The Lee Harper Interview

Lee Harper is a picture book author and illustrator from Doylestown, Pennsylvania best known for his whimsical illustrations for the best-selling Turkey Trouble series and just so happens to be the husband of one of my favorite traveling companions, his wife, Krista.  In fact, Lee was present for one of our now iconic experiences abroad, and dare I hope that some of those adventures may have sparked a bit of the creative juice behind his very clever and incredibly endearing children’s books.  Lee’s newest work published in June 2018 is Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes To School, the long awaited sequel to the award-winning Woolbur.  As if that wasn’t enough, Turkey’s Eggcellent Easter, the fourth book of the Turkey Trouble series is coming out in January of 2019. In addition to writing and illustrating picture books, Lee leads interactive presentations at schools. To learn more, please visit LeeHarperart.com.

About Lee’s latest book, Ready Or Not, Woolbur Goes To School, written by Leslie Helakoski.  Here’s a look at what’s inside:

The free-spirited, fluffy, one-of-a-kind sheep, Woolbur, is on his way to school, and he’s MORE than ready …  But Maa and Paa aren’t so sure. What if Woolbur isn’t exactly ready for school?  He’s different. He’s unusual. And his new hairdo is kooky!

At school, Woolbur loves trying new things like drawing outside of the lines and eating grass. (No wonder his parents were worried!)

The rest of his classmates are nervous about their first day and aren’t excited about trying anything new. Will Woolbur’s excitement help show his friends that doing something different, or unusual, or kooky is the best way to get ready for school?

This charming and spunky follow-up to the beloved Woolbur is the perfect gift for children who march to the beat of their own drum or anyone who needs a little encouragement on their first day of school.

Praise for Woolbur:

“Woolbur is an excellent role model of self-confidence and positivity.”– Kirkus Reviews

“The fiercely independent sheep introduced in Woolbur starts school in this infectious follow-up.”– Publishers Weekly

“Woolbur tackles each new experience with aplomb.”– Publishers Weekly

“In a long list of appealing back-to-school books, this one really makes the grade.”– School Library Journal

 

So I wanted to give Lee a chance to tell us a bit about the man who started off as a painter, but has “enjoyed playing with words ever since [he] figured out you could make words with lines on a piece of paper and then turn those words into poems and stories.”  Let’s see what the master illustrator who prefers early morning illustration to burning the midnight oil has to say for himself, shall we?

I never had any formal writing training. My education was in painting but I always gravitated toward narrative painting.  My favorite genre of book to write is the humorous picture book.  My favorite genres of books to read are memoirs, satire, history, science, and comedy and humor.  I can’t say I have one favorite book but I’m reading Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour for the third time so I’d have to put that high on the list.  I also enjoy anything written by David Sedaris.

From where do your ideas come?

My best ideas usually come when I’m distracted in some way. My last good book idea came to me while I was on hold with Verizon.

Okay, that’s hilarious cause most people would say something like, ‘oh, when I’m walking, or when I’m in the shower.’  I’m getting a David Sedaris or maybe Stephen Wright vibe from you right now, you know, like wry (and not the bread kind cause that would be rye) meets deadpan.  Anyway, what’s your favorite writing prompt?

This question made me realize I need to get some good writing prompts.

Have you had any brushes with writing greatness, e.g., a writer (or actor, etc.) anyone you would be flustered to meet and suddenly they’re standing lin line in front of you?  What do you do?  Speak?  Smile? Wait to be spoken to or invade their personal space?

My most interesting brush with greatness is one that actually led to a collaboration I’ve been working on recently. 

In 2012 while at the New Jersey School Librarians Conference I almost met Suzzy Roche of The Roches fame. We were both participating in ‘Author’s Ally’ promoting our new books. I was so star-struck I didn’t have the nerve to introduce myself to her, but afterwards I sent her a friend request on Facebook and she accepted. 

That was the extent of this brush with greatness until a few months later when I was working on my book Coyote. Coyote is an allegorical story about loss inspired by an encounter with a Coyote on the day my brother passed away. At around the same time I was working on Coyote,  Suzzy Roche happened to be creating music that was influenced by the death of a friend. Moved by the paintings from Coyote I was posting on Facebook, she asked if I could do the cover art for her next CD: Fairytale and Myth. 

