Author: mallorygaylegraham

Tight Leashes: On Loosening Grips and Starting Again.

My Someone is so cross with our littlest dog.  She is the pulliest of all the dogs, and she is pulling him down every sidewalk.  When this happens, we learned, we are to stop completely and wait for her to step back.  When she steps back, we are to continue walking.  In this way, she is to learn that no matter how excited we are, we will get there no faster if we are not together.

This is a tough lesson for all of us.

Sometimes our shoulders ache with the pulling after long walks.  She is tireless.  Sometimes we wish to not stop and want to let her pull to get where we are going faster.  But then, we are not together.  And our hands hurt.  The leash gets so tight with the pulling and the stopping and the more pulling.  By halfway through our walk, my Someone yells, “You are making my hand hurt so much with the leash because of your pulling!”

She looks up at him and waits for him to move again.  He unwraps the leash and rewraps it.  She sits.  He walks.  She walks.  They are a few steps in, and she is pulling.

“I’m afraid we are broken, now,” I told my Someone last week.

We have been bickering for weeks.  I am sorting out dark things.  My Someone is sorting out insecurities.  We keep missing each other.  One steps outside while the other starts talking.  One checks their phone and misses the other one looking.  One makes a small move to not refill the other’s glass of water when they are getting their own.  One asks a question while the other one is finishing their thought.  They are smalls tugs, but conscious ones, and ones we have grown lazy to remedy right away.

“We would not have jumped to use those bad words before,” I continue.  “Now, they are our first words.  They are losing their meaning.  We are jumping to fight first.”

“I am tired of the fighting,” my Someone says.

I realize my hands are clenched.  They are hurting with the pulling.

It is not so much that I believe she will stop the pulling soon.  She is a puppy.  It’s going to take years.  But lately I find that when I am becoming most angry, my jaw grinding and the top of my brain ready to spark, I look at my hand.  The leash is so tight.  To unravel it and rewrap it would be to unravel it again and rewrap it again at the next block.

I stop.  She stops.  She looks at me.  She steps back.  I furrow my brow at her.

We walk further.  I get angry.  I look down to yell at her.  And this: she is not pulling.  I have not taken the time to unwrap the tight leash from my hand.   I unwrap it.  My jaw relaxes.  The fuse at the top of my brain becomes confused and putters out.

“Good girl,” I say.  She wags her tail.  I take a deep breath.  It is so important, no matter how much pulling, to unwrap the tightness again and again.  If we don’t take the time to unravel the grip on our hands, we may not be ready to feel the small victory of two creatures finally stepping together.  Even if for only a block.

We clink glasses.  It’s martini hour.  My Someone takes a sip.  I become agitated.

“What?” my Someone asks.

“We used to cheers to something.  Every time.  We don’t cheers to anything, anymore,” I say.

He looks up, a little angry.  Then, he unravels and rewraps.  I wait and take a step back.

“To never cheersing to nothing again,” he says.

I unravel, too.

“To never cheersing to nothing again,” I say.

Snow Day: On Reruns.

It snowed in Grand Rapids, and we were the first to alter it with four feet and eight paws.

It was our second walk of the day with all mittens and scarves and a tennis ball for losing in the snow.

“I am so homesick,” I tell my Someone.

“For Pittsburgh?” he says.

“No.”

“For the camper?”

“No.  For nowhere and everywhere I have been and haven’t been yet,” I figure.

“Ah,” says my Someone.  “It is the time for you to miss every toy you’ve ever owned.”

We walk to the place we romped with our two dogs that morning.

“Look,” says my Someone.  “Just think, all of these tracks are only ours from today.”

We unleash our dogs.  They run to make more.

“This is my favorite rerun,” I yell.  My Someone follows me following the dogs, to everywhere and nowhere we’ve already been and haven’t been, yet.

Puppy Love: On the Expectation of Hell.

My littlest dog is finally in love, and I am heartbroken by the consequences.  It took only a few hours for me to love her, but she is a floppy creature with a short attention span, and needed a few extra meals and treats and pets to turn her face from mindlessly following mush to puppy love.  And she is suffering because of it.

