In the Midst of Confusion

You should see the sunset behind the mountains here in Asheville, NC.  The mountain ridge’s silhouette is framed by a deep red and orange sinking sun and a deep purple burst of clouds fan out and stretch upward to touch a gray blue sky with even grayer clouds floating above.  It’s beauty is not lost on me this evening as we move into the winter solstice:  the darkest time of year.

I live on top of a small hill on the second floor of an apartment complex.  The tulip poplars’ limbs reach upward and I can see eye level with their small branches that have ridges and grooves where leaves will sprout out in the spring.  These trees act as a fence and along with the pine trees and mighty oaks and regal maples they keep the soil intact so we don’t slide down onto the busy street below.

Fifteen minutes have passed since writing the first words, and the sun has disappeared behind the mountains.  It is pitch black, save the streetlights in the parking lot below.  The solstice is upon us and like the black bears here in the area, it is time to go inside and hibernate.  Except, I am already indoors nursing a mild cold that creeped up on me yesterday evening.  Metaphor then calls for me to know the next step of going inside:  to drop into my heart center and seek the mystery that has been calling me for awhile now.

Truthfully, I never fully understood why I came out here this past summer.  I told my friends and family it was just a breakaway from my old life and a chance to explore and do something new and different before I got too stuck in my ways.  On the surface, it was really that.  So, I put all of my attention and energy there and explored the city and met interesting people.

I also had grandiose ideas of starting my freelance writing career and making money by writing copy and profiles for businesses and small organizations.  I did that for awhile and I put all of my attention and energy there.  It was exhausting and not as rewarding as I thought it would be.  And, I wasn’t making any money.  That was Ok if I could drum up the business, but I was in a new town, a new environment, and without a lot of chances to network nor had I enough experience yet to even charge for my services.  I also had to admit that I was putting on a good show for myself and my friends and family as a way to prove that I would drum up business and support myself financially and one day this would become my means of support.  I see now that I was trying to put on airs to make this move, this leap, not appear so scary to me or others.  A way to justify my need to be accepted as a mainstream, career writer with a solid vocation that fit into society.

Then, I heard a voice tell me that it is inevitable that I should become a published writer since I am a former English teacher.  So, I put all of my attention and energy there.  And, that felt better, yet it was still exhausting and I realized I was going on a path where my ego was getting the better of me and telling me I was worthless as a writer if I didn’t publish anything any time soon.  I went to writer’s workshops and writer’s circles, and even joined a critique group.  And, I failed and I fell.  Hard.  (See last blog post about a  piece of fiction I workshopped before it was worth showing to anyone.)  I was expecting my transformation as a writer to happen over night because it is what I want.  In September, I had written one of the most beautiful pieces of my life and now it sits in online queues at numerous literary journals.  There is one rejection letter already in my email folder.  I tell myself that it’s all Ok because it’s the name of the game.

img_3153After a little soul searching, and laying my persona of an English teacher and an academic to rest, I returned to my first love of drawing.  I started a doodle of a sugar maple leaf and it turned into something that lit me up inside.  Here, tucked inside the leaf, were images of butterfly wings, pine bark, rocks from a creek bed, elderberries, and mountain ash berries and so many more things from my daily nature walks.  “Maybe, just maybe, I can consider myself an artist?” I thought to myself.  In a classic self-loathing fashion, however, I berated myself and told myself that I was a fraud on all creative levels because I never went to school for art and I spent most of my writing time in a classroom reading teenager’s essays and re-reading and discussing pieces of literature and poetry from textbooks.

I didn’t give up on drawing, however, and saw it as a new form of meditation that could replace my daily journal writing, which was becoming cumbersome, melodramatic and morose.  And so I went about my days drawing, working at Trader Joe’s, teaching yoga, and going on nature walks when I had the time and energy.

