An Interview with Mona Simpson


“Death, failure, diminishment, and regret compel me now. Heroism a little less so.”

Some of the satisfactions of writing, according to Mona Simpson:
Patterns that emerge on their own
Plot turns that come to you in dreams
Inevitable endings


An Interview with Mona Simpson


“Death, failure, diminishment, and regret compel me now. Heroism a little less so.”

Some of the satisfactions of writing, according to Mona Simpson:
Patterns that emerge on their own
Plot turns that come to you in dreams
Inevitable endings

An Interview with Mona Simpson

Yvonne Conza
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Born in Wisconsin, Mona Simpson is descended, on her mother’s side, from a Green Bay mink farmer. Her mother, Joanne Carole Schieble, was a speech pathologist who taught stroke victims to talk again, and her father was an immigrant from Syria. After her parents divorced, in 1962, Mona, then five, lost touch with her father, eventually moving to Los Angeles with her mom. She received a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied poetry with Leonard Michaels, Ishmael Reed, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, and Josephine Miles. As Joan Didion had years earlier, Simpson won the prestigious Mademoiselle Guest Editor competition. Josephine Miles told Simpson that when Joan Didion won, she stood on top of the classroom desk, raised one arm, and said, “I’m going to New York City.” Simpson would make the same move. 

In her twenties, she enrolled in Columbia’s MFA program and also secured a work-study position at The Paris Review, living off nine thousand dollars a year. Her teachers at Columbia included Elizabeth Hardwick, Edmund White, and New Yorker fiction editor Charles “Chip” McGrath. While in school, Simpson worked on her first novel, Anywhere but Here, and years of revision followed. It’s a dexterous book about the relationship between a mother and daughter. It became a bestseller and was adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon. 

Since her debut, Simpson has published six more novels, including My Hollywood (2010) and Casebook (2014). Commitment, her newest novel, follows the lives of three children and their single mother, who struggles financially and mentally to raise them. Having steered her kids toward their dreams—ones they had, and ones she had for them—she reaches her limits, and her debilitating depression results in her being placed in an institution. The book is a portrait of a family at a pivotal moment, and an examination of the political and social constructs that can make or break an individual. Simpson is a research-driven writer, and says she will use whatever she can to make a book come alive. One feels this in Commitment: the characters seem to percolate on the page, their lived realities emerging in a full-bodied way. 

Simpson and I spoke on the phone twice, corresponded by email, and grabbed dinner when she was in Manhattan. I booked a restaurant in Greenwich Village that serves family-style plates—something that ultimately proved daunting. One strives for elegance, but a slippery brussels sprout is sometimes bound to fly across the table. Plating Simpson’s dish made me nervous, so I kept in mind a story from American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook writer and director David O. Russell. He called Mona one of the most formidable minds he knew, an intense person, though in spite of her intensity, she once put on a gorilla suit for his son’s birthday. 

—Yvonne Conza


THE BELIEVER: What made you want to write?

MONA SIMPSON: Originally? A love of reading. Exuberance. Near poverty. Adolescent isolation. A mentally ill mom. 

I started in high school, in the usual way: as a means of making something. We’d moved into an apartment with almost no furniture: only beds in the bedroom and chairs in the living room, no table. But my mother bought me a small pumpkin-colored Parsons desk and a typewriter. Late at night, I would sit at the desk and type stories. In those days, there were mandatory typing classes, but I first taught myself hunting and pecking. When I had to take the class, I was already fast. (They timed us. You had to look up while your fingers sped over the keys.)

People write for ludicrous, craven ambitions when they’re sixteen. And also because it feels good to shape a tiny world out of the only tool you have at that age: your native language. And to then realize that this constructed world can feel like a refuge. 

The next question may be: What makes you want to keep writing, as Raymond Carver once wrote, even so? Last year, a student asked me whether he had the talent to make it as a writer. I asked him how he defined “making it.” He asked if I thought he could someday win the Nobel Prize. I told him I’d feel satisfied if, by the end of our class, he could write a great toast for his best friend’s wedding.

After fifty, we write, hauling a sack of failures over our shoulder. The shine has worn off childish ambitions. But that is when the work becomes interesting. 

BLVR: What does “even so” represent for you?

