Monday, March 28, 2022

An open letter to Kevin, eight years on

Dear Kevin,

I am writing this on the morning of the eighth anniversary of your death. It is a clear, cold day here in Minnesota. It's cool and clear in Kansas City, too. I don't remember the weather that day, though so much else is crystal clear. Your hand in mine. Your breathless voice. Your eyes. I have vague memories of the others in the room, both seen and unseen. 

What strikes me today, this day, is how assimilating grief works. I know this is what's supposed to happen, but it feels so very strange. Way back when I was still just a skin coat of grief, tattered and dripping, several people told me that eventually it would be easier. I knew they were right though I couldn't see how. 

I'm getting there, with very mixed feelings about it. I've said this before, but it feels like I'm betraying you by being mostly okay this morning. I rarely have great, roaring cries for you now. I cry, but as often as not I can finally remember some of the good times, like when you were cuddling Toby the dog and moments after this photo was taken, he farted. We laughed. I can remember laughing with you now as a visceral feeling, rather than knowing it happened but not being able to feel it. 

Today grief feels like a deep heaviness in my body.

It is a good thing that finally those feelings are a strong part of my memories of you, not just the loss, but it also means you are more of a memory. That's hard. At the same time I am, finally, so grateful for the memories. I miss you every day and yet, here I am, mostly okay, loving you still. In many ways it feels like a profound betrayal or personal failure that I'm mostly okay. It's another one of those paradoxes we all have to live with, I guess. There is no moral value attached to grief, yet I feel like somehow there is. If you grieve too much, you're broken (and plenty of people told me that I was broken in the early days), yet if you let grief become a gentler feeling it's somehow saying I didn't love you enough. I know that's not true, but the feelings are there. What I remind myself of is that you wanted me to be okay. I promised you that I would be, and most days I am.

You meant and mean so much to so many. I can finally look at pictures of you and not start crying. I can smile at these memories. Here are just a few, not necessarily favorites but little bits of sweetness and sorrow. 

I tried to make the layout tidy, but blogger doesn't make it easy. You would have spent the time to make it work and make it chronological, but this morning I just want this posted. Forgive me.

 Hanging out with Brent and Buff
You were so proud of your book. You and Whitney did such a good job.
Toasting me in Jamaica for our tenth anniversary. 

As a young man, maybe in your mom's house.

I'm not sure where, visiting someone you enjoyed.

 At Stephan and Vered's Wedding. You were so so so happy!
Where you were born to be, with your mom and kids.

A very serious young man.

  With Cynthia, probably at First Night. Elaine and I are there too, but off camera.

With my mom, in whom you had endless faith as you did/do for all of us.
 On one of our adventures, probably in Europe.At a Riding Through History/birthday event, Boston Harbor.

.With your mom in LAAnd, of course, performing at StorySpace at the Out of the Blue gallery. I love this photo.

It is a relief that I can look at these and smile, that today of all days I can remember you alive, moving, speaking, laughing, touching. It is also uncomfortable, because it means so much time has passed. 

This is how I want to remember us, alive and full of light.

What remains is the love. I know you loved me, and still do. I know I still love you, and finally that love is not always inextricably tied to the pain of losing you. It often still is, but not always. And I know that you knew/know how much I love you. 

It bugs me when people say, "I loved them so much." The love doesn't die. Love is stronger than death, though death can overwhelm it for a time. Grief is the cost of love and I will never regret loving you.

i carry your heart with me, i carry it in my heart. 



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Tuesday, January 18, 2022


Somewhere in the late hours of January 18, 2014, or the early ones of January 19, Kevin Michael Brooks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the emergency room of KU Med. He would die 69 days later, surrounded by some of the people he loved most in the world.

There are before and after moments in everyone's life, usually not realized in the moment, but this one was loud and clear. 

It's been long enough now that today is mostly a day like the ones before and after (though that carries pain of its own) with spikes of grief and gasping sorrow. The grief, truthfully, is my companion through the year but some days it's sharper than others, today being one of them.

If you were to have told me when I first met him, that loving Kevin would lead to this, I still would have said yes. I still do. Grief is the price of love and I pay willingly.

