Artwork by my youngest angel
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“Watch them,” she said. And so I did, kneeling down to get a closer look. As intently as I studied the Daddy Long Legs earlier in the day, moving from the shade into the bright sunlight diagonally splayed across the gray sidewalk, pausing only for a microsecond when the warmth touched it’s long spindly legs, I watched with intensity and purpose.
Three sets of long black eyelashes and one set of blond, four kids lay sleeping on the couch and love seat positioned around my vantage point on the floor. I sat and watched, stared, afraid to fail in my duties. Slow rhythmic breaths that only slightly moved their chests were the only indication that they were alive. I watched, trusting that the breaths would continue and I would not fail.
“Watch them,” she said, and so I did. Rotating my gaze from one to the next, I made my rounds watching for the slight motion of the breath to confirm that all was ok. No time to be afraid that I was in an unfamiliar place and it was well past midnight. I knew I couldn’t afford the luxury of allowing the unfamiliar noises to take on a life of their own, where I could hide under my covers and wait until the dawn. It’s a strange awareness that comes with knowing you’re it and there is no one else for whom you can depend. Like the first aid course that you’re sure you’ve forgotten and how it rushes back to you during an emergency, it’s an inner strength that’s always there. Knowing that we’re stronger than we think we are is key. It was my job to watch them and so I did, four babies, all under the age of five. My little brother, Jason was one of them, and although he was fast asleep like the others, it comforted me that he was here, close. He was a beautiful kid, one of the ones with the long black eyelashes. He looked so peaceful, asleep on the loveseat of this unfamiliar apartment.
Mom and her friends had started the night, drinking in the apartment and decided to head to the bars when the booze ran out. There wasn’t much of a conversation regarding me watching the younger kids, I was just instructed to “watch them.” I had plenty of experience watching Jason as I practically raised him, but had never been left with anyone else’s kids. It was surprising that the other four had fallen asleep with the music and rambunctious laughter, but I suppose we were all kind of used to it. Mom kissed me goodbye and said that they would be home soon.
At first the excitement of the responsibility kept me alert but soon I found that “watching” was much harder than I had anticipated. I remember having to get up and walk around to try and keep my focus. Every short trip to the bathroom or to get a drink of water was followed by a keen inspection of each child, making sure that the breath still moved each small chest. To stay awake I played a game and counted a set number of breaths for each child before moving to the next. My eyes were heavy but I was determined to do this job well and forced myself to stay awake until the mothers came stumbling in around 2:00 am.
I was so proud that I had stayed awake and watched the babies as I had been instructed, but the feeling was lost on the mothers who stumbled in. Mom gathered Jason in her arms to head back to our own apartment, one building down. The mothers each gave me $1 for my services and I closed the evening with some candy money. I thought of the Marathon Bar that I would buy the next day and how I could get enough for Jason and Jerry to have their own. What an easy gig, I thought. I offered to carry Jason as Mom was having difficulty walking and he wrapped his legs and arms around my body tight as I hoisted him onto my front. I was thankful to be heading home after a long night as I had school the next day- first grade.
It’s not that I HATE New Year’s Resolutions necessarily but rather it’s more accurate to say that I’m really bad at them and because of this, I tend to ignore them. When I have made resolutions in the past, I seem to forget about them fairly quickly. Within a month or two I am back to my same old shenanigans and my resolutions dissolved. In my youth, I would beat myself up about my shortcomings, emotionally flogging myself for my inability to adhere to my conscious being rather than falling into my subconscious default. Others talk about how it took them years to overcome this type of personal abuse and learn to love themselves for who they are. That is not me. It’s not that I am quick to give up on self-abuse but rather that I am too emotional lazy to continue it. Through the years of self-analysis the one thing I have learned about myself is that IF I am a victim to anything I am a victim to inertia. It’s Newton’s First Law for God’s sake! Truly I am just following the physical laws of the universe. It takes too much effort to shame myself into submission than to come to the realization that I am just an average mother/wife/sister/daughter/teacher. The realization is authentic and I am ok with that. Perhaps my greatness comes from my ability to celebrate the average. That being said, my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015 are these.
