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henry cordierI’ve been struggling with a feeling of shallowness of late, as if all the poetry has died – not just the writing or the reading of it, but the more visceral seeing of it in every day things. The dark lake of the unconscious through which I sift my fingers in order to light upon its treasures has been drained, and like an old canal, reveals now only a muddy bottom strewn with rubbish, chucked in over the decades, and none of it amounting to very much.

I know this isn’t how it really is, only that I am seeing it this way through an habitual downturn in my vision. In past years, in my search for the meaning I have touched on some significant jewels, mysteries, shadowy doorways through which I have glimpsed gardens of delight, all bathed in the ethereal glow of what I believe to have been a genuine spiritual revelation. In my journeys of the mind I have explored the nature of existence, not just on the material plane, but in the deeper places, beyond life and time and death. I have not come up empty but, like pebbles, all lustrous when wet, the visions have dried out now to a less alluring, less tangible patina. I think I understand the process, and must not lose heart. It’s part of the cycle of the creative life.

In the alchemy of the mind we progress from a fledgling stage of intellectual turmoil and spiritual darkness, what they call the nigredo. We apply the heat of the mind’s furnace to the base material, the soul held captive in the alembic of our life’s experience. The impurities rise, the surface blackens, the base undergoes transformation through a process of sublimation to higher and higher stages of awareness and understanding. Or so the theory goes. But in my personal journey, after brief openings in the clag-caked surface, I return again to the nigredo. I glance back over my shoulder and the black dog is stalking, and no matter how startling and real the revelations of past cycles, the attitude becomes one more of: “So what? It doesn’t alter the fact I still have to get up at half past six every weekday morning, and go to work.”

It’s a question then of the way we see things. I understand, I think, the process is not one of aiming for a destination of the mind, a transformation to some kind of super-humanness. We are already at the destination, always have been, so the destination, if that is what we must call it, is simply the realisation we need not have left home in the first place, that home is wherever you are right now, and all you can ever gain, the greatest gift in life, is the vision that enables you to see things properly, see again the depth and lustre in the dried out pebble, and in the world about you poetry, everywhere.

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It’s been a summer of violent and tragic events here in the UK. Once upon a time we would pause for a minute’s silence to remember the wars and the fallen. It happened once a year, was a predictable, sombre occasion each November, a reflection on the folly of armed conflict. Now it seems we’ve had a minute’s silence every week for weeks in response to the shock of one damned thing after the other – bombings, mass stabbings, vans driven into pedestrians, and of course the terrible London tower block fire.

Such events shock us, pull us from our private lives, reconnect us with the human collective and cause us to question the nature of the incurable malaise from which we apparently suffer. And of course the speed with which events are now reported lends an extra feverishness to the times, a feverishness spun to favour one shameless political agenda or another. We need no longer wait for the ten o’clock news like we did in the old days, the Smartphone tells it all, instantly, and the story it tells is one of perpetual shock, violence, hatred and a corporate greed that verges on the homicidal.

It’s sometimes hard not to view our times from the nihilistic perspective as evidence of an acceleration towards the end of days. Certainly pictures of the burned out Grenfell Tower are as symbolic as they are deeply shocking. But the people who died that night were not victims of extremists. The enemy that sealed the fate of Grenfell Tower was more a culture of institutional avarice, one painstakingly manufactured over the decades to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the lives of the poor. All of these things, though diverse in origin, seem part of the same unsettling atmosphere of the times, like faces vaguely recognisable from our deepest nightmares, all of them bearing weapons of one sort or another.

But if you can look beyond the violence, beyond the tragedy, it’s possible to discern something else happening, something that suggests less a rush to the end of times and more to a transformation of the collective consciousness. The bigger the outrage and the faster these events come at us, the bigger too the response of the many who awaken and gather, not with violence in mind, but with a compassionate dignity. And the pocket media that disseminates these shocks so far and fast and wide also unites us, brings us together in ever larger numbers, mobilises us to a deeper empathy and reflection.

