Come Sit a Spell

Howdy. I suppose you’re wondering why I called you here today. I’ve been singing, writing and telling stories about these Ozarks hills for a very long time, collecting pieces of the culture, music, and always poignant, sometimes hilarious and often inexplicable stories that, trust me, are probably not available on reality TV. I have been saving them for you here, and you can stop by any time for a laugh, a story, a tune, and some food for thought. Come back soon, and come hungry.

For booking information click here.

Listen to Marideth’s monthly radio show, These Ozark Hills, on KSMU here.

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Booking information, contact

Sarah Denton
moonmooring@yahoo.com

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These Ozark Hills; August 2016

MaridethThis is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. It’s time for another episode in this long journey that starts in my head and ends on the radio, and sometimes when I’m stuck, I look over my archive of random bits for some jumping off place, a place to begin.

When I go there,  I am always surprised at how many things I talk about that seem to revolve around the garden, from the food it produces to the attachment to the seasons it provides and all manner of stuff. And as you probably know, I recently put out a whole book of such thoughts, and I thought I’d pretty much covered everything.

But still, even when it’s too darn hot to be out there, it’s the first place I go in my thoughts. You’d think that with that kind of attachment I’d be growing lots of flowers and trees and objects of beauty. But actually not so much. Just the odd Echinacea and a few blackberry lilies, a dwarf buckeye in a pot. And some perennials and self-seeding annuals that just spring up whether I remember to plant them or not. And of course there are the houseplants of which there are too many to contemplate.

I think I must have picked up the habit in childhood of placing the vegetable garden in the center of my universe, especially the seasonal part and the relationship I always make between the food harvest and good fortune, riches, actually, because although I’m in my 70s now, we didn’t have supermarkets or big box stores or year round produce vendors when I was a child. We didn’t have so many things that others in more prosperous parts of the country had for decades before us. We got a television when I was 9, a telephone when I was 13, indoor plumbing at 15.

That world then, in a tiny town in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1940s and 50s and a little bit of the 60s was so different from the places we live now as to be almost on another planet. We wrote letters. We talked to our neighbors face to face. We got our milk from an uncle who farmed, and made butter and cottage cheese from it. We washed our clothes in water drawn by hand from a well pipe and more than 60 feet of rope, which is what it took to get all the way down to the water.

The gardens we grow now are likely to be tilled by electric engines and filled with small stands of whatever delicacy we like to eat that the supermarket carries, but only in the gourmet section.

I grow Black Krim tomatoes because I like them. And bronze fennel so I can harvest the seeds to make Italian sausage. And six kinds of potatoes so I can decide which one tastes best. It’s silly, really, a good deal of this gardening fetish. I remember back when I was starting to garden seriously on my own, and my two aunts would laugh at me and say, you know you can get all that and more at the store. Why bother.

Well, it may be easier and cheaper, but homegrown is way fresher and tastier, I would argue. But I’m in my 70s now, the same age they were then, and I’m just now using up the last of my green beans canned a couple of years ago. Now I plant just 6 seeds of Fortex beans against a fence and they give me plenty for eating fresh. If I want more, I’ll buy them at the store. They won’t be Fortex, but that just makes the ones I grow in summer all the more precious.

Recently I cut my garden space in half and I still have too much garden for what I want to grow. But this elderly me has a supermarket and a farmer’s market and just about the whole world at my fingertips. Times, as they say, have changed.

When I was a child, my family could grow a garden that would feed us all year round if we knew what to do with it to make food we could store, and if you had a little patch where you could raise a few chickens or a hog just on garden leavings and table scraps and if wild grapes and blackberries and Indian peaches were plentiful, and if Uncle George shared his catch of, and if other assorted relatives shared the contents of their rented freezer drawers at the local locker plant.