I am uncertain how to explain to her that being in love is not enough to keep us together for every waking and sleeping moment.  That being in love doesn’t change the closing of the bathroom door.  That being in love is no matter for separate beds and occasional hours without the sight and sound of me.

She is taking the news badly.  She is chewing on the back of the couch.  And she is in big trouble.

My fear of Hell is decreasing, and I have been worried.  It goes that I do not love what I can’t be afraid of losing.  Here, when my Someone leaves to pay for gas, I push down fear of a hold up inside the station.  When he is gone with the dogs in the woods, I am willing bears and coyotes to stay tucked in their dens.  But that love goes also like this–

“Where were you?” I ask.  I am crying.

“I was almost done and forgot the peanut butter,” my Someone says.

“But you didn’t answer my text!” I say.

“I didn’t feel it buzz in my pocket,” he says.

I am angry.  I am scared.

“I thought you were dead,” I say.

“I’m not dead,” he says. “I have peanut butter.”

This time is wasted time.  The wringing hands, the waiting.  And what I am afraid of losing, I lose for these moments.

“You are a bad dog!” I yell.

“You are a very bad dog!” my Someone yells.

We put our littlest dog’s face to the back of the couch.

“No!” I yell.

“NO!” my Someone yells.

We send her to lay down.  We have seen her for only a minute, and she is in big trouble.  The couch is not going to make it through this year.  She tucks herself down on her bed.  She waits.  My Someone and I discuss couches.  We throw up our hands exasperated.  She has never done this before! we say.  Why is this happening? we wonder.

It goes like this: that I have loved a God so long who would send me to Hell for the damage I’ve done to his couch.

“We have done a very bad thing,” I tell my Someone last night.  I am researching, I am learning, and what I have found is that my puppy is in love.  What I have found, is that the splinters of plywood and stuffing are the chew-chew-chewing of a puppy who does not know why her love is not enough to keep her with me.  And our anger at the chewing before our love-showing at the sight of her is making her chewing more chewy, and her fear of me more important than her love.

My anger has sent her to Puppy Hell for the crime of wanting to be close.  And she has been paying in shame for days.  She stays curled on her bed.  She does not look at me.  She waits.

“Good girl,” I say.

“Good dog,” my Someone says.

She looks up.  The smallest part of her tail wags.

I prepare treats to give her when we leave.  She will not chew the couch.  She is safe.  We will be back, and we will not be angry.  She is not afraid.

If I believe my creature is so smart, that she is complex with feelings that need assuaged and with boredom that needs attended, would my anger slow to look first at her and second to the broken couch?

I am becoming less afraid of Hell, because I am smart and complex and occasionally bored.  Because I am working first to believe that I am good, and God cannot believe I am these things if he overlooking me to first check the couch.  I cannot believe in God if I believe in Hell, and I think these days that I am preferring to let Hell go.  But if God’s couch is more important, I will let him/her/it sleep with the decision.  I can’t lose sleep over stuffing and few flames, anymore.

The Liar, The Witch, and the War: On Remembering What We Never Learn.

“And then I couldn’t stop thinking– what if a witch just appears here?” he said.

Ryan was testing his drone in the wilderness, again, and found himself alone in the Appalachian woods.  We had been filming for an entire day on top of what is speculated to be the convergence of two ley lines at a Center dedicated to healing by the power of light, a building complete with a big dome hat on its head.  People pop in and out all the time, mostly unexpectedly, and mostly under the stealth of a pastel Prius.  It’s easy in the Blue Ridge Mountains to wander into enchantments, imagined or not, but this particular point on the map lends itself to the extraordinary.

So as Ryan laid out his question, following it through to its logical conclusion, wherein a witch claws at him as he drives past, complete with shivers in his spine and a raspy “Hah!” of the witch, we ask– and then what?

And then, he would try and convince us, of course.  If we didn’t believe him, we would stay in the home across the street where we were, blissful and ignorant until the witch appeared, while Ryan wrung out his hands worrying.

And if we did believe him, we would go into town and tell others.  And whether or not they believed us, we would wait until dark, realize we have nowhere to go, and come back to the house we were staying across from the speculated appearance of a witch.  And there, just as in horror movies before, we would wait for her to appear again, wringing our hands together and barricading doors.

