Rain falls outside. Edward wakes up, greeting his Aunt. The city of Lianyungang stirs. Yesterday is still buzzing. I was on the bus at 1 pm, rode eleven hours, watched two painful comedies (including a wuxia writer who daydreams his world into a fantasy world, and a rich playboy who becomes indebted to a weird shopkeeper, and falls in love with her high-fashion inept but struggling daughter), witnessed a mother whose motion sickness extracted itself on her little boy, was amazed by a group of three drivers dressed in black at the front of the bus who laughed loudly, spat, and poured hot, boiling water into tea cups to pass the time, and sat behind a driver who honked at anything on or near the road. I am now at Edward’s Aunt’s, wrapped in a warm, thick blanket to shield from the cold.

Fascinating design; somehow buildings here maintain twice the frigidness than the outside. Coming here with a cold was interesting enough, but now it feels like my insides are trying to transform into a glacier. I know it will be colder at Edward’s home in the countryside, so I am preparing myself, telling myself this is mild weather. Challenges never cease to amaze me. Aunt’s house is typical, with a couple pieces of furniture, a small kitchen, a few rooms with clothes, blankets, phone, and a television, no carpets (of course, especially regards to how wet it is here), red good fortune posters, various dry, potted plants, a wall clock, pinyin picture diagrams, and various old toys.

 

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Edward’s mother is outside washing clothes in their washing machine. Nan Nan (his grandmother) walks in and gave me and Edward some special candy. It’s freezing here. I can see my breath, even small ones. It has stopped raining, but the ground is dark and muddy. Edward is doing back exercises on his bed. CCTV 9 (the English channel) is turned on, and Nan Nan tries to understand but mostly just stares and says a few words in her thick Lianyungang accent. Earlier, Edward and I took a taxi to the bus station, a bus to another town, then got off for lunch and took a taxi to his home. We visited his primary school and threw his Frisbee around a bit. In a few minutes, we are going to finish Pride and Prejudice.

It feels like walking through a refrigerator. I jump to try and warm up my body. When I called Edward and asked him to tell me if I should bring warm clothes, and he told me I didn’t need to worry, I should not have believed him. My fault. Too trusting. Should have listened to my other friend’s advice who told me how cold the countryside was: stick a couple stone blocks in the middle of a damp, frigid plain, and after a cool rain the night air begins to creep in on the bones, and then you start shaking, even under five thick layers and a really warm scarf. However… I did befriend the family mouse hunter, a small black and white kitten who acts as if being petted is a glorious, new experience. Almost like watching someone witnessing their first sunrise. Makes me wonder if I have the gift of touch.

 

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Breakfast was doufu in some spiced sauce and assorted greens, along with hot, rice porridge. Last night for dinner was some pork and cabbage, the same doufu, and another kind of stripped slices of doufu and cabbage, with a corn meal soup. Both meals were very good, especially in the cold; the dining area is always warmer than the rest of the house. I had a really good sleep – excellent dreams and warm blankets. I basically woke up an hour ago, washed my face, looked at Edward’s seed planter, and had breakfast. The pigs were well-awake and the roosters were out in the front yard scavenging for food. Edward told me the water from their well is better quality than the refined kind from town. His father came home this morning with parts of a pig hung out of his bicycle basket – for Spring Festival, of course. The cat slept by Edward’s feet all night long.

After breakfast, Edward, his father, a friend, and I together took a “countryside taxi,” or a wooden box attached to the back of a motorcycle. Then we walked over a bridge, took a bus to the center of Guan Yun (the main city outside Wang Fan, Edward’s village). We walked around a bit, bought some shampoo and orange juice, looked at some shoes, then went to a bookstore for a half-hour and browsed. Now we are on the second floor of a nice restaurant; comfortable, cushion-benches, private booths; it almost seems to have a distinct Neo-Japan flavor, with the avant-garde drinks and retro paintings on the wall. Edward has been texting the whole morning. The wind is Guan Yun is really drafty, quite chilly. My life seems to be beyond the edge of what I know – I’m merely wading in a vast sea of foreign, unknown waters, led by a dutiful guide who only understands half of what I say. He’s a great friend though.