Families who were fortunate had their own chest deep freezes. The rest of us canned that meat, along with peaches, berries, green beans and gallons of tomatoes. By October our cellars were full to bursting, the upstairs or a back bedroom packed with sweet potatoes, hickory nuts and black walnuts; the Irish potatoes in their slatted crates buried under stacks of burlap sacks on the north wall of the barn. By spring, all those shelves and crates and bushel baskets were empty except for a few wizened spuds, and dinners were heavy on brown beans, fried potatoes and bread from home ground corn. Looking back from a safe distance, we say those were the good old days. Those with better memories concede they were the pretty darn hard old days, too. Not that we are living in paradise. Today’s world has its own challenges, and some are enormous. In fact I think it’s fair to say we lived in simpler times then. Simpler to us, who knew what to do with 40 lbs. of thawing beef, or 100 lbs. of freshly dug potatoes, or 50 lbs. of hulled but uncracked walnuts. We made do, just as we did when the food ran out too soon and we were grateful to God there were enough little leftover spuds and ears of dry field corn whose seeds grandpa got from that old Indian, and we could shell and pick enough black walnut meat to afford a nickel’s worth of pinto beans. Or somebody could, and was willing to share. That’s what we did. That’s how you got through a cornbread winter. Nowadays, when we know so much more and have so much more, I worry at how we seem only capable of finding ways to divide ourselves from one another, making those we see as others either irrelevant or untrustworthy. Perhaps someday we can each have our own planet and just not be bothered by our differences. But I’m reminded of that old Ozarks saying that stated so clearly our interdependence and the necessity of having our means of survival spread beyond relying on just one household. It went like this; If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs – if we had some eggs. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, and I’m just gonna say right now, if times get as hard as everyone worries about, I’ll bring the biscuits and the blackberry jam.

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Fundraiser for Carolyn Colbert

Howdy, pals. As you may or may not know, Carolyn Colbert, wife of Blackberry Winter banjoist Van Colbert, was seriously injured in an auto accident last week. She survived and will, if fortune allows, be fine. But in the meantime she requires an extended period of convalescence. Since her university job was considered part-time and since Van is a freelancer, and since their insurance coverage was minimal (the other party was at fault, so presumably they’ll eventually have hospital expenses and such) and since Van’s work time is limited because she needs full time care, they are in need of short term funding for covering their expenses while they’re waiting for the lawyers to duke it out. Hence, members of Blackberry Winter are joining with members of Brixey Creek to offer a benefit concert at the Yellow House in West Plains, MO on Saturday, Aug. 20, 7 p.m. Please join us if you can. If not, contributions may be made to Van or Carolyn Colbert, P.O. Box 434, West Plains, MO 65775. If you wish to help this kind and gentle family, please consider reposting this announcement on your page and on whatever lists you’re on. Message me on FB with any questions. Thanks in advance. Marideth

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These Ozark Hills – July 2016

MaridethThis is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. I’ve just come in from the garden where I finally, with help, evicted the last of the weeds where my cucumbers, beans and winter squash should already be in and growing up to my chin or beyond. One of the most aggravating things about getting old is that one is apt to run out of steam long before the things that steam was supposed to accomplish get done. So I have great green tomatoes, lovely green and red cabbages just about to head up, and robust eggplants and pepper plants gathering their steam, getting ready to make splendid things like tabbouleh and baba ghanoush. And Potatoes. Wonderful potatoes of a half-dozen varieties, blooming their majestic heads off. All well and good. But then came the rains, and then a deadline arrived, and then I had to, I mean I got to, go out and tell some stories. And of course, then came the heat to deal with. And while I was doing that, the weeds did what they always do. They got way out ahead of me.

Then I did what I always do. I groused and ground my teeth and whittled away at them, clearing enough greenery to fill a bushel basket and open up enough ground to stick in a poor little trio of root-bound red cabbages that were suffering. Then, of course, I was off and spent another week away, and came back with two more tomatoes forced on me by another gardener who was shocked, shocked, I tell you, upon hearing I had failed to plant any Paul Robesons. Of course I had managed to tuck in two Black Krims, a German Johnson, a green zebra, three Rutgers,three early cascades and some mystery volunteers, some illegal immigrants coming from god knows where and with who knows what intentions. But no. I had to try Paul, and so had to find a space for him, twice.