I resolve to continue on a forward path, a path toward peace. I know I will fall short. I know that I will yell at my kids and call my husband out for being the asshole that I am certain he will be. I know I am bound to my subconscious habits and will return to the behaviors from which I resolve to move away. I will forgive myself for these human limitations and resolve to take time to celebrate the ways in which my humanity connects me to this cosmic pit stop; music, art, friendships, love, sex, good food. My goal is to recognize the gifts that come with my limitations and get back on the horse when I fall off. I will move toward peace.
I resolve to continue to move toward a state of awareness and to be thankful for my MANY blessings. I am fully confident that the purpose of this life is to love and seek the Divine in all experiences and relationships. It is only from a state of awareness that this is possible. May I learn to be present and willing to learn from the unique experience of the moment. Let me be aware of the many opportunities to connect to those around me and learn to be a conduit through which energy can flow. When I fail, may I be aware of the façade of my ego and once again move toward connectedness. May I be more aware tomorrow than I am today.
I give many thanks to those who have traveled this path with me so far, for those who have chosen to and for those who have been forced in my path. May I continue to value your contributions to my life lessons and all the ways you rock my fucking world. I raise a glass to all in my karass, for those with whom I interact daily and those for whom I barely know yet inspire me beyond belief. Thank you for walking with me through this journey. May we continue to connect.
I like this story. It brings back good memories of my family. It reminds me that through the hard times, there were a lot of good times as well. Always.
Our aunt was insistent that someone was on the roof and other adults in the room kept guessing that it must be Santa. True, there was some sort of a ruckus going on above our heads but the suspension of disbelief was too great to immediately go to “Santa.” Perhaps it was a burglar and the adults should be less excited and more wary, I thought. Although I was but the young age of seven, I was fairly certain that the fantasy of Santa Claus was just that. I mean, I had seen how mom behaved when someone was trying to break into the house and it didn’t look like this. The idea that she joyously welcomed someone sneaking into the house with the only evidence supporting the idea that it must be Santa, being that it was Christmas Eve, was too big of a jump. It also didn’t help…
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The tragic news was all over the TV. Princess Diana was dead in a horrific car crash. Tim and I had been sitting in front of the TV watching the developing story when the phone rang. Jerry, who was staying with us, had gone out to see a band, Goober Patrol, and he was calling from the bar. It was after the show and he and the band were hanging out. The band was from the UK and I could hear the commotion in the background, the band languishing about their princess. Jerry asked if he could bring the band home.
We lived in Santa Barbara for a little over 10 years; in a nice double master duplex that had a huge deck over the garage accessible from each bedroom. We hosted a number of parties on the deck and because we were at the end of a street facing a long canyon, we would play or have bands play often. It was a grand time. Our first roommate moved out after a few years and Tim and I had this great place to ourselves for most of our tenure. The extra master bedroom was a perfect place for guests to come and subsequently we often had family members visit.
It was during this time that my brothers each came to our house as a sanctuary to get clean. Jerry with his wife once and then two more times alone, and Jason twice. We were happy to have them and be able to offer a safe place. Their stays were from a week to up to a month. For the most part I just left them alone and let them be sick in private. When they were ready, I tried to make them food that would be good on their stomachs and get them to as many meetings as they needed. At one meeting Jerry met old friends in bands and a guy that called him “Elvis” as in the surly comment, “and Elvis over here…” because of the TCB patch on his sleeve. Jason met one of my friends from a local band who always after asked of his well-being.
On one occasion, I kicked Jason out because his girlfriend sent him dope through the mail. On one occasion, Jerry left early, within a week of his arrival because a good friend ODed and died back home. On another occasion, Jerry opted to sleep in a tent on the deck because it was so much cooler outside but claimed that a huge raccoon the same size of himself, was stalking him all night. And on this occasion, Jerry was doing very well and was over two weeks clean. I told him to bring the band home. The band was super cool and we were happy to hang out and provide accommodations.
The next day Jerry decided to take the band to what had become his spot in Santa Barbara, Hendry’s Beach. It was a quiet locals beach, free from the flux of tourists and a perfect vantage point to whale watch or see pods of dolphins playing in the surf. The band didn’t have to be in LA until the evening and were happy to spend the day frolicking in the warm southern California water. We threw our collection of boogie boards in the back of the car, picked up burritos at our favorite stand and headed out.
