wait it out, find the shine

Continuing my funk from earlier this week with my distaste of the stubborn Georgia heat, I’ve also ended up with some kind of allergy to the fall blooms or maybe the latest incarnation of my kids’ school germs. Whatever the cause, my throat is gravely and my eyes sting.

I rallied for Jude’s soccer game today, but other than that, I’m indulging in a lot of self care this weekend. I dropped in for a yoga nidra workshop Friday night at a local studio, which was essentially a long guided meditation. I found some homemade chicken soup hiding in the very back of the freezer today for lunch. I walked in the garden with my grandad pinching off early shoots of fall greens and fresh peas. I’ve listened to podcasts and read in a quiet house. And now I am writing a bit before an early bedtime.

I caught the latest On Being this afternoon and was completely hooked on a stunning interview with Ruby Sales, a prominent player in the early civil rights movement who still works as the Director of the Spirit House Project.

Being white and growing up at the end of the twentieth century, my life has little in common with the life of Ruby Sales in most noticeable ways, but she spoke so much about faith and optimism and anger and hard work and where those things intersect. It is in some surprising ways actually very reflective of the conflict I feel present for me now, the outer pressures I wrote about earlier this week when your own inner landscape doesn’t always match what you see in front of you.

She explained that she “grew up in the heart of Southern apartheid, and I’m not saying that I didn’t realize that it existed, but our parents were spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that I was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched my consciousness.” Can you imagine? There are countless examples throughout history of these families who somehow created a new world in their own home. A place that was a respite from the pressures and opinions of the outside world and inspired social change that influenced generations. How do you do that?  How do you achieve that spiritual genius she speaks of and create a reality for your family that is so counter to the outside world?

She explained something that became a truth for her, an unarguable mantra. One I could use more of in my own life: “I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. And you are not going to coerce me into hating.”

Remember that this world she speaks of was a world where violence was an everyday act. Spiteful words and actions everywhere. Hate marches and constant messages of your own inferiority and yet, as she says when referencing an old spiritual, “That’s the meaning of the song ‘I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart. And you can’t make me hate you. And you can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now, that’s very powerful because you have to understand that this spiritual — it was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives, but also it contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver. That was very revolutionary and very profound.”

Revolutionary indeed. This is common sense, I know. But it is not in our human nature to respond to discomfort or conflict by just not participating in it. We always want to push back, but no conflict can exist if you choose not to participate in it. For whatever reason, today is the day my ears needed to hear this, and it turned a light on for me in a big way.

I can learn to use this with people around me who expect me to respond to resistance or hate with more of the same. I can use this in my own practice of self-compassion by not resisting my own growth, even when it is ugly. I can use this with my own kids by not resisting their own ways when it’s often just an expression of childhood and not purposeful rebellion anyway. We control our internal lives for sure. But we don’t control much else.

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Ruby Sales closed the interview with some reflections on lessons learned, and she said, “I don’t like aging a whole lot. The ankles, the knees hurt, et cetera. But one of the things I do like is that from where I sit on my front porch, I have hindsight, insight, and foresight. And that’s a beautiful gift of aging.” Ain’t that the truth? I am half her age and just beginning to see it unfold. Hindsight and insight are coming easily now, foresight is yet to come. But one thing I am learning is that love and truth always prevail. Always. Sometimes I just have to wait them out, I guess. Sit through the funk and wait out the discomfort. Try to find some shine in the meantime.

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Refusing to participate in hate or resistance and looking for the shine is actually a revolutionary act, I’m finding. People don’t know what to do with you when you don’t buy into the conflict or the constant messages of inadequacy that we hear everywhere. This is me, same as I ever was but different. I don’t believe in “happy” as a goal or a real state of being. I believe in surrender and honesty and all the things that come with that. I believe in grief and pain and having to wait it out until a new season arrives.

The hardest part about parenting is that you really don’t know if you are doing a good job or not until your job is all over, and then it’s too late. I want to create that world of spiritual genius for my own kids, that space in our hearts and homes where we don’t recognize the world’s messages of inadequacy or its false promises of happiness in all the predictable places. That’s not where joy lives anyway.

