Thursday, May 31, 2007

Coming up for air

William Wordsworth said that poetry (and thus, writing) is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility.” Which might be the reason I am getting so little writing done lately. My days are full of emotion, all right, but tranquility?

I’ve re-read some of the posts I wrote last year, and I’m amazed at how lucid they are, in spite of the severe sleep deprivation. Once I learned to ride the waves of hallucinogenic exhaustion, my mind adjusted. So why can’t I do it now?

One word. Tantrums. Tantrums that leave me frustrated, confused, and guilty. I understand that the severity and frequency of Madam’s freak outs is related to the fact that she cannot speak. But…shouldn’t I be able to do SOMETHING to mitigate their ferocity?

And therein lies the guilt. Why doesn’t she speak? Is something wrong? What am I doing wrong? Because, of course, it must be my fault. So I spend the whole night marinating in recrimination and second-guessing—not exactly fertile states for the would-be novelist. Especially one who still feels so unsure, like I am breaking all of Aristotle’s rules of drama at once. If I am going to spend precious mother-energy writing a novel, I need to justify it by being very, very good at it. And, of course, nothing kills "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" faster than THAT.

The very act of wanting to write the novel makes me anxious, as though I should be spending that time reading parenting books.

Now, a confession, much as I love research and reading, I hate reading parenting books. Inevitably, they suggest changes in our routines that I am not sure we need to make, or they give me solutions that don’t seem to work on Madam. And they contradict each other wildly—console her when her emotions grow overwhelming! No, ignore her, otherwise she’ll learn that tantrums get her what she wants! Try to reason with her! No, distract her! No…

You get the idea.

Not to mention the fact that after a whole day of being Mommy, the last thing I want to do when I’m off-duty is read about all of the mistakes I made while being Mommy that day.

That being said, clearly, something is wrong here. There has to be something I can do. At the very least, I can spend every evening harshly blaming myself over every parenting decision I’ve ever made. Some nights, I even go back to her NICU stay—did we miss some crucial bonding window while she was there? Did I not spend enough time with her? Did she pick up some hint of my fear and uncertainty at the idea of being entrusted with her WHOLE LIFE?

Last night, while talking to a dear friend who suffers from anxiety, I mentioned that worry can feel like it’s giving us some modicum of control—at least we’re CONCERNED and AWARE! Even if that concern is completely depleting us, and the awareness is accomplishing nothing.

I need to take my own advice.

I know that on some level, I am feeling guilty for wanting to work on my writing at all—because I should be tirelessly devoted to Madam. And…is the novel the culprit here? Those times that I spend daydreaming about characters and plots—are those the times that Madam could be learning to speak, but isn’t? I read to her a great deal; should I read more? Different books? Do I talk to her too much? Not enough? Is too much of my speech over her head? Are those moments I steal to write while she is watching television ruining her?

Am I being selfish for believing that I can write a novel and be a good mother at the same time?

So I pay my penance. I have started reading parenting books—gentle ones that don’t imply that you have probably ALREADY ruined your child for life. I get enough of that from my parents.

Someday, I’ll look back on all this and smile, if not quite laugh.

And I’ll spend hours talking with my Madam about my latest book.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Losing my religion: Mother Talk Blog Bonanza

I have wanted to write about my struggle with my faith, but I always flinched away from the topic, allowed myself to be distracted. Well, thanks to the good people at Mother Talk for asking people to blog about religion and faith, inspired by the book Parenting Beyond Belief as part of the Mother Talk Blog Bonanza.

Sitting in church every Sunday morning for years is probably very good training for a future writer. Think of it, those long sonorous sermons holding people captive just long enough to get a foothold in your imagination—people who all look like they have secrets (especially to an imaginative kid). Once you’ve got the responses/movements down, you are free to be carried along on the waves of emotion/repentance/ecstasy that break over the congregation, called by the priest’s powerful chant.

