I Hear America Singing, but who is off key? You?

2 07 2013

I Hear America Singing.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morn-
ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman

I’m sure you know some people who sing through their lives.

Not literally like Grease or an episode of Glee come to life, (Although that would rock.)  No, more like people who are so into what they do that it is so beautiful—it is like they are constantly singing a strong and lovely lifesong.

It doesn’t matter if a person is into high art or baseball statistics; you can always tell if she is doing what she should be doing by the intensity and spark with which she does it.  This is what is meant by “singing.”

Add to this the fact that they are singing carols.  “Carols” connotes a religious, holy feel, and it is holy when you witness people who are passionate about their work.

What a difference it would have been if instead of carols, Whitman replaced it with “ballads” or something. Let’s try it out:

“I hear America singing, the varied slow jams, I hear”

See?  Word choice is very important.

During the summers when I was in college, I worked several odd-job positions at a local copper factory.  One summer I worked in the store room, so the workers would come to me to ask for the parts they needed.

I would try to find the part in the enormous warehouse, inevitably, it would be the wrong part, and the workers would grumble and honestly not know how I didn’t know what a 3, 4, L was, or whatever, and then I would try again.

And again.

Till I just let him in to find the part his dang self.

Anyway, this one guy, who was probably a year or two younger than me, greeted me each day not with a “hello,” or anything like that.  He started the day with a number. For example, he would say (while grinning from ear to ear):  “7,642”.

You know what the number was?

The number of days till his retirement.  Every day he would come in and his number was one less than the day before.

Doesn’t that make you sick?

How can a person live life like it is a prison sentence?

When does this guy think his “life” will begin?  Who is to say he will be lucky enough to even make it to retirement?

I will never forget that, and how sad it was.  I wonder if he is still counting down.  I hope not.

This guy is the perfect example of one who does NOT sing through his life.  And that is a shame.

Take a look at who Whitman lists in his poem.  It is the laborers, really.  He doesn’t mention any “learned” people or those in professions often admired and longed for. He mentions nothing about money or wealth.  You don’t see him writing about trial lawyers, senators, or professors.

You could have the best job in the world by society’s standards but you will not be singing unless it suits you, unless it belongs to you.

Whitman knows that singing happens when people have dignity in what they do and when people are truly present in their lives, no matter what it is they choose.

This guy loves faucets.

This guy loves faucets.

People who sing through life are not waiting to live (for retirement, summer break, graduation, Christmas, etc.) They are just living.  And I don’t mean in a carpe diem way, really.  I mean they are doing what they do and doing it thoughtfully and presently, and by doing their part, they make our nation strong.

They aren’t multi-tasking or staring at a clock waiting for the day to be done.  They aren’t lost in a perpetual plan for the future. They aren’t on the phone or reading the news while they attempt to play with their children or talk with a friend.  They live artfully.

Whitman emphasizes his joy in freedom in his use of free verse—

Since his content is a celebration of the individual, it would be a bit paradoxical to fit that message into a rigid meter or rhyme scheme, right?

One of the best things about America is that, to a degree, we are able to choose our lives.  The fact that we are free to be a baker in Los Angeles when our father was a doctor in Alabama is pretty amazing.  Freedom.  We are so lucky if we have it.

american flag

So, please.  No more countdowns.  If you are feeling like you need them to get through your day, maybe it is time to reevaluate and follow that passion to make America sing stronger and more melodiously.

Be part of the chorus instead of a garish cacophonous clank.  It would make our founding fathers proud.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

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The Real Versus the Imagined Life: “Nothing That is not There and the Nothing that is”

6 12 2012

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The Snow Man

By Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Do you ever wonder how much of your world is real and how much of it is just a projection of your interpretation? Sure, we all know drama queens who thrive on drama of their own creation, but I mean all of us, even the least confrontational.

Is it possible to regard anything the way it actually is? For example, what do you see when you see a tree? Do you see a factual tree? Don’t we have to see it through the lens of our human experience? Do our aesthetics tell us that it is “pretty” or “ugly”? Do our experiences define the tree? We think of time spent in them or near them? Do we think of the passing seasons, perhaps? Do we look at trees in full bloom and feel in full bloom ourselves? Or maybe our personal beliefs help us define the tree? Our connotations are impossible to peel off the denotations of things.

