Feels Like

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Today there is a heat index of 108. The actual temperature is about 97. For my friends in dryer climes, that means while where you live 97 feels like 97, which is already pretty hot, in areas of high humidity where the air takes the heat and boils it a bit to make it more interesting, it feels to us like you would feel if it was 108 outside. Or, as Lewis Black likes to point out: Then it’s 108!!

This weekend it is the same temperature inside since my air conditioning is broken and they can’t get out here to fix it until Monday at the earliest. I have fans going, windows open for a cross-non-breeze, and, well, I’m sweating a lot. I really don’t mind. I’m working in the garden where I know it is exactly 82 degrees right now but will spin quickly into the mid-nineties. I always know the temperature in the garden. Also, I’m doing a lot of other outside work, I’ll hose myself down, do more, then drive to the market in the village to sit in the car’s ac for a bit. Also, I bought lime ice pops.

I remember once when I lived in Tucson and the temps were in the mid one hundred teens, I called my dad and was talking about it and he said, “Yes, but that’s a dry heat.” Yeah. So’s a blow torch. I parked my car outside a mall in South Tucson for the day and when I came out a portable plastic clock I had on the dashboard melted.

It’s so hot that swimming in the Rappahannock with water temps around 80 feels cold.

Still, it is what it is. I’m of the philosophy that complaining about it, or ever mentioning it to be honest, simply makes me more aware of it and, therefore, makes it worse. It is what it is. I’m going to go work in the yard and lose a few pounds by clearing out part of a trail I have been wanting to work on, and tending to new flowers I’ve planted which, apparently, deer don’t like. And I’ve got plenty of water. It’s like the time Michael and I walked from Sanguesa, Spain, to Javier, Spain, about 8 miles, on a desert, uphill, no trees, road. When we paid attention to the amazing vistas southeast of Pamplona, I forgot all about the heat. I took a picture of my son next to the sign welcoming us to Javier, and he is dripping in sweat, but has a look on his face, as did I, that said there is nowhere else on the planet we’d rather be.

I even said to him this morning, “108 today.” His reply? “It’s June.”

Yeah. Have another lime pop.

The physical effects of weather are said to be among the strongest memory triggers we possess. When a cold wind blows in January I’m immediately transported back to Rich Stadium in Buffalo, or Freeport, Maine, one disturbing February afternoon. And when it is hot like this, I remember the small patio outside my parent’s condo. Dad and I would sit out there and talk about work, about sports, about nothing at all as he sipped a beer and watched the thermometer on the fence. He loved to tell me when it was about to hit 100. Some days it would make it to the mid-nineties and he’d say, “I really thought it was going to make it today, but it didn’t.” He never, ever. Ever. Complained about the weather.

The thermometer is hanging on the back of the shed in the middle of my garden letting me know what the real temperature is; I have to figure out the “feels like” part on my own by just adding fifteen degrees and subtracting one lung.

But later I’ll go out and listen to the Mets on the radio while I tend to some plants and remember what it was like to sit on the patio. And it will be hot, obviously, and I’ll sweat a lot and glance toward the thermometer waiting for it to hit 100. But I won’t complain. It is what it is.

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Greetings and Salutations

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Dear You,

I’ve started to write letters again. Emails, yes, but letters as well. On actual paper. I sit at one of the tables here at Aerie and cover my iced tea from flies in the hot summer air, find the spot where the shade hits the table and place my pad down, and write. I write about my garden, about the bay, about travel plans or family matters, depending upon who I’m writing. I don’t write about writing. I try not to write about anything negative, and I never have and never will write about politics in a letter.

When I was young I wrote a lot of letters. On summer vacation from college I wrote friends in other parts of the country, and even after college kept a close written communication going with a few people. One is a woman I’ve known since we were freshmen, and another is a priest who I remained very close to through the years. I still have some of those replies, and some I recently sent back so my friend can see what was on her mind thirty-five years ago. I wrote probably a few hundred letters to someone in the air force back in the 80s. Here’s how far we have come since then: At that time I would have to address the envelope with her full name, followed by her full social security number—right there on the front of the envelope. I still remember it, actually.

