Category Archives: Buddhism

And?

ambition__media_cycleAnyone who has run competitively knows what it means to press. Exertion edges past comfort, and you pray for some pleasure in punishment, or at least you hope for an outcome erasing the torture whispering in your brain. When the voice grows loud and insistent, you tell yourself you’re a better person for enduring it, embracing it.

But you don’t need to run to know what pressing is. Some of the things you’re sure you want, you don’t want… and vice versa. You know—because you’ve been told—choosing to travel downstream means never seeing the mountains. If you do more than you think possible, you’ll redefine what possible is.

What does not destroy you… oh, you know the rest.

Yet my most rare pleasure is doing what occurs to me. I’m surprised when I find myself enjoying, without guilt or self-recrimination, some activity I wandered into. I’m happy for each break from thought and action. As a child I occupied time, and not in the way I use that expression now—as expending or wasting time before important events—but in the gentler sense of dwelling in and on the present’s comforts.

The line between relentless determination and masochism grows fuzzy. In the marshmallow test, the contest goes to the child who leaves the first sweet alone in anticipation of two later. The children who only want one, we’re told, go on to lives of mediocrity. Yet, the test seems biased. What if there truly is no time like the present? By what measure of success are the satisfied unsuccessful? What if contentedness is the ultimate success?

Today, like every day, I’ve jotted a list of what must be done. The day’s value comes from the number of check marks added to that list. Anything else distracts. Three phone calls, emails to answer, and every variety of follow-ups await me. Even this post makes the list—creativity becomes production. Because moving is crucial, every minute demands gripping the road, making progress on projects… whatever “progress” and “project” mean.

Though I recognize forces of instant gratification working in the world too, I’m of the bigger-better-faster generation. We’ve been conditioned to distrust comfort and complacency. We’ve been led to believe we’re useful only when we expend breakneck effort. Anything easy, my parents taught me, is not worth having, and, hence, I’ve come to believe less (and less) in accomplishments. Once attained, they tell me I’ve aimed too low.

Having makes me wonder about something more, harder, more worthy.

I’m not alone. We’ve forgotten how to rest. We want to devise, institute, adjust, amend, alter, generate, or overturn. Our phones are out and we’re doing and doing. We nurture hope the next moment will be better (or at least different). The present is perpetually incomplete. No subject or object can be left alone. Because we’re a half-turn from bringing everything into a more fulfilling alignment, we spin and spin.

I worry our addictions to novelty and progress will disqualify the value of the past. We seldom, if ever, consider what we give up. We miss the repeated lesson that heedless innovation produces unanticipated, often complicated and ambiguous, results. Despite our technology and sophistication, we remain animals who so fear being prey they don’t dare pause. We exhaust ourselves to attain some safe state of relaxation that never arrives.

Herds of lemmings, I understand, don’t really rush off cliffs… but we may if we whip ourselves into a dead run where we’re frantic, exhausted, and addled. Satisfaction and consummation obsesses us, but when do we have enough?

Some ambition is necessary—we have problems to solve, and that takes dedication. And I’m not against a runner’s type of pressing if your motive is to test your capacities, exercise your talents, generally revel in the blessings of being alive and strong. I’m all for the glory of that sort of effort. Yet, past a point I wish I could better define, ambition begins to look like compulsion, the twitching of a rabid mammal.

Can’t resting be glorious too?

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Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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Knowing Where I Am

080823-N-9818V-375Dean Reese’s tight smile conveyed success—yes, I could drop Macroeconomic Theory though drop-add had long passed. No, it wouldn’t appear on my transcript. Yet his smile spoke. “All of us have weaknesses,” he said, “it makes us humble.” The scolding followed.

He said he wouldn’t rescue me again because I was meant to learn from experience. You expect trouble. You try harder. You compensate. And if none of that works, you accept failure and move on, wiser about what’s reasonable to demand from yourself. You can’t always escape from the trouble you find.

I thought I knew that.

The year before, I’d enrolled in calculus, and despite endless hours doing and redoing practice problems and a deep determination to prove I could learn anything, I failed the first two tests. Any math class would have satisfied my requirement, but I wanted to learn calculus and believed no subject could be beyond me if I tried harder than anyone else ever had before.

