Give your Gift: Reflections from a Week of Service in Montgomery, Alabama

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A year ago this week, in the spring of 2013, I embarked on a service immersion trip to Montgomery, Alabama with nine undergraduate students. During our one-week stay we served some unforgettable communities and learned a great deal, through various tours and personal stories, about the Civil Rights movement. We met people whose faces and stories will forever be etched into my mind, and in this reflection, I hope to give my humble thanks to them—with a special thanks to our most generous hosts Ms. Michelle Coe and Father Emanual—for opening their hearts and lives to us, for teaching me the power and importance of community, and for making us feel like home in a place we had never been before.

Finding Community in Montgomery

WP_20130324_025Alabama is truly beautiful. Its soft hills and endless fields of green lulled me into daydreams. I was mesmerized by the commanding presence of nature all around as we drove through the state. An enormous wall of trees bordered the highways, clumps of leaves and tangled moss dangling from perpendicular branches, the sun glazing over the windshield, poking its yellow beams through knots of leaves in the trees. Every so often the wall of trees would drop, and my eyes would suddenly gaze over a serene scene of land where cows and horses grazed just beyond a fence that separated nature from concrete. They appeared as a mirage, the animals, detached from the complex world of the modern human. They were undisturbed.

I’d always intellectually understood the importance of community, of kindness, and of giving yourself to a larger purpose. But the week I spent in Montgomery last spring refocused my understanding completely.

I realized that community is sacred, not just important. That kindness is necessary, not just a matter of manners or convenience. It’s easy to be kind when you’re in a good mood and when you like the person to whom you offer your kindness. But how about when your spirits are low and the people around you feel like hungry hyenas? That’s when it’s most important to be kind. It’s certainly not easy, but that’s why it’s so necessary.

“To strengthen the muscles of your heart, the best exercise is lifting someone else’s spirit whenever you can.” Dodinski

I realized that giving yourself to a larger purpose is essential to peace, to positive change, and to the understanding of self and others.

WP_20130325_009I am a part of so many communities. My work community, my social community, my family community, my neighborhood community, my local, national, and global community. Many others too. We all are.

But what does this mean?

I began to reflect on my role within the communities that I populate. And that’s just it—am I merely populating them? Am I just a seat filler, a street address, a name on a family tree? If I were going to be exiled from my communities, what would I say as a defense for why I should stay?

What is my unique contribution?

Everybody has a unique gift. Even the act of being a good friend is a unique gift (and sometimes even a treasure) to someone’s life. I believe one of the purposes of life is to discover, hone, and give your unique gift to those around you. We are all born with unique gifts that can be nurtured into talents and skills and strengths. Some gifts are more obvious than others; some gifts may take years to develop or be discovered.

WP_20130327_007And these gifts, once found and honed, are meant to be given—not hoarded, not placed inside of a glass case or beneath a fancy title for admiration. Gifts are meant to be given. Stories are meant to be shared. If we have the courage to give our gifts and share our stories, the world will feel less daunting, coarse, and lonely.

“Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” Stephen Cope from The Great Work of Your Life

My week in Montgomery taught me the importance of being an active member in my communities. I’m not saying you have to run for PTA president or dedicate your life to social activism (although, hey, if that’s your calling, go for it!)… What I’m saying is that it’s important to be cognizant of the powerful impact that you can have where you stand, wherever that may be.

WP_20130325_023I learned that it doesn’t suffice to carry on in your life, in your own personal radius, chasing your own personal ambitions, content in the thought that so long as your actions aren’t harming anyone, you can do as you please. The question that should be asked is: are your actions helping anyone? Whether that anyone is a friend or a family member or an animal or a person you may never even meet.

The problem is that people tend to underestimate the difference they can make in their communities. Everyone thinks: “Well, I am just one. What can I do?”

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” Dalai Lama

I don’t think you can strive to be the best person that you can be without your communities. And that’s because we are social creatures. We are interdependent. We need each other. We are reflections of each other. We are all connected in one way or another.