It was another warm day. The sky was bright blue with only slight, wispy clouds on the periphery. At such a late August date, the water was it’s warmest, the waves providing a gentle massage against our summer tans and the milky whiteness of our guests’. Jerry grabbed a board and headed to deeper water. I sat on the beach and watched the ragtag gang of punks plunge into the blue-green waters and play like 12- year-old boys, as our guests followed Jerry out beyond the surf. Laughing, joking, soaking in the warmth of the sun and being completely present. At first, the boogie boards would carry a body to shore on every other wave but the frequency of the bodies diminished over the next hour as the participants tired and opted for a tranquil float instead. This is what Jerry had come to do, what he had been doing for the past two weeks; float weightless atop a boogie board, in the healing warm salt water. Eventually the conversations waned and the rhythmic oscillations of the water caused the bodies to slowly drift apart from each other until each occupied their own plot of the Pacific Ocean.
Over the next few hours the band would wander in and out of the surf, to warm on the blankets spread out on the sand or grab a drink and a snack but Jerry remained in the water. I watched with great pleasure and absorbed the contentment and equanimity on Jerry’s face. He was completely at peace. Being a part of this moment was such a privilege.
After a full afternoon of new friendships, warm water, hot sun and the gentle breeze, we returned to our place so that the band could ready for their next show. I hear Jerry remains friends with the guys of Goober Patrol and as they continued on the rest of their tour for the next weeks, Jerry maintained his place on the boogie board in the warm southern California waters.
The hopped up muscle car came careening to a stop on the wet pavement. Mel left the car running and the cassette tape blaring as she jumped out and covered the remaining distance to the front door on foot. Van Halen, arguably the best debut album ever, provided the soundtrack for the chaotic scene that unfolded on the soggy front lawn. That’s the interesting thing about Oregon, it doesn’t matter what the season, the lawn is always thick and soggy. Mel pounded on the front door in time to the beat. Because music engages broad neural networks in the brain and fixes memories, neuroscientists often use it in therapy to summon ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ or MEAMs. The strong memories of this violent yet hilarious scene, ripe in fear, drama and excitement, are activated in my hippocampus every time I hear Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love.
I was staying with Dad and his new wife, Vicki for a couple of weeks during the summer between my 6th and 7th grade years. Dad had recently divorced Mel and because he wasn’t fond of being alone, had Vicki on the ropes before deciding to make such a move. Vicki was a scrawny, chain-smoking skank with long blond hair and the charm of Tanya Harding. She wore slacks and jackets regularly, as she had an office job and fashioned herself some sort of a professional, but the white blouse and polyester were not enough to conceal neither her pedigree nor her odious personality. She was still young but carried the bitterness of seasoned professional. She hated me from the start and made every effort to make sure that my Dad showed me little emotion. Dad had traded in crazy for evil.
I was sitting at the front living room window when Mel’s car skidded to a stop at the front curb. Vicki had run into the house seconds earlier as Mel had seen her car somewhere in town and followed her home. Vicki yelled something about helping her secure the house as she slammed and bolted the front door shut, but I sat motionless. It was so like Mel to make such an entrance and although she scared the shit out of me, I was happy to see her, in her trademark long red wig. Vicki’s eyes were wide with fear as she moved through the house securing the doors and windows. She grabbed the phone and began dialing. The booming crash of Mel’s fist on the door sent shock waves through the house that bounced off the barren walls and terminated in my spine. A familiar charge of fight-or-flight hormones surged through my veins like a heavy dose of speed and caused the hair on my scalp to stand. Despite the rush, I remained still in my chair.
“I’m gonna break down this fucking door, you bitch!” Mel yelled, “and I’m gonna break your fucking neck,” she continued. The intent was clear and although my heart had yet to form a solid hate for Vicki, I was excited to see Mel follow through. Had we been further in our relationship Mel would have had a devoted ally on the other side of the door.
A lifetime or few seconds passed and Mel finally spied me through the front window. She looked surprised and stalled for a second. I waved. “Kelli, open this door,” Mel cooed icily.
Vicki, recognizing the potential danger, quickly stepped into Mel’s line of sight and stared me down. “Don’t you touch the door,” she demanded yet her eyes gave away her uncertainty. I stared at her in silence, a rapid motion picture running through my head. Quickly I sized her up.
