Do you feel you have a calling to do a particular task in life? What is it? When did you recognize it? How did you recognize it? Do you ever doubt it? Is it a burden or a gift?
These are not idle questions for me. I want to know how other folks handle the sense of vocation versus choosing a course in life based on preference or desire. I'm once again examining my own sense of what drives me.
I do feel a calling to write particular stories; they all, both novels and short fiction, have in some way to do with experience of the supernatural, the divine, God, the "other side." They are not ghost stories or sci-fi or fantasy or morality tales. They're all (so far) what I think of as realistic stories about extraordinary experiences. Ecstatic spirituality, I guess you could say.
Some of these stories are pretty damn weird. Also, they deal with the intertwined nature of spirituality and sexuality. I've seen people ask for refunds on the one that's set in a Presbyterian church. Not to mention some of the eyebrows raised over the one that involves voodoo and sacred sex.
What puzzles me is how particular and inescapable this calling feels. After finishing Revelation, an experience that was pretty intense, I decided to write a light bedroom comedy as a sort of palate refresher. That eventually turned into Cobalt Blue, the most turbulent and finally transcendent thing I've written (By transcendent, I'm not making claims about the writing, I'm talking about what the main character does and feels.)
No matter how I start, I come back to the same kinds of events. I haven't managed to do otherwise.
To have a clear sense of what I am to do mostly feels like a gift. I also worry a little at how much it feels like a compulsion.
I'd like to think I'm free to choose. But in fact my choices seem to be two:
*write these stories
*procrastinate about writing these stories
This does feel to me like the kind of calling that brings people to the ministry. Feels like it comes from something large and not me: which is to say, God.
God the source and my DNA the messenger. Then the writing is left to me. That's how it feels.
Am I kidding myself?
It's certainly not as if the stories flow easily out of me from elsewhere; I write dozens of drafts, a process which takes years.
(Now 11:30. Must turn off the blue light of this screen if I want to be able to get to sleep. Maybe clarity will arrive in the night.)
Clarity did not arrive in the night. Unless this could be called clarity: Question cannot be resolved. .Not by this writer, anyway. Simply carry on as before. Itchy questioning will gradually cease, for a while.
I guess that's my resolution, for the moment.
What about you? Do you feel a calling? A weirdly specific one? A cloudy and confusing one? How do you handle it?
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You probably remember the moment. Who could forget?
“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’”
That moment in the life of young Oliver Twist seared an image of poverty and hunger in the consciousness of well-to-do Victorian England and the generations since. Charles Dickens’ writing helped to abolish debtors’ prisons among other social reforms. He showed, so memorably, that England’s treatment of the poor, particularly poor children, was failing miserably. And his work led to change.
Another Dickens is needed now. More than one. Equally important: some bold new ideas.
In Durham, North Carolina, 27% of the children are living in poverty.
“…What an incipient Hell was breeding here!” as Nicholas Nickleby described a school of harshly impoverished children.
A minister working with End Poverty Durham, Mel Williams, writes me about the local present-day situation:
“With child poverty escalating, we've got to find ways to shock the conscience of the public until positive action is taken. We need increased public visibility of poverty. Bring it out of the shadows. With a 27% child poverty rate in Durham, we've all said: This is unacceptable. We've got to change it. That's our goal. Finding effective strategies is crucial.
The NC Legislature has been assaulting the poor, and the national government is no better. We're seeing the emergence of a punitive attitude toward the poor. (Moral Mondays are a direct response.)
I've concluded that we need novelists and artists to help us think outside the box on ways to reduce poverty. For a start, WRAL-TV in Raleigh is doing a documentary on child poverty that will air for the first time thisThursday, January 16 at 7 pm in Raleigh.
We need filmmakers, novelists, artists to help disrupt poverty— to help bring about social change. Dickens did it in an earlier time. Could there now be a cadre of "Writers for Social Change"?
When Terry Sanford was Governor of NC in the 1960s, he recruited a novelist as his ‘idea man’ for his innovative initiatives. That person was John Ehle.
