Shift 45: On the Town

onthetown01

Deon called me up and asked if I wanted to meet him at the lounge. It was Saturday, end of track season, and just a few weeks before the end of school. He invited some of our friends, too–Clara Bjergsen and Adriene. It was a type of celebration.

They serve food, so I was allowed in, even if I am a minor. I smiled, remembering when Deon showed me that place that served free tapas all those long years ago. Feels like another life.

It had been a pretty successful track season. I didn’t break the mile record, but I got to compete. I set a few track records, and I won a lot. I also lost a few times–or, rather, placed second or third. Once, even fourth. But I’ve qualified for States at the beginning of summer. And Tracy and the USM coach told me they’re proud and looking forward to next year.

I’m doing OK in my classes, too, if you consider all A’s OK. Which I do. I’m not graduating Valedictorian or Salutatorian. Nadja is the the valedictorian for her high school. She’s gonna deliver an awesome speech. She’s been practicing it on me.

I’m just gonna walk the aisle, take my diploma, move the tassel to the other side, and throw my cap up in the air.

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That’s enough.

It’s enough that a kid like me made it this far. I’ll be graduating high school. I ran track. I got accepted into college. I got a place lined up to live in San Myshuno, sharing that flat with the violinist, and I’ve even got money to pay my share of the rent, which isn’t much, because of the YOTO connection, but still, it’s something.

My days of free-loading are over.

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At the lounge, when I took my guitar out to the courtyard, that really buff woman from the San Myshuno gym showed up.

Man. She’s so awesome. Her arms are sculpted. She wears a men’s hair-cut, like me, but then she wears all this buff jewelry and a long skirt and a little shirt that shows her incredible abs.

I can’t imagine myself ever having the confidence to dress like she does. But that’s OK. I like my style.

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While I was playing, a bunch of other people came out to listen.

“This is Jenny Trevalyn,” she started telling them. “If you follow track, like I do, you’d know her. This girl is going places. She led the San Myshuno High team this year, and next year, she’ll be running with USM. Take my word for it. That’s the team to follow.”

I felt really shy and embarrassed.

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But I also felt so proud.

I went inside, and Adriene was asking Clara about opportunities for older, nontraditional students at USM, and suddenly, it hit me. I’m Jenny Trevalyn. I’m gonna be a student at USM. I’m on the track team. I’ve got a life.

“How’s that protein drink?” the bartender asked me. “I heard you’re an athlete. You still in training?”

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“It’s good,” I replied. “And yeah. I’m still in training. I gotta feeling I’ll always be in training.”

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Shift 44: Flea Market

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During winter break, Britney took me to look at flats in San Myshuno. It felt like spring, and we didn’t even need jackets.

Through the yoga community that runs YOTO, some people open up their homes to YOTO grads when they go to college. That’s how we came to find out about the flats.

I liked the apartments. They all sort of looked the same after a while. Couples lived in some, and young families lived in others. The one I liked best had a musician living in it. It was a big loft in the art district, which is a short walk to the university. The woman living there is a violinist with the San Myshuno Symphony Orchestra. She’s only about four years older than me, actually, which is kind of neat.

“Wasn’t that place beautiful?” Britney said. “Much better than staying in the dorms, right?”

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I don’t know. I was kind of thinking that the dorms might be easier. But Aadhya feels like it works out better for YOTO kids to live in homes after we graduate. She says, for the most part, we already develop all the communal-living skills that dorms require while we’re living at YOTO. What we really need is to develop home-living skills, so that when we graduate college, we’ll be better prepared to live on our own. We can stay in the dorm, for sure, if we want. And some YOTO kids do for the first few years, and then move into house-shares. But Aadhya thinks for some kids, like me, it’s better to start by sharing a flat.

I’m thinking about it.

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I’ve got a few months before I need to make up my mind.

After we looked at the flats, Britney and I hung out in the park. They were holding a flea market there. I couldn’t believe the junk for sale.

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Adriene showed up.

“Are you following me or something?” I joked. “Or maybe you live here!” It seems like every time I’m at this park, I run into her.

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“Same wave length!” she said. “It’s like we’re surfing the same universal waves, right? Hang ten!”