I don’t want to imply that I spent all of those Sundays daydreaming. Growing up Catholic was very important to me, so much so that I used to tell people that being Catholic was the most important fact about my life. Stepping inside the hushed, cool church, with the light making jewel colored shadows on our faces—it was like coming home, and I’d have to swallow hard past the tears that inevitably came. My parents viewed my religious fervor with approval, if a little confusion. They were (are) good Catholics, who observed all of the holy days, abstained from meat or attended church according to the Papal calendar. I don’t remember being taught my prayers, or the responses in Mass. Those were things I always knew, and that was because my parents made it that way. But they didn’t stray too far from conventional interpretations of the Bible, and they were pretty content to keep Catholicism unambiguous and comforting. Whereas I, with all of the enthusiasm of adolescence, sought out St. Therese de Lisieux
and St. John of the Cross and Matthew Fox and Meister Eckhart—as well as the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao te Ching, the Heart Sutra. And the more I learned, the more it seemed like this brand of mystical ecumenical Catholicism was my own church, Catholicism with a capital C, instead of the more pedestrian little-c weekly Mass.

And yet, I have not been to church in over a year. I have not baptized Madam. I’m unsure as to whether I ever will.

The disillusionment started in college, as it often does. I sat and listened to my more brilliant, atheist classmates systematically prove that the Church was a harmful influence on humanity. Inquisitions were mentioned. The Church’s treatment of women, of black people, of Jews. And I realized that, a lot of the time, I didn’t have a good response.

I was also swimming in a sea of beautiful poetry, philosophy, and literature. They gave me that transcendent ache I used to equate with my faith. I started to see the Church from the outside, and even though I used to console myself by remembering my “own” brand of Catholicism, that was starting to sound a little hollow.

But so much still pulled me back to the church. Whenever I came home from school, I would attend Mass with my parents, and it was as much a homecoming as that first moment when I would walk into my bedroom. Catholicism is intertwined with Latin culture a lot of the time—baptisms, Quinceañeras, confirmations, weddings—a quick sign of the Cross before any major endeavor (or just leaving the house)—novenas to the Virgin to ensure a good grade on a test, or a new job. A priest coming to bless a new house, a new car. Candles lit to St. Jude, whether or not something could be a considered a lost cause. My mother had a small altar set up in her bedroom, with a prominent painting of Jesus looking tired and loving, arms open in perpetual welcome. I used to sit there with her, watching her as she muttered her rosaries. It comforted me to know that she was asking for me, for all of the family. I was certain that when my mother was praying to God, God was listening.

Things changed, definitely, during my wedding. My dream was to get married in the same church that I had attended for years, the church where I made my first communion, where my nieces and nephews had been baptized. But the only priest who would deign to marry us had serious issues with the fact that my husband was not Catholic, and would not be converting. During his homily at the ceremony, he went on about how it was my duty as a good Catholic woman to “show him the light” and also about how marriage was just “pain and suffering.”

I was livid—not just at him, but, irrationally, at the whole Church. Hadn’t I stayed faithful, in spite of serious misgivings? Hadn’t I defended the Church against so many worthy accusations?

It didn’t matter.

Although I made brief stabs at returning to the faith, it was never the same after that. I kept straining my soul towards that sense of connection that had always sustained me, but nothing connected anymore.

And then I got pregnant, and everyone told me that NOW I would find that missing emotion. And I tried. It felt important to give my child that same sense of spiritual union that I had grown up with, that sense of being beloved by something much larger than yourself, or even your family. I tried to go back to my readings, reminded myself that TEG always said that we would raise our children in both of our faiths (he was raised a Hindu, but attended Catholic school all of his life). But he’s not the slightest bit religious—he just wants to make sure that she understands the cultural importance of the Hindu rituals.

I want so much more than that for her, but whenever I reach out, it is like grabbing through mist. I am empty. And I’ve been that way for a long time, even through the fear of her NICU stay, and the strains in my marriage. I still pray, but without that feeling of union that I remember from those times with my mother.

Now, finally, I am feeling some faint religious stirrings again. But they are not leading me back to Catholicism, but rather towards Buddhism and Hinduism. How will I reconcile these longings with my desire to immerse my daughter in her Latin culture—and in her grandparents’ tradition? How will I create a place for faith and practice in our lives without TEG’s participation? How will I learn enough to feel like I can teach her these faiths without feeling like a dilettante?