Tell the people you love that you love them.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

On being a weirdo

This essay was originally published on my Patreon and is slightly modified here. Most of my blogging happens there now, so if you want to read more of what I write, please check it out.

I have a very clear memory from maybe second grade. Even at that tender age my father was talking to me about suicide, death, and nothingness. It was a dour diet for someone so small, but I loved my father and so did my best to understand. There was no one my age I could talk with about these things, even though they occupied my mind. At that age I was yet to have losses I understood as such. Some great aunts had died, our small dog, but death wasn't yet conceivable, it was merely absence and my father's ruminations.
That second grade morning my class walked around the outside of the school, from the back to the front. I don't know why we did so, but I remember the chill in the air, the bright sunlight, the texture of the brick. My father and I had been talking about death last night, so I was thinking about our conversation when I turned to some kid walking next to me and asked, "What do you think happens after we die?"
I was the weird kid in class (shocking) too interested in reading and writing and imagining and nature, not enough in television or pop culture. This didn't help.
She looked at me like I was crazy. I remember two distinct answers, but only one could be what happened. In one universe she said, "We go to heaven. I will. You're a weirdo," and went to walk near someone else. In the other she just called me weird and walked briskly away. In either case, the conversation didn't go well and it only increased my reputation as a weirdo. Had that happened in the last decade (and the teacher overheard) I'm sure I would have been sent to counseling and a letter sent home to parents, but as it was in the early 1970s, the only result was the other kids thought I was even stranger.
Not long after that another kid told me I was weird (I think it was because my favorite tv show was Nova, not Happy Days which was all the rage) and I replied, "I like being weird."
That was a formative moment. From then on my defense against being different was to embrace it, or at least to try to.
In Jr. High (again dating myself) I met E and finally found someone who was also weird. It was a powerful and important event, seeing that I wasn't the only one who wasn't like everyone else. Together we embraced our weirdness, and since then my path has always been individual, though sometimes lonely. In high school I found a few more familiar weirdos, and again in college, but for most of my life I've had to chose between embracing the weird or toning down.
When I found the storytelling community, I found a kind of home. I could tell strange stories, old folktales, vulnerable personal moments, and no one ran. I'm still weird (my material isn't festival fodder, that's for sure) but at least here I find relatable weirdos. I am certain it has saved my sense of self over and over again. I am still an outlier, telling stranger stories than most, but at least here it's not a reason to hide.
None of us should have to hide our weirdness. As long as it is ours, and doesn't hurt anyone else (which most weirdness does now), let your freak flag fly.

I hope you feel accepted for the weirdo that you are, but if you feel like an outlier and it's hard, please get in touch. You're not alone. We need you. Know that I like you just the way you are.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Cooking and grief, revisited

Some of you may remember that I forgot how to cook when Kevin died. It took me about a year to be able to make anything that required any thought, and longer still to become at all interested in cooking. It remained a pretty spotty proposition for a long time. I had no interest in cooking anything that required much thought for years. Once I was involved with Charley, I had a little more interest but no drive to cook anything beyond simple dishes. When I tried something other than the very tired and true. I was liable to make mistakes. Charley, in his loving and kind way, never complained and said that everything tasted fine, but I knew.

I still don't cook the way I used to and I may never do so again, but this morning I realized I am interested in cooking again. I am interested in trying new recipes that take some time and thought. I am interested in planning meals and seeing what might happen. I miss being an enthusiastic and skilled cook, but I'm no longer indifferent or easily worn out by the tasks associated with cooking.

This is a big deal. Kevin had a gastric cancer so his ability to eat was quickly impacted by his illness. My cooking changed from focusing on delicious to figuring out how I could pack more calories into a broth. He couldn't taste well, thus flavor had little to do with it. Once he died, the trauma of his illness remained in my ability to cook. Initially I wasn't interested, and then I found trying anything new felt like a violation of his memory. Even once I was involved with Charley, I needed to cook simply because trying much new brought back so many memories of cooking for Kevin. If I made something Kevin never ate, it had a bitterness to it because I wanted to share it with him, even as I delighted in sharing it with Charley. I also lost my touch, and my seasonings were off, especially salt. I couldn't taste it clearly anymore.

