Learning How To Talk About Differences With My Evangelical Family

March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter in-law against mother in-law (Luke 12:50–53).”

It’s been fifteen years since I first came out to my family as a non-believer in Evangelical Christianity. From my current vantage point, I see now the evolution of not only myself, but of how my family has dealt with the situation. We’ve all changed in the process, and who we are today has little resemblance to who we all were when I was twenty-one years old.

At that young age there was the added pressure of two parents struggling to let go of their youngest daughter as I entered adulthood. With that letting go came a release of control. Because I’d spent my entire youth living in secret, I suddenly was not the person that anyone had thought I was. In fact, I was what I had feared all along. I was exactly what I had repressed. And more than that, I realized, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was learning how to be happy. What was bad was the amount of rejection I experienced – not only losing 99% of my all-Christian friends, but also being threatened with losing my family for being what my father termed as “a whore.” Lately I’ve been re-appropriating that slur to mean, “a female that cannot be controlled.”

We all got off to a rocky start. All I knew at that point was that the church was not for me. Within those confines I was suffocated, depressed, bored, and dead inside. I realize now that this is because I was and am rooted in creative expression. The artist needs diversity in order to breathe. The artist needs questions. Flat answers that defy all logic are merely roadblocks. The constant question, rather, is conducive to taking what is faulty, and transforming it in order to make it better. I saw clearly that the church does not do what it says it will. The church is for charlatans and blind followers who are told that if they question, they are heretics and outsiders. This keeps people in a place of fear and is a form of Fascism.

I am currently writing a book on religion from the point of view of the insider who became the outsider. Because my husband critiques my chapters in our writers group every week, my words are at the forefront of his mind at family dinners. He struggles to understand why and how my family believes what they do, so he asks questions. It’s gotten to the point where we talk about religion every single time we’re with them. The elephant in the room is now our go-to.

Though it’s awkward, though I sometimes feel offended, and my mother often gets emotional, it appears that we’re traveling through some necessary therapy. Reaching towards middle age, I have come to the point where I need to be respected as an adult within the construct of my family. I will no longer allow them to undermine me. By my side is my warrior husband who never backs down. I doubt we would all be so open without Michael’s curiosity and his need to defend me.

Michael has had little experience with the faithful. He still feels shocked that when asked, my parents relayed that we will go to hell without Jesus in our lives. All along, I had told him that this was the case, but he couldn’t believe it until he heard it directly from them. He told my father that he now understands when my dad says, “We worry about you.” And of course, they pray everyday that we will be with them at family dinners for eternity – as though life continues on as normal in “paradise.”

It would be morally incorrect of me to believe in something that I know is inherently false. Not only false, but the single cause of more abuse, tortures, deaths, genocides, conquests, and fear than anything else in the history of civilization. My father and sister have said, “If I believe and it isn’t true, then I’m wrong and there’s no harm done. If I believe and it is true, then I go to heaven.” But at what cost? The message is love but the giving is conditional. “The Other” is demonized for being under the sway of Satan – therefore outsiders can’t be trusted.

My sister and I are now finally opening up to each other. Though we grew up in the same family, we had completely different experiences of the same exact events. Our roles were such that we were treated very differently – she was and is the much older sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of my parents, while I am the stubborn younger sister who brayed at every perceived injustice. She will do whatever it takes to achieve harmony, while I prefer to tell it like it is to get to the core of the truth in a person. Our personalities created divergence in cause and effect. She and her family have been on the mission field in Papua New Guinea for close to twenty years. I thought that I could live with her silence on into the future, but now that she is finally talking, I see that we have reached a place that is necessary and important. It’s allowing me to let go of the anger that I feel when her idea of “harmony” equals not allowing anyone to know what she really feels.

Though it’s good to understand where all of us within the family are coming from, I’m not sure where it all leads. On the one hand, talking openly brings me closer to them, on the other there’s only so much we can say before hitting our heads against a wall. I find their beliefs in an antiquated mythology to be embarrassing – embarrassing that anyone could possibly believe what they do. On their end, they will never accept my views until my views become their own – an impossibility. If you return faulty merchandise, you don’t go back to the store to buy it all over again.

The perceived need for a Savior did not begin with Christianity. There are at least sixteen crucified and resurrected Saviors, which predate Jesus. Most of which are said to have been born of a virgin on December 25th. They all share variations on the exact same story including time spent in the desert withstanding temptations; turning water to wine; riding in a procession on a donkey; sacrificed to save humans from their errors, and resurrected to bring eternal life. These stories stem from Egyptian beliefs to Greek and Roman Paganism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus is much less a Jewish story than a Pagan one. In the transfer of the telling from the Jews to the Gentiles, Jesus took on the traditional Pagan narrative. The story would have gained little traction without the details of deity come to save us.

Instead of being saved by religion, the modern narrative has shown that we need to be saved from religion. Though civilization is evolving fast, the faithful threaten to devolve our communities at every chance. One of the most important ethics for Millenials is the issue of equality. Western culture is moving beyond the place of women as property. “Good versus evil” is merely code for “us versus them” or tribalistic instincts. And though the church has always been the last to accede in the acceptance and freedoms of minorities and differing cultures, our attempts at democracy have shown that with respect, we can all co-exist and learn from each other. Faith, however, often gets in the way of this with the problem of, “My belief is the only way, and everyone else is an infidel.”