 

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The stars are brilliant tonight. They stand like the thousands they are, above, shining down on Wang Fan’s elaborate and famous greenhouses, over the dusty roads and the dim lights from cement homes. Edward’s cat prowls for dessert: tiny, winter mice, playing amongst the secret passageways beneath the hard, cold earth. The television flashes. I cough, getting over my cold slowly, the sautéed ribbonfish and warm pork rolls settling in, filling my body. I met Du Guan today, a young twenty-year old student studying foreign trade at Changsha University. Her mother is one of Guan Yun’s local and good acupuncturists, and although I declined her offer for treatment of my cold, she did graciously give me two boxes of herbs and one of Penicillin. Her sister, only twelve, sang Ode to Joy in Chinese, for myself and Edward, while we waited for his back treatment to end. All in all, an excellent day. The cold is becoming easier to bear.

 

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I pumped my own water to wash my hands and face this morning. For breakfast, we had various leftovers, from steamed bread to baozi to thickly sauced ribbonfish. A handful of new fish bask in the sun, hung over the stairs. Edward and I played a little Frisbee this morning, but it was his second Frisbee, as he used the first one as a pond for Fei Fei “Fred” to swim around in (his new turtle we bought yesterday), and so added to the cold of the morning, his new Frisbee hit quite hard on my hand when we played earlier. Edward then accidentally threw the disc on top of the pig’s house, and had to fetch it with a pitchfork. My facial hair is starting to become noticeable, which means soon it will begin to itch. But this is my month of trials, so we’ll see how long it gets in a month without shaving. We’re going to take bikes into town this morning, so I can hopefully buy some warm clothes.

 

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We are on the second floor of a quiet restaurant, which is saying something. On the streets, it is a carnival of sight and sound. Sticky translucent balloons carried by children, all bundled up in heavy, layered and brightly colored jackets, trundle over irregular sidewalks. Motorbike car alarms rage as small red firecrackers explode in street gutters. We slurp soup, watching heavily bundled mothers haggle over the price of small toys; two men come upstairs and sit down next to us, drinking Chinese vodka and remarking about my presence. If anything, that has been the most surprising. Everywhere I walk, heads turn, people cry out waiguoren, laowai, gaze at my shock of dirty blond hair and blue eyes, grab their children and point; heads on motorcycles turn clear around, driving blind; old women stare, shocked into silence; hello and quick one-sided hope you are well are thrown to me from behind corners; Edward reads his Bible, and I journal these memories.

 

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The village of Wang Fan has about 3,000 residents. Basically, a one-road town, with a handful of basic services, such as welding (Edward’s father), gas, various appliance parts, a primary school, a hospital, and fields and fields of greenhouses with roll-away transparent tarps, held aloft by thick stalks of cut bamboo. If a villager is lucky to have a lot of property, they may even have a field and a pig pen plus their home. Most residents here have been here for three or four generations. Edward’s family has been here since his great-grandfather, and every family since then has been more or less raised in this small block of fields and muddy canals near the primary school. The Chinese countryside is what would happen in America if the suburbs and farmland were combined, rows and rows of simple homes surrounded by private and common fields. It’s very lively out here, and nearly everyone we ran into today (twenty plus people) were related to Edward. It’s very peaceful, and except for the sound of the television, there are only sounds of gentle conversation and the dialogues of animals and engines.

After dinner, we hung out at the house, throwing the Frisbee (eventually stopped because Edward tossed one in the trough, and I the other one in a manure pile), read a little, watched some TV, walked around a bit, and tried out some of Guan Yun’s famous rice candy, long bars of tear-off rice and sugar strips that has a sort of condensed powdery taste. I think I’ve gotten the hang of the bathroom here (a hole at the back of the house, surrounded by four cement walls), as well as the basic procedure for brushing one’s teeth (use of the trough). All the animals in the farm (during daylight hours) are afraid of me except for the pigs. But I think they are afraid of Edward too. Edward’s parents just put a hot water bag in my bed (very helpful to warm up cold toes). Although I did go to town and buy a thick sweater, the cold is still quite apparent. It’s going to rain tomorrow. Edward’s sister, depending if she got a ticket, might also be arriving in the evening.

