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Basia J Wolf

Writer

Firefly Syndrome

Everyone who has faltered in their self belief as a writer/actor/artist has considered the words imposter syndrome very carefully. We have all sat and wondered at the sorcery of those whose self confidence is unshakeable. Where does it come from? How do you get it? And more likely, why don’t I have it?

Why don’t I have it? Good question. It’s not as though I haven’t had praise, objective praise at that, from published authors, news & features editors, journalists and colleagues over the years. I even had an out of the blue note from one of the people behind Criminal Minds telling me I was a great writer, he even followed this blog, still does (and thank you so much!).

As a journalist and features writer my whole adult life, I never second guessed my writing. I just wrote, always from the heart, it never failed. I never failed. I never went to my editors saying, sorry I can’t write this or this is the best I could do but it’s garbage. Words are my thing, they do come easy to me. Yet when I try to write novels (aka writing for myself) something stops me.

A week after the death of my mother, a friend gave me an intense Japanese massage and some kind of  thick incense stick that you were to light and hold over your body. The heat, she said, was healing. It sounded weird and I didn’t believe in it but I did it anyway and at one point, with grief-stricken anger, I shouted, aloud, “I am not shit.”

And this memory reminded me of the serpent and the firefly story which goes like this: Once there was a beautiful firefly who used to zip about in the trees and grasses and flowers, minding her own business. One day, a serpent saw her and decided to give chase. He hounded the firefly night and day, relentless and cruel. After one particular harrowing chase, the firefly stopped and turned to the serpent and said: I have three questions for you, because I don’t understand why you are doing this to me. The serpent said, well I don’t normally do this, but go on, ask. So the little firefly asked: Am I top of your food chain? And the serpent answered, no. Are you really so hungry you have to eat me? And the serpent again answered, no. Then why, the firefly pleaded, why do you want to hurt me? And the serpent smiled and said, because I can’t stand to see you shine.

In Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, this subject is covered in great detail, because so many of us have tried to shine and our lights have been dimmed by those who also have not been allowed to shine. Some people might call it jealousy, I guess it is, but if it’s someone who was your parent, or sibling or even a teacher, chances are what you have is what they always wanted and as opposed to could never have, were never allowed to have. My mother was a strange creature. She would build me up you’re so intelligent, so talented, only to pull me down again when I told her something my editor had said about my work, don’t go getting a big head. I was never allowed to shine. Many years later I realize it’s because she never was either.

As a child, she belittled my efforts. When I won a national poetry competition at the age of 14, the bragging rights were hers. A ceremony at the London Hilton, new expensive dresses, my photo in the newspapers. Never once did she tell me she’d read the poem or how proud she was. I moved through the whole thing emotionless because it wasn’t about me or my poetry.  I realize now that this is where it started. I wasn’t allowed to believe that you could have a career as a writer, so I chose journalism, the next best thing. But working as a journalist, I wasn’t working for me. Working as an author, it’s all me. Me, me, me. The one thing I could never celebrate, being me, with all the power and the glory that is in me as a writer.

If you feel you’re some kind of fake in the author business, even though people who have years of experience behind them tell you otherwise, perhaps you too have firefly syndrome. Perhaps you were never allowed to shine.

Fireflies are tiny things but just one can create a lot of light. If there’s a spark in you, remember it’s yours. We are not responsible for what other people do or did not do, we can only shine our own light. There is room in the world for everyone’s light. Those of us whose fireflies were hounded by the snakes of our formative years, we need to tell them that this spark, this spark is in us and nothing can take it away from us. But it is up to us to let it shine.

Let’s see if I can take my own advice.

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Firefly Experience by Radim Schreiber
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On Writing: My Querencia

Spanish is a beautiful language, its words are often steeped in metaphysical magic, like this one, Querencia.

I first encountered querencia in Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon, a book I admit I forced myself to read. I learned more about the subtleties of querencia one morning at the Museo Taurino in Sevilla, a strange place to go if you’re against bullfighting as I am, although, knowledge will always be power.

The word that would best describe querencia, would be haunted. But don’t let that fool you. It’s also a place that you go when you are afraid, anxious, angry, when you need to cool your heels. That space might manifest itself in a physical locality, but it’s a metaphysical meaning. It’s mental.

