my mother in her roomYesterday I faced the difficult task of clearing out my mother’s room. Her familiar clothes were hanging in the closet, and I knew which were her favorites and the provenance of each.  The drawers were brimming with beads and broken watches, eyeglasses and trinkets, fancy fans and shoe horns, random treasures neatly wrapped and taped in tissue paper: a screw, a domino, a broken piece of star.  I saw the dolls whose names were Darling and Miranda, and good old Betty Boop, and the steadfast white bear with the heart on his chest who sat on the bed pillow through many hard times. Now they were gathered together like orphaned children awaiting their destiny.

I approached it all in a trance-like state, turning off my emotions so I wouldn’t start to cry. Thankfully I was accompanied by my dear friend Donna, who was functional and clear-thinking.  A sort of sorting system evolved, with bags for the Goodwill, for the dumpster out back, and smallest of all, for stuff to be kept. “Take your time,” said Donna, more than once, holding up something of potential value, whether real or sentimental. “Are you sure this isn’t something you’ll wish you’d held onto?” But I was ruthless in the giving and the throwing away. I didn’t want things that I knew would only make me sad.

So many hair ties and barrettes, so many chapsticks and lipsticks, so many unwrapped butterscotch candies. So many pens and crayons, and letters and cards almost all sent by me, so many handkerchiefs and scissors and post-it notes and magazine clippings and little mirrors and napkins and pictures of kittens and brochures with smiling people on the covers. So many books with handwritten notes tucked into them, so many purses and keys to nowhere, so many emory boards and band-aids and a secret stash of hearing aid batteries.  Money, too: a long-forgotten dollar bill folded into a tiny pink coin purse, and about 79 cents worth of change.

And everywhere there were photographs of people she loved, and of course they’re the same ones I loved, the original cast of characters. She and I sat side by side many times going through these albums and looking at those snapshots, and she never forgot who they were. Just weeks before she died, I showed her the framed picture of my father, and she leaned forward and kissed it. I’ve taken those photographs with me.

I also took the composition notebooks we referred to as our journals. These were a ritual: at the conclusion of each visit over the years, I would open to a fresh page and write the date and what we did together. I thought it would help her stay oriented and allow her to revisit the memories. They are thus a record of our outings over the course of fifteen years, with the diminishing radius of our expeditions reflecting her diminishing capabilities. They also document her accumulating problems, filled as they are with reminders, advice, and attempts at reassurance. So I’ve inherited the journals, and I’ll read them, I guess, but I don’t think I’ll keep them. I remember enough.

The mezuzah is mine as well. It was mounted on the wall by the door, and she always touched it before passing the threshold. “Heaven keep our going and coming each day.” It’s a kind of blessing and protection, and I like that it was hers. I’ve hung it by the door in the upstairs room of my house, a threshold of some importance to me. It reminds me to stay faithful to what matters.

Life moves along too fast too fast but after a while we look back and see what wasn’t clear to us while everything was happening. I understand now that my mother’s childlike enthusiasm was something rare and beautiful, and I can see how very brave she was. I am in awe of her resilience and stamina. She weathered terrible loss and loneliness and traumatic upheavals, but she remembered mostly good things and tried to be game. Discarding the remnants of face powders and blushers, I recall how much she liked to look pretty, and I remember how surprised she was to be old. And I realize in retrospect how much she loved music…in the deafness of her final decade she missed it more and more, and she hummed to herself a lot. I see again how fond she was of animals, and I wish she could have had a real pet in these years, but she was always on the lookout for a cat slinking by on the street or a bird splashing in the patio fountain. I must never forget how the simplest of pleasures can brighten someone’s day.

And I marvel at how much she loved to go outside and walk. Even after she fell and broke her hip, she swapped her cane for a walker and kept on moving. Here’s a quote from her, age 89, that I jotted down in one of the journals: “89. It’s pretty old…isn’t it? But I don’t feel my age. I could still run…if I ever have to run, I could run.”  Yes, my mother thought of herself as someone who could still run if she had to. She hated that wheelchair, another object left behind, but not one we ever really thought of as hers.