We worked together to create the cover and the next time I was in New York we met for coffee. During that meeting we tossed around the idea of doing a picture book together. The idea was not very well-formed, but we both agreed that her words and my pictures were a good fit and we would go wherever the creative spirit took us. Brainstorm was the working title. Or Wonder. We weren’t sure. We were making it up as we went along. She wrote some words and I made paintings inspired by those words. We ended up with a sketchbook-full of pictures and words without any real story. Or maybe the story was there and we just hadn’t found it yet. Either way, after a while we both got busy with other projects and or collaboration went dormant. The sketchbook went onto a shelf in my studio with all my other sketchbooks. Then when I moved to my new farm last summer all my sketchbooks were packed into cardboard boxes.

A few moths ago while unpacking I came across that sketchbook full of paintings based on the words Suzzy Roche wrote. Looking at those sketchbooks with a fresh eye made me see clearly that something very inspired and creative was happening and that it would be a shame if the ultimate fate of those paintings was for them to rot away in a dusty old loft in my barn. So I sent the sketchbook to Suzzy. A few days after she received the sketchbook she wrote something brilliant that pulled it all together as a coherent yet still wildly creative picture book.

Brainstorm is now in the hands of my literary agent. I don’t know what will happen from here but I’m hoping this isn’t the end of this story about my brush with greatness.

That’s a fantastic story!  And given what you just related about the passing of your brother, I gather that you would agree that writing is a form of therapy?

Oh my god, yes. I always need to be working on a book to keep my sanity, particularly when times are difficult. Writing and illustrating Coyote was definitely a form of therapy for me. Immersing myself in the creative process helped me work through the grief of losing my brother. 

What has been your greatest writing lesson?

I think I need to publish a few more of the stories I’ve written before I can start dishing out writing lessons, but I can say I’ve gotten better at paring down my stories and focusing on the age group I’m writing for.

How about greatest life lesson?

This life lesson I’d like to share with my younger self: If you have a ‘Question Authority’ bumper sticker on the back of your car, make sure to keep your registration up to date.

You really are channeling Stephen Wright.  Have you reduced your life lessons to writing?

No, not yet.

Do you work outside of writing, i.e., do you have a day job other than writing?

I supplement my writing/illustrating income with school visits. It’s a perfect complement and has become a part of my job that I really love.

That sounds like big fun.  I always loved visiting my kids’ schools because kids have tons of energy and I get a real kick out of being around them.  Is that where you get your inspiration?  

My children, pets, family members, nature, and the many children I meet at schools have all inspired my stories and pictures.

Well, let’s hope the fun continues.  Thanks for stopping by and giving us a glimpse into your creative process, Lee.  And best of luck with Woolbur and your other projects.  

Want to reach out to Lee and let him know what you think about Woolbur or any of his other works?  Here are the deets:

Facebook: Lee Harper@leeharper44

Twitter: Leeharper@headleyb

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002LQPZ3S

blog: http://leeharperart.com/leeharperart/Blog/Blog.html

website: leeharperart.com

pjlazos 9.14.18

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Home Sustainable Home — #WATWB

 

[p.s. pre-script — apologies to all you #WATWB peeps.  I must have checked the Mayan Calendar when I thought this month’s post was on the 24th!  If you want to put this aside until the 31st and come back and read it on the real #WATWB Friday, feel free to do so. ;0)]

Home Sustainable Home

Well, the kids left for college this week — first time out of the gate for the youngest so it was emotional on many levels for all parties involved, but particularly we the parents who are now without young nesters to boss around, I mean negotiate with, and while that may sound like a dream to those who relish the quiet, I think I’m more of the parenting variety who extols the virtues of quiet yet thrives amid the chaos, embracing the crap out of it.  So understandably, I’m a little at odds with the house today, and while I know I will inevitably get used to my kids being at college, I’m kind of thinking it will get a bit worse before it gets better

But, and it’s a big BUT, one thing which has improved beyond all my imaginings is the foyer with its zillions of pairs of shoes that could never seem to find their way to the shoe rack.  It went from looking like this:

to this much more sustainable and inviting version.

What an evolution in a period of 24 hours!  This may make it all worth it.