A Google search for the word’s meaning will find this: a place from which one’s strength is drawn, where one feels at home, the place where you are your most authentic self. That’s so neat and spiritual in the tumblr sense of the word, but it’s not exactly the whole truth about querencia, at least, not in Spanish.

In the bullring, a bull has his querencia. This is one place in the ring where he returns to during the fight, time and time again; it’s a place where he develops his fight in his brain, it’s the place where he remembers and memorizes every single detail about the matador, it’s a place where he regroups and rebuilds his strength and his plan of attack. People have often said that this is the place in the ring where the bull feels most safe, but in truth, it is the place where he becomes more dangerous.

Querencia, which comes from the verb querer (meaning to love, to desire, to want) is also action, a call to love and to love well.

All these meanings can only, truly, be felt in the heart. They are not physical, they summon up your inner strength and power, your power to overcome, to win the fight, and to love, whatever it is, as much as you can. These feelings and thoughts haunt us, night and day. Time and again we return to them, turning over our wants and desires in our minds, working through our fears and hurts, working through our inconsistencies and our self doubts, wanting to come out the other side, like the bull, ready to attack, a powerhouse of inner strength and ability.

Writing is an act of love. It is also an act that can throw you head first into a place where you feel lost, at sea, afraid. You want, you desire, you love, so you come back to your querencia and begin the fight all over again. Querencia is the fight against the no, the maybe, the you’re not good enough. Once you become a writer, you are forever haunted by both fear and love of what you do.

Your querencia is your power. Use it.

Time (reprised)

Two years ago exactly, I was scribbling these words on all the scraps of paper I could find in my bag. I published the story without any reference to what it was about, mostly because it was too painful for me to talk about it. So I let people take what they wanted from the story and it became a widely shared, widely talked about piece. I don’t know what people thought of when they read it, I didn’t even want to know, but it echoed in readers all over the world.

Two years ago exactly, at this exact time, I was sitting in a hospital room, watching my father die. I did not know that he would die at the time, I only felt compelled to start writing the words which I will share again below. But he was dying, my subconscious knew it. My guts churned as the words fell onto the paper. I did not know, yet I knew.

My father was the best man I ever knew. The last words he spoke to me were I love you. In the days that followed his death, they were scant comfort, but they are today. Cliches are things we try, as writers, to avoid, but cliches exist because of they are rooted in unassailable, unpalatable truths. Life is short and time is of the essence. Time… this is what I wrote, two years ago, as my beautiful, quiet, funny and supportive dad watched time slip away.

You think you have all the time in the world. There is always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. Or next week. All the time in the world.

But there isn’t. And you do not; you do not have anything but a solitary moment. Even though you can see them coming, those big moments, when they hit, you are still never ready for them. You thought you had all the time in the world, but now time has ground to a jolting, choking halt.

And there is nothing you can do except flail in the thick waters of helplessness while you watch the hands move inexorably around the clock, without your permission or participation. The feeling that time – that life – has tricked you, is suffocating. The reality of time is that it is an illusion. And you can’t have something that doesn’t exist.

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Photo courtesy of Susanna Feldman © Quote courtesy of Terry Pratchett

 

Open Love Letter To America

Dear America, I am not American, but I love you. I always have, no matter what. There are many reasons why and none of them have anything to do with Hollywood or TV or any of the obvious reasons people say ‘I love America’.

I have seen the Park Avenue America and the third world America of Reservations and don’t believe the meritocratic hype, because, as in every other country, the dice is always loaded. The best and the worst of a place always needs to be balanced because one does not exist without the other. So let’s get the worst out of the way because as I said, this is a love letter.

Unfortunately there is no sweeping recent events under the collective carpet. Maybe, as a voter, you were blindsided by Trump, somehow you failed to see the warning signs (hard to believe given that he has lived his whole adult life in the public eye), somehow you just didn’t think this would happen, could happen. But now, now you must surely realize that there is no shade, just dazzling, cruel clarity. The kind that makes your soul flinch. The Grand Old Party has gone into free fall, spiralling into the very thing your country’s founding fathers fought against and drew up a constitution to prevent: tyranny.

If these are your thoughts too, this love letter is also for you.