In “A Brief for the Defense,” John Gilbert writes , “Sorrow everywhere…But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. … We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. …  We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

Despite everything, I hear the music sometimes. It’s faint but it’s there.

magic shield

As you can see, I gave this space a much-needed face-lift this week. As it turns out though I had hardly noticed, this blog had looked the exact same since something like summer of 2011. My life changed a million times over as did the content in this space, but I hadn’t taken the time to update the aesthetics. It began to feel itchy and stifling, and a few changes brought me some fresh air, I think. It’s weird how we can keep things the same in our lives long after their time has passed. You forget to pay attention to the details, and then one day you wake up and see that it just doesn’t fit anymore. Change is good. I’ve also added a FAQ page at the top with a few questions that I get often from readers. While I still love hearing from some of you, I figured it was easier to put the commonly asked topics in one easy space.

It is still hot, hot, hot outside. Even for Georgia. We usually don’t wave a solid goodbye to summer until early October, but we also normally get a little tease of fall by now. The temperatures are hovering in the mid-eighties this year though, without even one day’s break from it. I am ready for new. The car thermometer read 94 yesterday, and we went swimming for a bit after school. The pool has lost its charm to me by now though. I’m ready to see leaves change and cycles begin again.

I’m clutching hard to little things to help me move through the weeks these days. Motivation is in short supply over here. This week, it was Malbec after dinner, mid-morning lattes at my work desk, Costco take-and-bake pizza, and bathtub crayons. Sometimes you just have to get it where you can find it and try to squeeze out every last drop until a new breeze gets here.

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Energy is hard to come by in the end of a season, isn’t it? Nature works in seasons so that cycles can happen again and again. Death and quiet and stillness and new life and fullness, too. Life is that way when you let it happen, I’m finding. Everything else in the world exists in seasons and rhythms, and it’s completely okay that I do as well – more than okay actually. It’s necessary. But when you feel like you want to move forward, but it’s just not quite happening yet, it’s hard. I just want to lay in bed with covers pulled tight until the new arrives. I have to just wait it out and let it pass. It’s time for this season to move on, time to turn a page. I’ve got work to do.

I’ve been listening this week to Rob Bell’s latest podcast series, and it is SO good. He’s delving into the wisdom tradition, and I’m finding so many morsels I needed to hear right now. I’ve worked so hard in the year that has passed – stillness even when it hurt, honesty even when it was hard, reading and writing and yoga and time alone and more writing. All of these things have pushed me out of what is comfortable and burned away what needed to fade in my own heart, but now I am finding another challenge, another place where a different kind of work begins. Here’s the shitty part about doing all of this self-growth and hard change: the world around you doesn’t always reflect your own growth, does it? There are obstacles you have to break through and confines you need to somehow break out of, and it is hard because while you can steer the ship on your own change and growth, you can’t keep other outside challenges on that same track. It sometimes feels like starting over even though I feel so different from the inside out.

In the episode I listened to yesterday, Bell explained “When you come to see that you are the steward of your energies, you begin to become much more aware of what you don’t involve yourself in. … That thing you know you should do, that’s generally how it starts. You just get a step, not much. You get enough shape, contour, and texture to know what direction to leap in.”  I have an idea brewing and a shape and a contour, but I have nothing else. Just a little nudge. That is hard enough, but then I also feel the weight of conflict and distractions pulling me when I want to ignore them. I knew that you always transfer pain to someone else if you don’t tackle it head-on, and I don’t feel that pain in the same way I did a year ago because of my own honesty with it before. But when people don’t face that pain and become harder and harder and transfer it to you, then what do you do? I’m asking this as a genuine question. What works as a deflector shield for that? What I am left with now that I have dealt with my own mess is how to avoid absorbing others’ when it’s been left festering.

In the same podcast, Rob Bell gave a warning about using our energies on the wrong things and how that impedes your vision and your work. “What you get worked up over is a reflection of how you understand your sacred, God-given, holy, precious energies. What you give your energy to is a reflection of how you understand your worth and power and energy. This isn’t about ego. It’s about engagement.” Pushing the ego aside, knowing that someone else’s bitterness is not your problem and no reflection on you, it sounds so easy in theory, but it is hard in daily practice. My worldview might be vastly different from someone else’s, and how do I bridge that gap? It’s a constant challenge for me in this season.

This is the thing humans refuse to see and accept somehow. When you run from your pain or your problems and pretend they are not there, it grows and grows until it hardens, and the thicket it creates poisons everything around it. When I am safe in my own bubble – my own home and my own kids and my own friends and family – I feel soft and light and real. But sometimes the world outside feels hard, and I guess that’s the truth of the matter that we have to contend with.