The God of the Bible has a faulty sense of ethics more akin to a gang leader, and hardly seems perfect at all. He requests that people commit atrocities in order to prove loyalty to him, and by the book of Revelation, it is clear that Satan is a mere puppet rather than a mighty foe. God admits that creating earth was a mistake – he wants a do-over. His codes pale in comparison to what we now know as right and wrong. He is faulty, and it is obvious that his author is man.

As a young Christian, I used to berate myself for being an “over-analyzer.” I thought this was a bad thing – mainly because it threatened to disrupt my faith. I’m happy now that it did. Analyzing is what I do best. I love research and games of connect-the-dots. I love the story of how religions grew, and the politics behind why they grew. It’s a fascinating story – rife with myth, clichés, and superstitions. Though we can now understand much of our world through scientific terms, there will always be questions about what lies beyond, and why are we here? These are good questions and an expansive space to exist within. All answers are counterfeit and meant to lead to more questions. We are merely tiny breaths in time. We are what the earth is – things that grow. Our growth is shaped by individuals, but driven by passing generations. The truth is that it’s the people who ask questions that shape the world we live in. Some have died for it. But in the process they cleared the way for more asking. No one grows by staying in line, they grow by exploring.

It’s clear that the largest hurdle most families face is a lack of communication. We hear it in reminders not to talk about politics or religion at family dinners. Many people don’t see a way of discussing it without becoming heated and upset. But until those issues are discussed, there can be no movement towards mutual respect. How can we see through the eyes of the other until we are given a chance to understand their motives and views? It’s not about coming to a place where everyone can be on the same page – it’s about understanding our differences.

By making my views clear to my family, they can come to the conclusion that I am not simply a “fallen soul” or a “rebellious person.” They can see that I have actually thought these ideas out, and that I have reasoning behind the different direction my life has taken. Our open communication is important in the respect that it can break clichés. I wish however, that their side of the story would break clichés as well. They recite words that I have heard since I was a small child. But it’s still fair to make an attempt at breaking through that version to get to the heart of our true stories. I’m doing my best to get to know them beyond their recitations.

I still exist within that role of the child they couldn’t keep in line. My words never come out as clearly with my parents as with other people. This really frustrates Michael. It’s exhausting for me to exist within the place where my parents think and the place where I think as well. I know their thoughts exactly because I used to think the same way. This can be vocally stunting, because I don’t want to hurt them. There’s a fine balance between being oneself and respecting the feelings of others. My mother was incredulous when I told her that I try my best to respect her faith, as though this should be a given. They think that I am deceived, while I think that they are deceived. Perhaps we are two sides of the same coin. But perhaps not. Faith is static and fights to never be challenged by new information. I welcome openness and fresh thought.

All of this makes me wonder how our story will unfold. Will we continue in this vein, or will the talks on religion come to an end with the end of writing my book? I watch them, with their hopes that I will come around, and cringe over their pain. I want to be understood but know that I never will be – my husband fills that gap. As a family, we all come to terms with this through focusing on our common features instead. I have my father’s personality, while Michael is very much like my mom. We all joke over our similarities. Half the table orders one thing and the other half orders another. We all love each other and have a strong bond of friendship – simply being related is no guarantee of that. I know for sure that I am luckier than most.

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The Truth About Sex

April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

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As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.

I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.

Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.

We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.

At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.

For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.

Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.

During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.

Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”

There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.

Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.

Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.

As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.

“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””

Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.

A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).

“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”

Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.

I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.

I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.

I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.

We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.

I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.

Letting Go

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I have strayed far away from my roots in poetry. Neglected the vague for the purely visceral. Yet there is nothing vague about the poems by Sharon Olds in Stag’s Leap, or any of her other previous works. I’m pleased that she won the Pulitzer Prize for this release. She truly deserves it.

Stag’s Leap confronts the shreds of her life as she moves through the process of a divorce. Olds never hides behind her words. Instead, she uses them to strip herself bare to us. Embraced by her raw vulnerability, we find ourselves. We find parts that we didn’t know existed. She is teaching us our human condition. This is how poetry achieves relevance in a world that seeks to distract us from our inner core.

I’ve heard that the most difficult aspect of divorce is losing two combined minds. My husband, Michael, is a natural people person. He’s taken over all the social aspects of our life that I tend to lack the energy for. At work, people naturally trust him, and he feels fulfilled by solving their problems and dealing with confrontation. As for me, this sort of work gives me a lot of anxiety. I run the internal workings – the daily chores at the building we run, the budget, the groceries, the smooth flow of our home, most of the cooking, and random work that provides extra income. While I work hard to write almost every morning, I spend the afternoons doing my share to contribute.

Our balance doesn’t always work perfectly. There is often a lot of pressure for me to bring in more money, but I’m doing the best I can for now and trying to figure out how I can do better. Michael’s lack of balance comes from neglect around our apartment. He doesn’t realize that all of the piles of things he leaves undone end up being finished by me. Instead of contributing to my efforts, he multiplies the amount of cleaning that I do. Those small issues, however, rate low next to the chaos we experience without the other bridging the gaps.