MS: What I mean by saying “even so” is that it’s easy to write when you’re so young that you’re imagining your acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. After some devastating losses of beloved people, after disappointments in yourself, that exuberance becomes tempered. Refined.

BLVR: Your mother’s occupation of helping stroke victims to speak again made me think about how writing itself is learning to talk again. 

MS: When I now remember my mother teaching people to talk again, it feels like a beautiful act. It was slow and laborious work, using the body (jaw, mouth, ears) and a steady infusion of hope. Stroke victims sometimes told my mother the words were inside, they just couldn’t find the string to pull them out. Learning to talk again is a perfect metaphor. We’re always rebuilding new lives on top of the ones we’ve lived. And sometimes the new life has a smaller vocabulary. But even if the size of a lexicon is diminished, its expressive power can be equal to it or stronger, with an intense effort and need.

BLVR: In many ways your oeuvre enlists a “spokes of the wheel” empathy toward the human condition: family, psychological fragmentation, money, our society’s mental health crisis, the shortcomings of institutions, and more. Do you think about it in those terms?

MS: I wasn’t sure what “spokes of the wheel” meant, so I googled it and found a diagram, with a hub for empathy in the middle and eight points outside for intuition, focus, connect, inquisitive, solution, attention, selfless, self-aware. I like all those qualities, though I’m still not sure exactly what you mean, but I’m certainly interested in the family, our society’s mental health crisis, our lack of childcare, and the vanishing of institutions. 

My Hollywood concerns immigrant women who take care of American children so they can send money to their own families to pay for school tuition and childcare across the ocean. It also chronicles the women who hire them, who suffer themselves in other ways, trying to make lives that matter outside their homes and young families.

My most recent book, Commitment, is about three children whose mother is no longer “all there.” She falls into mental illness and haunts the lives of her children and her best friend, the four people who love her most. It’s also about the last years of public institutions that were intended and built for the mentally ill, to provide a smaller, safer world, one in which, in the best cases, they could recover, or at least live with dignity, some happiness, and a sense of purpose and contribution. 

BLVR: Was your intention to examine the national mental health crisis through this book? 

MS: Yes, I think so. It was an attempt to understand, to really understand, how we treat mental illness. Mental illness has always been with us, and the long history of how we’ve cared for people with this infirmity is checkered and tragic. We all know about the worst extremes, when we threw people into freezing rivers or left them chained in the snow outside, but there are also some moments of idealism in the long history, records of cures, and of lives lived out with dignity and interest.

The ways we’ve treated mental illness have changed radically in the last fifty years. I wanted to learn whether those changes improved things for most people. But then all that makes it sound as if I’ve written a different kind of book. Commitment is a novel, which means it doesn’t have an agenda. The treatment of mental illness is there, but in the background of specific lives.

I try to render the ways that a tragic fact such as a beloved mother falling ill can change the trajectory of a young man’s career. How having a mother in an institution leads a young woman to feel she can’t tell the truth about herself (the truth feels unexplainable) to the man she thinks she’s falling in love with.

BLVR: Commitment has emotional impulses and thematic commonality with your other books. American characters and their yearnings for the American dream result in the examination of myths regarding the social constructs of class, families, mental illness, institutions, and more. Is it a conscious choice to have your books be in conversation with one another?

MS: I’m pleased you feel the books are in conversation with one another. I try to go deeper with each book, to risk more. Personal lives, intimate lives—influenced, if not determined, by larger political forces and social constructs—have always been the material out of which novels are made. 

I’ve been thinking about the relative dearth of single mothers in fiction, and I’m wondering if this is because so much of what fuels plots is still the kind of romance that promises everything will be good once two people tear through the complications, confusions, and obstacles, and begin a life together. Divorce would seem to be the potion for marriage-plot poison. It is a large element of how we live, and people now live differently, when divorced, than they did in What Maisie Knew [the novel by Henry James]. It’s up to us as storytellers to find new shapes for novels that yield pleasure, with the added depths and resonance lent by the reality of new social forms.


BLVR: Where do you start with a story? Is there one thing that first captivates your attention?

MS: Usually it’s something nerdy and verbal. A vernacular phrase. A bit of slang. A voice can make a character for me. Later on, I have to remember to consider what they look like.