And there was another thing. I had searched for and found at the Baker Creek spring thing a number of starts of an old sweet potato variety called Oak Leaf. I’d grown them years ago and remembered well their beauty and delicious, stringless flesh. My pal Pat wanted some too, but didn’t have space for them. She came over and we repurposed a large bed I’d meant for some Yukon Golds, normally my favorite. But good grief. I already had six varieties of Irish Potatoes. What did I need with another? So we popped those beautiful little Oak Leaf starts into that bed, she spread a five gallon bucked of worm castings over the bed and we topped it off with well-rotted red clover hay for mulch. They’re looking great. So are the watermelon and possibly cantaloupe plants from the seeds left among the worm castings. I can’t leave them there, or they’ll use up the nutrients meant for the yams. But weeds have taken the only place where they could be transplanted to.

Well, I know there are times when one might ask where are friends when you need them, but today it didn’t even come up. This was because yesterday evening, about supper time, up popped a long time friend traveling back home from a vacation. She enjoyed a  visit with old friends but then had been five hours on the road.

“I need to stop and move around some,” she said. “Need any help in the garden or somewhere.” I tell you, I almost heard little angelic voices singing in harmony. I’m sure that’s what it was. Mosquitoes can sing that high, but they seem incapable of harmonizing on any level, in my experience.

So this morning after coffee, we met in the garden and murdered giant pigweeds, pulled up grasses and made ready the waiting seed bed. And just as soon as I get through with this remarkably true story, we’re going to go back out and move watermelons and plant the seeds of sweetmeat squash and fortex beans and lemon cucumbers, and I’ll be even happier than I am right now.

Of course, my visiting friend, when I was blabbering on over how absolutely tickled I was about getting these weeds out and seeds in, with watermelon for next month’s dessert, said, “you know, of course, that what you’re going through right now is being caused by dirt.”

I think I said something intelligent, like, “Whut?’

“It’s true,” she said. “Science has actually identified a relationship between friendly soil microbes and happiness. Apparently they can actually make you happier and smarter, just from having your hands in the dirt.”

I was at a loss for words, and became more so the more I thought about it. It’s true that as a person gets older they invariably have a growing load of memories,  unfortunate events and bad choices that accumulate and drag along behind them, like the tin cans somebody ties to the back of the car the newlyweds drive off into their new life, only much, much farther down the road. I don’t really think of it as depression in the clinical sense, but just an accumulating sadness that  manifests as us trying to stay busy. Like that perennially quoted nugget from baseball legend Satchel Page that goes, “Don’t look back. Somethin’ might be gainin’ on yuh.”

So is that the cause of my frequent pose staring out the window looking over my coffee cup at the ever changing garden, feeling a longing for something inexpressible that I somehow intuitively know will bring sunshine into my day? Bacteria? Tiny invisible motes left by some ineffable presence whose purpose is simply to give us free access to joy. Just because?

Imagine it. All the troubles of the world that grow out of our differences about religion and such, our beliefs about who god is, and what he or she wants from us. Who is worthy. Who gets to go to heaven and who is shut out because their God is too mean or too unforgiving to welcome all of his children home.

I have a thought about that. What if God is bigger than that? What if that simple aphorism is true that “we are nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else?” And if that’s so, if that’s what that first garden was meant to tell us – then why on earth are we fighting when there are gardens to plant, soil to get our hands into, oblivious to our differences because we are too busy scooping up invisible living pieces of Joy, of god. by the handful. Too crazy? Too simple to be true? Science won’t tell us what to believe about it. It’s just soil microbes hanging around waiting to make us happier and smarter. No big deal. Maybe. Maybe we should just stick to our pride and our resentments and our very deep, very important differences. I don’t know. Don’t care. This is Marideth Sisco for these Ozark Hills, and I’m going out to the garden and see if I can trade me some bean seeds for a little more Joy. Care to join me?

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These Ozark Hills, June 2016

MaridethThis is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. It’s June in the Ozarks. I could have written about my potatoes, which look promising, or my strawberries, which are heaping abundance on my head. But then I saw a post on Facebook that put literally everything I know about life into a whole different perspective. And it’s not about Politics. Somebody posted a sign that’s attributed to the Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota. It offers this message:

Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.

Well, how’s that for reducing things to the essentials. But we know that message could not have originated from any farm association in the Ozarks.  Anyone living in these hills would be grateful to God to have six inches of topsoil. Or three. Or one. Farmers here, unless they are farming a creek bottom, are as likely to be dealing with soil that’s mostly just crumbs of organic matter lodged in sand and gravel and scattered over slabs of clay and limestone. Why would one live in such a place? Well, because it’s beautiful. And because we’ re too stubborn to call it quits. Like a mechanic once said in praise of an elderly Ford I’d often repaired – resurrected, more like – “those old things run a long time after they wear out,” he said. And it did.