Because for as much screaming as we do at our television screens to RUN! and DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR, YOU IDIOT!, it is difficult to imagine when confronted with the possibility of a witch how things might look different.  After all, this is where we are living.  After all, this is where everyone we love is sleeping.  After all, maybe it could be different this time.  And when we scream, we will scream together to fight her off.

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It goes like this–

A fair maiden or a young buck or an innocent child or a mother down-on-her-luck need something to be kept forever.  Usually their beauty or their identity or the safety of the children or, the real clincher, the love of their life.  And just as with all questions needing answers in fairy tales and myths, the Answer appears: usually in the form of an angel or a demon or an old mystical book.  You will never die.  Your children will be safe.  Your love will love no one but you.

And then, the cost.  Sometimes the cost of your life.  Sometimes your identity (what a twist!).  Sometimes you must carry around a single rose in your right pocket.  But always, there is more to the deal.  Never does the fine print become clear until the blood is exchanged or the voice is given up or the hands are shook.  Never does the loophole slip itself around your crisp neck until the deal is done.  And then, the regret.

If only, if only, if only she had simply loved what she had, she would have had love.  If only he had seen what was in front of him, his mother would still be alive.  We purse our lips and close the back cover to the story we could write better with our own lives, should we only have the right sorcerer to make it so.

But then, here, this morning, with my Someone sleeping this extra twenty minutes with me, and me awake, I begin the bargain.

Please to not take him before I go.  I’ll give anything…

Maybe a witch or a god or a magician heard my prayer.  Whoever they are, they have already won 20 minutes from me, and the deal has not yet been struck.

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So maybe this: maybe it should not come as a surprise that someone who has read history the same as us all cannot see that he is repeating it.  Maybe banning an entire group of people based on their religion somehow looks different this time in 2017.  Maybe the writings of the smoking chimneys and the poetry and movies and conversations is not enough to stop the story from taking place.

But this is where we live.  This is where the people we love are sleeping.  And though we may not have the ability to stop the story from starting again– though we may find ourselves stuck in a house across from the Devil himself– we can still scream.  We can barricade the doors.

And in the meantime, bargain with no Wizards.  The deal will always cost too much.

Amazing Grace: On Using Your Voice.

I was on the wrong side of the sign, again, and it wasn’t because of what I believed.

Maybe I didn’t understand how speaking for unborn children could be achieved through silence.  If this genocide was true, why would we not be raising our voices to high Heaven where the fetuses are all looking down, cheering us on with their partially formed vocal chords and their not yet developed cell walls?  Truthfully, though, I just didn’t read all of the instructions.

I was so excited to be part of the protest– a real stand in the street protest!– that I eagerly took my sign that shamed women I didn’t know anything about on a Sunday afternoon and waited for the resistance.  I didn’t anticipate a distraught pregnant teen to crawl down the center yellow line and ask for forgiveness.  I expected a cranky early twenty something with her hellbound anti-Jesus ways to scream and show her true colors, while I stood, righteous and strong, with a hymn on my tongue that Christ himself would hear like a glistening diamond to the ear from his throne that sat in the middle of all those aborted babies.  I had the truth on my side and a sign in my hand.

So when I took my place and discovered that we were not, in fact, standing in the street, I was a bit disappointed.  As Christians, I learned, the truth is something that should not interrupt the flow of traffic, but should instead condemn from the sidelines.  I was fifteen, fidgety, and frowning.  And I was going to shame souls into accepting Christ, goddammit, one intervened abortion at a time.  Or, at the very least, I was going to show what a compassionate individual I was to care so much for these women that I would stand on the sidewalks to keep them from going to Hell.  Or Planned Parenthood.  Evidently, one in the same.

So with my hands shaking and sweating, I scanned the back of my sign where the lyrics to a few Christian ditties were printed.  My options were tough.  I never get “How Great Thou Art” started off in the right key.  “This Is My Father’s World” is too strange of a melody for me to remember without the organ pumping in the background.  I settled on “Amazing Grace.”  Classic, I thought.  Classy, really.  Nobody doesn’t know they’re a wretch, even if they don’t know what a wretch is.  And how thoughtful that I might be able to explain through such an accessible song that God could even love them, the baby-killers of Western Pennsylvania.