So while I sit here, waiting for my cell phone to ding — already I see my outgoing texts are not being answered with the regularity or frequency of which I’d hoped, while the incoming ones usually require some kind of effort on my part — I will leave you with this exciting little tidbit about my town, little old Lancaster, Pennsylvania (founded in 1729).  It just so happens that Lancaster is one of the first cities in the world, that’s world, to achieve the gold standard in sustainability, garnering a LEEDs Certification status for the entire city!  Oh yeah!  We rock it! We rock it!

LEEDs stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and just the green infrastructure program alone (dedicated to keeping the stormwater out of the combined sewer system) is worth the trip.  In order to get the certification, Lancaster has committed to sustainable practices and is tracking how it deals with “water, energy, waste, transportation and “human experience” – which encompasses social factors such as education, equitability, income, and health and safety.”  Other cities recognized include Washington D.C.; Phoenix, Arizona; Arlington County, Virginia; Songdo, South Korea; Savona, Italy; and Surat, India.

As the population grows (7.6 billion and counting) and demand for resources becomes more acute, sustainability is the key to actually having a future.  It’s not as hard as it sounds — the EPA mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle will help you get started if you want to “sustainablize” your own life.  Hey, if sleepy little Lancaster can do it, so can you and your city.

We Are the World Blogfest (#WATWB) Friday continues with a whole contingent of writers and if you want to join the party go here.

Remember, keep it brief, keep it uplifting, and keep it real.

TGIF!

pjlazos 8.24.18

 

 

 

 

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A Prompt Prompt Prompted Me Promptly

A Prompt Prompt Prompted Me Promptly

I’ve been working on a novel for awhile now and I’m stuck, bored, out-to-lunch, spinning in tight circles, totally ’round the bend, all of the above.  It could be that my youngest child leaves for her first year of college in a little over a week and the prep to get her ready has been taking up a good bit of time, but really, I think, it’s the sea change that her leaving will cause in our lives, my husband and I soon to be empty nesters with just the felines and the dog to boss around, none of which listen to us anyway (kind of like the kids, I guess), that is wreaking havoc on my ability to do much of anything other than wait around to be summoned.  In order to distract myself from the emotional unmooring that is likely to occur before the month is over, I’ve decided to lose myself in the art of creative writing as a result of finding the following snippet in my files.  I don’t remember why I wrote this, but if I take my own advice I’m pretty sure that I can reinvigorate the lackluster.  On my way now, and you better get along, too, as it’s getting late.  Cheerio.

Prompt.

The word is fascinating and versatile.  It’s a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb. Holy guacamole, how often does that happen?  It’s like winning the EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, a laudable goal shared by only 12 lucky and hardworking people.  It makes you wonder, is there anything a word like that can’t do?  (I found a blog post that listed 56 similarly situated words and prompt was no. 39 on the list.)

I wish I would have thought of prompt during one of the timed writing exercises I used to do with a friend in the now defunct Borders cafeteria.  We’d sip fancy coffees and rip small strips of paper from our notebooks, then write one word down on each slip of paper, three nouns, three verbs and three adjectives, eighteen slips of paper total, separated into three different piles. (We left out adverbs. Call us prejudiced, but we just didn’t see the need.)  We’d pull a word from each of the piles and do timed writing exercises of five, ten, and fifteen minutes.  

 

The rules were simple.  Write until your hand falls off.  Haha! No, actually, it was write using one word chosen from each of the three piles for the prescribed minutes without stopping: not to ponder a plot twist, not to reach for a word that was escaping your pen, not even to go to the bathroom.  It was invigorating and imaginative, and it shushed the internal editor more succinctly than any of the other writing exercises I’d tried.   Sometimes we’d tweak the rules, adjusting the time or using twice as many words, but the basic premise was the same.  This simple writing prompt fueled the basis for scene after scene of a novel that would eventually become Oil and Water, but it also taught me something about the craft of writing:  imagination is like every other muscle in the body; you need to flex it if you want to keep it in shape.  For me, writing prompts facilitated my workout.