However you define a tree, it is probably not an objective tree, it is only your interpretation of the tree; it is a tree as defined by your human drama.

We create and recreate things in our world to make our lives more understandable or more palatable. This is just the way we are. No one is saying it is good or bad.

It just is, like the tree just is.

Wallace Stevens’ short, but mind-blowingly dense poem “The Snow Man” explores some of these ideas.

This poem is one sentence divided up into a series of tercets, or three-lined stanzas. It is the type of poem that you have to read over and reinterpret several times before any meaning can be extracted. I loved this poem well before I understood it, and I am still not sure that I fully understand it, but for me, it is the mark of excellent poetry when the words echo through your mind and haunt you till you make some sort of sense of them. Then, upon a later reading, you find a different (or other layer of) meaning. Maybe this is because you are a different person each time you reread it.

“One must have the mind of winter. . .”

What does that mean? At first, I read it as metaphor. Maybe a cold, stark mind? An unemotional mind? A barren mind? A mind with no imagination?

But if you look at the title, we are reminded that it may be literal, it is the mind of the snow man, and that seems to make sense to me, since themes point to what is real versus what is imagined. I am projecting myself into any other interpretation, right? If I read this as an unimaginative mind, for example, am I not saying that winter is a time when there is a lack of life?

That is not winter, that is my projection of winter.

One must have a snowman’s mind to see this winter scene and “not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. . .”

The wind is not miserable, instead, we are miserable in the wind. One must have the snowman’s mind to think of the wind as only wind—not to consider the wind good or bad. The wind is just the wind.

“For the listener, who listens in the snow”

Who is the listener? The snowman? The reader? It is the same “one” that we identified with from the first word of the first stanza.

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumal...

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumala, Finland Suomi: Lumiukko jäätyneellä Saimaalla Puumalassa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

;

“For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself. . .”

At this point of the poem, whoever you interpret to be the listener has ceased projecting himself into his world. He is “nothing himself”

By doing this, he is able to see the world around him as it actually is. He “beholds nothing that is not there”

And by not reading anything of himself into the world, he sees that there is nothing there.

So, when we stop creating our own worlds, the world has no meaning. In fact, when the listener is able to view things completely factually as a snowman does, completely objectively, the poem is over. It is all over.

Again, it is interesting to note that there is no judgment here. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we create our own worlds? For Stevens, that is not important. It just is.

Popeye

“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam?” Maybe.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Heartbreak and the Holidays: “The Feel of Not to Feel It” and Keats

28 11 2012

In Drear-Nighted December

John Keats

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

Ah, December— it’s the end of the year, (and if you want to believe the Mayans— maybe the end of the world? Gasp!) so naturally it invites a certain melancholic reflection, a yearning for days gone by. Honestly, I think it’s a really good thing that December is full of celebratory anticipation and glistening lights, because at least in my part of the world, it might get overwhelmingly gloomy at times.

This would be especially true in those years when the first snows don’t fall until late December. The first snows are pretty magical for many of us, especially on the heels of an extraordinarily mild winter last year. Even those of us who grow snow-weary by January, February, or March, tend to enjoy the first snows that cover everything in crisp shimmering white, hiding all the muddy leaves and abandoned toys in the back yard.

But, especially without the snow, things are often drear-nighted, so I can feel what Keats is saying here. Things do get pretty gray, cold, and bare. What a perfect metaphor for how you feel when you are heartbroken. Gray, cold, and bare.

Frozen.

Dark.

And really, is there a worse month to be heartbroken than December? First, there is the natural world that seems to be dead all around you, and then there are the terribly long nights. On top of all that, there is the pressure to have a most joyous and wonderful season of togetherness with the ones you love. Everyone talks about it, and there are images of love everywhere.

So, what if your love isn’t there anymore?

It’s a tough time for many people, especially those who know “the feel of not to feel it.”

This poem looks at how poignant romantic heartbreak is. It is one of my favorite poems reflecting on heartbreak and that hopeless anguish that feels so suffocating. It captures that despair, doesn’t apologize, and doesn’t offer hope. Keats knows that when you are heartbroken, you don’t want to hear people trying to cheer you up.

Heartbreak sucks, and you can feel as lousy as you want without feeling guilty about it. Go ahead and wallow in it for a while. It’s okay.

Keats says it is okay, and he is like the best poet who ever lived.