I’m not sure. But I’m open to all suggestions. Even divine ones.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Mask (a mini-story)

Ed note: Very very late first draft--Madam's been sick, I've been sick. Bleh.
We moved in with the Old Lady about a week after Halloween, with three medium sized suitcases and a small box. When she saw us, she smiled and nodded with approval. “That’s exactly what I expected, Carmen. Good work!”

That smile bounced and landed on Mami’s face, but uncertain, like it didn’t quite belong there.

It hadn’t been easy, packing up our whole lives like that. Mami had stood in the center of the room, hands on her hips, surveying the mountains of clothes and stuff while Sandra and I crawled up the mounds and slid down.

But she knew we couldn’t bring everything, or even most things. “We will get it ALL back.” She said, firm voiced. “This is only temporary.”

One of the things I did manage to bring was my Halloween mask. Cinderella’s face glowed and grinned at me. I had flaunted the plastic costume around the house until Papi asked me if I was Cinderella before or after the ball. That made me throw it out.

Sandra laughed at me, “Paola…please! Ain’t no little black Cinderellas running around here but you!” She always liked to rub it in, my big sister, that she looked like Mami, beautiful and pale, while I was darker, like Papi. I’d always run to Mami to ask her about it, but she’d shoo me off while she separated our lives into smaller and smaller piles. Maybe she didn’t have an answer for me, or one she thought I would have liked.

If I stared at myself in the mirror at just the right angle, Paola disappeared altogether, and only Cinderella remained, blondely, sweetly smiling.

The mask made me beautiful.

So I shoved it at the very top of the overflowing suitcase and it made the journey to the Old Lady’s house.

One thing that surprised me was that the house was so big, easily three times bigger than our old apartment.

“Why couldn’t we just keep everything, Mami?” I asked her when we got to the small area the Old Lady called “our rooms.”

“Shush, Paola. This is not our house. Don’t be fresh.”

“But if it's not our house, then why are we living here?” Sandra asked.

“Because…because. Because the Old Lady is doing us a kindness. Better schools, better everything. And…it’s only temporary. So don’t let me catch either of you making ANY trouble while we’re here.” Something about her voice, some little catch of fear, turned Sandra and I into allies. Solemnly wide-eyed, we both nodded.

Mami’s face, her beautiful face, was flat, like a shut door.

We got used to it, the way that kids always do. School kept us busy—it was all so much harder than we were used to. We didn’t know much about what our parents did during the day, and we were quiet and well-behaved around the Old Lady.

A few weeks in, the Old Lady decided to give a party. Sandra and I knew that some of the kids in our class, and their parents, would be there. We also knew, without asking, that we were not to invite anyone. We would be there, but on the sides. It wasn’t for us.

On the day of the party, I was surprised to see Mami and Papi dressed in formal black outfits, like nothing either of them had ever worn before. Mami always wore bright colors, flouncy girl clothes. Nothing this straight and plain. And Papi liked bright shirts, open at the chest. Nothing this strict.

“Maybe it’s a costume party?” I asked Sandra, real hope in my voice. I was always looking for an excuse to wear my Cinderella mask.

“Nah, don’t you get it yet?” Sandra was a worldly nine to my seven years. “Mami and Papi are servants here. That’s why they’re dressed like that!”

Servants? I pondered this knowledge.

“Does that mean that we’re like Cinderella?”

She snorted. “I told you, there ARE no black Latina Cinderellas!”

She sounded so sure; I decided not to argue the point.

So I wore the mask that night—Sandra and I were out of sight anyway, not being allowed to be up that late. But we were, and we watched Mami and Papi refilling drinks, cleaning up, serving food. Their faces were curved in gentle smiles that looked nothing like them, that made them invisible.

The people with kids left and the rest started getting a little drunk and kind of rowdy. It started to look a little bit more like the parties in the old neighborhood. Just whiter.

The DJ put on a salsa that my parents loved and after a breath, people started shuffling towards the dance floor. Once they got there, they kicked and jerked--ignoring the music like it wasn't there. Their bodies sagged, then stiffened and they laughed. They waved their hips back and forth like the music was turning them into animals. They made doing it wrong look like the right thing--like Mami and Papi and their friends were stupid for loving it, taking it seriously. And I could hear it, suddenly, like they did. Not beautiful, like the classical music we heard at school. But loud, blaring—ugly.