So much of our day is spent elsewhere, unconsciously trolling the past or hypothesizing about the future.  Cutting through the madness of life is challenging, but the here and now is where you want to be.  If done with full awareness, the art of writing can facilitate a sacred communion with your Higher Self.  When you tune in to your Higher Self, the internal editor — the one that never really stops criticizing — is silenced, brushed aside to allow the light of clarity to shine through and the quiet little voice to finally get a few minutes of air time.  Don’t banish the internal editor because you’ll need him or her later in the rewrite stage — just tell them to shush up so the quiet little voice can speak.

 

 

You can also get that kind of unfettered access writing morning pages.    The minute you are out of bed, write down whatever comes to you, a dream, some leftover baggage from the day, any nervousness about the day to come, all of it, and when you’re done, start the day fresh. 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another one.  Grab a tangerine, or an apple, the fruit doesn’t matter, or if you don’t like fruit, grab a wrench, then set a timer for fifteen minutes, more if you’re brave, and write down everything you can about the object, here the tangerine.    Notice the color, the texture, the feel of its skin against your own, the little indentation on the one side and the little nub of a branch on the other where it was plucked from its momma tree.  Notice the hexagonal star pattern surrounding the little nublet — not a word, but it describes the little wooden branch remnant on the top center of the tangerine perfectly, doesn’t it?  Describe the smell and whether this is what you thought the color orange would feel like.  Rub it against your cheek and lips and describe the almost plastic feeling of the skin and balance it on your head and talk about the weight or how easy or hard it is to balance it there and then write a sentence with a tangerine on your head (which does great things for your posture), and talk about how hard it was to keep it from falling, and on and on until your timer goes ding and THEN, eat the tangerine and describe that, so tart, so sweet, so delicate.  If you chose a wrench as your object, you’ll have to leave this last part out.  The exercise is freeing because there’s really no goal other than to train yourself to observe and describe.  Do it a hundred times and you’ll have mastered the art of observation and description which is all writing really is. 

 

Got it?  Great!  I challenge you to choose your prompt and get to work.  Your readers are waiting.  You’re going to be amazing.

pjlazos 8.12.18

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One Year Later

And now a word from my sister on her life as of late:

One Year Later… 

It has been a little over a year since I married my safari guide husband. We’ve known each other for almost 2 1/2 years, so in the grand scheme of things, we are much like other newlyweds, except, we are so not in so many ways. 

The most obvious distinction is our meeting, which took place while I was on vacation in South Africa. We had 22 in the group and three jeeps, which means even my placement in his jeep seems almost fated. The first night he drove my friends and I around at dusk, chasing a lioness on the hunt. We prayed she wouldn’t catch anything, but how thrilling to see nature in action. BTW, did you know it’s the female lions that do all the work, catching and killing, while the male lion sits around and looks handsome. After the kill, the male gets first dibs and then females can join. Needless to say, we are NOT a lion household, but take our cues more from the matriarchal elephant herds.

Our relationship was seamless almost immediately. The laughs were continuous and I felt instantly at ease in his presence (which made chasing lions and having rhinos almost enter our vehicle all the more enjoyable). So much laughter came from our jeep that the others on our tour were starting to wonder. The joke was on me however, because while it was happening, I really didn’t know. I was on vacation for christ’s sake and who doesn’t fall in love with their guide when on safari???? On my last birthday, he gave me a card which read, ‘When I saw you I fell in love and you smiled because you knew’. I love that card!

So yeah, that happened. And then there was the logistical mess which needed tending. We lived approximately 11,000 miles apart, so someone had to pack their crap. Living in South Africa really wasn’t an option, so my new husband agreed to adopt a new country and he was down for that adventure. Enter the Department of Homeland Security, The U.S. Department of State, The South African Embassy . . . I’m sure I’m leaving someone out. The act of immigrating is not for the faint of heart. Lots of paperwork, rules, legal jargon, fees and did I mention the paperwork? We got through it with the help of a lawyer and are currently waiting patiently for  our first interview together as husband and wife. This interview is so my government can tell me that my relationship is real and he can stay in the U.S. so we can live happily ever after. It’s all so romantic! Not to mention the fact that he couldn’t work for about 6 months when he got here (paperwork) and had to leave his previous job about 3 months before he came here because there is only one place immigration interviews are held in all of South Africa and only a few doctors that can do the physical, none of which were anywhere near the game reserve where he worked. Reading that doesn’t even make sense to me, because it begs the question, why can’t he just make an appointment the week before he wants to leave and to that I’ll just say, South Africa. Good times.

