Margaret does what she wants

Wrinkles cover her thin-skinned ninety-two-pound body, compliments from her eighty-seven years of living in this, at times, tumultuous world.  But she’s as easygoing as they come, mostly unbothered by external noise.

She’s a headstrong, entirely capable, and stubborn woman. I love all of those qualities about her.  She minds her own business and lives the way she wants. She talks to me in her beautiful Irish accent. She was born on a farm in Ireland. She rode a horse to school with a trap in the back where kids hitched rides on the way. She misses the horses. The farm had rabbits and dogs and pigs, but she loved the horses the most.

A couple years ago, her son privately talked to her doctor to persuade the doctor to tell her she couldn’t drive anymore. One day she joined me for a walk with my dog Phil and she had a disgruntled look on her face. I asked what was wrong.

“I know my son told my doctor to tell me I can’t drive anymore. I’m not stupid.” She looked up at me with her thin lips pressed bitterly against each other and her short brown hair swaying in the breeze. “But I do what I want. He’s not the boss of me.”

Later that day I was sitting on my front lawn with Phil and her garage door opened. Seconds later, a blue van backed out of the garage and down the driveway. She pulled into the street and gave me a wave from behind the wheel as she passed.

She’d found her keys. She’s determined like that.

Another day I was walking Phil past her house, and she was in the garage pounding out a dent in her car. I asked her what happened. She said she hit something in the garage but had to hurry because her son would be over soon. I asked if she needed help, she answered, “No, just don’t tell my son.”

That made me smile. Most everything about that special woman makes me smile. I wish to be more like her. I was down one day and told her about it. She told me she doesn’t think about thoughts that bring her down. I imagine that isn’t something she just started doing in her later years. I’m sure she lived by that adage even when she was younger and raising six children. She talks of her past without regret or resentment. She had a hardworking husband, (whom she also tells me wasn’t the boss of her) but times weren’t always easy, especially the early days in Ireland when work was hard to find or when one of her children took their own life.

None of her pains from the past show on her face now. At least none that I can see, though it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. She chooses to live as happily as she can. Not many people make that choice. Some live bitterly and filled with anger. When my nieces and nephews were young, they’d come over and play in the street. Naturally, they’d make a lot of noise. She’d always come outside, not to yell about all the racket, but to sit on her front porch and watch the kids play because she loved to hear the sound of children’s laughter.

Margaret lives across the street from me, and she loves to sit at her front window with her cat. No matter how bad of a day I may be having, when I see her face at the window I always smile because she waves at me with such excitement, huge smile and arm waving fast and high, as though she’d been waiting all day to see me. I will miss that when the day comes where she is no longer at the window. Hopefully that won’t be for a while.

Margaret came over a couple days ago to tell us she and her son and daughters are going to England but won’t be stopping in Ireland. She doesn’t have much family there anymore and doesn’t want to impose on the ones still there. We sat and got to talking and she shared with me how happy she is that we are neighbors. She went on about how comforting and safe she feels that we are right across the street from her. Margaret doesn’t live alone. She has her daughter, and her son stops by almost every day, yet still she appreciates that we are neighbors.

That meant something to me, and I hope she knows how much I appreciate that we are neighbors, too.

Standing on that Bridge

Years ago, as teenagers, whenever a friend and I would drive over a bridge and see a person standing at the railings we’d yell, “Don’t jump!” and laugh as if it were the funniest, most original thing ever done. Sometimes we’d honk at the person as we screamed those words.

Yes, we were outrageously cool.

We’d continue on to our destination, usually with the radio blasting, driving and singing and never thinking again about the persons we left behind on the bridges we crossed.

Chances are the people we yelled those words at were not thinking of jumping but were merely walking along the bridge and stopped to see the view, or tie a shoe, or take a rest. But what if just one of those people were actually going through a tough time. Maybe they’d just suffered a devastating loss or received a life-changing health diagnosis or just felt so lost and hopeless that they weren’t sure if life was worth living anymore?

We were young and hadn’t yet lived long enough to experience the hard realities life can force in our paths. We were just beginning our journey in life and when you’re driving fast with the windows down on a gorgeous sunny day while belting out the lyrics to your favorite song, life is good. Life is great. And when you’re young and healthy it’s hard to believe life can be any other way.

