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Cultivate the Deeply Connected Relationships You Desire and Deserve
By Zoë Kors
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A narrative guide and practical methodology for nurturing and sustaining our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world.“With intimacy as the foundational principle of our existence, we can build a life based on what we truly need, not what we think we need or have been told we need. By embracing the practice of radical intimacy, I can confidently promise my readers a personal revolution of self-acceptance, appreciation, vitality, and confidence. And without fail, mind-blowing, soul-stirring, earth-shattering sex follows.”—Zoë Kors
Part practical guide, part client stories, part personal narrative, Zoë Kors draws on her experience as a sex and intimacy coach, thought leader, and relationship writer in sharing her powerful and practical methodology for nurturing and sustaining our intimate relationships over time. She addresses the essential truth that is almost universally missed in discussions of sex and intimacy: We can meet each other only to the extent that we can meet ourselves. Kors guides the reader on a five‑part journey through nine areas of opportunity for deepening intimacy with themselves, their partner, and their world, inviting them to embrace emotional, physical, and energetic self‑mastery, which is required to skillfully relate with others. At the conclusion of each part, there are a collection of experiential exercises which support the reader in embodying the concepts they’ve just read. Voice-driven, accessible, and with the right amount of tough love, Radical Intimacy takes the mystery out of human connection. From academia and science to mysticism and self-development, Kors delivers a rich and varied understanding of human sexuality and intimacy through the lens of the body, brain, heart, spirit, and culture.
My family has graciously granted me permission to share their names and stories. All other names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy. All pronouns used in this book reflect the ones used by the individuals in real life.
In the interest of full transparency, I am a white, cisgender, mostly heterosexual woman of Scandinavian and Eastern European Jewish decent. I am a credentialed coach, certified by the Co-Active Training Institute. I’ve trained extensively in hatha yoga, bhakti yoga, and meditation in a variety of disciplines. Additionally, I trained and practiced tantra with the late Psalm Isadora and have been initiated in a Sri Vidya lineage. I’ve dabbled in Zen Buddhism since I was sixteen years old through my own self-directed study. In the past several years, however, I have formalized that training at Upaya Zen Center, receiving the precepts from Roshi Joan Halifax in a jukai ceremony. Currently, I participate in an ongoing Socially Engaged Buddhist Training with a focus on alleviating suffering before, during, and after death. To that end, I volunteer regularly at a hospice in Los Angeles called Caring House. In my work, I often draw from the various disciplines I’ve studied. It is through the lens of my identity, education, and lived experience as a white woman that I write this book. I offer stories, concepts, and perspectives from cultures other than my own ancestry with humility, respect, and the recognition of my filtered perspective.
I SEE YOU. I GOT YOU. I LOVE YOU.
THERE IS A SPECIFIC MOMENT THAT HAS BECOME INEVITABLE IN THE hundreds of workshops I have facilitated. It happens every time, and it goes like this: Each participant pairs up with someone they don’t know. The nervous excitement is palpable. I ask them to take turns sharing something that is hard for them to admit, something they’ve kept secret from the rest of the world and maybe even themselves. I instruct them how to skillfully listen, support, and witness each other. Apprehension gives way to vulnerability. After their mutual share, they look into each other’s eyes for a good ten minutes without looking away, and finally I have them say to each other I see you. I got you. I love you. This is the moment I am referring to. It’s marked by tears of joy, relief, recognition, and appreciation. Having taken an oath of confidentiality and willingly shed any hint of pretense, it’s as if, communally and individually, we step into a space that feels safe enough to be exactly who and where we are—unapologetically real, raw, and rough. It’s just us, it’s tender, and it’s profound. This is radical intimacy.
Part of what makes these moments so powerful is that they rarely happen in the context of our daily lives. How many times have you brushed off a tense interaction with your partner because you didn’t want to incite the same argument you’ve been having over and over again, maybe even for years? What about when you catch a heart-wrenching glimpse of yourself in the mirror in spite of your efforts to avoid seeing yourself naked? Do you have your own version of escaping into a gallon of ice cream and Netflix instead of experiencing the discomfort of your feelings? Moments like these aren’t troublesome as isolated incidents, but the collection of them in repetition, over time, creates a persistent low-key disorientation. We skim the surface of our lives pretending there isn’t a swirling bog of unresolved energy growing underneath, the neglect of which leads to anxiety, depression, and loss of purpose.
