Tag Archives: Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: All Good Things. . .

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Our time together had come to a close and I was alone in the dorm where we stayed at Macalester College for the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. It was strange, that quiet, after all that activity, after all that brilliant conversation, after the nightly readings and daily classes, the meals together three times a day, the walks around surrounding St. Paul, and the laughs and drinks around the common room way into the wee hours. It felt kind of spooky, surreal. Where’d everybody go? And this was not my school, my town, my home, and my plane would leave late–so there was a bizarre sense that I’d been abandoned here. On top of that, after a week of near perfect beautiful weather, it was raining. It was cloudy and dark and thunderous.

And yet, my heart and head were brimming, practically exploding with gratitude for this week of treasures and this incredible community, the likes of which I have experienced in no other place.

And after a lonely day in the dorm by myself, packing, napping, a little light reading of things I have written and some things written by my friends, I had the great pleasure and honor of an early Thai dinner with my dear friend and co-coordinator Terri Ford before she took me to the airport and sent me on my way.

I have started a practice, each time I attend a Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, of doing a series of blog entries under the heading, “Dispatches from Writer’s Camp.” In some years, I might do a whole string of them, almost every day of the week-long conference, but I notice a significant change when I am coordinating in some official capacity. This year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was coordinating in some official capacity. I wrote a dispatch two days before I arrived, during the conference I wrote zero dispatches, and here I am, back home in Portland, Oregon, writing the only official dispatch from the conference, several days after the fact. I was too busy to write, mostly, over the past week, and when I did have time to write, my focus was on generating new creative work.

I’m not sure how to capture the week. The task, in full blown prose paragraphs, seems daunting. I will try instead a number of bullet items that, I hope, will succinctly capture the highlights of the week.

  • Macalester is a beautiful campus surrounded conveniently by a commercial district, making it super easy to forage on foot for things we needed or to find interesting distractions if a break or some good exercise was in order.
  • In a novelty gift shop almost across the street from campus, I found a set of cocktail glasses–because it’s difficult to drink good whiskey out of a plastic cup.
  • One could walk, and many of us did, to the Mississippi River!
  • Terri Ford took me to Hell’s Kitchen for breakfast! OMG!
  • We volunteered to teach classes to each other and there were scads of great ones to choose from: the fiction of Joan Silber, the mystery and history of memoir, collaboration and cross-pollination in the arts, Jung’s shadow archetype, marketing strategies, persona poems, issues of misappropriation, the lyric essay, Elizabeth Bishop, a round-robin reading of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (in full!), diction enhancements, supportive strategies for getting started, a table reading of a play by one of our campers, and finally a film/memoir project enriched and deepened by the revelation of family secrets! Oh my!
  • This last class around Family Secrets had many of us diving into our own family histories–super relevant to moi, in particular, and to the writing project on which I am about to embark.
  • A group of us meditated every morning, opening and closing our silence with poems by Mary Oliver, William Stafford, May Sarton, and Margaret Wheatley.
  • We heard 42 absolutely stellar readings from our campers.
  • One of our esteemed Masters of Ceremony, Helen Fremont, threatened readers who went over the ten minute limit with super soaker squirt guns. Happily, these weapons were never employed or deployed.
  • We gave our readings in a church, the campus chapel–until the PA broke down–and then we moved into a space that felt more like a night club. Both venues, totally appropriate.
  • We held two writing contests, one of which was a 25 word lyric to be sung to the tune of. . . Much hilarity ensued.
  • People were workshopping all over the place in small groups, sharing their writing with each other, receiving generous and supportive feedback, learning about the enormous gifts of their fellow campers. I heard nothing but rave reviews from people in these groups. All of us, having experienced at one time or another the nightmare MFA workshop, have learned in our practice together how to jettison all of that baggage. No writers are ever harmed, damaged, or traumatized at an Alumni Conference workshop. That seems to be a given.
  • We held a noisy silent auction to raise money for Friends of Writers. Two of the most interesting auction donations: an impersonation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg on your voicemail message, and a performance of an opera aria–and lucky for us campers, the winning bidder requested that the aria be performed at the conclusion of our last night of readings. Can you say “transcendent”? I knew that you could.
  • And no alumni conference would be complete without a dance. So we danced.
  • We had 47 campers! Many of them had come to previous conferences, but a good number this year were attending a conference for the first time, and a number of those were brand new graduates of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Cause for celebration, indeed. But for me and others, we were sorely missing some of our buddies who have come before, but for some reason, couldn’t make it this year. And every year for the past three years we have grieved the loss of our beloved Carlen Arnett. We miss her so much, and yet, she is always present.
  • We all learned so much from each other. But on a personal note, I learned something about my own process, and perhaps, that deserves a paragraph.

