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The long, patient journey of the chess master “bum.”

Some folks saw him riding his bike through town. They saw he was most likely homeless and they thought no more of him.

Until one day, Randy told me his story. It’s as tragic as any Shakespeare play and twice as real.

I wrote it up for my local newspaper and I hope it sees its day there. But I also want to share it here because Randy and his hero’s journey need to be seen anywhere they can be. It is a story of incredible suffering, patience and eventual peace:

Sitting in the shade of a tree at Lithia Park, any day of the week and most times of the day, Randy Dollinger has his chess board out. A small sign reads “Chess?”

The peaceful scene gives no clue as to the long road Randy has traveled. “I always wanted to make money with chess, somehow,” the 63 year old Ashland resident tells me while waiting for his next student. That yearning was born of a short, tragedy infused career in the cut throat competitive world of tournament chess. It is as unforgiving as it is unyielding.

He began playing chess in his native North Carolina at the age of 12. Within two years he rose through the fierce world of tournament chess to eventually become the state champion at 17, ranked tenth in the nation.

Randy was among the few young, elite champions of his day, even spending time with international chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. “He showed me an opening which helped me win a tournament. He came to watch me play.” He smiles, “Sometimes people can’t believe that story. But it’s true.”

At the pinnacle of his playing Randy had one of his games published. “Two pages in Chess Life. It went all over the world.”

“ I played in all the great cities, I played in 30 tournaments.” He eventually became the only chess player with the ranking of “expert” bestowed by the US Chess Federation in his home state. “People came from all over the East Coast to watch me play.”

He was unstoppable until five years after he began it ended- in the seat of his friend’s car. “I was 17. The passenger in a car, “ he says slowly and thoughtfully. “We got into a wreck. My friend lost control and ran into a tree.”

Randy was injured in a life altering way. “I was in a coma for a week. Then the doctor said it’d be a couple years before my brain would be back in order before I could do the things I had been doing.”

But he couldn’t wait. He lost patience. He had to get back in the game. He went against his doctors orders and went back to playing. “I came to tournaments with my head bandaged, walking on crutches.”

He could not accept it. Randy feared if he took too much time out he would be forgotten.

“I started playing too fast. I lost tournaments, I lost rating points.” Randy leans in and tells the story which changed his life. He is not dramatic but matter of fact and precise. He describes being in a tournament with a crowd looking on and suddenly going blank, not knowing what to do. He had never experienced that before. “I just understood the game right away. I always knew it and then I suddenly just couldn’t get it to work. I would have these moments where I would freeze.”

His ranking fell. His sponsors withered. At 17, he felt finished.

“I stopped playing. It was too disappointing.”

Randy began traveling, trying to find himself outside of chess. He became a meditation student, a wonderer and often homeless. He came to Ashland 25 years ago, much of that time he camped outside and sought refuge in coffee shops.

But he never fully gave up on chess. “Ive been studying the game.”

Most people never knew his story. Briefly he was re-discovered but once again the game left him wounded.

He was offered a sponsorship to play a tournament in Grants Pass more than a decade ago. “I did great. I won second place. People gave me offers to play and teach.” But he couldn’t do it. “All the fear and apprehension came back. I literally had a horrible headache for three days. I couldn’t sleep.”

He figured it was too much. He gave up his dream again.

“I studied but hardly ever played. I wouldn’t play. I couldn’t do it.”

Randy says despite all the disappointment and pain he still had the hope that somehow, one day the game would come back to him.

“Then there was this brainstorm. Just set up my chess board and tell people I’ll teach for compensation.”

He sits on a bench most every day, all day, just within the sound of the park’s cellist with his board, hoping for a game.

“I’m enjoying it again. I love it, plus I’m actually making a little money.” He works by donation. He offers a game for a suggested five dollars and ten gets you a lesson from the master.

His years of patience shows. “Everything revolves around the four main squares in the middle,” he tells a student who stopped her stroll to play. “Every square means something. That’s the power of the game.”

Oakland resident Emily Santiago says in twenty minutes he improved her game. “He’s completely changed my strategy for playing. Chess is like life, I have to keep my most powerful pieces and leverage them, “ she says while staring intently at the board. “I learned to delay gratification.”