WP_20130329_024Retreating to your personal radius is necessary; believe me, as an introvert, I know. But my week in Montgomery helped me recognize just how important a role I can play in my communities. Being active—that’s what kneads bread, builds roads, draws smiles, sows gardens, teaches children, nurtures friendships, molds strength, creates art, cultivates growth, inspires ideas.

Community is more than just a physical location. More than the environment you occupy. Community is a smile to your neighbor, a kind word to a stranger or loved one, an empty can that you pick up from a lawn that isn’t yours, and speaking of lawns—community is picking up after your dog!

Community is the giving of yourself to that which you belong.

WP_20130905_007Community is about nurturing and celebrating and appreciating people.

And it’s true. The one thing I learned from living in different countries is that the people make the place. I cannot stress this enough. Not the aesthetics of buildings or streets. Not the attractions or amenities or affordability of certain luxuries. Not even the climate or geographical location (although I do love beaches). It’s the people that make the place. It’s the friendships and bonds and memories you create… with people in that place.

Families turn houses into homes. Neighbors turn streets into magical childhood settings, plots of dirt into bountiful community gardens. Children and teachers and staff turn buildings and campuses into schools. And in that same way, we human beings make this earth. From the earth we were shaped and to the earth we shall return.

WP_20130329_022And so I came to understand that civic health is not less important than physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health. To be civically healthy is to be aware of what’s happening outside of your personal world, to engage in your communities and strive to make them better so that you too can be better, so that future generations can be inspired to be better.

And we can only be responsible for what we do in our communities. And it’s up to us to figure out what we can do. It’s overwhelming because there are so many needs in this world. Where does one even begin?! How does one even try to make a difference?

And the answer is in your gift. Find your assignment. What is it that you’re good at or passionate about?

There is where you can make a supreme difference.

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Bringing Change Home

The thing about inspiration is that it’s so potent in the moment, but sadly, like perfume, it fades. But my experience in Montgomery, Alabama last spring was so transformative and illuminating, it awakened in me a heightened sense of duty towards the communities in my life, one that has permanently changed the way I view myself in this world.

Since Montgomery—I read my neighborhood’s community newsletter, which I would have trashed into the recycle bin before.

WP_20130626_018Since Montgomery—I have volunteered at my neighborhood’s community garden.

Since Montgomery—I have made more of an effort to call and visit my beloved grandmother. My overall sense of appreciation for the loved ones in my life has magnified ten times over.

WP_20130525_021Since Montgomery—I have participated in a global protest against Monsanto, the corporation responsible for GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Since Montgomery—I have become a member of Illinois PIRG, “a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety”.

Since Montgomery—I have strived to educate my family and friends on the evils of puppy mills (I’m passionate about animal welfare as far as pets are concerned), and on the importance of adopting, not buying, cats and dogs.

10342-custom-ribbon-magnet-sticker-STOP+Puppy+Mills+++Adopt+a+shelter+petSince Montgomery—I am more conscientious about buying from small and local businesses as much as I possibly can.

Since Montgomery—I have started this blog, which may sound silly, but it has given me a channel through which I can share my gift—my passion for writing—something I didn’t have the courage to do before.

But most of all, since Montgomery, I have recognized that I do play an important role in the people in my life, a role I shouldn’t underestimate, a role I must live up to.

I have learned that I must always have the courage to give my gift and share my story and stand up for the things that are important to me.

I have learned that service comes in many forms, and that you truly can make a difference anywhere you are, and in many simple ways. You just need to be willing. You just need to step outside of your personal world a little bit, look around you, be a part of your community, and arm your heart with hope, faith, courage, and the power of love and persistence.

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Celebrating small victories

sunflower_on_blue_sky_by_stock_by_kaiI’m hard on myself when it comes to my accomplishments. It’s good to have high expectations for yourself, but not to a degree that makes you dismiss your small victories. My friends and family tell me I never give myself enough credit for anything I do, and they’re right. In my mind, many things that I’ve achieved have simply been “not enough”… in comparison to the bigger picture of what I hope to accomplish.

