Conversation With Poet Jessie Witt Pannell

Last month I went to the cultural event of the season on the Eastern Plains; a book signing.  There, I got to meet a newly published author and mom. As I waited in line to meet her, my own mom stood next to me and in typical Lynn fashion, was in a hurry to get home. I wanted to wait to talk to her so our conversation wouldn’t be overheard but my mom took me by the arm and introduced me to her like this;

“Hi, I’m Lynn, this is my daughter Bri.  She is starting to write some and she was just in…. What was it called Bri?  Oh right, Listen to Your Mother, up in Boulder, it is sort of like the Vagina Monologues, you know,  but it was her own writing. Have you heard of Listen to Your Mother?”  

It was a similar feeling as being introduced to a new class as a seventh grader only with the word ‘vagina’ casually thrown in.  

Luckily, Jessie is as kind and warm as I could have possibly hoped and she agreed to answer some questions for me. A year ago she took a chance by taking a writing class through a woman that she met at her daughter’s career day at school.  The result was her book Forever Built of Days being published last month and it has been met with rave reviews.  Although she now lives in Oregon,  Jessie grew up 30 miles down the road from where I did.  Her family still lives in the town where I taught the first three years of my career.  We are kindred spirits in this land of creativity.  Like the rest of us she has those moments of “One minute I thought it was really good and the next minute I almost threw the whole thing in the garbage!”  I am so glad she stuck with it!

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Bri:  Poetry isn’t the type of book I often pick up, what do you want to say to readers to encourage them to give it a shot?

Jessie:  Several readers have picked up my book and opened to read a random poem or two, but I want to encourage people to read Forever Built of Days from beginning to end because it does have a very determined narrative plot which they will miss by random reading.  I think the storyline helps people overcome the inaccessibility of poetry.  

B:  To me, this is a love story, between you and your Creator, would you agree with this?

J:  Yes!  You heard me!  I think so many people struggle with their love story with God because we think our own anxious brokenness or the world’s suffering somehow trumps or extinguishes our love affair, but God invites us to lay all that at His feet and watch the Finch He sent to reign on the Daisy and says, “Do you see that magnificent bird and that extraordinary flower?  Well, I love you so much more than that.” To love God, we have to believe more about the grace of His finch than the death of a father.

B:  Your poetry is autobiographical. How did you set boundaries about what you would/would not write about?

J:  When I was writing, I didn’t set any boundaries at all.  The best writing advice I operated on was to write what is absolutely true and honest for you, and then what you say will resonate with your audience because they recognize the authenticity even if they don’t relate on an experiential level.

B:  You can certainly feel your honesty.  Did you have any hesitation about certain poems being out in the world?

J:  The poems dealing with my anxiety in the “Time to Break Down” chapter required the most courage for me to expose to an audience, but I kept convincing myself those were what someone most needed to hear.

B:  When you are speaking about anxiety and depression a line from your poem “Twitchy” that really resonated with me was;

I’ve felt hints of more–

More meaning, more fulfillment,

But it’s a shadowy

Sand-through-your-fingers sensation

Do you feel like you are standing more consistently in the ‘more’ you speak of?

J:  “More consistently” is a great way to put it.  I’ve done so much work to achieve such a minor increase of faith and wholeness, and I find myself afraid of “less” all the time.  I don’t feel restless anymore, like I did when I wrote the poem, though, and I think that’s because I had to lay everything down and stop achieving.

B:  You are the mom of three, how did you find the time to work on your book?

J:  I found time to write by neglecting my family and other responsibilities.  I did most of my writing while my kids were in school or in four hour chunks of time on Saturdays at my local library.  My sister, for whom I work, had to be spectacularly longsuffering with me.  I think my family was so patient because they could see how important writing was to my healing process.

Jess Family

Looking back, my “process” looks more like a collision course to completion.  I did a lot of my writing in a weekly writing class and then as the Spirit hit me.  I began carrying a notebook with me everywhere, and wrote several poems in the parking lot of the grocery store or while on a walk.

B:  At the book signing, it was obvious that your family is so proud of you and are very supportive. You had flown a few days before to surprise your mom not only with a visit but with your published book she didn’t even know you were writing.  Did she have the reaction you were hoping for? What were her highlights?