Sofia showed up, too.

“My mom told me you got into USM,” she said. “I’m going there, too! Maybe we’ll have some classes together.”

“That would be cool,” I told her. “What are you majoring in?”

“Music. And you?”

“Botany.”

“Botany!” yelled Adriene. “Go trees!” She really is funny.

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“Hey, squirt. I see you still got the same taste in friends.” It was Donnie.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“Same as you. Scoping out flats. Emiliano took me.”

“You see any you like?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” Donnie said. “I might start out in the dorms.”

fleamarket07

Britney gave Donnie and me a ride home. We sat together in the back seat.

“I’m not read to live with a family,” he said. “Or even have a room-mate. It’s just weird. Too much baggage.”

He said he liked the way we lived at YOTO, sharing a dorm-like room for sleeping, taking turns cooking and cleaning. He liked that there’s always someone around, and it’s easy to avoid one-to-one conversations or being alone.

“When you live with somebody, you’re either just with them, or alone. It’s weird. I don’t think I can cope. I’d make a good frat boy.”

He said it, not me. But I had to admit he seemed to have good self-knowledge.

I like being alone, and I’d rather be with one person than a group. I think sharing a flat would work out well for me.

Life’s weird. Move on, move through it, and things happen. Sometimes, the things that happen are the things you need. And even when they’re not, if you just keep moving on, moving through it, you might get to the things you need.

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Shift 43: Keeping On

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I went back to school. I picked up training again. Sometimes, I felt better, but often I didn’t.

Aadhya said grief isn’t over just like that. You don’t just have a good cry and move on. It lingers.

I told her they’d all died a long time ago, even Scott, though I just found out about it. She said it didn’t matter. Grief’s a process, not a moment.

“And sometimes, it’s not even a process,” she said. “Sometimes, it simply is.”

“Like it becomes part of me?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“You mean I’ll always feel like this?”

“No,” she said. “But you may always have a corner in you where it resides. Or maybe not. But either way, best not to try to rush it. Just let it be.”

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I hated feeling that way.

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Aadhya said, “You are safe to feel now. For a long time, you weren’t, and you had to keep up your tough exterior. But you’re safe now. And there’s no rush. You can simply feel exactly as you feel.”

It seemed easy for her to say that. What bad feelings did she have inside? It wasn’t fun to feel sad all the time. It hurt.

I started having dreams while I slept. Or maybe they were nightmares. Nadja said I still cried in my sleep some nights.

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The dream could go any way, but it always wrapped around the same ending. I’m alone. Everyone’s gone. I’m in a forest, and I see trees all around me, only it’s not like a real forest where I feel the trees are alive. It’s like a paper forest, and they are cut-outs that have no life, only obstacle, and I’m alone in the center, looking for a way out.

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The dream can start anywhere: a market, a school, a park, a movie theater. It always ends in the cut-out forest, with me alone.

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During the days, I started upping my workouts. I still trained with Tracy, so I could work out smart and not over-train. But I put everything into it I could.

The only way I knew how to deal with this dream and with the feelings that lingered was to put everything I could into the workout. Then, sometimes, the sadness turned to anger, and I got a relief, at least, from feeling sad.

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I still kept meeting with Aadhya. It was like everybody wanted to talk to me: Aadhya, Clara Bjergsen, Nancy Landgraab, and my trainer Tracy.

I got tired of talking.

I’d talk with Aadhya, because I felt like she had a radar on me. She knew what was going on and what I needed to say. I trusted her to look into that cut-out forest and help me find a way out.

But whenever I saw Clara or Nancy coming my way, I quickly went someplace else or started doing something else. I recruited Marquis to be my decoy.

When Clara came my way, if Marquis was around, I’d whistle, and he’d intercept her and start asking her all these questions about the SAT or college applications. She couldn’t resist. When Nancy started zooming in, he’d pull out a volume of Walden or the I Ching. She was a sucker for that. They’d sit down and study some passage, and I’d be free to be alone with my thoughts and feelings.

I didn’t mind talking to Tracy. She never pried. She always had a way of making me feel like I was sitting down to a meal of comfort food, even when I was doing fast reps on the machine.