I have a hard time celebrating my small victories because I am a person who always strives to keep her mind on the bigger picture—and usually that is a good thing. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture is calming to me, most of the time. The bigger picture offers perspective, reminds me that in the grander scheme of things, I will be okay. All will be okay. The bigger picture helps me align my priorities. It keeps me in check.

But I’m slowly realizing that my bigger picture is also casting a shadow on my small victories. The bigger picture can be overwhelming. Like the sun, it can sting you if you look at it for too long. It can make you lose sight of the smaller pieces that you’ve put together that ultimately… make up that bigger picture.

There are so many things I want to do—dreams I want to see to fruition. And in this context, the bigger picture of all that I hope to accomplish ends up paralyzing me instead of motivating me. It all becomes so overwhelming. There’s just too much to do!

So I retreat.

I camp outside my mountain of dreams because the mountain hovers too high. I can’t imagine where on earth I would begin my climb, or how I would even survive such a climb.

Well, needless to say, that approach has gotten me nowhere.

I woke up one day and realized that my small victories had gathered like dust in the corners of my room. And instead of using them as building blocks, instead of seeing them as reminders that I’m on the right track, that I’m doing something and there’s still more to do, I left them there to dry… to blur into the background of my life.

Celebrate your small victories! Make a big deal out of them. (Maybe not to the extent of throwing a party and inviting all your friends, but…) In your mind, they should always represent a check point on your road to your bigger picture, your vision of your success. Small victories are evidence of growth and progress. Evidence that you are an active member of life.

And realize that you should always have a vision of your success—there should always be something you’re chasing, something that will push you and inspire you to do better and be better. There’s no such thing as “arriving” at your success. People who “arrive” at their successes and decide to kick their feet up only get passed up by the rest of us who don’t stop moving forward. And I don’t mean to say that life is a race and that we should compare our successes to other people’s—no. What I mean is that once you lift from your mind this idea that success is a destination, you will be able to relax to a degree and appreciate your small victories.

And it’s not easy. We see our goals, our hopes, our dreams… we see them as shimmering palaces in the far distance, and we become weary wondering if we’ll ever find our way there. But life is not a prize to covet, it’s an experience, and so it is with success and accomplishment. Small victories, like memories we accumulate over the years, are a part of your bigger picture, a part of your experience, a part of your success, a part of your story. They are significant.

So celebrate your small victories; don’t just keep your eyes on the prize, on the big mountain of your dreams. Without your small victories, there would be no mountain… and your dreams would just be wishes in the wind.

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Fear

Fear is a monster that whispers in your ear at night. He is ancient, pungent, and very busy. He stalks you as you go about your day, dropping shards of hurtful words into your world, hoping they will get caught in your hair, in your skin, in your eyes. He thrives in self-doubt, wears a cape made of coal. His goal is to blacken your world and capture your heart.

He collects your insecurities and worries as you toss them to the wind. He collects them and strings them together, making chains out of them. He polishes the chains to make them look attractive; he holds them out in front of you. He says they’ll look good on you.

Your heart knows this monster well. Your mind can be fooled, but your heart, never. Your heart’s muscles are stronger than your mind will ever know. Thoughts are slippery, sporadic, unreliable. But your heart is an evergreen garden of love, strength, courage, wisdom, truth. Your heart knows your truth—knows you. Reminds you everyday: You’re alive, and there’s much to do.

This puts the monster in a rage. He hears your heart’s whispers and tries to whisper louder. He thrashes for attention, desperate. But the monster is condemned to existing outside of you, and your heart knows this. Your heart knows your true power. Your heart knows what you must do.

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One of the biggest lessons life has taught me so far is to never allow Fear to make your decisions. Fear cripples, bullies, and crushes you. Stand up for yourself always, always, no matter what the cost. Be brave enough to face what your mind can’t bear, for that is what your heart is built for.

There is Nothing to Writing

I sit at my desk, typing then backspacing, typing then backspacing. Highlighting paragraphs. Deleting, undoing, rewriting. What’s wrong with me? I look at my dog who looks up at me helplessly. What? You want to go for a walk? I’m busy writing, okay?