Concerning my own creative output, I have discerned a pattern, one that I realize now I have been repeating all through my writing life. I will have an idea that I believe is worth writing about but I won’t know how to go about it. For example, I have, over the course of my entire career, wanted to write a book about teaching. I wrote poems here and there, I wrote essays and blog entries, letters, and sometimes (often) would work teachers into my fiction. But none of these, while satisfying in their own right, were trending toward the book I wanted to write, a book that, instead of advocating a particular practice, strategy, or argument, would instead just accurately and engagingly capture the life of this vocation I have chosen. It has taken me 30 years to find finally a form or structure that will contain the idea. It has taken the shape of a collection of micro-essays or prose poems that I have titled, “Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List.” I doubt that I would have made this discovery without the gifts of the Alumni Conference. Finishing, or close to finishing that manuscript prior to arriving at camp, my challenge this year was to figure out how and what I can write toward a title that I have had swimming around my head for years now. And I think, as a result of some inspiration from the folks at Rinky Dink Press and continual inspiration from my fellow campers, I have finally found a form for the new project, a memoir written in short numbered bursts of no more than 50 or 60 words. Don’t ask me why, but this feels like a fit–and I have now discovered some momentum towards a rough rough draft.

Recently, one of those inspirational memes has been making the rounds, a list of three things you can do in order to fail at life. In a nutshell: blame, complain, and be continually ungrateful. I have decided, that in large part, my tribe of graduates of the Goddard/Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and in particular the miracle of this unique alumni community and my sense of profound belonging within it, has made it virtually impossible for me to fail at life.

Cheers. Until next year!

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The chapel panorama

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The chapel

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The clubhouse

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The Mississippi

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Hell’s Kitchen

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

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There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: More Songs about Buildings, Food, Flora, Courses, Lectures, Panels, Endings

 

This is the campus bookstore here at Dominican University. Just kidding. It is the building in which the bookstore is housed. It is an incredible building, don’t you think?

Look at this beautiful thing.

I don’t know what happens in this building, but I took a picture of it. And then I went up on the porch, took a picture of the front door, and took another picture looking the other direction.

There’s a building named after Shakespeare’s wife. It’s the Hathaway House. I’ve heard Shakespeare is big here on campus.

I haven’t taken any pictures of the food. It happens not to be very photogenic. But this is interesting: we can have tater tots at every breakfast. That’s not a joke. Other observations: I spilled coffee yesterday all over my arm and I did not get burned. Katherine has had nothing but chicken, eggs, and salad. The children on campus are quite messy. Precocious as they might be, they can’t seem to get the food scraps into the compost bins. This afternoon I stepped on a French fry. This evening the curly kind of fry was all over the cafeteria floor, and someone had left a banana on a chair. I did not take a picture of that either.

These plants here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I don’t know what they are; my botanical knowledge is somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a jade plant in this garden about the size of my Honda Fit. I’ve already mentioned the evergreen with the dangerous pinecones. I still can’t get over these gigantic palm trees. They look to me like giant pineapples.