“You can trust your body, sweet-heart,” Tracy said. “You can stretch it now. You just keep on keeping on, keep working out. You’ll get there. You’re young. You’re strong.”

I started to feel confident when she talked like that. When I remembered Aadhya saying “Just let it be,” and then I remembered Tracy saying, “You’ll get there. You’re strong,” I started to believe them. I started to think, maybe there’s a path through that cut-out forest.

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Shift 42: Passing

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Nadja told me I was crying in my sleep. I don’t recall. I just know I felt so heavy that it was hard to get out of bed.

Everything was going so well. Tracy said it looked like I’d be ready to run track this spring. My grades were all A’s and my test scores were high, so it looked like I’d get academic scholarships, too. I was feeling like everything was working out.

And then, the world came crashing down, and now, I’m not sure how to get through this.

Mary, one of the YOTO volunteers, collapsed at YOTO. She was dead by the time the paramedics arrived.

passing01

I didn’t know her that well, so it’s not like there’s a hole in my heart where she used to be.

And she was old and had lived a good life. They say it was an aneurism. Seeing the paramedics wheel her out triggered something in me. I reacted as if it were someone I knew and loved.

passing04

I felt angry, too. Why was she working here, if she wasn’t well? Why did this have to happen on Aadhya’s day off? If Aadhya were here, she’d know something were wrong, and she’d have had Mary sit down and take it easy. We’re supposed to be safe here. It’s not a place for old people. It’s not a place where people are supposed to die.

passing03

I realized none of my thoughts mattered. My response wasn’t rational: I knew this. It didn’t make it hurt less.

passing05

Darling didn’t help. When I told her at school in the locker room, she got all upset, too.

“Mary died?” Darling said. “She died? I knew her! She was my neighbor! Oh, God! She was the first person to give me a job, watering her plants when she on vacation. How can she be dead? You were there. Why didn’t you do something?”

I didn’t feel better.

passing06

I had a hard time keeping up my training. My restrictions had been lifted, so I was free to train as much as I wanted, within reason.

But it was hard to even finish my morning runs. I came back early. Everything ached.

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Working out wasn’t any better. In between sets, if I could even finish them, I ended up breaking down.

passing13

Aadhya told me to take a break from everything: school, working out, everything. Not for long, just for as long as I needed.

“What if what I need turns out to be a long time?” I asked her.

“It won’t be,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ll be right here.”

So, I took a week off of school.

During the days, when the other kids were at school, Aadhya and I talked, and then I slept until they got home.

passing08

During one of our talks, Aadhya asked me, “How many people have you lost?”

“I didn’t lose Mary,” I answered. “She didn’t belong to me.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Aadhya said. “I have a feeling this doesn’t have to do with Mary.”

In her silence, I thought of Scott. I was still glad he was out of the picture. I wish I could have been strong when he was around, so I knew I could protect myself.

“I lost my uncle,” I said.

She kept silent. I thought of Gran. Once the EMTs came, I never got to talk to her again. She collapsed, and she was gone. I was alone.

“Gran,” I said. “I never had a chance to say goodbye to her.”

Aadhya looked at me in silence.

My mom and dad drove off, and I stood with Gran and waved to them. I was glad to see them go, because a weekend with Gran meant reading and climbing trees and drinking tea and staying up late to watch movies, cuddled under the log cabin quilts.

“They never came back,” I whispered.

Aadhya held me while I sobbed. I was so alone. All my family, gone.

“I never said goodbye. Not to any of them. There’s so much I never said.”

Aadhya held me. When I looked at her, her eyes were moist and ringed in red.

I held her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Aadhya. I love you,” I felt fierce. I grasped her shoulders and I spoke really fast, like the words were racing to get out. “You have been a mentor and more to me, and to all the kids here. You’re like a grandma, only more. If I never say it, you’ll never know it. I love you. Thank you.”

She held me. We wept together. And then I went upstairs to sleep.

passing11

I still felt sad when I woke late in the afternoon. But I got up anyway. I could hear the kids coming back from school.

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I got dressed. I dished up leftovers for myself. I thought maybe I could eat. Aadhya came into the kitchen.