Randy’s life story could be told as one of delayed gratification. He’s waited decades for chess to pay him back for his devotion. “I wanted to support myself with chess. 45 years later and I’m finally doing it.”

Marcus Brown is nine. He’s visiting with his family from Arizona. The chess board is clearly calling to him as he circles Randy, looking at the pieces. Randy says he loves teaching children because he knows the power of the game. “I think it’s important to build skills, to plan and strategize,” says his mother Bobbie. Marcus is not talking, he is only sitting with the pieces and Randy. “Every game is now,” says Randy as he interrupts our discussion. “I have to concentrate.”

Twenty minutes later Marcus leaves the table. “That was great! Good job,” Randy encourages his student. Takes a sip of water and a breath. “I never knew how to give this gift to society. The only way to do it is to set up my board and wait. It requires me to be patient. You have to be patient in life and chess.”

He smiles. His green eyes shine under his gold wire rimmed glasses looking the part of the master. His fingers graze the pieces. He looks up and says to a couple passing by, “You want to play chess?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Case for Walking

Nowhere can you see the realness and the history of where you live better than by foot. You may drive a place every day but until your feet touch its soil, until your eyes stop looking straight ahead but off to the side where a wide set of steps rise like an upside down waterfall leading to a young man with an old school ‘fro texting his girl on the night before his college graduation- will you begin to know a place.

Until you notice just how many people plant rows and rows of lavender along the strip of land after their yard but before the street on the other side of the sidewalk- you won’t understand the generosity of your neighbors and the glory of bees on a summer day.

I passed the cemetery and for the first time realized that a leafy tree stands as a sentinel at the end of even rows of each line of headstones. The grass is exactly even but not mechanized like a modern place, it is still different shades of green from dark to light with some dried grass, yellow and stiff. The rows are more like paths inviting me to follow them and get to know the people who came before.

I found families, a husband who died twenty years before his wife. I kneeled before three headstones of three brothers who all died in different wars. Those people once also walked these streets.

Rounding through town I was stopped by a gaggle of young and lively guys with long dreadlocks and short little songs they busted out in bursts for me. “We’re the rainbow, join us!” I stayed awhile, talked about the Rainbow Gathering coming to Oregon, we talked about their dog and one guy told me I was beautiful. It was generous given that he was a lovely young guy with eyes as blue as any I’d seen.

Walking can boost your morale substantially.

I walked past bus stops and old homes. I saw some trash left by the steps of a stately old place which bragged of its 1888 lineage and I picked it up thinking, it  must be hard to see everything change around you.

I visited with a guy roughly my age carrying a backpack and sleeping bag. He looked clean and was sorting some food as he tucked it away. “It was a good day,” he said smiling. “I see that and I’m glad,” I tipped my head and smiled back. He was about to offer me some of his food but I walked on waving as I passed.

Strangers can be kind for no reason.

I also fell in love with an assorted group of dogs who ran to greet me like their long lost friend. Tails wagging, some singing sorrowful songs urging me to come back and I walked on and I remembered the joy of a good dog. I saw a woman cradling her little black and white dog coming from the vet and kissing the top of her furry head.

Love is so present in the world if you look.

I exchanged dozens of smiles with strangers, witnessed countless acts of awe among children seeing birds and flowers and I never once wished I was in a car despite the sweat which pooled at the back of my neck.

The best moment was in passing a girl, maybe seven or eight, wearing a crisp blue and white dress, a ribbon in her dark wavy hair and the smile on her innocent illuminated face that made years roll backwards to my second grade year. She stood at the top of the stairs outside her home while her grandmother sat smiling that same way on her porch. The girl began waving at strangers and smiling, for no particular reason. She ate an orange popsicle. As I approached the popsicle slipped off its stick into the grass. She observed but didn’t react choosing to continue her waving campaign.

Everything about her gave me hope. I asked if I could capture her picture and I did. I did not ask her a million questions like I might normally do. Frankly I didn’t want to know more than what I could see–the perfect mixture of light and love, innocence and care, playfulness and childish boredom.