 

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Edward’s father is a welder and a farmer and a businessman. His mother takes care of their animals (a dog, cat, some chickens, a family of many pigs, and two large swine). His grandmother helps with cooking and preparing many necessities, and even though she is eighty-seven, she is on her feet morning to night, working, either cleaning, washing, or helping to prepare or clean meals; if nothing else, she tries to crack jokes whenever she can, always walking with a smile on her face. Edward’s family is very resourceful; they’ve worked themselves up from a very small brick house and field, to a two-story property, a long driveway, a handful of animals, a tractor, a metal welding shop, even sending one child to college and their other two to work; while other children must stay home and work to make a living. The surrounding countryside is dotted with tombs – mounds of dirt and grass scattered on farmers’ fields. These are the tombs of farmers, workers of Wang Fan’s wheat. We walked past perhaps ten today in our morning walk – able testaments to the freedom these people enjoy, away from the madness of the city.

Everything here is guided by custom. When we sit down to eat, invisible rules govern our actions. I do not get up without Edward. You drink from your porridge bowl. You use chopsticks in your right hand, a piece of bread in your left. You don’t eat too much of either of the dishes, especially the meat. You don’t speak too loudly. You voice a positive opinion about the food. In the morning, you wake and eat breakfast. You work during the day, and only play if you are a child. It makes me wonder if it has always been like this. Edward is outside now, reading a book called “Success Chocolates.” During our walks, he fondly talks of his “golden past.” Of when he used to swim in the beautiful lakes, fish in the streams, play and run in the wheat fields, spend all day and walk up the country road to the mountain, climb it, come home and play in the greenhouses, sleep in the humid air, and dream. Today, this kid who knows television reporters, athletic celebrities, who wants to create a company that helps Chinese athletes and foreign athletes to compete in tournaments, from all over the world… he has an Indian, American, and Chinese team competing this spring… this farmer’s son, although he has far exceeded his parents and plans to go even further, his heart still remains here, locked up in the tradition of old.

It rained hard last night. We had a full family for breakfast, as early this morning Edward’s sister and two friends from her work arrived. Today, there are eight people to feed. It is also the eve of Spring Festival. There will be a lot of firecrackers today. The clouds are heavy. The rain falls steadily, and energies build as we move toward to climactic end of the year. I haven’t read near as much as I would like to have, as it’s been so cold and we’ve been traveling a lot. I hope to at least start?? reading my book before I get on the train to come home.

 

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Raindrops fall to wet cement. Two chickens eat out of a metal bowl. Our turtle crawls over the hard surface of the house, casting a tiny shadow in the white cloud light. Two muddy shoes placed beside an open door, dark, liquid sole shapes echoing behind it, to the vast, puddle-filled yard. A branch broom is propped against the pig pen; an unfinished, half-painted window frame gathering pools of water next to its skeletal, changing reflection. A slow wind pulls and pushes leafless trees, and against the rigid power lines, the quilt-work of shade looks like the sky in puzzle. A western song DVD plays loudly in the other room, echoing faintly between the cold walls of the house. A man pulled up in a hefty, black motorcycle, and now speaks excitedly under the cloak of rain, still wearing his helmet like some robot.

It’s just a little bit like Christmas. For the last two hours, Edward has worked tirelessly, with a pail of home-made rubber cement and a brush of sticks, gluing more than thirty-five large red banners to various doors, windows, and walls of his home. On the banners, hand-painted in shining gold, are all different and unique poetical statements or couplets, from the banner over the machine shop which reads “All Customers Are Welcome” to the banner in the kitchen that reads “May Our Family Be Happy.” The couplets over doors speak of distance and long-distance love, and the beauty of the land. These change every year. Edward says that when he was a child, his family had even more: banners on the oven, above the stove, even in various rooms for miscellaneous things. There is one man in the village, a teacher at the primary school, who does all of these for the village, uniquely written for each family, all different sayings, for about ten kuai per set. In my own estimation, this is amazing.