“The volunteer who’s on duty tonight, Nancy, she just found out about Mary,” Aadhya said. “She’s very upset. Do you think you could talk with her?”

“I don’t know what I could say,” I said.

“Sometimes, you don’t have to say anything. Just being there, being present and listening, can be enough.”

Nancy joined me at the table. She started talking before I could say anything. She rambled on about all these esoteric things. She talked about spirit and essence and nothing ever being really lost. I think she thought she was comforting me. The thought made me smile, in spite of myself.

“Thank you, Nancy,” I said.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. I could see she was still upset, so I sat there, in silence. It wasn’t nothing, and I wasn’t alone.

“Pain doesn’t have to separate us from everybody,” I said to Nancy. “Sometimes, it can draw us together.”

I was still sad, and I could see that Nancy was, too, but I could smile through the sadness, a real smile that reached out to the person across from me.

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Shift 41: Rebuild

trainers01

During the first week of senior year, the coach from University of San Myshuno called me.

“J.D.,” she said, “I hear you’ve been ill. Mono is no laughing matter. But I also hear that your doctor has given you the go-ahead to return to training. But here’s the deal: We’re providing your trainer.”

I didn’t really want it going around that my illness had been mononucleosis. I already got grief from Donnie about that. It’s “the kissing disease,” and, of course, I’ve never been kissed.

“At least I never acted on my impulse,” Donnie said, “or I’d have got sick, too, and have to take time out of training, and that’s one thing I won’t ever risk for kissing a girl who looks like boy.”

Ugh. But the good news was that nobody else at YOTO got it. I guess it was a really good thing that I was at Ted’s when the illness hit–and that he was gone when I was at my sickest. He and Deon haven’t caught it, fortunately.

But now I’m looking at the long process of rebuilding.

Turns out that all the coaches agree I’ve got to skip cross country this fall. If I had my normal energy back, I’d be so disappointed.

trainers02

But the USM coach and my high school coach both believe that with a careful return to training, and with keeping the stress down and getting lots of rest, I’ll be able to compete this spring with my school track team and to run with USM next year.

“We’re still hoping to sign you,” the USM coach said. “Work with Tracy, our training specialist, and when she gives the green-light, we’ll sign you in fall, just like we committed.”

So, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons, I meet Tracy at the San Myshuno gym.

I like her. She’s a shot-putter, so she’s super strong.

And she never pushes me. In fact, she teaches me.

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“Now, honey,” she said when I was working on the weight machine, “I want you to learn to feel your muscles. Feel your tendons, baby! That’s right!”

She spends a lot of time talking about angles and fulcrums and stuff like that.

“Don’t push it, baby! Don’t over-extend! Stay within your limits, sweet-heart!”

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She makes me stop after thirty minutes, even when I’m feeling great and hitting my stride.

“Ok, doll,” she says. “Time’s up. Ease down now. We’ll do some nice slow stretching to cool down. Little yoga, honey?”

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I try not to get frustrated. I really want to push it. I feel like I know my own strength, and I know how far I can push it. And sometimes I feel like I’ll never get back to where I need to be unless I start stretching myself.

But Tracy has told me a lot about other athletes she’s worked with. I’ve heard the horror stories of the ones who returned too fast, too hard, and ended up with relapses and ruptured spleens. And I’ve heard the inspiration stories of those who’ve taken it nice and slow, with steady, easy practices, a focus on form, a solid nutritional base, and lots of rest. They’ve come back stronger.

“It’s the whole break-down, rebuild thing, darling,” Tracy said. “Those cells have to reform, and if you do it smart and easy, they reform stronger than ever. And that’s how champions are made.”

The other day, I was training on the treadmill, and this woman I’d seen before in the gym came over to watch. I really like this other woman. She’s so strong. She’s got muscle tone to envy.

Tracy was working on my stride.

“Keep your back straight, sweet-heart!” she called. “Relax your shoulders! Don’t worry about lengthening the stride. Just let it flow!”

The other woman said, “I know you. I’ve seen you race before. You’re Jenny Trevalyn. You were fast last spring, but look at you now. Now you’re strong, and you’ve got form.”

“Oh, that’s right!” said Tracy. “That’s my baby! And my baby is a champion!”