In my many years of supporting individuals and couples as a sex and intimacy coach, I have come to know, firsthand, the ravaging effects of this kind of distraction, deflection, and denial. Maybe you know it too. Has your spouse suddenly announced they are leaving you for someone else after a lifetime together of raising kids and creating a family enterprise? Or maybe you are knee-deep in the aftermath of a divorce wondering how you once loved the person you now despise with every cell of your body. Perhaps you finally settled down with a “good guy,” only to end up in a sexless marriage still fantasizing about sex with the narcissistic hot guy. Maybe after years of being with your partner, you feel more like roommates or siblings than lovers. Or have you always thought you would get married one day but just never found “the one”? If any of this sounds familiar… Welcome. You’ve arrived in the right place.
The long-term consequences of distracting ourselves from the practice of sustained intimacy on many levels aren’t specific to gender, sex, orientation, or relationship status. Everyone at one time or another has asked themselves if this is all there is. Everyone has wondered how to sustain desire, enthusiasm, affection, and respect for our intimate partners over time. And everyone has, at one point in their lives, looked in the mirror and wondered where the person they used to know has gone. Our thunderbolt, 140-character, hyperstimulating, same-day-delivery, mobile-order-half-caff-venti-one-pump-sugar-free-vanilla-coconut-milk-latte kind of world provides an environment inhospitable to intimacy, with others, with ourselves.
We can talk about truth telling, authenticity, badassery, self-love, self-care, and slaying the day. We can apply the law of attraction, love languages, and every hack in the world. We can do all the yoga, workshops, and retreats we can make time for. But without an underpinning of intimacy, our experience lacks the kind of specificity necessary to truly know ourselves through and through. With intimacy as the foundational principle of our existence, we can build a life based on what we truly need, not what we have been told we need, think we need, or think we should need. No matter who you are and who you like to have sex with, my intention is to arm you with a new tool kit and consciousness for cultivating the deeply connected relationships you desire and the life you deserve.
ON NAVIGATING THIS BOOK
The concepts presented in this book build on themselves chapter by chapter. For this reason alone, it is advantageous to work through the material sequentially. If you are like me, you will pick up the book and blade through it, all willy-nilly, looking for snippets of words and pictures that grab your attention. That’s okay! I honor your curiosity. If you are particularly drawn to a certain chapter or section of the book, I offer the following guidance: familiarize yourself with the Radical Intimacy Matrix presented in Chapter 3 as a foundation for navigating the book either in the order it’s presented or randomly. This will give you context as you light a match, illuminating various areas of opportunity for greater intimacy and self-knowledge.
ON SAFETY, SUPPORT, AND SELF-RELIANCE
In reading and embracing the practices in this book, I am inviting you into tender territory, much of which you have successfully resisted for some time. Thoughts, feelings, and even somatic (physical) experiences are likely to arise in which you feel vulnerable. Like the safe space in my workshops, you will want to feel protected in your experience. Any transformational journey is deeply personal. Not everyone in your life will understand and be able to support you. In fact, some are undoubtedly invested in the status quo and will be threatened by your desire to evolve and grow. It might feel lonely at times, but the gift is the relationship you are building with yourself and a new kind of self-reliance. Alternately, you might read this book with a bestie or a circle of friends with whom you journey into the world of Radical Intimacy together in a supportive community.
When a baby is born, the first question many of us ask is, “Is it a girl or a boy?” From the moment a child enters the world, we are expected to relate to them as a gender, rather than as a person. Everything we perceive about them is through the filter of our ideas about gender. The binary model of gender expression is a key underpinning of our patriarchal social structure. Sexism is the prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of sex. In order for sexism to thrive, it’s required that there be a clearly defined difference between the sexes. As you move through the exploration of the many influences on your sexuality, much of what you are going to be dealing with has to do with gender conformity—how you are supposed to feel and behave as a woman or a man. This is challenging enough for a cisgender person—someone who identifies as a man or woman and was born with genitals that align with that identification. It’s exponentially more confronting for people whose gender identification falls somewhere other than solidly in one or the other of the two binary extremes.