I’m working to find that magic shield if it exists, that magic formula that pushes it away instead of absorbs it. Until then, I’m holding fast to the little things – bathtub crayons or dinners with friends or quiet mornings in bed focused on my own work and my own spark. I’ve come this far, and I’m not stopping now. The shine is too stubborn and the promise too bright.

rinse, repeat

My eyes are so heavy, and I am bone-tired. I’m not even certain why I’m writing except to know that this span of days happened. Otherwise it’s just a blur. This is always my way of pushing the pause button. Stop. Slow down. Inhale, exhale. Write.

This week was a full plate for me at work – classes in gear, new text for my composition class, tutor training in the writing center, more meetings than I can make time for. Then there was the usuals of ballet class and preschool drop-off, school bus stop and soccer practice. We ate fast food tonight. Rolled in the driveway at 8:05 pm after soccer practice, brown bags in hand. Bathtime to wash away the day’s grit and settled in bed by 9.

Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

I’m looking forward to slow coffee and waffles tomorrow morning as my chance to breathe for a minute. Lately I’m relying on the tiniest minutes of empty space to provide me fuel for the rest of it.

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Sunday night, just before dinner, we planted our kale and cauliflower in the little Growboxes I have on my patio. I never feel as close to my grandmother as when my hands are in the dirt. The smell of it and the feel of it and the ways she taught me to care for something small and have patience for it to grow.

I always felt loved by her when I was a child, nothing but love all the time. But as I see what it’s like on this side of motherhood, I see that love doesn’t always feel like love when you’re in it. It feels like loads of laundry and packing lunches in a dimly lit kitchen when everyone else is fast asleep. It looks like lots of tending and lots of patience, and I just hope they feel it like I did and don’t see the work and exhaustion yet.

I’m still ever-so-slowly making my way through Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise.  And she has a chapter on love. She explains, “Love is the superstar of virtues, and the most watered down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. And what we’ve done with the word, we’ve done with this thing — this possibility, this essential bond, this act. … We’ve fetishized it into romance, when it’s true measure is a quality of sustained, practical care. We’ve lived it as a feeling, when it is a way of being.” 

Practical care isn’t all that exciting. Being instead of feeling isn’t always enthralling and worth writing about. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about love in this season of my life it’s that it’s not about elaborate gestures or what you say or swear. Instead it lives and thrives in those practical tasks of care and attention.

I hang on to those little moments of feeling as best I can though. Bedtime hugs, hand squeezes, and even sunlight on my shoulders with my hands in the dirt — a gesture from the other side to say I see you, I hear you, you’re doing it right.

spinning wheels

I’m writing a little less often in this space as we get busy with the school year, and I have a lot of irons in the fire right now, so to speak. It’s not an intentional break from this blog, but I’m working on a creative endeavor that I’m really excited to tell you about. (It’s not quite ready yet… hopefully by the end of the year!) A new project means that I am pulled in a few different directions right now, so it’s difficult to stay focused on this space for long when I am putting effort elsewhere.

I feel lucky that I’ve connected with a lot of new readers in the last year, but it also gives me occasional stage fright when I have nothing monumental to write about. Just life, just us. Both old and boring but also new and scary as ever. Now I have a few thousand viewers instead of a few hundred, and life doesn’t always feel monumental enough to pass on to others. But much of the value in this journal is to record pieces of my own weeks so that I remember they ever happened when life turns a page to something else and the past feels distant. So here I am.

When things I don’t need start to creep in and take up space in my mind, I have to make a diligent effort to move my focus to what’s important. Me, my children, my family, my own boundaries, my hopes, and my creative life. That’s all I can handle on my plate right now. Distractions scream so loudly though. How do you do it? What are your tricks for staying focused on the few things you most want instead of running the hamster wheel all around us? I feel a little like a hamster wheel right now.

I’m deliberately pausing today though. It’s Labor Day, and I have been perfectly lazy for most of it. The kids left yesterday for a night with their dad, and I had dinner with friends last night — the long kind where you linger for hours and talk about light things and heavy things and all the stuff in between. I’m prepping for a busy week ahead by resting now, something I’ve learned is every bit as necessary as hard work, but we tend to forget that.

I picked up some varieties of kale and cauliflower from my grandad yesterday, and the kids and I will plant them in our containers on the patio when they get home. A change of seasons is coming, and I’m ready for it. I’m trying to pause here though, for just a little while. Reset my goals and expectations and be realistic with myself. What is most important to me in this season? Where am I headed and how do I get there? Questions that get lost in the busyness of life and need to be asked and refreshed again and again.

We’ve tried to enjoy the last few days of summer with a lot of time outside. The pool is losing its novelty, but nature never does for my two. They’ve chased butterflies and counted caterpillars, and Jude got a tiny lizard last weekend that he tended carefully like a pet for a few hours before releasing him again.