So, why do I love America? The answer is simple, blindingly simple. People. American people.

Let me tell you who you are and what you are like, as seen from my own experiences with you. There are people in your beautiful land who share my DNA, they are my family and they have loved me more than my own grandparents. There are people in your beautiful land who do not share my DNA, but they made me part of their family. You Hawaiians, Rhode Islanders, Floridians, Texans, New Yorkers, Minnesotans, Californians; you Brooklynites, you from Chicago, Cleveland and Albuquerque, you from the Navajo Nation, you sweet home Alabamans and all you other Americans from sea to shining sea: please God never lose your openness and your wide, sweet welcomes. Never lose your amazing generosity and all that that word implies. Never lose your infectious enthusiasm that the sour world sneers at because world weary jaded souls have no immunity against it and you infect us with it and we’re better because of it.

I have  spent a lot of time in your country. American arms have unfurled and enclosed around me on many occasions. You have held me up and bigged me up and been in my corner more times than I probably ever deserved. Your moms have fed me and tucked me into bed and made me their own daughter, even for a few short days. To them, I was never a stranger, I was someone to take care of.  Your dads have driven me for miles, often out of their way, with willing hearts and corny jokes and determined I should try all the American things I’d never had before.

The Americans friends I have made over the years have come from all walks of life, from all parts of your vast nation, people of all religions, all ethnicities. Writers, journalists, bartenders, singers, lawyers, actors, secretaries, paralegals, taxi drivers, cops, flight attendants and waiters. The crazy guys at JFK “you’re a lady, dontcha ever let anyone tell ya otherwise, you’re a lady” (back in the days when you could have a joke at airports), the anonymous man who paid for my dinner in New York, the man who sat on the floor at Honolulu airport and cradled my stricken sister’s head like she was his own child. Your soldiers in foreign countries stepping up and stepping in and looking after us (a whole other story). Your strength and grace in the face of adversity and your determination to rise up, your unending faith in a brighter, better time. America is already great because of you.

All of this, all of you who make America America, please never change. No matter what happens, no matter who thinks they are captain of your grand behemoth of a ship, I know in my soul that my Americans will right the wrongs and be the light keepers who guide the ship home through the treacherous, rock-strewn darkness.

You are the reason I will always love America. You are America. How can I not love you?

sea to shining sea

 

Harry and Helen

I grew up in a troubled world. An introverted, scared child in a country scarred with brutal terrorism and a home life where we were always teetering on the edge of a pit of abuse, into which we regularly fell. Early on, I retreated into a world of fantasy and make believe, anything had to be better than reality, and most of my preferred world came from books. I read everything I could get my hands on and was often encouraged.

But it wasn’t until I went to high school that things really changed and I was lucky for the first time in my life. The gods of good fortune rolled the dice and Harry and Helen came into my world. Both were my teachers of English literature and it wouldn’t be too outrageous a thing to say that if it weren’t for either one of them, I would never have worked for Channel 4 or the London Press Service or written for newspapers and magazines around the world and I would not be writing a series of novels.

Perhaps they would disagree with that, because I know they always saw something in me, the first people in the world to alert me to what I had in me, the first people to sow the seeds, to tend gently and watch the work blossom and grow.

First there was Harry Morrow.  I had never met anyone in my life who had such an unflinching passion for words and literature. I was spellbound. He didn’t just read us Shakespeare or Steinbeck, he became Shakespeare and Steinbeck, as if their words had come from his soul. His passion both dazzled and inspired me. With him, I wrote haiku, free-form, novelettes, prose. I learned how to form and craft, I read the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover and I won a national prize at the Young Poet of the Year Awards, judged by Tom Stoppard. There was more pride and delight from him at that achievement than from my own parents.

I didn’t want to leave him and his inspirational class, but the following year the dice was rolled and baby got new shoes again. Helen Long stepped in and my universe expanded further. The books that the school board had cast on us were, in my 13 year old opinion (and still, to this day) dreadful, the worst being Lord of the Flies. I’ve blocked out the rest, except for Seamus Heaney (a lifelong love affair began there). The whole class was not amused. But slowly and surely, my mind opened up. It wasn’t just a book, it wasn’t just literature, it was philosophy, it was psychology, it was the whole fabric of society between the pages of Golding’s novel and Helen Long was giving us the opportunity to realize all of this. Under her, I wrote a book of Viking inspired poetry and my first foray into fiction, a ninety page novella about a girl gang. I began creating magazines and getting other people in the class to contribute to them. Right there, in her class, in her world, I was everything I ever wanted to be.