In Western culture, we have long operated under the assumption that if you are born with a vulva, you are a girl and will grow to become a woman. And if you are born with a penis, you are a boy who will become a man. Conventional Western culture’s historical intolerance for nuance and subtlety has never allowed for the possibility that there might be a gray area here. Reorganizing our understanding of gender to allow for more nuance might not obliterate gender tropes and the way we stack our expectations against what we misunderstand to be innate identities, but it would present an array of options for how we inhabit our bodies. Think about it for a moment. Given the opportunity to explore your own gender identity, would you describe yourself as 100 percent feminine or 100 percent masculine? Would letting go of rigid gender roles shift the way you dress, speak, behave? Societal gender chaos is perhaps a risk worth taking for the benefit of a more diverse set of criteria by which we discern and understand who we are and how we relate to each other.
ON THE COMPONENTS OF CONSENT
No one is entitled access to your body without your permission. Full stop. Consent should be a no-brainer, but somehow it persists as a very murky subject. I am including some basics about consent to support you in the physical intimacy exercises in this book, as well as in your life beyond. Borrowing from Planned Parenthood, here are the five components of proper consent—FRIES.
1. Freely Given: Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, coercion, or the influence of drugs or alcohol.
2. Reversible: Even if consent has previously been given, you are entitled to change your mind with no explanation required. Even if it’s for something you’ve done before. Even if you are both naked in bed. Even if you are in the middle of the sexual act itself.
3. Informed: You can consent to something only if you have the full story. You have not consented if someone says they will use a condom and they don’t or if they neglect to disclose that they have a sexually transmitted disease.
4. Enthusiastic: When it comes to sex, you should do only stuff you want to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
5. Specific: Saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean you say yes to anything else.
Couples often communicate in a kind of shorthand they develop over time. While understandable and appropriate, if you are embarking on this journey with your long-term partner, I urge you to err on the side of caution when trying the exercises presented in this book and to step up your level of sensitivity to your partner’s experience. To be honest, the same applies to physical intimacy with yourself. Check in regularly with yourself and make sure you are comfortable with the pace and intensity of your exploration.
ON TRAUMA AS AN OPPORTUNITY
Trauma comes in many forms. At one end of the spectrum, it can be a single act of violence that is nameable and knowable or many years of sexual abuse or harassment. At the other end, it can be a subtle but persistent manipulation of our inner dialogue and self-esteem. I have treated a client for whom a single comment from a past lover about her body caused such deep trauma that it lived at the root of her compulsive self-harm behavior for decades after. Our suffering is not a competition. One person’s trauma does not diminish another’s. The last thing you need to feel is that your wounds are not valid or deserving of your attention. Your body holds valuable information about opportunities for healing. Follow its clues.
As you journey into the world of Radical Intimacy, you may elicit what looks and feels like a trauma response. Clinically, this is your nervous system reacting as if the threat that caused the original trauma still exists in the present moment. To determine if you are having a trauma response, look for the classic signs of Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn. There are many techniques available through the magic of the Internet that help you to calm your response and regulate your nervous system—breathing techniques, mindfulness exercises, weighted blankets, and more. I’ve included a small tool kit of basic exercises for self-soothing here to use in a pinch. If your disregulation persists, put the book down and seek the support of a trauma-informed therapist to help you process what is triggering your response. Please listen when I tell you that this doesn’t mean you are broken. Nothing needs to be fixed. You simply need more care and healing before you continue on the Radical Intimacy journey.
ON THE TRIP YOU ARE ABOUT TO TAKE
Are you the kind of person who sets your navigation app to your destination and then takes each turn as it comes? Personally, I can relax only if I zoom out and get a snapshot impression of the entire trip before I begin. If this is you too, here is your snapshot of radical intimacy. There are three kinds of intimacy: Emotional, Physical, and Energetic. And there are three levels of intimacy: Self, Other, World. The intersection of these kinds and levels creates nine areas of opportunity to deepen intimacy. For instance, “emotional intimacy with self” is an opportunity to master your emotional life. “Physical intimacy with the world” is an opportunity to explore how your environment penetrates you through the vehicle of your five senses—stop and smell the roses, yes, but how do we taste the wind? You can refer to the diagram provided here to see all nine combinations. I’ll be guiding you through these areas with information, stories from my practice and personal life, as well as exercises that will help you embody the concepts you’ve just learned.