The world of the technocracy is increasingly machine-like and it has become a proxy for the collective human ego, a thing wrestling for control over every aspect of our lives, measuring even the keyclicks on our computers, evaluating them for the risk inherent in our thoughts and beliefs, to predict and plan in order to subvert bad events even ahead of time. But the more you plan, and the greater the detail to which you plan, the more vulnerable you are to the unexpected, to the uncontrolled, to the irrational turn of events. And the faster we fail, the less useful Ego becomes, and the less useful it feels the more it tears itself apart and adds to the maelstrom of destruction and despair. The greater the shock, next time that we seem so powerless against the nihilistic forces and the ill winds of fate.

What we are seeing almost nightly on our TV screens is a form of collective madness. We are on the couch, and it’s time to talk it out with a competent analyst. All egos are ultimately at the mercy of their shadows, dutifully raising demons from under every stone turned, like the headlines of the Daily Mail. It’s only compassion that spares us, a recognition we are not machines and that for life to have meaning we must recognise and value more our ability to transcend the material, or at the very least to temper its excesses with the better side of human nature.

When events shock us, it’s tempting always to turn to the machine for answers. Through it we calculate our responses, plan future contingencies, establish means of mitigation. But when the shock hits, it’s better to set our machine thoughts aside, if only for a moment for a moment, to remember we are not robots, that it’s better sometimes we say nothing for a while, and simply reach out and hold someone. It’s a long shot, believing in a reactive transformation that will eventually eradicate the dark stain from the zeitgeist, but if enough of us can respond to extraordinary events with compassion, empathy and a degree of stillness, it’s at least a start in the right direction.

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nuclear burst.jpgDear potential leader,

Why should I vote for you if you’re cagey about whether you would ever contemplate pressing the red button to launch our nuclear weapons against another state that’s already launched its nuclear missiles against us?

You mean, you want me to launch first?

Em,… no, that’s not exactly British – I mean, more in self defence,… like.

Well, clearly my friend you misunderstand the nature of nuclear warfare, against which, I assure you, there is no such thing as self defence. If another state has launched its nuclear missiles at us, I have already failed you,  because we are already dead.

Regardless of your faith in technology, I assure you, even now, in this age of wonders, there is no missile that can  intercept those incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. They are the fastest things imaginable, faster even than an impact prone asteroid, and just as deadly. We are, therefore, already dead, horribly dead, and I have failed you miserably, abominably, in my responsibility as a politician, and a statesman and as a leader.

I should have stopped it. I’m sorry, but that is the reality of nuclear war.

Yes, admittedly, before we die, there is probably still time to press that red button, and to thereby ensure the deaths of millions of people in retaliation for our own demise – and all right you say, but they’re just Johnny foreigner, and don’t count for much – but still that is not self defence, by any description. That is Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD as we used to call it in the old days.

It’s like a game of bluff, I suppose. We each have all these terrible weapons perfectly capable of destroying each other many times over. So it boils down to a game of poker. I bluff, saying to the world I am perfectly prepared to use our nukes, as does the other side. But implicit in this argument is the assumption the other side won’t dare to launch first, because they know they’ll die as well, because sure as hell we’ll launch ours, not in defence, but in revenge.

Revenge?

Yes. That’s a different spin for sure, but it’s what it boils down to. Nuclear war is complicated, but also very simple: we all die.

So you want me to pay lip service to the MADness game and say I will press the button, even if I won’t, because there’s this argument that MADness prevented the nuclear holocaust that was imminent any time between 1950 and 1989. But why should I? What use is there in revenge? I don’t believe there’s anything useful or worthy in revenge.

So,.. we died. But at least we killed the other lot as well. Doesn’t sound so grand when you put it like that , does it?

It seems to me previous generations understood the business of nuclear war better than we do now, certainly better than the angry old white men who read the Daily Mail. Instead read Nevil Chute’s “On the Beach” (1957) if you want a compelling account from a fiction writer and an engineer who knew the maths, and the technology better than any one, even by today’s standards, at least judging by the right wing populist rhetoric. There is no surviving a nuclear war. Ironically, it is the younger generation who seem to understand this better than their parents.

Talk of red buttons and who will press them is fatuous. The guy who says he wouldn’t press it under any circumstances is by far the more interesting and forward thinking. His is the world I want to live in. It’s a struggle of the imagination, and a courageous one, but one worth fighting for.

And he gets my vote.