Until it’s not. And then life experiences make you understand why some people linger on that bridge. People who don’t live their days, but merely get through them. People who watch life work out for others, but not for them, and then agonize over what they did wrong.

They get through life, as best they can, hoping and waiting for the day they are back in that car belting out their favorite song, only now they say nothing to the people on the bridge.

Life has taught them to know better.

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Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Missing Old Times

The basement ceiling is still streaked with marks from when we used to play football. Made-up goal lines, just in front of the bar. I really don’t know how we didn’t break the glass case, shelved with wine and beer glasses, in the corner behind the bar. It’s a good thing. Grandma would have lost her shit.

How many touchdown passes had been thrown in that basement from when you kids used to live here? So many the Bears would have been envious.

The bin of swords we used to fight with, sometimes against each other, other times against imagined zombies, has been packed away a long time ago. That time I took your swords from you and hid them in my closet because you scared the dog, chasing him with a raised sword in your hands.  Phil didn’t understand the game. You were young, but old enough to understand the innocence of a dog. You were just being mean, because you were the youngest and used to being a menace.

So, I had to take your swords away. Not forever. Just for a little while.  Your older sister, always the protective Mother Bear, tried to sneak and steal them back, but I wouldn’t let her. She was mad at me. Her little brother could do no wrong. Ever. I used to always say that you could burn the house down and she’d yell at me if I gave you the slightest sideways look.

She used to knock on my door late at night. Two o’clock in the morning was nothing to that nine-year-old girl. I’d stop writing and we’d talk on my bed, mostly about the divorce, sometimes about other things. But we talked. The divorce happened when you were so young, and you were forgetting the memories you had of your mother and father being together. That was sad for you.

So, we talked through some memories. Popcorn movie nights with your parents. Watching Elf with your dad. That Thanksgiving at your house, when I came covered in puke because I’d thrown up with my head out the window, while Grandma sped down I55. A mixture of motion sickness and being hungover.  Your oldest brother, just a young boy then, yelled out “Auntie!” and ran to greet me at the door. I shot my arm up and stopped him like a traffic patrol.  “Don’t! Auntie has throw-up all over her.” Your father hosed the car down in your driveway, as I hosed myself down in his shower.

Birthday parties at the house you grew up, with the backyard you missed so much. The giant trampoline. The swing set you loved to hang upside down from that always pulled at my nerves. But you were fearless.

The day you came home from school after learning I was writing a lesbian book, because you’d crept up behind me the night before and read over my shoulder as I wrote on my computer, and shouted, with your backpack on your shoulders, “How’s your lesbian story coming, Auntie?”

I laughed. Your mother laughed. You were a funny nine-year-old girl.

Your other brother, just a few years older than you, was a homebody. He loved nothing more than cuddling on the couch with me watching sports or shows, mostly Pitbulls and Parolees and the Friday Night Lights series. “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.” You loved that.

In public, you were never the kid we had to worry about running off. You were a scared and anxious kid at times. You never strayed from my side. Ever. But your older brother, I’d lost him once at a Blockbuster on a busy Saturday night, and it was the most terrifying thirty-seven seconds of my life. I eventually found him kneeling at the end of an aisle, going through stacks of videos and DVD’s.

But you would never scare me like that. You were the boy who would take my hand in a parking lot before I even had to tell you, because you were scared of getting hit by a car. You told me your entire school schedule so that at any time during the day I could look at the clock and know what you were doing, what class you were in. You then wanted to know my daily schedule so that you could do the same with me.

That was the cutest thing. Well, maybe not as cute as the love notes you would write me when you happened to be over, and I wasn’t home. Sometimes you’d leave the notes right on top my desk, so I’d see it right away. Other times, you’d put it into a drawer and sometimes days or weeks would go by before I found the note telling me you love me. How happy you are to have me as an aunt. You’d tell me that I’m a great writer. I have all of them. All your notes. You’d ask me how many nephews love their Aunties as much as you love me. I’d say, “Probably not many.”

But you’ve all grown up and moved on with grown up lives, as children tend to do.  We can’t go back in time or relive the past, but if we could, 2014 was a good year to live again. You guys still lived here. We were so close and spent so much time together. I was healthier. Happier. I hadn’t yet known the stress of a Donald Trump presidency.  And covid was nothing but a word.