It’s a pretty good legacy, after all. I don’t know if I could ever be as stoic and brave as she was, but maybe after I get up and pull myself together, I’ll discover that I’ve inherited some of her resilience and stamina. I’ll definitely be inspired by her enthusiasm. And I already know I find great comfort in mobility, which I’m sure is a gift from her. (Some of my earliest memories, come to think of it, involve walking all over the city with her, she in high heels.)

Most important, I have had an excellent internship in patience, and I’ve been bequeathed a small trove of wisdom. I have learned that you only end up regretting the times you were unkind, and that what you perceived as a burden may turn out to have been a gift. And I’m not going to be sad, damn it. I’m going to try, as my mother did, to remember what was good.

So we cleared the room of my mother’s worldly goods, and a poignant collection it was. Ninety-one years of living, and this is what she owned. People have asked me if I am the executor of my mother’s estate, and I never thought about it that way, but yes, I suppose I am. Not only that, I’m an heiress.

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I Think I’m Home

“Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.”
                                                                    ― Barbara Kingsolver

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A Brightness

benchesThis is the way it is: You walk along feeling reasonably engaged in the present, looking at things, just being in the world…and then something terribly sad appears in your head and you’re suddenly not here anymore. You feel that if you tried to talk, it would just come out in sobs, and you certainly don’t want to unleash all of that, so you stay quiet and wait for it to pass. And it does pass, until the next time.

tidyThe other day we went to Brighton, an old coastal town in East Sussex. Our primary mission was to visit a woman who sells vintage wedding dresses, but it was also a pleasant expedition, and we conveniently still had our rental car. We had a leisurely drive and arrived around lunchtime. We sat by the steamy window of a little café watching the motley procession of tourists and locals hurrying by, and the song Sugar Man was playing, and there were aromas of hot tea and roasted butternut squash and bread fresh from the oven. There was a comforting murmur of conversation, and a clarity of color and light and beautiful prosaic life.

“Everything is so intense,” I said.

Monte looked at me skeptically, maybe a little worried. “Isn’t that what people used to say after they dropped acid?”

“But that’s not how I mean it,” I said. “It’s just…”

And I couldn’t really explain. Life comes over me in waves sometimes, bringing with it a fusion of heartache and wonder that almost leaves me gasping.  There’s so much to take in, so much to appreciate, so much to bear, so much to reconcile and fathom and accept.

supWe walked along the waterfront, a pebbled beach, nearly deserted, empty benches facing the sea, the charred remnants of a Victorian pier in the distance. There were even a few stand-up paddle boarders out there, reminding us of home.

Then we found our way to the wedding dress lady, and I watched my daughter try on dresses, each with a story of its own, and she was lovely and hopeful, and I sat squarely in the moment, from whence I looked forward instead of back.

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In Wales

blue walesWe are in a cozy room in an old farmhouse in Wales, and I sit in front of the fire and close my eyes, lulled by the music of a conversation I’m not quite following. People talk softly here, sometimes almost whispering––you have to lean in to hear them––and the almost-whispered words float beneath various textures of voices and an occasional lilt of laughter, and it becomes a layered composition of sound. It soothes me, as a child in bed might be soothed listening to the muffled talk of gentle grownups nearby.

house in walesWe walked here once in the very-green of spring, but outside now the colors are muted, and the land is dusted with snow. This is mid-Wales, a place called Llanwrthwl, Llandrindod Wells, and we are spending the weekend with the people we call our mirror friends, (although it occurs to me now, seeing anew how talented and attractive and unusual they both are, that we are probably flattering ourselves) whom we met at the airport in Los Angeles last year. It was an unexpected little miracle, finding such good friends in so unlikely a place and time of life, but here we are, and they have made us feel comfortable and welcome.

And it’s a perfect setting for whatever healing and sorting out I have to do, because it has no connection to any sad memories, exists on its own separate plane, and presents itself in a kind of moment-by-moment way. It’s its own little planet right now, this house in Wales.

welsh oakLater we appraise the sky before we go out walking, remembering that sudden downpour in May, but braced for cold as well. When rain comes this time, it quickly turns to hail, but then the sun returns and shines through the trees and the branches sparkle like diamonds.  We walk on mossy stones and mud and muck, looking out onto fields and hills, a palette of grey and brown and green that is somehow reassuring and calming.