 

 

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In Durelston Wood

durleston wood cover smallI left this place twenty years ago, left the old pit village of Marsden in the grey English North, exchanged it for the sunshine of California, tanned my skin, and brought up children on the beaches of the Pacific coast. I built a life with a blonde haired, long-legged woman who, after all of our time together, decided we should call it a day, and apparently for no other reason, she said, than that I bored her. So, I have come home now, to my father.

He’s not looking bad today. He sits upright in a tweed jacket. It’s threadbare now, but the care-workers know he is fond of it, and they have tied his tie nicely. There is a chessboard between us, though it’s months now since he’s had the energy to apply himself to a game, but the carers have explained to me there is something in the way the pieces are arranged that pleases him – that even though he rarely speaks now, and his tempers can make him difficult to manage, the simple array of a chess game calms him. It’s as if he remembers a fragment of his former self in it, as I remember a fragment of my former self in Durleston Wood.

The pieces are not lined up in their beginning positions; there is always a game in play. One of the carers has set this up by copying positions from a little book of classic games she found in a charity shop. Any attempt to randomly array the pieces, something that might for example result in the illogicality of two white bishops – is enough to set my father grumbling. Even in his old age, and his confusion, he cannot be placated by pretence.

He is still lucid at times, and sensible, but even on those treasured occasions we do not talk of certain things. I think he knows his home has gone. I sold it to pay for his care, but we do not mention this. It still exists in his mind, and also in my dreams, as a place he will return to, just as soon as he starts to feel a little brighter in himself. It was the place he brought his wife home to fifty years ago, the place he raised his child in, the place he would have liked to leave his child when he finally shuffles off, but like I said: we do not mention it.

He’s quite chatty today, remembering a walk by the Rye, when I was twelve. My memory of this event is clear enough to know it is not an illusion on his part, but he is remembering it in such detail I wonder if the past can possibly be embellished in this way; his memories have such a brightness to them, while mine are dull, tarnished by the abrasive dross of all that has filled my life since. But I like his picture of things, so borrow from a mind that may be manufacturing fantasy-frilled edges, and I accept it all unflinchingly as the truth, for no other reason than it has a brightness about it, when everything else in the world these days is unbearably dull.

He’s speaking of the path around the horseshoe of the Rye, and of the season when the ramsons and the bluebells and the wood anemones bloom together to create an impossibly beautiful carpet beneath the overarching boughs of beech and oak and sycamore.

We have the gun, and we are ratting along the banks of the Rye, close by the Willet place, the curious, lonely old house in Durleston Wood. I am away from school – some mysterious illness of the spirit that has laid me low, and which is somehow soothed now by the warm blanket gloom of Durleston, and the peaty smell of the Rye.

The rats are not rats but water voles, the Ratty-Rats of Tales of Toad and Badger, and homely Mole – harmless voles twisted by ignorance into carriers of plague and shot almost to extinction. And when he talks about the starry heads of the ramsons, I am with him, their garlic scent overwhelming me in hot waves as we lie prone for hours, the gun lined up on a likely looking hole in the sandy bank of the Rye.

Bumble bees buzz, ducking in and out of the shade of our hats, but we bide them patiently, and when my father mentions this, I am amazed he can have recalled the scene so vividly, and I am drawn into it – not just the pictures and the scent, but the “feel” of it – to have my belly against the soft earth, and to have it soothe my fear, soothe the feeling of that twelve year old boy that he is entering a life he surely was not meant for.

Did I tell you my wife’s name is Faye?

It’s three years since I last saw her, now, but we died a long time before that. I know this because I tell myself I think of her so little, and that when I do there is neither hate nor fondness in it. She is not like the first girl I fell in love with, whom I think of still with a wistful tenderness, the girl whose love my father’s story of that walk reminds me I had already betrayed as I lay there that day with the gun. Her name was Lillian.

Lillian and I are kneeling in the school hall, at Marsden C. of E. Primary School. I am eleven, she is on the cusp of her tenth birthday, and there is something about her face, something about her eyes, and in the way the light falls upon her long blonde hair that pleases me, though in a way I do not understand. And while I am looking at her, taking pleasure in this thing I do not understand, I become aware that she has looked up, is looking at me, and on seeing or sensing my pleasure, she is smiling at me, smiling because my pleasure gives her pleasure. And the more pleasure we are each aware of inspiring in the other, the greater becomes our pleasure, so the feeling is like a flowering, like a swelling of spiritual bliss. And we blossom into the unexpected enlightenment of first-love.

