First the bad news

From the Bahamas, stories are coming out about how Hurricane Dorian has ravaged and destroyed a beautiful landscape, transforming a happy population into desperate circumstances. One in particular haunts me of a man who stood with his wife on the top of kitchen cabinets, heads bent against the ceiling to breathe above the furious water, waiting for rescue, until finally the cabinet collapsed and he watched her drown.

                Videos from helicopters reveal the devastation as the waters recede. The headlines have already moved on to Florida and the East Coast where the weakened storm blows less dangerously, but the people in the Bahamas are still fighting for their lives. With airports submerged, rescue is difficult. Full of simple joys and pains just a day ago, life now for everyone there is all about survival as food and clean water become scarce.

                If insurance covers any of it, the effort to rebuild each home will be 13,000 different stories of triumphs and tribulations, celebration and despair. In the meantime, all belongings are lost and all lives are reduced equally to soggy rubble.

                For decades the concept of Climate Change has been an abstract sci-fi scenario far off in the future, an inconceivable possibility that would surely be conquered by the slowly congealing effort of American ingenuity. Worst case: our grandchildren’s grandchildren would be disrupted. So remote, the sense of crisis lies dormant and even the word seems absurd in this context.

                For the people in the Bahamas the reality of Climate Change has hit hard and lives have been radically jolted, likely never to be the same. Many will eventually rejoin the world either by moving to safer land or have the means to rebuild, but for now the infrastructure is gone, money is out of reach, communication is sporadic. Friends and family are missing. These people are surviving only by what is in their hands and their willingness to help each other. For them, all events in their lives will be forever defined as pre or post Dorian.

Like the people of Peurto Rico.

Like the people of Paradise.

                Reports have been quickening to warn us that this is all happening far faster than first predicted. Not only are the hurricanes and fires more furious, the heat waves more intense, the rain storms flooding at 500 and 1000 year levels over and over, research is showing the Permafrost is releasing methane that accelerates the warming at such a rate that even if we are able to make the vast changes necessary to hold the temperature rise to 2 degrees, the deterioration will continue beyond that of its own volition.

                The consensus has grown to accept that dramatic transformations in society are now inevitable and we have only a decade to mitigate the disaster and risk perishing entirely. Immense upheaval is probably certain for my children and very likely will be apparent in my own lifetime. The worst scenarios forecast migrations in the billions caused by sea level rise and mass starvation from drought on such a scale that in a mere 30 years civilization itself could collapse.

                When I instinctively shut my eyes and cover my ears to these apocalyptic warnings, these pictures from the Bahamas and other recent disasters prevent me from finding peace in the sand. Averse to guns (sooner or later even the strongest will run out of bullets) and knowing only how to grow a little lettuce and tomatoes to add to Summer salads, I am not a good candidate for long term survival under primitive conditions.

                At least for now, the conflagration is still so abstract, I cannot envision killing others to protect my own. True survival to me is in cooperation where we work together. I can build shelter while others grow food. If there is truly not enough to go around, then in my vision we’ll all be that couple in the Bahamas standing on our cabinets and we’ll all likely drown.

                In the meantime, we have these years to change our ways. Daily, it seems, I hear more about the need to move away from fossil fuels and eat less beef. On this same night as I see the destruction of the Bahamas, 10 politicians passionately project their confidence to lead us toward a Green New Deal. Solar collectors are suddenly affordable enough to land on many roofs and grow across fields of green. Giant windmills stand atop hillsides and straddle the Plains. Even as our roads are more crowded with single drivers scooting every which way, high tech bikes and baby carriages share the lanes alongside.

                An outstanding, albeit sobering, article by Richard Budah challenges architects to lead the way to a society that plans for the horrific future by designing cities inland to accommodate the mass migration from sea level rise. Accepting the inevitable truth of our deteriorating circumstances, we consciously withdraw and adapt, ultimately creating a small society of survivors living comfortably in the now tropical Antartic for the centuries (or millenia) it will take for Earth to rebalance.

                Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker Magazine this week suggests that “…You can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope. “ In the process of redefining our borders according to the evolving landscape of Climate Change, we enjoin our better selves to create a society of cooperation, sharing our resources and making room at our tables to feast on the engineered vegetables that can sustain us.