Through Ehle and others, Sanford started an amazing array of progressive initiatives: The NC Fund (to attack poverty) which became forerunner for LBJ's War on Poverty; the NC School of the Arts, Governor's School (for talented rising high school seniors), the Community College system, and more.”
Sanford was savvy to recruit a novelist to help come up with remarkable innovations that lifted NC to a new day. We need to do this now."
Here’s a thought of mine: A lot of novelists and other artists seem to have subject matter embedded in their DNA. None of us want to be told what to write; better that it grows out of passion. Yet I’m betting that a lot of us have some passion about social justice and that that might more often work its way into our stories and images if we’re simply more aware.
As Dickens said in a letter to Wilkie Collins, “Everything that happens … shows beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world; that you are in it, to be of it; that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it; that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain.”
Needed: Bold ideas!
Wild ideas, please! Bold blue-sky thinking: what kind of effort, by an individual or an organization, might help lift people out of poverty? Please let your imagination run loose on this subject and send anything you come up with. Your thoughts will be much appreciated.
The closest thing that has come to me so far is this: offering classes to underprivileged kids and adults in how to find resources. I remember hearing or reading about a black kid who assumed that public libraries were mainly for white people and he wouldn't be welcome or comfortable if he went in.
Also, in a friend's memoir, a story about his immigrant parents: When they had no food and his father was sunk in anger and depression, his mother went out and came back with a bag of groceries. The author said that she knew how to locate and operate the levers of the society that they had landed in. If kids in the worst poverty knew what was already available and how to make it work for them, that could help a lot of people.
SEND YOUR IDEAS:
If you have thoughts to contribute — and I hope you do — please send them along to me email@example.com or better yet, directly to Mel Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org at End Poverty Durham.
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My rap debut is in the works — on the subject of age 65, immortality, and related subjects. Just wanted to give you a heads-up. It's going to be a don't-miss. Serious elder writer wisdom!
I know that there are larger numbers, but still….
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From Guest Blogger, Marjorie Hudson, author of Searching for Virginia Dare
Fourteen years ago I went searching for Virginia Dare. What I found was a new confidence and freedom in my choices as a writer. I learned how to go off the map edges to the wild uncharted places beyond.
Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World, part of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island. Her fate is an obscure footnote in American colonial and women’s history, yet the story is so fascinating, it should be more well known. Truthfully? For me, it’s become a kind of obsession.
In 1587 England sent a colony to the New World, 116 men, women, and children. Virginia was born on August 18 amid tangled scuppernong vines and live oaks on Roanoke Island. She was baptized August 24. That’s about all the documentation there is of Virginia Dare’s life on earth. The entire colony disappeared, leaving a message carved in a tree, and nobody has ever quite figured out what happened to them.
Now, the problem for a writer about history is that you have to have documentation. You have to have expert commentary. You have to have facts. What I had, instead, was a tapestry of extraordinary people and events that take a role in the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. There were dangers in this story for any writer who dared venture there. There were so many strands to this story, so many questions.
I was determined to find a way to make sense of all the pieces and put them, like Humpty Dumpty, together again. I fell back on the structures I learned in journalism school: read the background; consult the experts. I traveled around North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, talking to everyone from university archeologists to Lumbee Indian artists to guys in bars. Nobody had answers. Everyone had stories.
I got lost a lot on back roads. I got lost in imagination. I got lost in memories about my own lost times. The story of Virginia and her mother in the wilderness began to haunt me.
Perhaps this girl and her mother may have felt, just a little bit, like me when I was growing up, adventuring alone in the world. My explorations took me hitchhiking across the US, squatting in derelict houses, and finally settling in rural North Carolina. Well, it was preposterous to draw parallels, I knew. But I also knew that stories tell you their forms. I decided to trust the messiness, let all the disparate map-lines to the heart of the story be known and valued, including the dragons.
I decided to reveal my patterns of thought and feeling in response to the story, my struggle to understand, my mind’s turn toward imagination, and forays into deep memories of the young girl I once was, terrified and alone in the world, and the repeated pattern of mystery and loss that is my life.