BLVR: Was your poetry background influential with respect to your voice and confidence as a writer? 

MS: I don’t know. One can be an insecure poet just as easily as one can be an insecure novelist. But I think poetry did give me a sense of how to enter a story. From poetry, I know how to look for the sentence that can be a door. In poetry, the line is an essential unit; that compression teaches you to recognize sentences with a hook in them.

BLVR: When you first started publishing, did you have a submission strategy? 

MS: My first published story was in The Iowa Review. My friend Rob [Robert Cohen] had had a story accepted by them. So within a few days, the rest of Rob’s friends and I (we were all in Columbia’s MFA program) submitted stories to that same editor. It feels generous to call this a “strategy.” Perhaps “pack mentality” fits better. Or “frantic opportunism.”

BLVR: How key is top-tier placement of stories to a writer’s career? Any smaller publications you’d recommend? 

MS: There are so many good magazines when it comes to stories: n+1, The Yale Review, Granta, Joyland, and Harper’s Magazine, to name just a few. What George Plimpton used to say when I worked at The Paris Review was that we had only eight thousand subscriptions but they were the right eight thousand. What he meant was that editors, agents, and writers all read the periodical.

BLVR: The copyright page of Anywhere but Here mentions that some stories in the book were originally published in different publications. Were those individual stories—“Approximations,” “What My Mother Knew,” and “Lonnie Tishman”—always linked to writing Anywhere but Here?

MS: I wrote “Approximations” as a short story. I can tell, all these years later, because it’s structured as a child’s struggle to hold on to her father and resist the new stepfather. The story ends with some hope for her connection with the stepfather, whom the reader recognizes as the man who’s there. “What My Mother Knew” and “Lonnie Tishman” came later, excerpts drawn from the novel. “Coins” started as a stand-alone story, too, which grew into My Hollywood.

BLVR: What continues to draw you back to short stories?

MS: I love the myth of the short story: that everything can change forever in one charged moment. That an insight can alter the whole subsequent course of a life.

As a reader, I regularly return to I. B. Singer, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, and Chekhov for the satisfactions of an elegant shape and a thrilling ending.

BLVR: There’s something you stated earlier that I’d like to better understand. “Commitment is a novel, which means it doesn’t have an agenda.” What does that mean? 

MS: It means that whatever I say a novel is “about” feels somehow a little false to my own ear, as if I’m responding to a question on the radio, because novels don’t work on the engine of arguments and examples. They’re always insufficient in description.

BLVR: One of your early roles at The Paris Review was writing rejection letters. What went into the crafting of them? 

MS: We had two different “form” rejection slips we used for work that didn’t excite us; I wrote only to the subset of writers whose work felt promising. I owed these writers a thoughtful and honest response. I found it to be a perfect job. For long afternoons, I sat in an old chair by the office’s one window and read, as snow fell outside or blossoms blew to the pavement. Years later, I met some of the writers with whom I’d corresponded, and these were always poignant meetings, because we’d shared an intimacy without really knowing each other at all.

BLVR: What advice do you have for a writer when a book review gets it wrong? 

MS: Writers have very little recourse to misunderstanding. A prizewinning writer wrote about reading a crushing review from someone he very much admired, someone he’d hoped would like his book. There’s something that feels so personal about all this. And it doesn’t just feel personal; it is personal. Reading a book involves collaboration, deep involvement. There are critics I admire who have never written about my work. It’s like hoping to be asked to dance. It feels sad—one believes one could learn from a critic one takes seriously—and yet I’m glad George Eliot didn’t “learn from” what Henry James wrote about Middlemarch.

I just came from the Manet/Degas show [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art], which has taken New York by storm, and I’m sure that’s because of the brilliant curation, which reveals the personal narratives of the two artists. Though they were only two years apart in age, Degas clearly looked up to Manet. He drew and painted the more famous artist’s portrait many times (and also Mrs. Manet’s); he mentioned Manet in his letters to other people and through his life; he collected and restored Manet’s paintings. Manet never once drew or painted Degas. One night, after Degas had dinner with the Manets, he went home and painted a scene of them in their home: Manet in repose; Manet’s wife, Suzanne, at the piano. He offered them the painting as a gift, and Manet violently slashed the canvas with a knife, cutting off Mrs. Manet’s face.

