ALISSA SWANK COUNSELING

Journal

Landscapes
 
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I have what I call a “re-occurring dream location.” It’s a place that I’ve known intimately in my real life, and for some reason it is the location of many of my dreams. I don’t have any other re-occurring dream location, just this one. This landscape is a place that my body remembers viscerally and my mind holds many fond and somewhat distant memories. It is the intersection of land and sea, nostalgia and coming of age, of past and present.

My grandparents built a house in this particular junction of the world when I was born. We acknowledge this particular land was and still is home to the Suquamish people, and my family has been privileged to be guests in this beautiful corner of the world. My grandpa carved salmon and birds in his wood shop, and my grandma would collect driftwood and transform them into “Santas” she would sell at craft-fairs. For the remaining years of both their lives, I would spend hours combing for sea glass, picking raspberries, cracking crab, building sandcastles, and walking the worn down path to the beach. I can smell the air and I can taste it too. Salty, fresh, sweet.

It is a landscape that often brings me a sense of calm and peace. Since both of my grandparents have passed on, my family and I have returned a handful of times to the place where we created so many memories and were taught so much. It’s not too far away, but for some reason it feels out of the way to visit often. Which maybe is the reason why my dreams take place there. There is a desire deep within me to return to this special location again and again.

I am learning about how important it is to re-connect to our landscapes. It is apparent that we as people have lost touch to the land that provides us with its abundance of resources to choose from and live off of. What would happen to each of us if we just spent a little more time reacquainting ourselves to the landscapes in which we dwell, or from which we came from? What do these places have to teach us, to remind us, to convict in us?

Where do you return when you need to remember or to reconnect? Where to you feel a sense of home?

I created an image of this landscape so that I could keep it close and let it serve as a reminder of the ways it benefits me and my well-being. I hope I continue to carry it with me in my dreams as well.

 
Alissa Swank
Scribbles
 
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So often life feels like a bunch of scribbles. I feel like I am constantly moving around town, one thing after another, multitasking non-stop, balancing all the different relationships, responsibilities, and endless to-do’s. And I hear it all the time from those I work with. It’s common to feel overwhelmed in this crazy life. 

Try this sometime. Get a pen and paper, and without looking, start to scribble on the page. Maybe listen to music or the hum of noise in a busy cafe, and let your hand move to the sounds that you hear. Do this for about a minute. Then, look at the page and study your scribbles. Turn it. Move it further away, bring it up close. What do you see? Is there an image that stands out? Enhance that image and see what it has to show you. Why is it there?

My scribbling brought me this wise aged woman adorned with lavender hair, a soft cardigan, and a simple flower. As a studied her, I realized that she came to me for a reason. That day I was feeling overwhelmed by “adulting” and she was there to remind me that sometimes we need to stop and literally smell the roses. It was as if she was guiding me to slow down, take a moment to notice what is around me, and take it in. Appreciate it. Savor it. Nothing is ever permanent, so receive what is in the present moment, because it won’t be there tomorrow.

I took a deep breath. Funny what can come out of a seemingly meaningless scribble.

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

- Mary Oliver

 
Alissa Swank
Winds + Waves
 
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I made this piece on a day when I was wanting to relax and find peace. I imagined lavender and wind. Also water holding me up as I drift in a dreamy state and to wherever the current may take me. As I look at this piece now, I am reminded of the way that we can feel emotions. There are those emotions that come in waves, maybe it’s melencholy or nostalgia, perhaps it’s grief. Without our doing anything to beckon them, these emotions may have a sweeping effect over us, moving us even if just slightly. 

And yet, emotions that move us are not always welcomed. We resist or we feel totally overcome by them; they are a tsunami. So I offer a reminder that all emotions are in motion - they flow. And the more we resist welcoming them, the harder they are to feel. But what happens when we surrender to the feeling and let ourselves just FEEL IT. Well, you may find that it passes. Which reminds me of what my mother used to always remind me when I was feeling big emotions or having a bad day: this too, shall pass. As I type I also am looking at a picture my friend drew of waves. They fill the picture with their curvy lines and flowy shapes, and when I look at them, the pen marks almost seem to be moving. 

What feelings are you resisting and attempting to block out of your bodily and mental experience? What would happen if you allowed these emotions to pass through you, to run their course, and trust that you will be okay on the other end. After all, your feelings are there for you, to help you understand yourself and your surroundings. What do they have to say?  

I invite you to read a favorite poem from poet Rumi...