J:  Initially, I think I kept the book a surprise as a coward’s way out, in case I chickened out or gave up.  When I decided to go for it, I kept contemplating it as a Mother’s Day gift to her and decided to keep it a surprise.  My mom has always been one of my most ardent, if prejudiced, supporters, and I wanted to honor her with the first fruits of both of our labors.  I loved her reaction, although handing someone a book is necessarily anticlimactic because they can’t read it while you stand there and watch them!  I was very nervous for her to read most of the book because my pain also represents hers.  Her favorite poems are “Waiting in a Deep Pit…” and “Suppose I Made God My Idol.”  I think my mom and I might need to revisit some of the themes and emotions touched on in the book after we’ve both had time to contemplate them.

B:  What resources were the most help for you in completing your book?

J:  Elizabeth Sims’ You’ve Got a Book in You first told me I could actually write a book and then held my hand while I did it.

B:  What is your workspace like?

J:  Ha! My work space/office doubles as my laundry room, so my desk is only achieved by stepping over piles of dirty clothes and wiping accumulating lint off the monitor.  However, this flawed space can be a precious, quiet space for which I’m thankful!  I did most of my initial writing by hand in notebooks, and often went outside or to the aforementioned library, my favorite word watering hole.

Jess Workspace

 

B:  Who is your favorite poet? What are you reading right now?

J:  My favorite poet right now is Mary Oliver.  I read her poetry collection Thirst many times while I was writing and her wonderful Poetry Handbook also gave me lots of workable hints.  Right now I’m reading Middlemarch by George Eliot and Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans.

B:  You now live in Oregon but you grew up 30 miles from where I did, in the town where I taught for the first three years of my teaching career. Share with me specific challenges you see in being creative in a rural setting.

J:  Creative challenges I see in the rural setting are finding your niche and the resources to explore it and then knowing whether you’re “good enough” to stand up in a larger, more diverse circle.  The answer is always, “Yes!”  The intrinsic isolation and loneliness of the plains produces by necessity some of the most stunning creativity.

B:  I love your perspective on this.

How did you decide to self-publish rather than go through the submission process?

J:  I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait to be discovered or the confidence to withstand multiple rejections.  I did research on self-publishing and decided it was a very convincing option to accomplish my goal of publishing my book.

B:  What’s next for you?

J:  I’m doing what I can now to market my book, but I love the writing process much more.  I have a children’s book I’m working on and a family memoir I have rolling around in my head.

B:  Oooo!  I can’t wait to read it.  There are so many things that I love about your writing.  Your voice is so eloquent but not fluffy.  This is a delicate balance.

My favorite line of how you describe God is by saying on page 85;

A mirror reflecting light into my dark place.

I don’t have a question about that.  I just like it.

The poem I keep going back to is “Picture of Me” It is a poem about how God sees you.  

Can you tell me where you were when you wrote it and how it came to you?

J:  I was on a walk just before my son’s thirteenth birthday.  Then – you know how your mind cartwheels – I started thinking about my own upcoming 40th birthday.  I was trying to reconcile how beautiful I think my children are with my genetic contribution.  I started cataloguing my flaws, but then I felt convinced that God probably doesn’t see me only as flawed and how I’m probably most beautiful when someone can see in me what God means to me.  The poem spun out from there, and I had to hurry home to write it down because I’d forgotten my handy notebook on my walk!

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B:  Finally, what makes you feel alive?

I feel most alive when I read the Bible and discover something new I’d never seen there before or when I’m laughing with my family and friends.

Thank you Jessie for your time, I have immensely enjoyed getting to know you.  

Mission Statement

Motherhood has swallowed my life, digested it, and pooped it out.  This may not conjure up the best of images, but it is my truth.  I love Lady and Sir with my whole soul and in this process the other things that make me light up have grown a bit dim.  Staying at home this year has been hard, like really REALLY hard.  My days seem to run into each other.  I look forward to His Lordship getting home from work with an intensity that is hard to admit.  It is difficult for me to see how easy it seems to be for other women and comparison is not kind.  

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In the spring, when the most predictable weather on the High Plains of Colorado is wind, I found it difficult to get out of the house.  When the weather is not ideal for walks and playgrounds, there is no indoor space for the kids to play and that makes me stir crazy.