Letters used to be the sole source of communication. Vincent van Gogh wrote more than two thousand pages of his thoughts to his brother Theo, a sister, as well as fellow artists. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams letters to each other famously expose the thoughts of our forefathers, and even as far back as the early Christian era we have Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. I just want to write some stuff about my garden and mail it in an envelope to my friends.

I learn so much when I write letters. Simply by telling other people what I’m doing, I’m reminding myself how I spend my time. It also allows me to sit in nature, slow down, and take my world one word at a time. In an age that is spinning at Mach 6, writing is like sitting on a stage coach, but that’s okay. Remember those days when we would anticipate mail from a friend or a lover? It seems like a long time ago now, but I recall the satisfaction of dropping a thick envelope into a mailbox, or opening mine to see that marvelous white rectangle of someone thinking about me.

My sister found letters our dad wrote to his mother when he was eighteen. When I was in college my Great Uncle Charlie, who was in his early nineties at the time, wrote me letters and often included poems he wrote. This was a man who fought in France during World War One. And when I was in my late teens he was still writing letters and poems and dropping them in his local postal box. I don’t know what happened to those; I moved around so much. Also lost are letters from my childhood friends on the south shore of Long Island. During the first year or so after my exodus, we wrote religiously. I am back in touch with a few of those people from that time, but I wish I still had those epistles of what we were like then, our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our indescribable confidence which time has eroded along with our penmanship skills.

I know the problems in resurrecting such an ancient art form: besides the “slowness” of letter writing, there is the “I don’t really know what to write about” aspect my mother used all the time when I was away at school. Then there’s the “I don’t have time” factor which is just a crock. Sitting down to do anything for ten minutes is not an Olympic feat. And can we please just stop with the “it’s just easier to email” laments. Yes, it is. Write anyway. My favorite avoidance mantra is “I think faster than I write and I can’t slow down to do it.” Geez if you don’t think faster than you write than you’re probably legally brain dead. As Neil Diamond wrote, “Slow it down. Take your time and you’ll find that your time has new meaning.”

As for the upside, it helps me remember what is important in life that I want to write about it, and it reminds me that since I spend the vast amount of my time doing things I don’t deem worthy of including in a letter, I should appreciate the small stuff through the day as much as the grand letter-worthy events. It really does slow me down, helps with my blood pressure, my stress, and sometimes I might sit back while writing a letter to listen to the wrens or the cardinals, or leave it all on the table and wade in the river a bit before returning to finish. Mostly though, it is instigating a physical presence in another’s life in a completely non-threatening way; it is my DNA sealed and sent to another state.

I wish I had written back and forth with my father, or kept in written contact with some friends from Spain. I’d love to have heard from my grandparents, or to read a collection of letters from ancestors from another land. They are treasures; they are history, humanity, emotion and time, all in one stroke of a pen. 

Despite the losses of valuable letters from loved ones through the years, I still have some I cherish. I have a few from Leo Buscaglia, one from Martin Sheen, and one from Michele Obama. I have some from friends in Germany, Russia, and various other distant places. When I was young I remember my brother had a pen-pal in Germany. I would love to start a correspondence with someone far away, someone I’ve never met. According to the data page of WordPress, this blog has readers in seventeen countries including India, Japan, and Australia. If anyone is reading this, drop me a line, hand-written, to PO Box 70, Deltaville, VA 23043. I will reply, Promise.

I’ll even stick a leaf in the envelope to send along a small piece of Aerie. It really is peaceful here; a place to write home about.

Always,

Bob

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Words, and Fathers and Sons

 

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for Thomas and Frederick

Right from the start I should have seen it coming. The predictable phrasing, the expected lighthearted laugh. I read you again last night, thinking of fathers, thinking of sons. I know your work. I know you know I know your work; the repetition, the subtle humor, the this-was-my-life-too reaction. Was it Ode to Your Father? Maybe. Or maybe Mosaic. Doesn’t matter.

I should have seen it coming.

The casual start, the familiar tones. The narrative rise, the trademark dialogue. The way you write is the way we talk at lunch at that oyster joint. I know the style the way I know the lady with the drinks is going to comment about our return, offer us menus, tell us the specials, not write down our usual order. It’s routine.