My calculus teacher, a stuttering graduate student from Scotland, knew his subject well and worked hard to help me, but my eyes danced over every page of numbers and variables. They would no more land there than my feet would settle on hotplates. I resigned myself to blotting my academic record and decided to study hard enough to eke out a “Gentleman’s C.”

You discover who you are by failing, I told myself. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or blushing with deep embarrassment and error and realizing, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters ultimately.

In calculus, finally free from anxiety and my overblown drive, I caught up with the algebra everyone else already knew, relaxed, and started doing well. Then amazingly well. Maybe my professor gave me a gift, but I received a B at the end of the term. It felt like escape—a triumphant one—and I learned nothing.

So I landed in Macroeconomic theory the next year, doomed to trip into the same situation again, again, and again.

Dean Reese’s message never sticks for long, which some would say is good, but not really.

When I was running and racing a lot, I’d stand in the crowd at the starting line reviewing my training, reassuring myself I’d done all I needed to prepare. “The money is in the bank,” I’d say. Yet, looking around, the runners in my area looked equally fit, and some—I could tell just by assessing their physiques and demeanor—would run much faster that day. They were what I’d like to be and more blessed with lung capacity plus slow and fast twitch fiber I’d never possess no matter how I trained. It was liberating to admire them, and I’m not sure why, but seeing how much more limited I was comforted me as much as patting myself on the back for working hard.

The challenge of balancing ambition and acceptance seems endless. I want so much and want to know how much I can reasonably want. It’s good to strive. We’ve told so from birth. But wouldn’t it be nice to know where striving ends and living with your actual self begins?

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Another Tempest 8-15

prospero-and-arielThe second part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The first part appeared last Tuesday.

8.

The epilogue to The Tempest shifts strangely from triumph to resignation, even to self-abnegation. In possession of his dukedom again and pardoning everyone, Prospero asks for mercy from the audience. “Release me from my bands,” he begs, “With the help of your good hands.” The footnote tells readers “hands” means applause, but it doesn’t have to—Prospero could as easily be seeking succor, intimacy someone of his power and intimidation may be denied.

In the epilogue he says his mission has been “to please,” which is not revenge, not justice, and not his new-old job in Milan. Having given up everything to stand where he does, he says his end will be “Despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” Early on, Prospero aimed for vindication but finishes with a petition for mercy that “frees all faults.” Rather than crowing over his successful tricks and traps, he asks, “As you from your crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”

His supplication sounds nothing like victory.

9.

Who sets us free from our own feelings? Who convinces us that we’re in the right spot now, that this new balance of gains and losses is better and that we’re ourselves at last?

 10.

Writers like Jean Anouilh link tragedy and discovery, suggesting tragic figures reach self-knowledge only the hopeless can. When escape and delusion become meaningless, when alternatives whittle to one, tragic figures see themselves more honestly than other mortals might. There’s no squirming, no final evasions, subterfuge, or denial.

But Prospero is no tragic hero—he achieves his desires and undergoes no downfall. Does he share a tragic hero’s awareness?

Attaining his previous position shatters his understanding of himself and his place. His return to Duke of Milan may be the proper resolution of events, but he lost the job originally because it bored him. And his successful retribution, instead of filling him with confidence and power, illuminates his misunderstanding of himself, a new desperation, and an awareness—albeit a dim one—of his own crimes and need for mercy. He sees his own flaws in trying to make others pay for wronging him.

But he isn’t dead yet, and, I wonder—as his every third thought of death arrives—if he still has a tragic hero’s desire for relief.

11.

It’s cliché to say Shakespeare changes as you age, but I identified with Caliban the first time I read The Tempest. Caliban is acted upon, unappreciated, and distressed. As Prospero’s plaything, he relies on the fuel of resentment. He is in every way compelled, denied choices and given no proper spot on the island or anywhere else. He isn’t pretty or nice, but he burns in ways Prospero doesn’t. In comparison, Prospero’s battles seem willful, fitful, and arbitrary.

Prospero is the master and what right does he have to be unhappy?

12.

Some readers may say the epilogue of The Tempest completes Propero’s arc from anger to humility. He hasn’t enjoyed winning as much as he thought and seeks universal amnesty and calm instead.