In the late afternoon, Nick takes us to a hidden copse of ancient oak trees, a sheltering and sacred kind of place.  I’ll never forget this.  And I’ll never forget beautiful Hilary bringing me a glass filled with hot lemon juice and honey in the morning.  It’s amazing how much you can care about people you very recently didn’t even know, and how many interesting things there are yet to see that you might have never noticed.

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From An Attic Room in Oxford

My favorite place in Oxford at the moment is the attic room we’ve rented.  I love the low slanted ceiling, the shaft of gray light through the narrow dormer window, and the cozy bed with its soft down comforter. I’ve been in this bed all day.

Sometimes your body tells you it’s had enough. Mine screeched to a halt yesterday, and suddenly there was nothing left of me but shivers, aches, and weariness. I honestly couldn’t get up this morning. I’m sick. And it’s understandable. I’ve been pushing myself hard through a sad and stressful time.

The thing you have to guard against is the existential undertow. The poignant specifics are enough to make your heart ache, but it’s the big unanswerable questions beneath the surface that pull you under.

And it’s cold outside. Everything is more trouble when it’s cold.

So I stayed in bed all day as the muted light shifted from whiteness to shadow, and I dozed and dreamed dreams that were torn bits of color, flapping in my head like prayer flags.

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I am on a bridge from one part of my life to the next. I don’t even know all the ways in which things will seem different when I return, but they surely will. Until then, I am in exile, and maybe that’s good.

My mother passed away on Sunday morning, January 4, and it was shocking to me, despite its inevitability. Her days had become quite bleak in the last few months, and she was clearly fading and disengaging, but it somehow seemed she always was and always would be. I guess you can never be prepared for the loss of someone so fundamental to your history.

And not just history.  She was real and current to me too, for I visited her frequently and tried very hard to tend to her growing needs.  I often wrote about this here, in fact, and I never denied that it was an exhausting and depressing job, and she took up a lot of space in my head and my days.  I even thought I’d feel mostly relief when she finally passed away, as old and weary as she was, but of course it’s not that simple.

In the last chapter of her life, she had become a very endearing, childlike, and appreciative person. I would make the trip to Orange County bringing things she needed and little treats, and I’d take her out for ice cream, or a wander through a thrift store, or just a drive in the neighborhood, depending on what she could handle. She was always so happy to see me. I also advocated for her at her residence, encouraging activities and talking to staff about her care, staying on top of things. I didn’t want her to be anonymous or forgotten, and by and large she wasn’t.

By acting like I loved her, I genuinely grew to love her, and I’m going to miss her terribly sometimes. New recognitions of all the ramifications of her absence will roll over me like waves, now and then knocking me over. It’s going to hurt.

I’ll probably write about it later, but now I am just experiencing the usual cocktail of emotions that bereavement brings, and I need some time.  I need to stand still, right here, and be. It’s strange to be in England for this standing still right here, but the trip was already booked, and changing it seemed complicated and pointless.

And so a few days ago I was in California helping to arrange for my mother’s burial in New York, and now I am in Oxford talking about my daughter’s wedding. Sometimes the cycle of life seems to spin in a surge of sudden speed. Or a jolt.

I’ve been jolted into a different reality.

I feel faraway and fragile.  And I am so, so tired. I feel like I’ll never be not-tired again.

We’re staying in the attic room of a bed and breakfast in our daughter’s neighborhood. There’s a pub on one corner and a tattoo parlor on the other, and the place is run by a retired couple named Neal and Dot who sit and talk with us in the mornings, as gracious as old friends, and serve us coffee and fresh croissants, fruit and cereal, breads and jams. Neal has a bit of poetry in him, although he denies it when I say so, but I hear it in the way he talks about making a toy wooden boat for his grandson, and the beautiful French cigarettes he briefly smoked in his youth, and the interior of a country church, with its smells of damp and incense and old oak.

It helps to find nice people.