“… When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well. I’d gaze
up, at noon, and see Orion
shining… (Unspeakable, Olds, 4).”

In marriage, a cocoon is woven. For years, we fought against it, held it back, and kept going out every night as though we were still single. Little by little, we began to find that the rest of the world really annoyed us. Why should we waste our time on excess baggage when our favorite person was right at home?

Our social life went from quantity to quality. At first there was imbalance – spending a lot of time with people I didn’t choose, who didn’t choose me either – Michael’s friends. I appreciate our differences, but when I talk about the things I love, their eyes glaze over. It shifted when we began to cultivate friendships as a duo – finding people who enrich our interests and vice versa. Now I can appreciate all of the people in our lives because my needs are being met.

I still look at my husband and think, ‘Who is this person that I’ve chosen to spend my life with, and how did this happen?’ It’s still a mystery to me. We are completely opposite and yet exactly the same – a complete contradiction. In the beginning I thought we’d never run out of things to talk about. That’s still true, as long as we keep living our separate lives, coming home with fresh energy to share. To be happy as a duo, you first have to be happy as a solo.

Michael is certain that we will never get divorced. I say, that if we ever separate, there’s no point in getting a divorce, because I will never marry again. If that were ever to happen, I’d probably end up right back with him. His ridiculous quirks, daily dramas, sensitivity, and jokes – I’ve become so accustomed to all of him that I’ve forgotten what life looks like without his presence.

There is the other running scenario, further in the future. The one where, being sixteen years older than I am, he passes away, and I’m a widow with a lot of life left to live. He’s certain that I’ll move to Paris, start smoking cigarettes, and surround myself with young protégés. I don’t know what I’ll do, but maybe I would move away. Even though Seattle is my home, there would be too many memories to live with.

When someone dies, someone who feels like your right hand, you’ve got to find whatever method you can to not die right along with them. Some people think it’s romantic when a spouse dies a week after the loss of their partner. I personally, find that to be depressing and the sign of a life turned too far inward. The only way to move forward is to rebuild your life completely.

I used to fear coming to this point in our relationship, when one of us has to say goodbye. I’m no longer afraid. I trust in my abilities of reinvention. I’ve spent enough time alone to know what it’s like, and I don’t really mind solitude. The thing that helped me let go of the fear was a documentary that follows several older women in London. Some of them have been without their partner for over twenty years. They haven’t succumbed to stereotypes of age, they’re not afraid of starting over, and they live passionate, exciting lives. Their style is a way of life. In short, they show us that growing old can be very beautiful, opening us up to new facets of life.

Unfortunately, the full-length documentary has been removed, but here is a taster and a link to purchase the full-length film.

http://www.wellparkproductions.com/filmography/fashion.html

“So the men are gone,
and I’m back with Mom. I always feared this would happen,
I thought it would be pure horror
but it’s just home, Mom’s house… (Telling My Mother, Olds, 10).”

We are lucky to find our best friends and lovers. Their presence makes pesky details less abrasive. They distract us with pure joy at having someone who really understands. They often present the challenge of ‘how do we grow with each other?’ The comfort of their arms is like a sedative, the struggle to retain the self, sometimes immense. Yet they are the only true source for our personal growth. Through them, we expand beyond ourselves.

“… I am glad not to have lost him
entirely, but to see him moved
at the whim of the sky, like a man in the wind,
drawn as if on a barge resting on
updrafts, mild downdrops, he is like
an icon, he is like a fantasy… (Slowly He Starts, Olds, 74)”

In our culture, we are taught to avoid grief, to pop a pill and be done with it. But you can never get to the happy well-balanced place unless you work through your full range of emotions. Masking a feeling only prolongs the ache. Separations, death – these are not experiences to be afraid of. They are a time to search the self, and begin again. As long as you are alive, there is time for new beginnings. Even at the point when you feel lucky to have made it this far. In fact, I feel that way already.

As the years pass and Sharon Olds moves through the steps of letting go, we realize, her ex-husband remains mapped onto her body and through her mind. He no longer exists in the way he did before he left her. But his presence is permanent. Distant, but always a part of her – joined through their children and their thirty years together.

“… We fulfilled something in each other –
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me (What Left?, Olds, 89).”

Have you experienced the loss of a partner through separation or death? How did you cope, what did you learn in the process, and how did you come out on the other side? What was the positive that came out of the negative? Please share below.

My Body, My Self – And Why We’re Using A Sperm Donor

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Through the entire decade of my twenties, I was in denial about being a member of the female sex. I loved men so much, that I wanted to be one. All around me, I saw that women were the victims – while men had all the fun, women just got angry.

I had some of the best times of my life in open relationships, and also some of the worst. But the most important part of that experience was taking ownership of myself. By being around men who were staunch in their independence and sense of self, I became a stronger person. And somehow, I found the way to a different definition of what a woman can be than the one I’d grown up with.

