Monday, June 29, 2009

Let Go, Write Strong, Build Readership

Lean-To 2

You've seen it before. The burdened poem. A heavy-laden sentence. Blog posts that go on and on. Chapters that would have done well if they ended three pages ago.

We all create overstuffed writing sometimes, much to the chagrin (or boredom, frustration, and unhappy surprise) of our readers and editors. We want to hold on to all of our words, each of our sparkling thoughts or stories. But the poems, sentences, chapters, readers and editors of the world wish we'd simply let go.

I understand. I'm not immune. What to do? Here are 5 things I try to remember, to help me let go and write strong:

1. Aim for arresting details, then trim those that don't add extra force to the text. Refrain from being too sad about this (see number 3 below); remember, this practice wins points with readers and editors.

2. Trust the reader. If details are strong, readers can catch the import without a lot of explanation and application talk. I dare say that religious writers are particularly remiss in this area, as they spend too much time overlaying the God-aspect in their stories, poems and posts. We don't need to say, "He redeemed the situation by His powerful hand," if we've made it crystal clear through redemptive details.

3. Save it for later. This is especially hard for the new author/blogger, eager to fill a book/blog post with everything she knows on a subject. Remember, there'll be other chances. For instance, this weekend I was tempted to add a section to my Hospitality chapter, on the sometimes inhospitable ways we practice communion in our churches. But the chapter was already pleased with itself. So I started a file called "God in the Yard Blog Posts" and sketched my idea for a future blog post (once the book comes out and I want to extend ideas through conversation).

4. Give ideas away. Sometimes it's nice to pass things along to other writers, who have a built-in audience for your idea. (This point is also my tiny plug for Lewis Hyde's The Gift. In Chapter 2, he asserts that we keep a gift by giving part of it away. As Hyde says, "...where true, organic increase is at issue, gift exchange preserves that increase" )

5. Print it out, let it sit. I don't print my blog posts (maybe I should!), but I do print my articles and chapters. Then I let them sit for a day or a month. Creating distance between ourselves and a text, as well as seeing it in a different form (paper versus screen) goes a long way towards helping us appreciate the power of deletion.

So that's it. If we let go, we write strong. (Now let me see, where's that delete button...)

Empty Swing photo, by L.L. Barkat.

The Gift: Take, Eat, This is My Tweet
When Did You Labor, or will Sabbath help your gift go viral?
Womb, Harlequin, and License Plates: The Gift, 1

Laura's Blowing in the Wind

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dear Editor Cindy, You Can Stop Crossing Your Fingers

Notes for GIY

Dear Editor Cindy,

You probably heard a rumor that I might not finish my book. Struggling through the final chapters of a manuscript can be tough work. But I assure you the rumor is patently false. As of yesterday I typed the final words of the epilogue.

If I hadn't been through this process before, I'd be celebrating with wine and chocolate (well, that is if I drank wine on U.S. soil; for some reason I only imbibe when I'm traveling abroad). Anyway, this time I know better. These final keystrokes are not an end but a beginning. You'll send the manuscript out to two readers (but if it's okay with you, please don't pick Reader 2 again. She didn't seem to appreciate my genius. Just hire Reader 1 and Reader 3 and we'll be fine.)

You're probably on vacation and won't get this note until my manuscript has been sitting on your desk for a month. In the meantime, I promise not to email you every day and clog up your inbox. I'll be good and keep it to a bi-weekly inquiry. And instead I'll send letters to people like Mr. Billy Coffey. He just did a marvelous giveaway of our first book, Stone Crossings. You should check him out. I'm not kidding; he's an up-and-comer. Why, I wrote to him already and here's what I said...

Dear Billy,

I'm so flattered that you want to be writer-me when you grow up. That's pretty cool. Really.

I just have this... well... this concern... I'm kinda wondering (quietly, see) if you could stand the pressure to sometimes wear a dress and heels (personally, I don't mind dresses, but I can't stand high shoes; they hurt my knees and make me feel like a wanna-be giraffe). The way I see it, you're more the cowboy-hat type— spinning tales by the fire. Tales that could make a man weep into his coffee or lose his chewing tobacco in a moment of pure hilarity. [you can read the rest of the letter here.]