It's been almost eight years now, and I cook almost every day. This morning I realized I have regained some of my relish (get it?) for new recipes, new techniques, and deliciousness. I cans eason things well again, and only rarely mess up the salt. It hit me like a pie in the face, a combination of sweetness and pain.

That's how it is with loss and love these many years later. I still carry the grief and pain. The good memories are finally almost as strong as the hard ones, but there are ways that those hard emotions feel like the most tangible connection to the man I loved who died. When I hit an emotional milestone, like realizing I enjoy cooking again almost the way I used to, it feels bittersweet. It is a sign I am healing and it is also a reminder that he has been gone for a long time. 

I don't have a good conclusion to this writing, other than the reminder that grief is the price of love. I am blessed that I loved and was loved by Kevin so well. I am grateful for the grief that reminds me of the love. And I am just as blessed, just as lucky, to love and be loved by Charley. How lucky I am that when I cook, I am cooking for living, the dead, and myself. How lucky I am that I finally remembered how.


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Sunday, March 28, 2021

An open letter to Kevin, seven years on

Dear Kevin,

The days and weeks leading up to today have been very odd. It's such a hard time–the pandemic still rages, I haven't traveled in over a year, the country is still a mess post-Trump (though there may be blessings in disguise by revealing our wounds)–and I expected the days leading up to today to be awful. 

They weren't.

I've been mostly okay, which is pretty uncomfortable. I'm afraid it means I've betrayed you somehow and that I've relegated you to what was, though I know you would laugh at the thought. You still are. You are in my heart and the hearts of many others. And yet, here I was, occasionally sniffly and mostly okay. It felt very strange.

I decided I needed to be alone today, so I went for a drive to a park on the Vermillion River, near the Mississippi. That's another weird thing. I don't know if you ever set foot in Minnesota, yet here I am. Anyway, I went for a walk. I looked at the water. I talked to you. I didn't cry. In years past I've gone to a movie because you so loved movies and would then sob in the parking lot, but this year with COVID, that wasn't a wise idea. And the tears didn't come.

When I was done with my walk I got back in the car and thought about you. The sweet memories come so much more easily now, though today has its share of flashbacks. I remembered when we went to the Paul McCartney concert at Fenway, and put on The Beatles so we could sing together as I drove back home, to another man, in a house you would love but didn't know existed, with a dog you would adore. 

It didn't take long to start. Crying and singing and driving home, you were with me.

Do you remember?

In 2009, when we were still in Boston, Paul McCartney announced he was touring and coming to Fenway Park. I staunchly said I didn't want to go, but you kept asking. Of course I wanted to go even if I didn't want to admit it, so I bought tickets. You suggested I ask one of my old friends to go with me, but I was clear that we should go together. 

Our seats were directly across from the stage, but far back. McCartney was a tiny figure, far smaller than life, flanked by two huge screens where he was larger than life. It was a great concert. He knew why everyone was there and played only a few songs from the newest album, then song after song from The Beatles, with a few from Wings thrown in for good measure. 

You had never seen me like that. At one point when I was lost in the music, in my past, I was playing air guitar, utterly unconcerned that there were 34,999 people around me. I saw you smiling at me and froze, suddenly aware of what I was doing. You told me to go ahead and began to air drum. You accepted me as I was in that moment, as you so often did, and joined me there without hesitation.

You sang along with all of us, and wiped tears away at Let It Be. It was, hands down, the best big concert I've ever been to, for all that it was huge, loud, and McCartney is an overwhelming ham.

When I was driving home today I remembered us there, together, and so much more. I pulled over and sobbed. It felt good to finally cry, to feel the feelings that I suspected were there. It also felt good that I didn't need to cry for hours. That I could talk to you and feel comfort. That I was, even if sad, mostly okay.

When you died I sought solace in some online grief groups. When I or someone else would ask if it was this bad forever, someone would say that it changes. It's not that you don't miss them or grieve them, but it eases. In time you find a new balance and remember the sweet as much as the pain. I think I'm getting to that point, uncomfortable though it may be, it is as it should be. 

I'm wrung out now, as you might expect. I still love you, and always will. There is room for more love than I ever imagined. I'm missing you terribly and full of cognitive dissonance about the life I now have and the one that might have been. And I am mostly okay. 