In those first years out of college, there were no examples of female strength – only jealousy and haughty glares; or the Christian girls who stopped returning my phone calls though we’d been best friends. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I finally found the women who became my true sisters. They were in tune with their bodies. They were tough in the face of assholes, and soft in the privacy of our intimate conversations. Rather than threatened by each other, we were inspired by each other’s beauty. We felt more powerful as a group than we did separately. In fact, whenever we were together, magical things occurred; the planets aligned for us; we magnetized strange experiences; we became bonded for life, like family.

But I still didn’t embrace my body as a woman. My body as some fertile place of procreation scared me half to death. If another woman’s cycle threw mine off, I felt as though she’d just one-upped me. I knew nothing at all about how female reproduction really worked. It was something I avoided. I could barely admit that I too experienced all the symptoms of a cycle, even if my friends talked freely about it and gloried in being in tune with the moon. I couldn’t shake the embarrassment my mother had raised me with, around the female sex.

In the beginning, sex brought me to life. I had zero embarrassment or awkwardness around that. It woke up all my senses, and inspired reams of Whitman-esque poetry. I loved the adventure of sleeping with near-strangers or random friends. I loved enjoying whoever was right in front of me. Taking in their personhood like a story I could wrap my brain around. We wove our lives through each other, asking for nothing in return. What we gave in those nights was just enough.

I was hanging with a pile of sexy rocker-types. We drank a lot. Our culture revolved around it. You play gigs in bars, make connections in bars, see all of your friends in bars. In my twenties, I thought I would always go on living like every day was a party. I couldn’t imagine changing. I loved my life. It was one big adventure. It felt like I was living in a movie. But then, Michael came along.

In Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch relates how it felt meeting the man of her life, and also her third husband.

“He treated this thing I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish (Yuknavitch, 239).”

At first, it seemed with Michael, that we’d go on living the way we both always had. But the thing was, if we kept living that way, we’d be torn apart. The more we drank, the more we fought. Our old lives didn’t work when it came to being a unit.

I was alone in bed one morning, so hung-over that I may have been delirious. A little boy walked into the room, sat on the bed, and said, “I love you Mommy. I’m going to save your life.”

Immediately, I started crying. I thought if I talked to him, it would keep him from disappearing. I desperately wanted him to stay. But within seconds, he was gone. And yet, he wasn’t. It feels like he’s been with me ever since.

Not long after, I went cold turkey off the alcohol for eight months, so the painful hole in my stomach lining could heal. I started to live differently. Suddenly, I felt crystal clear. I began to wake up early so that I could write. Being productive now meant so much more than being entertained. I realized that in all those years of drinking, I had buried the pain I’d experienced from growing up in the church, and now I needed to deal with it. I began to explore, searching for some basis of truth.

I saw the nighttime world in a completely different way – boring, pathetic, where people acted dumb and got into stupid fights and slept with all the wrong people. It was still fun for them, and I appreciate all phases of life, but it was no longer for me.

It might seem ludicrous that a little boy vision could change my life. The thing is, my husband is infertile. When we first started dating, he told me it was from a childhood disease that he struggled with. That was only half true. A few years later, his friends spilled the beans that he also had a vasectomy. He was too embarrassed to admit it to me because an ex-girlfriend had pressured him into it. It was humiliating to have his friends tell me an intimate detail that was so important to our lives together. I couldn’t believe that he lied to me, and it took months for me to forgive him.

We talked about reversing his vasectomy, but the success rate is not that high, especially since he had such a low count to begin with. There is a high risk of childhood disease in his family, and he left that abusive family behind at the age of fifteen. His life became a story with the potential for happiness, while the past now only exists as literature. Michael is an excellent writer.

He started joking that we should use one of his friends as a sperm donor. Something I’ve learned in our relationship, is that jokes often become a reality. One day, I asked over brunch, “I wonder how much it costs to use a real sperm donor?”

“Lets find out.”

Immediately, I dove into obsessive research, and eventually found an excellent cryobank. They supply clients with medical records, interviews, baby photos, personality tests, and interests.

The search had to go on hold for many months until August arrived. When I saw our donor’s baby photo, I knew he was the right one. Michael was more impressed by the donor interview, where the lady conducting could hardly contain her attraction, and our donor sounded so mature for a twenty-something. Once we picked him, I began an exploration on reproduction, and how to plan conception for the exact day.

So far, we’ve done two rounds, and I’m in the process of waiting to find out the results of our last try. It’s proven much more stressful and all-consuming than I imagined. Going in, it seems like it should be easy, but the body works on its own time. Five-day windows are a gamble, and once the sperm arrives in a dry ice canister, it only has five days left before it thaws. As we learn more, I feel relaxed that it’s all going to work out in the end. I have an excellent Naturopath who is helping me every step of the way.

This entire year has been a learning process. I worked in an art studio with a group of empowered women from their thirties to sixties. They began to shift my perception of what it means to be a woman. The female artists I know are the strongest, most honest women I have ever met. They are fully present within themselves.

One actually admitted that she regrets motherhood; others revel in it; still others regret never having a child; some can’t imagine ever wanting one. All of them find their center through art. Continuing the cycle of humanity is not enough. You also need to leave the mark of what life itself means to you, to expand on the process in your own special way.