"How embarassing!" Sandra hissed, a blush darkening her face. But they didn't look embarassed. They looked happy they hadn't had to try.

I kept waiting for my parents to get on the dance floor, to make it beautiful again. But they never did. And I remembered what Sandra said—that they were servants. They were working at the ball.

Nothing much changed after the party, except that we all got even more busy—my parents with their work for the Old Lady, Sandra and I with school. So busy that our visits to the old neighborhood sort of…stopped. So busy we didn’t have time for the old food, for that old music. And so we lived in the Old Lady’s house, in her life, and Mami was wrong. It wasn’t temporary, after all. And even after the Old Lady helped us find a place of our own, we never got it all back.

I’m not sure what happened to the mask after the party. Probably I left it out and it got cleaned away.

Now I’m in college, where people call me Paula and I don’t mind. It’s just easier to say they say, and I agree.

And sometimes, I start remembering and almost feel the safety of the plastic edging of the mask scraping against my face, pulling against my brittle hair. I wish that they could see me in the smooth, pale Cinderella beauty.

But I know they can’t.
To look behind more masks, go here.


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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sometimes the Universe answers you...(an appreciation...eventually)

You’ve seen it. I know you have. Hordes of rampaging toddlers like knee high Godzillas pillaging while their hapless parents trail behind, saying, “No, no…don’t touch, be careful, no, NO” etc.

I may be exaggerating. But not by much.

Picture it--today started beautifully—sunshine and blue skies. The birds singing. If the mercury seemed to be a trifle high for that hour of the morning, well…it’s spring! We WANTED spring. Didn’t we?

Madam and I took the bus to the library, picked out some new books, and had lunch, all without incident. I did notice, as the afternoon wore on, that she seemed a little tired. “Ah-ha!” I thought, pleased with my prescience. “We should go home. She clearly needs a nap.”

Oh, too little, too late.

As the bus slid smoothly through traffic in the left lane, it happened to stop directly in front of the playground.

You can see where this is going. Madam took one look at it, shiny swings and enticing slide, and lost her little mind.

Now, the books all say that you shouldn’t give in once the screaming starts. That it just teaches them to scream for whatever they want.

Usually, I follow this advice reasonably well, but I was hard pressed in this instance.

However, the choice was out of my hands. We were at a traffic light, not just a traffic light, but what had to be THEEE slowest traffic light in all the known universe. I swear, I’ve seen couples meet, fall in love, marry, have children, and dance at their Golden Jubilee wedding anniversaries while waiting for this light to change.

And so we were parked there, and Madam was screaming and arching her back now, and I could see the thought bubbles pop up over the other commuters’ minds. First compassion, “Oh, poor baby. It’s so hot.” Then, annoyance. “Why can’t her mother calm her down already?” Then, frustration. “Now we’re stuck with this damn screaming kid for the whole remainder of this bus ride, and I”ve had a long day and I’m TIRED, damn it!” Etc, etc. People in MPLS are VERY nice, known for it, in fact, but they deal better with the bitter cold than this unexpected heat.

Meanwhile, I was cycling through my repertoire of calming techniques, with absolutely NO success.

Did I mention yet that I had a headache so powerful it had earlier brought tears to my eyes?

So, yes, today, I was That Mother. The one who cannot pacify her child, make her behave.

Finally, in about the length of time it takes Pluto to orbit the sun, the light changed and we lurched forward. As soon as we got to the first bus stop, my writhing Madam and I got off.

The driver said, “Thank you.” I’m sure the other passengers said it too, silently.

I walked the rest of the way home, trying to tune out her wails.

After I took a Tylenol and a brief nap (thank you, TEG), I had a “eureka” moment. I have the answer to yesterday’s question of “where have all the deep thoughts gone?” Every brain cell I possess goes into trying to understand Madam’s wordless wants, and finding a way to either give them to her or (more usually) to redirect her with a minimum of screaming. At the end of the day, I just don’t have ANY more mind to spare. I am spent.

And that made me think of so many of my favorite bloggers, who have babies or toddlers or (horrors!) both at home, and STILL manage to write beautifully and profoundly about their lives, their work, their art. To them all I say, WOW and “can you teach me how to do that?”