So if you want it got to bleed for it baby,
Yeah, you got to got to bleed baby,
Mmmm, you got to got to bleed baby,
Hey, you got to got to bleed baby
Obviously smitten with the false security she had created behind the locked door, Vicki turned toward Mel and through the clear paned glass taunted, “Fuck off you crazy bitch.” I was amazed at both Vicki’s naiveté and faith in the thin barrier between she and Mel and instinctively grasped my own mouth in fear. The crazy was released. Mel stepped back and started kicking the door with full force, intent on removing the obstacle that separated her from her prey. Three, four, five times. The frame didn’t stand a chance and started to crack. In a panic, Vicki began to scramble toward the back bedroom. Had the cop cars not driven up at that moment, Mel would have certainly broken the door down within minutes.
Mel, seeing the familiar faces of the officers, made a last effort attempt at destruction and started pulling up the two newly planted Rhododendrons at the base of the front steps. Before they could reach her she had uprooted the purple flowering plants and left them piled at the foot of the locked door.
I was once in a gang. It was an accident. For Christmas, 1979, I received a bitchin’ yellow jacket with Egyptian blue accent stripes on each shoulder and graduated blue stripes on the back. It must have been a sale item from the local Fred Meyer as once we returned to school from Christmas break it was discovered that another friend and an eighth grader had the same jacket. Being in seventh grade it wasn’t immediately embarrassing to be wearing the same jacket as one of my best friends, we had options. We used the serendipitous occasion to form a gang and claim the incident deliberate. Another friend in our little group quickly went out and bought the jacket and yet another, whose parent’s would not surrender to the peer pressure, decided she would maintain her autonomy, to throw off our rivals. Renee, Rene, Nina and myself; we called ourselves the Blue Angels, and ignored the jacket’s dandelion hue.
At the Gordon Russell Middle School cafeteria, we had lunchtime meetings to decide our angle. We had all recently seen “The Warriors” and knew we had many options from which to choose. We could be the gang associated with a sport, like the Baseball Furies who wielded bats and ridiculous face paint for battle, but the only sport the majority of our group participated in was 7th grade volleyball and that didn’t seem so tough. The all female gang, the Lizzies was a bit closer, but the use of their main weapon, their sexuality, was beyond us and left us a little confused. We had our colors, now we needed a purpose. Brainstorming over fish sticks, applesauce and small cartons of milk helped us define our struggle. We were a mismatched group of leftovers, except for our jackets, kids who didn’t quite make the cut into other self selected cliques. We had all participated in the junior high drama of trying to be popular and all deemed unworthy of any top shelf clique. This was our salient characteristic, the distinct ability to NOT fit in. We decided we would be the loners, the rebels (in our group of course) and try our best to disrupt the seventh grade social order. Fuck Catherine Williams and her well-coiffed minions, we were here to rumble.
A ragtag group we were. Renee, the natural leader of the gang, was a tall, lean, pretty redhead. She had pale freckled skin and a surly disposition. She was tough and led the volleyball team in kills. I liked her especially because, like me, she followed an older sibling who had taught her how to party and her parents mostly ignored her. Her family was well off and lived on the other side of the school, in the neighborhood of large houses with lawns. Renee was the one to formulate the plans or the first to second my own.
The other Rene was a tiny, dark haired girl with flawless porcelain skin. I’m certain she grew into a classic beauty as she had all the required elements at twelve. She was a good student, in the advanced classes and shorter than me, which was unusual, even in seventh grade. She too lived in a nice house on the opposite side of the school, which had a small Asian themed backyard complete with miniature Japanese maples, a trickling stream and a small stone bridge. She was the one in the group who always felt like she had the most to prove, because she was the closest to making the cut. Because of this she was quick to follow and contribute, usually with strategically interjected curse words.
Nina brought the edgy, bad girl element was to the group. She was a year older than the rest of us, having been held back in an earlier grade and she still struggled with school. She was handsomely plain and tough and was the one to always bring the cigarettes. Like me, she was poor and lived in a sketchy neighborhood off of Stark Street with her father, who gave me the creeps because of the rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes that wafted from his breath, regardless of the time of day. She had an older boyfriend with a car and sadly ended up getting pregnant and dropping out of school before the start of her eighth grade year.
I perhaps, was the connector, the common denominator that tied the group together.