All seemed well and good at this point.  My easy-going lifestyle was nice when I was in the flow and enjoying my creative pursuits simply for pleasure and a release of years of pent up creativity that had no time or outlet to come forth.  But, life happened to me.  I began to get scared about why I was here in Asheville.  I worried again about living on a mix of a low income from the grocery store and my stored up savings account.  I began brainstorming of ways to fast track my creative pursuits and think of how I could develop them quickly and prove to myself and others that I wasn’t wasting my time here.  And worse, I began thinking of how to make my creativity the center of a new vocation or career based on the shaky skills I had pulled out from years of hiding deep inside of my psyche.

The universe brought to me an opportunity to teach a yoga and journaling workshop on overcoming and transforming fear.  I was (and still am) excited about it.  I even met with a doctor who has been practicing yoga and meditation for 30 years.  He overheard me talking about my workshop to a couple I know at Trader Joe’s.  To make a long story short, we met and he wants me to teach at his practice and also wants to introduce me to some friends of his that run a retreat center in the area.  So I thought to myself, “Aha!  This is what I’m supposed to do!  I can combine my love of teaching and yoga with my skills on how to write and I can make a living from this down the line.”  I abandoned my drawing and poured myself into my research and practiced breathing techniques and wrote lesson plans like I used to do when I was an English teacher.

I started to become confused.  Which path of creativity should I take in order to make a new life for myself?  Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life while I’m here?  How long am I going to be here in Asheville?  Will I stay forever or will I return to the Midwest or will I move somewhere else and do something else?  Will I run out of money before I accomplish anything in this world worth doing?  Am I on the right track?  Am I happy?  Where has my passion and my spirituality and deep connection to my heart and to the earth gone?  Why am I not feeling anything?  Why do I feel like I am off course?  What the hell am I doing here?  What the hell are we all doing here?  And down and down and down the rabbit hole I went.

I slipped into a mild depression without realizing it.   It didn’t help anything that I had suffered a very bad haircut.  A mop of hair with two different dye-jobs and  silver-white chunks sitting precariously on top of my head.  Zits popped up and a few pounds stuck to my cheeks (on both ends) from the treats at work.  Even my apartment appeared cluttered and small.  I piled up dishes in the sink and pulled out clean ones from the dishwasher. A tumbleweed of loose hair (mine and my pets’) drifted across the bathroom floor as I walked in and brushed my teeth the other day.  I shut off the sink and the lights when I finished and simply walked away.  Too tired to pick up a tiny mess.

A few days ago, I experienced the throws of angst in my body 2 hours before I went to work.  I was sweating.  My breathing was shallow.  I was jittery and couldn’t sit still.  My mind jumped around to all the “what ifs” and projected worries and difficulties that could and would happen.  I had the same exact feelings and thoughts I used to have before I walked into the hallways of Belleville West high school where I used to teach.  Trader Joe’s is a simple, albeit very physical, job.  There is no stress or pressure to it (although, there is some drama and some very real frustrations of dealing with a few of the arrogant young men that work there…I’ll save all of that for a later post).  Fortunately, I have an arsenal of resources and techniques I’ve cultivated over the years (ones that I will share at my workshop), and I tamed and curbed my anxiety and understood it for what it was:  an old biological and psychological pattern that is from my past and is revealing itself in my present.  The only control I have over it is to not let it be a part of my future.

My body wasn’t done with me just yet, however.  Yesterday was a full day of practicing and teaching yoga, meeting with a spiritual teacher for personal and workshop reasons, working on a writing project for him, all the while neglecting housework and life’s necessary drudgeries.  I sat down on my couch for a few minutes before getting ready to meet with a friend for a bluegrass concert, and my body took over.  I felt heavy and achy.  My eyes watered and a dry cough started in my throat.  I tried to fall asleep on my couch, but my dog barked at every single noise my upstairs neighbors and their wild dogs made.  I forced back tears and got up, showered, and went to my friend’s house and later the concert.  The food we ate was delicious and the band was amazing.  That perked me up until they took a break and I realized I needed a mental, emotional, and physical break as well.