Yet I never see it coming. This last time it took two pages of standard stanzas before you made that turn, me tagging along like some newbie waiter. Like the time we talked about our dads, and how tragically humorous it all is, how funny and horrific it all is, and we swapped stories until we couldn’t breathe from laughing—predictable, anticipated. Then somewhere just after she cleared the dishes and asked if we wanted dessert, you remembered a cologne, or was it his robe, and we sat a long time in silence, tried to digest the reality of it all.

Always, you shift gears and make that turn, move us away from where we thought we were going. And I know you will take us there the way you always do, but I always forget, always think this time it will be different, it will stay the same. I never see it coming until it comes, and then I wonder how I never saw it coming.

A bent perfection, the way it makes sense in the end, the way you take us around your elbow and past your ass without a glance back, how you seem to let go all the while keeping it tight; and every time is the same, the way it’s always different. The well-timed turn: predictably unexpected.

Like when you said sometimes he forgets what is real and what is less than real, like westerns or how tall you are. I said for me it was the lucidity, that last time, how just before the end it felt like the beginning again, and he was young and so was I, and then he let go and just left me there, alone, completely expecting him to stay even though I knew, I mean I knew because I saw it coming, was warned it was coming, that he had to go. Nothing prepares you for the turn, no matter how often you sit there knowing, waiting, anticipating, prepared. We had been talking about where he was and why he was there. He made a joke and we both laughed while the clock spun back two or three years. The nurse came in, asked if he was okay, and the sorrowful tone returned, the distance and incomprehension.

And I cried, just like I thought I would, and it caught me off-guard, and I left. Outside the October morning crawled into my spine, stiffened me against the cold. It was clear, that day, and I could see to the horizon and beyond the horizon, all the deep October blue that was beyond the horizon that morning.

On the radio the weather called for rain.

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Fathers and Sons

 

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(the following is an excerpt from the manuscript about Siberia; part of this except is adapted from a previous work of mine which ran in Kestrel and went on to an anthology. The rest is new, but all of it is an abbreviated form of one of the chapters I want to share today, Father’s Day)

Dear Dad,

Before we boarded the train in St. Petersburg, we waited at the station for several hours. I wanted to get there early so I could painstakingly decipher the Cyrillic letters and figure out where the hell we were supposed to go. That didn’t take nearly so long since our next stop was Yekaterinburg, a few days ride, which on the boards doesn’t look much different than had it been in English. So Michael got something to eat and I stood watching what appeared to be a father and son, about your age and mine, sitting on a bench talking.

I guess they were deciding what to eat. There are many father/son combos here, Dad, and they all seem to be eating or about to. I couldn’t understand them so I simply did what we all do when we see a familiar scene: I remembered.

I miss meeting you at the mall. We always sat on a bench near the food court you always asked if I wanted something to eat. Always in your marvelous deep voice you would ask, “Would you like to get something to eat?”

The conversation was always the same:

“No thanks, Dad, I’m good. Unless you want something.”

“No, I’m fine. I had lunch with your mother and I’m sure we will eat soon after I get home.” It was always about two or three in the afternoon.

“You sure? Some fries or something?”

“No, but go ahead. You have to teach so you’ll be hungry.”

“No, Dad I’m fine, really.” Then I’d change the subject to the places in the food court and which were my favorites, and you always agreed. We have the same taste. Or you would add how much you like the chicken sandwich at one spot.

That routine of you asking if I wanted something to eat started when one time we sat on the bench and I actually did want something to eat, so after that you always asked. If I did occasionally buy something I always got fries with it whether I wanted any or not. Did you know that? I did because it was the one food you would share. You would lean forward and say, “Maybe I’ll just have one of your fries,” and laugh and take one gracefully. I was always glad when you did. I always hoped you would.