Frozen light

Frozen light (Photo credit: Nanaki)

In the first stanza, he looks at a frozen sleety tree with bare branches and thinks about how the tree is just fine. It is not at all upset in its current state even though it once had beautiful leaves, and the reason this is possible is that the tree has no memory of that better time. None the wiser, the tree is content, and it will bloom again in the spring without fear of losing the leaves, and the cycle continues.

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Next, in the second stanza, the speaker’s attention turns to a frozen brook. In

Frozen Brook

Frozen Brook (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

a similar way, he considers how lucky the brook is that it has no memory of the happy time when it once flowed freely. Even encased in an icy prison, the brook is perfectly happy because of the “sweet forgetting.” The brook has no memory of Apollo in his hot “summer look”, so it is happy even in a less comfortable situation.

In the final stanza, the speaker laments that people don’t have this ability to forget, too. Instead, we all are doomed to writhe in the pain of remembering happy times before our heartbreak, and there is nothing that can be done to ease the pain.

Keats believes “The feel of not to feel it” is so excruciating that is was never “said in rhyme”. That might seem like a contradiction at first. I mean, there are loads of poems about heartbreak, right? In fact, isn’t this a poem about it??

Well, yes,

But what he is saying is that the feeling cannot be truly expressed in words; it can’t be said in rhyme. It can’t be communicated at all, only felt.

But Keats! Isn’t It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

Nope.

Keats does not agree at all. It is painful and he wishes he could just erase it from his memory. I agree that this is how it feels when heartbreak is fresh, but I don’t agree in the long run. I’m not going to delete anyone from my memory.

I think Keats would have liked “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” don’t you? What are your thoughts? Would you push delete on a lost love if you could? Would you be happier if you couldn’t remember?





Get up! You Can’t Sit Here. Improving Your Life in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes

23 09 2012

  

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

 By Langston Hughes, 1922

 Life’s stairs are completely unfair.  Some people are born on top of sparkling crystal stairs, others are born on the bottom and have to fight and trudge up stairs that are in dangerous disrepair.  Still, there are others born so far away from any stairs that they wouldn’t even know what to do with a flight of stairs if they, well, fell down them. 

 

This is the staircase (and cast members) at Tara in Gone with the Wind. It’s my favorite staircase. What? You don’t have a favorite staircase?

The speaker in this poem is a hardworking mother who tells her son that he must push past the tacks, the upturned boards, and the splinters on his staircase of life.  Yes, no doubt, it is hard, she agrees with him, but he may not choose to sit down on the crappy steps. 

 

Eventually, he will come to a landing and get a moment’s rest. 

 

She tells him that sometimes, he has to turn corners in life–make  significant changes to move ahead.  Sometimes his path will be dark, and there will be no light in sight. 

But still, he must move on.      

“Just keep swimming; just keep swimming!”

 There is no other option. 

 

This poem’s power comes from a combination of this perfect extended stairs metaphor and the use of 1920’s black vernacular.  Even though this was written at a time when many black middle-class people disparaged the colloquial diction as something that could hold them back from climbing up the stairs of society, Hughes uses it beautifully and powerfully to help capture the black experience of his time.

 

Really, how ridiculous would this poem sound if it were in standard formal English?  The mother would lose all her cred because she would sound more like someone who has been climbing far better stairs than those she describes.  Isn’t the message much more powerful coming from someone who has been hard at work, herself?  The figurative language this mother uses to describe just how challenging the climb in an unfair life is works perfectly, doesn’t it?  Life definitely seems like it has its fair share of tacks and upturned boards.  It’s a great image!

 

Now clearly, the obstacles facing a young, urban, black man in the early nineteen twenties were daunting. There is no way you can remove the racial element from this poem– nor should you; however, like all good poetry, its themes are universal. Hughes transcends race and gets to the human level here, too. 

 

We can ALL relate to this on some level.  Very few, if any of us, would say our lives have been crystal stairs. 

 

Even people who you think have crystal stairs probably don’t really have crystal stairs.  All people have challenges and struggles— yes, even the wealthy.  (Although, maybe I wouldn’t mind trying out the problems of the very rich just for a little bit, just to see what they are like. . .) 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem lately with all the talk about the rising number of people who are dependent on government entitlements.  While it is true that we need to look after and support those who cannot help themselves, shouldn’t we really focus on how to make the entitlement period just a brief step on their journey?  Isn’t accepting welfare entitlements for extended periods of time kind of like taking a seat on a splintered up, carpet-less step? 