So he finally gets here and then the culture shock of moving to America from the bush and living in South Florida with the heat and humidity and dare I say some of the rudest people on earth? (Okay, that may be pushing it, but South Africans are a well-mannered bunch and he did not find the tone here at all amusing.) I’d like to say it’s been a bliss filled year because we are together and nothing else matters, but I’m not gonna lie, we struggled. Not about the being together part, but about the, now that we are together, how do we make this great again (no pun intended current admin) part. And this is where I really feel like we are NOT like other couples. Because early on I knew that no matter how much we were MFEO (made for each other), the nonsense of life would always be heckling us from the back row. I also knew that the only way to survive all the set backs and not give up 5 seconds before the miracle was to focus on us and why we dreamed up this crazy scheme in the first place. The goal has always been to be as happy as we were when we first met, some sort of living vacation experiment. 

This concept of a living vacation is not foreign to me, in fact, I could argue that it has been the backdrop to my entire life. So not surprising that when I did find the one, it was in some way his guiding principle, albeit unspoken and perhaps unconscious, as well. It used to play out in my life as a constant, wishing I was somewhere else, but now it has become a catalyst to something extraordinary. Time will tell.

staceylazos 8.8.18

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Casualties of (a trade) War

We live in a time when life has stopped making sense, when world leaders have become interchangeable talking heads, when corruption and greed seem to be getting even the best of us (because they’ve always been getting the worst of us).  Instead of trade wars, shouldn’t we be focusing on trade deals like this?

And this . . . .?

What’s an average person to do in such times?  Pay attention.  Don’t buy into the BS.  Don’t believe revisionist history.  Stick to your moral compass.  And laugh, as much as possible.  And sing.  These things always help.

pjlazos 8.4.18

 

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WATWB — Power to the People

It all started with Solar Freakin’ Roadways here in the U.S., a system of replacing asphalt and other impervious surfaces with solar panels.  If all the roadways in the U.S. were converted to solar, we’d generate three times as much energy as we need.  Reduce the carbon footprint.  Solar Freakin’ Roadways!  Check out the video here:

It’s ingenious, really, and we should be doing it all over the place.  And guess what?  It’s catching on because now there are Solar Freakin’ Roadways — in China!

It’s time again for the We Are The World Blogfest #WATWB, the last Friday of every month we spread a little good ju-ju and the world is lifted in the process.  By now, you should know the drill:  keep the posts short and the vision long.  And remember to be nice to your neighbor.  It’s the only missive that ever really mattered.

This month’s co-hosts extraordinaire are:
Peter Nena,
Inderpreet Kaur Uppal,
Shilpa Garg
Roshan Radhakrishnan
Sylvia McGrath
and
Belinda Witzenhausen

pjlazos 7.27.18

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Welcome, Grandmother

[photo of my grandmother, my mother and her siblings, circa 1940]

 

Welcome, Grandmother

My mother did not have a green thumb.  Growing up, we had maybe three houseplants, the one, a Philodendron that hung in the living room, its spindly arms hanging down in supplication — “won’t someone please love me?”, it’s leaves small and sparse.  My mother  dutifully watered the little plant once a week and when the vines got too long she would trim them and throw them away.  While not sickly, the plant never looked happy, like it was missing a crucial mineral necessary for its growth.

There’s not a lot of green, generally, in a city, and my mother grew up in South Philadelphia.  She liked things clean.  Cleaning was a requirement, like going to Mass on Sunday except, while we were growing up, she did it every day.  My childhood bestie, Stephen, called her Immaculate Rita because the house was never out-of-order.  I think genetics may be involved as decades later when I myself lived in Queen’s Village in Philadelphia (almost South Philly), the old Italian neighbor lady down the block swept her stoop and sidewalk meticulously a couple of times a day while cursing the solitary black walnut tree that grew in front of her house.  “What a mess,” she’d say, a refrain I heard my own mother cry on more than one occasion when my sister and I were young.  My neighbor would sooner cut the tree down than deal with the mess so it’s possible that this cleaning thing is a genetic trait in Italians.  I did not inherit this cleaning gene from my mother.