It wasn’t always that bad here. I mean, it’s always been both beautiful and hard, but in earlier, what we call “pre-settlement” times, the land was a patchwork of  broad prairies and savannahs, and mature pine and oak forests. But the deep sod and fertility soon fell to the moldboard plow, that severed the deep sod blanket that held the soil in place. We tend to forget that the Missouri River, now known as the Big Muddy, wasn’t that muddy until we made it so. In the forest, it was worse. Life there became harder when the little creek bottom farms fell to heavy feeding crops like corn and cotton, and people moved on when the soil was used up. There was even a word for it. Those places were “farmed out,” we said. It was the same with our wildlife. Hungry settlers shot and ate everything edible, and then complained that the game just “went away.” It didn’t go away. We killed them all and ate ‘em, except for those slim specimens living in country too rough to go after them. By the time the Conservation Commission was established, in the 1930s, the deer had vanished and the wild turkeys had been reduced to a single population of just 30 birds hiding in the deep hollows around Caney Mountain in Ozark County. One of the commission’s first efforts at conserving what was left was to order more than 7,000 acres of that steep, rocky territory be fenced off, because people were hunting with dogs. Berniece Morrison took the job, cutting cedar posts and stringing woven wire fencing, by hand, in country only accessible by horse or mule. But when he was done, inside the fence, the department began importing deer and more turkey. And that’s why we have deer and turkey hunting seasons today.

But that, of course, is only part of the story, and the rest requires a little more history. On the western verge, as the topsoil became scarcer, farmers were forced onto more and more marginal land to feed their cattle, and soon, that soil, too, became depleted, the more so because it was on steeper hillsides, and was easily dislodged by the rains and sent on and on downstream. It was not until the 1960s, when fescue grass was introduced, that the situation improved as fescue’s deep, tenacious roots seized that soil and held it in place, and so today’s farmers can stay in one place and stop moving on when their home places became farmed out.

Fescue, although not the perfect cattle feed, made good food, and was also the likely  savior of the eastern woodlands that had been decimated by the Pennsylvania Lumber Barons, those ones who came and converted those forests into the lumber that built new cities on the frontier, like Tulsa & Wichita & Omaha. Then the lumbermen moved on, leaving a barren land where no one could live. But we did. And when the fescue came, we prospered.

photo: Sarah Denton

photo: Sarah Denton

We will not see again the likes of those forests that were so grand that often one log made a wagonload, and were so clear of knots that often the tree was topped at the first branch, and those tops left to die, and dry, and be set alight by a stray spark or lightning strike. The fires from that slash, or lumber waste, burned so hot they burned away the thin soil entirely and exposed the gravel. The rains that followed washed the leavings down into the streams and created the gravel bars that remain today. They too did not come here until we did. And there’s your installment of Ozarks history and commentary.

photo: Sarah Denton

photo: Sarah Denton

We should be grateful for our forebears’ hard work, and to the fescue that has brought the Ozarks back from the hard, rock-bound poverty of its past into one of the nation’s top beef-producing areas. Times are better now. We are still far short of that fabled six inches of topsoil, except in our home gardens, where soil exists mostly because it’s imported. But it’s enough for now that the rains are plentiful, growing us a splendid hay crop, although we can’t get to it until the rain stops.

In the meantime, I think it’s worth mentioning that in this lull between the rainmaking and the haymaking there’s time to reflect on the fact we owe our existence in this place, to our own stubbornness, as well as to finding a tenaciously rooted grass that thrives on the poor soil that it fiercely and stubbornly defends. And, too, the stubbornly independent rain that falls too much and will end all too soon. We could complain, or just be thankful for what is in reality the recurring embarrassment of riches, always at hand in these Ozarks Hills.

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“Come Set a Spell” Gearing up to Restart!

securedownload-1_2Back by popular demand – “Come Set a Spell,” the live storytelling and readings from Marideth’s various novels including book one of the Seed Mother, will return to the Yellow House Friday, March 25, beginning at 7 p.m., 904 Trish Knight St., West Plains, MO.