When I'm not busy writing letters to talented people like Billy, I'm going to write lots of poems. Like this one for last week's 'not' prompt at High Calling Blog's Random Acts of Poetry...


You are not the blond
beauty I'd been taught to
believe in, Renaissance-buxom,
fawning over my every word

and feeding me grapes while
I sop up inspiration from the
sweat of your pores. I wish you'd
stop yawning, picking your teeth

and flicking stray peach skins
over my notes. Who can work
in the presence of such disdain,
who can stay sane, pen the next

masterpiece while your eyes
look so vexed. You are not
the helpmeet I ordered, not the
glass of red wine nor the rich, fine

chocolate they promised in sonnets.
I bet money you like it this way, wielding
a tray of miniature mincemeat pies, not
lifting a finger to help me swat flies.

Your Favorite Writer for InterVarsity Press, L.L.

'God in the Yard' notes photo, by L.L. Barkat.

Monica's Pilgrim Longing
Sally’s Skinny Dipping
Jim’s 76th and Tidbits
Ann's The Din Undoes Us
Milton's To a Friend, on the Death of Her Father
Marcus's As the Deer
nAncY's not
Mom2Six's Quest
Claire's Untangling and Twisted Tale
Tony's Country Rain
Cindy's Lucid Thoughts
Sara's Woods
Deb's Prodigal Mothers
Simple Country Girl's I Do Not Have

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Gift: Take, Eat, this is My Tweet-- hospitality on Twitter

and then there's this

'Honey, come and try some viral-marketing broccoli rabe,' says a woman to her boyfriend.

The context? Bill Wasik, author of And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture has just removed the plastic-bag-cooked-veggie from the microwave; he's promoting the bag as part of a word-of-mouth effort he signed up for on-line. This is the world of viral dreams, where businesses capitalize on 'media-consuming individuals' in hopes of creating 'community' that will sell their products.

But corporations are only tapping into a reality that exists for many who move and shake on-line. These are the 'sub-culture [who have] the mind-set of the marketer, drunk on numbers, single-mindedly obsessed with gathering attention, engineering sudden spikes.' They are the 'individual consumers...learning and refining the tricks of manipulation for themselves— where they serve as secret agents inside their own crowds, totaling up mentions and page views, sifting through their troves of data in a scurrilous search for gold.'

In other words, we are a tweeting, blogging, story-churning narcissistic cyberbunch, asserts Wasik, and who knows what effect this will ultimately have on culture?

Wasik's conclusions are only slightly less narcissistic than the cybertrends he observes.* In a kind of secular-spiritual-practice approach, he recommends quiet times, techno-Sabbath, self-reflection, and delaying gratification (by waiting for a topic to die down before reading about it). He asks us to be judicious controllers of what we take in, mostly to preserve our sanity and productivity and possibly to grant reason to our politics and greatness in our art. Any mention of true community and grace-engagement seems absent, as he urges us towards a corrective of partial 'disengagement.'

Enter The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. In speaking of gifts, he considers three levels at which they can function: the ego-of-one (which is self-gratification), the ego-of-two (which is reciprocal and best exemplified by lovers) or a full circle scenario that is unlike many married couples who 'get just so far in the expansion of the self and then close down for a lifetime, opening up for neither children, nor the group, nor the gods.'

In a sense, Wasik's Internet antidotes speak to dealing with the ego-of-one. But can *disengagement* alone move us towards higher levels of gift-giving? Towards reciprocity or full-circle giving? Maybe for that, we need to consider grace-engagement, a kind of cyber-hospitality modeled on tried and true off-line social behaviors.

For simplicity's sake, I thought we might focus on the increasingly popular Twitter world. However, if you tend to move more actively in the blogging or Facebook world, I invite your observations in those arenas. I don't think I've reached an adequate hospitality model quite yet, but here are some questions I've begun to ask myself about the act of tweeting...