If you walk enough you will get bored. Boredom is such a relief. Boredom doesn’t have technology attached or success or failure. It is expansive and allows you to fill it or feel it just as it is. I love boredom.

The case for walking is great. It is good for every part of you except your oh so busy schedule. So here’s the best case for it beyond all others–walk because you do not have time to do it. Break free of your calendar and make the room for walking and seeing and loving and speaking to strangers, and flirting and being bored.

 

 

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The Sad Story of Christopher Toughill

I walked into my apartment and immediately locked the door. I did it before turning on the light, before slipping off my shoes, before looking around.

Locking the door is not something I’ve ever much bothered with. I’ve been scolded for years by friends and family but I didn’t want to be the person who locks my shit up and then decides I’m safe because my possessions are tucked tightly behind a lock. I didn’t want to let that paranoia creep in–not even a little.

But then today I heard in depth the story of Christopher Toughill exactly as he told me. He stopped often to cry. Sometimes he would dip his head and begin going through the photos on his phone of rainbows. “I just took a lot of rainbow pictures. I suppose it was a crime of opportunity,” he quipped.

Before October 18, 2016- Christopher describes himself as a person who believed in “…rainbows and Unicorns, I believed in the very best in people and I thought that’s what they gave me. If I was ever disappointed it was worth the price of believing in the good in people.”

He grew up in DC to a journalist mom and a speech writing dad. His father, also a union organizer, taught him every labor song and chant and he still recounts them without a prompt breaking into song across the lunch table. In those moments, he’s someone else.

After October 18, 2016- Christopher has nowhere to live, owns nothing but one change of clothes and his dog, Harmony, a 14 year old geriatric pup who fits her name. His hands are still recovering, his teeth never will and his heart, however expansive, is shattered.

I found Christopher after he posted something on Facebook that sounded suicidal. “I give up” it began. When my intrepid friend tracked him down she asked me to go to him–a total stranger–and help. I said yes. That lead me to an abandoned mobile home space and a tall man with a brown dog sitting in a gravel spot surrounded by trash in a broken chair. He was on his cell phone and by his posture and expression he could have been a business person closing a deal, yet his dirty clothes, his untrimmed toe nails poking from old sandals, a single backpack with a broken zipper and his entire lack of options told part of the story.

But only part.

Christopher had been a very successful business owner. He had an optical shop in the affluent art village of Ashland, Oregon where he sold high end, hand crafted glasses to the rich and famous including more than one movie star.

Now-after his attacker brutalized him- he is homeless and by outside appearances looks broken.

On October 18, 2016- he was held hostage–chained in fact–by his landlord who rented him a one bedroom shop behind his house. Christopher was beaten, his hands broken, his teeth knocked out, his feet battered and he was burned with hot oil and dowsed in gasoline. “I was humiliated, degraded and tortured,” he says of the experience. Unknown to him at the time he rented his place–his landlord belonged to a criminal gang and had a long, violent history.

Christopher managed to escape to safety and the man who held him hostage is now in prison.

But in some ways so is Christopher. He cannot understand how so much evil exists on one hand, on another he chose mercy for his attacker. He agreed to his plea bargain. “I couldn’t be responsible for depriving someone of their freedom for life–even though I couldn’t understand what he did to me. Still, sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken the deal. He is not fit to live free among people. He is a monster.”

Christopher considered taking his own life. “I was in my shell. I was non functional.” He came away from the experience with nothing. His health too fragile to work, his home gone because he could never go back there, he found himself deteriorating. He went into a diabetic coma due to stress and lack of food and crashed his last thing–his car.

Christopher was waiting for his old dog to die so he could take his own life. “I couldn’t let Harmony down.” But Harmony did not die. She kept living and so did Christopher. “Now I don’t want to do it anymore. There are still sunrises and sunsets…the world itself. I got touched by the dregs of society, but for all its sham and drudgery the world is still a beautiful place.”