 

The climber would be so much better off if he had someone who said to him, get the heck up and keep going!  You can do it, and you WILL do it.  Wouldn’t improving his life make the climber happier?  Give him a sense of dignity and self-worth?

 

It is part of human nature that most people will do only what is minimally required.  In high school, I bet you had a teacher who was very easy.  I had him, too. You could just turn in something you scribbled down during the last five minutes of study hall and still get a good grade, right?  Am I also right that you didn’t really give any of your assignments for that class any real effort?  Most likely, you produced crap and lost out on learning.

 

I bet you also had a tough teacher.  I bet you worked your rear off on her assignments.  I bet the quality of work you produced with the tough teacher FAR exceeded the quality of work you produced with the easy teacher.  I bet you learned more than you expected to. 

 

By far, it is the much kinder option to raise the bar, keep the expectations high, and watch how far people can climb up in this world. 

 

However, we also have to provide support to get them to the next step, right? 

 

We need someone who tells them that sitting isn’t an option.  Not all people have a mother like the one in this poem—someone who cheers (or forces) him on.  So, we need to help each other out.  We need to show people that they have true worth.  How can we, as a government, do that for the people who depend (unnecessarily) on entitlements? 

 

By allowing her son no other option, she instills in him a sense of dignity both in work and in himself.  He is the one who has to climb, but she is key to his being able to do so. 

 

We desperately need cheerleaders in our lives to remind us that we can do things that we think are impossible. 

 

I recently completed a half marathon, but I didn’t do this alone.  My husband never gave me a hard time about going out for training runs and leaving him with the children.  My marathon-runner parents offered me tons of encouragement and coaching throughout the whole journey. Kara, my race partner, pushed me to do much better than I expected, and even the cheers of the spectators helped me reach the finish line. 

 

Slowly, slowly, slowly

 

But I finished. 

 

Now I’m left thinking about this poem and all those people who instead of pushing on in life, and accepting new challenges, choose to sit. 

 

I hope I can be a voice of encouragement like the mother in this poem to my children and anyone else who needs a reminder that she is capable of doing things that don’t seem possible.

 

A voice that orders people to

Get up

and get

Going.

 

I hope you do the same for someone else, too.  





Reconnecting by Disconnecting (a little?)

13 09 2011
The World is Too Much With Us

 

by William Wordsworth
 
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

;Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.–Great God!  I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

 

                                                                                      

I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem lately.  The first line, especially.

 “ The world is too much with us; late and soon”

 How true is that?! In our Smartphone world, we have instant access to the world.  That is intense, and I will never give mine up. I mean,  it is like walking around with not only a stack of reference books, but also  fun diversions to turn to when waiting in line at the grocery store (well, when I’m lucky enough to not have screaming children with me to serve as my diversion, that is.) Seriously, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t want one.

However, I find myself getting mired down into too much “world”, too many “breaking news” stories that I feel compelled to update myself with throughout the day, and far too much Facebook checking. 

I want to be good citizen and stay informed, but how much is too much to know?  I don’t need to know of every gruesome crime that happens in the country, or for that sake, in the world.  No one does, and really, no one should.  It is too soul depleting. 

I first started thinking of this poem when I stared watching the Dateline 9/11 special.  I watched for about 3 minutes then I had to turn it off. 

I know what happened.  I know how the horrific story ends.  We all do.

Why do we need to be attacked again? 

 To reflect, to remember, to honor : These are great and noble pursuits and have real value to us as a nation.  This can be done with class at the new, beautiful memorial, public ceremonies, or private reflections. 

Having all the detailed, horrific moments of that attack spelled out

moment

by

 moment

 with sad  background music compounded with the agonizing interviews of survivors or victims’  families is maudlin and distasteful. 

I think of those poor souls we watch jumping to their deaths to escape the flames and imagine how pissed they are that THAT is how people remember them, that THAT is the image that gets replayed after they are gone:  their moment of greatest despair on display for the world.  It is sickening.

Remember, honor. . .but don’t play on emotions to get some ratings and money.

Which ties in nicely to the next lines of Wordsworth’s poem:

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

 Wordsworth sees people getting disconnected from nature and more obsessed with materialism in the early 1800’s. I wonder what he would think of us today! He believes when we disconnect ourselves from who we are (part of nature) we are left unhappy, lost, and without purpose.  We are left (paraphrasing Thoreau) living lives of quiet desperation. 