Contrast my grandmother who grew up on a farm in Italy and tilled the soil to grow vegetables, gathered eggs, and cut the heads off of chickens if they were lucky enough to be cooking one for dinner that night.  In Philadelphia, she had a small vegetable garden out back where she grew tomatoes for her gravy and other delectables like zucchini and peppers that young Rita refused to eat.  My mother relates that at one point growing up she ate only peanut butter and ice cream.  I don’t recall her saying how long this behavior continued, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother eventually won.  I am sure of this because once she was a mother, my mother always won, and that kind of mothering is definitely genetic.

 

I took over the care and feeding of my mother’s Philodendron when she sold the house.  Philo was old and scraggly with but a few vines to it, but also wise, and I felt an obligation to a plant that had hung in there that long under such circumstances.  I don’t have a picture of what the plant looked like hanging in my parent’s house, but today my mother’s Philodendron looks like this:

 

…leading me to believe that green thumbs skip a generation.   If you need more proof, how about these:  

This Ficus I got when I started college in 1979.  Given how slow Ficus grow, it had to be at least five years old when I bought it so it’s now likely over 50 years old.  We haul it out to the back deck in summer and back into the living room in winter.  We had to cut a least a third of it’s height last year because it was too tall to get back into the house.  Ficus can grow up to 98 feet tall!   I briefly contemplated moving to a house with 10-foot ceilings, but a trim seemed easier and more practical.

 I bought a second Ficus when I graduated from college.  They look about the same age, even by their trunks and especially after pruning.

And here’s the Norfolk Pine that my office gave me when my father died in 1994.  It, too, has been under the knife —three times, and it’s probably lost at least three feet overall — but after each trim it sprouts a new doo and continues, undeterred.  Originally, the pruning jobs for these three trees fell to my husband because I couldn’t bear it.  Ficus are notoriously fussy and temperamental and Norfolk Pines with their heads hacked off seemed destined for the trash bin.  I envisioned them all screaming with each snip as discussed in The Secret Life of Plants, and worse, dying from all the abuse.  

The first time we cut them back, the oldest Ficus dropped all its leaves. I was horrified and disconsolate, but the bare branches didn’t last but a week or so before little shoots appeared.  Adaptation despite inconvenience, I heard the Ficus say.  Better to be smaller than in the trash heap. 

Dr. Christine Northrup, a women’s health expert and visionary in the field, who combines mind, body and spirit in her approach to women’s health, talks about how women’s wisdom is passed down through the maternal line in her book Mother-Daughter Wisdom.  Even if your mother or grandmother is no longer alive, you are still getting the benefit of that wisdom, Northrup says.  You just need to be still and invite her in, an exercise she calls a matrilineal naming circle.  

You name your mother’s line as far back as you know it so for me, “I am Pam, daughter of Rita, daughter of Yolanda.”  That’s as far back as I know since my grandmother died when I was very young.  My grandmother’s siblings moved in spurts from Italy to Canada and my grandmother was the sole U.S. immigrant so growing up, there really was no one to ask.  In Dr. Northrup’s book she describes a workshop where all the women named their female ancestors and then invited them into the group.  The room was intense, filled with the energy of all the women who had gone before, and many of the women experienced a huge emotional release — tears of joy, sadness, or just the ability to dump some baggage.  Northrup believes that for a woman to understand her own body and mind, she needs to look to the past from time-to-time, to see where she has come from.  

 

My mother believed this as she continued to look for alternative/eastern medicinal cures for her still incurable scleroderma, reasoning that whatever she could fix in her own body would be fixed for her girls.  (Thanks, Mom!)  My gardening proclivities go way beyond anything Rita ever did and certainly beyond what she taught me, and, but for an offhand comment my mom made, I would have never known my grandmother was an amazing gardener.

 

 

So mystery solved.  Although I’m not yet an amazing gardener, I have potential, and my plants seem to adore me if growth rates are any indication.  Also good to know that knowledge is fluid, possibly genetic, and available for download from the ethers even when people aren’t around.  Next time I have a few moments, I’m going to ask Nana how to get my bee balm to stop overrunning my daylilies.  I’m sure she’ll have quite a lot to say.

pjlazos 7.22.18

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