1. How often do I tweet? If I spoke that much at an actual party, would I be monopolizing the conversation? Would I be viewed as a self-focused self-promoter?

2. Do my tweets tend to focus on *me*? As a journaling tool, focusing on myself can be positive, but how would such inward-focus be viewed in the average off-line conversation?

3. Do I tweet about the good stuff? Comparing this to off-line, am I just the gossipy tidbit type (sometimes fun and can serve a purpose) or can I also be counted on to move the conversation to refreshingly humorous or profound places?

4. Are my tweets usually monolog? Or do I engage in dialog? At 140 characters per entry, dialog is no simple matter. Still, am I talking AT or WITH other people?

5. Do I celebrate others' successes in my tweets? (And here I must thank Bradley Moore for retweeting my self-focused tweet on how I received an unexpected advance because Stone Crossings is being translated into Korean! Oops, pardon that temporary descent into narcissism :)

6. Do I think twice before tweeting on a bandwagon? As Wasik notes, he has seen the 'day-to-day destructiveness of the Internet churn, of the manufacture of nanostories with little regard for their ultimate truth.'

7. Do I tweet-dialog mostly with one other person? As in off-line life, it's good to focus on one or two friends sometimes, but in a social context that can border on the ego-of-two which never widens the circle.

8. Are my tweets always directive, statement oriented? Or do I sometimes ask questions, thus encouraging others to think and respond and add their wisdom or humor to the conversation.

All righty. Take, eat, these are my thoughts on tweeting. Now I'll sit back and wait for the bread and wine you'll bring to the table. And together maybe we can feed a wider world.

And Then There's This, photo by L.L. Barkat. *Overall, I enjoyed Wasik's book; I attribute the nature of his conclusions partly to the stage we're at with this whole 'social media conversation'; others like him, including those in the Christian community, have offered similar antidotes that rely on disengagement. As the conversation continues, I expect we'll eventually see a call for other kinds of solutions that favor what I've termed grace-engagement. For an article that begins the call in this direction, check out Loving Your On-Line Neighbor as Yourself, at Catapult.

High Calling's Laish and the Silo Effect
Thanks to International Arts Movement, for linking to our discussion of The Gift.

When Did You Labor, or will Sabbath help your gift go viral?
Womb, Harlequin, and License Plates: The Gift, 1

Trust Word of Mouth, at eMarketer
Loving Your On-Line Neighbor as Yourself, at Catapult
The Rise of the Nanostory, at Freedom to Tinker
Nanostory, at Tangzine

My First Giveaway, at Billy Coffey's.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Make Your Writing Happen

old books

I'm pushing myself through writing the last three chapters of my book. Concerning this challenge, I was foolish enough to say to a writer friend, 'Well, you know, I can't force this thing.' To which my writer friend said in an annoyingly writerly way, 'Uh... yes you can.' (Advice here to the would-be writer. Don't make friends with people who know anything about writing if you want the freedom to sit on your writing butt and dip violets in sugar, or some other such thing, rather than finishing a project of consequence).

Truth is, you really can't force writing. It takes time to research, to process thoughts, to craft something as lovely as a sugared violet. And, truth is, you really *can* force writing. You've got so much in that head of yours already; you don't have to read one more ancient monk on the 'art of submission' (I'm talking to myself here now, which is a healthy writer behavior). Sometimes it's about altering expectations. Or trusting what you already have to offer. It's about putting away the violets and pulling out the keyboard.

Like right now. I am not inspired to write a poem. I don't want to do it. Truly, I'd prefer to translate French poetry (a new passion), but I am going to prove to myself that a person can *make* writing happen. It may not end up being my best shot, but here goes, based on last week's prompt...

'Holy Writ'

I spied God
meddling with
my keyboard,
skipping from
a to z like He
was some kind
of Alpha and
Omega who
could ply a
whole world,
ex nihilo, presto,
from the chaos.

1600's Books photo, by L.L. Barkat.