                It seems somewhat naïve in this time of endless wars and deregulations threatening our clean air and water to imagine a world based on universal love. I have yet to learn of the parallels I’m sure exist in other cultures, but at least I know in mine, the story is prevalent of lions living peacefully with antelopes in tight quarters on an ark until the waters recede.

Perhaps if we work together, those cabinets we stand on will hold after all.

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New Growth

The newly acquired and ever-evolving skills of tending a garden in the last few years have lately taught me some valuable lessons in faith. These last several springs, I have taken inventory of the many tender sprouts pushing through dark soil. Some I recognize as old friends returning , remembering the sensations of sun and fecund earth on the day they were planted. Others are mysteries hopefully to be revealed later in the season as they blossom.

This week, I’ve watched over some transplants as they wilted drastically in shock from being ripped from their source and moved to another bed. The leaves sprawled and withered, lay rotted on the mulch where they fell. Faithfully I watered them though it looked impossible they would survive. Still, I stood over them with thoughts of hope and love, wordless prayers, as the drops soothed their pain.

In the first days doubt crept in to wither my vision, but on the third it seemed the stalks were straighter and the leaves had a faint luster of strength. The next day, they had lifted ever so slightly, responding to the water, sunshine and the inner vitality that gave them new life. By the end of the week, I have confidence that come next spring, I will be joyful to see them boldly pushing through to blossom in their new home, the garden spreading and strengthening.

Likewise, my mother had a love of geraniums that manifested in a multitude of those generic brown clay pots she moved seasonally from inside to thrive in a lush red mass of flowers outdoors. A ritual of the changing energy, sometimes I grumbled when she asked me to do the heavy lifting and I barely noticed, much less appreciated, the resplendent glory around the pool each summer and piled evermore thickly in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows that made winters lush with warmth.

After her death and the home they had designed, built and nurtured so tenderly was emptied, in honor of their love, my Dad enjoyed comfort in a geranium on the window sill by his bed in his final year. As his eyesight dwindled, his memories of the love that had sustained them for so many years were re-enforced by the magnificent blossoms that regularly appeared so rich and fragrant.

When he also had passed, I brought it to my own home to tend my latent spirit that had taken such planted beauty for granted. In a mancave that is dark and dusty from a life lived mostly away, I have absently watered it before every weekend and noticed the one or two flowers that bloomed each year around his birthday.

This year, with so much rain to begin and little Summer left, I haven’t even bothered to take this single geranium outside, even as my interest has grown to tend the common garden away from the place where I change my clothes and sleep. While I have explored the variations of color and timing that populate several beds and memorized names like “echinacea” and “May Night Salvia”, “foxglove”, “pulmonary” and “Bleeding heart”, my lonely plant has dried out, dropped leaves and forecasted its imminent demise.

In a last ditch effort at salvation, I plucked its debris clean and watered with more presence of mind the desperate earth. The dead stalks snapped off like frozen fingers sacrificed for the warmth of the surviving branches. Recognizing that too much attention would drown the slivers with a flood of well-intended remorse, I patiently watched, waited and was this morning rewarded by the delightful sight of the deathly brown stalks that had been creeping upwards to suffocate the plant having miraculously transformed into a pale green of new life and growth.

Transformed in attitude, I stretched my aching and complaining body, then moved into a tentative routine of half-remembered and lately ill-practiced yoga postures. Like the water and love showered on the ailing geranium and our mutual garden, my body responded with each deep breath and extended reach past the point of stubborn resistance. In the two years since giving up soccer in fear of blowing a knee at my ripe “old” age playing against youngsters, the subtle cries of aching and stiffness in my body that have been creeping inwards shifted slightly to sighs of relief.  

I pushed a little farther and held it a little longer, relishing the new energy that flooded my distracted soul. Lying on the floor in meditation for a few minutes afterward, my omni-present worries were momentarily soothed and a flicker of inspiration sparked enough to finally reach for my journal and pen to fill at last some pages with words of appreciation that have been too long left blank.

And so it grows…

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Strolling

My phone ran out of juice the other day and, without a charger, a moment of panic washed over me. It’s not like I get a lot of calls in off-work hours, but still to be out of reach was surprisingly discomforting.