I invite you to dive deep and work your way through each of the chapters, focusing on one at a time, with no concern for how to weave it together into a cohesive system until the end. I urge you to simply be in the experience of each chapter and each exercise and adopt an attitude of noticing, allowing, and accepting. In this way, reading the book and then interacting with the information contained within it becomes your first experience of radical intimacy.
Bon voyage, happy trails, vaya con Dios, dear reader. May you enjoy a richly rewarding, deeply moving, life-changing journey home to yourself.
MORE THAN SEX
SURELY, YOU’VE READ IT IN A NOVEL OR SEEN IT IN THE MOVIES, OR maybe it lives solely in your fantasy life. Maybe you’ve actually experienced a moment of mind-blowing, soul-stirring, earth-shattering intimacy. Your partner looks deeply in your eyes, takes your head in their hands, and kisses you like they are caressing your very soul with their mouth. Your whole nervous system unwinds with a felt sense of comfort, like coming home. Your body melts; your insecurities fall away; your inhibitions vanish. As your flesh hungers to blur the lines of separation, a tidal wave of desire crashes through you—desire to consume each other, desire to feel yourself, desire to merge with the universe in an explosion of effervescent stardust and love juice. There’s no room for thought in this madness, no need for interpretation or meaning. This communion exists beyond the masks we wear, the personalities we inhabit, the stories we tell. It’s pure, it’s primal, and it’s delicious.
If you ask everyone you know what intimacy means to them, half will describe this scene or something like it. The other half will tell you about a road trip or a spa day with their bestie, rife with deep conversation and confessions of tightly held secrets. They’ll describe the experience of being seen for who they really are—warts and all—and being loved and accepted anyway. In mutuality, this honest sharing of selves offers validation and acceptance, while cultivating trust and self-esteem. When we see ourselves in others, it gives context to and normalizes our own experience. In this sense, intimacy is the antidote to shame, the belief that we are so bad or broken that we are unworthy of love and belonging—two things that are essential to our general well-being, if not survival. As nourishing as intimacy is, it remains one of the most confounding of all human experiences. We long for, look for, and even chase it. We also fear, resist, and run from it. Most of us can point to an idea or occurrence of what we would call intimacy in our lives, but few of us truly grasp its full expression. What exactly are we craving, and why does it make us so anxious? Intimacy is risky. It can feel like we are putting ourselves out there to be evaluated and judged, which, depending on your tolerance for vulnerability, can be exciting or excruciating. Here’s the thing… our limited understanding of intimacy has the achievement of it dependent on someone or something outside of ourselves. In actuality, the nature of intimacy is vast and readily accessible to each and every one of us individually.
How intimate are you with yourself? Ponder that for a moment. When was the last time you sat still for a few minutes, put down all the devices, and just listened to the sound of your own breath? Do you have a working knowledge of your internal organs and where they are located in your body? Do you bring your full awareness to the experience of eating your food and drinking your water, or are you distracted by your busy mind trying to figure out the details of your life? Let’s go even deeper. Are you intimate with your emotional landscape and which skills you use to navigate the (sometimes) stormy skies? What feelings arise when you look at the sunset, and where do you feel that in your body? And when was the last time you looked at your own genitals in the mirror with love and appreciation? All these are facets of intimacy. The fact is, we can meet each other only to the extent that we can meet ourselves. The rules of the game remain the same whether there is another person involved or we are flying solo. Some things look really good and some things not so much. We can’t be selectively intimate and experience only the pleasant parts; it doesn’t work that way. You’re either in or you’re out. Intimacy takes courage, and, when approached skillfully, the rewards are worth it. And, as my client Sarah will tell you, the alternative can be devastating.