A deep breath, then I began.  A single voice in the long line of sidewalk-standers, citing a clear melody of God’s eternal unending love for us all.  How good that I should choose to go first, being that I have such a pretty singing voice!  Maybe the pastor from the Baptist church up the street might come down to thank me when our hour is over.  Invite me to tea with his wife and kids to talk strategy on how a city hall Christian concert could save the town from saying cuss words and listening to Pink Floyd.

That’s when I noticed the woman standing a few paces left begin to glare.

…I once was lost…

She cleared her throat and began to stare forward again.

…But now I’m found…

She turned to me again and nodded to the back of the sign.

…was blind but now I see!

Another woman across the street gave me a course smirk.  I felt confused, but still a little emboldened, and carried on to the next stanza.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…

And that’s when the gentleman on my right held his sign up to cover his face and stared deliberately at the bottom.

…and grace my fears relieved!  How precious did that grace– oh.

I finally saw it.  There at the bottom of the back of the sign, written bold and underlined and italicized for ultimate emphasis–

PLEASE KEEP IN MIND: THIS IS A SILENT PROTEST.  PLEASE FEEL FREE TO SING QUIETLY TO YOURSELF TO MAINTAIN CONCENTRATION, BUT OTHERWISE MAINTAIN COMPLETE SILENCE IN EFFORT TO REPRESENT THOSE UNBORN WITH NO VOICE TO REPRESENT THEMSELVES.

Oh.

I nodded a thanks to the man next to me.  I looked to the ground and caught the curt nod of the woman to my left in my periphery.  I stared for the remaining 45 minutes at the center yellow line, imagining myself crawling up 5th Avenue, begging for forgiveness.  I remained there until the last protester walked away, paying my penance of extra time in case my version of “Amazing Grace” caused another ball of human cell matter to be murdered on the spot.

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Two weeks ago I stood in a crowd of 15,000 people.  We listened to a woman in a bright pink shirt speak of love and justice and mercy and truth.  We cheered.  We stood as a unit, then drifted down the center of major streets using our voices til they became hoarse.

No one sang “Amazing Grace,” but when a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” began with a single voice, others joined.  At first timid, and soon as a chorus.  Because when enough is enough, no one stands alone here.

Me?  I didn’t so much sing along.  I mumbled an occasional chant here and there, but whether I joined in or not didn’t change the exchange of smiles and the brush of hands.  Change is afoot, and I was joined by women all over the world to say so.  And somewhere between “This is What Democracy Looks Like!” and “We Have Nothing to Lose But Our Chains!” a 15 year stanza was finished for me–

…how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

Santa Jesus: On the Apprehension of Disbelief.

My nephew is fighting for what he believes in, again, and it will cost him the thing he loves.  His mother is proud, and she should be.  He’s smart.  He’s thinking critically.  And it is completely reasonable for him to question why Santa didn’t remember his name when he had just seen him the day before at a Christmas party.

“He’s a fake,” my nephew told me.  “But it makes sense.  He has to have some people helping him out, probably, to get everywhere at once.”

He’s allowing it this time.  Next year he may make a few more concessions.  Or, like his mother, he may give up on it entirely.  You can only allot the one you worship so many passes before they are just deemed unreliable.  Then unrealistic.  Then, just simply unreal.  We’ve all been there or will be there or have been and will be again.

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When the last course was served and the fifth round was poured, it was just a couple of blitzened grown ups on the eve of a children’s holiday.  My sister is reading the Bible in its entirety so she can be certain of what she believes.  What she believes is not the Bible.  And while she has never had an audible affinity for the sacred text, there’s a strange sense that the more questions she is asking, the more she is losing what was once part of her.  I don’t think she is brave or scared or right or wrong.  I think she is pursuing love.  And the best way she can is to lose a little part of her– the part that demanded far more from her than she bargained for growing up in a Christian home.