I haven’t taken very many pictures of people. More precisely, I have only taken two. I took a picture of myself a couple of days ago. And then today I took this selfie right here of myself with Joan Frank, an amazing individual and a phenomenal writer. She taught a class yesterday about the dangers of political fiction–or rather, its potential pitfalls, described brilliantly by Emily as “liberal porn.” Joan told us that “story” must have dominion over message. Message, with a capital M, when characters become mouthpieces for the writer’s causes, no matter how noble and good, can make a novel or a story suck. Joan’s class did the best possible thing–it got people thinking and talking. We’re still talking about it a day later and we’ll still be talking about it after all of us go home, I’m sure.

I meditated so hard yesterday morning, first with my own little gathering before breakfast, and then in a class that Leslie Blanco taught about meditation, spontaneity, and creativity. I almost arrived on another plane. I was also sleep deprived. And I’ve never introduced or followed up a meditation session with a freewrite (a la Natalie Goldberg). That was revelatory.

Allison Moore talked in the afternoon about memoir writing, which I hear generated incredibly deep, profoundly personal stories from many. I would love to have been there. I find at these incredibly content rich retreats, that I cannot and probably should not go to everything. There’s got to be a place to recharge, or rest. And many of us choose to spend a lot of time just writing. The beauty of this work is that everyone is invited to get what they need. For example, some of us need to kill the tendency to read in “the poetry voice,” that tendency that poets have, even some of the best poets, of habitually falling into a particular tonal patten that is rather tortuous to listen to and has the potential of destroying otherwise perfectly good poetry. So, many of us went to Sara’s class: “Death to the Poetry Voice.” I wasn’t sure that I needed that, but I hear people had a wonderful time, so I have to forgive myself for missing that one as well.

I was on a panel yesterday afternoon about writer’s block. Interestingly enough, I was blocked; it took me almost forty minutes before I said a word–only because there was tons of energy in the room, lots of people sharing their stories, their woes, their strategies for that most terrifying of predicaments for writers: not writing. Finally, I shared my silver bullets, primarily forced creativity experiences (napowrimo, nanowrimo, powersongwriting, those kinds of things), but most importantly, at least for me, community. My writer soul would die without my Warren Wilson friends, without this conference, and without the empowerment and discernment and clarity that comes to me in Courage and Renewal work. Without these two communities, I would wither.

Can I just say one more thing? Peg, Nan, and Marian did a rocking panel discussion about the pleasures and pains of small press publishing. It was both pleasurable and painful but totally informative, completely honest, and super-uber relevant. Three cheers to these three wonderful women who opened their hearts and their experiences up to their fellow Wallies.

One more day and then we head home. Six days is just the right number of days. Five would be not enough. Seven would be too many. Leaving the conference Wednesday morning, I will be at once happy to return home and sad to leave.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Generative Muscles

No one told me to get off the lawn! 

Edgehill Mansion

Some flora. Apparently, this tree on the right has a reputation for producing dangerously large pinecones 

Our digs for six nights

I began this blog post on the first full day of Writer’s Camp surrounded by writers in a quick half an hour session of generative writing practice–the large group version of what fellow camper Lauren Yaffe calls a writing buddy system: two or three or more people sit down in a room or at a table and they write together. Peg has a box of prompts in the event of blockage. I cheat, pick through the prompts, more just to see what she’s thrown in there than because I’m stuck. I think I know exactly what I want to write about, but getting at it might be the difficult part. I realize I may have to write about what I want to write about before I can write about it. Working my generative muscles.

Here we are at another new venue, Dominican University of California in San Rafael.  Another lovely Catholic institution welcomes our most un-Catholic proceedings. It’s very good of them.