Just a few years ago, I thought I wasn’t capable of being a mother. There was no stability in my life. As a creative person, it’s difficult to find that balance, or any sort of financial safety zone. And then, I willingly gave up the thought of a baby to be with Michael.

There is something about a baby. I feel as though I won’t be able to fully embrace my own sex without that experience. And yet, I respect and admire all of the friends who choose not to have a child.

Something inside me asks, is it possible that I can share in that experience of being a mother? Does my body really work? Do I have all the right parts to make a baby happen? Am I really as healthy as I think I am?

It’s a funny thing that humans are always amazed by their ability to reproduce. You don’t see a cow in a pasture with a look of shock and awe on its face that a calf just came out of its uterus. It grooms the calf like it’s just another day, and eats the placenta to keep the prey away.

Even though I’ve become a little bit stodgy in my mid-thirties, I still feel like I’m a kid. Or maybe I am losing the remains of kid-dom, so I long for a baby to bring those fresh eyes back into focus.

At some point, you realize that life will go on being the same. I work hard and play hard. No great shakes. I’m ready for the big shake-up. I’m ready for change and growth and challenge. I think a child will even wake up my creativity in new ways that I am unable to see in the present.

“His argument against all my fluttering resistance? One sentence. One sentence up against the mass of my crappy life mess. ‘I can see the mother in you. There is more to your story than you think (Yuknavitch, 240).'”

By the way, The Chronology of Water is an excellent book. Lidia Yuknavitch is fearless in her honesty and is a courageous literary soul. I’ve met her twice at readings, and her energy invigorates me every time. She is not at all the broken woman she writes of in her memoir. Her experiences have made her a wise woman, and a brilliant writer. It’s the struggles that make us stronger.

Purchase – The Chronology of Water: A Memoir

Remembering The Beginning

September 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today marks the anniversary of being married to my favorite person in the world, Michael Barnhart. In honor of the event, I am sharing from a different kind of book – an old journal of mine. Every time I read this entry, I remember again, just how it felt in the initial stages of finding the man who would become my life.

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December 2, 2008

            Feeling a little melancholy today and don’t know why. Michael had to rush out this morning and I felt sort of deflated after he left. A strange flow between us. Intense confessional conversations, and this fiery passion that brims up and overwhelms us. And then, the mind is gone and this expansive place wells up which our melding energy creates, and I’m soaring through a place I’ve never known before.

But then when it’s over, life feels disproportionate when he is away. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t sleep without the other. It’s not quite codependency. More like ravenous to be in each other’s presence. Though sometimes I look at him still as though he’s a foreign object and a mystery I can’t solve.

On thanksgiving it was like he was already family. He melded in so seamlessly, as though he’d always been there. All week after, he barely left my side, nursing me off another case of bronchitis. He brought me food, and I printed out the final edits of my novel. He read while I was in the bathtub and shared his immediate impressions. He mused over my understanding of men, the genderlessness of my writing, and called me the female Hemingway.

“You have to quit your job. This is what you need to be doing,” he said.

“I can’t do that.”

“If I had more money, I would help you make this happen.”

“It will happen. I promise.”

His boss knows a Blackfeet Indian chief and asked him for a remedy for my cough. Michael called me, “I have the cure! I’ll be there soon.”

He scoured the city for ingredients, collected pine needles on his jog around the lake, and even found a Blackfeet CD of chants with the appropriate song for administering the remedy. A cleansing garlic and elderflower tonic that could pretty much kill anything in its path.

“I am in awe of you,” he said while reading my book.

No one has ever believed in me this much. It invigorates me to finish the book. It’s exhilarating to watch him read it. The world outside of our realm pales in comparison. The world outside has become only stories to tell.

I thought I would always be alone. I thought life would always be a series of one dark, edgy character after another. Of all things. I loved to be alone rather than be with anyone else. Sex was just a remedy for my bodies needs; performed with a person I preferred not to know. Can’t imagine ever going back.

I trust him more than I even trust myself. There has always been an untamable strain in me that I cherish and am afraid of all at once. But so far he’s lifted me so high with his positive charge, I don’t think anyone could touch that or break the spell. Is it a spell, or will it keep going? I don’t want this to ever end.

At the pond, we tossed coins.

“Make a wish,” he said.

I wished we could be happy together for the rest of our lives. Long lives, I hope. But it’s still a mystery to me. I’ve never been attracted to someone like him before. Someone so full of lightness. Though he has a slight dark side too. I wouldn’t be so amused if he didn’t.

What’s Under The Covers?

July 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

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Here are two chapters from No End Of The Bed to entice you. Chapter 13 takes us back to adolescence, with my struggles in the church. Chapter 36 is the complete antithesis, or is it? By this point, I am trying to figure out who I am, while my lover consistently prods me into situations that are way over my head.

Chapter 13

“People will believe anything.
Except, it seems, the truth.”

Jeanette Winterson

Growing up, my mother’s entire social life was within the faith. Besides church on Sunday, she attended Wednesday night services, ran a Senior Citizen’s Bible study the next morning, and went to Praise night at Mrs. McMaster’s house on Friday night’s. But her Women’s Aglow meetings really took the cake. They met up once a month in various banquet halls. The only man I ever saw there was a handsome African American pastor. Everyone was in love with him. At the time, I was about six years old, and he told me that he liked the dress my mother had forced me to wear. I felt ridiculous in frilly things with bows and petticoats. But the tights were an even worse torture. I couldn’t stop scratching my legs.