Sitting here in the sun, going over these things in my mind. The cold is almost over; I feel it. Big puddles are in the front yard. My lips are chapped. I found an old candy bar in my bag (a Chinese “Butterfinger“). Edward sits with grandmother, playing his flute. He’s really good. Ed’s mom pumps water, his sister washes clothes. A couple of soft, distant firecrackers. There are pig snorts. I’m pretty tired out – three rich meals each day, the constant cold, the quietness – even though it is relaxing, too much relaxing can tire you out. About now I need a challenge.

 

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I’ve spent the last four hours or so in my head, trying to come to peace about certain things. At times I’m so volatile, ready to figuratively explode with feeling. There are moments I am unable to see clearly; even rational talk has little affect, sliding off me like oil, while inside I twist and turn, torturing myself over possibilities that God has clearly shut the door upon, for purposes I cannot fathom. It makes me angry, that such a thing I desire so much can be held from my hand for so long, especially after I believed I already was finally there, only to be yet again taken away, just like everything else. But I have to remind myself of the reality that real things grow and become part of us; nothing good comes of impatience, even if our mind is found only in the moment.

In retrospect, I’m really glad I’m spending this time with such a close family. They never miss a meal, they always make sure they are warm enough for the chilly mornings and evenings; they really take care of each other. Even with this close family, I still feel the lack; my dreams trouble me, and during the day, even though I may pound myself with rational and logical thoughts. I am beyond where I know. Here, not much else has gone on – yesterday was reading, walking, reading, television – and so on. Today we hope to go to Guan Yun’s mountain. This morning, some friends of the family came over. Nearly the whole family came into our bedroom and tried to pry Edward out of his bed. It’s funny, but after so many, full meals, I could go for a skipped meal. I’m sure Edward feels the same.

Last night and this morning has been heralded by trumpets, trombones, and a funeral march. Last night they lit bamboo torches on both sides of the road, and this morning they marched with a troupe of shroud-wearing mourners, a truck with two giant piñata horses, a wagon with some faux-model brick apartments, a trumpet playing band, and some flowing banners. I think I understood most, but I still don’t get the horses. Yesterday, we didn’t go to the mountain, but just to town to use an internet cafe. I think today might actually be the day we climb the mountain; I don’t know any further details though.

 

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On the way up Hua Guo Shan (Flower Fruit mountain), Jiangsu’s highest peak (at 625 meters). I’m a little out of breath. This place is China’s amusement park – it would be funny except old women and old men who can barely walk, totter up these stairs hand in hand, while Edward and I, both young men of strong build, are sweating and panting. We just walked up through the legendary Water Curtain Cave, the ancient home of the Monkey King. The whole walk up has basically been one long temple, filled with swirling incense, fat gold Buddhas, and carts along the side of the walking path, with little plush monkey dolls, incense sticks, bottles of red and green sweetened tea, and wooden swords and staves engraved with red Chinese characters.

At the top of Hua Guo Shan, Edward and I take pictures with Sun Wu Kong and Zhu Bajie as an advertisement for his ultimate Frisbee team, with the Monkey King throwing the Frisbee of the Beijing Ultimate Team. It’s not very clear up here; nevertheless, it’s still really, really high – nearly a sudden drop to the seaside from 625 meters. I’m sitting on the highest rock, at the highest peak. There are burnt-off cigarette butts, torn orange peels, spat-out seed shells, and a soda pop cap, up here on the rocks. We missed some scenic spots, so we’ll probably try to hit those on the way down. Maybe eat some fruit as well.

Edward said in March or April, this mountain is full of various flowers and fruit. On the way up, we took pictures with some monkeys. At one point, a monkey wandered over to Edward’s bag on the ground, full of food, and tried to open it. When we tried to take back the bag, the monkey hissed and showed his teeth. We had to get one of the workers to scare it away.