The story of Virginia Dare became a map of a writer’s mind in process. I let the material find its own shape, like water running downhill, eroding to the bone-honest story underneath, the story that only I could tell. One reviewer said Searching for Virginia Dare was like “a road trip with your best friend.”
The story and the mystery both have been great company for me. I carry them with me, like secret treasure, wherever I go, along with a new compass in my bag of writer tools: let the story find its own map.
[Marjorie Hudson writes about newcomers encountering the South and about contemporary people encountering history. She is author of the story collection: Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention, and her honors include an NC Arts Council Fellowship and two Pushcart Special Mentions for fiction. She is founder and director of the Kitchen Table Writers Workshops. Marjorie Hudson: www.marjoriehudson.com
Buy the book: Searching for Virginia Dare
Accidental Birds of the Carolinas
John White Drawings:http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/jamestown.html
John White map showing dragon:http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/debry123.html
Photo Credit: Brent Clark
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After dreaming this week that Rahm Emmanel dissed my wardrobe as drab, I did a little research.
One website (didn't say I was doing Ph.D. level work here) said something about inadequacy dreams that I found appealing.
"Most of the time, though, people who have such dreams are unlikely to fail a test in real life. This dream is rooted in the fear and anxiety that you may not meet other's (sic) standards. You are afraid to let others down." from Dream Moods
I was startled to have one of these not-up-to-snuff dream experiences a couple of nights ago. In recent decades, I've only had one test-taking dream: in a college history course, I had a test hours ahead and had neither attended a single class nor read the one enormous dry book that had been assigned.
I used to have a lot of these dreams. A variation as a teenager was that I was working in my parents' clothing store but had forgotten to take my pink hair curlers out. And then there were lots of tests.
In my late 30s they all but came to a halt with one extremely satisfying, if somewhat hair-raising, dream.
This one was a classic inadequate-writer dream. I was standing at a podium to give a reading and discovered that I'd brought nothing to read.
So I instead of panicking, I said to the audience, "Tonight a special treat!" I told them that I often tossed hard copies of the day's work in progress into the backseat of my car when I started home from my office (which was true at the time.) I announced that I was going out to my car to get some brand-new fresh out of the computer work in progress. I left the auditorium, went to my car, and found the back seat empty.
Again, instead of panicking, I went back in and said, "An even more special treat!! I'm going to make up a story right here while you watch."
I was so proud of the resourcefulness and relative calm of that dream. And in 30 years, I hadn't had but one other "test" dream — that I remembered — until this week.
More research: An article from Huffpo last week, says that stress dreams increase during the holidays, with common plots including tidal waves, missed plane flights, and incidents such as losing one's smart-phone.
I had thought I was being unusually calm this year about Christmas (we have now as a table centerpiece a Christmas pumpkin, the autumn-themed item with a Christmas decoration on top). But then came another night of struggle last night, the inability-to-collect-the-fee dream.
I'd taken a freelance assignment to produce sculptures of human figures to go in an aquarium. Part of the deal was that these were to last forever. First, I spilled water out of the tank, killing one whole breed of fish.
Then I needed more info and went back to the clients to get it, led by a briskly trotting baby elephant. I didn't get the information I needed; and found out that the client had budgeted $2900 for this job, though our agreement was that I work by the hour and I already had $6,000 worth of time in it. That's about when I woke up.
My sources on dreams tell me that an elephant can mean inner strength, wisdom, introversion, God removing obstacles, memory, good luck, and/or a topic that people are trying to avoid. The rest of it: well, immortal sculpture? Sounds like a test dream to me, and after all it's the holidays.)
(Just this second had a thought about Rahm Emmanuel. His last name! It means "God is with us." Perfect for Christmas!)
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Already he was in top-hero status in my pantheon.
Then the flood of publicity this week told me something I hadn't realized: When Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned, changed his strategy and began to negotiate with the white government of South Africa, his colleagues in revolution believed that he had sold out.