After those first two years of inspirational teaching, no other literature teacher I encountered quite matched up to Harry and Helen. But it didn’t matter, the groundwork was laid, the ideas were growing and blooming and expanding into vistas of starry paths to the future, a world of words and books and writing.

And so it came to pass.

No one gets to be wherever they want to be without guidance, without help, acceptance, praise and motivation. I believe that teachers meet students who are kindred spirits, for however many kids there are in the class, a teacher might meet just one student with a mind that works on the same frequency. That is sufficient, to change one life. Harry and Helen changed me and my life forever. I could not have been anything else but a writer, thanks to them.

RdOI

The Hungry Grass (an Irish ghost story, part 3)

This story was told to me in London by a very well respected Irish journalist and writer. There is a deep, desperate human tragedy behind it. What happened to those in the story could quite possibly be disregarded by skeptics, but the cause of the rise of stories like this, can never be denied. This is the story of the Féar Gorta, or the Hungry Grass.

The events occured in Cork, Ireland and happened to the journalist’s father Padraig, and uncle, Hugh. His father was a young lad and Hugh, his brother was heading off for the priesthood, as all eldest sons did in those days. It was their last weekend together and they went hunting for rabbits. After a successful afternoon, they were heading home when young Patrick spotted something moving in a thicket .

“One more!” he called to his elder brother, but Hugh shook his head and said “No Padraig, not in there, come on home now. There is nothing in there but hungry grass.”

Padraig, it would seem, did not either hear what his brother said or was not aware of the significance of his words. He went on ahead anyway. Inside the thicket, he looked for the animal that had made the rustling sound and as he did so, a pain gripped his abdomen, a pain so intense that he could not describe it without tears, not even when telling his grown up son, many years later. The pain was so sudden and so vicious, he fell to the ground, unable to move, unable to even make a sound. As an adult, Padraig could only describe the sensation as “living evisceration”. He passed out with the pain just as Hugh lifted him off the ground and carried him home.

The doctors could find nothing wrong with him. Within a few hours he was as right as rain. Hugh explained that where they had been was a place where hundreds of thousands of people had died of starvation. They lay where they fell, in a mass grave, to this day.

“What you felt, Padraig,” Hugh said, “was how it feels to starve to death.”

Padraig told the story only once, to his son. To him, so many decades later, it was as real as the hour it happened.

Between 1845 and 1852, over three million people disappeared from Ireland. Through death by starvation and through emigration to escape the horrors. Thousands more died on the coffin ships to America. An English landowner recorded in letters to England about arriving in Ireland to bring food to those living on his land and on stepping off the ship was confronted with dead bodies littering the countryside, the stench of rotten potatoes and corpses filling the air everywhere. The cash-crop grains that the British could have used to feed the starving were instead loaded onto ships and exported.

It was not really just a famine. It was genocide. As cold and as calculated as any other from history. Who is anyone to say the Hungry Grass is just a story?

FamineMemorial

The Irish Famine Memorial, Dublin

White Water Rafting

You can’t drown in frozen water. The only way to do that would be to hack at the ice and submerge yourself. But that’s very difficult and rather time consuming, it’s much easier to sit still and let the numbness take over. If you sat still long enough you’d get so numb that wouldn’t even know you’d frozen to death.

Grief is a predatory bird, sleek, black and oily, perched on the branch of a stripped tree. Only the eyes move, a reaper watching in thin crystalline winter light, waiting for a slight melting, an imperceptible yet discernably delicate cracking in the hard frozen shield upon which you have placed yourself and which surrounds you, you choose to believe, like holy light, guarding you from pain, tears, anger, longing, despair and all the other things a human heart suffers from in the clutches of grief. The raptor grips you by its talons and though you try to avert your eyes, knowing you should fight, it’s easier to play dead.