If that’s so, he will make a lousy duke to Milan. His brother the usurper has greater initiative and confidence. His brother wants the job and looks to no one for relief.

 13.

You can grow tired of wanting, particularly when you’re unsure why you want, whether an ambition you distrust can be real, which uncertain alternative can bring joy.

14.

If, as many believe, Prospero is a surrogate for the retiring Shakespeare, the play’s grace note feels like an exhausted surrender. Prospero appears to want nothing more than to drop his instrument and walk from the orchestra unnoticed.

He is not the same person we met. The vehicle of his transformation is not killing others or harming others as a tragic hero’s might be, but he does kill—willingly—a part of himself. Maybe, in casting off his slaves, his magic, his daughter, his autonomy, and his desire for revenge, he hopes to see his raw self, the self he will be when he slips into that last powerless sleep.

I wonder if he does.

15.

Compared to Prospero, many more thoughts intervene between my thoughts of death. But I understand more now. When ambition achieved, unachieved, formed, or abandoned fails to satisfy, when ambition seems itself positively punishing, it’s natural to desire rest.

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Another Tempest 1-7

prosperoThe first part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The second part will appear Saturday.

 1.

In the last act of The Tempest, Prospero describes his impending escape from his island exile and his eventual return home. He will first sail to Naples to see his daughter Miranda marry into a handy alliance and then travel to Milan where he will be restored as Duke.

It seems a joyous outcome—and one Prospero labors four acts to effect—but, thinking of his future sitting on his restored throne, Prospero reports, “Every third thought shall be my grave.”

How does success make him so unhappy?

 2.

The Rolling Stones tell us we can’t always get what we want, which is true, but we also know we should be careful what we wish for in the first place. Sometimes what we wanted isn’t what it pretended. Aspiration looks good from afar, but capture can be less fulfilling than pursuit.

I sometimes tell my students they shouldn’t take my criticism so hard because an essay without flaws might be more curse than boon. Write the perfect essay and what would you do tomorrow?

Fruition invites redefinition. Having done something means something more to do… someone else to be.

3.

Among Prospero’s final deeds is shedding his books, staff, and magic. Nothing makes that step necessary—being naked of magic isn’t a condition of his return—but he decides that, once he’s redressed all the wrongs against him, he won’t need his powers. He frees one beloved slave and another not-so-beloved one with the words, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” He forgives deceivers who wronged him and ends twelve years of isolation.

Yet he seems melancholy. He never quite says so but swings between satisfaction or surrender. As the action of the play ends, he invites the usurpers and schemers into his cell to hear how he has lived, how he survived and thrived in the harsh island’s conditions, his glee with where he’s been more vivid than his anticipated return to civilization.

4.

Sometimes we want things because we think we ought. Envy makes us desire what others have attained because, after all, we feel just as able, or think we are. “What about me?” the greedy heart cries and incites clumsy effort to find its proper place. Getting there may promise little pleasure—quite the contrary, you may feel you cut cross-grain against deeper, more immediate and comfortable desires—but it’s not always easy to distinguish between should and ought. Should sounds gentler. Ought suggests some grander, more dubious, aim.

5.

Ariel, the slave Prospero likes best, brings dispatches—the status of the villains Prospero tests and torments. Some of them suffer. They’re ignorant of Prospero’s plan and its happy conclusion and know only their grief and torment.

“Your charm so strongly works ’em,” Ariel tells Prospero, “that if you now beheld them, your affections / would become tender,” and Prospero bristles. He replies, “shall not myself, / One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, /Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”

Prospero is often so defensive. Part of him wonders if his unjust usurpation arose from an accurate cause. Part of him knows his plans aren’t harmless, yet he didn’t consider how others might feel. Worse, he hasn’t examined his own feelings, whether his longing is so important he can abide becoming a stranger to himself.

6.

When I came to Chicago almost ten years ago, it was as the chair of the English department. My old school had become predictable. My place there was—and appeared would always be—a younger brother, a role I know well. I’m used to being George, not Paul or John, nor even Ringo, who has the good sense to choose humor over earnestness and anarchy over hierarchy.