Which pretty much put him in the alone-and-scorned category. Hard enough to be unjustly locked up for years on end–and for a time in solitary confinement. Seemingly beyond endurance to be thought a traitor by one's partners in the cause. Excruciating isolation!
Mandela stuck with his decision and proceeded.
Hero close to home: On Tuesday my husband, clinical psychologist/hypnotherapist, Bob Dick, had cataract surgery using only self-hypnosis for sedation. It wasn't fun, he said afterwards, but it went just fine. His doctor said that Bob's handling of the procedure was about the same as the average sedated person
Bob was irked that he hadn’t done far better than someone sedated.
What have I done that's bold today, (and it's 11:13 a.m.)? One ridiculously small thing: I briefly let go of my death grip on my work and read a lengthy piece in the New York Review about a historic courtesan. Bold? Well, yes, a little bit. What's bold is different for everyone; and even the smallest move in that direction builds the boldness muscle and the self-trust.
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Last spring, Publishers Weekly published a story of mine about the dramatic lengths I was prepared to go to for the launch of my novel Cobalt Blue. I mentioned actual dancing, but hadn't seriously contemplated that that would be part of my strategic plan.
Then I receive in the email today from my photographer friend Karen Tam a video. She has magically transformed Carrie Knowles (the novelist I've been book touring with these months) and me into dancing elves, with the help of Office Max. (And now that I think about it a Christmas elf costume did a lot to kick off the career of David Sedaris.)
If you've never seen dancing elves, this is not to be missed. And below it, I've pasted the story that was in Publishers Weekly. I could now write a sequel.
Tap-Dancing Authors, Anyone?
by Peggy Payne Where does one go to acquire the skills that the successful author now seems to need: ragtime piano, snake handling, banjo picking, or Indian classical dance? This is a serious question for writers, because such abilities seem ever more important for promoting “the product.” With my third novel, Cobalt Blue, now out, I need to know.
Our schools have not prepared us to stand out at a book store or book fair. The famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop? I studied their website in vain: not even a weekend workshop on juggling or talking in funny voices. I did no better at Columbia or Bennington. Writing, writing, writing: that’s what they have to offer.
Learning to write is, of course, important for the would-be writer. But those who want to go the distance need more. They need an extra talent: an entertaining bit of theater that can be presented before an audience, that can draw happy crowds into a bookstore.
I was mid-career before I realized my limitations. I have no other talent. Well, I can draw/paint a little, or at least I think I could learn how. But what good is that? Would I stand before the assembled and hold up my latest still life? My most recent “work” is a fairly creditable watermelon. Imagine the audience’s excitement.
So many talented writers. Just in my part of North Carolina, authors have won hearts with songs, snakes, guitars and banjos, baked goods, and acting out their prose while changing from hat to hat.
An entire talent show was once organized in the nearby town of Cary, consisting of writers doing tricks other than writing. I longed to take part. In my capacity as a freelance editor, I was working at that time with a musician who was writing a memoir. I asked her, “Do you think I could learn to play ‘Telstar’ on the drums in six weeks?” I’d never played drums. She gave me a long penetrating gaze, this nearly-ninety-year-old, and said, “Are you a very relaxed person?” There ended my dream of playing the great 60s hit by the Tornados.
My office partner at the time, another tediously single-minded writer, said, “Why don’t you do some Indian classical dance?” Her logic: my most recent novel then was titled Sister India and set in the very home town of Ravi Shankar. The fact that the book had been chosen a New York Times Notable Book of the Year did not relieve me of show biz responsibilities.
“I don’t know how,” I said in shocked tones.
“Nobody will know,” she said. I continued to stare at her as she went back to work. The following day she admitted to a pattern of egging people on to do daring things and then when they set off to do them saying in genuine horror, “You’re not!”
I attended the talent show. It was splendid. One of the highlights was a singing trio made up of Maya Angelou, Jessica Mitford, and Shana Alexander. They were especially memorable on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” I believe it was a cane that Ms. Mitford used for rapping the floor in time to the lyrics, “Bang bang.” You can hear her singing this Beatles’ song solo on Youtube in something like a rusty nasal bass. So standards aren’t so terribly high. Maybe I could have faked the Indian classical dance after all.