Please join me so we can get this thing over with..If we continue on to the second book, it may last until Christmas!!

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These Ozark Hills; March 2016

securedownload-1_2So what are we to make of this section of the calendar where soon the day and the night will be equal in length as the natural world slides from winter into spring? As both an artist and a gardener, March has always affected me as though the word was a verb and not a title.

Marching orders telling me to get busy, that time is a-wastin’, and if you’re not careful, you’ll get behind – a condition that is likely to last all year. I suspect at that point I begin to hear centuries of Ozarks grandmothers like mine, bustling around the kitchen, weilding her dish towel like a whip, while snapping orders to draw water, split some kindling for the cookstove, fetch a jar of peaches or apples from the cellar, all the while measuring by fistful or the palm of her hand ingredients for pancakes or biscuits.

To those of us too young to remember those times or who have become accustomed to modern conveniences and a more leisurely pace, it sounds quite onorous. But it wasn’t. Not in the least.

For in those times we were more attuned to the wheel and accepted our part in its turning. After breakfast there would be seeds to sort, weeds to be routed, early peas to be planted, and seed potatoes to be cut and spread out in a sunny room. Outdoors the search would be on for very early spring greens to put extra nutrition in the diet, which my Uncle Gus would tell you is vitally important after a “cornbread winter.” Of course if you live in the country, those practices are common worldwide, not just in the Ozarks, in places where spring comes noticeably earlier or later.

I’ve recently returned from a trip south, where some weeks ago a friend was already potting up large and lush tomato and pepper plants to take to another gardener, for she had too many and they were too big.

And one of my fondest memories of a set of seasons spent long ago in the far north, in Vermont, along the Connecticut River is of a visit to a family whose son had offered to repair my car. The family was large and quite unique, with eight to a dozen kids, and all of them very busy.

I arrived on a frosty April morning to find a cow housed in a small, derelict building out back, a calf penned in the garage, a quartet of boys in the back yard claiming to be excavating a swimming pool with spades and shovels, a sunroom full of seed flats, another jumble of young women assembling small kits of cosmetic samples in a little home business, and a large portion of goat stewing on the stove.

While I was standing bemused at this level of industry, the mother stuffed my mouth with a chunk of goat meat and guided me by the elbow out to see her garden spot. On the way there, while passing a heavy board fence, something dealt the fence a solid blow while emitting a horrendous squeal. It was a huge hog of indeterminate parentage. I jumped about a foot, but the mother simply pressed on, calling out in a strident voice, “Don’t you threaten me, you expletive expletive, tomorrow I’m gonna cut your throat and hang you in a tree.

Well, I’m sure such things happen all over, but the main memory I took from that visit was that without a doubt, those children and that mother were totally aligned with the marvelous wheel of life, and would wrest from it all the sustenance necessary by whatever means were at hand.

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I was very impressed with their quest for a rich life. But I did worry a little about the calf. I’m from a gentler land than that, a land where my parents every year raised a calf to put beef in the freezer. But at harvest time every year, they would send that calf to market, and buy one they didn’t know for the freezer. This is Markdeth Sisco, with a long-winded observation on the seasons in These Ozarks Hills as well as the country we call “Off.”

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These Ozark Hills January 2016

securedownload-1_2This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills Once upon a time in a land and a culture far away, I was younger. I was living in California, trying to make my way in the thriving music culture there, trying to make a name for myself, as they say.

I was playing around the Bay Area nightclubs, bars and little seedy coffee houses, and actually landed a gig on Broadway, in San Francisco, the place where the big kids came to play.

It was a fascinating little club, dedicated to being as unique, as trendy and as noticeably different as possible. As a consequence, my audience was as likely to be comprised of dozens of members of the french navy, when they were in port, or topless dancers from down the street where Carol Doda starred (not topless here, of course. they were just on break) or sometimes small groups of drag queens from down at Finnochio’s, also on break. And, of course, tourists. Lots of tourists. All of them came for a show, and they all got one. But for the performers on the stage, it was hard to compete with what was probably going to happen somewhere down there in front of us.