Sarah hardly recognizes herself. Her puffy eyes stare back at her in the bathroom mirror as she processes the inevitability of where she finds herself. After seventeen years of marriage and two kids—now teenagers—her husband has disclosed that he is leaving the marriage to be with the woman he has secretly been having an affair with for three months. Sarah had no idea. She didn’t recognize any clues that her husband’s time and presence were somehow unaccounted for. She is shocked yet somehow not entirely surprised. In the past ten years, their sex life had become essentially nonexistent, and their relationship began to feel more like that of siblings or roommates. Somewhere in the trenches of living life, she’s lost her sense of self. She feels unseen, unappreciated, and misunderstood, not only by her husband but by her own self. Gazing at her reflection, she wonders where her formerly vibrant self has gone when she wasn’t paying attention.
Where was her focus? On running a household, volunteering at school, being on the board of directors of a nonprofit, supporting her husband’s big career, regular workouts to stave off hereditary type 2 diabetes and the ravages of aging, and mothering her children in a way that only she could do. Like with so many couples, there never seemed a good time to have an uncomfortable conversation. Sarah and Jack’s responsibilities were stacked so high and their resources stretched so thin, they could hardly afford the disruption of looking at the parts of their life that weren’t working. They lacked the structure and energy to excavate all the relational microtraumas of unmet needs, missed opportunities for connection, dashed expectations, and shifting identities. Instead, they held it together the best they could on the surface with a good measure of what I call the trifecta of anti-intimacy: denial, deflection, and distraction. Perhaps intuitively they sensed that once they had all the artifacts unearthed to examine in broad daylight, they would be facing the inevitable and overwhelming work of repair and restoration. Jack was compelled instead to start fresh with someone new, leaving Sarah to do the postmortem on her own.
Culturally, we are masters of distraction. Our ethos of busy-to-the-point-of-depletion is one way we avoid the emotional undercurrent and blunted consciousness of our existence. If we don’t have time to look at our inner world or the larger context, it doesn’t exist, right? Wrong. And then there’s technology. So much of our relating is experienced through our electronic devices. The recent pandemic has taken online interaction to an extreme, where it promises to stay for some time, as we establish and learn how to navigate a new normal. Though there are many benefits to a digitally connected life, heavy mobile device use gets in the way of intimacy both directly and indirectly. Several studies show we receive an average of nearly 50 daily push notifications and check our mobile devices more than 250 times a day. A survey conducted by RootMetrics found that 23 percent of us reach for our phones within sixty seconds of waking, with another 34 percent waiting five to ten minutes. Brace yourself: one study by Harris Interactive shows 20 percent of people ages eighteen to thirty-four admit to checking their phones during sex. Ironically, in all of this connectivity, a vague sense of isolation and alienation inevitably creeps in. By collectively opting to go down the rabbit hole of technology-to-the-point-of-distraction, we decrease sensitivity to the nuance of gesture and expression. We numb to the subtle communication that happens in the spaces between words. Our attention span shortens with the manifestation of what neuroscience now calls “screen fatigue.” We consume headlines rather than books, watch videos rather than read, get our news on TikTok, get same-day delivery of just about anything. We have grown easily impatient, distracted, and bored. You know those filters we apply to our posted photos to make them feel dreamy and flawless? They are a metaphor for the lens through which we see our lives. In short, our sense of the world, the people in it, and ourselves is distorted, which is problematic because by definition, seeing clearly what is in front of us is an essential aspect of intimacy. I’ve had my own firsthand experience with the triple threat of denial, deflection, and distraction. I survived my own ten-year sexless marriage when I was in my twenties.
I met Vic the year after I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I was back home in New York treating my childhood best friend to a beer and live music for her birthday. The minute I saw Vic walk through the door with a guitar slung over his shoulder, I recognized him. I had never seen him before, but I felt like I’d looked in those eyes for a thousand years. I can’t say it was love at first sight—I hardly believe in such notions—but I felt instantly connected to this man in some distinct and indescribable way. Unlike anyone I’d ever been involved with, he was a musician living for his art. He had the energy of a rock star and the lifestyle of a starving artist. He was charming, funny, affectionate, and resourceful. Two and a half years later, we were married at a restaurant on the banks of the Hudson River.
By the time the alarm on my biological clock was clanging nearly a decade later, we had been living in Los Angeles for five years. The band we had formed, with me as lead singer, had had considerable local success, but no record contract. We had just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills with the help of my parents for a down payment. I booked a trip to Hawaii for our seventh wedding anniversary. We had never been on a trip of this kind. We had spent the past decade committing every resource to the success of the band—first Vic’s band when we lived in New York and then our band when we moved to Los Angeles—the rehearsal space, the equipment, the recordings, the custom-made silver leather outfits… the list goes on. There was never anything left for such a vacation.