 

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


— Jellaludin Rumi 

 

 
Alissa Swank
Inside Out
 
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I created this piece awhile ago when I was reflecting on how we can have such a different internal experience than what is reflected on the outside. Sometimes the way we appear can be so different from what we are actually feeling. There was a time when I was a backpacking guide, and a group and I were ascending the last stretch to the summit. It was one of the summers after a winter of record snowfall, and so where we had scrambled up rock and patchy pathways the year before, there was feet of snow. You might guess this made for a more challenging route, and it did. We had to set up several hand lines, where each person wore a harness and connected to a rope that was anchored into the snow in case you slipped. I was the person in the back of the group who was responsible for cleaning up the lines, so I would coil up the rope and carry it on my back while also making sure I was safely connected. Let’s just say it was “exciting.” I remember getting to a point of having to wait for more people to ascend ahead of me, and I was joined there by a friend. We were sort of looking at each other like, “Woah, this is kinda crazy,” and then I realized that she was scared and a little tearful. I talked her through the next steps, and she said, “Your presence is so calming.”  

Calm?! Oh, if she only knew how much fear I was battling in that moment! I am not the most comfortable with heights or snowy slopes with poor runout. I often have the thought of “one wrong step and I could literally fall off this mountain.” I wouldn’t have guessed that I was calm during any part of that summit experience. 

And yet, there’s often more than meets the eye, isn’t there. Sometimes we aren’t as good at hiding it as we think we are, like when you’re public speaking and your voice starts wavering a little. You’re like, “Oh, I’m getting over a cold.” And sometimes we’re like highly trained professionals at hiding what’s actually going on inside. We’ve learned that it doesn’t go so well when we are vulnerable with our emotions. 

We are so good at becoming disconnected. We are so good at pleasing others or faking it, and I wonder what that does to us. How does it feel to hold it all inside? How do we actually feel known if that is the case?  

It takes time, as well as being okay with being messy, but the more that you can take a look at what’s happening inside of you, with what you are actually feeling in your body, the more you’re likely to find ways to express those parts. Sure, it was helpful to my friend who was scared and able to find some comfort in my calmness on that mountain peak, but eventually I was able to share with her in the fear and we were able to bond over having a similar experience later on. And I felt more known in my experience as well. 

What are the emotions that you cover up and don’t want to come out? What would it look like to find a space to acknowledge them and let them exist outside of you? 

Remember that all you need to be is you.  

 
Alissa Swank
I love TECHNOLOGY, but not as much as you, you see…
 
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Recently, my husband Mike and I started to talk about the role of technology in our life. It was after he was away on a trip, and I was home in Seattle. I had gone to the library and checked out a new book that was on display, titled Digital Minimalism. Turned out Mike had just downloaded the audiobook while he was on the road, and so we were both contemplating this new era of “tech” or the “digital age” that we’ve rapidly been immersed into. 

Now, I realize that I am an active user of technology, and I’m coming to a place where I accept that as reality. We live in a digital age and technology is evolving exponentially (have you visited the Apple store recently?!). However, I appreciate being challenged to consider technology’s role and place in my life. Basically, I have a smartphone, a computer, and now an iPad, of which I use for business, creativity, and keeping in contact with my people. In our quest for digital minimalism, here is what I’ve landed on for my own tech use, because though it’s easy to just go along with it, we do have choices in this tech relationship.

  1. Boundaries are necessary! Our rule is no phones/computers in the bedroom. It makes a huge difference to not have a screen be the last thing I look at or the first thing I wake up to. Instead, I might read an actual book before bed or allow my eyes to wake up to the light of a candle. I also have been conscious to keep my phone in my bag while out in public, and keeping it in its holder while I drive, which makes it less tempting to touch (and keeps me from tripping while I walk into a store or potentially a lot worse while I operate a vehicle!). 

  2. Think about how technology use supports my values. This one isn’t easy to have hard and fast rules around, but all in all I have to stop and consider if what I am doing on my device is actually really that... necessary. Do I really need to spend the next 20 minutes getting lost down a Youtube wormhole? Would I rather learn about my friend’s life through their Instagram or hear it from their mouth? I’ve also greatly decreased my social media participation, not because I think it’s bad, but I noticed how it was making me feel, which wasn’t actually very great. 

  3. Appreciate the tangible. I am a tactile and visual person, so I find a lot of satisfaction in being able to use my senses. I have found that reading a screen is not as enjoyable as feeling the subtle roughness of a book page, or getting that newspaper smell when I read the Sunday paper. I also have so many beautiful cookbooks, and I find it so fun to be able to open up a recipe and find some spills or crumbs from the last time I used it. 