Well, not really…

I get up to make coffee.

I think of Hemingway’s words: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

And of John Gardner’s words: “The dream must be vivid and continuous…”

And of Anne Lamott’s words: “Perfection is the voice of the oppressor…”

Why would anyone want to be a writer?

I’m hard on myself when it comes to my writing (in case you couldn’t tell). It’s healthy to be self-critical of your work, necessary to hone an objective eye, but not to a degree that makes you lose confidence. I want my writing to be perfect. Perfect! But this yearning for perfection has only gotten in the way of my writing. The quest for perfection is nonsense. It’s distracting, and not the point of writing at all.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say the most valuable of traits is persistence.” Octavia Butler

You know what else is distracting? Comparing yourself to other writers. They cannot write your stories just as you cannot write theirs. So focus on your own work.

I have my coffee now. I look down at my page and think of Hemingway’s words again, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Well that’s great. I suppose I should whip out the band aids. (Or does he mean internal bleeding? Probably both.)

But I love this quote so much because it gives me hope. It reaffirms that I’m not crazy. That the path to the most coveted words “The End” is supposed to be thorny, is supposed to draw blood. That I feel the way I do about my writing because I am a writer. All writers have their insecurities, moments of self-doubt and agony. But real writers write their way out of these emotional trenches. Real writers don’t stop writing.

Because writing is a passion. We don’t write for money or recognition (and certainly not for physical well-being). We write because we have an aching in our hearts, a story to tell. A story that occupies our daydreams and keeps us awake at night. A story that we need to set free into the world so we can finally set ourselves free.

A story worth telling and a story only we can tell.

There is nothing to writing. So I sip my coffee, roll up my sleeves metaphorically, pet my dog because she calms my nerves, and get to writing.

I have this ache in my heart for a reason.

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Writing is Hard (and other writerly problems)

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Writing is hard.

It’s the process of extracting with tweezers the intangibles (thoughts, dreams, ideas, images, emotions) from your mind and heart, and molding them into beautiful tangibles (inked words on paper) that not only have to make sense to another mind, but must provide a certain level of enjoyment, deemed worthy of a reader’s time.

Forget inspiring your reader to revelations, evoking thoughts and epiphanies. That will grow on its own time… later.

You just want to write.

You just want to create the conditions by which your reader will keep reading beyond the first few lines… keep reading the words that you poured so much of your blood into… so much of your blood… that you’re now lying dizzy and dehydrated, hallucinating slightly… and not water, not love, not fresh air, not a child’s hug or a cat’s purr can bring you back… because what you really need are more words… more words from your churning imagination.

Perfect words.

Writing is hard.

It’s excruciating, and feels near impossible sometimes.

It can drive you to madness… to doubting yourself (am I even a writer? Why am I doing this to myself?!)… to talking to or about your characters as though they were real human beings… to laughing out loud when your characters say something funny, only to realize… that you’re alone on your couch with your dog, and your laptop is burning your lap, and you’ve been holding your bladder for hours and you haven’t eaten since morning and you’re somehow sitting in darkness and your neighbors can see through your window, and they’re waving at you.

Writing is hard.

It’s walking through a dark room, hands along the wall, and each word you find is a light switch that makes the room a bit brighter, so that you can finally see the window on the other side, and make your way to it; the window that will show you the world from an angle that makes sense… so that you can finally understand… something… a little better.

Writing is hard.

It’s a thrill. To see your mind’s fruits BECOME. To CREATE… and then cast that creation into the world. 

Here! you yell from the mountain top, wind tousling your hair. Here is a piece of me! And you rip that piece of you from your chest, and it drips. Here is my offering, my sleepless nights and daily ponderings! Here is my contribution to the endless stream of consciousness that envelopes and connects us all!