One day, after nap time, around mid-afternoon I was needing to go to the store.  I was getting around and changed Sir’s clothes, he turns to me and says;

“Why are we putting clothes on?  Where are we going?”  

Oh my.  This kid knows that we stay all day in our P.Js unless we are going to be seen by the public.  Oh the mom shame reigns down.  

I tried to explain to him that we wear clothes even when we don’t have a place to go.  He wasn’t buying it.  “But where are we goooing?”  

“The store.”  I admitted.  

His face lit up as if I had said a spaceship.  

“Can I get a sucker?” he asked.  

“Sure.”  I smiled. 

His whole little life is made by the DumDum he gets from the cashier at the grocery store.  I love that he loves running errands and that he finds such joy telling the clerk about every item we purchased as he puts them on the counter. Sir shakes my sparkling water and says “when this opens it is like a volcano, but there is no smoke” The cashier looks at him and smiles, surprised by this impromptu science lesson.  He then acts out how a volcano erupts with his little two year old body including spewing sounds. She giggles with amusement and eventually hands over the basket for him to pick his sucker flavor. Not surprisingly, he chooses one he has never tried, root beer, not my choice but to each his own. He is a risk taker.  His simple joy is divine.  He also loves to go the Post Office and see the letters behind the mailboxes. Always so full of questions. He is so curious, so smart, and so full of life.  

I often feel as though I need to be doing more to foster his curiosities.  The teacher in me says I need to be challenging his brain and exposing him to more.  The problem is, my creativity tank is empty in so many ways.  I pride myself as being a creative person and I always thought that as a mom, adventures and such would be my strength.  It isn’t though, far from it.

After talking it over with His Lordship I decided that the best way to serve my children’s creativity is by fostering my own.  Like the flight attendant instructing parents to first put on their air mask before helping their children.  My spark for life needs to be reignited so I can be a better mom.  And hell, even if my spark doesn’t make me a better mom, isn’t my own life worth getting excited about?  

So here is my new mission statement:  I am going to carve out time each week to create and learn or learn from creating.  It might be writing, it might be fine art, it may be interpretive dance… All I know is, I want to be as excited about life as a toddler volcano.  

Photo Courtesy Joyful Photography  

 

Now Presenting….

*deep breath

I am so proud of being chosen for Listen to Your Mother,  Boulder. This group of women is so inspiring. Here is the video of my piece….. I would be honored for you to watch it and share it if you feel like someone you know might relate.

If you are in for a real treat, watch the whole Boulder show. You will not be sorry.

It is scary to put things out in the world that has my heart..

 

5 Ways Being a Mom has Made Me a Grownup

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Becoming a parent has had a bunch of consequences on my life one of which was completely unexpected… It made me an honest to god grown up.

I admit that I really believed that I was a full fledged adult when I became a mother, I was 29 for god’s sake. I surely had this life thing figured out, right? After giving birth, I soon realized that I had some personality traits that were……ahem…… not quite at their peak maturity.

family picture topeka 2016

  1. Taking care of myself

Before I was a mom I took great care of how I looked on the outside but didn’t pay much attention to how things were working on the inside. From time to time I was known to let my Thyroid medication prescription run out. I could live on candy alone, and going to bed after midnight wasn’t something I thought much of, not to mention riding on the back of scooters in third world countries. After my first was born I VOLUNTEERED to have my blood drawn to have my thyroid levels checked, even with a pretty significant fear of needles. My inner child was horrified and begged me to run, what kind of masochist had I become? I could probably still live on candy alone, but now I add a few servings of greens with my Twizzlers. I don’t even need to tell you the list of reasons that going to bed earlier is now necessary. The transition to keeping geriatric hours happened quite abruptly.

  1. Priorities

Life insurance, minivan, spf 50, cotton underwear, food allergies, buying shoes for comfort, picking meals based on how easy they are to eat with one hand, nap schedules, germs, childproof…Need I say more?

  1. Not about me

When my baby was born he was lacking certain empathetic genes that prevented him caring if I was getting enough sleep. Shockingly, he was not at all concerned. Even now, as a two year old, he can see that I am carrying his baby sister, 9 bags of groceries, the diaper bag, a toy dinosaur and the house keys and he will hand me his sippy cup because his “hands are getting cold.” There is no taking it easy on me because I am stressed out. Simply put; my kids don’t give a shit about what other demands I have, they need what they need from me and it is my job to give it to them.