But it’s cold and rainy and the wind has a mean edge. I’d forgotten how much I hate the cold.  I went to the botanic garden today hoping to sit for awhile in a warm steamy greenhouse with the fragrance of an orange tree to console me, but it was closed.  We hurried along the High Street towards the shops to find a woolen cap and Wellingtons for Monte.  There were little puddles of golden lamplight beneath our feet, and brown leaves splayed out on cobblestone, and above, a flat gray sky.

There were folk musicians in the pub the other night singing songs about loss and loneliness and longing. Everyone knew the sentiments, if not the lyrics, and it was warm in there, and cold outside, and we were all in search of comfort, one way or another.

Later, my daughter made us soup, the best I ever had.

It helps to see your daughter.

We’ll be here for two weeks because that’s the way we booked it, and it feels like a forced exile in a way, but maybe it’s good to look out and see something different, even if it’s chilly.

I’ll use the time to sort out whatever is in my heart and to summon up the strength and spirit I need for whatever comes next. I want to be changed for the better, somehow. I want to have learned something.

It’s a passage.

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i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

my mother and her candle
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Esther Bitensky Carbone  April 25, 1923 – January 4, 2015

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A Different Angle

A different angleMy new year began with an orange. It’s my favorite way to start a morning: standing over the kitchen sink, looking out beyond the orchard, hills, and winding canyon road to the Santa Barbara Channel, our little v of sea, and slurping an orange I picked from the tree and cut in half. I even take my glasses off to avoid the splatter, so everything is in soft focus but the flavor of the orange, and this one, its juice dripping down my chin, was that perfect balance of sweet and tart. To live where oranges and lemons grow is self-actualization for me, proof that despite my numerous mistakes and regrets, I have achieved a kind of success. I live a life I could have barely imagined.

There was a plan for a walk a little later with Dave and Ming. We call it a tradition because we’ve now done this New Year’s Day walk together for three years in a row and have every intention of doing it next year and for many nexts to come, even if we don’t see much of each other the rest of the time, which is likely. Ming, now newly thirty, was long ago a student of mine at the little school in Gaviota where I used to teach. Dave is a veterinarian by profession and an enthusiast by temperament. I’ve known him and his wife Karen since I first came to this part of the world, and we are all interconnected in a hundred different ways through parents and kids and community gatherings and very few degrees of separation. There’s a sense of continuity and familiarity around here that I think is unusual in modern life.

It’s part of the reason Ming has returned. She is an award-winning writer who has lived and traveled in parts of the world as remote as Mongolia, where she was a Luce Scholar, and Kenya, where she founded a theater group, the Survival Girls, for six young Congolese refugee women living in a Nairobi slum, and that’s only a fragment of her résumé. But this is her home, the village that raised her. A position in a program at the University of California in Santa Barbara provided a way for her to return.

“My village is still here,” she says, with gratitude. “I’ve seen lots of situations where that isn’t true, where people have no village to come home to. But I needed to come back here for a while, and I could, because it’s here. And it isn’t really the place, but the people. Temples and shrines last forever, but people don’t, and the people of the village that raised me are still around.”

It’s that unusual continuity I mentioned earlier. Many of the people of Ming’s village are still here, among them Dave and me, because this is generally the kind of place people choose to come to rather than leave.  Ming says that in Native American culture when someone is having a hard time they might be advised to go back to the res and talk to the elders, listen to their wisdom. “So I’m kinda doing that,” she says.

“We may be elders,” says Dave, “but I don’t know how much wisdom we can give you.”

“Yeah, we’ve just been making mistakes a lot longer than you have,” I add.

But maybe there’s value in that too. We’re living evidence that you can keep slogging on, adjusting, learning, surviving. Not that we’ve been through the kinds of trauma the Survival Girls experienced, but we all go through hard times, and knowing that someone else has suffered worse doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Life’s a tricky business.

And we talk about life, the three of us, as we amble up the canyon on these annual New Year’s walks. Ming wonders what makes an adult, for example, what definitive qualities one must possess, what achievements one must have reached to claim the title. Dave and I, despite our decidedly adult-ish appearances, have only murky ideas about that, but we venture a few murky answers. The word responsibility comes up more than once.