Love always,

It's not the year we were there but it's similar enough. You can hear thousands of people singing along. I like to think I can hear your voice. I love you.


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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Vows taken eight years ago today

Today is our wedding anniversary. 

Those of you who knew Kevin well, know he had complicated feelings about marriage. We had been together for 14 years when we finally married, after many long and arduous conversations. I had wanted to marry for some time, but he was resistant. Because we were moving to Missouri, a former slave state and one with active KKK etc, it seemed wise to give our relationship legal protection. While this wasn't the only reason for our marriage (it wouldn't have happened at all without the love and commitment) it was what pushed him over the edge to be able to say yes.

We didn't tell many people we were getting married, but instead had a pop-up wedding at our going away party, hosted by Tony Toledo. I remember walking to the venue to set up for the party and looking at each other. I don't know which one of us asked, Are you ready and who replied As ready as I'll ever be, but we went in and the party began. After awhile we got up to "say a few parting words" then Kevin dropped down to one knee and asked me to marry him (I wasn't expecting that part). I said yes, and lo and behold, there just happened to be a minister, a huppa, and a marriage license ready to go.

It was fun, watching all of the surprised faces, and it was lovely publicly stating our connection and love for each other. It was wonderful stating our vows, including til death do you part.

By our first anniversary he was very sick, though yet undiagnosed. I remember he apologized for not doing anything special, but he was so ill we couldn't. We'd been seeing doctors who stuck by gastritis and back issues, but I knew it was something more. Anyway, on our first and only anniversary celebrated together we had something inconsequential for dinner, sat on the couch and reread our vows to each other. It was loving and sweet. 

Each year since I've reread our vows myself. 

Today is, of course, bittersweet. On anniversaries like this one I have taken to thinking about how different my life is now from what I expected. It is no less sweet, but it is not what I thought I would have. I live in a house Kevin would love, with a dog he would adore, with a man he would really like (and with whom he would enjoy discussing the awesomeness of Captain Sisko), doing the work he helped me grow into. He would love this life and yet he is not here with me in any physical form.

While my life has changed the love has not. I remain so grateful for his time in my life. Kevin was and is the love of my life (so is Charley - love doesn't have to be a scarce resource). I am grateful for what we had and that now, almost seven years past his death, the sweet memories outweigh the painful ones.

I've written many times that if you are lucky you will grieve deeply because it means you love and were loved deeply. I am so very, very lucky. 


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Monday, July 27, 2020

Homesickness in the time of pandemic

While I lived in Boston for almost 30 years, I never fell in love with it. What made it home were the people I loved and the New England landscape outside of the city. I never felt deeply bonded to the place the way one does with a capital H Home. I carry a sense of home inside of me and that's enough.

Why do I feel homesick for Boston these days? I've been noticing this feeling for weeks, wanting to go Home, even though the home I'm yearning for is long gone. I couldn't go back to the same apartment, Kevin is dead these six years, and I am content enough in Minnesota with Charley.

In thinking about this, what is no doubt obvious to you became clear to me. It isn't that I want to go back to a place, but I want to go back to a belief and a time. A time before Trump and pandemic and constant fear. A time when the future seemed brighter, when I was able to believe the illusion that there was some kind of certainty and positive momentum. A time when I had some confidence in the world as a relatively benign place. A time when I was more hopeful, maybe more innocent. I want that Home, and it doesn't exist. It never did.

The fact of its non-existence doesn't mean I can stop yearning for it. The pandemic has created a great sense of homesickness in me. I am hungry for a sepia-toned-Dorothy-Gale-Kansas version of home, but that doesn't work because I never liked the ending of that film. The message that we're not supposed to dream bigger, full-color lives never rang true to me. 

I'm pretty good at sitting with whatever I'm feeling, but this one makes me impatient with myself, because it comes perilously close to nostalgia, a feeling that I see used in many wicked ways (the good old days never existed and were pretty bad for many). So what am I supposed to do with this feeling? 