We have come to Gullfoss, a place that you loved with every heart beat, an assassinous waterfall in a chasm violently knifed into the heart of Iceland, frozen power suspended in time. My hands hold a box containing what used to be you, for it is here you wanted to be for eternity. You once told me that waterfalls are symbolic of life and all that that implies. Like waterfalls, life moves too fast. It’s dangerous, it’s unpredictable, there’s often no symmetry, but the magical part is that the river you see one minute isn’t the same river the next, it can never stagnate or grow tired or stop being dazzling. You said, everyone loves a waterfall, in spite of all the unknowns and the dangers, everyone is addicted, just look at it. But I can’t.

Wintry frozen Gullfoss is a thousand times more intense. The longer you watch water that is frozen in motion, frozen even as it falls from a great height, you begin to see that what is happening is the slowing down of time, the slowing down of the breath, the easing of a bereft soul. Frozen falls are the encapsulation of the seasons, the eternal turn of the Earth around the Sun, the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth.

Sometimes in chaos there is calm. Life is like going over a waterfall in a life raft, a terrible leap into the void, adrenaline at full throttle. How else, you said, could anyone possibly live? Underneath that glassy beauty is a life-force waiting to return to this life, waiting to ooze out of its icy confines, drop by drop, drip by drip and there will come a day when the tree buds return, the lurking spectral grief will fly away and the numbness will melt into a hopeful spring. The life raft is ready for the thaw, and when the moment comes, I’m going over.

Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

This is the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write, but if it wasn’t for a man, I’d never be writing it. It started with the actor Terry Crews on Twitter, although in all actuality, it began with brave Rose McGowan outing Harvey Weinstein as Hollywood’s predator in chief. For those of you who don’t tweet, Terry wrote how he was sexually assaulted by an elite member of the Hollywood producers club, in public. The man called him the next day to apologize, but the damage was done. Terry Crews is no wimp, neither physically nor mentally. But he was sexually assaulted.

And the floodgates opened. They opened with a force of rage and hurt and anger, all over the world, all over social media. A million women, more. There isn’t a single woman on my Facebook friends list who hasn’t written #MeToo. Men got shocked, men got into denial, men got nasty, men got sisterly and supportive. Men get harassed and sexually assaulted too.

Rape culture and the toxic male centered society is alive and well. It allows men to make rape jokes and everyone laughs, even though rape victims might be in the same room; it allows men who would never rape to refer to women as bitches and whores; it allows male society to view women as nothing more than sperm receptacles; it allows men to be predators and women to be treated as liars if they try and take a stand against it. Ask any woman who has been in a courtroom while the defense lawyer holds up her underwear as if to say, you were wearing these, you deserved all you got. It allows young girls to be denied abortions and to take their own lives rather than go through pregnancy and life after rape. Who made this toxic society? You did. Who keeps it alive? You do.

If you are a man who has listened to another man denigrate women, tell inappropriate jokes, or behave in a sexist manner, you are contributing to the toxic male society. I wonder why men are so afraid or do not care enough to stand up to other men on this? Maybe someone will tell me.

It happened to me. An editor, my superior, walking me to a train station after a night out drinking in the way journalists do, with the whole team, pulled me into a dark alley beside the railway tracks, slammed me up the wall and shoved his fingers down my jeans and into my underwear. His strength and weight against me was something I will never forget. Yet, somehow, I managed to suffocate and erase what happened, something I learned to do a long time ago at the hands of my psychologically abusive mother. The sickening sensation I feel typing these words is physical. It hurts, physically. There is a massive painful knot in my throat and I can’t even get the tears out.

Like Terry Crews, I received a shower of apologies. The trouble is, this man told me all the time what a brilliant writer I was. After that incident, I doubted every word I wrote, and sometimes still do. That’s part of the legacy.

I feel guilty I never said anything. I feel guilty that now I’m saying something. That’s how it feels to be a victim of toxic society. Patriarchy hurts everyone, no one is immune. Men are silenced, women are silenced, children are silenced. But no more, it’s over, we will never be silenced again.

This piece cannot be finished without saying that I have been also nurtured by men that I’ve worked with. Good, honest men who only wanted me to succeed on my own merits and who would never have abused their power to abuse me. I have been nurtured by women that I’ve worked with. Good, honest women who haven’t been jealous of me and who wanted nothing more than for me to succeed. This is what toxic society hates. Solidarity between the sexes. In reality there is no us and them, there is us and we.