“You have to remember we’re all just doing the best we can,” I tell Ming, “and most of it is improv.”

daddy's thermosWe set down our packs and sit on the rocks by a pool of rainwater. Dave serves up an unexpected feast of olives and almonds, oily mushrooms and tiny purple potatoes, salmon and strips of fresh bread. For dessert there are lemon bars and oatmeal cookies.  We pour cups of hot tea from the striped and paint-splattered thermos that my father used to take to work with him decades ago. I have carried it here so his memory will be a part of the day for me.

We talk about memories, come to think of it, and how the more we examine a memory, the more we change it. With every retelling, a story is imbued with new feelings and details. With every recollection, it is altered. But we continue to fondle the memories, tweak them, stare at them, write about them, try to find the meaning and tease out the truths. Or invent them.

And we talk about the importance of making peace with parents, and techniques for not reacting with anger to the things that set us off, for changing the patterns and the usual outcomes. How not to react? Just don’t, somehow. I am certain of the necessity of this, but not clear on the strategies. It has to do with discipline, meditation, visualization, or, as Dave put it, flipping your brain.

cow bone lessonAs every writer knows, all these abstract words are empty. It’s the concrete image that will adhere and illuminate. And as we walked back, a concrete image presented itself in the form of a bleached out skeleton of a cow. I’ve been seeing remnants of that cow for a couple of years now, a study in decomposition. Heck, I remember that cow when it was a carcass with hide. I remember when it smelled really bad and you hurried by and held your nose.

But Dave is a veterinarian. He stopped and stepped up close to it.

“It isn’t often you see a skeleton intact like this, and positioned for such good viewing,” he said. Using his hiking pole as a pointer, he highlighted a few aspects of the cow’s anatomy.

“Look at this,” he said. “This is the uterine opening. Imagine? This narrow opening is the passage through which a calf has to fit in order to be born.”

“And now,” he continued, “I am going to tell you a trick that could save a life someday if you’re ever on a desert island and have to deliver a baby, or a calf. The widest dimensions of the calf are at the hip. If the calf gets stuck, you have to get the hip out of the way. So what you do is you reach in and twist it, just forty-five degrees, and get that wide part out of the way. It’s just a small repositioning, and you can ease it through the opening.”

How is this relevant? Maybe a metaphor here?

“Oh, I totally get it,” said Ming. “It’s a metaphor for when you’re feeling super stuck. You don’t need to change everything. One little adjustment might do it.”

Sometimes all it takes is a little tweak and a different angle.



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Still Learning How to Be

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m trying to learn from this experience.

“And what experience is that?” you might ask.

Life in general, I’d answer first.

But lately, more candidly, I would be referring to the ongoing business of dealing with my elderly mother’s long decline, which has recently taken on new dimensions of creepiness and complexity, the specifics of which I don’t care to elaborate on at this particular moment.

So let me talk about it in a more general way. My life seems to have split into two distinct sections. There’s the part where I dwell in the refuge of my days here, grateful for the comfort of my own small work, the voices of books, walks and rides and connection to friends.

And then there are the journeys down into the bleak abyss of an Orange County assisted living residence, where my mother has unequivocally slid into a “how-much-longer-can-this-go-on?” phase.

I know it’s just another aspect of the human condition, and millions of other people are going through this same sort of stuff, and there’s really nothing more that I can do, but oh, it’s wearisome. I am a person who works constantly just to keep depression at bay, and this is like having my head intermittently pushed underwater. I struggle to hold my breath and keep my spirit until I burst up through the surface, gasping for air.

I haven’t learned the trick of just ignoring it. I have siblings who have done so, and that seems to work for them. My problem is that I believe right down to the core of me that in order to be human, I must see this through. I need to look in on her, manage her care as best as I can, try to bring her a happy moment now and then.

Basically that means I am summoned to stare at suffering, decay, and imminent death, traveling for hours to do so up close.

Meanwhile, I’m well into the final third of my own life––if I’m lucky––and I want to focus on that life, engage in it fully…even laugh sometimes. But my mother’s declining health is always on my mind, and I can’t feel carefree knowing how much my visits mean to her. I just wish I had a little help with this.