Within the first few weeks of getting to know Vic, he had said to me, “One day, I am going to have a daughter named Rachel. If that’s a deal breaker, you should walk away now.” At twenty-two years old, I found it minorly interesting that a twenty-five-year-old man already had a relationship with his future daughter. It was irrelevant to me, but I liked the name, and motherhood was part of my long-range vision. Nearly ten years later, I found myself booking a pilgrimage to Kona to conceive Rachel.
The Big Island was breathtaking. I read voraciously about Hawaiian cultural history and spirituality. We drove around the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands looking to tap into the mana of the land, the lava, the wildlife, and the history. We were on a mission to channel that energy into the creation of our child. We had about eight days to make this happen. After about four days of stalling, Vic turned and said to me, “If you want to get pregnant, you’re actually going to have to fuck me,” thereby summing up the dirty little secret about our marriage.
“Philosophical and practical, part manifesto and part guide to sexual manifestation, Radical Intimacy is an accessible and unique perspective on the work of relationship. Delivered with exuberance and compassion, Zoë gives us all the tools we need to feel deeply connected, to ourselves, and each other.”—Ian Kerner, sex therapist and NY Times best-selling author of She Comes First
“If Esther Perel and Glennon Doyle had a love child who was raised by Pema Chödrön, you would end up with Zoë Kors.”—Katie Brauer, former pro snowboarder, Forbes Rising Leader
"We live in an always-on, hyper-connected age that disconnects us from ourselves, distracts us from what matters in life, and erodes our capacity for intimacy. But as Zoe Kors argues, all is not lost. Drawing on her experience as a coach and educator, she makes the case for the importance of strengthening our capacity for intimacy, and shows how it can helps us deepen our relationships, connect with those we love, and better understand ourselves. In today’s world, nothing could be more radical."—Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Shorter, Rest, and The Distraction Addiction
"This is the book we’ve been waiting for—a discerning guide for conversations about true, deep, wholehearted intimacy that so many of us have been craving. In Radical Intimacy, Zoe Kors offers an insightful, innovative lens on the complex landscape of connection, sex, love and erotism. Brava!”—Holly Richardson, PhD, author of Reclaiming Pleasure
"Never has the work of relationship, connection and vulnerability been more important. Radical Intimacy is a guidepost on how to take wise action in these uncertain times with skill, compassion, playful curiosity and sass."—Reginald Hubbard, progressive political activist/organizer, strategist and founder of Active Peace Yoga.
"I come across so many people through my work who are utterly confused by intimacy. Zoe’s thought-provoking read book shines a new light on intimacy, especially for those generations of us that grew up afraid and ashamed of our bodies and emotions. Radical Intimacy is a powerful toolkit to help solve these issues this issue."—Natalie Lue, author of The Joy of Saying No
"Radical Intimacy is the conversation and guidance that not only helps you, it can heal you. Zoe Kors continues to leave me awe struck, with her innate and delicate ability to navigate the complexity and necessity of sexual intimacy. I am elated, to know and to call this brilliant mind a friend, and a living oracle."—Azure Antionette, critically acclaimed poet, Founder of Tell(h)er
“As we move through the precedents and paradigms of the modern world, Radical Intimacy is the book we’ve all been waiting for to serve as a guide for our most important relationships—the raw and real relationship we have with ourselves as well as with those we love most.” —Felicia Tomasko, Editor in Chief, LA YOGA Magazine
"There’s only one path and we are all on it. We are always in ‘intimate relationship’ with everything in the universe, because everything in the universe is in us. This book is a roadmap through the jungle of our fear and longing for love… into the warm heart of our true being."—Krishna Das, Grammy nominated recording artist and kirtan wallah
“Zoë Kors is a profound listener… and what is intimacy other than the ability to truly listen without bias and without judgement? This listening comes through in her writing and in her work. I am grateful to have encountered, grown, and learned from both.” —Christopher Rivas, actor and storyteller
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Go