Maybe you are satisfied with your technology use and you feel good about your screen time. What I have observed in my own life and with society, is that we seem to be preoccupied with these tiny computers that are attached to our hips, and I believe we are letting some very precious moments pass right by. My hope as I practice more digital minimalism is that it would allow me to actually be a bit more present with myself and others in any given moment. 

Look up. Take a breath in. This is your life right now. 

 
Alissa Swank
Do you ever feel like this?
 
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You know those days. Either you said “the wrong thing” or you “messed up” and all you want to do is hide in your own shame cocoon. Do you have those? Tell me I’m not the only one.

I have been unlearning this pattern: try to say “right” thing, realize it didn’t come out “right”, start to melt inside, think it’s best to remove self from situation. What I am unlearning is my own perfectionism and impossibly high standards to always get it right. Who do you know that is actually like that?

My husband is a bit of my opposite (you know what they say…) and is quite the verbal processor. He is actually really comfortable expressing himself, however that may be, and he is actually quite comfortable with conflict. And, he rarely feels like hiding. He has invited me time and time again to express myself without worrying if it is “right.” Because there is actually no right and wrong when it comes to how we feel. And he just wants to be connected to me and to know what’s happening with me. And I have learned through our relationship and others that there is room for repair if things get messy. How about that?

It takes practice, but learning to accept my own messiness and to take risks has been the most vulnerable, but most connecting thing in my relationships. To be seen in my mistakes, and to own my imperfection (we’re all human, in case you didn’t know) is a new way of feeling more known and more free. Free to be me!

So, the next time you feel like diving down into the deep water where no one else can see you, think again and see if you can challenge yourself in small ways. What’s it like to not try to “fix it” right away, to let yourself create a little mess, to in fact just own you made a small mistake. Test those waters out. My guess is you will survive.

Happy swimming…

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Alissa Swank
You've got the power
 
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Sense of self. Self. Sense of. What does this really mean? I often hold this question for my clients. Who are you? Who have you been told you are? What defines you? Do you know who you want to be?

We all have a series of these questions rolling around in our heads. Questions of about who we are, our worth, our degree of lovability. Is a, b, and c enough? If I do e, f, and g maybe then I will know I am loved. But who decides?

There are some of us who have a more vulnerable sense of self than others. We are what they call “people pleasers” and we actually really fear any kind of criticism from others. We try to make it so they can’t not like us, hence the people-pleasing. The problem is there is too much stake in the other’s perception, holding their opinion or experience of us higher than our own. We interpret their reactions to us as reflecting something true or defining of our worth. Maybe someone looks at you funny on the bus, and you think “Oh, they think I’m stupid.” Maybe someone questions why you made a certain decision and you think they are telling you do anything right. You don’t get the job and you think “I’m not good enough.” Our value is reflected in the way others react to us. SO MUCH PRESSURE TO NOT MESS UP!

I’ve had fun and hard conversations with clients and people in my life about this concept of what other people think. Sometimes we’ve laughed about how terrible it would actually be to be able to read people’s minds. And we give them the authority to decide our self worth? Sometimes our ego is a little sore from feedback that we took to heart. Yes, to some degree how another person reacts to you is going to tell you something about the interaction, which is how we learn social skills. However, their thought of you in that moment does not define you. It doesn’t have that much power if you don’t let it.

How do we develop a sense of self? The first step is to start questioning why it is that we read so much into what another person says or might be thinking. And then remind yourself that you have power and choice. You can take what someone says to you and decide for yourself whether or not you want to hang on to it. You can move on. You can take it and learn from it. The choice is ultimately yours. You get to have that power.

We are all enough.

We are all works in progress.

We are all on this journey of life.

No one is doing it perfectly.

Go for it. Declare to the world who you are!

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Where I'm From
 
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My brother asked me if I had any attachment to the different houses we lived in growing up. I have very different and very distinct memories from each of the three houses our family lived in.

Our first house was owned by my mother when she married my father, and they eventually added on a second floor as our family grew. I loved that little house with its brown carpet, secret storage closet underneath the stairs, and huge acorn trees in the park across the street. I remember my parents trying to sell the house when I was about five years old, and when some potential buyers came to have a tour, I climbed the stairs on all fours making claw marks in the brown carpet as if that would scare them away, thinking, “Oh dear, a TIGER lives here!” It didn’t work.

Our next house was actually quite a treasure when I look back on it, although the house itself was much larger than our previous, and I always felt really scared of all the excess space. We lived in a neighborhood with lots of kids, and my father built us a tree house in the woods out back with a door in the floor that you could shut and lock from the inside. One of my sanctuaries.