Regularly, I notice small groups of people sit down to lunch with friends or partners and intently slide screens to check the latest notice or answer a text. Eventually they set their phones aside (but not away) and settle into conversation with each other. Often the little accessorized apendages are rejoined to prove a fact or reserve a ticket.

Although we can all be guilty of the obsession, I certainly notice millenials are more comfortable with their lifelines. In high school afterall, they believed they were hiding them from their teachers while their parents hoped it made them safer as they explored their expanding boundaries.

Now they know there must be an app to solve any problem that comes their way.

Getting older is supposed to make you wiser, but in many ways I find myself becoming the old codger I used to look past when I was that age. “They should talk to each other,” I scoff, even as I see them pass the phone around the table to share the funny picture or confirm the point.

I am training myself to recognize that what looks to me like an older sister pushing a baby carriage is more likely the mother and I am the one growing increasingly irrelevant. The tell-tale is the wonder I feel when I count the storage compartments on the stroller (can we still call it that?), see how easily converted they are to car seats and bathtubs, and imagine they will soon be solar-driven, take your pulse while jogging (and that of your baby) and can charge those very phones they use so much.

It’s happening.


Even as I daily mourn the literal passing of my generations’ parents, the Justin Trudeaus and Emile Macrones have arrived. You see them in the family car advertisements taking over the world. They are the corporate managers, charging ahead to get things done while my friends are reviewing their progress reports and thinking about retirement.

The kids I coached on soccer fields are now the clientele for the coolist restaurants in town and having kids of their own. Immersed in the constant vigilance and evaluation of moods, appetites and daycare solutions, they are too consummed in the immediate demands to notice me smiling from the table off to the side.

To realize the bright and confident voices delivering my news on the radio sound like my own grown children no longer surprises me. I enjoy their attitudes of assurance, remembering the day I too believed my own expertise in all matters.

“Do you really think you can handle this?” my mother asked when I informed her that I had blended myself into a family at the age of 23.

“Sure!” I shrugged with all the bravado of an ostrich stepping onto a sandy beach.

And so she let me be.

While there are ceretainly circles in life, at this point, I am most impressed by the straightline rapid progression ever forward that truly binds us all together.  From the cave paintings to the world wide web we have been humans trying to manage the best we can, reaching out to communicate our wonder and certainty about the world, each and every one of us confident we can do it all better than those before us.

Fear preys upon our differences and love celebrates that inspite of it all we continue to birth new generations in prayer for a better life. Hope unites us and we strive continually to improve.

As a child, I found security in my mother’s embrace. As a father, I worked hard to hide the stress it took to provide the environment where my children could play to their hearts’ content. Now the elder in me witnesses life going forward with or without the benefit of my advice, experience, consolation or celebration.

As one mere being among the billions, I am in awe of my own insignificance and my ability to still make a difference. So I gamely recharge my battery and reconnect to this excruciatingly wonderful journey. 

 

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Stepping Aside and Moving Forward

When there can be snow in any of six months in the year, the approach of the Summer Solstice is a mixed celebration. Dressed these days in a T-shirt and shorts, the daylight from early morning to late evening is sweetly luxurious, but the longest day this week also marks the descent back towards winter when we’ll be hunched in our parkas again.

In the heat of these days, I like to absorb the energy deep into my memory so I can release it again on a bitter day in January as a reminder that all things will pass. Likewise, the cold shot from skiing the bumps tempers the June humidity.

Opposing forces create balance.

Energies that push and pull us through life all together lead us along a path that often seems surprising and arbitrary.  Sweltering in the moment or caught in an instant of frigid desperation, all logic and sensibility are lost and we are prone to become immobilized, confused and disoriented as a fish would be stranded in the desert.

Sometimes our reality seems irreconcilable with the dreams we have conjured over the years.  I never saw myself as divorced or still living in a small apartment on a busy road, but I have long revised the sugar plums that once danced in my head and accept that for whatever reason my choices have led me here.

From a deep sleep and pleasant wanderings, I can be yanked awake by a sudden logistical detail that keeps me staring wide-eyed for hours in the darkness. Even decades of meditation experience fail to wrestle the colorless, odor free, indefinable barrier to resolution until an hour’s dawning light sweeps it all away as I begin to go about my normal routine.