And then our thirty minutes were up, and I had to stop.

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Shift 40: Diner

drivehome04

At the end of summer, when Deon came to pick me up to drive me back to YOTO, I asked him if we could stop and eat at the diner on our way home.

“You know, like a tradition,” I said.

“Sure,” he replied. “You and me, we’re getting a lot of traditions.”

When we sat down, he looked at me hard.

“You sure you’re OK?” he asked.

“Fine!” I replied. “Never better!” Of course I didn’t fool him.

drivehome03

I told him I’d been sick over the summer, but that Ted took care of me, and I’ve been resting up, so I’ll be ready for cross country season in a few weeks.

“You’re thin,” he said. “Athletes need to be strong. Don’t train so hard that you just waste away to nothing.”

drivehome01

I told him I was fine. I’d learned my lesson. I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to compete this fall. And I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to run in the spring, either. I’ve heard sometimes of athletes who get run down and never really recover.

But the weird thing is I’m not upset about it. I might not run track. I might never break another record. I might lose my athletic scholarship, not be able to get an academic scholarship, and wind up not going to college.

I’m honestly OK with that. I’m alive.

I didn’t tell all that to Deon. I just sat there and listened to him going on about nutrition and rest and life-balance, and I just enjoyed the sound of his voice and they way he gets this intense look when he’s really going on about something.

“Are you happy with your life, Deon?” I asked him.

drivehome02

He thought for a minute.

“I accept my life,” he said. “I’ve come to learn that now and then, a happy moment comes. And when it does, I let it in. And then it goes, and another moment comes. That’s it. That’s how I live.”

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I wondered if I agreed with him. Since my illness, I’ve been so focused on the simple joy of being alive that nothing seems to matter. If the sun shines on me, I’m happy. If my heart beats, I’m happy. If I breathe, I’m happy.

“Don’t spend all your life chasing rainbows,” Deon said.

drivehome12

“I’m not,” I told him. “I’m letting them chase me.”

We started reminiscing.

“Remember when I first met you and you told me you were a college student doing research?” he asked. “You were like fourteen! I’d never seen such a kid before!”

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“I felt so old, back then!” I said. “I thought for sure I had everyone fooled!”

“You really tried to be tough,” said Deon.

“I was so tough!” I laughed. “I was so tough on the outside, but underneath, I was too scared to even let myself be terrified!”

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“I know,” Deon said. “I was there, right?”

We laughed about all the good times we had. I remember mornings when Deon would stop by my camp and we’d dance while the sun rose.

“Why were you so nice to me?” I asked. “And even now! Why are you still so nice?”

“You know when you asked if I’m happy with my life?” Deon said. “Like I’ve said, I’ve got moments. And seeing you, how everything’s working out for you, and you’ve got a place to stay and you’re getting things lined up for a future, that brings me real happiness.”

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“I can’t ever repay you!” I said.

“You don’t have to! This is me, repaying my debt!”

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He went on to tell me more about his younger years. I knew he’d been a homeless kid, like me. And I knew that Ted and other guys had helped him out along the way.

But I didn’t know that for a few years, an old woman took him in. He was like the groundskeeper, and she was like his landlord, only more. This was during the time when he was getting his GED.

“If it hadn’t been for Betty,” he said, “I never could have done it. Everyone I ever met helped me a lot. But there was this big gap between me and society, and I couldn’t figure out how to bridge it. Ted helped–but he couldn’t show me how to bridge it. He’d already dropped out by then. Everybody I met who was homeless like me couldn’t help. They didn’t know how to bridge it themselves. But Betty took me in. She needed someone to take care of her garden and her home. I could do that. And she was a retired teacher. She showed me how fill in all the blanks I couldn’t figure out.”

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“She sounds really nice,” I said.

“She was,” he said. “I loved her. I loved her more than a mom. She was beautiful. She was old, but she had this glow about her. True beauty. I mean, I was a kid, and she was an older woman. But man. Sometimes. If I’d been born in a different time.”

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I realized that I loved Deon as he said that. He and Ted and Aadhya, they were almost everything to me. They were family. We weren’t related by blood, but we were bound by something stronger. Maybe it was karma.