At these meetings the energy would reach a frenzy, building to a climax until around twenty women would go up front. Amidst howling and shrieking and blubbering sobs, the pastor would shout, “By the power of Jesus’ blood you are slain in the spirit!”

Instantly they would all fall, flat on their backs. It was very funny to watch. It wasn’t as though they would sit on their asses and then fall back. It was more of a complete backwards faint. A long row of over-weight women in potato sack dresses just lying there, some of them passed out, others speaking in tongues.

One time a woman came with a neck brace claiming it was a permanent injury. The pastor laid his hands on her, along with five women praying out loud in a din of nonsense. Eventually the woman couldn’t take it anymore. She busted off her brace and started yelling that she’d been healed. Women’s Aglow was always good for a show.

There were other meetings like this one. One night we went to see a traveling evangelist who was a faith healer. Two parents brought in their screaming three year-old and told us he was possessed by a demon. It seemed to me he was just tired or sick or maybe had a psychological problem. But the pastor started yelling, “Release him from this torture! Set this boy free! In Jesus name!”

The boy screamed even louder. I had to admit, it was eerie. And it went on and on, until finally the boy stopped crying, and they walked off the stage. Yes, the stage. Everything seemed staged. Like theater, like an over-abundance of emotions, like hypnotism. The pastors all used that same rhythm in their voices, as though they were all from the south. It lulled you into believing what they said.

“You are getting very sleepy,” pause, “When I count to three you will close your eyes. One… two… three,” pause, “I will use the Bible as mind control. And because of the all-knowing tone of my voice you will never question me, I will use the pulpit to be high above you, and the words that I say will be the words of God. I will be like God to you. I will comfort you, but I will also fill you with fear. Because you would not want to falter in front of God, just as you will be your best for me. And you will give me your devotion, your money, your life, and your will. As a congregation you will grow, and feed my ego. And we will grow in strength. We will take over the world in our spiritual revival. We will spread to the far reaches. And I will be your leader. I will be your father. When I count to three you will be free from your own weakness, and will understand the strength in being my flock. One… two… three!”

My mother wouldn’t question the pastor, or the Republican president, because she was told their words were the word of God.

Throughout childhood I went through an inner battle that no one else could see. Pretending to be good was so stifling. At four years old, in church singing hymns, I thought it would be funny if I sang in potty talk instead. No one could hear me. But I felt liberated from all the staunch repression, free as I could be in my pee-pees and pooh-poohs and on and on in my own personal mantra. The boredom of the following sermon never mattered after that. I had committed my first act of rebellion against being made to sing words I did not feel.

I was sixteen and my mother and sister took me on a women’s retreat. Maybe I could finally prove that I wasn’t a failure at being a Christian. They asked if anyone would like to come up to receive prayer. I went up and asked to receive my prayer language. Three women laid hands on me. I closed my eyes hard in concentration, desperately wanting to feel something. Their touch sent a chill down my back. I looked over to the right and could see my mother prostrate on the ground through the crowd. Turning back, I zeroed in on my attempt to feel the presence of God. But there was nothing. Only my own mind telling me that now would be a good time to begin speaking gibberish.

When I opened my eyes, everyone was so happy for me. I had grown in maturity as a Christian. Their hope in my future was replenished.

Chapter 36

“I don’t love people I can dominate.” 

Colette

At the Vogue nightclub, a stale stench of sweat, urine, and spilt liquor made the air feel dense. Black walls and curtains made the room seem larger than it was. A lanky man in hot pants and a boa danced around a pole. His muscles glistened under the strobe lights as he thrust and swayed to the repetitive beat of industrial music. The pulsing bass was overlaid with rhythmic whips slapping down on a treble beat.

A woman with cropped bangs strode past the dancer as though she were on a catwalk, wearing only fishnets, a black thong and two pieces of black tape that covered her nipples. I tried my best not to stare, though I was completely enamored. I stood watching behind a high rectangular table that surrounded the dance floor. I wore hot pants, a black woven bikini with fringe, fishnets and six-inch platform peep-toe heels.

When we had arrived, Nico bought me a Long Island and disappeared. I could see him now, not far off, talking to a woman. She fondled his arm and flashed her eyes at him with her fat cheeks bulging as much as her breasts. I mused over Nico in his tight spandex tube dress and combat boots, and smiled over how the feminine attire enhanced his masculinity.

A bear of a man walked past me and grasped Nico by the arms, kissing him forcefully. Nico tensed up and shrank back. The man said something I couldn’t hear. Then Nico dodged away, and swooped over to me. It was the first time I ever saw him without control over a situation.

“How does the basil I put in your little pants feel?” he asked me.

“Refreshing. You could start a trend and call it herbs in undies. Enhance your natural flavors.”

“That’s my girl,” he said, slapping my ass. I put my hand on my hip and pursed my lips at him.

“Listen,” he said, “I have someone I want you to meet. He likes to be beaten and goes by the name Community Carl. He needs to be put in his place. I want you to dominate him.”

