stuff in the author’s mind has come from what they’ve actually seen and experienced (even if some of that experience may have come second-hand).  Think of any great novel, and it’s great not because of its story or even, necessarily, its writing, but because of the larger ‘truth’ that it tells us.

Photography is probably the only art that must have something real – in the sense of something you can point to, something tangible – as a starting point.  This has given it an uneasy and unique relationship with the notion of truthfulness, and it’s what’s responsible for promoting the outrage some folk feel when they learn that a shot has been significantly Photoshopped.  Because photography needs the ‘real’ as a starting point, it’s assumed that the final print should do nothing to deny or hide that reality.  And of course, photography has a history of being used to prove or record what’s real – photographic evidence – so it brings that baggage to the party.

But suppose that, like a work of fiction, a photograph that’s fictional – ie, created out of the mind of its author – might be one that’s more truthful than a straight shot could ever be.  Last week I went to an exhibition in Nottingham called Inside the Outside.  It’s a joint exhibition of ten photographers, most of whose work is far removed from what we might regard as objective reality.  But from a personal point of view I think their work is far more powerful, and says far more, than a straight representation ever could do.  Look, for example, at Rob Hudson’s work Towards the Sun, of which he says:

It is fictional because it plays with metaphor and allusion. It’s not about a place, so much as it is a reaction to a place. And it’s not even about photographing into the light, save where that, itself, is a metaphor for some form of hope.

You can clearly recognise what was in front of the lens when Hudson took these photos, but you’d find it hard to identify that place from them even if you found yourself in it.  As he says, it’s not about that particular place, it’s about his own truth that emerged as he spent time in that place and it’s probably a truth that could only have been shown through this fictional approach.

Recently, I was reading an article and interview on Nick Brandt’s latest work, Inherit the Dust, in B&W Photography magazine.  It’s an amazing and moving body of work, in which Brandt places life size photographs of threatened African animal species in the spaces that they once moved and lived in but which are now taken over by some of the worst examples of humankind’s impact on the land.  For example, one shows a huge and magnificent elephant standing in the middle of what is now a wasteland covered in rubbish.

In the interview Brandt was quite vehement about the life size shots actually having been placed there and not constructed in Photoshop.  He refers to this as preserving the ‘fundamental integrity’ of the scene and referring to the Photoshop possibility as ‘faking things’.  If these shots were made for the purpose of recording the scene, or if the people in the scene were interacting with the giant shots, then I could understand it, but neither of these is the case. (Actually, in one image there is some interaction from two young children, but in the others people are carrying on as if these giant images weren’t there.)

While I admire the achievement of overcoming the technical difficulties of transporting and erecting these huge images on site, I don’t think I’d have found them any less powerful – or less truthful – had they been composited afterwards digitally.  In fact, on first viewing I assumed they had been. To me their truth isn’t dependent on the way they were created, but on whether or not the photographer produces images that get his message across successfully, and Brandt could have done that either way.

Truth is a strange concept – we think of it as having objectivity and being a singular thing, but in fact there can be many truths.  Truth and fiction are often referred to as opposites, but the worst kind of documentary or non-fiction can actually lie or obscure truth, and the best kind of fiction can reveal it.

 

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52 trees – week 50

Autumnal hawthorn leaves, Lensbaby

Well I promised you light and colour, and here it is!  I took the Lensbaby out for a walk one sunny day, as you can count on it to come up trumps with colour.  I don’t know enough about optics to know why it produces such amazing colours, but it finds wonderful colours even where you don’t think there are any, and where the colours are already good it enhances them beautifully.  For once, I managed to get the focussing absolutely right.  I’m not using the Lensbaby much these days and when I don’t use it for a while I tend to lose the ability to focus it accurately.