High Calling Blogs' Apophasis, or the Power of 'Not'
Monica’s His Delight, His Applause
Mom2Six’s Connecting
Sara's Before it Was Gone
Laura's Red and yellow...
Deb's The Verse
Joelle's Sacred Heart Abbey
Erica's Silver Coin
Simple Country Girl's I Spied God...
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You Can Get Away With Anything, So Long as You Sing It

I couldn't resist posting this, smack in the middle of a serious discussion of The Gift. Even if you know nothing about opera, this lady'll make you laugh. Laughter is a special kind of gift, don't you think?

Anna Russell, on Ring of the Nibelungs.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

When Did You Labor? (or, will Sabbath help your gift go viral?)

Gladiator broom

Sam got stuck in the Intro, and I decided to wait for him in Chapter One— just a little corner of it... just the last sentence... okay, just the intro to the last sentence (see, Sam, I'm working with you)...

The Lord says, 'All that opens the womb is mine...' And this reflects back on the Introduction, which uses the image of laboring... When we are moved by art we are grateful...that [the artist] labored in the service of his gifts.

This supposes that we know what our gifts are, and that we take the time to refine and share them. For those who love the cyberlife, this can become a thorny issue. It's easy to get carried away on the wires for hours on end, while our gifts sit idle. As Vincent Rossmeier notes,

I would say that if there's one thing that's causing the novels of the world from getting written right now, it's surfing the Internet. I do think that a lot of creative people want to be working on their craft, they want to be thinking big about what they should be doing and my belief is that the culture is encouraging them to think small. To me, the challenge is to try to find ways to partially unplug ourselves. To carve out spaces in our lives away from information.

That's one reason I take a weekly technology Sabbath. It helps me carve out thinking and dreaming space. It relieves my heart from all the hype and bad news (I'm talking about the news links that pop up when I open Yahoo). I'm even working on a daily schedule of unplugging and prioritizing, based on some cool suggestions I found in Power of Less, The: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Business and in Life. (This book oversimplifies sometimes, but it's worth a definite checkout at the library.)

So now, if you'll pardon me, I'm off to do a little labor in the service of my gifts.

Gladiator-Flower Broom photo, by L.L. Barkat.

High Calling Blogs' Mozart, Tiger Woods and Me: Gift 1 1/2
Liz's Increase and Sacrifice
Laura's The Gift, Forcibly Taken

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Womb, Harlequin and License Plates: The Gift 1


Dogs can bark, he said. Demanded civil behavior! she laughed back. My spouse and littlest child were playing the acronym license plate game.

DCB, found on the back of a volkswagen. Remolded into delightful phrases. Brought home in a little story-box. A gift to the family.

Switch gears. Families and strangers grieving Flight 447. A briefcase with an airline ticket, orange life vest, elusive black boxes, debris floating on the turbulent sea. What to take from this, what to give in the face of so much loss? I reach into my sorrow and empathy, gather slight visions of what has so far been recovered, and consider...

Black Box

What indestructible secrets does
the black box hold. Besides electrical
failure, did it record his intention
to return her key for good on Monday,

does it hold her regret for being too
easy that night they cut the deal
on the purchase of rubber for ten
factories in the South. Will it tell

how the child lay dreaming of
chocolate gateaux with cherries
and how his mother had just
dabbed whipped cream on his

freckled nose to make him laugh.
Or can it say how— while the
boy was still unwrapping presents,
'midst screams he thought were party

sounds—the woman took him in her
arms one last time, as if for the first
time, and pressed his face against
milk-white silk and breaking breast.

This week at High Calling Blogs we're discussing chapter one of Hyde's The Gift. Like Sam, who wrote the HCB post for us, I find myself riddled with questions. What is a gift? On what does it rely? Assignation or acceptance?

In other words, if I say my poem is a gift to the grieving, is it? What if the sentiments are too hard to accept? What if the recipients don't particularly like poetry? Or if the license-plate story comes home, not meant as a gift per se, but I accept it as such, is it a gift?