Finally, when I was 15 my parents moved us into their dream house with a view of the city and Bellingham Bay. They’ve now lived here the longest of any of the houses, and it holds many more memories - the countless walks with our black lab Luna, my best friend and I taking over the basement to save on rent post-college, several remodels and home improvements, and now it is the place I return to when I visit for holidays and to get a little home-cooking.

What makes a house a home? I love the concept of “hygge,” which Google defines as a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture). It matters to me to have hot water available in the kettle, blankets within arms reach on the couch, and candles glowing in the dark corners of the living room. These are the little touches that help bring a sense of comfort and are hopefully inviting others to relax and take rest when they visit. I like to know my surroundings and rather enjoy how small spaces force me to simplify.

One my my favorite writers and poets, David Whyte, writes of possibility that is right before our noses and depicts the sweet relationship to the spaces we call home:

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

You must note the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

- David Whyte, Everything is Waiting for You

Take a moment to take in the surroundings of your home. How well you must be known in that space without you even knowing it!

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Alissa Swank
stories past
 
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It’s my mother’s birthday this week.

That means that 69 years ago my grandmother gave birth to my mother, and 95 years ago my great-grandmother gave birth to my grandmother. They are who I come from.

I come from a lineage of women, whom I am often curious about, though not always consciously. There is a photograph on my refrigerator of my great-grandmother holding up a huge salmon from a fishing derby. I pass by her beaming face every day. My grandmother is now passed, yet she will visit me in my dreams, appearing in the times when I need certain reminders. And though I no longer live with my mother, I see her more and more through me. There was a photo recently taken of me with my niece and when I look at it I don’t recognize myself, but I see my mother’s face. I reflect my mother when I am counting out exact change at the register, in the way I tell stories, and by how I clean our bathroom. I’d like to say I see her in the way I garden and make spaghetti, but there is still time for that to evolve.

Someone told me once they can hear my ancestors in my voice. It made me pause for quite some time. There is a mysterious truth to the way we carry the voices and the stories of those who came before us. I wonder about the sounds, flavors, sights, and experiences that I find disgust or take joy in - were these passed along generation to generation? What is passed along anyways? Untold stories? Some of us have heard the stories of our ancestors time and time again, and yet some of us hold untold stories from the past. They’re given to us, unresolved and hidden, but not unnoticed. They’re passed on in the form of generational trauma, where the ancestral memories of pain and hardship awaken in us to be processed and dealt with. What are these stories? Perhaps of loss, tragedy, survival, anxiety, addiction, broken relationships. Perhaps of perseverance, strength, resilience, doggedness, determination, creativity.

I had a set of Matryoshka dolls when I was a little girl. I think they even used to belong to my mother when she was young. When I think about the women in my lineage, the image of these dolls come to mind. I picture myself as the doll in the middle, embraced by those before me. The image brings a sense of comfort, knowing that these women, these mothers, all came before me and made their way through this world. They gathered wisdom and strength and passed it along to their daughters. The daughters are the next tellers of the stories.

What stories are you carrying that need to be told?

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I am the product of all the ancestors getting together and deciding these stories need to be told.
— Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers
 
Alissa Swank
Bear Dreams
 
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I had two dreams in one week where I encountered the American Brown Bear, also known as the GRIZZLY. Now, let me give you a little introduction to my relationship with the grizzly. They are my favorite animal to see whenever I visit the zoo - I stare and admire their massive bodies with piles of thick fur, enjoy the way they wrestle each other in the water, how they stand up to receive tasty treats from the zoo staff. And yet, they are my absolute worst nightmare to possible-potentially-maybe see when I am out in the wilderness (you should have seen me last summer hiking through Glacier National Park with acute awareness and high anxiety). I am both enamored and terrified of these creatures in the same breath!

So, the first dream I was in the woods with some folks, when we came to a small lookout over a clearing in the trees. We peeked over and there were three giant bears just doing their bear thing. I felt frozen and also SO stoked. Second dream I was in the woods once again, but this time alone, and all of a sudden I realized a bear is nearby. For some reason, I had some food on my hands, so I was scared the bear would smell the food and hunt me down. I found a log to "hide" behind, and pretty soon I felt the bear lay down on the other side of the log and take a snooze. Again, terror and awe.