Later, we came back through Guan Yun at night – that place is fantastic, a fairyland of lights. The boulevards and buildings transform when the sun goes down – literally, as the lights turn them into fascinating designs and shapes. Guan Yun is interesting – a city with its own language, special rice food, and these lights. For such a non-descript, small town, they have really defined themselves. I had a famous green vegetable for dinner – Lu Hao – an expensive specialty only grown in the greenhouses here. It was really tasty.

 

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Wind against your face. Darkness around you, below you, above you, going inside you. The flower bright flash to your left, spiraling, exploding, sizzling colors in the crescent moon sky, filled with gray, grizzly clouds and the following sharp bang and crash of mesmerized applause, lit by red hot firemakers, held by young boys with jeweled, shining eyes and eager cries of expectation. Riding through the countryside at night, with the burning white headlights of speeding motorcycles and dust-roaring, ear-splitting honking trucks – is a bit like tunneling through a vast cave lit by dim stars and the fresh smell of planted green. At home, now, after a full day at Edward’s school, playing ultimate Frisbee with an old group of school friends, and lunch in a back alley, non-distinct restaurant. My feet hurt, but my stomach is satisfied – after the long, stuffy bus rides and flashing night lights of Guan Yun’s dreamworld at night thrown past by shoulder as I pushed thick into the deep of the country.

Edward’s mom is washing clothes now. Edward is going to wash his backpack. Weird, but okay. Both the dog and cat have been begging for my attention today, coming up to me and giving me huge, needy eyes and open necks to scratch. I’ve been sitting in the sun, the heat gathering on the black leather of my jacket, just soaking in the light. Some of Edward’s friends are supposed to come over this afternoon, including his cousin, to whom I gave the English name Vanessa.

We finished dinner (baozi and misc. leftovers, again), and now we are watching some travelogue on CCTV9 about interesting cities and sites in Sichuan province, including a place near a big city that has some old tombs buried in the forest hills. Vanessa did come today, although she and Edward spoke the Guan Yun language only, and talked about me for a majority of the time, smiling and pointing. At the time, I was angry, frustrated and tired of having studied for five months, but unable to understand a single word, as well as constantly being referred to as “the foreigner” instead of my Chinese name. I can’t say I’ve gotten used to it, as it still bothers me a lot, but I do realize it’s the culture, even if it’s unfair. My sensitivity to exclusionary terms about people comes from twenty years of Civil Rights and tolerance indoctrination, which silently screams in my ear whenever I think of generic stereotypes; so who am I to complain? Edward changed the channel to some weird Sichuan bull-fighting, bull-dodging sport with circus music and a pool in the center of the small arena. I did enjoy the English speaking CCTV Cup, though.

 

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Older men in hefty, green military jackets and ear-cuffed baseball caps smoke outside the window, the smoke dissipating into a fog of silver dust. A young girl croons her lost love over the radio of this restaurant, “Corn Person,” though it is more a fast food diner with buffet style trays and noodle bar, using paper denominations of real money as receipts to purchase food. In the morning, we rode in a “real” countryside taxi – in the back of an open-air wagon, with the chill morning rushing and bruising our noses and pulling the water from our eyes. In town, we spent two and a half hours at Edward’s favorite internet café, and then we came to the Corn Person diner to have a very expensive and greasy set of lukewarm (but tasteful) dishes.

 

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Small, box houses look like littered stones lying next to the canal and inter-province highway that runs north to south through Jiangsu. It’s not often one is allowed to write a journal entry sitting on the head of a crocodile. Crocodile Stone, anyways. The wind twists and turns, pulling at my hair. The dry, yellow skin of Da Yi Shan, Guan Yun’s odd and abnormally large mountain, hoists itself above the miles and li of a million farms and brick hovels. The stick-like winter trees grip themselves in seasonal sleep, waiting for the rains of spring to return to the waking world. Lovers and families prowl the golden mountain trails, pulling themselves through the cold wind and over the chipped and cracked stones that scale and embroider the scalp of this alien rock. I feel like I should be in Australia chanting in the dreamtime. Edward’s friends are somewhere below, pacing on the two yuan pathway through half-built cliff temples and Chinglish guideposts, while we chew apples and zip our coats under the gray tapestry of the sky, searching for our lost shadows.