Like the New York gangs that tussled to claim their territory, we too needed to stake out our own. We were so like the Warriors. Truly, it wasn’t much of a conflict as there were excess tables in our new junior high lunchroom, but we claimed the round table next to the gym doors, nonetheless. The matching bright yellow jackets were immediately noticed and the turning of heads momentarily shook my confidence. Renee snarled something sharp and witty at the popular table that caused Catherine Williams and her crew to stop gawking.
I had spent my sixth grade year under the clutches of Catherine Williams bidding for access into this elite group, feathering my hair and trying to be cool. After faking for as long as I could, it soon became clear that my hair was much too thin to pull off a Farah Fawcett look I couldn’t even afford one pair of San Francisco Riding Gear jeans yet alone the entire collection that many in the group owned. For some unknown reason I fell from grace and without telling me, I was released from the group. Catherine ignored me at school and her mother began to intercept all of my phone calls, certain that I was a bad influence on her daughter. I caught Catherine’s eye and flipped her off as I sat down to eat my lunch. War on.
Around the circular plastic table that, by at the end of the day, would be folded into narrow half circles supported by the attached seats on wheels, the Blue Angels sat eating our lunches and collaborating. The lunch area buzzed with fluorescent lights and the high-pitched voices of girls and prepubescent boys. Tables were implicitly assigned by a strong set of rules that no one had ever read yet were well known to all. We had many of the ingredients of a nascent Occupy gathering, young minds ready to buck the system and overthrow the power structure with no clear plans on how to do so. Our only plan was to disrupt with our own form of social anarchy.
Our disruption came in many forms but had only one target, the popular girls. Snide remarks intended to cause humiliation and eating disorders began to backfire as we gained the confidence to throw that shit right back and sling it ourselves. The social royalty were surprised when the commoners in matching yellow jackets began heckling them as they walked through the halls. I was quick to learn that comments about hair, breath or pant size were the best at getting a response and discovered that I was good at being a mean girl as the insults and angst flowed naturally. These little victories were short-lived as I was too familiar with the sinking feeling that these types of hurtful comments caused and I aimed for defense rather than offense. Learning how to ignore one of the most important 7th grade social constructs and be as mean as needed was an empowering and important lesson. Still today I am quick to tell an obnoxious colleague to shut the fuck up and have moved on to a new life lesson, tact.
It was one of those rare moments in life when the boundaries of the dimensions blur, a forbidden glimpse into the ‘what comes next’. Similar to how LSD allowed the cross talk in my brain to see music and hear colors, this cross talk allowed me to stumble across the space-time continuum. Therapists, rejecting a spiritual explanation, call it déjà vu and blame it on PTSD. I can get behind their theory and say that there have been episodes in my life that have been intense enough to warp time, but this wasn’t exactly déjà vu, it was more of a premonition, a discontent of the senses.
We perceive time to be linear, measured in a series of events, but scientists like to describe it as a space-time continuum. Like pulling a string, a world string, of pearls through a clenched fist, we only experience the semi-precious moments in our grasp. The string dangles on either side of the fist in the space-time continuum, one side representing the past, the moments we are familiar with and one side dangling in the future, the unfamiliar. Intense moments cause my fist to clench and the world string sways and tangles in the space-time continuum as the jolt runs through my body; A wrinkle in time, so to speak.
My pathway to the 7-11 was intercepted by his white Toyota pickup. Stopping by the 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts was part of my daily routine as a couple of the clerks were friendly and would keep day-olds for me. Mom had been absent for a while and I was squatting in our vacant apartment at night and making myself sparse during the day. I recognized the truck immediately, spun to run in the opposite direction but he had seen me, and our eyes had locked before I could escape. He had been out of our lives for over a year yet still his presence sucked the air from my lungs and caused me to take in the shallow breaths familiar to entering a walk in freezer. He waved and smiled and kept his eyes firmly affixed to mine as he pulled into the parking lot. “Play it cool, Kelli, get rid of him as soon as you can,” I thought.
“Hey, Bob,” I chirped in the calmest tone I could summon, “what are you doing here?”
Bob exited his truck and with one hand swept the unkempt, black, greasy combover out of his eyes and back into position. The smile on his lips read like a danger sign warning hikers to stay on the path for fear of being lost in the thick underbrush forever, their bodies to rot undiscovered. I immediately mapped out an escape route and was sure to keep a few feet of protective air between us. Air molecules with volume and mass, molecules that hold 747s in the air, molecules that take the shape of their container, molecules that fill the space between me and a monster.