I didn’t go to work today.  I knew it was time to purge myself of this cold and these negative thoughts.  To awaken my body again to its resiliency and awaken my spirit as well.  I took it easy this a.m. and when I had enough energy, I cleaned my apartment in a mindful way.  I threw out or donated what was no longer serving me.  In my spare bedroom closet, I came across a stack of my old journals with beautiful ideas and words in them.  I smiled and a memory of my 10-year-old self came back when I realized I loved words and wrote poetry about soaring eagles or about the soft glow of the streetlight as I walked our family dog, Oscar.  I also found a stack of drawings and doodles I did on my free time when I had a career.  They’re not too bad and they show that I do have an innate sense of perspective, color, and design and a creative and unique approach to my subject matter.

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More importantly, I know how I felt channeling the words and the images through my mind.  My hands.  My heart.  I know that mythical time is there to support me and this linear time of moving about my day and earning money does not always have to be 100% in alignment with that.  Times like the winter solstice can help us go inward and empty out all that is dead and not working for us.  We can open up space and shine a light inside our hearts as a way to nurture what is to grow next. We cannot force its growth.  It must germinate and emerge from the depths of our souls on its own time.  Just like Persephone’s return from the Underworld.  Her mother’s sadness of losing her daughter is the world’s gain in the future when Persephone walks the earth with her mother again for a short while.

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When I found these drawings, I almost wanted to say “Fuck off” to my old self who had locked my mind, body, and spirit into a very unhealthy way of being where I consumed myself with martyrdom, angst, worry, and an authoritarian mentality inside a world confined to a small classroom inside a brick building.   But I brought compassion to that old part of me that is still somewhat wired in my brain and my body and comes out in awkward moments like I mentioned.  What I do know is that inside me all along has been the writer, the artist, the communicator, the teacher who can express the tenderness and beauty of the subtle and mysterious world.  Who can tell stories and myths and weave them into a yoga class or a blog post.  Who can help guide people through their own personal journey that is riddled with fear and grief.  Who knows the way to creating a body-mind-heart connection, even if it is for a brief moment.  Who is not a fraud, but a growing being with human skin and bones.  Imperfect but authentic in her pursuit of something bigger and more meaningful and helpful to humanity that only her blip of a moment on this planet can provide.

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Loosening the Ties That Bind

I have made a conscientious decision to stop writing about and talking about my fears and anxieties.  I know that by being raw and vulnerable and opening up those wounds and exposing them to those of you who read this blog especially has been like a balm for some of you.  It’s good to learn that others have fears similar to ours.  It makes us feel less alone in this world.  It comforts us to know someone else out there is struggling and if that person can overcome their fears and push through them, so can we.  Brave heart warriors  willing to dance with these darker emotions are needed to help us navigate through our own emotions and help us evolve.  However, I am putting aside my warrior ways for now.  I have fought the good fight by standing in the trenches of the dark emotions and facing them head on.  And a lot of wisdom and magic have come out of those moments and have prompted me to grow and change.  A lot.

To quote one of my favorite authors and creative mentors, Elizabeth Gilbert, “Fear is boring, because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is ‘STOP!'” It’s time to push on through to the other side of fear.  It’s time to shed the old skin of the badass warrior woman.  Time to take off my Wonder Woman bracelets and slip into something a little more comfortable and lighter.

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What prompted this decision to stop focusing on the fear was because I suffered three weeks of physical chronic pain right before and after my last blog post and am just now coming out of that.  I have started seeing the old biological patterns of fear in my body that have been there since I was at least 16:  the achy pain in my right side and outer hip/buttocks region; the wobbly leg syndrome; the tight calves; the low blood sugar and erratic sweating that makes me pass out (which thankfully I haven’t done since I was a teenager).  My parents and doctors never really could figure out what that was all about.   I’ve had bouts of this freakiness since then in various forms which culminated in pain a few weeks ago where I could barely walk up my stairs into my living space.  Prior to this episode, I had not experienced even a small degree of that pain for over 4 months.  That was immediately after I made the freeing decision to begin this journey.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that part of the chronic pain is from asymmetry in my body (my hips are a little “wonky” and an X-ray once showed my knee joints are slightly misaligned).  We are also a society that sits a lot and weaken our muscles and I’ve been sitting more than usual these past few months.  I also must face the reality of being 41 and I’m more than likely starting some perimenopausal symptoms where muscle and joint pain is caused by shifting hormones. And I’m aware that sometimes my diet and the wrong type of exercise (like hiking up and down over 500 stairs at a state park and then driving home and falling asleep instead of stretching out my muscles) can exacerbate it.