The lens only fits my old camera, and it was good to go back to that for a while.  I’ve been having some problems with the new camera – I’m not convinced the Autofocus is working as it should, although some of that may be down to my lack of commitment to getting to know the settings properly.  However, while I was on holiday one day, if I held the focus lock down for any length of time the image on the LCD screen started seriously jumping about, and there have been some occasions where it struggles to focus in conditions where it shouldn’t be a problem. It also never seems particularly sharp compared to my previous camera.

Possible faults aside, the position of the video record button is extremely annoying – it sits just under the middle of my right thumb and is easily activated by accident, meaning that I’m constantly producing unwanted videos.  Overall, it’s not nearly so nice to use as my old Sony A350, to the point that I’ve seriously considered changing it for something more enjoyable to operate.  However, I’m not sure I’ve given it enough of a chance – I just picked it up and expected to use it straight away, without taking the time to go through the various settings and check them all out, and I’m still not at the stage where I can change settings without thinking about it.  I do like the fact that it’s a lot lighter than the old camera, and of course its added low light capability is the real reason I wanted it.

It got me thinking, though, that it’s often the case that things I think I want don’t live up to expectations.  I upgraded, around the same time I got the new camera, to Elements 14 (from 9) and I don’t like it nearly so much.  In fact, I find it very annoying to use in many ways.  It does do a few things that the old version didn’t, but overall I much preferred version 9.  The only reason I don’t go back to it is that it can’t cope with the RAW files from the new camera as it isn’t supported by Adobe any more.

I also took the free upgrade to Windows 10 (from Windows 7) and I don’t like that very much either.  I’m beginning to think I’m rather grumpy and stuck in my ways – I may well be – but it’s always been the case that when I find something I like I just want to stay with it and I’m not bothered about looking for anything ‘better’.  Unfortunately, this just isn’t an option in the digital world and, also unfortunately, most times they ‘improve’ something it actually seems to get worse.

I guess that what I want is to be able to get on with what I enjoy most without getting bogged down in relearning something that I already know how to do in the existing version.  I don’t particularly like technology for its own sake, only for the way in which it enables me to get the results I want, and I only want to learn what’s necessary for that.  To be forced to constantly readjust and relearn is a major time and energy drain that I could happily do without.  Ah well, I reckon I should stop ranting and get back to simply appreciating autumn’s stunning colours 🙂

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52 trees – week forty-nine

Yellow leaves, blue sky

Autumn’s last dance – a brilliant autumn day with a cool breeze that rustled the last of the yellow leaves on this tree.  How wonderful that autumn goes out in such a fanfare, giving us these gorgeous colours before the dull greys of winter set in.  I’m on the last few weeks of my 52 Trees now and I’m aiming to end on a surge of colour and light.

It’s gone rather quiet on here, lately  (is there anybody there??)  I often notice that when I feel a little bit removed from my blog and uncertain of how to go forwards, I also lose readers and the comments dry up.  I guess people can sense my hesitancy and occasional reluctance to write anything.  I’m debating whether or not to start a new weekly project – in some ways it’s been really motivating and has helped to keep me going, but at times it’s felt a bit constraining.  I also think I might have written more blog posts on other topics if I wasn’t doing this.  I’ve got a little lazy, perhaps, and on many weeks have settled for just the tree post.

I’d like to change the WordPress theme again, too.  I’ve never been terribly happy with this one and I know it has a number of glitches that I just haven’t been able to sort out.  It’s a free theme, and I’d much rather pay for one and get something better.  At the same time, I rather dread trawling through all the themes, getting more and more frustrated as I try to find one that does what I want it to do.  An ability to do CSS coding would help a lot, but it’s just one more learning curve for which I feel no enthusiasm.

Life itself is changing rapidly at the moment – I’m going out more, meeting new people, trying new things, making new friends, and finding new opportunities.  I’m not sure where it’s all going right now, but I feel as if I’m on the move again and it’s a good feeling.  With our life and finances finally having gained some stability, I feel free to explore in a way that I haven’t for years.  My blog needs to change to match this, but how?  Not sure, but I’ll sit with the uncertainty and sooner or later it will become clear.

 

 

 

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