Are some gifts greater than others? What if I were a better poet, or a worse one? Does that alter the reality or power of my gift? Hyde notes, for instance, that the formulaic Harlequin Romance series is not a work of art (the parameters have been set by poll results and this is the bottom line: 192 pages in length, gold curlicue design, heroine between ages of 19 and 27, single man but preferably recently widowed, and so on); and because the series is not, in his opinion, a work of art, it lacks the power of true gift.

True gift, says Hyde, makes us 'grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gifts.' Such work 'when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.' Furthermore, a gift should shift us from emptiness to plenty as it 'seeks the barren, the arid, the stuck, the poor. The Lord says, All that opens the womb is mine...'

Is this, at last, a definition of gift? If I open some womb in myself to give, maybe it is a gift whether or not it's accepted. If I accept a gift not intended as a gift and let it birth something in me, this too might be gift to my soul.

'Opening in Alhambra Wall' photo, by L.L. Barkat.

Laura's Some Food We Could Not Eat
Sam's The Gift: Art, Work and a Ribbon


Our next prompt (please post by June 18) is to begin, middle, or end a poem with "I spied God in (choose a specific object... a chrysalis, your mailbox, the dishwasher, an old teapot; what did God look like, what was God doing, did it surprise you?)

High Calling Blogs' Poetry as Spiritual Practice: 2
Marika's Repair
Yvette's Doors
Milton's Seasons and Nicodemus
Monica's Learning
Sarah’s Strands
Ann’s Soul ADD and Burning Bush
Laura’s Conversation
Simple Country Girl's Book RAP
Marcus's Liturgy of Seasons
Deb's Wrenched
TUC's Fell Down Today
Sarah's Way With Words
Laure's Silences
Liz's Sirens
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Friday, June 05, 2009

Adios, Spain

Granada Palace Door

Before we know it, our time in Spain has come to a close. I'm wanting just one more bowl of olives, another visit to a flamenco cave, mornings of birdsong, cool air that seeps through shuttered windows in Granada.

This place has captured my heart... its art, its people, the hum of a language I've studied but never been immersed in before.

At the airport I surprise myself by beginning to weep; we've spent every day with these translators (Jarit and Maria) and they've charmed us with their warmth, hilarious stories, and brilliance. As Maria is fond of saying, 'Spanish people are passionate,' and I can see this as she also begins to cry.

We walk through security, shoes off, belts off, sweaters in this bin, suitcases on that conveyor belt. Turning one last time, I see Maria wiping her eyes. Who knows if we shall meet again.

Seville World Expo Site

Car-Sized Street

Seville Park

Tower of Seville Sunset

Photos of Granada and Seville, by L.L. Barkat.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Streets, Details and Dancin', Spain

Flamenco Dancer

Where do we find words? And when do words make their way into poems?

Sometimes we find words in ordinary details on a street, in a museum, at a cave where dancers tap out flamenco. We note the cherry red festival dress, zebra butterfly, black heels, casual curve of a child's body on marble floors, even the cut of an ancient toilet now exposed to sky and sun.

Or we pluck word-phrases from the air, if we are quick and have remembered to bring along our sly net.

Here's a poem I found at the Granada Museum of Science. It was calling through these phrases, uttered by various people in our party as we walked through the Antarctica exhibit and some among us played a video game. It is dedicated to the couple who helped us with translation for the week and recalls also a conversation I had with the husband about apologies.

Here are the words I stole and stuffed into my poem:

'I think it takes 5 men and a whole day to build an igloo.'
'I hit a penguin!'
'It said I was a careless driver.'
'I was picking up meteorites along the way.'

(for Maria and Jarit)

I swear I was on my way
to see you, there in your
igloo it took five men and a
whole day to build. You were

cooking polar bear meat, melting
months-old snow to pour into
my tin cup. The day was white on
white, and I was swerving snow

dunes on a black and yellow
skidoo, picking up meteorites
along the way (where they
came from I can't say).

I had a pound of precious rice
in my pocket— a rare treat in an
Antarctica kitchen— and a thousand
kisses for you on my lips. But then

it happened. Careless driver that
I am, I hit a penguin and the screen
flashed red, 'Game over.' But I
swear I was on my way.