We fiddle back and forth with the terms and the conclusions of her pursuit of atheism.  I don’t disagree with her.  I don’t agree.  But I do see the same slow tearing that we will see with her son in the coming years– the giving up of a creature that is no longer useful, and requires emotional surgery to remove.  She will continue to make the Nice List even without the power of some person’s blood, real or imaginary.  But the curtains have gone up in her mind.  The lights are on.  And she is tired, tired, tired of suspending her disbelief.  No one is coming down the chimney for her at the end of this block to swoop her into Heaven with the rest of the baptized elves and reindeer.  It’s just a guy in a suit who can’t remember her name.

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Truthfully, I am content in the tension for now.  It was some time after my second full read through the Bible that I grew tired, tired, tired, too.  All of this effort for a thousand stories that change by the pulpit.  And sometime after I read my last chapter-and-verse, I found a new set of sacred texts– a new set of imaginary or real characters.  Three headed dogs and undying friendship and gods-among-men abound.  When I am caught reading JK Rowling or Neil Gaiman in a coffeeshop and confronted with a knowing look or an “Oh man, can you believe this stuff?!”, no one is really looking that I should be prepared to give an answer.  They are looking to see that I, too, have been changed by these mysterious sets of words.  That we have been caught loving the same magic.  That we are bound together by the long trail of stories that are being repeated every day and are learning from them.

Maybe I don’t love Jesus or the Bible or Harry Potter enough to ask any more questions.  Maybe my contentment in the tension is a testament to that.  Or maybe I am just happy to be part of the fabric, for now– now, when a political landscape stretches out before me in a clear pattern of black and white and right and wrong, it seems that having a few questions marks to lovingly wander through is more of a consolation.  But likely, just like we do for all the things and ones we love, I am holding those questions so I don’t have to lose them.  At least not yet.

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More likely, I am not so much tired of these elaborate stories and the terrible good and sincere bad that they inflict, but I am tired of certainty.  Not in an alternative fact sort of way.  More that I spent most of my life believing just myself a few hand selected missionaries and saints were making the Heavenly cut.  After years of successfully finding the text to back me up or the spin of “context” to back the text up, I am not yet comfortable or safe on the grounds that we are definitively worm food after this.  Now, I would like to believe everything.  Santa comes in a blaze of glory to redeem us all?  Excellent.  Jesus is a homeless man in the street?  Perfect.  God lives in a tiny pocket on the inside of each of us and when we all die we will complete him by forming one full and happy unit?  Okay!

This infuriates my parents.  This infuriates my sister.  The certainty is keeping them safe.  I am happy for them.  But for now, I am just going to ask one question at a time.  Like even if Santa does need a little extra help to be everywhere at once, what was the knock-knock-knocking on the roof Christmas Eve night?

Overseas and Under Covers: On Inauguration Week.

“It’s not that I am choosing to pretend it’s not happening,” I told my Someone.  There’s more war.  People are dead.  Headlines are flashing.  I am aware that I live in the privilege of opening my front door without being gunned down.  I am aware of my general state of fearlessness.  Don’t look away, my friends are saying.  This is really happening.

The problem with this, is that I know that it is.  The problem is, my brain is on a constant circuit that somebody somewhere is unjustly folding in front of someone more malicious, more powerful, less good than themselves.

These days, it seems close to my turn.

I’m not hiding out pretending it’s not happening.  I am working to recover all of this waste of human life.  I am trying to do a good job.  To hope.  To write.  To help.  And the more stories I hear, the more I want to give up– the more I believe that it all doesn’t matter.  Go to help, and I will die.  Go about my life, and I am not trying.  Make something beautiful for the people around me, and still there are people dying.  I am lost inside words like Russia and genocide and terrorism and death count.

“Death is a hungry monster,” I say to my Someone.

“Yes,” he says, “but we all get eaten.”

“Yeah,” I agree, “but where is the belly?  I am just trying to find out where we all end up in the belly.”

Mariah Carey and First Husbands: On Forgiving the Laughter.