His pain is noticeable and I could feel it when we talked. He cried often, reached out for my hand, sometimes needed to get up and walk it off.  He would speak of the crime and discuss the “incomprehensible.”  He says he is disappointed that there was not a safety net deep enough to hold him. He’s tried all the services, he shows me all the calls he’s made on his cell phone to no good effect. “They can’t really help me.”

I left him at a clean hotel for the night where he could get a shower and his dog could take rest. It’s not enough. Nothing I do for Christopher is enough.

One time a cop told me there are few real, innocent victims. He implied most people put themselves in bad spots. I tried to believe that because it makes life less scary. But Christopher did not invite his trouble. What happened to him could have happened to me–or you.

There are innocent victims. There are people who do evil to them.

But there are also people who forgive evil, people who get back up and try again. There is me and you. And those pictures of rainbows on Christopher’s phone did happen.

So tonight I’m behind the locked door. I’m thinking of Christopher and I may shed more tears. I don’t know the way forward for him and I don’t know how he overcomes but I know he does. I can see that he is still the hero of his story.

If you want to help Christopher he has a GoFundme:

https://www.gofundme.com/HelpChrisRecoverFromTortureMaiming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Traveling Like Crazy; a short story

Slab City, California, USA.

This is the place where people go who have nowhere else, who’s future and past collide into a present tense of impossibility. It looks like it sounds. The sun cooks up the ground into untidy cracks but it doesn’t cook it enough to erase the smell or evaporate the trash from hundreds, sometimes thousands of people living entirely off grid.

The Slabs is roughly a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs in the Imperial Desert, 65 miles north of Calexico and a few minutes from East Jesus-literally.

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E.J. is an impromptu art installation on the road to Slab City. Artists use the trash from the Slab to make eccentric, politically challenging and quirky art amidst the nothingness of dirt and garbage and loneliness. East Jesus looks at you daring you to be anxious. If you don’t do it–if you stay calm and let yourself smile at the giant tray of spoons–you will be changed. It’s hard to say exactly how, but you feel it in the way that a certain song makes you cry. A nerve is touched and now it has sensation and memory of sensation and it’s own life outside you.

That is the East Jesus affect.

The entire drive through sand past the glimmering yet deeply foul Salton Sea, past abandoned shacks and mis-placed businesses slammed between date groves is sensation on salted wound. A road from nothing to nowhere.

The Slabs are left over from a military installation which pulled up stakes more than 40 years ago and today is occupied by people who show up in RV’s and cars, who sleep in tents, hammocks and home-made homes. It’s a self governing, free to squat  place with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for the art of living oddly.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it post apocalyptic wild west side show of people who run out of money, will, ability or patience with “normal” society.

There are 200 in August when the temperatures hit 124 and 2,000 in January when Canadians in mansions on wheels show up to soak up the weirdness and freeness of the desert. While the demographics and bank accounts shift with the seasons, old timers like George who runs a mis-matched trailer encampment which he rents out year round says it’s all the same kind of folks. Those who want to save money and don’t want to be bothered by the politeness of others. Essentially the draw at The Slabs is being left the hell alone. At least some of the time.

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There’s no electricity, running water-hot or cold-and no flush toilets. There’s dirt and some concrete slabs. That covers all the amenities.

There’s open mic night at The Range which looks like a scene from a twenty-somethings coming of age film with crooked and leaning stage, old couches with foam flying in all directions and a bar made of scrap wood hammered together by a blind or drunken man. They come there to sing to each other and recite poetry once per week, normally on Fridays. When asked if the performances are good most say, “Not really.”

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Somewhere in the miles of nothing is also a library and down the “road” an internet cafe which feels like a university student union. People hunker down and rifle their phones  within range of wi-fi. Politics is spoken but rarely argued. Drop outs and loan dodgers, disabled people, senior citizens and anarchist travelers tour each other’s states of mind about nearly any subject where most all conversations begin and end with a funny line and a snicker. Leaving is done one way, a wave of a peace sign over the shoulder and sometimes, “one love, one love.”

Just outside the internet cafe resides a man who calls himself Spyder and he’s the apparent rock star, mayor, Zen Master and builder of Slab City. He has half a manufactured home, a trailer, a truck and an RV. His RV has a rare thing, a hot running shower and radio. He has scrounged parts and created a solar panel and pump system to make it work.