The food court here is small, in fact the entire station is not that large but is busy. There’s a soccer game on the televisions, and so naturally I’m thinking of you and our walks at the mall and the baseball games. I love how even when it was empty Dad, you didn’t want to take a table from someone who perhaps might wish to sit and eat. The one exception is when the television at the information booth in the court showed a baseball game; then we would sit at the table near there and watch for a short while. In fact, during the summer it was the first place I would check when I came in the mall looking for you between my day job and my night job. When it was a Mets game on television we wouldn’t walk at all but instead sit for a bit and watch the game and share some fries. I liked those days. When I think of us watching the game at the mall it helps me forget how much we slow down, walk more slowly, with more purpose.  When the Mets won, however, we both felt young and the walk back through the mall to your car was swift and light.  I was sad when the Mets lost but not because of the game.

Michael sat down with me and is looking through the only guidebook available in English about the Trans-Siberian Railway by Bryn Thomas. I wonder if people notice this father and son from another world working their way across the continent, and I’m still watching the father and son across the platform since they got up to walk a bit, and I’m concerned for the old man. He doesn’t look steady, Dad, and he has no cane and his son is ten feet ahead of him. Poor guy. I’m going to teach Michael how to walk with me when I’m your age. Maybe I should go over to this old man’s son and explain to him what I learned through years of practice when I would “accidentally” run into you at the mall between my jobs. I’ll bring Michael with me so he can hear and know what to do thirty-five years from now.

I’m going to do it. Dad, I’m going up to my Russian counterpart while your counterpart is still ten feet behind him, and I’m going to tell him:

Sir, first of all, he’s walking, you’re joining him. Don’t stop if he doesn’t. Don’t keep walking if he doesn’t. You are a shadow, an imitation only.

People should know how to walk with an older man.

Stand on his side where he can better hear you. If he can’t, repeat yourself as if for the first time, no matter how many times. Never say “never mind.” When he tells you something, you have never heard that story before, even if you can repeat it word for word. When he tells you about the baseball games with his Dad seventy years earlier, they are new stories, and your response must sound genuine. When he tells you about the time he went swimming at camp with his friends, and how when they went to retrieve their clothes from under a boat they found a snake, be amazed again, ask what happened. Laugh again since he will laugh.

When he pauses in front of a store, don’t question it. At that moment, allow that his sole purpose in pausing is to look at whatever item is in that display. He might mention how he used to own that tool, those pants. Let him know you remember; do not make a big deal that he remembered. He needs you to know he didn’t stop “to rest”—he stopped to look at the display.  Talk about his grandchildren. Talk about the rain. Do not talk about old times. There’s no need to recall the time he drove you to the airport for a flight to college, and you saw him hours later waving to you on-board the plane. Avoid bringing up the time just the two of you spent the day at an amusement park when you were a child. Instead, ask about the game and if he happened to catch it last week. You know he did. Let him tell you about it.

When he seems tired but doesn’t want you to keep stopping, stop to fix your shoe, to read a sign; look for a bench and suggest you sit and talk. He’ll ask about your son; he’ll ask about work. Have something to say other than “fine, Dad.”

Do not look at your watch. Do not check your phone; most definitely do not check your phone. Leave both in your bag. Do not indicate in any way he is keeping you from anything. No other time is relevant anymore. But you will grow tired and restless. If he senses this, he will insist you leave. He will say he knows you have a lot going on, and he’ll say he’ll see you later, and he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel he is completely fine with it. Stay anyway. Then sit a bit longer. Do not ask about the doctors; the walk is to forget about the doctors. Do not quiz him on medicine or schedules. He is out for a walk, you joined him, it is something about which he will tell others—that he went for a walk and his son was there and joined him. Do not let his story end with “but he had to go.”

When you leave be near him as he steps from the curb, but do not help. He will be fragile and unstable. The step from curb to parking lot is a leap; he used to do it with you on his shoulders and two others running out front. Let him step down on his own but be ready. He bruises easily and a simple scrape is a trip to the doctor. Have the patience he had when your childhood curbs seemed like the Ural Mountains.

Don’t say “I guess I’d better get going.” Don’t make plans. Don’t make any comment to indicate he did well or that it was a “good walk.” He didn’t do well and it wasn’t a good walk. He’s older now. He’s slower now, but he knows this. Really, once the walk is done, the time spent together always seems to have passed faster than we recall. He knows this as well.

The man my age is now too far out front. I’m not sure if his English is good enough, but I still think he’ll understand. Fathers and sons have a universal understanding, and this railway is all about fathers and sons. Mine is right next to me now. And he reminds me so much of you, making you ever-present. 