I don’t know if you have to necessarily feel “at one” with nature to get at what Wordsworth is saying here.  It is more a call to focus on what is meaningful in life.  To some, like Wordsworth, this meaning may be found in nature, others may find the connection through family and other human connections, still others in God or some other entity.   

 Wordsworth brings his ideas home nicely in the last lines by wishing he was born at a different time so that he could have more of a pagan appreciation for all the wonders that are hidden in nature.  To imagine gods rising from the storm waves would be much more preferable than to not feel anything at all.   This was a pretty ‘eyebrow raising” statement for the time-period.  It definitely helps emphasize his point. 

                                                                                 

Clearly, you don’t need to be a pagan to try to get the “world” a little farther away and in turn, get a little closer to nature or wherever you may find meaning.  I think that is what Wordsworth is hoping we consider after reading this sonnet.  

This brings me back to my thoughts at the start of this post about how much “world” is the right amount.  Maybe I should look to one of my favorite Greek Myths, Daedalus and Icarus for the answer. Maybe I’ll write about that myth sometime in the future.  For now, it is enough to know that the correct answer in this myth is that all things in moderation are good.  What does moderation look like in this case though?  I’m still not sure.  I’m going to try to find a greater balance.

                                                                           





Beauty in utility

5 09 2011

The Red Wheelbarrow

By William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

                                                                                                                                                        

Many of us have read this poem in our high school or college English classes.  It’s one of those poems that is memorable for several reasons.  First, it is short.  You can memorize the whole poem in only a few minutes and feel wicked smart reciting it to your friends at the coffee shop between classes.

 Meaning be damned, you know a poem by heart, and that is Rico Suave. 

 Second, it is confusing for people new to poetry. It can even inspire wrath from some reluctant poetry readers out there. “What?  That’s stupid.  That’s just a sentence describing what is in front of you.  So much depends upon a pencil sharpener full of shaving beside the crazy teacher.”   I’ve heard people use this poem to defend their belief that poetry is stupid and they just don’t get it.  Like it or not, it is memorable. 

 Third, it is striking.  It is striking  in its imagistic nature.  It is simply an image, no? I picture with words.  A precise, crisp picture with words. Words that put pretty close to the exact same picture in my mind as they do in your mind.  The picture (of the wheelbarrow, not Kristin Wiig) I found above is not really perfect, is it?  The chickens aren’t white enough.  The wheelbarrow isn’t glazed enough; however, it was the best I could find with my limited patience.

Yes, this poem does have meaning beyond the image it creates, beyond the picture. But even if it didn’t,  I think the picture would be enough,  we don’t always have to justify a poem’s existence by digging, dissecting, and even sometimes decapitating it.  

Anyway, back to the meaning.  The poem makes the reader instantly question.  What depends on. . .?  Does anything depend on. . .? 

Well, certainly.  A wheelbarrow is a simple farm tool.  Rain is needed for crops to grow. Chickens provide food through their eggs and their meat, too.  Okay, so that much is easy.  Without farming tools, sources of food and Mother Nature, we would all starve. 

But we are not done yet.  There is another level here.

Why red? An unpainted wheelbarrow would serve the same function as well as a painted one, right?

Why glazed?  Why not just wet?

Why white chickens?   

Well,  not only do we depend on these items for our physical hunger, we depend on them for our aesthetic hunger.  We need beauty around us.  Without it, we starve. 

Red is a striking, bold color, and we appreciate the brilliant contrast between red and white.  We can see the glimmer of the glaze, perhaps even feel it.   We may even be able to feel the difference in textures and temperatures:  The cool glaze of the wet metal, the warm fluffy softness of the chickens.

In this simple utilitarian scene, there is art; there is beauty. This makes me question  how many tools, utensils, and functional items have another layer of art to them around me?  I am going to think about this as I look in my own backyard, my own house.  I hope you do the same. 

Lately, I have been feeling that the world is starving for  beauty.

It’s easy to focus on the negative. Lord knows, there is evil in the world.

In news, in Facebook updates, in gossip. . .

This leads me to the main purpose of my blog: I am going to find more beauty and brilliance in the world by actively seeking it out.   You are welcome to join me on my journey.