Only for your book to end up in a used-book store with a $2.00 price sticker. All that agony of pulling images from your brain and surgically manipulating them onto a page, of saying no to friends and family because “I can’t, I have to write”, all that despair of wondering if this is the right idea, the right word, the right way to frame this scene, the right pace, the right allusion, the right calling for your life…

All that, and your book ends up in a donation box somewhere, or worse— a recycling bin— or worse— an attic or basement— dusty, unknown, forgotten.

And you just want to write.

You don’t want to be forgotten.

Isn’t that what writing is, partly? A validation of sorts? A confirmation of I Am Here or I Was Here?

You need only to scroll through social media to see how much people want that validation… that desire to be heard… that platform on which to announce to the world: I AM HERE. I MATTER. THIS IS WHAT I HAVE TO SAY. DO YOU SEE ME? I AM HERE.

Writing is hard.

You just want to create an oasis in a world of chaos. You want your book to be a refuge, a parallel universe unaffected, though very much inspired, by the truths and lies and questions of life. A safe place to visit. A place of comfort and enjoyment, but also a place that stirs you.

A place that reassures you: you are not alone in this wonderful explosion of thoughts and emotions and experiences. You are not alone and you are not crazy. And if you are crazy, then by all means be crazy. Be fabulous crazy. Be brave crazy. Be you.

Writing is hard.

But when you write…

Write with all your heart and blood and soul…

Write like your blood cells are letters in every single language that ever existed, and you’re the only translator left…

Write like it’s an involuntary bodily function, like your lungs need it more than air…

Write until you fall to the floor in hopeless exhaustion, then close your eyes and let your dog sniff your face (because that’s what dogs do and you love your dog), and when your dog’s done sniffing, sink into beautiful sleep, where your imagination can play and wander in your dreams, unbridled… where your words can simmer and bubble in your mind’s subconscious.

And when you wake up, head straight to the kitchen to make coffee— strong coffee— then sit your ass back down and write some more. Because you’re a writer, dammit. It’s what you do.

Also, don’t forget to eat. (And take your dog out.) You’re only human, after all. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Finding a Place for the Past

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“The past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past…. That is why we dwell on the past, I think.” Virginia Woolf

One of the things I admire and love so much about animals, and dogs in particular, is their ability to live truly and fully in the present. They have memories, I’m sure, but they don’t agonize over them the way we human beings tend to do. Our minds and emotions are so complex, it’s difficult to center ourselves and live in the place that is now – which, really, is the only place we truly exist.

There was a time that I gave the past more time of mind than a healthy person should. I would relive moments that I wished hadn’t happened. I would over-analyze decisions I’d made, wonder where I would be if I’d made them differently. I would lose sleep over people who had gone from my life, and be completely fixated on the feeling that time was constantly fleeing from me.

I was not living my life. I was sleepless, frozen – debilitated by memories. I was unable to move on because I was unable to recognize (let alone appreciate) the joy and opportunity of the present, of each day being a new canvas on which I could continue painting the story of my life. I was fixated on the past because I somehow thought that my story had ended with certain memories, that nothing could ever be new again – that I could never be new again.

But what I didn’t realize is… I become new every day.

That is why people are so overtaken by sunsets and sunrises, I believe. We never tire from their beauty, and in that way, they signify hope. They signify that we can always find beauty in the ending of one day and the beginning of another. No matter where we are in our lives, no matter what has happened in our pasts, there is always beauty. If we would only dust the past from our eyes so we can see.

My life is not a series of moments being cast into the wind. My life is the present moment where I am breathing. Each moment and each day is a stroke of paint I add to the canvas that is my life. It is my choice: I can either abandon the brush and dwell over the strokes on my canvas that I wish weren’t there, or I can pick up my brush and paint over those strokes, make them beautiful, make them new.

Memories are beautiful. They are jewels we carry with us as we travel through the years. They are gifts, precious souvenirs. They are not meant to be burdensome. Yes, some memories are painful. There’s no denying that, and sometimes there’s no escaping that either. But it’s what we do with that pain that will shape the rest of our lives. Pain is but another color of paint for our canvas. In pain we can find power to renew ourselves, we can find meaning and lessons and inspiration. We can even find our true purpose.