I did take clogging lessons once at the Y. Two of the steps stuck with me. But the proper literary moment never arose. One middle-aged flatlander woman clogging alone in a bookstore would be a spectacle, a laughingstock.
I was raised to be a well-rounded person, took tap dancing and then five months of piano. Learned one song on the ukulele: “Tom Dooley,” notable line: “hang down your head and cry.” As a teenager, I sold clothes in my parents’ store. I can swim, do crunches and minor household repairs. I can give little talks: once when one of my brothers was running for statewide office, I was all set to go speak on his behalf at what I thought was a county Democratic meeting. At nearly the last minute, I learned that the group gathering was the North Carolina poultry producers. I came up with a bad chicken joke in no time flat. But among writers, talking doesn’t count; it wouldn’t make one stand out.
My current office partner Carrie Knowles is handing out home-made cookies at readings because a character in her novel bakes. Cookies and attractive souvenir recipes. I don’t cook at all. (Once I had the discouraging task of following a writer who’d given a cooking demonstration.)
As I write this, my husband arrives, tosses me a fresh copy of the local alternative weekly. My horoscope is pertinent: “Don’t assume you already know how to captivate the imagination…. Be willing to think thoughts …(that) you have rarely if ever entertained.”
Perhaps I could learn to read stars, tell fortunes, or deliver to audience members messages from spirits who conveniently are also attending my reading.
But I have a new novel out and no time to cultivate such arts. The strategy I have settled on is a dress. Since the title of my new book is Cobalt Blue, I have found the most cobalt-blue dress in the continental U.S. I discovered it in a thrift shop in San Diego: a very brief side-slit one-shouldered body stocking entirely covered in blue sequins. Never mind that I’m 64 years old; the Beatles had a song for that too. From China, I ordered a floor-length hooded cobalt blue cloak.
Carrie, the baking novelist, and I have teamed up to do some readings together. We each have written a novel in which a woman goes off the rails and stays there for most of the story. We’re calling ourselves the Crazy Ladies Book Tour. I’m wearing the dress; she’s bringing the cookies. And at one stop, I put out a bowl of cobalt blue punch, looked like toilet bowl cleaner but tasted surprisingly good. Maybe I’ll become the bartending novelist, or the party-planning novelist. Whatever it takes for a little literary attention. We all need to make the most of our talents.
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You could call it coincidence or synchronicity depending on your view of life.
Here's what happened:
A couple of years ago, a retired minister, Mahan Siler, came to a week-long writing retreat I led at Doe Branch Ink in the NC mountains. Such a thinker and writer is he that I was very flattered he chose to come. He brought along a book he thought I'd be interested in: The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault. An Episcopal priest, she writes in this book about Hindu/Buddhist spiritual matters (kundalini awakening) crucial in my novel Cobalt Blue.
I loved the Bourgeault book. Mahan sent me a copy of my own when I got back home. It influenced my meditation heavily for a more than a year.
Then last weekend, the writing group I've been in for 30.5 years, led by Laurel Goldman, went on a retreat together for the first time. We arrived on Friday to spend three nights at Cedar Cross Retreat Center in deep woods about an hour or so north of Raleigh. Another writer, Angela Davis-Gardner, and I were the first to arrive and pick out our rooms. I knew which one I had to have the instant I saw it.
It was a slight variation on an imagined room that I've often pictured myself in for almost 40 years. The difference: the pillow was supposed to be at the other end of the bed. Plus, the imagined room had only one window. The real room was much better.
I dumped my stuff there, staking claim, and then noticed the one book in the room. It was by Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. I was thrilled to see it there.
I finished it about 3 a.m. on the last night of our wonderful three days there. By the end of the first day, it had already again altered my meditation. I felt as if I had found something new and huge.
John and Margaret Hilpert who run Cedar Cross and live there say that the three things most often mentioned as spiritually affecting there are: the labyrinth, the stations of the cross experience (a woodland site which I never did get to) and the exceptionally loveable house dog, Isaac. (You don't have to be Christian or religious to stay there.)