  1. Clearer Understanding of Others

Being a parent has made me a better human. By no means am I implying that this is a requirement for others but apparently, it was for me. My grandmother had eleven children. That’s right, ELEVEN. I never knew her but I felt a new sense of respect for her after just one pregnancy let alone the child rearing involved. Likewise, to all of the mothers I saw walking around I wanted to give them a sincere high five or at the very least, a chest bump as a congratulations them on just gestating. As a teacher I also became more tender towards my students. When my patience would be running low I would remember that each student was someone else’s pain in the ass that they loved more than the world.

  1. Accepting no awards

This one is the hardest for me to admit and probably still the hardest one for me to deal with. When I get up five times a night to rock a sick baby who only wants her mom, there is no one there in the morning to tell me what a good job I did, no one congratulate me. When I pump breast milk while simultaneously “encouraging” a toddler and keeping my grabby baby away from the tubes attached to my chest, no one really cares. These are huge feats or sacrifices to me but this is just what moms do so I get no standing ovations, I don’t even get a “thanks” from my offspring, I just do it because I love these squishies and it is just what has to be done. Don’t get me wrong, my husband is very appreciative but when I have to list off my daily accomplishments for recognition, it sort of loses its appeal.

My kids are currently 2.5 and 8 months, so I am sure I have fully reached maturity and there are no more lessons to learn…. right?

Make Love Win

IMG_5049 - Version 2I am hesitating to look at social media after this mass shooting because I know that the same things will be there; Too many guns, not enough guns, too many foreigners, people need Jesus, we need to elect different people, pray for our country,… etc. etc.  The truth is, I have my own opinions about what should be done to help prevent senseless killings, but that is not what this is about.  Shouting my opinion is not going to change anything.  Once again, not choosing to take action won’t change things either.  I make the choice this time not to take the easy road.

The things I have learned from my own laziness are;

-It is easier to hate “those people”

-It is easier to find differences rather than similarities

-It is easier to try to be right than to listen to someone else

-It is easier to stay in a comfort zone than to reach out and meet someone new

-It is easier to cast blame than to think about what is in our control.

-It is easier to think that it is someone else’s problem to solve

-It is easier to change the channel

-It is easier to separate ourselves from the victims because you imagine they are vastly different from you

-It is easier not to think about the victims’ loved ones

-It is easier to think that it won’t happen here

-It is easier to blame the leaders for decisions made

-It is easier to think that this will be the last time

In the face of this tragedy I will be different, I can’t expect the world to change if I don’t change too, and I invite you to join me. I challenge you not to take the easy road this time, I encourage you to meet hate with love, to stretch yourself, if for no other reason than hate and blame has become terribly boring.   So when you are thinking I just wish there was something I could do, look around.  There are needs if you want to see them.

I want to do something to make someone feel valued.  We have that power, to make someone else feel like they matter in this world and they are seen.  How often I dismiss this and don’t take the opportunity.

I am certain that you have better ideas of how to accomplish this but here are a few that came to my mind.  Invite that foreign neighbor over for dinner.  Mow the elderly man’s yard.  Go onto an acquaintance’s baby registry and buy something nice.  Write a note to someone you know is hurting even though you have no idea what to say. Take a friend’s toddler on a walk so they can catch a nap.  It doesn’t have to cost money, and it doesn’t have to take your whole day.

The only way to fight the ugliness out there is by brightening our little corner of the world.  Do it in the name of love because Lord knows, there is already plenty of hate. Hate isn’t working, let’s try something different.

#makelovewin

 

German Fest 2013

I came across this unpublished blog post from 2013.  It was written mere days before I became pregnant with Benton and my life drastically changed in an instant.  I am trying not to edit these words and keep them preserved as fresh.

I am missing China a bit extra these days and I cherish these memories…

Brooke’s Visit

My cousin Brooke flew back with us and she is staying for 6 weeks!  We are having a grand time and I believe that she is enjoying herself as well.  People often ask what she is doing all day. I cannot speak for every minute but I am quite proud to announce that she has successfully read 1 book and finished all THREE seasons of Downton Abbey (that’s right ladies and gentlemen, season 3 has debued in China) other successes have included; going for runs, getting massages, napping, pedicures, and journaling.