His half of a home is in repair mode. The walls and floor are filled in, the kitchen is nearly functional with another solar rig and pump, his two kids have their own bedrooms. The bathroom in the half house doesn’t work but the RV is next door so the “Kids can shower before school. That’s important.”

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Soon Spyder’s place will have another comfort. He’s hand digging and lining a septic system so the family can use a flush toilet. He trucks in huge drums of water weekly.

“I couldn’t really make it out there. I was abandoned as a baby by my mother and put in the foster system where I was given to a family who didn’t just beat me-they tortured me. My back is wrecked, I never really learned to read or write and I’ve got a bunch of other scars.  I tried working out there doing handy jobs and anything I could get but I still kept winding up homeless–then I heard about this place. You can be what you want to be out here and if you work hard you get to keep the result of your labor. I can’t see ever going back.”

He stands in the sun looking around, sweat is dripping down his shirtless chest and he wipes his face and says it’s time he get back to work.

There’s an agricultural canal which runs behind The Slabs about half a mile or so from Spyder’s place. People speak of swimming and bathing in it especially in the fall when it’s hot and the water is still high due to water releases for late crops. They say it’s a beach, an inland paradise when it gets really hot.  But it’s actually a long, shallow edged and deep centered waterway which smells of farm waste and chemicals. It’s an odd shade of green but it’s moving water in the desert. That’s as good as it gets.

This is not a place for the germaphobe or picky person.

Slab City has its joiners and loners, cool folk and angry outliers, all of them cheap skates and free loaders who have an aversion to loans and taxes and working all week to pay for a house that owns them and demands more upgrades. For the most part the dwellers of The Slab aren’t keen on government or cities or much to do with the world outside. However, it would not be accurate to say they’re lazy and don’t want to work.

Showing up with a tent in the white hot center of a huge desert with zero water or power does not allow anyone here to be lazy. Surviving is an entry level position and living with handmade upgrades like a roof and floor is the corner office. Nothing along the chain here is achieved without sun up to sun down work and innovation.

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Learning how to innovate is a daily occupation. Inventions will be born at Slab City.

Within two days of chumming around The Slabs, I find I’m eyeballing spots near roads but away from others. I’m evaluating sun angles and looking for smooth slabs and proximity to a decent path in and out. I’m creating a gear list: rope, tarps, big jugs for water, car batteries, propane tanks, camp stoves and lights. Shovels-one for digging large holes and one for a bathroom. I get hung up on the bathroom part but keep mumbling, ‘I really think I could do this and enjoy it.’

It’s not realistic. Yet……

When traveling like crazy, be prepared to be crazy. Meeting people in their odd smells, off grid pre-occupations, eccentricities and realities does not allow ambivalence. The mammalian response is to respond–to blend and join. The Slab City joiner/non joiner is a flag flying proudly for a country not yet invented. It’s the pirate ship or tropical island where mis-fits fit.

Nothing could be more pleasing.

Driving back in the pink sunset of the desert toward alleged civilization an isolation draped itself around my car.  I powered on through worlds, picked up a hitch hiker who refused to give her name and stopped for dinner where I was the only woman in a crowded restaurant and eventually found myself at the bizarre and magical Miracle Baths Hotel where a suite near the massage closet was available.

Floating under a dark sky in a pool filled with bath water listening to the conversation in Russian nearby and recalling an earlier one about why they don’t want us to know about aliens, the thought came in clearly that traveling like crazy is among the best ways to stay sane.

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The Rise of Hysteria and Obedient Women

He reminded me I have no voice–the young Mexican guy.

The singer songwriter from Austin, Texas, his state flag mounted behind him next to the candles, you know the ones in the jars with the Virgin Mary, yes, those, singing in a tiny club up the stairs and over to the left- incited revolution.  David Ramirez fired a shot through song for what is to come: rage, despair, and more deeply troubling— resignation.

Don’t get me wrong there are people raising voices-but so few are women. The ones who do speak, urge calm. That’s not the right message.