All of that scientific stuff set aside, I know in my heart-of-hearts this chronic pain is also a result of old biological patterns in my body that have been prompted by some fear-base mentality I have carried around nearly all my life.  I’ve lived a good portion of my life being “stressed out,” worried about the future, or always believing something bad was going to happen even if everything is good and pleasant at the moment. In the past three weeks, I have become aware of the fact that I clench my jaw any time I feel too happy or excited about all the possibilities before me.  I sit watching TV with my inner thighs squeezed together so tightly that I am sitting up on the knots of my butt muscles.  I drive down the street and feel my rib cage is so tight because I have shallow breathing.  And every time I take notice of these bodily sensations, I scan my mind and find that without a doubt I am living some part of that moment in fear and panic.  I even get afraid of the thought of being in pain that I seize up and don’t want to move.  Then there’s the flip side:  I move too much and overstretch because I’m trying to shake out all the antsy feelings within me.

What was I afraid of?  It couldn’t be some big bad predator like a saber tooth tiger out to get me, (although my body was reacting like that was the case).  If I examine my fears closely, I can say I was afraid of being too powerful.  Too beautiful.  Too sensual.  Too creative.  Too loving.  Too free spirited.  Too much.  So, I shrunk myself down to stay in the game of living a scripted life.  When, in reality, every part of me was longing to be free of 35 years of schooling.  I’ve been living that life since I was 5.

So, today, I decided enough of following that script.  Enough of living completely in my mind and strategizing my next move (although, let’s face it, I’ll probably always be somewhat of a strategist and planner.   Those are some awesome skills to have as they set me up to make the bold move that I did).  Enough of worrying about people telling me they’re envious of me.  Enough of feeling like I’m being selfish for making this lifestyle change.   It’s time to live directly from my body.  From my heart.  From my spirit.

Every single day for three weeks now, I have softened into my body, meditated, accepted the moment, and given thanks for at least three things that have happened to me, no matter how big or small.

IMG_2516Today, I focused on sweetness.  I asked my body what it wanted to do today.  What did it need in order to feel whole and happy.  It asked for a strengthening yoga practice followed by longer, softer, gentler stretches and holds.  I gave that to my body.  I asked my spirit what it needed.  It asked for 20 minutes of silent meditation and prayer and to be in nature by going to the University of North Carolina’s Botanical Gardens.  I gave that to my spirit.  I asked my heart what it needed.  It asked for a day’s outing to eat a sweet meal, go to my favorite store “The Bee Charmer” in downtown Asheville, and to people watch.  I gave that to my heart.

Yet, my fear wasn’t about to be left behind.  It flared up in the form of a shaming voice that told me that I really shouldn’t eat the Challah French Toast stuffed with honey cream and blackberry sauce with two strips of bacon.  I became aware of the masquerading fear and silently said a prayer of gratitude when the waitress brought my meal.  I ate it with reverence and a sense of pleasure.  Fear’s voice said, “You shouldn’t eat sugary things.  This is bad for you.  It could hurt your body and you could get a cramp in your leg.”  I smiled and took another bite, savoring the creamy texture, the sweet and salty mix of blueberry and bacon.  Silently I let my body speak to my fear.  She said, “Please stop.  This meal is eaten in gratitude and with pleasure.  Your opinion no longer matters.”

When I went downtown, I heard my fear speak in the form of guilt as I purchased some local honey, a t-shirt, and a necklace with a drop of honey in a small amulet.  Fear’s voice said, “How dare you buy anything for yourself.  You don’t have a job anymore and you should not buy anything that isn’t for mere necessity.  You’ll regret this when you’re on the verge of being broke and you might go homeless.”  I smiled as the sales clerk handed me my lovely purchase and silently I let my heart speak to my fear.  She said, “Please stop.  This purchase was made in gratitude and with pleasure.  I will use all of these things as a reminder that my life is so very sweet.  Your opinion no longer matters.”