We can’t go back in time and relive the past. We can only hold our most cherished memories close to us and relive them in our hearts by never forgetting them.

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Looking Back

Cold, dark, January nights are hard to cope with on any occasion, but they’re practically unbearable when you’re already down. It was late. I’d already done my reading for the night, and I didn’t have another page in me to write. I was tired, but not tired enough to fall asleep fast on my pillow, and I knew my mind would wander too much into thoughts I’d rather not have, so going to bed wasn’t an option. 

I was fiddling around in my room and came across some old journals I used to keep. It had been years since I looked through them. They begin in 1995. I was nineteen years old. I still keep a journal. It’s therapeutic, but I discovered that night, as I read about the days of my life from twenty-seven years ago, journaling is also a time-travel machine.

I was suddenly transported to the home I grew up in and in the bedroom I dreamed of being a rockstar, and, much later, a writer. Most of the entries from my college years, and into my twenties, mention a lot about the writing courses I was taking and the stories I was writing at the time. 

Which was a bit surreal since I am currently working on one of those stories right now. It was my first completed novel. I was twenty-three years old, three years after coming out and writing about the love between two women that was still so new to me. 

The novel itself wasn’t very good, but I kept it and decided it was worth a revision. I have since turned two short stories I wrote in college, that also wasn’t very good, into two published novels. The first, A Penny on the Tracks, and the newly contracted novel, Annabel and the Boy in the Window

Little did I know then, as I wrote those stories, that they would be kept for over two decades and rewritten by the older, but not always wiser, and somewhat jaded forty-five (soon to be forty-six) year-old self. 

I miss my younger self. I often wonder if the nineteen-year-old me would be happy with where her life ended up. In reading my old journals, I didn’t live up to everything my younger self had wanted, but of course, nothing then could have warned me about health issues that would get in the way of work, love, life. 

So, I didn’t get everything checked off on my “life list,” but I am a published author, and as I spent my twenties at some dead-end jobs, that was all I dreamed of being. 

 

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A Friday Night, a Rock Concert, and an Asshole Boyfriend

I went to a concert last night.  The tickets were general admission seating, and I’d gotten there early enough to secure a spot one person away from the stage. Having a feeling I’d be close to the stage and the speakers, I brought ear plugs with me. Which was a good thing because I needed them. I’ve gone to, and continue to go to, a lot of rock concerts. I need to protect my ears. After the show, walking to my car, I heard a guy complain to his friends about how loud the music was and that his ears were ringing so bad he couldn’t hear a thing. I’d been there many times, which is why I finally got smart and now bring plugs with me.

Anyway, the concert was great. Four hours, five bands.  A great way to spend a Friday night, and for the most part the people around me were cool. Which is important when you’re standing in tight spaces for hours. A short woman who looked slightly older than me was next to me. She was very sweet. She kept asking me if I was okay. Three hours into the show, she offered me a sip of her beer because she noticed I hadn’t left at all to get a drink. I thanked her, but declined her offer. I hardly ever drink when I’m at concerts. I have the bladder of a small child. It’s very annoying. But it was a very nice gesture from the woman.

It just makes the night that much better when you’re surrounded by nice people. People who just want to have fun on a Friday night. I was by myself, as is mostly the case when I go to concerts. Not too many friends like the music I listen to, which is fine. I don’t mind going to concerts alone, but being around friendly people definitely makes for a better experience.

A woman near my own age with long thinning red hair stood next to me, and her boyfriend, wearing a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers T-shirt, was in front of her at the stage. Off the bat, there was something about the guy that screamed dickhead.

The woman and I talked between bands. She was pleasant, but had a sadness about her. Without judgement, I noted traces of addiction on her face, and the more I observed her, the more I wanted to put an arm around her in a comforting way and tell her everything will be okay now. I could see she lived a tough life and probably hadn’t gotten a lot of breaks.

Take in point, in the middle of the show something sailed past me and nailed her right on the head. She threw her hands up and ducked down.  I touched her shoulder and asked if she was okay. She looked at me with tears and asked what that was. I didn’t know, and she used the flashlight on her phone and we looked around the floor for anything, but we saw nothing. Her boyfriend was in front of her and didn’t see anything, not that he would have done much if he had. When the band finished, and she told him what happened, he showed no concern or interest.