So far, in the first 24 hours, we have snacked, eaten a meal, welcomed old friends and met new ones, enjoyed our first night of readings from seven fantastic poetry and prose writers, found a source for ice, and engaged in preliminary whiskey accompanied by loud and joyful conversation and laughter; we have slept in mostly very tall beds (I need a chair to step on in order to hit the hay); we slept late or meditated, and we ate breakfast with a lot of super young people on campus for other various programs; some of us have gone on short little jaunts into a nearby Trader Joe’s for supplies (I forgot shampoo and breath mints), and we have attended our first classes. An agent was here to talk to us about agenting, and we will have had, by the time dinner rolls around in about three hours, opportunities to nap, to learn about embodied narrative, narrative rhythm, and inventing what we desire–all very exciting stuff, especially that last bit. Tonight, there will be another 8 readers. This goes on for five days! It is glorious.

I’m reading tonight and that’s very exciting. Best, most appreciative and generous audience ever, as long as you do not exceed the ten minute time limit. People read from books they’ve published sometimes, but mostly folks like to try out new material on this most trusted group of friends. I think I’ll sport my disco bowtie, but I’m not 100% certain, and I think I should shave. I should probably also practice a bit. I may have to miss that class about narrative rhythm so that I can decide on the bowtie, shave, practice, maybe nap, and work my generative muscle, by which I mean: work on that poem that I wrote about writing about this morning. Speaking of poetry, even though I’m a fiction guy here in Wally World, I’ll be reading poetry tonight from a manuscript in progress and nearly finished which I’ve titled,  Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. I’m hoping to record it. If it turns out nicely, I may share, but no promises.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be here. Such abundance. A momentary stay from the general chaos. I’ll take it.  

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: We Cried And Then We Danced

Yesterday was a day unlike any day I’ve ever had at a Warren Wilson Alumni Conference, and that’s saying something, because there have been lots of them, lots and lots of days. I want to say that maybe this is the sixth year in a  row and maybe my tenth attendance altogether for a whopping total of about 70 days at Writer’s Camp over the last 15 years or so.

Yesterday was a little bit of a perfect storm as conversations, classes, and our readings all reminded us about how this has been a year of losses. And while this conference has been for me (and I’m almost certain for others as well) life-affirming, intellectually inspiring, intensely productive, and just downright fun, those losses have been with us all along, coloring our conversations, sobering up some of our meal-time talk, darkening our discussions in classes. But worse than any of the ugliness in our body politic, as bad as that is, most all of us are still reeling from the loss of our dear friend and fellow alum Carlen Arnett, who died suddenly in January of this year. She was beloved by everyone who knew her and even by those whose interactions with her were brief. She was generous, kind, funny, lively, full of great stories, a gifted poet who in her last years had embarked on an ambitious novel inspired by “The Snow Queen.” Carlen’s main character was a friend of Gerda, the tale’s protagonist, a friend known simply as The Robber Girl. We’d been hearing her read from that novel in progress over the last several years at our conferences, so even though she was not able to finish it, that work of hers lives within us and we are lucky enough to glimpse its process and progress captured on a Facebook page Carlen set up for her work. I’m struck by how what she was doing in that fiction, bringing to a fully fleshed-out life a minor character from a German folk tale, is a lot like what she did for the real people she encountered. She brought people to life. She added vigor, and enthusiasm, and fire to every exchange. Hanging out with Carlen for any length of time, one felt infused with energy and lightness. I wish I had known her better. I can only imagine that those who did know her well have felt truly unmoored by her passing.

So our reading last night ended with a tribute to Carlen. We cried and then we danced. Our final ritual of Writer’s Camp is always the dance. And verily we danced. I wore my disco shorts. Carlen would want us to be joyful, to celebrate her life by living ours. I think she would have been proud of us.

Concluding Note: the audio at the top of this entry is an interview Carlen gave to her great friend Marcia. Marcia was kind enough to share that audio with me, and I superimposed it over the top of some music I had written with my wife René around the time of Carlen’s passing. It’s a beautiful little bit of storytelling about grocery shopping. I find it astounding and inspiring and beautifully representative of the kind of wonder Carlen had about the world. Produce is an extravaganza, she said. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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