“I’m not sure I can handle that.”

“Of course you can! I’ll teach you! He’ll love it. You’re just the sort he likes.”

Nico took my hand, and I tottered behind in the very tall shoes. He was like a crazy little elf guiding me to the netherworld. We came to the back of the club where a doorway was covered with black curtains. I was afraid to enter. Who knew what was going on behind. Nico pulled the curtain aside and guided me in where an older man with a mustache was tied to the wall by his wrists. His shirt was off, and he seemed like a remnant from an old porno film. His bare chest was leathery, gravity pulling his skin down crease by crease.

“Please, I need to be beaten,” Carl begged, head hanging down towards the floor.

Nico abruptly slapped him in the face, “Does that feel good?”

“I need more. I want it to hurt.”

“Lauren he’s begging for it. You can do whatever you want to him. You can twist his nipples, slap him, or punch him. Just don’t hit his kidneys in the lower back, here and here,” he instructed, placing his hands across the sway of the man’s back.  “Any damage to the kidneys could be fatal. But the rest is yours.”

“Okay,” I said, hesitating as I stared at Community Carl.

“You can do anything you want to him.”

“I need to be beaten down,” whimpered Carl. I whaled into his chest with my fist, and my strength surprised me.

“Oh fuck!” he yelped.

I whacked his thigh then twisted his left nipple tight between my fingers.

“Good girl, Lauren,” said Nico, as though I were an obedient canine. “You just keep at it, and I’ll be back soon,” he said, patting my shoulder.

I looked at Nico with a touch of panic, but after his exit, my aggression turned on Carl. A man handed me a crop and I whipped Carl back and forth across his stomach and chest. His face pinched in pain and he sucked in air with each sting of black leather. He twisted and flailed against the wall. I hated that Nico always left me. What was he doing? Why did he need so much attention?

Carl looked gruesome in his pseudo submissive state. I could see beneath his act that he had spent a lifetime on a ruthless treadmill of self-importance. Physical pain seeped through his body, erasing the emptiness of his emotions. All the things he had believed in at a young age eventually became a lie. Blood vessels bulged in his neck as he cringed. He wanted it all to be beaten out of him. The crop in my hand zipped through the air and came down on his skin with a loud whap.

His eyes rolled back into his head as he whimpered, “I need more.”

“Do you?” I whacked him once more across the thigh. An audience had gathered at the door. I felt taken up into another existence. The vinyl had been a costume for me, but now my appearance was being interpreted as fact. I surveyed all the people watching the role that had gone past pretend. My mind was a cloud of manufactured fog and neon beams of light flipping to the consistent sounds of a lash.

Nico came bursting through the curtains, “Lauren! Don’t you think you’re getting carried away?”

“Not at all,” I replied, whacking Carl again.

“Come with me.”

“No.”

“Yes!” Nico commanded, taking my hand. “I want you to meet a man. He’s very rich. He could be good for you!” he spit into my ear, over the loud music. “You could live on your own. He could set you up.”

“I don’t want to meet anyone else. I’ve found you, haven’t I?”

“No, you must meet Franco. He’s been asking about you.”

Nico led me out to the bar where a rotund man in a bow tie sat. He looked like an opera singer.

“Franco! This is Lauren. She’s quite good with a whip.”

Franco laughed jovially as I held out my hand. He kissed it while I distractedly sipped my Long Island.

“The pleasure is all mine,” he said.

“I didn’t know people used phrases like that anymore,” I replied.

“You have a beautiful smile. You know you are going to make an amazing mother with a smile like that,” mused Franco.

“A mother?” My eyebrows creased together in confusion.

“Some little boy will be raised well because you exist in this world. You’re a rich woman, and any boy would love to have a mother like you. Easygoing and artistic, I can tell,” he added.

“You are a strange bird,” I said, laughing. “A strange, strange bird.” I shook my head.

Maybe Franco had a mother fetish, but I certainly wasn’t the motherly type. Nico told me I had the body of an adolescent boy. I began to shimmy and moved backwards, edging away from the two men who suddenly seemed foreign and strange and faraway. They watched me move as I closed my eyes and ate up their stares. I traveled into another dimension, beyond the creatures that circled like extras from a sci-fi film. I was a voyeur of my own life.

• • •

It was the time of year when the season turns grey and brisk with crystals of frost that form before dawn. I closed Nico’s red front door gently behind me and walked past the strangely configured broken white reproduction statues from various sites in Rome. Exiting the wind-torn curtains obscuring the entrance to the porch, I walked down the stairs. I breathed in, and the thick wet air seeped into my nostrils. Turning the key in the lock, I stepped into my aging hand-me-down car. The transmission was dying due to the time it was towed in second gear.

I felt poetic, nostalgic, and pure, like a virgin ready to be sacrificed to Dionysian delights or death itself. I turned down the street and drove through slumbering neighborhoods. The whole world seemed to be drowsy with hibernation. But amidst all the deadness I felt so awake.