She was visibly shaken up about it. The nice older woman on the other side of me inquired how she was and asked what hit her. We never found out. Throwing an object into a crowd is such an asshole thing to do.

Standing in front of me, and next to the redheaded woman’s asshole boyfriend, was a friendly young man in his early twenties. He left his spot, and when he came back he touched me just to get by, and I jumped up. He laughed and apologized profusely for scaring me. Not sure why he caught me by such surprise. I was surrounded by people and should have been expecting to get or touched in some way. But he was genuinely sorry and called me ma’am, and I felt old.

The jerk boyfriend wouldn’t move when the young man got back to his spot, even though that’s a courtesy we were extending to everyone. We’d hold people’s places when they left and make sure no late-comers pushed past us and took spots that didn’t belong to them. The older woman next to me was really nice about saving spots. But the redhead’s boyfriend wouldn’t budge even though the young man had been in that spot since the start of the show. The young friendly man was visibly shocked at the level of dick-headedness, and the two argued. The redhead told me that it didn’t bother her, but that her boyfriend didn’t like that the young guy kept leaving his spot. She said something to her boyfriend and whatever he said back to her upset her and she started crying, though she tried to wipe the tears before they showed. But I saw them, and wondered what the asshole said to her.

The young man pointed to all the space to the left of the guy and forced his way into his spot. I don’t know if the asshole said something to the redhead but next thing I knew the woman suddenly left and never came back. The headline act came on minutes later, and the boyfriend looked back once, saw that she was gone, and never looked back again.

I’m not gonna say I didn’t enjoy the headline act, because I did, but I thought about that woman often while the band played.  Last night was probably not the Friday night she had anticipated. You go to a concert expecting to have a care-free fun night. And then you get pelted in the head with a flying object and your boyfriend makes you cry.

I hope wherever the woman is now, she’s happy. Maybe life will get easier for her. In my limited time of knowing her, I’d say she deserves that.

 

 

 

That’s Just the Writer in Me.

An excerpt of a story about a middle-aged woman who visits her old college in an attempt to settle the obvious midlife crisis/crossroad she’s living through:

The coffee tastes like shit, yet I continue to drink it. Writing and coffee always went hand in hand. At least I no longer smoked. I visit the old college I attended when I was a fresh-faced eighteen year-old. Maybe it will help me become more creative as I sit in a place that reminds me of my younger days, when anything seemed possible.

One of the perks of writing here is the coffee costs 75 cents, a monster savings compared to Starbucks, but like I already said, the coffee tastes like shit and I’m on my fourth cup.

I’m sitting at one of the tables in the lounge. There is a young woman, maybe nineteen, at the table next to me, face deep in a text book. Her long hair is dark and carelessly messy, but in a stylish way. She looks like someone I would have had a crush on. She wears jeans with holes at the knees, a black graphic tee, leather studded boots that capped at her mid-calf. Kind of grungy (do kids today even know what grunge is?). Maybe she’s a bit rebellious in a dark, mysterious, Kristen Stewart, kind of a way.

Her attire shows she might be of the “alternative” lifestyle. I remember looking for that in girls I met at college in 1995 because I was incredibly desperate to meet girls who were like me. I expected everything to be so much broader than the restricted Catholic high school I went to, and in some ways they were, but probably not broad as I had wanted, or needed, them to be.

I wonder if what I’m experiencing is a mid-life crisis. I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I felt I had accomplished something in my life. The fact that I haven’t done anything depresses me.

Did I know I would do this? Did I know I was going to spend so much time looking back? I wonder if I’m capable of anything more with my life. It’s so hard making it as a writer and I fear I may not even be any good at it. (Pause. Takes another sip of coffee. Yep. Still tastes like shit, even more so now that it’s cold.)

Two girls sit on a couch across from me. They are very affectionate and playful toward each other, despite the fact I’m only a few feet away from them and another boy sits at a near-by table. But they don’t seem to notice either of us. I watch as people pass in the busy halls, and barely look at the two girls sitting closer, now holding hands.