We don’t know more about what transpired, but Degas kept this damaged portrait he’d made of his friend, painting over the gash with a neutral monochrome panel. It’s interesting that he didn’t try to remake the incomplete portrait over the damage. Like any inequality of affection, it’s painful. 

The curator of the exhibition told me that in France, because the exhibit was presented as a pairing, the French press immediately considered it a competition. In their assessment, Manet won. In my assessment, Degas wins.

BLVR: Are established writers getting a fair shake in today’s marketplace? 

MS: If established writers aren’t getting a fair shake, then who is? Do you mean that we have an appetite for the new? I once gave a beloved niece (who is also an intelligent reader) a volume by Alice Munro, which she loved. A few years later, she was asking me what books she should take along on a trip. I gave her a list and also mentioned that Munro had a new book out. She said she’d already read her.

Personally, I’m satisfied with subtler gradations of novelty. I was thrilled when one could open a magazine and find a new Munro or a new Trevor or a new Carver or Wolff.

I still feel that way when I find a new Deborah Eisenberg. A new Bryan Washington. A new Yiyun Li.

BLVR: Where should writers turn their attention while building their careers? 

MS: Maybe the most important corners for literary writers in today’s marketplace are the independent bookstores. Independent bookstores serve a central role in the development of serious readers that is not addressed by Amazon or any other online purveyor. Readers can go into an independent bookstore and have a real conversation about a book with a bookseller who is well read enough to lead them to unfamiliar work that holds some of the pleasures they’ve enjoyed, while also, sometimes, setting a greater challenge. 

So many people learn to read for pleasure in college. In literature classes, you have the excitement of discussing a book slowly, hearing other people’s ideas about it, and learning about the context in which it was written, how it came about, what strains of society are reflected in its background. Once you leave campus and go out into the world, many ex-English majors miss this kind of conversation. I’ve thought of starting a Substack reading group called “I was an English major” for people to congregate and read with care. George Saunders is doing that, in his Story Club. But novels and poems could also benefit from this kind of intricate conversation. 

BLVR: What’s your biggest takeaway from an editor? 

MS: Ann Close, my editor for most of my career, influenced me enormously. Sadly, Ann decided to retire this year; we celebrated her in mid-December, after her last day of work at Alfred A. Knopf. She would go down to the floor where the production editors collated the writers’ marks on the copyedited manuscript. She’d call and say, “You’re taking the life out of this book.” Or: “You cut this line from the third draft. I liked that line.” Another time, when I was struggling with the demotic of Lola’s voice in My Hollywood, she said, “Well, she wouldn’t think in English.” Of course, that was right. We all think in our first language. So I used her musical, half-made-up English in her dialogue, but let her thoughts unspool fluently.


BLVR: In the escalating climate of censorship, cancel culture, and book banning, would today’s trigger warnings regarding incest have diluted the powerful tensions in Lawns, published in 1984?

MS: Is there such a thing as a spoiler-sensitive trigger warning? In general, I wonder if fragility is best protected or challenged, but that’s probably for every reader to decide for herself. When I find myself feeling acutely sensitive, it’s sometimes more useful to push myself into uncomfortable situations, because otherwise it can feel like I’m living in a smaller and smaller world.

BLVR: Lawns’ origins link to your freelance journalist days. You interviewed circus performers, Buddhist bakers, a dim sum chef, performance artists, a woman leading an incest victims’ group. 

MS: For the incest piece, I interviewed doctors, perpetrators, victims, siblings of victims, mothers of victims, people who were victims years ago, and more. The story on incest treatment was printed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday magazine, and I think it even won a prize. My longtime editor there, Jane Ciabattari, a writer herself, later went to Redbook and bought the story “Lawns.” In the end, Redbook wanted me to make the mother’s character more heroic, and that didn’t feel quite right, so then I sent it to The Iowa Review.

BLVR: What was important to you in telling that story? 

MS: I think what mattered to me most was telling a story of the young woman’s struggle and resilience and her eventual integration of a tragic past into a promising life.