I'm asking myself that every day. Some days the answer is to feel the feeling then deliberately move on to other things. Some days it's to feel sad and scared and recognize that what I want isn't possible nor should it be. Other days, my better days, it becomes a spur to act in some way to create a better world. Sometimes that helps.

Today? Today I am homesick. Today I am angry and afraid and ready for change. Today I am sitting with those feelings and realizing I want to build a better idea of home. Today I need to remember that I am not alone in these feelings. Neither are you. 

If there's no place like home then let's make it a home we want to be in. Let's build a world where homesickness doesn't need to be. 

Today I'm calling elected officials and reminding them they work for me. I'm donating what money I can to a variety of organizations, among them some to help those who have lost their homes. And I am sitting with those feelings, yearning for what was, mourning what is gone and then picking up the phone for another call.


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Friday, June 5, 2020

Listening, telling, and empathy to build a more equitable world

This was originally published in my newsletter on 5 June 2020.

Without a doubt, we are living in challenging times. How we respond to it is part of the story we will tell ourselves for years to come, and it's worth some thought.

I've been getting newsletter after newsletter from companies and artists declaring their commitment to equity and human rights, which is as it should be. I've been debating whether I should send out such a statement myself, so let me clear: Black lives matter. Social inequity is an affront to all. Racism, sexism, and more, all of which are systemically entrenched in the United States, are wrong and we all must work to overcome hundreds of years of evil. Yes, evil. It will not be comfortable but it's worth it. I hope that if you know me, or have been following my work, you know my values are in favor of empathy, equity, human and environmental rights. You also know I make mistakes and strive to learn from them.

I've been thinking about how I, a single storyteller, can have a positive impact for a better world, and what I keep coming back to is that I need to shut up and get out of the way, or use my privilege to elevate the voices we most need to hear. When we listen to others we are much more likely to build empathy and understanding. Stories are one of the best possible tools to help us understand another's point of view and maybe learn a bit about ourselves in the process. To that end, I'm going to step aside and urge you to watch this powerful story by Sheila Arnold about how she responded when her son told her he had been pulled over by the police. I cannot watch it without sobbing. CW: Police violence against a man of color.

Sheila's story is a stark reminder of what it's like to be African American in the United States today. Listening to it evokes empathy and powerful emotions. If I could, I would make it required viewing in every police academy, for every store owner, for every white person.

That's part of what we can do as storytellers. We can listen more deeply, empathize more honestly, and share stories that will help others realize why this is important and overdue. That's part of what I'm doing. I'll find ways to do more, including continuing to talk about these issues in my classes, my programs, and most importantly, listening as much as I can.

Thank you for knowing how important story is to building a better world. Thank you for walking alongside me as we continue our march forward.

P.S. It feels rather unimportant in light of everything else, but I am honored and humbled to tell you that I am being inducted into the National Storytelling Network's Circle of Excellence. You can learn more here. I am so grateful to Brother Blue, Ruth Hill, Kevin Brooks, my parents, Charley Shaffner, Loren Niemi, Jamie Mayo, and everyone else who has believed in me over these years. Thank you.


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Friday, April 24, 2020

These are the times we are made for

These are unprecedented times. Never before in human history has a pandemic swept the globe so quickly. Never before have we been able to see it unfurl in real-time. Never before have we been so bombarded with information and misinformation, rumor and fact. 
Each of us is responding the best we can. What that means changes on a daily basis, sometimes even by the minute, but that doesn't mean it's anything but our best, even if in this moment the best you can do is nothing at all.
It can be hard to find a path or even a clear identity when so much is happening at once, but that doesn't mean who you have been, who we are, is invalid because of cultural changes brought on by illness, fear, and propaganda. In fact, who we are as storytellers is more important and valid than ever before. 
We are storytellers.  We are the ones who know that each individual story matters just as much as the big picture. We are the ones who know that person-to-person contact through story doesn't mean contagion of illness, but of shared humanity and hope. To quote Brother Blue, "We are the ones we've been looking for." 
We are listeners.  Storytellers understand the vital importance of deep listening without judgement. We can hold space for others and create places where anyone can share their tale so we build community, connection, and empathy.
We are observers.  Storytellers watch the world with an artist's eye. We see what is visible, what is overlooked, and what is hidden. We see, we notice, and we remember.
We are holders of truth.  Whether through metaphor or fact, storytellers hold the truth of what it is to be human. We hold the truth of love and loss, of heroism and deceit, of hope and resilience. We speak truth to power and know our words will echo through the world.
We are cartographers.  Elizabeth Ellis said we need to tell difficult stories because we are saying, "I went to hell. I came back. Here is a map." Our stories, whether traditional or personal, serious or funny, are maps to survival and change. They are a coded document of endurance, empathy, and determination. 
We are makers of meaning.  Storytellers know that meaning lies in everything. Whether a joke that reveals our fears and aspirations, a myth that shapes the world, or a personal recollection, our stories help everyone who hears them interpret and understand the world. We know that words matter. 
We are storytellers.