Our social life in Shanghai is like college only better because we have regular incomes, which support our shenanigans.  Since we have been back this semester we have been out every Friday and Saturday.  Three birthday parties and a German Carnival have kept us busy.

The German Carnival was quite memorable.  Our Irish friend Patrick invited us to go with he and his wife.  He mentioned last minute that we would need costumes.  Costume parties in China are quite fun because it is so easy to have something made.  With less than a week however, we didn’t have time to have something made for the three of us.  We had to use what we had in the closet, which included an Audrey Hepburn costume (I had it made for our Christmas Party) A blue tuxedo, and an apron.  Together we were fabulous.

The party had all you could eat German food and all you could drink beer.  We had a good time.  Brooke had a wooden spoon to add to her 1950s housewife persona.  At one point while dancing, Brooke obtained a toy gun off of one of the many cowboys roaming around.  She was stirring the air with her spoon and shooting into the air and shouting proudly “I don’t know where I got this gun!”

I turned to Matt who was seemingly feeling left out of singing along to the German music.  He was making up his own lyrics with all of the things he knows about Germany.  “You have sauerkraut. You make good sausages.  You have good beer.  You lost World War II.”

Back to Brooke, she is now spanking Spiderman with the afore mentioned wooden spoon.  

Matt;  Now has a hat with fringe on it.

Brooke; using her backside as a weapon to fight super heroes.

Matt; singing loudly “You have good sausages!”  (now wearing cowboy hat.)

Brooke; Spiderman is defeated.

The night went on like this for several more hours until we finally made it home to Facetime Lynn.

Fun times. Making memories.

The Missing Three Years

We have officially been repatriated for two years.  It seems the longer it has been, the more I hold the experience close to my heart.  

When meeting a friend from high school for a drink the other day, she said to me “Why are we always talking about our kids, you lived in CHINA, let’s talk about that.”  I sat up a bit straighter and smiled.  Talking about our time abroad is one of my favorite topics but one that I hardly speak of.

Living overseas changed so much of me; the way I look at the world, my definition of family, the way I parent, the way we choose to spend money, our plans for the future, what we value for our kids, etc. etc.  I changed so much in three years.  I want to be very clear; I didn’t become better than anyone, I became a better version of myself.

We visited ten countries in three years, taught students from over 60 different countries, made amazing friends, established a community, added a baby to our family, were immersed completely in a different language and culture for three years.

Honestly, I didn’t love every minute.  In fact, there were days and weeks that I absolutely hated.  But it stretched me, challenged me, to find joy in the middle of winter when we hadn’t seen the sun for weeks.  It was a tortured relationship that I cherish.

People in my former life expect me to be the same person that they knew and loved before China and in many ways I am, but when something emerges that no longer resembles my old-self it becomes an awkwardness and time and again I find myself swallowing what I really want to say for the sake of not making myself seem pretentious.

I grew up in rural Colorado and I am very proud of these roots and it is where we happily returned to, but let’s just say there isn’t a huge population of people that can relate to our experiences abroad.  The home cooked values of this country life are a thing to respect and I cannot ignore them even if I wanted to.  One of these is a true disgust of pretension.  This translates into a problem because I don’t know how to talk about China, travel and adventure without sounding like I am being boastful.  I long to seem humble when speaking about the experience that transformed me but I am constantly at a loss for words.

I see the look on people’s faces when I mention the scooters topped with families of five careening through the back roads in Vietnam. Or how the chinese shave their babies heads so that their hair comes in thicker.   I feel obligated to defend these foreigners we encountered from the judgements of the people I am sharing my story with and because of this, the point that I am usually trying to make is lost.
The same thing happens when I mention how much I miss our Chinese nanny who had become part of the family.  It is so difficult for so many to relate to, it is a real conversation stopper, so I just don’t bring it up.  What I have learned is just because something is different doesn’t mean that it is wrong and I feel exhausted trying to explain that.  

My mom likes to remind me that I am not practicing what I preach.  These people have chosen not to live overseas or to move away from home and “just because they are different, doesn’t mean that they are wrong”  I get that.  I need to be doing a better job of getting to know people that I think I know.  At the same time I just want someone sitting in my living room say to me “I know exactly how you feel.” and mean it.