On other nights there are the long conversations and perfect moments when I would prop my eyelids open with toothpicks if that would prolong the ecstasy of connection just a little more. Either way, day always follows night.

In the valley under the canopy of trees, we only catch glimpses of the mountain tops, sometimes despairing if we’ll ever find our way home.  Occasionally we step out onto a high ridge at last and realize that Home is wherever we are. That same canopy obscures the path below from where we came, yet we know it led us here from the East and will eventually take us there to the West, inevitably to the horizon and beyond.

There are some who witness the pieces and particles of my life and think I am perpetually busy with admirable activities. I—with a list in my own mind of so many more particulars to be done—see myself too often as idle and unproductive.  With never enough hours in any given day, I continually poke and prod my projects only to feel like I have wasted hours reading and responding to endless Facebook memes and holding my breath for world cup soccer.

In that very stillness, I find, my heart seems to recalibrate.  Just as my energy lies at its most depleted, an hour later a casual thought leads to scribbles and I am quickly my creative self again.

      The Yin and the Yang of it all moves us in fits and spurts along the path. When we despair, it is helpful to focus on the gifts of love and beauty that often can be invisible in the bright glare of details.

Revel in the moments of fatigue. Look to the dim shadows and let patience reveal the way forward.

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Somewhere Down the Road

Last night I was in a small living room to hear a man I had seen on large stages in days gone by at least 15 or 20 times.  Once the bass player for Bonnie Raitt, Freebo now plays his own great songs in much smaller venues.

Just a few years older than me, we attended rival high schools and lived at different times  on the same street in a small suburb of Philadelphia. More than once as a student at Swarthmore, he probably walked right past me–the local towny teen roaming across his college campus.

Freebo chose to join a band and make music his life’s work while I learned to play the songs he played, got involved in family and put food on the table with a hammer and saw.

Now forty years later our paths crossed in front of a fireplace in a simple home at the end of a dirt road in Vermont.  For a group of thirty white-haired folkies, he shared his own music and accompanied–on his old bass–another young red-head with a bright smile and an outstanding voice that blended beautifully with his. 

Traveling from living room to living room, Freebo and Alison Howe were clearly enjoying the intimacy with audiences who apreciated and applauded their gifts.  Having seen and heard so much over the years, his respect for her talent was palpable and his effort to promote her no small endorsement

A veteran myself of countless jam sessions in living rooms, my fingers are nowhere near as nimble as his who play every night, but it was thrilling to feel strongly the urge to play along. Fingering the picks that are invariably in my pocket, if it had been appropriate, I flatter myself to think I might have contributed some decent noodling  behind their vocals without causing too many winces.

Introducing a song at one point, he talked about how during all the adventures in the Big Time, he had felt a grizzly discomfort which was only relieved by beginning to write his own songs at the age of 45. His enlightenment reminded me of my own renaissance when I was finally able to put passion for writing and music ahead of family (only after divorce and with children fully grown) to experience the creative urges fulfilled at last.

On another song, he spoke of his mother’s desire for his success as a doctor and her ambivalence, even disappointment, when he announced his choice of a career in music instead.  In her 90’s, he said, and diminished perhaps by Alzheimers, he was pleased to finally receive her recognition and blessing for the prestigious award he had won for a song he had written about his love for her.

My own mother supported the dream of my creative success to the degree that she lamented my choice of family at such an early age would make that impossible.  Being right was no consolation for her, but love for the off-spring naturally made it all okay.  I am sorry that her own dementia prevented her from understanding that these  newest songs I played for her with my band just before she died were the proof of my choice to wander down that creative path once again.

I have an old friend, a brother really, who had gone to many of those same shows with me to hear Bonnie play with Freebo and the rest of that great band.  From sandboxes to first kisses to best man at weddings and kids’ graduations, we have talked deeply about our dreams, passions and choices. The difference in how we have led our lives is stark and sobering, but we still get together now and then to ski some bumps and consider our next adventures. Recently he confided he begins to think about  retiring and down-sizing while I’m guessing I’ll have to work until I can’t anymore.