“Do you know what I mean?” Deon asked.

I felt like I was full of something golden: butter and sugar and sunlight, all spun together.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know exactly what you mean.”

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Shift 39: Akhilandeshvari

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Turns out, it wasn’t some weird spiritual experience. It was the onset of illness. I got really, really sick.

I slept all the time. I didn’t feel like eating and I could barely get myself to drink water. I felt like my body was shutting down. I wasn’t really in pain, and I wasn’t even really all that uncomfortable. It was a weirdly pleasant sensation, like rising up through flames and floating on ash. I guess I was sort of delirious.

I started thinking about what a pleasant experience it would be to die. Leaving my body. My body felt so tired. I could circle my thighs with my hands. I was disappearing. I wasn’t sure I minded. In fact, I think I liked it.

At one point, I woke up and got a glass of orange juice. It really, really hurt to drink it.

summer09

But I drank it anyway.

And then I poured myself another glass.

And I drank it.

My throat was raging.

My muscles ached.

I was so uncomfortable.

But I wasn’t dying, and that pleasant seduction had left me, and I felt like I was going to be OK, if I could only drink another glass of orange juice, a glass of water, and maybe a cup of tea. I was alive.

summer10

Then Ted came home.

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He wrapped me in a hug and tucked me back into bed.

“You don’t look so great, Starshine,” he said.

I slept some more, and when I woke, I found a glass of water and herbal tea on the nightstand.

Ted was in the kitchen.

“I think you’ll live!” he said.

I told him I had no idea what had been wrong with me.

summer22

He asked me how the year had been. I told him about training and racing and studying and doing everything to get a verbal, and then how the coach at USM gave me my verbal commitment and how now I knew I could go to college year after next, provided I stayed fit and kept up my grades.

And then, I realized that I’d lost so much strength during my illness.

“But I guess it won’t happen now,” I said. “I’m pretty well shattered.”

summer13

“You may be broken,” he said, “but you’re not shattered.”

“I don’t have any strength left,” I said.

“You’ve been pushing yourself too hard. Anybody would get ill if they pushed themselves like you did. It’s a breakdown, but it’s not the end.”

And then he told me a story.

summer14

“Have you ever heard of Akhilandeshvari?”

Of course I hadn’t.

“The name ‘Akhilan’ means ‘never not broken,’ and ‘deshvari’ means goddess. Akhilandeshvari is the goddess who is never not broken.”

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“And truthfully,” he said, “if you look at any of us, is there ever a time when any of us are not broken, are truly, completely whole?”

“I’m always striving for wholeness,” I said.

“What if you didn’t strive?” he asked.

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“Then I’d remain broken,” I replied.

“Exactly.” He continued with his story. “Now time was when Akhilandeshvari was a very angry god. You know, she was the type that if you didn’t come ‘just so’ she would curse you! And so people were afraid to worship her. All except the really driven people. They came in droves, for it was said that a blessing from Akhilandeshvari, whose name also means ‘Goddess who Rules the Universe,’ was sure to guarantee success.”

“What kind of success?”

“Any success. It’s Akhilandeshvari who I worshiped when I worked on Wall Street, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Oh, she was an angry goddess, and nothing anyone could ever do was ever good enough for her!

“But then one day, her beloved Shiva came in the form of a worshiper and gave her a pair of earrings. They were like multifaceted crystals. And it’s said that then all her anger blasted through the earrings and blasted through her and blasted her into a million pieces! And that’s when the light shone through her so brightly. She became the brightest Starshine on the planet.”

summer18

The next day, I felt well enough to go outside. But I didn’t feel like training.

I hung out in the garden with Ted, and the sun shone.

summer21

I carved another dragon.

“I’ll go running after this,” I told Ted.

“What for?” he asked. “Aren’t you wearing your crystal earrings? Slow down. Shine. That’s all you need to do.”

summer20

I didn’t train once for the rest of the summer. I spent the days in the sun. I slept. I let my mind daydream. I stood cupped in the palm of the meadow, with the fingers of mountains gently open all around me, and the sunshine streaming down. Oh, I was broken, all right! I was broken into a million pieces, and the light inside and the light outside were one.

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