Their interaction isn’t tacky, nor is it an in-your-face display of affection. The two girls appear to be in love, lucky to be living in a time when they could be like this in public. Definitely not something I would have expected to see when I walked these halls very frequently, 21 years ago – though I wish I had.

I think about leaving, but decide to stay. I watch. I write. I sip my bad coffee. I sit and observe other people, like a spectator in life.

I suppose that’s the writer in me.

 

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Photo courtesy of freedigitalphoto.net

 

 

 

 

 

Life Gets Better…Thanks Sandy.

Two years ago this month I started volunteering at an animal shelter. The first dog I bonded with was a Collie mix named Sandy. Sandy was an owner-surrender. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of the surrender, but Sandy was very depressed. Her sadness showed in the way she moved – slow and heavy. Her body weighted, not from the extra pounds she carried, but from the confusion I suspect she felt when the shelter became her new home.

I’ve been told that for a dog to go from a home to a shelter is as much of a shock as a free-living human-being waking up suddenly in a prison cell. Although the animals at my shelter are loved and well-taken care of, it doesn’t compare to a home once an animal’s lived in one. The confinement of a kennel, even one attached to a dog run, is jail to an animal accustomed to having free-range of a home.

Animal shelters, no matter how well-tended to, are loud. Dogs who are nervous bark. Dogs who are scared bark. Dogs who are anxious bark. And dogs who are just tired of being somewhere (we’ve had animals who’ve waited a year or longer for homes) bark. So when a dog like Sandy comes to the shelter, and is greeted with chaos she is not used, depression often sets in. Adjustments need to be made and these are abrupt for animals who knew a better life.

My fellow volunteers at the shelters love the animals they care for, and talk sweetly to them, but we are strangers to the dogs. And the ones who had an owner, and faithfully loved that owner and lived in a stable home (for at least a little while), being in a place with so many different hands touching you, no matter how gentle, can fill a dog with stress it never knew before.

Sandy wouldn’t eat, and as weeks went by her weight gradually dropped, but she still moved slowly and wasn’t enthusiastic about anything. There were special notes on her cage and on the dog’s track sheets that Sandy was only to be taken out in the grassy yard, and not the cement and pebbled ones, because all Sandy wanted to do was lay down. I’d lay with her in the grass, pet her, and take her head in my arms, and promise her that things would get better. She’d look at me with sadness in her eyes so deep and profound that I’d challenge anyone who dare say animals don’t have a soul.

I felt close to Sandy and bonded quickly with her because she resembled on the outside exactly the way I was feeling on the inside. I had been laid-off from my job a few months before and battling an illness that was threatening to flare-up again, and I was scared and lost in such profound hopelessness that I desperately searched for any sign that promised better days ahead.

“You’re gonna be okay,” I’d promise while kneeling in front of her and holding her head in my hands. “We both are.”

I kissed her a lot, comforted and reassured her, the way I needed someone to reassure me.

Soon, Sandy was adopted. Her life was going to get better and I was so happy for her. She gave me hope that my life would get better, too.

Last summer I took my dog to a fundraising event for animal shelters. There were all kinds of doggie-themed tents there and as I made my way toward one of them, I stopped near a spectacle of people surrounding a closed-off area. I found a spot and watched as dogs performed tricks and ran through obstacle courses with their trainers, or owners, by their side. The happy dogs circled cones, ran through large cylinder-like tubes, slid down little slides, jumped over rope, and maneuvered across small teeter-totters.

One of the dogs looked a lot like Sandy, but i knew the dog now running excitedly through an obstacle course couldn’t be the same sad dog who ignored the toys scattered in the shelter yards and only wanted to lay down, or the over-weight, depressed dog who moved so slowly I often had to take half-steps when walking beside her. It couldn’t be that dog, and I was ready to walk away believing it wasn’t her, when a man holding a mic said, “Let’s give a big hand to Sandy!”

It was Sandy! My Sandy. And I was stunned. I couldn’t even move. The transformation was incredible. She was a completely different dog.

I couldn’t get to her. The crowd was too big. But I wanted to reach her and pet her again and look into the eyes I was sure showed no more signs of sadness.

I wanted to tell her that I was happy her life was better, and let her know that mine was too.

Sadness doesn’t have to last forever. Life can, and will, get better.