So there is my little Mother’s Day meme, and a way to express my admiration—check these people out, if you don’t already. You won’t be sorry.

A Little Pregnant
Be Alive Believe Be You
The Bean Counter
The Believing Soul

Better Make it a Double (twins!
Brooklyn Girl
Bub and Pie
City Mama

Colors on my Mind
Her Bad Mother
Here Be Hippogriffs

La Vie en Rose
Leery Polyp
Left Handed Trees
Life's Jest Book

Mimi Smartypants

Mother words: Mothers Who Write
My Topography

Pink Coyote
Phantom Scribbler
Silent K
Superhero Journal

Sweet Juniper

I know this is a VERY incomplete list (I am only including those I read who I know have babies or toddlers (up to age 3/4) at home—got any you’d like to add? I stopped at toddlers because older children are easier...right? RIGHT?

Thanks for giving me something to strive towards, everyone. You show me that the mind AND the children can co-exist, beautifully, something I am still working on myself. I bow and tip my imaginary hat to all of you.


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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My queendom for a meme!

Spring has saturated every tree under my window, quickly drenching the tender shoots and leaves in a green that spangles in the sunlight like sequins.

It reminds me that I have grown to love this place, even as I continue to miss California and the other places I have lived. TEG teases me because I call about eight places home—NYC, Chicago, Austin, Bombay, California among them. But, inevitably, I fall in love with the area regardless of where I live (my LA suburb being a notable exception. I love the nightlife, I want to boogie). This place will always be special, though, because it has been the stage for so many of Madam’s firsts—she first crawled here (while we were visiting—suddenly she started scooting around the hotel room), walked here, and I fully expect that she’ll talk here as well. This was the place where she discovered the Joy of the Swing and Slide, not to mention the sheer celebration that is a puppy romping by the lake.

So. Things are good. And that makes me realize that all of the writing books (not to mention Tolstoy) are right—conflict is interesting. Happiness, at least for the outsider, is a tad on the dull side. Even to me.

My days are like prayer beads—long walks, sunshine, coffee. I never thought that such a quiet little routine could be so enjoyable. Barring the twice-daily tantrum, it’s just…peachy.

Peachy does not make for good blogging, I find. When I started this blog, I was desperate—to find a place where I could respect my own thoughts, however crazed and sleep-deprived they were. And it worked wonderfully—I had so much to say! And the more I said, the more I had to say! Hurray! Deep thoughts for everybody!

Well, mysteriously, the desperation is gone. I am not sure why, exactly. I am reading a great deal. Not writing at all (or very much). I believe this novel is going to be shelved, at least for the time being. I know that we’re supposed to push ourselves past resistance, but I have never been SO resistant before, so I am trying to honor that—at least for now. My dreams are rushed, full of crowd scenes. But none of that is really translating into the sorts of Big Thoughts that make me rush to the keyboard.

It’s ironic that all of this happened while I was working through a book called “Finding Water”—which, alas, has not helped me to do that. At all. I just couldn’t connect to this book—to most of the books I am reading lately, to be honest. I enjoy them wholeheartedly while reading them, but it’s as though my mind has become a mirror—as soon as the book is put away, the words slide away.

Is this my version of Spring Fever? The inevitable result of almost two years of severely disturbed sleep? Encroaching shallowness? The Decamping of Deep Thoughts?

Not sure, but I’m not really even worried.

Which, of course, is what worries me.


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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Ocean

Yeah, this is a bit of a strange one. But this is what came out.
A lone woman squints daggers at the ocean. That’s the image that comes to mind. A bit trite, isn't it? Almost as common as the old “hair as golden as the sun” simile. Does it matter to you that her hair IS that golden? It does to her--she views it like a promise betrayed. All her life, she heard the “blondes have more fun, dearie” line and made the mistake of taking it seriously. The people who told her that, were the kind who liked to toss clichés over their laughing shoulders like salt.

She was not this way.

So what can I tell you about her that would matter? Perhaps you want to hear about her childhood…that seems like a popular place to start. Begin at the beginning. Well, she wasn’t much for babyhood, and she sat childhood out. Never had much use for dolls and trucks. Fake things. She was after something real.