And so I have learned to embrace the past. It is my story, but not my complete story. The past does not live in a shadowy, mystical place beyond the stars; it is not an irretrievable realm. It is not something my heart should ache for because… the past lives in me. I own it. It does not own me. And I will always be growing more and more beautiful because of it.

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The Plight of the Artist: Inspiration vs. Habit

ImageInspiration is an elusive and mysterious fellow. I imagine him to live in the tree tops where he can observe the comings and goings of mundane routine from a safe distance. (He doesn’t do too well with monotony.) At times he might find a person of interest and decide to perch himself on his or her shoulder, and linger there awhile to the very delight of said person. Other times he might remain far and aloof, on a hiatus of sorts because apparently Inspiration too needs time to rejuvenate.

That said, I don’t trust Inspiration much. I adore his company and would never ever turn him away (obviously), but I have learned to not rely on him, to not wait for him to do my work. Inspiration will always be nearby somewhere, camouflaged in the tree tops, playing outside your window, or anywhere around you really if you would only quiet your mind and pay attention. But he’s fickle. He does not like to make himself readily available. He’s shy, has his insecurities like any artist, and thus seems to reveal himself only when he’s got his best suit on. Which is why, when he does finally arrive — it’s amazing! But frankly, I don’t have time for that.

And so I discovered my sturdy friend, Habit.

Now let me tell you. Habit will get you where you need to go. He will bee-line through any mess and screech to a stop right at your feet just to pick you up. Habit, in short, makes things happen, gets things done. Inspiration lounges, kicks his feet up, stays awhile only when it pleases him. Habit moves, demands attention, calls you to action.

So much for productivity, Inspiration may mumble, a cigarette hanging from the side of his lip as he watches us from a cloud. Habit on the other hand is a bull: fierce and proud and utterly dependable, once you learn how to harness him, of course. You must earn Habit’s trust before he will work with you.

I wasted spent a good many years waiting around on whimsical Inspiration. Declaring that I cannot be creative until I’m in his magical company. But I finally realized, thanks to a professor in one of my writing workshops, that I had it all wrong…

The art of living artfully is a matter of choice, a matter of prioritizing. Not a matter of waiting for the right idea and the perfect moment. We must set up the stage for the right idea and the perfect moment. We must plow through hideous drafts and forgive ourselves instead of punish ourselves when a piece we’re working on refuses to take the shape we want it to.

Inspiration may give us vision, but Habit is what helps us bring that vision to life.

We need Inspiration. His purpose is entwined with ours. And in time, he will come. He always does. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with a bang. He may visit us in our dreams or at the doctor’s office. He lives in a single moment; he’s as essential as a match. But ultimately, forging a strong partnership with Habit is how we can set ourselves up for success.

Habit will keep us moving through the streams of our imaginations even when those streams seem low and almost dry. Habit will keep us disciplined and determined and hopeful. Inspiration is a wonderful visitor. We must cultivate patience and keep an open window in our minds so that we’re always ready to welcome him into our creative process.

Inspiration without Habit often leads to unfinished projects and half-baked ideas. But Habit nurtures Inspiration. Habit keeps the artist going. Habit is the difference between a passive artist and an active one.

winter

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in a veil of frost

and silver,

she moves always

inward,

pulling all things,

all beings,

towards silence;

draping the skies,

softening the sun,

only as she pleases;

etching cuts and burns

on trees

and earth,

she picks the stars

and studs the land;

she is a sculptor,

a blade,

a pocket of crystals;

she transforms the rain

drop,

sits upon a carved,

see-through throne;

she is a visionary,

a minimalist;

in black and white

she dreams;

she knows

her time is temporary;

she does not aim to please.

why i write

1747_65579737872_6615_nbecause writing is

revolutionary;

because i dream in

words;

because i cannot stand to think

that i will not be

heard;

because i like the black

of ink;

because it hurts to not;

because i fear that if i don’t

my heart will surely

rot;

because it slices

cuts

and burns;

because i cannot sleep;

because the earth

echoes

the sea;

because the

leaves

in

fall

will

weep.