 

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Nevermind. That weird Sichuan bull-dodging sport – it’s actually French. I think? I’m home now, again in front of the TV. I’m wiping the dirt off my right hand, as Edward and I, after climbing the summit of Da Yi Shan, went cave exploring. Miles of labyrinthine, 300-year-old man-made tunnels lie in elaborate, sharply carved passages, with the thousands of tons of mountain resting above them. Cave explorers armed with cell phones and smoldering firefly sticks met us, as we stumbled blindly through the immense dark and teeth-like portals, searching for the blazing light of Guan Yun’s daylight. Afterwards, we bought some drinks at the bottom of the mountain, and Edward told me that 500 years ago, Guan Yun was part of the ocean. On our way out of the mountain, we came across some half-spherical tombs to WWII heroes, as well as a military base armed by two curious solders armed with long rifles, surprised by the presence of my barbarian self. We shopped for a suitcase for Edward, and I bought a small amount of Flower Fruit Mountain tea, the expensive homebrew of the Monkey King.

 

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Fei Pan Shan rises out of the water like a brick monolith – fragrant trees sprout from its rough, cliff-like sides, while large, fallen branches, crusted with dry earth and the mud of recent rain lie haphazardly sprawled like wooden bridges over the broken mounds of rock. Bamboo, broken and shattered, float aimlessly in the lake at the bottom, while two turtles, Fei and Pan, swim eagerly beneath the glistening sunlit surface, searching for dead fish and spots of shade. Yes, in my spare time (or empty time), I build a turtle habitat, out of broken branches, cracked bricks, wild mint sprigs, old baby bamboo, chipped-off cement, and uneaten sunflower seeds to act as garnish to the spectacle. Pan Pan, whom we bought yesterday for eight kuai, is a significantly larger, more active, and more intelligent turtle than Fei Fei, who hopefully we bought with the desire that Pan Pan teach Fei Fei how to eat, so they actually survive the train trip to Edward’s dorm room in Tianjin. Hopefully, the artificial mountain I build them will keep their spirits charged. At least it filled my lazy afternoon with a fun, architectural scavenger hunt.

 

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Fei Pan Shan has now, unfortunately, been reduced to Fei Pan Pond. Somehow, the mountain and trees and bridges disappeared during our Frisbee outing. (Later, I discovered, due to the Cat.) Six of us played a fierce game over a swath of green, lush grass, until the farmer came, reclaimed his land, and kindly butted us off onto Edward’s rough, partially grown and irrigated wheat field. Afterwards, Yu Fu, some relative of Edward, brought out his BB gun and showed off his two years of soldiering skills, and passed the rifle around, turning the moss-laden pond waters of Wang Fang into a shooting range. No living things, though, the ducks were quite tempting. Old school Nintendo, right? On the way back, Edward showed me inside the internet bar, which also acts as bicycle repair shop, gas supply, slot machine parlor, and video game arcade, with the tiny voices of little boys smashing down on old, plastic buttons and fading screens of 80s and 90s street fighters and alien blasters. The rock ramp lies in the shade of a setting sun. Memories of Edward’s father and friends putting it together under a harsh, hot afternoon, are still fresh in my mind.

 

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Just as the day we came in, Wang Fan is cold, laced with silvered breathy air, with a thick sheet of fog gripping the houses and fences, while a white, pearly sun disc rises ever higher into the sky, burning away the pastel of clouds slowly and methodically. The pile of pig food lies half scooped, a firecracker smashes the air, and Gou, the family dog, has walked up to me, putting out his head to scratch, placing his paw on my foot, rubbing his head against my leg. The television is on in the bedroom, while a machine whirs in the repair shop. Guo Jin has just buried his mother and walked past his destiny, and as the credits roll, I wonder how I’ve changed during this time in the countryside, but assure myself I won’t know for a long time. I’ve come to peace about many things, and learned how silence and peaceful meditation can harden resolve and open pockets of light in one’s soul. I’m not sure I’m happy about these resolves I’ve come to, but they at least sing peacefully. In the end, I’m more whole, and more real.

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