It took six months to recognize the person the job required and how different he was from me. I was competent in the skills and vision required but incompetent in desire. The job wasn’t beyond me, just beyond my perseverance. I played the role for a while because I refused to surrender, to give up an exalted sense of capabilities I didn’t care that much about proving.

And when I stepped down after two years, I felt no better. Whether I called it quitting or others did mattered little. For another year, I thought I should be chair and, since I should be, I ought to be too. Yet I’d sacrificed my spot and couldn’t go back.

7.

Each decision is sacrifice, one alternative dying for another. You may find a means to return but will have to confront the choice that necessitated doubling back. You won’t know whether you were right all along or right now, and, in that case, both are wrong.

 

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Last)

basho-loc-01518vIt’s no longer April. Still I’m offering the last of my haiku and prose in haibun. I’ve been writing one (or so) a day as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month). The entries below are the last attempts I made in this exercise.

lxxvi.

koi curve

beneath the surface

flirting

If I bear down, I remember watching my children draw and the way concentration collected in their faces, especially heads and brows lowered as if more shade might make paper more visible. Maybe I’m inventing, but a scent returns. It’s tempera mixed with dried sweat and the day’s weather clinging to their clothes.

My son once loved volcanoes and drew countless versions of truncated triangles spewing fire and dripping red that divided over and over like tree roots to the mountain’s base. My daughter sketched birds flattened by her conception to resemble the warning shapes affixed to windows. Past their form, they became an excuse for elaborate coloring.

she sees

dimensions in blank planes

and fills

Somewhere is a box containing my children’s art, ages 2-11, and I evoke it sometimes when I can’t sleep and begin mentally cataloging memory. This box doesn’t close as most cardboard boxes do. Its top is like a tray with walls and lifts on and off. When you remove it, you hear a faint but audible suction as air rushes to fill the new space created. The white surface, yellowed by age, shows signs of tape added and removed, scuffed to brown where previous seals lifted the surface layer off. Written on top, in sharpy, in handwriting I’d recognize as my own, is “Kids Art.” As far as I know, no one has looked inside it in ten years. I remember the box better than its contents. I can’t say exactly where we’ve put it.

Containers move with my family, so that—gathering things again—I encounter boxes that once held copier paper from my first job or bottles of a spirit now evaporated from the marketplace. The sides and top display three names, two crossed out: bedroom, closet, storage.

three a.m.—apartments

stacked in towers beam

rest or worry

lxxvii.

My dreams often intrude on sleep, scratching night’s table like an absent-minded vandal who doesn’t want to spell and doesn’t want to speak. The meal never arrives.

that blood is

your artery’s extremity

diverting once more

lxxviii.

a neglected play,

this classroom map—plot and

characters swimming

My ninth grade history teacher taught me geographical terms I tried to inject in conversation—never in the way they were meant to be used. Few arose naturally in my flat gulf coastal hometown of La Marque, Texas anyway. Instead, I’d toss them into remarks just to see if anyone might call me on them. “That’s an especially veldt shirt,” I’d say, or “I’m pretty sure question seven was the most escarpment one on the quiz.” Or “Isthmus watch Star Trek tonight.”

after a storm

earthworms litter the street

like relaxed numbers

Of course the kids in my history class called me out, but everyone else did too. People might ask, “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” but they might also say, “You’re using that word wrong.” If I asked how I should use it, many said, “I don’t know… but not that way.”

My best friend did me one better by inventing an alternate means of describing teachers in geographical terms. My English teacher, for instance, sometimes combed his butte before class or exposed his heath by leaving one too few shirt buttons buttoned, our science teacher, who was fond of wearing gaucho pants, always drew her mohair cardigan closed in front to guard her too ample pampas, and our gym teacher wore gray coaches shorts barely long enough for his eastern peninsula.

whispering—

a hissing broadcast

losing air

When the history curriculum left geography for actual events, my friend’s experiments with metaphor and innuendo sought other terms, but I’m sure I learned something.

drunken spider,

your wheel won’t roll

or window close

lxxix.

You had cats, plural, but I only met the one you proffered the time we sat together on your couch. I think you might have said more to the cat than me and all of it in a cartoon voice I didn’t recognize. But sitting there, I wasn’t someone I recognized either, and you recognized that.

statues’ shadowed eyes,

noses hooked to block light—

sundials

lxxx.