BLVR: Were you concerned that it would be eroticized? That readers would be upset? Though, shouldn’t they be? Isn’t discomfort an element of fiction?

MS: I didn’t really think this story would be eroticized, or that it would give cheap erotic pleasure—if that’s what you mean. Because the young woman, a college student, has, for the first time, a sweet, fragile romance that I, and I hoped the reader, would root for.

BLVR: Does the cancel culture and censorship tinderbox, with potential blowback, affect what you write?

MS: No one wants to be canceled. But we don’t want to be tepid either.

BLVR: For writers who, like me, are grappling with subjects of incest, suicide, and other gray-zone topics, in what ways can we retain our vision without having our creative choices constrained or censored?

MS: Frightening material in fiction can help us make sense of our lives. I’m working on a piece that includes suicide. If someone chooses not to read it, that’s all right. But I’m going to write it.

BLVR: In November 2018, your short story “Wrong Object,” published by Harper’s Magazine, was included in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr. He remarked that it “pushes the reader to a different frontier of empathy—pedophilia—but by the end of [the] story, you might be surprised to find yourself asking: Who among us can’t relate to trying to repel our own unbidden desires?” Did you receive any pushback from editors on the story? 

MS: No. The editor at Harper’s Magazine was very thoughtful. 

BLVR: Do you think it’s important for writers to be able to approach topical social issues? 

MS: I don’t usually think of stories as pieces on topical social issues. I wonder if social issues don’t sometimes coalesce and become clear to us after they’ve been written about in fiction. In other words, maybe social issues as we know them and name them follow literature, rather than the other way around. I think fiction writers tend to write from inside a character’s consciousness. And of course, characters live in specific rooms, in specific times and places, so whatever injustices and miseries exist in their culture touch them or don’t, depending on where they’re situated in their society. I’m thinking of Sentimental Education, of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, even of Middlemarch. Complicated characters are really the only ones that interest us. 


BLVR: Your next book, Help and Its Sequel, is based on your early years in New York and will explore the challenges of helping people. Why is the timing right to publish this material right now? 

MS: I’m writing this book, as I’ve written all my previous books, before selling it. Which is another way of saying that I have no idea if the “timing is right” for this material. But the timing feels right for me to be writing this story. I’ve thought about much of the material for a long time, and I’m only now beginning to understand it, to begin to see the scenes as rooms in a house.

BLVR: Has your definition of success changed from book to book, over your lifetime? 

MS: I try not to think in terms of success or failure. Those words are too broad, like off and on switches or blunt hammers on aspirations as fine as thread. We have so few real metrics with which to judge fiction, and none of them really work. There are sales figures and bestseller lists. There are prizes. None of them prove to be accurate predictors of what lasts. (If you have any doubt, google who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1919, when Proust was eligible and did not receive it. Or in 1928, after To the Lighthouse was published.) For almost any major prize, the list of writers who were eligible but didn’t receive it is more impressive than the list of winners.

The longer you write, too, you learn to find many satisfactions within the work itself. Patterns emerge on their own. Plot turns come to you in dreams. Endings feel inevitable by the time you come to them. The work begins to give back to you.

I try to do what I can—those famous late words of Henry James, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

BLVR: Factual details from your own life can be found throughout your work. In Commitment, Lina, like you, had a fondness for wearing overalls, throwing clay pottery, and working in an ice cream shop. How do you think about the autobiographical entering your fiction?

MS: How did you know I was once a potter, Yvonne? I was raised to be an artistic prodigy, and so I came to failure early. My mother hoped to raise a musician. She sent me to Interlochen, the Michigan music camp, when I was seven years old. My grandmother kept the letters I sent home: “Please come and get me.” I took a class called Musical Talent Exploration, in which children rotated between every instrument in the orchestra, while supervising adults, presumably, watched, alert for signs of giftedness. I don’t think many were detected in me. I wanted to play the string bass, but I was a small child so they gave me a viola, which I played—not prodigiously—for the next decade.