But human love brings also human folly, and in the days to come Lillian will ask me if I will come to the front of the school assembly to tug her hair when it’s her birthday – ten tugs – as is the tradition, one for each year of her life. Of course there will be uproar among our friends. Hers will be jealous I did not pick them to love, while mine will be merciless in their teasing that I could ever like a girl.

I lie awake for days, dreading this event so much that on the dreaded morning I invent a tummy ache, and when Lillian stands up proudly on the school stage to proclaim her love by calling out my name, I am not there. She’s embarrassed then, let down by love, and quickly chooses one of her smug school-chums, and the pair of them make fun of me on my return – rejecting as ludicrous my tales of tummy ache, and Lillian, her heart bleeding throws my love back in my face.

My father is quiet now, his tale hanging mid-sentence, attenuated by the heat of the lounge here in Marsden Hall, and by the enigma of the frozen chess game. The memory of Lillian remains like a splinter in my brain. It’s strange; I have not thought of this for a long time now, have not thought of my betrayal of her love in such vivid terms before. I am forty five and find myself overflowing with guilt for something I did as a boy, and cannot possible atone for.

What is it telling me, this thing, this serendipitous serpent from the darker layers of my unconscious? It is reminding me, I think, how often I have been seduced by the idea, and by the loveliness of love, but when love demands a test, I am unwilling to allow myself to be transformed by it and to trust in the sureness of its direction.

Perhaps then, I have never truly been in love.

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s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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thumbnailOnline social media highlights and exploits our universal human vulnerability, that we all want to be someone. We all want to be recognised, liked, admired, and generally believed to be an awesome human being because we think that, in the acceptance of our awesomeness, we’ll find escape from the horror of anonymity and obscurity in the face of inevitable death. Of course it won’t work.

We are none of us really anybody in this narrow sense. Even those admired and cow-towed to are no different to anyone else. They have their own problems, their own duel with death, one they’ll eventually lose like the rest of us. Then they’ll be forgotten, and even so little as a hundred years from now, no one will care. Many a good and talented man has gone to his grave unknown. It’s a sobering realisation, one we must face and understand why an obscure life is not necessarily a wasted one.

One of the pictures I recently put up on Instagram got forty likes. Experience tells me it’ll not get many more. It’s a about my limit, and seems to be a function of the number of people you follow and the amount of time you’re willing to spend liking other stuff, or somehow gaming the system. But it’s no big deal. It is, after all, just a picture of a hat. Sure, pictures of other people’s hats can garner tens of thousands of likes, and how they do that remains a mystery to me, but it’s still just a picture of a hat and as such will never confer immortality.

My Instagram account leaks a few clicks over to the blog, which in turn leaks a few clicks over to my fiction, which is why I’m on Instagram in the first place. It’s also why I blog. They are both subtle lures to my fiction writings, coaxing readers now and them into my fictional worlds. But my stories are not important either, at least not as influential tools to shape the zeitgeist, nor even just to trumpet my awesomeness. I leave that to others, more savvy, sassy, whatever, and dare I say, more celebrated for their craft.

My thoughts are perhaps too convoluted for a sound-bite culture to make much sense of, and I’m conscious too my outlook, though sincere, may be no more than a mushy blend of pop-philosophy sweetened by archaic Romanticism. The importance of the work then lies only in what it teaches me, and I’m coming to the conclusion what it’s teaching me is how to recognise those useless egotistical compulsions and to rise above words, that the forms of thought we pursue so doggedly throughout our lives, are just shadows of something we will never grasp. It’s not a question of lacking intellect, more that the brain is altogether the wrong shape to accommodate what it is we crave.

You don’t need to write to reach the same conclusion. You just need to live your life as it was given to you, and develop a mindful approach to it. I’m not talking about that self-help-how-to-be-a-winner-in-life kind of mindfulness either. It’s more simply an awareness of our selves in life, and the way we react to situations, and how we can tell if those reactions are the right ones or not, if they contribute to a general transcendence of this fear we have of living, or dig us more firmly into the mire of it.