My younger brother did most of the manly acts in our family household. A Boy Scout, he paddled Canadian lakes and at home he road his bike to the levies trying day after day to catch a 50 lb. alligator gar on 25 lb. test. When he succeeded he gave the gar away and rode home again. He played baseball. He watched hunting shows on Sunday morning.

And I wished to be so manly, but each expedition found me trailing along, imitating the acts of others, and making transparently small talk.

a puffed cloud,

its strut behind a mountain

pretense

If my mind were a house, I’d stand in the doorway, most of my thoughts turned inside, and longing turned out.

lxxxi.

sewing machine

pecking— its engine clearing

its throat—attacking

No one ever convinces anyone else to stay for long. The loops including two people bound by pleas are threads. The fiber cuts, strains, and snaps. The bed divides. The night tugs.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Four)

basho-loc-01518vOnce again, as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) I’m offering haiku and prose in haibun. I have one more  Thursday in April. The entries below are attempts from the last few days. The numbers communicate how far I’ve traveled in this exercise.

lxxi.

folding a sheet

under a half-moon—a sail

and light put away

As probably everyone does, I turn my pillow to find its cool side. My new posture—collecting the compressed mass under my head and resting on my ribs—discovers my heartbeat, pounding like a wake to a shore.

you maybe said

time was near—I heard bells

clashing

Getting up never seems easy. Slow or fast or delayed or denied, it ruins two states. Dreams end in cataclysm and consciousness starts in shock. I suppose in some past the transition was gentle, dawning birds and light and warmth, but I don’t know that.

already someone’s

steps echo from the corner—

begin again

the day’s first words

skid in my throat—I collect

sound to speak

lxxii.

You told me not to say it, not in words but in your expression—a starched smile, eyes barely alive—and still I went ahead. Light dimmed. The sun seemed hooded through blinds, and shadows strained to reach across the carpet.

in profile,

a crow shows one eye—looking

or not, who knows?

lxxiii.

Nanette Wagoner couldn’t like me, and I knew that, should have known that. Something set her on, and, in three days, she sent me note after note filled with words. I only knew her face and didn’t read the messages really, just weighed their length and followed the loops of letters to the end. One day, she’d be taller than I would, I saw that. We shared no classes, but when she laughed just inside my hearing, the sound buzzed in my chest.

If she liked me, I would like her.

what a wonder

day falls—the sun drowning

over and over

Of course she lost interest, but the notes anchored a drawer for years, proof of appeal, a place.

lxxiv.

I stole a large canvas laundry bin from my dorm and rolled it, full of my possessions, from 123th to 113th where friends lived. My classmate and his fiancé may not both have wanted me but felt sorry enough to let me stay for a time. My year—not even a year—in New York ended, and I wouldn’t return to school. I thought of working while I found a job, pictured bearing satchels while bicycling through traffic. Without prospects though, who could believe something so hard?

green peach,

what sign told you

to drop?

This trip started with my telling my girlfriend goodbye. She’d asked for one more night and cried, still we’d agreed to no more. She’d never left her other boyfriend, the weekends I pretended not to know her were sad, and another year of schooling awaited her and not me. Time expired.

The wheels, barely bigger than casters, danced under the load, and no effort I made to guide my craft by pushing the correct corner kept it from fishtailing, sometimes into a current of pedestrians flowing the opposite direction. I said, “I’m sorry” one hundred times. Early summer heat already rose in the first hours of sun, and by the time I reached my friends’ buzzer, I was soaked, shirt and pants clinging. He laughed to see me exhausted by such a silly journey, but helped with my load, soon to be a pile in the corner of his living room.

beneath the surface,

beneath its skin, beasts move—

the sea still

In another two weeks my brother would drive up from home, and I’d leave for good. My possessions never left their boxes. I watched my friend study at what I’d abandoned and plan his next steps over terrain that slid under my feet.

steady thump

of highway seams, dawn slanted

just wrong

lxxv.

Doing the dishes, I occasionally splash water on my shirtfront and spend the next hour flapping the fabric to dry it. Something about the act reminds me of childhood, restless winging, the tug to what’s next.

I blink

between scenes and still

never move

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