Another old friend  did become a doctor and we have a long-standing joke that no matter the choices in between, we could easily end up side by side in a nursing home some day.

At the intermission last night, there was the opportunity to talk.

“You don’t know it, but I’ve played with you many times,” I said, shaking his hand.  To his baffled memory, I explained that I had several  bootleg recordings that I still blasted in my own living room some nights, playing along on my guitar.

He, of course, did not take the hint and invite me–this total amateur as far as he knew–to join them in front of the fireplace.

Still we talked like old friends catching up in the few minutes at the merch table. He confirmed that those early years among the stars were great times, but that the bitter taste in his craw never truly dissipated until—after a long struggle—he chose to follow this more humble but truer path. His self-satisfaction is underscored every night in these intimate venues, sharing his gifts with new friends and receiving the compensation of a love much brighter than under the glare of spotlights.

Heading back down that dark dirt road towards the lights of Burlington, I had not gained the memory of playing and harmonizing with him, but it is so, so fun to feel confident it would have sounded great if we had traded songs back and forth. I could have held my own there even more than I did the night thirty years earlier when I played in a living room with some locals who were interested to learn my songs for their new band. It turns out—I can laugh now–I chose to pass on a second chance to play with Phish for a first date with a woman who eventually became my ex-wife.

Phish got away and went round the world without me, but I love the children of that choice forever more.

In the end, the choices we make have to be okay for we live and die by them each and every one. As long as we are doing the best we can when we make them, we should not have to defend them to others and especially not to ourselves.  Regret changes nothing, but makes us sad. Life is too short for that and if we pay attention there are always new choices to be made in the very next instant.

By the time I reached Burlington, there was no turning back.  Freebo and Alice were on the road again, heading to another living room, this time in Brattleboro. It had been a long drive for me after a longer day, but I heard some great music. I think I made a friend and perhaps some day our paths will cross again.

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Old Dawg’s Lament

One perk I allow myself most days around town is to buy a fresh sandwich at lunch.  Not only do I find it hard at 6 am to think about what I want for lunch, spending every day what it would cost for an entire week to make my own seems worth it to me to avoid the slow roasting in my truck.

And it’s my best source of vegetables.

Early yesterday morning, not in a rush to work, I went to one of my regular spots for my weekly dose of scrambled eggs, bacon, French toast and purely wonderful maple syrup.  As I approached the counter to order, the guy offered me a turkey sandwich.

I have encouraged the joke with my friends and family that I am just a turkey sandwich kind of guy: nothing fancy, always predictable. Suddenly, the realization that I am similarly known at half the delis and kwik marts in the county suggested to me the idea that mention of this in my obituary might get more people to my funeral.

“Oh, I know him: the turkey sandwich guy…”

I explained to him that in a day full of improvisation and consequential decisions, it was easy to not think much about the details of lunch.  Trying to focus on a menu of slight, but cleverly named variations with a line of other busy people at my back, the ingredients roll off my tongue like “To be or not to be…” from an actor.

Habits can be a good thing.

Leaving the umbrella under the cover of the front porch to dry means you always know where to find it on the next rainy day.  Long before automatic withdrawals, my Dad pushed aside his dessert one night each month to pay all the bills at once so he never had a late charge.

 

There were years when I wrote essays like this two or three times a week.  Once in the habit, the ink spilled onto the page with ease, punctuation and style—thoughts written as quickly as they occurred. It was easy then to corral them into a book. 

Often habit can be a precursor to practice. The former is just happenstance until we realize the habit is something we seriously want to do better.

Against and perhaps in spite of my sisters’ vociferous complaints, I found myself regularly picking up the guitar while dinner was being prepared. I looked too busy to help (even if she wanted it) and my mom seemed to like the company I shared, encouraging me to keep going when I stumbled. 

My young children liked playing with dolls and cars and fell asleep while I sang about magic dragons and fishermen three, but soon sports and homework required attention that kept the case closed. Priorities changed the habits.

Naturally too much of a good thing can cause problems. They don’t call it a “drug habit” for nothing. Less obviously, patterns such as tinkering on cars in the garage can create distance in a marriage. Or darts in bars a couple of nights a week can lead to more alcohol at home.