“A Dog Loves At All Times”

Hug your dog. He/She deserves it. They give so much, but ask for so little. IMG_20140616_134429

No matter how sad, frustrated, or upset I may be, when I walk into a room and see my dog, Phil, stretched out on his back, legs bent across his chest, his front paws relaxed over his face while flashing me an upside-down smile, I can’t help but laugh because he looks so silly. And we need a little silly in life to make us smile.

 

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I’ve realized that in many ways I need to be more like him.

Phil’s a great listener. He never leaves me, even as I drench his fur with tears, he stays right by my side, and listens to my sad tales no matter how many times he’s heard it. I need to be a better listener. No more interruptions. I will listen to your side of the story, from start to finish, even as you tell it for the six-hundredth time.

He’s patient and patience is a virtue that often eludes me, especially since I started sharing my home with children. But no matter how comfortable Phil may be curled up in his favorite spot on the couch, once those kids barrel loudly into the room and trample on the cushions he was peacefully sleeping on, he jumps off.  He doesn’t bark. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t bite. He simply leaves the room without appearing too upset about it. Maybe it’s because he knows  he’ll find some other quiet place in the house and be grateful for it, even if it’s on the floor.

The kids have tested my patience like this before, when I’m quietly reading a book or practicing yoga, only I don’t usually handle it nearly as eloquently as my dog. I argue that I was there first. I stubbornly fight for my spot and when I do finally admit defeat, I leave the room in a huff, hardly ever grateful that there’s another quiet space somewhere in my home waiting for me.

I rescued Phil from a shelter and although he’s a pitbull, there were no signs that he was involved in dog-fighting, but there were major signs of neglect. He was found as a stray roaming the streets of Chicago. He was an abandoned dog, without a home, but he was also a survivor.

Painfully, I force myself to imagine him cold and hungry, lost and alone, wandering around with no place to go. I think about all the people who saw him but did nothing. I get upset, but then I imagine those who fed him scraps of food or offered water to get him by. It wasn’t much because when I brought him home, he was all ribs, but it was enough to give me a chance to find him. I’m so grateful that I did.

But no matter how badly he’s been treated or how many times his heart’s been broken, he is so willing to love and it doesn’t take much to win him over. A pat on the head. A stroke underneath his chin. A kiss on his nose. He knows how to heal. He knows how to forgive. He knows how to let go.

He also knows how to love.

He loves with all he has, without holding back. When I open my arms, he comes to me without hesitation, undeterred by the risk of being turned away. My baby lays it all on the line and I don’t plan on letting him down…ever.

My dog gives me hope. He lights up my darkest days because I know he has suffered to end up here, in a pretty good place, with a mommy that loves him so much. He survived his battles and won. I will too, and so will you.

A picture hangs in my room with the saying “A Dog Loves At All Times.”

Can anyone disagree?

 

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Getting Back

I think I was a better person when I was younger. I was less judgmental and more accepting. My mind was open and clearer. I welcomed new adventures without expectation because whatever happened I’d believed was meant to happen. I just went with it. I was less moody, less irritable. I was optimistic. I took each day as they came as though time would never desert me.

Now, I make presumptions I never used to and turn away from situations I don’t know, don’t understand. My mind is foggy, cloudy, hazy… every last inch of it. Optimism has turned to pessimism and a once open mind, now over-run by an over-analysis of everything. I look at the clock as if time were a girlfriend, packing her last suitcase, ready to say goodbye.

If this is life catching up to me, then I need to run faster because I’m only 38 years old and I want to live to be 100 without turning into Ouiser from Steel Magnolias. 

I meditate. I do yoga. This helps to bring me closer to myself. Everything around me slows down, almost disappears, and it’s only me. Me. Me. Me. And that’s not the way I live. I live for others, not for myself. Meditation and yoga has changed that and forced me to concentrate only on myself. This is hard, especially when you find out things about yourself you’d rather not know.

Ignorance is bliss for many, but I don’t want to be ignorant. I want to figure out how I’ve changed and why. And when I find the reasons I want to smash the blippity blip out of it so it never resurfaces again. Life took me away from me for a little while and I got lost.

Now, I need to find a way to bring a little of my younger self back to me because it’s been a long time and I kinda miss me.