What were these bears doing in my dreams? I don’t know about you, but for me and my dreams, there is reason and meaning in the different objects/animals/people that show up. Here is what I love about bears: their POWER, STRENGTH, GROUNDEDNESS, and FEROCITY. They are EPIC beings. They are PROTECTIVE. Basically, you do not want to mess with them. A quick Google search tells me that bears are symbols of power, strength, and independence. My therapist told me I was lucky for the bears, that they are actually a rare and good sign.

I knew what I had to do. I followed my nose and intuition to the bead shop, found myself a little bear charm, and bam. Got my own little bear to remind me to harness and not fear my own power, strength, and protective force as I continue to journey through the woodlands of this world.

What animal or symbol can guide you in this time of your life?

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Alissa Swank
It's Still January
 
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You might be like me: a Northwesterner with a case of the Januarys. Is it just me, or does January always feel a little gray, swirly, damp, and bleak? I’m sure you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

It’s January. Historically my least favorite month of the year. The holidays are over, it’s the middle of winter, and I’m just trying to get through to February. Typically, I dread this time of year. I get excited for December with a lot of friend’s birthdays (including my husband’s), Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But all along I know that when all of those celebrations are over, January will be here. It’s sort of like a big ol’ Monday morning inevitably coming up right behind a jam-packed weekend of fun and saying, “Time to get back to work!”. Ughhhh…

I was in a yoga class recently on a particularly gray day and the room had a lot of windows to emphasize the grayness. I got on my mat, pretty ready to take a snooze instead of do yoga, when the teacher started to talk about rest. She acknowledged that yes, we are in the middle of winter. Yes, it is cold and dreary. Yes, it’s hard to do much. Yes, all we want to do is get cozy. And then she invited us to listen to the invitation to rest! Winter is a time when everything else in nature is resting. The bears are hibernating. The trees and plants are dormant. The garden beds are resting and waiting for new seeds once the frost is gone.

Novel. I thought, “Why haven’t I thought of this before?” What if I actually welcomed January as a time of rest and renewal? What would it be like if we all had this mindset of a winter rest? What if when all I want to do is sleep in is actually okay, called for, welcomed? And why do we try so hard to make resolutions to be more productive and override this beautiful invitation? Why do we get so guilty when we take the time to rest? We work SO HARD all the time if you ask me. You, me, and the rest of this country are due for some good rhythms of rest.

Rest often comes sweetest when followed by hard work or high productivity. My favorite feeling is to work outside in the yard for a good chunk of the day or do a hike with commitment, and then… r.e.s.t. Take a bath, move slowly, read a book, sleep, recover. Renew my sprit and my physical being, so that I am able to do more again, in time. So, perhaps I can take a look at how busy I’ve been the last year, especially towards the end with all of that celebrating, and finally slow down a bit. Perhaps I can let this time be intentional about letting myself heal and renew, that I may feel energized and ready to welcome spring and the sunshine that will surely come.

Man, I love rest. What’s not to love? Looks like I may be more keen of January than I thought.

Go, get some rest. It’s totally in season.

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Alissa Swank
So here we are.
 
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I come to this page with the awareness that I have never thought of myself as a writer. Since I was a little girl, I have often been described as creative and crafty, with my marker sets, beads, mod podge, glue gun, and various projects inspired by nature. I come from a family of artists. My older brother grew up illustrating and messing around with cinematography, my mother a gardener, my Grandpa a wood carver, and my Gramma a water colorist. I have always prided myself in getting my hands messy with color or clay, fingers left with the marks of a busy afternoon spent carefully and intentionally birthing a new creation. “Look what I made!” I would ever so proudly proclaim.

Something funny happened this summer when I was on a backpacking trip with some of my girlfriends. We were sitting in a green field at the feet of the surrounding mountains, and a few of us started to water color on tiny pieces of water color paper (one of my favorite mediums rn). After a little while, someone asked to see what we were each working on. None of us were jumping at the invitation to show our work, but then one of my friends showed a flower she had painted. I then shyly presented the mountain scene I had made. My friends adored it, but instead of holding it out proud, I quickly lowered it out of sight. I felt embarrassed! Had I made something good? What happened to those younger years of proudly displaying my work? Oh, dear.

So here we are.

I am beginning a new journey here in this virtual space. As I share some of my art, thoughts, and process, I invite you, reader, to LOOK! See what I have made. See a little bit into my world.

The process of sharing ourselves to the other is one of great vulnerability. As a therapist, I do not take that lightly. It takes courage to bring ourselves to the viewpoint of another set of eyes, and we hope and trust that those eyes are kind, accepting, and safe. So, I bring a bit of myself to these pages and hope that through them you may get to know me a little more.

Thank you for reading.

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Alissa Swank