Last week I publicly defended Mariah Carey’s poor performance on a near-stranger’s Facebook page having never seen the video everyone was railing against.  I can’t explain the mystery of my retroactive affinity for this 90’s icon.  Maybe it was the collection of self pronounced Christians who were poking fun that spurred me on.  Maybe it was my delight in watching the backpedaling– “Well, I felt bad for her is all…”.  Maybe it was the triumphant validation of watching the comments post, “Maybe it wasn’t her fault.”

There it is.

Maybe it wasn’t her fault.

Maybe it wasn’t her fault.

Maybe it wasn’t my fault.

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I was squaring my jaw so determinedly that my shoulders hurt when I woke up.  Each time I rolled over in the night, I practiced my comeback lines.  But I never got to use them.  That’s the thing about my Someone.  When he puts his foot in his mouth, he rarely removes it until my anger has passed.  He can read my fury like the back of my head as I am faced away from him for the duration of the night.  I grew angrier as I got up to feed the dogs, my best lines thwarted by his patient silence.

“I think you are confusing me with your first husband,” he had said as we sat in the company of family.  We were recalling something funny, or something unimportant, or something a little red wine wasn’t bringing back.

“Don’t be rude,” I had whispered.  It was too late.  The shame had already returned.

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The trouble with living is that for all the assurance that nothing is permanent– no feeling, no trouble, no situation– all these impermanent things are leaving a permanent indention on our permeable insides.  So much so that even on a rainy April day, I can sometimes still feel the ache in my right ankle from when I twisted it at the wedding reception five or so years ago.  The first wedding reception.  To my first husband.

I don’t need internet memes and online videos haunting my browser to relive it.  It’s consolidated all into one dull, rainy day ache, or occasionally resurrected by a bad joke.

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“And this woman said to me, ‘Marriages are like pancakes– you always throw the first one out!'” Gessi laughed.  I laughed.  Our Someones laughed.  It’s good to have someone else’s six.  It’s good to make the first joke.  There should be t-shirts! we said.  We could wear them all the time! we laughed.  Start a club!

First one to wear it wins.

First one to give it out, well.  They hurt someone.

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“It’s not your life to make fun of!” I yelled. “I’m not your punchline!”

“I know,” my Someone said.  He was sorry.  He had been sorry since he said it.  He was sorry all the way from last night to this afternoon.  I wasn’t relenting.  I hadn’t gotten all my retroactive hurt out.

The truth was, he wasn’t wrong.  I had gotten them confused.  But the point wasn’t the confusion.  It was the statement.  Everyone has exes.  People who messed up have first husbands.  My Someone has heard me make worse jokes than his.  He’s watched me play the part of a Southern Belle who’s been de-belled a couple too many times, audibly working through my memory with a thick characterized voice–

“Now, let’s see, my first husband…” as though I have to work through the many before and after him to hone in on just that certain plot line of a man.

It gets a laugh.  I should make t-shirts.

Maybe I am already wearing it.

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I’ve covered all of this before.  I have been healed and moved on from this.  But that’s the thing about living.  You get creaks and cranks that come to surface even after the scar tissue has repaired.  Sometimes it’s just phantom pain.  Or sometimes the rock knocks you square in the same thumb that the hammer did years before.  Sometimes seeing someone else get hit is enough to sink you back with your old wounds– and you wait with your breath held for someone to tell them, “It’s okay.  It’s not your fault.  We are not going to laugh at you for your mistakes.”

Sometimes you are the person on the internet defending Mariah Carey to alleviate your own empathetic embarrassment.

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I kissed him before he left and removed him from the hook.  I drank another cup of coffee.  I watched the winter birds.  I had the house to myself for a rare moment.

When I went downstairs, I found a note on our bed.

“I’m sorry.  Please forgive me?”

The thing about living is, for all these things we can’t take back, and all the invisible permanent changes that are made to us with and without our choosing, we are compelled to have something we can hold in our hands that will tell us we can keep going.  That we can keep getting hurt, and that the hurt might be forever but it is not intolerable.  And that the more we forgive each other, the more we forgive ourselves.  And the more we forgive ourselves, the less those strange phantom hurts ping when it rains.

I turned the card over.

Here we go again.

“Always.”  I wrote.