Lately, I’ve noticed a propensity to immediately scan Facebook morning and late afternoons for news and updates, sometimes getting distracted by outright gossip. It is wonderful to peek into the lives of old friends. I can also find important information, relevant articles for current events and some understanding of opposite opinions by what I pick and choose to spend my time reading. Some videos are tearfully inspirational and life-affirming.

But what began as serious political debate with some has degenerated into logger-headed punches back and forth that get us nowhere. So many newborn nieces and pretty flowers begin to look the same and click-bait turns out to be totally useless. And in the meantime, hours can slip on by.

  Netflix, like Kleenex, has become the defining name for all the streaming services consuming hours of our precious energy and attention. First discovered and appreciated when I was too injured to be long off my couch, the habit has grown nightly, often over-powering any urge to play guitar or write. On a rainy Sunday, I can binge on a full season of dramatic episodes.

At the same time as this passive habit develops, I find myself less open to the idea of creating a new song, feeling satisfied that I have done enough. The effort to write some more looms as too hard when I convince myself that perhaps I have said all I need to say and it won’t make much difference any way.

Our generation is passing on.

So like the guy at the counter who tempts me to calculate how many turkey sandwiches I have eaten in my life, I use the ache in my back from sitting too long in front of the computer to think about what is really important. It doesn’t take very long to decide I really do not care as much about variety at lunch as I do to create and communicate.

Some evenings lately I move past the symptoms of tiredness after a hard day of physical work for an “old” man and take up the guitar for at least a few songs. Once started, I often play more. I commit to some dates for gigs and add more incentive by auditioning players who might want to join me. The practice has been revived.

Likewise, I can scribble some lines on paper before I go for another hit of pure maple.

Habits can be adjusted.

I think my life depends upon it.

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Onwards and Upwards

The Universe conspires to push me to pursue my dreams of writing.  Finally the thread of a new story line dances in my mind and I play with variations, creating a world of my choosing, according to my own wit and whimsy.

Technical challenges like a malfunctioning modem clear the path from distractions.  A potential fraud has shut off my access to money until I can get to the bank on Monday, leaving me at home while a miserable rain softens the urge to go out even if I could buy something to eat.

Still I pay an exorbitant price to turn my phone into a modem and get sucked into binge watching a drama. It feels like a vacation to lounge in front of the screen, resisting the effort to close it out before the next episode begins.

Likewise, I have been auditioning bass players lately. The sound of starting a new band gets my feet tapping with invigorating energy. One new friend is a well-known jazz artist who is enjoying experimenting with this potential project, really likes the songs and is willing to work hard to bring them to new life.

Here too, however, with every two steps in front of the other, the Universe plays the mean trick of sending me sideways. Her remarkable ear for perfect pitch makes the music magnificent, but apparently highlights tuning issues on my guitar that makes her not want to play with me until I get it fixed. In attracting a higher caliber musician, the bar is also raised on my own ability to produce sweet notes.

No longer playing soccer, each morning I rise determined to restructure my muscles with yogic stretches and deep breathing.  The athletic rush is lacking though and easily I can relax into a lazy movement that carries no benefit. I collapse into a short meditation and launch towards my truck stiffly and awkwardly.

For several weeks, I have allowed myself to believe that sixty-four is the age of retirement. Like failing to stretch that little bit further, I can relinquish the effort and believe that what I have already done, for better or worse, is enough.

I have a book and numerous decent short stories.  I have written some good songs and recorded them for posterity. I have raised children who can manage now for themselves.

Is that not plenty to be proud of?

But as I stare at the screen, my eyes grow heavy and my heart weary. Even as the sun comes out to shine towards a glorious afternoon, my legs hold weights that keep me seated and only half-aware.  My head aches with weariness and I wonder how much more could I go on like this.

One foot in front of the other. One empty page filled with words. One silent room transported into resonant strumming. Against all inclination to let up, loosen my grip and relax into an easier moment, I push forward as best I can to keep the blood pulsing.

Time is both precious and plentiful.  Growing older, I find every second counts because I’ve learned it could easily be my last. And in the same breath of understanding I know that we live so much longer and in such better health than our ancestors so there is still plenty of time to express the many joys and sorrows of this sweet gift of life.

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writer, musician, contractor