In terms of my life coming into fiction, those misadventures can be useful. I like the details: the smell of rosin, the technicalities of scooping a three-ounce ball of ice cream. Of course, when one hasn’t had an experience oneself, one can always research. For two years after college, I worked writing press releases at an arts organization by day, but I spent my free time and all my energy freelancing as a journalist. I loved driving around California and interviewing people. I did a two-part piece on the emergency room of the hospital where San Francisco’s indigent population was treated; I did a feature on happy housewives (despite second-wave feminism), and as you know, another long piece on incest treatment. I found I loved the interviews and the research more than the endpieces, because often, what interested me most ended up on the cutting-room floor. 

Doing research for fiction allows you to keep exactly those bits you love. I did a lot of research for Commitment at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California, the closest mental health hospital still open near where I live, and I learned a great deal from three retired nurses who worked there for most of their professional lives and who still volunteer, putting the hospital archives in order. The land itself is suggestive with its vast variety of old trees that look in need of tending.

BLVR: Have you retained the “exactly three ounces” scoop skill? 

MS: No, but I still have strange cravings involving ice cream. Last summer we sliced stone fruit, baked the slices, and served them with coconut ice cream.

BLVR: In getting to know you, I’m struck by your resilience. Where does it come from? 

MS: Scientists believe that resilience issues from alleles in our DNA sequences. If so, I’ve been lucky. People who live through frightening childhoods can find the adult world more comprehensible, and kinder, than the dangers they once believed were real. I still feel the relief and happiness I first discovered in having an apartment of my own, or later in being able to make a middle-class living. I learned to cook and found real pleasure in having friends, staying up late even when we were all tired, because our conversation, with laughter and middle-of-the-night revelations, was too irresistible to stop.

BLVR: At this stage in your life, what about your work has become most interesting to you? 

MS: For years, I worked late at night, early in the morning, while everyone in the house was sleeping. My children are young adults now, and I teach lightly, so I have the luxury of letting a book swallow a whole day. I’ve been able to loosen myself, and my interests in the world have exploded. A lot of young work is about finding a way to live.

By middle age, one has experienced death, up close and personally. I’ve lost people I believed I couldn’t live without, and yet here I am. With the vantage of age, the shapes of lives become visible, beautiful, and poignant. Death, failure, diminishment, and regret compel me now. Heroism a little less so. Age makes everyone a Buddhist.

BLVR: I’m feeling very Buddhist with my sixtieth birthday coming up. It’s an age that pinches a nerve about where I am in my career. What nurtures and sustains your creative talents?

MS: I promise turning sixty is OK, especially when you look the way you do. 

Reading. Friends. My dog. Walks. Birds. Kindness. A garden. I have two children, who are joys and redemptions. I’ve fallen in love in what used to be thought of as old age. I feel grateful to share work with friends whose work I admire, to teach books I love to students, from whom I learn about being young in the twenty-first century. 

BLVR: Aside from working with those students, and learning from them, what do you hope to accomplish that’s unrelated to your own writing?

MS: I want to garden more. I’d like to become closer to the people I work with. I hope to sustain a good marriage. I wish my community were more diverse in terms of age and experience. I’ve always been a bit of an ageist, preferring people my own age. That won’t work so well, going forward.

BLVR: Is there a highlight of your literary career that stands out? 

MS: People in an independent bookstore baked a cake with a perfect replica of my book cover on it. Once, another bookstore made a float for me to ride in. Who says this work isn’t glamorous? But of course, the measurement of one’s “career” and “highlights” is subjective. I write books. I have a good day when a few pages come out well. Recently, a friend described his experience of reading Commitment, and listening to him made me so happy. He’d experienced what I’d hoped the book could do, in a way that would be hard for me to articulate. Readers are sometimes the best interpreters of our work. After talks, people have come to ask me about something very specific in a book that connected to their lives. That kind of intimacy feels like a privilege and a reward.

BLVR: Along the lines of a final intimacy: Can you tell us something about your writing life that has surprised you?

MS: Once, when my son was in third or fourth grade, I overheard one boy say to another about [that kid’s] dad’s book: “I hear his book sucks.” After that, I started dreading publication. My kids had watched me work days and years; they’d both given up things for Mom’s work. I thought it would embarrass them to hear that their mom’s book sucked. It could make them feel foolish for having believed in my dream, for having sacrificed to support it. But it turned out not to be that way at all. My grown children drag their friends to readings. That relief is just one of the many various deep pleasures of having adult children.

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