Always,

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Oh Canada! Please be Patient

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You’ve always been a patient nation. You don’t get pissed off when we win the Stanley Cup with mostly Canadian players; you understand when the average American can’t name half of your provinces; and you don’t seem to mind that we’ve pretty much claimed Michael J Fox as one of our own. But we are nervous; you’ve never been tested like this before, and there are few Americans who don’t sympathize with you, who don’t want to stand on Peace Bridge and scream north, “We know! We Know! We’re so sorry! Honest to Ottawa, we’re so freaking sorry!”

Politics aside, trade agreements aside, we apologize (and yes, I’m speaking for all Americans because this one is so blatantly clear) for djt’s rudeness, flippant attitude, crass words, irreverent approach, cowardly tweets, moronic understanding of relations, childish approach to discussions (patience please, I’m almost done), bullying tactics, short-sighted understanding, well…you get the point. We are sorry.

It is frustrating to see Mr. Trudeau act with such professionalism, such grace and diplomacy, and know had any single other human been in the office of the president, things would be fine. Anyone—honest, throw a snowball across International Falls and anyone it hits would have been better. We can sense your frustration as well. Mr. Trudeau is acting with obvious restraint because he knows in just two years we can purge this pathetic piece of moose dung out of office and reboot our relationship.

But at this point on the close side of the summer of ’18, the fall of 2020 seems impossibly distant, as long as a Yukon winter. So, please, we implore you to be patient just a little while longer. In the meantime, please understand most Americans have not lost our admiration for your people and your peaceful ways.

America hasn’t changed our desire to be best friends with you. Truly. We just are going through a phase right now—to put an elegant title on this dark period of our country, let’s call it the “years when this embarrassing thug of a cowardly piece of crap was president” time. It will be over soon and we can again appreciate how important we are to each other and how we won’t take you for granted again.

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People are Starving (and you aren’t)

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a bit blury…it says, “Ending World Hunger Starts Here: Please Don’t Waste Food”

The poster above hangs in the dining room at the Franciscan Mountain Retreat of Mt Irenaeus in western New York. It is about thirty-eight-years old. Fr Lou at the retreat was interested to know how I remembered its exact age. “I made it,” I said.

When in college I started the World Hunger Committee, which had a short-lived purpose to provide information about the plight of hungry at home and abroad. Maybe the greatest accomplishment of the group was obtaining permission to have just one day where all students who were on the dining plan would turn in their dining cards for that day and the money would go to World Hunger organizations. I do not know if that tradition continued, but we managed my senior year.

But before that, when I was a sophomore, I had twenty-five of these posters made and put them up around campus. A few went in the dining hall, a few in the campus café, and one in the campus ministry, where Fr Dan Riley, founder of Mt Irenaeus, was then working. I still have one at home.

It’s a bit surreal to sit at the dining room table at the mountain and see the poster. I can picture a young man, a boy really, standing next to Mikel Wintermantel in Studio 4 East discussing the phrase to put on the poster. Mikel—or one of his brothers, I’m not sure—came up with the idea of the wheat stalks up the side. It is like a different life, a movie I once saw and only kind of remember the plot. But that scene I recall just fine. And here is the evidence that those times existed—like going from dorm to dorm for floor meetings where we collected money to help the hungry. We were inspired by the late Harry Chapin, who championed efforts to end world hunger, and who had recently been killed. We held a coffeehouse during which we handed out information about the numbers of hungry in the state and the country. And we helped sign up volunteers to assist at the Warming House in the next town. It was a time—both the era and our age—when we believed in things like solving world hunger, like achieving world peace. We were so idealistic.

But like all twenty-year olds I aged, lost some idealism, got busy with life, and the energy of that time faded.

Yesterday when everyone had left the mountain but me I sat at the table and stared at the poster. It was like it suddenly became animated and was calling to me across the room, across decades, and it said, “Where the hell did you go?”

I got sidetracked I guess. But seeing the poster had one immediate effect: I was aware of the food I ate, and the food I didn’t eat.