It might sound as if I’m some way along the path towards nihilism, but nihilism isn’t helpful, other than as a place to bounce back from. Yes, so much of what we are capable of seeing is indeed unimportant, but the world is also rich with a transcendent beauty we are equally capable of recognising, at least in its more lavish manifestations, say in the natural world. And perhaps progress in the right direction is simply our ability to find such transcendence in smaller and smaller places. Indeed perhaps the ultimate success in life, the ultimate awesomeness, is the attainment of absolute obscurity, and the ability to sit alone, quietly, to stare closely at your thumb nail and go:

WOW!

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girl with green eyesThe meaning of things isn’t to be found in studying them, said Carina, nor in thinking about them at all, but more in attaining a state of non-judgemental awareness. Then we see there is no meaning in things themselves, that in seeking their meaning we obscure the formless beauty in them, and through analysis, through over-thinking, we fail to experience love.

“Then there is no meaning?” asked Finn.

“To what?”

“To life. My life. Your life.”

“Of course there is.”

“Then what?”

Carina looked a little dishevelled – her hair uncombed, more voluminous and more fiery red than Finn remembered from when she was working, from those long budget meetings whose only redeeming feature for Finn had been the presence of Carina herself, the knowledge of her kindness, and that she did not hate him.

Her blouse was creased and she wore no bra. Her cream suit looked business-like but too well worn and lived-in comfortable for a hundred quid a head restaurant. Finn had baulked at the idea of dinner in such a place as this, but she’d insisted, claiming her resurrection from the dead, at least in Finn’s eyes, was worth splashing out a little on dinner, and she would pay.

“Love,” she said.

“Love?”

“We find meaning, redemption, salvation, whatever you want to call it,… in love. Not just the kind you’re thinking. I mean not the one-person-bonking-the-other kind. Sometimes we think that’s all there is to love, that it’s merely the permission to bonk. But that’s Eros. I’m meaning more simply love – you know? Kindness, compassion. Agape.”

“Agape?”

“The love of God, Finn. The grace of God. I mean,… without being religious about it. Can you do it? Can you find a way of loving even these tossers in here? Look at them. Given the state of the economy and the number slaving below subsistence levels for tyrannical bastards, many of whom probably frequent pretentious pig troughs like this, there’s much in this well polished porcine crowd to hate. But in doing so, do you not also feel also,… a little cut off? A little less than human? A little diminished?”

“I,…”

Carina had not been drinking, had drunk nothing since the mother of all hangovers some weeks ago. This was Carina sober, incisive, cynical and – for all of her apparent languor – intellectually terrifying.

“I mean, how do we find the love of God in these people, Finn?”

Finn wasn’t sure he wanted to. He found their braying and their preening obnoxious, but felt he had to try, if only because Carina had challenged him to do it, and it was always a pleasure to please Carina.

“Em,… I can make a start, I suppose, by understanding their folly, and forgiving it? After all, I used to be one of them.”

Carina, smiled indulgently, nodded. “Yes, it’s a start. Every couple of generations we make the mistake of worshipping affluence, don’t we? But they’re just people like anybody else – frail, feeble, stupid. They make mistakes. By the way, you were never one of them, Finn,… or I would have seen no point in rescuing you. I’d’ve been doing humanity a service by allowing evolution to take it’s toll on you.”

“That doesn’t sound very,… loving?”

“Didn’t say I was perfect.”

“So, at the risk of fishing for compliments, which is always a dangerous thing where you’re concerned, what was my redeeming feature – the one that spared me from your indifference?”

“Oh,… it’s hard to say. A mixture of things. Compassion. Humility. And clear signs of distress.”

“Well, distress for sure.”

Finn scanned the dining crowds. He noted men did not wear ties to dinner any more, unlike Finn who remained always a decade behind fashion. He noted instead they wore hideously pretentious timepieces with designer names, timepieces that would no doubt be thrown away when their batteries ran down. There would be no future niche market on Ebay for such things, unless future generations rediscovered a sense of irony.

Carina watched him watching: “So, what are you thinking?”

But never mind what Finn’s thinking, Carina, what am I thinking? This is an interesting chapter and a turning point,  a little overlong perhaps, a little talky, you and Finn batting ideas across the table like tennis players, and I can barely keep up with you, just as the rules of tennis, so obvious to others have long remained a mystery to me. I can only ask you play the game wisely, Carina, and don’t hurt anyone – especially me. We’re in too deep by now. Your next moves can either make or break the story.

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