“I saw your mother downtown the other day,” Bob cooed through his coffee and cigarette stained enamels, “I was worried about you and Jason.” His eyebrows were arched with a forced concern that came off more maniacal than worried and although I couldn’t smell it from where I stood, I knew his breath reeked of stale Marlboros and beer. The phantom scent turned my stomach.
His divulgence clearly exposed his motivation. He was aware that the thin, semipermeable protective guard of my mother’s presence was absent and he had decided to pounce.
“No, I’m good. We’re staying with some friends,” I lied.
Quickly his body shifted and pushed against the air padding between us, which in turn pushed me a step backward. He moved to get closer but the repulsion was too strong and I continued to move away. I knew he had no chance to hurt me as long as I kept my distance. I also knew that I didn’t want to give him any reason to come looking for me as he knew where our apartment was and I suspected he might come and check it out. I smiled and added, “…really, we’re ok.”
It became clear that he had lost his ability to manipulative me and the hairs stood on the back of my neck as I awaited the fallout. The guy was a fucking psycho and I knew he was capable of anything. I knew kidnapping was not outside of the realm of possibilities as he a number one fan of True Detective magazine and got off on the horrific stories of torture. He was dangerous and I wanted to distract and divert his attention from making me the prey about which he had certainly fanaticized.
“Are you sure? What can I do?” Bob asked with strained sincerity. “Do you need some money?”
Fuck. Of course I did. I looked at the twenty in his hand but knew what a twenty cost and took another step back. Like an abandoned puppy eyeing a tasty morsel thrown by the one intent on capturing her, I looked at the money again. He saw me.
I glanced in his eyes and saw it, the abyss. A bolt of lightening ran down my spine and the two ends of my world string collided and tangled. I tasted blood as I witnessed past events in his dark eyes, like a movie screen. The event pearls continued to slide past each other as the past collided with the future and for a microsecond I could see what would happen. I saw his hand over my mouth as I struggled to get away and felt his strength overcome me. I saw the sweat drip from his nose onto my cheek. I saw him bare his teeth as I struggled. I saw a dark blue vein bulge from his temple. I screamed but no sound could escape. I saw it. I felt it.
I could see in his eyes that he knew what I had seen and it appeared to spook him as he took his first step away from me and the haze in his eyes was replaced by a hint of fear. My world string untangled and my sight returned to the present.
Thank you God for making me white. Life has been hard enough being female and growing up poor, so I just want to thank you for keeping an eye out for me. Always being the new girl at school was hard but I always knew, walking in on the first day, the majority of the kids would look like me, even in Houston- LOL! I was also fairly certain that the teachers wouldn’t prejudge me based on the color of my skin and that school could be my sanctuary. When I was accidently placed in the wrong math lane, I just told them and they fixed it. Ha! Can you imagine? Thanks God!
Thanks for having my back, God. They say that all you have to do is ask for forgiveness and you’re good for it. Thanks again. I now know that in all of my years of shoplifting, even though you didn’t approve of my ill behavior, you thought it best to keep it just between you and me. No use getting the authorities involved, that would have been a fiasco! I was so thankful when that young African American girl came into the Payless behind me that one time so that the authorities left me alone and began to track her. Thank God! I mean, thanks God! I wasn’t sure if I would get out of there, my purse was full of lifted cosmetics!
Also, what a relief that my poor choices in life have been just that– poor choices. I live, I fuck up, I learn. Oops, there I go, cursing again, sorry God. It’s hard enough knowing that you’re probably disappointed in me for dropping the ball so many times, I can’t imagine having my action speak for an entire people. Holy shit, me representing the entire white race? Could you imagine? Perhaps you knew and designed it that way- LOL! Of course you knew!
Thank you God for making me white. I’m so thankful for the opportunities I’ve been awarded and that my race has never been an issue, like the time I argued with the stupid cop who gave me a ticket for “speeding”. Could you imagine trying that shit in middle America as a black woman? Whew, what a relief! Thanks so much that I don’t live in middle America and thanks that I’m white. So much to be thankful for! Thank you God!
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