I arrived at the Botanical Gardens, which is on the UNC campus and right near a busy road.  I started walking over the bridge and down to the creek and could hear the traffic through the pines, the sycamores, the ashes, and the laurel trees.  The chirping of the birds was competing with the whir of the engines.  I again heard my fear speak, but this time in the form of judgment.  Fear’s voice said, “This place is terrible.  How can it be beautiful when there is so much urban traffic flying by?”  I smiled as I climbed over moss covered stones to sit near the creek and watch butterflies and dragonflies dancing with one another.  Silently I let my spirit speak to my fear.  She said, “Please stop.  This time outside is spent in gratitude and with pleasure.  The birds, the bees, the butterflies, and all the other creatures are perfectly content living here.  In fact, they’re thriving.  And these flowers, plants, and trees, give shelter and a loving touch of Mother Nature to remind us to stay connected.  I think all of this is beautiful and natural.  Your opinion no longer matters.”IMG_2517

I squatted next to a Red-Spotted Purple butterfly as it opened and closed its wings on the creek bed.  My spirit felt so much love to be watching a beautiful creature up close.

I walked in the sunlight across the lawn to a small trail that led to a gigantic sycamore tree.  I placed my hand on the trunk and looked up and suddenly memories of being a child flooded my mind.  I saw my cousins, my little sister, and me playing on the old tire swing that was hanging from the large sycamore tree in our grandparents’ backyard.  We were so happy and carefree.  My heart filled with love.

I climbed a set of stairs built into the dirt and tree roots, and my footing was secure and I had no pain.  My body was at ease and in its element.  That’s when I realized, I had left my fears behind.

No more will I allow fear to control my days.  This will take mindfulness and some level of self-discipline.  Yet, all I wish to share right now are moments of beauty and love. Of awakening to a higher sense of purpose.  Sweetness and joy.  Insight and gratitude.  Pleasure and easiness.  And from these things, I choose to bring forth all of my creativity and set it to work:  playing, growing, living, writing, drawing, teaching, listening, being, loving, and most of all finding pleasure from the mystery of the unknown.

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Wild.

These are ancient mountains.  There is a divinity here among the ferns, the plants, the old trees, the stones.  Fecundity in all things green.

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The wilderness outside is reflective of the wilderness inside.  So much yet to explore.  So much mystery abounds in the moist earth that sprouts white and red mushrooms and dwells inside the crevices that look like medieval grottos at the base of trees.  So much mystery inside my restless heart and creative mind.

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My skin crawls with red bumps all up and down my legs, and tiny, oily pimples spring up across my face every waking moment.   I am disoriented at times, and sad, and irritated, then mesmerized, and finally humbled into submission by something I can’t fully explain.

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My dog sprouted swollen bumps on both sides of her jaw after a restless night of becoming irritated by some tiny creature that lurks within the cracks on the walls or the floor.  She recovers her wellness and her joy at the first scent of the mountain air and the kindness and practicality of the local veterinarian.  He recommends I go on a hike with her as soon as she has recovered.  Here, the prescription is to get out in nature.  To commune with the land as a way to heal.

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At every twist and turn of the mountain roads and challenges in my daily life, I try to remember to lean into it all and let it be what it is.  No need for perfection.  No need for justification.  No need for analysis.  Just lean into it.  Tap the break at the right moment.  Pause and release.  Then coast and lean into the next moment and curve.  Continue like this: up, down, around, and over the mountain until there is a small space to pull over or a scenic overlook to enjoy.  In either instance:  breathe.

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There is a space where I may have found my tribe.  In a dance studio downtown Asheville where the live drumming of the West African rhythms can be heard from the street.  Where the instructor, a beautiful, powerful, kind, and joyous woman from the Cote d’Ivoire, counts to you in French and commands the drummers to slow down or speed up by just a simple gesture of her hand.  Here, the drums pound inside of my stomach.  Inside of my pelvis.  At the soles of my feet and the base of my spine. And my shoulders shake and my heart is in control of my joy.