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

On being cancer free in a pandemic

26 years ago yesterday I woke up at 4:30 a.m., put on my rattiest pair of jeans, and went to a specialty hospital to have surgery. I had a mass in the orbit of my left eye. I had been assured it was likely benign, but they couldn't confirm until it was removed. The procedure for a biopsy was the same as for excision, so there was no reason to not just have it taken out. Besides, the mass was growing pretty quickly and I was starting to look like Marty Feldman's cousin, let alone having some unsettling visual problems, like partial blindness in my left eye and diplopia.

About 12 hours later I woke up in recovery, pushing the nurse away as she adjusted my oxygen mask. I looked like I'd been badly beaten, but was assured everything went well and I would heal quickly and easily. There had been some alarming moments in the surgery, but I was okay. That night in the hospital, a nurse named Steve? Bill? sat next to me and held my hand when I was afraid. I went home the next day.

A few days later I went back for a check-up and biopsy results. That was when the doctor told me that the mass wasn't benign but a fairly rare and (at the time) not well understood malignancy. Cancer. Long story short, there was some rigamarole about next steps, but I was fine. I still am. Some good stories have come out of it and I've learned a few things.

A year later, 25 years ago, I threw a party, my re-birthday. I kept that party up for ten years then decided I'd had enough and didn't need to do it anymore. I would do it again in 10 years for my 20th re-birthday.

Twenty years later, April 18 was 21 days after Kevin died from cancer. I didn't throw a party.

In all honesty, now I don't really remember to notice the day for my own sake. I'm reminded by something about the Oklahoma City bombings, which occurred on April 19, 1995 (remember when this kind of thing seemed impossible?) or, while I still lived in Boston by the Marathon or Patriots Day. If anything, when I did remember, it became another trigger for grief because I survived cancer and Kevin did not. Mostly it's just another day, which is probably good.

This year is different. It is, of course, different for all of us and in so many ways. Some of us are just learning about grief and trauma, others recognize some of it as a familiar ride. For all of us this is unprecedented.

I woke up yesterday not thinking at all about the date. Something was nibbling at me, something I should remember. At some point, I think while Charley and I were walking, I remembered. Oh. Right. Today I am cancer-free.

I'm not sure what the larger point is here, other than wanting to note it and recognize that against the greater backdrop of global grief and loss, it is both very small and not small at all. I keep thinking about A Blessing for the Wedding by Jane Hirschfield and Elizabeth Alexander's Praise Song for the Day, both poems about the ordinary-ness of the extraordinary and the extraordinary-ness of the ordinary.

Hirschfield reminds me that living and dying happen all the time, that there are unknown joys and tragedies every single moment of the world. So it is with my own cancer experience, with loving and losing Kevin, with loving and losing so many, with this moment when we are all suspended in time between life and death, staying home to stay safe or struggling to breathe.

Today when someone you love has died
     or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
     or someone you will not meet has been born

Every single one of those moments matters whether or not they impact me directly.

It is Alexander who comforts me. I wish I could share her words with my 26 year old self, who was so very scared. I don't know if they would have helped then, or if they will help now, but

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, 

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, 
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Today I am still here, amidst the certainty of death and loss, praise and courage, the un-noticed moments that compose our lives. Today I am 26 years cancer-free, half my life passed ahead of that frozen moment. I did not know then what was to come, all of the love and fear and strangeness and wonder. I still don't know. None of us do. But here we are.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. I love you all.
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