And I am not a particularly virtuous or unselfish person. I just feel that this duty is what I’m supposed to do. My soul has a code, and if I don’t follow that code, I don’t feel good about myself or anything else. I have no choice but to be who I am, and I can’t thrust that morality on anyone else. They either feel it or not. As far as the siblings go, I accept the way they are. We have a painful family history.

On the other hand, I can’t view basic decency as a selective behavior to be applied only as a reward if it seems deserved. For me, these mother trips are about fundamental sympathy and compassion, not reciprocity or thanks for happy times past. And my mother is always grateful to see me, even lately, when so little brings her pleasure.

Which doesn’t mean I can’t whine now and then, and I’m in whine mode right now. Sorry about that, but at least it’s on my own website and not Facebook…right? And I’m not looking for thumbs up or sympathy. All I want is to communicate, in a meaningful way. (One can actually do that on the internet, although you wouldn’t always know it.)

I also know very well that in the end we have to do our own suffering and feel our own loneliness, and I can’t take that away from anyone else. Watching my mother’s misery does not mitigate her misery; mostly it just makes me miserable. So I have to remind myself that backing off sometimes is necessary and healthy.

Also, some parts of life are just hard and sad, and we have to face the fact that we cannot make the sad parts NOT be sad.

But even within those sections of life there can be little gifts and surprises and beautiful moments. I cannot tell you how often I have been unexpectedly nudged and hugged and helped along by friends and even strangers.

And I cannot tell you how often the wonder and beauty of the world seems to shimmer and wash over me and suddenly I am shining and part of it all.

So I’m just trying to learn.

“Don’t try so hard,” says Monte. “Just be.”

Oh, I wish it were that simple.

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Seed Bombs

seed bombs
I lucked out. The picture above is the Christmas present I chose last night during a little holiday gift exchange with friends. It was “wrapped” in an unpretentious brown paper bag, and had some heft when I picked it up.  I saw an encouraging nod from Phil and decided to go for it.

It was the kind of gift that needs some explanation. First I lifted out that little log. Turns out it’s birch, hand-carried from upstate New York. (Slingerlands, to be precise, which happens to be a place I knew in my previous life.) The bark is beautiful, partially peeling and curlicued, in nuanced tones of white and gray, rustic decor with a carved out space to hold a candle.

Beneath it was an egg carton, and the egg carton contained…dirt?

“Seed bombs,” explained Phil with pride. He made them himself, and the making of them involved a good deal of research and field work.  On the upper lid of the egg box was a list of lovely words, among them: crimson clover, rose clover, farewell to spring, baby blue eyes, blue flax.

I was charmed before I even fully understood. It seemed such a suitable ranch present, and something refreshingly handmade, non-commercial, crafted with care.  As Phil explained it further, I could see that there was real passion behind it too.

“The idea is from Masanobu Fukuoka,” Phil said. “He’s my hero.”

I looked him up later. A plant scientist who lived in the mountains of Japan during World War II, Fukuoka was asked to find techniques to increase food production without taking away from land allocated for growing rice, but he sought to work with nature, not to control it. He was concerned early on about the damage humankind was wreaking on the earth. “If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork,” he said. “As we kill nature, we are killing ourselves, and God incarnate, and the world as well.”

The seed bombs he created,  sometimes called seed balls, or earth balls, or biscuits, consist of carefully selected seeds rolled into a growing mixture of clay, compost, and a few other additives that protect the seeds until rain soaks and stimulates them to germinate. Just as you might imagine, they are sown by throwing them.

And they’re used to reseed ecosystems, replenish ruined patches of earth, and unleash beauty in a grass-roots, slightly defiant, ungoverned but environmentally appropriate way, whether urban or rural.

“I get it,” said Monte. “It’s horticultural graffiti.”

“Good term,” said Phil.

Actually, it’s often called guerrilla gardening, a term coined in the 1970s when a group of activists began throwing seed bombs in abandoned lots and wastelands of New York City.

So, I have a dozen little seed bombs now, like a dozen little promises, and I’m already thinking of some good spots to fling ‘em. Let the grasses grow, let the greening begin. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

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