It is coming on forty years later and today forty percent of food is wasted every year in the United States. Forty percent. Here, in numbers: 40 percent.

60 million tons worth of produce alone is wasted every year just in this country.

According to a study published in The Atlantic, food occupies the single largest amount of room of all landfills. One reason is American’s maniacal obsession with perfection. Most of the waste is the result of blemishes on produce, or other such aesthetic “faults” which cause chefs both professional and not to toss food away. Another reason is how cheap food can be, so throwing it away doesn’t have much impact on the budget. In addition the portions are insanely large, and to make it worse parents stand over their children trying to push in another fork from the way-too-big pile of corn and tell them to “eat every bite” because there are children starving. Result? Some American kids get fatter while some American kids get nothing, and the balance gets tossed in the trash. The only punishment for the stuffed kid is “no dessert” for not gouging his mouth with more and the punishment for one in five American children is to go to bed hungry.

We think of “wasting” food as a “trash” problem. That is just part of it. Wasting food is also a consumption issue. Portions, again, are too large, snacks are too common, people eat between meals, multiple dinners, and while the recommended daily caloric intake is about 2000, the average American caloric intake every day is 2900, while 1 in 5—that’s ONE in FIVE—children’s average caloric intake is 700 a day. That’s just a little less than one blueberry muffin from Starbucks.

I could go on; there seems to be some rekindled idealism in this dormant conscience. But the point is clear: we don’t need to feed the world to help the less privileged—the first step to ending world hunger is much closer to home: Please don’t waste food.

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Five Things a Day

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Things I find beautiful:

Two older women at a coffee shop meeting for lunch and talking about the people in their lives, talking about their kids and grandkids. One of them showed pictures.

The toddler coloring while her mom eats. She also has stickers and just offered one of a flower to her mom, who put down her cinnamon roll to put the sticker on her blouse.

A very old man walking very slowly, noting that it is an extraordinary thing to have an ordinary day. He has a cane. He wears a hat.

Caffeine.

Today on Facebook I read the post of a friend of mine who I hardly knew at all from a time in my life so long ago I can hardly remember, is visiting other friends in Arizona, and in the picture they’re laughing. I liked the picture and commented how much fun it looks, and one of her friends said, “Yes, and it is only eight in the morning!” I thought about how time is out of joint. In that one exchange I bulleted to 1973 to today and back again. We are all connected; Facebook is just the physical reminder and convenient apparatus. But we’ve all been connected the whole time, even if we lose touch.

How I noticed when I stopped at an ice rink to say hi to two skaters home from a world tour that these partners are on vacation and spending it skating together, in love with each other, in love with what they do for a living, and everything’s going to be alright. They pursued life the way they wanted it to be and found it. They skate really well too.

Driving across the river I noticed the sun on the water, and the colors, and the shapes of the colors ever so briefly before becoming other shapes, and how my son’s photography makes me notice the beauty in something I’ve been looking at my entire life.

So look, I have a new plan: I’m going to find five things a day and note how beautiful they are. This doesn’t mean I won’t still get pissed at the idiot walking diagonally across a parking lot and holding up a line of cars; or at the woman at the checkout who needs to account for everything in her purse before picking up her packages and getting the hell out of the way, or the punk in front of me at the light who was reading his phone when the light turned green and my quick honk to let him know he can go now startled him into flipping me the bird. No, I’ll still find no pleasure there.

But, honestly, it took me less time to note how the very old woman and her husband at the table next to me were thrilled to share a free chocolate chip cookie than it did to calm down from the finger flipping.

I take a lot of pictures of sunsets, sunrises, and I know they’re trite, I know the worst picture of a sunset or sunrise is still a beautiful thing, but they remind me that whatever falls between the beauty of the start and the beauty of the finish is still as miraculous.

Like the school bus filled with kids counting down their final days before summer.

Or the way waking up at three in the morning doesn’t mean I have to get frustrated at not sleeping when there is an indescribable blanket of stars to see just outside.

Or how endings, as Neil Simon once pointed out, can be just beginnings backwards, depending upon perspective.

Pachabel’s Canon in D.

Wysteria.

Sitting with a friend, having a drink, laughing. Crying. Whatever.

Remembering. Wondering why.

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