Somehow I managed to not let the monster choke me. Revenge is best served in the pages of the novel I’m writing. Thank you Rose and thank you Terry. Thank you everyone who stood up and said #MeToo, male and female. To those of you who are still choking on your silence, I’m holding your hand, whoever you are, wherever you are. You are not alone.

 

 

The Eternal Debt

The high Andes. I cannot go any higher without oxygen and crampons. Humahuaca, Purmamarca, the Salinas Grandes. We waver between 9,000 feet and 11,000. I have been reborn here, because here in the high sky of an intense cerulean blue, a corona wrapped around mountains that command you to worship their magnificence, is the reason that I came to Argentina in the first instance.

I was never a child.

There is a film, Veronico Cruz: The Internal Debt. Except for Argentinians, I do not know anyone who has seen it.  In one searing scene, a boy, a poor indigenous shepherd boy is running across the huge expanse of white salt flats high in the beautiful Andes. A scene and a child I fell in love with and longed to see, a little brown speck moving across the dazzling white sea bed, a sea bed on a mountain range thousands of feet in the thick, heavy, drugging air.

I am addicted.

The Internal Debt was a film that rocked Argentina. Based on the story Veronico Cruz and the poem, Yo Jamás Fui Niño (I Was Never A Child) by Indigenous musician and poet, Fortunato Ramos, it tells the story of an idealistic young school teacher in the dark days of General Galtieri’s dictatorship, sent to the Andes to teach poor indigenous children, one of whom is Veronico Cruz. Years later, the teacher returns to this other world of grinding poverty and hardship and finds that Veronico has joined the navy and is serving on the Belgrano.

Ah. The Belgrano.

In the South Atlantic, on a boat in the Beagle Channel, I met a man who had been on the Belgrano that fateful day. He painted a picture that sank me, of how he listened to 1,093 of his colleagues cry and drown in the dark. As he spoke, I stared down into the same black waters that took them and thought of Veronico Cruz. Galtieri enforced conscription in his drunken war with England over a set of islands and he sent for the cannon fodder, the boys of Humahuaca, Purmamarca and the Salinas Grandes. They had never even seen the sea, never mind the assassinous swell of the South Atlantic.

Gotcha, said the scum British press. I will never forgive them, parasites.

It was time, time to go to the high Andes and look for Veronico Cruz. I took a shared taxi to Humahuaca with Enrique, a local man I’d met in a tourist office. He swarmed everywhere, belly first, loud and knowledgeable, full of pride in San Salvador de Jujuy. I wanted to visit the Quebrada, the Andes of Humahuaca. His car was a land yacht, a geriatric American Chevy. Get in, he said. The car also contained a woman and her daughter, a daughter with mental problems who yanked on my hair for an hour until I gave her a crumbling, wax paper wrapped cookie from the bottom of my bag. If truth be told, I did not expect what happened in Humahuaca to happen.

Call it serendipity.

The Catholic church, the authorities, all tried to quell the indigenous spirit but they never managed it. Not entirely. They could not rob the people of their music, nor their dead in their sky palaces, nor their love of the sky and the earth, the Pacha Mama. A band struck up during lunch, (Enrique had acquired a table right in front of them), a group of local men, with pipes, charangos and drums and one with an accordion. An accordion, of all things.

Go, said Enrique, talk to him. 

The musician was selling CDs of his music and some thin poetry books. He was humble and polite. And words fell from my mouth that I had no intention of ever saying.

Call it serendipity.

I came here, I said, because of the Internal Debt, because of Veronico Cruz. And he smiled and said, “I am Fortunato Ramos, I wrote Veronico Cruz.”

Six thousand miles, ten thousand kilometres, years of dreaming. The reason I had come and breathed in thin air was telling me he was the one who was honored that I, a writer from Ireland, felt all of this enough to come to the Bolivian border. Could he please, please give me one of his poetry books, it would be an honor, he said.

I let the kid pull my hair the whole way back.

Argentina (and the world entire) owes a huge internal debt to its indigenous people. I have an eternal one, but I don’t know who I owe for that.

Love?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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