My long monotonous shift at work would have little meaning in the knowledge that I was living an extraordinary life. I took risks that my friends would never dream of. I couldn’t care less about protecting my emotions if it meant it would hold me back from really living. But I wanted the parallel life to stop. I was tired of all the people from my past that shook their heads over things they didn’t understand. Though I loved them, there was nothing between us anymore. And I hated regressing back into the Lauren I had left behind, the one who faked everything just to be accepted. Then I thought of the costume I had worn the night before, and realized, that too was an act.


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The Sons That Got Away

May 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

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On the front cover of Shann Ray’s book of short stories, American Masculine, two bison lock horns.The week I read it, friends on Facebook posted photos of bison as they drove past them on road trips. I have never been in bison country, and did not know that the herds are still so prolific. Tucked away in cities, I rarely come into contact with the wildness of nature, minus attacks from small insects.

Shann Ray’s stories deal with men grappling over their western roots while facing life in the modern world. There are memories of rodeo’s, bottled up emotions that lead to rage, and the sense that when you leave the country behind, life is a barren wasteland.

I was drawn to read Shann Ray’s stories because my husband, Michael, is writing a novel based on his childhood in Texas. His father was wound tight, a Vietnam vet, uncontrollable, massive, simmering, abusive, senseless, always waiting on the border of explosion. I have never met my father in-law, and never will.

My own father was not a man of the West (more like Midwest). He grew up in Chicago, the city where cows were shipped in to be processed at the Union Stock Yards.

My dad was tiny – more suited to gymnastics than football. His father’s blue-collar dream was for my dad to become a horse jockey at the races. The Barnhart’s revolved around the track. Great grandmother spent hours figuring out which horses to bet on. On the weekends, my grandfather watched the horses fly. Their ability to run to nowhere, a constant reminder that there was no way out from his treadmill of a job. Life was hard work. But the horses brought glamour, excitement, and beauty to an otherwise difficult existence.

Even in Chicago, horses were a part of the daily fabric. It was about being a man (a big man), not getting cheated, not getting beat up, not revealing your vulnerability; silent at home, boisterous at the bar.

When I was a kid, my dad was intimidating, stressed out, and probably a little depressed from having to work so much. Whenever I was alone with him, I was never sure what we would find to talk about. His own father (who died when I was eight) never said one word to me.

Silence was my first impression of men. The little boys on the block played with me until I was five, and then they went quiet. It was no longer cool to play with a girl. Now they had to feign a crush or show aversion. Chasing me on their bikes, the only sound I heard was shifting gears and wind.

Boys only spoke if they wanted to add to my list of insecurities. It seemed that everything about me, as a girl, was wrong to them. I began to fear my need for their approval and attention.

After my sister and I left the house, my dad learned how to be a really loving father. He’d done his job raising us, and he let go of the fear of failure. He listened to his co-worker and friend, Bruce, talk on the telephone with his daughters. Bruce listened, said, “I love you,” and encouraged. He wasn’t afraid to cry. As my father grows older, he becomes softer, more vulnerable, more loving.

My husband, Michael, is quite a bit like Bruce. But there is another side to Michael that is just like his Texan father. He blows a fuse every now and then. He can be irrational, highly emotional, extremely sensitive. These are things his father tried to hide, which resulted in explosive behavior.

Michael is obsessed with the hero’s journey. He’s been a lifetime devotee of comic books. He lives in the plot. No matter what he goes through, he’s never a victim, always the hero.

He escaped his father at fifteen years old. From then on, he was homeless, until the Marines recruited him when he started boxing at a gym. For three years he was a guard at the London Embassy. After his discharge, he received a Master’s in English (though he only went to one day of high school). He also traveled around the world for a year on his bicycle. I’ll never get to see quite as much of the world as he has.

Shann Ray paints a sinister, sad, hopeless picture of the American male. Almost all of his men are the sort you’d want to escape. If it isn’t the man, it’s the woman involved. The men struggle to grasp with life in the office after the farm, the rodeo, or the reservation.

“He wants and doesn’t want to say how right she was, how poor a man he is, has always been, … like most men, same poverty of mind, same darkness. Hidden, unknowable. I tried, he says aloud as she sleeps. But he knows he didn’t (Ray, 59).”

But what about the tenacity of the American male? The will to fight against the odds? The drive? The ability to turn poor circumstances into positive opportunities?

Quite possibly, the average person does not achieve this, and I am just living with an exception. For every brother that breaks the pattern of the father, there is always another brother left behind who becomes the father. All of the men in my family are the ones that got away.

Shann Ray’s characters pine for the lost sense of being a hero – lassoing cattle, riding horses, working with their hands. Their large bodies feel like a waste at tasks that have no physical value. Academia is vacant, the desk a torture of monotony. Sex or violence is the only savior from boredom and oncoming death.

It is hard for me to relate to Ray’s view of the western man in the modern world. His characters are all victims, fragile, emotionally weak, lacking in awareness. I am much more interested in people who take control of their lives, striving to find their own personal place of fulfillment. Life is hard, and you have to fight to not let it weigh you down. Do what you love to do, and happiness follows, even if that means going back to the farm. I know plenty of people who are doing just that.

The issue is not even about the farm verses the office. There is a lack of vision in the characters – humans blindly going through life, unable to change, afraid, stuck. Frustrating intensity, with no answer to the riddle, and the brother’s that are left behind.

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