Festival Dress

Festival Dress and Shoes

Tapping to Flamenco

Chapel Gate

Street Flavor

Butterfly House, Museum de Sciencia Granada

At the Law School

Ancient Toilet

Poetry prompt: try collecting phrases from the conversations around you or from street signs, cereal boxes, book covers, wherever. Choose one or two to pop into a poem. Let me know when you post and leave your link in my comment box by Thursday June 11, for definite links and possible feature at High Calling Blogs.

Stacy’s series of poems
Jennifer’s Words Have Wings
Yvette’s One
nAncY’s Words Everywhere and poem from the wordpuddle
Marcus’s The Problem with Grace
Brian’s I am
Sunrise Sister’s, poem in the comment section
Liz’s Finished
Monica’s Past Mount Carmel Nosedive
Ann’s What’s the Dream?
A Simple Country Girl’s Perched There
Diane’s Hold Out Until the Honeymoon
LL's Apology
Sara's Stories
Claire's Giddy and Song of Stifle
Erica's RAP: Part Deux, Blue Sky, and Wordpool
Laura's A New Beginning
High Calling Blogs' Puddles, Fizz and Bubbles
Deb's Collect

Granada photos by L.L. Barkat.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

We Interrupt this Spanish Program


Once upon a time, I promised to highlight your stories and photos, and add a permanent link to you in my sidebar, should you decide to share an intersection between your life and my first book.

That's why I'm interrupting our Spanish program to feature Deb's lovely, unusual journey to Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places. Here's just a glimpse...

So I turned to her book for some guidance when I was at a crossroads of sorts. It seemed to be that this was the answer nudging at me. Some insight or clarity or hot soothing cup of something. To get past the last sour taste. Where I still clung to anger and some need to spill out all my examples of hurt.

You can read the rest of 'Unearth', here.

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Altars, Columns and the Virgin, Spain

Church Column Detail, Granada

Sacred Statue, Granada

The Virgin, Granada

Marble, carvings, soaring ceilings. Light, shadow, sacred statues. The Virgin and Child. Columns and candles. Hand-painted walls. The Virgin and Wounded Savior.

Sight drawn upward, through, inward. The soul rushed by glory and magnitude.

What hands toiled? Whose backs stooped? Which minds envisioned, planned, ordered? Are the names scrawled somewhere in secret? Did I touch them with my feet, my eyes, unawares? Can I thank those who brought joys and sorrows, a bag of bread to sustain their day, artistry to last through the years? Will they hear me now... gasping awe?

Detail in Church, Granada

Hand-Painted Columns, Granada Church

Church Ceiling, Granada

Painted Walls Church, Granada

Cathedral, Granada


Organ, Granada

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Come to the Palace, Spain

The Alhambra

Alhambra Tower

We wind our way through narrow streets... up, up, up. Shadows thicken, trees tower. Scent of roses fills the air. Here is the palace. The Alhambra.

A guide tells us of Charles the Fifth. Ferdinand and Isabella. Others whose names escape me now. Islamic, Renaissance and Baroque art converge in these halls, these courtyards. I gravitate towards life— birds against towers, the cherry tree now full with fruit, vibrant cypress, shadows of curious visitors. I seek curves, openings, views outward and inward... the hills, archways, a remarkably decorative prison cell, ceilings that represent Mohammed's cave vision, tiny windows through which arrows sought enemies.

Once there was music here, feasting, shouts, weeping, loves found and lost, despair, pleasure 'midst gardens and marble set against the brilliant sky and the snow-covered mountains beyond. Once, upon a different time. I lean against stone walls, carved wooden doors, my own small self set against history, a shadow passing through where others walked, danced, limped, embraced, fought before me, once upon a time.

Trees and Tower, Alhambra

View, Alhambra

Mountains, Alhambra

Arrow Port, Alhambra

Into the Courtyard, Alhambra

Column Detail, Alhambra

Prison, Alhambra

Courtyard, Alhambra

Door, Alhambra

The Caves Ceiling, Alhambra

Stair Rail, Alhambra

The Alhambra, Granada, Spain photos by L.L. Barkat.

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