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My dog and I approach the blue blaze right off mile marker 375 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We are headed up to Rattlesnake Lodge – a deserted vacation getaway in the 1920s and 30s.  Only stone foundations of cabins, fireplaces, and other buildings exist.  It is a popular spot of locals.  Before us is a wet slab of exposed mountain with a cascade of water splashing over eroded stones that are now round and smooth.  I say a small prayer for our well-being but also as a greeting to the ancient ones that inhabit every rock, plant, stream, and tree in this place.  I am entering their world, and I must respect their ways.  We begin our ascent and cross over a small part of the stream before stepping onto the worn path with exposed roots and small, loose stones.  I inhale the damp smell and settle into my body.  Many times I am overcome with tenderness and so much love.  Tears fill my eyes.  “Bring us your tears,” the ferns, stones, and stream whisper to me.  So, I cry in the middle of the forest on a worn path where oak trees act as citadels and twisted laurel branches arc over me and guide me to the white blaze called “Mountain to Sea” trail.  My dog leads.  She seems at home.  Her tail wags and her tongue hangs out.  She is smiling.

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A young, green, perfectly shaped acorn drops at my feet.  It is a gift from my friends the oaks.  I pick it up and put it in my pocket.  I swipe away sweat from my forehead and strip off my self-conscious thoughts.  I am becoming wild, and I am no longer ashamed to reclaim that part of me that we have all lost somewhere along the way.  At another stop, I find a stone in the shape of a tulip tree leaf.  It has flecks of mica in it.  I am prompted by some inner guidance to pick it up.  It is not for me to keep, but I do not know what I will do with it.  I place it inside my pocket next to my acorn.  My dog and I continue to ascend until the ground levels out and I see before me a pillar of stones that looks like a sacred altar.  It is one of the remnants of the old lodge, possibly a fireplace for I see the center has been charred.  Here I know that the stone is a symbol of my day of initiation.  I hold it to my chest, say a prayer of gratitude to this ancient land, and then place my stone on the charred altar.  The mica sparkles.  Three large daddy-long-legs creep out from the stones and walk towards me.  The biggest one is right in front of my face and he crawls over the edge of the stone and begins to bob up and down softly.  Maybe I have threatened their home and existence, but my heart knows why they are here:  they’re ambassadors for the ancient ones of this land.   I smile and blow them a kiss.  And a little one walks out from the shadows and joins in the dance.

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Walking southward, I spot a large fallen tree.  There is enough space to walk underneath it.  I see this as my opportunity to shed my old skin, my old patterns and habits, and step into my wild self.  I take a breath, duck my head, and pass underneath.  My dog follows me.  We behold in front of us a pool of stones and part of a stone wall covered in moss.  It is damp and cool in this space and smells earthy.  There looks to be a well where the water is coming from.  I take it all in.  I breathe deeply.  Once more tenderness overcomes me and I shed more tears.  “I am wild,” I say quietly.  Then I say it again.  Louder.  And louder after that.  I turn and face the entrance and I look at my dog and smile.  “We are wild!”  I yell, and I run underneath the fallen tree and out into the clearing, spinning around like the child I once was.

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***

On the descent down the third blaze, I am silent.  I stop and give my dog some water and drink a big gulp of it too.  My boots clump the trodden path and I fall into a rhythm.  A mantra begins forming in my head with each step:  “I am wild.  I am wild.  I am wild.”  I smile and my breath gets deeper.  “I am wild.  I am wild.  I am wild.”  My pace quickens.  “I am wild.  I am wild.  I am wild.”  The next thing I know, I am saying this out loud and moving quickly, as my dog enjoys the sudden burst of energy.  “I am wild!  I am wild!  I am wild!”  Finally, I see the creek bed at the entrance to the trails.  There is a ledge where the water streams over the black slab.  People have piled stones on top one another at the edge.  Another nature based altar, framed by laurels and rhododendrons.  My pack is heavy and my shorts are riding up my thighs.  Sweat has seeped into the folds of my tshirt.   I don’t look much different than when I started.  Yet, I am transformed.  I have come back to the beginning.  Back to where I belong.

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