Isaac was as sweet as any living creature could be. And the rest of the weekend was wonderful. And the uncanny finding of that book and what I found in it changed me.
How? With the shock of its arrival and the way the meditation/prayer described in its pages opened an interior space different than I'd known before.
This afternoon, four days after my return, a client/friend came by my office. She mentioned a book she'd been reading. Who wrote it? That same "hermit priest."
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From guest blogger Jodi Barnes, author of Santa Breaks Bad
Good writers seek out uncomfortable, sometimes terrifying, situations in which to place their characters — making for good character development and compelling plots. But when the writer puts herself, by choice, into uncertain territory, that can be the scariest of all.
We never know what's truly anxiety-provoking for anyone but us. Saying no more to a lucrative job and yes to unpaid time to practice writing might seem like a very brave (or foolish) thing to most of us. But my scariest decision so far is recently saying yes to self-publishing with my new flash-fiction book, Santa Breaks Bad: An international Christmas story wrapped in flash. All proceeds go toward 14 Words For Love's mission: to create small poems and stories that build inclusive communities.
I asked myself, why so much trepidation about self-publishing? First, I had nothing against self-publishing. I've been lucky and worked hard enough to have some poetry and short stories traditionally published. My first chapbook received an award. So it's not a situation where I got fed up with not seeing my stuff in journals and thought, I have to get my work out there!
Also, I know that there can only be a handful of Amandas. The self-published Amanda Hocking, that is. She sells a staggering amount on Amazon and Kindle; she's patiently built an audience, has talent, timing, and (no sour grapes) luck. For every Amanda, there are 1000 equally talented and dedicated writers who are not making rent.
But there is a lot of weak stuff out there as well and it's hard to throw yourself into an uncertain marketplace that could harm one's fledgling reputation as a writer. Isn't that what publishers and agents warn against?
I think some of my fear stems from my academic training: Quality work needs to be peer-reviewed, the best reviews being blind, to suss out what's BEST.
When I wrote Santa Breaks Bad, it was an experiment. I wrote the first chapter last year. Just let myself go with the fantasy, the supernatural mixed with labor history and the Cold War. Then, two months ago, I picked up where Chapter One left off. The rest happened within maybe two weeks, at most. I sent it to a handful of people whose opinion I trust. Two more weeks of edits, then a lot of approving nods.
I finally said, okay, self-publishing will be a lot more work, but I have an amazing husband/partner-in-design, who offered to create the cover. It's amazing. And, by publishing Santa Breaks Bad as the first 14 Words For Love publication, all proceeds will go toward my (unpaid, so far) job to promote and teach the mission of 14 Words For Love: creating small acts of art for social good.
I am so in love with the characters, Olga, Joker, the chief union steward Pinko, and the compassionate and beautiful patisserie chef Carmelita, that I wanted to get Santa Breaks Bad out for THIS Christmas.
The book is obviously seasonal, it's a book of flash fiction — very short chapters and the whole thing around 6000 words. I love its compactness. Love is a small act of social good. There. I did it!
Santa Breaks Bad is available on Kindle, Amazon and CreateSpace.
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At the Monterey Aquarium in California a few weeks ago, I came upon this scene straight out of my novel Cobalt Blue. The picture's above, the moment in the story below.
"A great window onto an underwater world and inside, slowly rising and falling, bubble shapes with their trailing strands. Jellyfish! Chillingly primitive. Before her, one was rising, a pale blue-tinged moon in early evening light, streaming tendrils barely there. Water riffled the purplish edge of another creature, a breeze touching the lightest of curtains. This live thing made of almost nothing but water. Her urgency, her upset: she couldn’t remember the feel of it. She too was floating in a cool clear medium. She felt the coolness inside her head: this is what the deepest part of my mind is like, the hidden underside, floating living bits, prehistoric and weird. Now I know…"
(We do find our characters, our role models, and ourselves in surprising places.)
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