Ramirez sang of throwing out the baby, a depiction of white America forgetting how we all really got here, he shattered himself on the stage crooning and yelling, sweat pouring from his face, soaking his beard and stringy brown hair, his eyes filled with exhaustion. He was like Dylan, if Dylan could sing.

Why can’t we, us, women-those who stand to lose everything get the steam up to lay it on the line the way this guy does?

 

Girls obey. That’s the rule handed down by God and enforced by culture. You don’t obey and the penalties are steep. “Lock her up!” they yell. Burn her, she is a witch. Hysterectomy. Look up the origin of that word. Restless? How about a lobotomy? Don’t believe it? Ask Francis Farmer how it worked. This is all recent history, recurring history, persistent His-story.

You damned right my normal response is tepid. And terrified. Aren’t you?

 

I don’t need the faithless fundamentalist Christian pew anymore, nor the patriarchy, or belt or threat because I have become expert in keeping myself down.

The shame of shouting and possibly being told to “calm down” is apparently greater than the threat of losing our country, our work and our world.

How sad is that?

I am told to keep an open mind, told it is not yet time to be so concerned.

If it is not now-then it will it never be, the God damned time.

 

I am not trying to hurt your feelings because you disagree but frankly what we face is bigger than your feelings and mine. We’re reasonably discussing the rise of a fascist- old school style. The rest of the world sees it.

I may lose my mind, my friendships, my love–but we stand to lose quite realistically –everything. Our sacred Pacific Ocean has been under threat to drilling off the Northern California coast for decades-this president has no qualms with drilling, we may lose our Oregon trees to old school, largely unregulated milling. Can we talk about what we’re doing to face down this threat rather than “being calm and open minded?

 

Are you afraid, like me?

That’s what’s at the root of all this, you know. It’s not politics or losers and winners–it’s fear. It’s the fear for children and grandchildren, for friends and people we’ve never met.

It’s not about me or you–but us.

For people who, like my friend often says, will die and never know why. For those under threat of deportation or arrest or merely having their life’s work trampled to shit.

I’m a journalist. I’m aware of seeing my profession turn to a sideshow. But the part I don’t know scares me even more. The part where protected lands are drilled, fucked, broken and used up. Where girls die again in back alley abortions, where gay people are shoved into airless closets, where black lives do not matter and children are ripped from loving parents because someone says they are criminals for wanting a better life. Where Jews who have endured and endured have to somehow do it again. Where sick people will die because, yet again, they cannot afford treatment.

Silence is a kind of insanity.

 

 

 

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Fuck the truth-it’s not such a big deal

Fuck the truth-it's not such a big deal

Do not seek the truth.

Honestly, it’s too hard. It’s like falling through the floor of the world and tumbling into space without anything to hold on to. It’s like freezing from the inside out. It’s the loneliest place you can imagine.

I’ll give you the Cliff Notes so you don’t have to bother with all that heartbreak

Chief among the lessons is how the hum of life goes on without me. You need your life, it doesn’t need you.

Live your life today and enjoy the hell out of it, every bit of it because that’s what you’ve got. Love the people you are with because one day you will not be with them.

And..hang on to some of your delusions. Don’t be so quick to set fire to your story because as they say at Zen school, “it’s just a story.” Those stories are your stabilizers and sometimes they keep the plane in the air. It’s okay to feel like you matter and that you’re going to do something really good in your life. It doesn’t matter if those stories turn out to be true or not, they can keep you going.

So go ahead and tell your stories–just know that they are stories and if they begin to hurt you then let them go.

You knows this but it’s worth repeating because I really know it now: It is not about the work or the errands or the noise of the tasks we fill our days with, it is about what happens when we are not doing that–when the cat sits in your lap and purrs or the loved one sits near you and wonders if you’re hungry or it’s that long drive with the windows rolled down and the smell of the woods when it fills your lungs–that is all the truth you need.

I set out to grab the great sword and cut through delusion. I wanted to settle my dust and know what is real. What I did not walk away from, I gave away. Now I know the truth–all I loved is all I have ever loved.

You do not need to drop through the floor of the world to figure it out.

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May 2, 2014 · 4:49 pm