But I liked the atmosphere of the place itself, because it and its owners just passionately refused to take themselves seriously. There was always an irreverent comment, a practical joke, a drama over nothing, silly hi-jinks. you name it.

So when my parents died and left me a little money, not much, I engaged a friend who was also working in that club to come in with me and start another club outside the city in a university town, maybe. I thought I could draw a crowd, and my friend, whose father was a chef and who was a gifted practical joker, could make a place people might want to come. We could make a little bit of a living and I wouldn’t have to look for any more gigs. I’d have my own.

Now I’m sure anyone with any sense would be making a list right now of all the things we didn’t know and as an aside, notice that both of us were  in our mid twenties, where we still thought we knew everything.

We found a spot out on old Soquel drive in Santa Cruz, signed a lease, bought the requisite equipment, from antique back bar to coolers, a commercial stove, etc. and were ready for business.

But what kind of business would it be? How could we make it different enough, intriguing enough, to draw in a college crowd. The answer was to make it less of a bar, more of a social club with none of that aura of despair that comes with the traditional tavern. We made a kitchen and served food. We also refused to buy dice cups because we didn’t like the noise. Instead, if someone wanted to play a game to see who would buy the next round or put the next quarter in the jukebox, we’d make em play jacks, by golly. One of my favorite memories of that time was a Jacks tournament, won by a truck driver, sitting cross-legged on the floor, saying in a deep baritone “I said I had twosies, dammit.”

We also messed with the pool playing crowd, adding extra rules that could be invoked by bribing the bartender. The three primary rules could only be invoked by a player who was losing, and they were Snudges, Do-Overs and Make Missies.

With the snudge, a player could claim the cue ball was in an impossible position, place the butt of the cue stick against the ball and move the ball to the other side of the stick.

Do-Overs, of course, would be when a player hits the cue ball so ineptly that it didn’t touch anything. Whereupon, they could simply take the shot over from its new position.

The Make Missy was the worst of all, and only available when the situation was dire. Invoking that rule meant that the losing player could do absolutely anything to the other player as they were taking their shot – except touch them. Professional players hated us, but everyone else was having a great time.

As the late sixties progressed and tensions arose around civil rights and opposition to the war, tensions inside the club rose as well. We were stuck between a very liberal and politically minded university and Fort Ord, where soldiers were coming and going and occasionally coming back. We were concerned that without warning, those tensions could escalate into violence. We had seen it happen in the City.

Once again, my practical joking partner came up with a solution. She went to the dime store and bought a dozen each of cap guns and water pistols, and loaded them. If things got rocky, she’d simply pass them out and we’d have ourselves a shoot-out. It was a bit disconcerting for people arriving for dinner. But nobody got hurt and everyone remained friends.

But why am I telling you this. It was so long ago and far away.

Simply for this. The notion of the pool-playing rule, the do-over, has stuck with me through all these many years, and the impact of the notion, and the potential consequences, have dogged me all my life since, all the way back to my Ozarks home.

I read once in a little note on the side of a refrigerator the question, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over.” That, too, was an idea that stuck.

I am concerned that in these present days of miracle and wonder, even in these blessed Ozarks hills, we had better be giving some thought not just to the do-over, but the do-better, or at least do-different. I’m thinking we are reaching a point in the continuing growth and change of the species and the changes it is making on the landscape, both real and metaphorical, that this season of high holy days in many traditions offers an opportunity for reflection on our doings to see how those decisions have worked out. Is our world a better place for our being here. Could it stand some improvements, some sane, sensible adjustments to our choices. If we could do some things over, maybe do different, maybe do a little better, now that we are old enough to know we don’t actually know it all.

Back all those years ago, we were striving to use humor to defuse violence, a lighter touch to drive away despair, a way to make a difference. We learned many things from that time in that place, but the thing that stuck the most is that once one takes a step toward making a difference, of doing better, no matter how many times you have to do it over, it never ends. If you’re lucky, and you manage to take on the challenges of your life without succumbing to despair, you might some time, just once in a while, get it right.

Here’s hoping for a whole world of opportunities for you and yours in the coming year, chances to excel, chances to bring your dreams to life, and endless, endless opportunities for do-overs. This is Marideth Sisco. Thank you.

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