And what would that be? Her lined face doesn’t tell me much. Perhaps if I’d paid more attention to the instructions in my writing books, you know, the ones about creating an unforgettable character, I’d be able to look deeply at her and divine a ghastly secret, or at least a few jangling skeletons in the closet. But that’s not what I see.

She wanted to be grown, grown, to wear flowers in her hair and silver high heels and go dancing with a different man every payday. She was certain that this was all she could ever hope from life, and unlike most of us, she got exactly what she wished for. One day, sooner than she expected but later than she hoped, she was the woman who danced, the lights glowing blue, then red, then green, then blue again on her golden hair.

So she got what she wanted, you say? Then what’s the story? Well, take another look at her face. Regret has formed that face, blurred the lines around her eyes. Sags in her cheeks.

The waves moan their endless song. They say sometimes, if you listen carefully, you can hear voices in the ocean. Voices of the people you loved, or who loved you. Maybe the lone woman shifted, watched the sand near the feet grow light and then dark from the pressure of her toes as the water lapped near her. Was she straining to hear? And did she?
Stubborn. She won’t say.

Was it one great defining event that changed everything? That would certainly make my job easier. To be able to point to a moment and say "see, that's how it all went wrong!"

But that’s not the way it happened. Small moments, so small they didn’t even look like choices, and she STILL doesn’t like to see them that way. Too much time waiting around for the wrong man, and then more time waiting for him to go. Too much focus on him, and not enough on the job that just sat and spread, but went nowhere. Not enough ambition. Too much fear. Maybe those are the same things.

“I've always wanted to see the ocean, you know.” She confessed to Mr. Wrong, once, at twilight. It wasn’t like her to talk that way, halting, and at that moment, he loved her for it.

“I’ll take you, baby. We’ll see it together. Promise.”

Then he never mentioned it again.

See, I was paying attention to the writing books after all! Conflict.

Except…it’s not, because he never did it and she never expected him to. That’s what existed between them.

She never did lose that old dream, though, to be taken to see the ocean. It seemed like the kind of thing someone could peg a new start on.

So here she is, a lone woman, who is choosing to stand on the edge of the shore for the first time, who had to take herself. Maybe she’s not squinting daggers at anyone. Maybe she’s just really, REALLY trying to see.

And that makes all the difference.
For more dips in the ocean, go here.


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Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Shadow...knows?

Madam’s speech assessment went well, I think. “She obviously understands, she just can’t verbalize!” chirped the tester. Uh, yes, I know. But it was still good to get confirmation that she DOES understand; she CAN follow simple directions (especially if they are modeled for her). She just can’t seem to make the connection to speech.

TEG thinks she just doesn’t want to. Well, she is a mite stubborn, but…no. Judging from her level of frustration when I just don’t! understand! Her! I would say that she wants to communicate, she just can’t right now.

I know the feeling.

I've been trying to write, trying to post. But the only thing that comes out is just...blurgh. Whining of the rankest order. Maybe Shakespeare could create art from all that "woe is me." I can't.

I’ve done some reading about the Jungian notion of the Shadow. Most psychologists agree that we need to stop fighting those aspects of ourselves that we view with distaste and even hatred. That we need to sit down with them and discover what they have to teach us before we can be free.

Intellectually, I know this. But, action, as always, is harder.

Self-pity is my Waterloo, my black dog, my three-AM-in-the-morning-cringe-of-embarrassment. I try so many remedies—to talk sternly to myself (in the ‘bootstraps’ mode), to vent pages and pages in my notebook, to ignore, to distract.

Nothing. It appears this negative trait is here to stay, arms crossed, belligerent. I ask it, again and again, what do you have to tell me? How can I be rid of you?

In return I get a whiny litany that seems to narrow itself down to fun, and power. Both of which are currently in short supply.

So...fine, self-pity. You've had your day. I gave you every chance, tried to understand you, tried to reason with you, took you to bed and woke up with you. No more.

I am heartily tired of the sound of my own self-pity, and I refuse to give it voice here until it reveals its secrets. That's right...I am holding self-pity hostage!

Insert maniacal laughter here.


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