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The best moments are always the little ones in between, the ones that are impossible to orchestrate. Creating space for that is key, I think. I’m trying to slow down at home as life outside the house picks up its pace with soccer practice and reading homework and paper grading. I’m fighting the temptation to stay on the spinning wheel. Slow and steady always wins the race.

 

anything like a story

It is 6:30 pm, and the kids are gone this weekend. The dryer is humming with the week’s laundry and it’s pouring outside. That summer rain that comes down in buckets through the August heat and washes everything away for a while.

Tomorrow marks 8 weeks that my grandmother has been gone. When my phone rang just after 5am that morning, I knew. I didn’t have to hear what was coming next when I answered my mother’s voice. When I drove over to her house, it was a couple hours later. Mid-morning after a Sunday sunrise, and I listened to Patty Griffin sing all the way there. I can never hear that song again without my eyes stinging and my throat tightening. Open your eyes, boy, we made it through the night. Let’s take a walk on the bridge, right over this mess. 

It always feels like you’ve made it through the night. For a minute. But then you see another one on the horizon, another bridge you have to scale. Grief ebbs and flows. I’m missing her today.

One day, I will stop writing about this. But not today. Not on day 55. I can remember years ago, someone I knew lost her brother to a brain tumor, and her friend said to me that she was hard to talk to anymore. It’s like it’s all she wants to talk about, but eventually, you just have to get over it, you know? But do you? What does “get over it” even mean?

In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood says, “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it to yourself or someone else.” 

I’m in the middle of my story, and I cannot see my way out yet. But I can see the narrative forming already. I know a day is coming when I will look back and think, remember that time when I was alone and writing, writing, writing my way out of some hole like words were a shovel? Loss after loss and unfamiliar terrain everywhere. Remember that time when I spent Saturday mornings alone in bed with books and words in front of me and ate alone and slept alone and ran my hands along the walls of my unfamiliar grief until I found a light switch?

We are still sorting through her things, little bits at a time. I had an empty afternoon today, so I went to see my Grandad and cleaned a few closets of her clothing. I found my wedding dress in the back of a closet left from a time when I was a newlywed in a little house learning to cook from the back of a Campbell’s soup can, and she had more storage than I did, so I left it there. It seems like some unfamiliar relic when I take a close look at it. All I can think as I see it is if I knew then what I know now. If I knew then what I know now. If I knew then what I know now.

Today I found, among folded sheets and towels, one of the gowns she wore while home on hospice. It is gray with pink flowers and a slit cut straight up the back so that we could easily keep her clean and comfortable. It still smells like her. If I knew then what I know now. If I knew then what I know now.

But we never know now what we will one day see in retrospect, do we? Some days, I still can’t believe that this is my life, that these are my hours. That this place is where it’s led me.

I miss her so much, but as I look through her things and think about the 35 years I spent with her, I also find myself doing that thing humans always do, missing the way it used to be – all of it. I miss childhood and barefoot summers with afternoons spent in front of the oscillating fan on her living room floor. I miss knowing that she was there in the periphery of my life, like a permanent piece, though of course she was never meant to stay. None of us are. Once you break, you can’t go back. But it’s easy to miss what it felt like to be clean and whole.

I’ve seen art made from shattered pieces of glass, and it’s incredible. It glints and shines and takes a new form so much more interesting and beautiful than something solid and flawless and predictable. I think people are the same way. After you break and put it all back together to something new, you glint and shine in an entirely new way. I’m getting pretty good at knowing if someone has broken before and put themselves back together in a more beautiful way. It’s an obvious glimmer like no other when you learn how to recognize it. My grandmother had it. She broke and put herself back together again and again, and now I get it.

In that same Patty Griffin song, she also sings, It’s hard to live. But I still think it’s the best bet. It’s hard to live. It’s okay that it’s hard. It’s okay to not be okay. I know all these things, I do. But I’ll be glad when this becomes a story.

beauty chaser

Our weekend was busy with celebration. My younger brother got married at a north Georgia winery, and as Norah and I drove over on Friday afternoon after school, I was reminded of how much I love my home state, even in the sweltering heat of August.

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North Georgia is so beautiful, and I never tire of it. Rolling hills as far as you can see and pines everywhere. I feel lucky to live where I do and have a web of family spread across a landscape that I love so much. I know the south has its quirks and limitations, but it is home like no other place on earth for me. Beauty everywhere.
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The rehearsal dinner was at a historic restaurant in a tiny town and featured fried chicken and mashed potatoes and squash casserole. The next day was full and busy with wedding prep. Both kids were part of the ceremony, and it’s sweet to see them dressed up and feeling special for occasions like this. As usual, Norah was ecstatic and energetic about her role in front of a crowd, and Jude was more reserved.