Motherhood is often lonesome.  From day to day it can feel like I am at it all alone and feeling like I am ignoring a hugely important part of my life makes it even more isolating.  My husband and I talk about Shanghai with increasing sentiment.  Approaching the second anniversary of our departure makes me miss our friends, the city and the culture intensely.  I have been having many dreams of visiting the city and the first thing I do in EVERY dream is go eat peanut noodles at my favorite place.

It is hard to answer the question “what was China like?”  but I appreciate it being asked.

Missing Shanghai and all that was, is a silent mourning and I will keep it to myself.

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Peanut noodles, pickled vegetables, spicy wontons and beef soup

 

Sweetie

The toddler has taken to calling me Sweetie from time to time.  Which is pretty adorable.  Lately, he will also shout from another room “Sweetie, don’t come in here!”  Which translates to:  Come as quickly as you can because I am doing something that I absolutely should not be doing and it is probably dangerous.

Here are a few things I have walked in on:

-Climbing the bookshelf

-Stuffing large amounts of toilet paper in the toilet

-Eating my chap-stick

-Spraying the fabreeze air freshener in his hair

-Eating popcorn he found in his toy box.  (I can’t remember the last time we made popcorn)

I love how genuinely surprised he is when I arrive at the doorway, like I somehow foiled his genius plan.  I really hope his complete inability to be sneaky lasts through adolescence.

Panty Reflections

If the state of underwear that is deemed acceptable to wear is a reflection of how one values oneself, I might need some support for my self-image.

I have been married for five years now, and while this doesn’t make me an expert on a successful marriage, it does make me knowledgeable about one very important topic; undergarments post-marriage/post-babies.  

When I got engaged, along with other parties my dear friends threw me a personal shower where I received a wide range of bras panties and lingerie. These were all beautiful indeed but since I got pregnant a year or so after I got married, the life of these dainty unmentionables is sadly over.  

I don’t have to go into detail about why they have been banished but thanks to pregnancy, let’s just say, some things are bigger, some things are smaller but all things are different. As much as I would like to pretend, none of these items will probably fit ever, ever again. May they rest in my dresser drawers, just in case, in peace.  

After being pregnant with my second child I bought some very comfortable cotton undies. I liked them so much I thought I would write a review on Amazon. I read through the other reviews and I found this gem: “When my wife put these panties on, I knew without a doubt that she never wanted to have sex with me again.” Luckily it wasn’t my husband that had written this review but none the less I got the message. While I don’t believe in wearing something just for your partner, I do believe that feeling pretty or feeling worthy of something pretty is something I am in need of these days.  Even if those pretty things is covered by yoga pants and a spit-up stained tee shirt. Looking back, I would do some things differently, and here are those thoughts in regards to panties and such.  

 

  1. Ask for IOUs instead

While I didn’t have money to spend on these things then, two kids later, I certainly don’t have money to spend on them now. I would tell my eager friends, “thank you so much for getting me prepared for marriage by buying me these sexy items, but actually please wait to buy me anything until I am done with pregnancies and breastfeeding. You are most welcome to still call it a shower if that is still your thing in five-ten years, you can also call it a clothing drive if that seems more appropriate. All I know is, at a certain point NONE of my underwear will fit all at once and I am going to need your help.

2.  Get boudoir pictures

 

Your body will never look as good as it does TODAY. So go ahead and pick one or two of those outfits you couldn’t stop friends from buying you, drink a glass of two of wine and make a friend take your pictures. You can even wrap it up in an album and call it a wedding present for your future partner.  One day I imagine completely creeping the grandkids out by showing them how lucky grandpa was when he married grandma.  

3.  Wear everything, don’t save it for a “special occasion”  

 

Even if your legs aren’t shaved and your in-laws are visiting go ahead and put the good china equivalent of your undies on. All too soon your pile of panties will resemble the rags you use to dry your car and will have clips on them for easy access (for your infant not your husband). Seize the moment you sexy thing!

Listen to Your Mother

I have some very exciting news; I have been chosen to be a part of the cast for 2016 Listen to Your Mother Boulder!  To be honest, I am having a hard time convincing myself that I am worthy but like most things I’ve done in life,  I guess I will fake it until I make it… If you are a mother or you know one, you should come to this show. Tickets are on sale now.

It is going to be pretty amazing.

http://listentoyourmothershow.com/boulder/