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There was a time in my life when I went to a wedding every month, I think. But it’s been a while, and as I reach my mid-thirties, these are fewer and farther between. I forget about all the preparation and excitement and jitters and tiny details. It was fun to be reminded of what it feels like to plan for such a special day.
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The kids didn’t have a clue, of course, about the tiny choices like flowers and music and bridesmaids dresses and the million worries that go into planning an occasion like this. But they did feed on the excitement which was fun to watch.

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I couldn’t get enough of my tiny groomsman. Little girls love to dress up any chance they get, so it’s no shock to see Norah running around the house in a dress for no reason at all lately. But to see Jude in a suit with a boutonniere pinned on? Slay me.
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After the ceremony, the crowd moved to the tasting area of the winery to eat and drink and talk as we watched the sun go down over the mountains. Norah danced and twirled with her cousins and stayed up way past her bedtime.

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The bride lost her grandmother just a few weeks ago, soon after my grandmother passed. There was a moment of silence for the two of them at the beginning of the ceremony, and the absence was tangible. We felt it. It is still so incredibly fresh and, in a weird way, it is actually becoming more painful these past couple of weeks. Like a wound that gets worse before it gets better. The surreal feelings wear off along with the high of the funeral and the million visitors and condolences. And then you are left with the reality that the person you loved just isn’t there anymore. It’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it? That this is how life works. That we lose people we can’t imagine living without and life just keeps happening anyway.

I’ve been revisiting Rilke a bit again lately, and in one poem, he explains “God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks us silently out of the night …Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” It’s such a comfort to know that no feeling is final, to know that everything passes eventually.

This last two years of my life have felt like beauty and terror again and again, sometimes in the same moment. I’ve become a beauty chaser, I think. Look for it, find it, squeeze it for what it’s worth. Squeeze out every last drop you can get. It’s there in the tiniest spaces when we are open to it.

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It felt good to celebrate that this weekend. I know that beauty lies all around us all the time, but on some days, it’s easier to see than on other days.

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You just have to wait out the rest of it sometimes, don’t you? I think it’s also Rilke who says, “Don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”

Life never forgets us, and I know this. You just have to trust and wait and let it go on and on and on to whatever comes next.

 

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in the soil under your feet

It’s finally Friday of our first week back. We did it!

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It feels so much easier this year. I know both of their schools and the parents and the communities present there. With kindergarten behind us, the hard transition is out of the way. Even though it takes some getting used to again after a few months off, the old drill seems comfortable and worn in.

Both kids are hard to get out of bed in the morning though, no matter how early I get them to sleep the night before. And August is that weird few weeks of late daylight and sweaty summer temperatures set against the harsh demands of the school schedule. It’s like the dress rehearsal for what’s coming next, the prologue to fall.

I’m having to constantly remind myself that it is okay to lean into what is comfortable. It’s okay to feel that things can slow down now. The last few years have been nothing but change, and then this summer with my grandmother was a huge shift in what I have known for the entirety of my life. It is not debatable that I need the rest and familiarity – as anyone would. But it makes me feel like I am always forgetting something, like I should be doing something more than keeping the pulse that strings our days together.  I’m not used to standing still and having no major transition in front of me.

This isn’t new anymore. It’s me. It’s the three of us. Life as we know it with a comfortable rhythm.

I read a thoughtful commentary this week from Parker Palmer expanding on a Marge Piercy poem, “The Seven of Pentacles.” She explains, “Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground. / You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. / More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.” It seems that way in certain seasons, doesn’t it? You cannot always tell what is happening by looking, but you can feel those roots deepening sometimes. And sometimes you can’t – even though the growth is there. I know the work I do now, in the still seasons, is giving my kids a sense of certainty and a solid ground to stand on, but in our society of make, make, make and productivity measures and checking things off a list, it can be hard not to see yourself as some sort of insufficient factory when your output slows down.

I’m not sure how much sense this is making to others, though I am writing for myself as I always do – so that I don’t forget that there were moments when it felt steady and easy (easier, that is) and simple. I’m working hard to “Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses” as Piercy encourages in that poem.

She is so good to remind us that “This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, / for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting / after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”

 

Every time growth feels slow, I’m reminding myself again and again: half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.

 

 

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