The Veil of Privacy in an Age of Anxiety

[What follows is my contribution to “Other People’s Privacy: Secondary Characters in Nonfiction,” a panel presentation to the annual meeting of the Associated Writing Programs in Minneapolis earlier this month. I joined Emily Fox Gordon, Debra Monroe (moderator), John T. Price, and Robin Hemley on the panel.]

I confess to some anxiety over the task that this panel seems to pose for me as a memoirist and essayist, that is, offering advice, the fruit of experience and reflection, on the ethical and aesthetic issues that come with writing about secondary characters in nonfiction, a secondary character being anyone who is not the writer herself.

My feelings about offering such practical wisdom are suggested in a story told by Jud Heathcote, former coach of the Michigan State University men’s basketball team, about receiving advice from his predecessor. “When I got to Michigan State,” says Heathcote, “the previous coach was cleaning out his desk. As he departed, he said he had left me two envelopes, each containing a three-word message. He told me not to open the envelopes unless things were not going well. Well, sure enough, after the first year, things were bad, so I opened the first envelope and read the three words: ‘Blame your predecessor.’ So I told the press and alumni that the cupboard was bare and I needed more time. A few games into the second year, things were bad again. Out of desperation, I opened the second envelope. It also contained three words: ‘Prepare two envelopes.’”

The contemporary writer of memoiristic nonfiction comes at the end of a long line of authors who have faced the issues we are talking about. After all, autobiographical writers have been portraying secondary characters for a long time, and the issues of privacy are inherent in autobiographical nonfiction. Almost a century ago, W. B. Yeats in The Trembling of the Veil addressed some of them:

Except in one or two trivial details, where I have the warrant of old friendship, I have not, without permission, quoted conversation or described occurrence from the private life of named or recognizable persons. I have not felt my freedom abated, for most of the friends of my youth are dead and over the dead I have an historian’s rights. . . . I have said all the good I know and all the evil: I have kept nothing back necessary to understanding.

We do, as Yeats says, have greater freedom with the dead. And it’s helpful to obtain permission—when you can get it. But what I want to note especially is Yeats’s confidence that he has cleared his path, that he has no obstacles ethical or aesthetic to his art.

Contrast that confidence to the anxiety that suffuses writers today, evidenced by this panel and others that have been convened on nearby topics and by numerous texts in our writerly periodicals and websites. What has changed to create this state of anxiety?

Growth. In the last twenty years memoir and other personal writing has become vastly more popular in publishing circles, has been added to the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate writing programs, and has attracted more readers and practitioners. It has become more visible and more diverse. It has moved online.

Out of that visibility comes anxiety—concern about invention, the policing of facts, debates over the documentary and the literary, over privacy, who is speaking for whom, and fairness. Anxiety over the ethics of writing about other real people—how fair or unfair we are, our accuracy and motives—is an outgrowth of a genre’s explosion.

Unfortunately, applied ethics won’t save us from our anxieties and conundrums.

Let me give a small example from the memoir I’ve been writing. One chapter is about a hike I took on the Appalachian Trail with my friend and her sister during a college summer long years ago. The two sisters came up with the plan and invited me to join them. Though we talked about the hike all summer, I did little to prepare, while they devoted themselves to getting ready, and when the time for departure came, ready they were, outfitted in broken-in boots and proper backpacks. They were in superb physical condition.

Our plan was to enter the trail in Pennsylvania and hike for a week, pushing well into Maryland. However, in keeping with my twisted approach to matters at the time, I wore blue swede boots that were more pretty than practical, and within a day my feet were rubbed raw and bloody. Besides ruining my own journey, I made my co-hikers miserable. Straggling behind them hour after hour, I devoted myself to distributions of blame, and realized at last that the sisters and I were on different hikes. Not just unprepared for the physical rigors of the trail, I hadn’t considered the dynamics of hiking with two sisters. There was sisterhood on the trail, but it didn’t include me.

I stuck it out until we reached Maryland and then I quit, exited the trail where it passed close to a little town, and called my parents to come pick me up.

While in my account I take the blame for sabotaging the hike, I also suggest that the sisters might have been more solicitous of my welfare. I notice that they did not accompany me into town to make sure I could get a ride home. In other words, they abandoned me.

Sisterhood is powerful, I thought as I watched them carry their heavy packs on strong backs along the trail into Maryland, in step with each other at an expeditious pace. In less than a week they had become practiced at the art of hiking which required that they leave me behind. Watching their figures recede, I saw that they would do good things with their lives, hard and difficult things. I asked myself why I wasn’t the kind of person who could follow the trail like the sisters moving quickly beyond me.

Now it’s easy to believe that casting a cold eye on oneself justifies casting a cold eye on others, that willingness to reveal my own unflattering secrets authorizes revealing secrets that belong to others. Yet whatever harshness I reserve for myself, my old friend and her sister did not consent to be part of my narrative, only part of my life. As the description of this panel puts it, “Our secondary characters . . . think of themselves as people, not characters.” The person I knew in life is being brought into a different realm where the only authorization is the aesthetics of art.

Even when we try to be fair and careful, to write out of empathy and not malice, we are using real people as part of the story. These secondary characters didn’t ask to be written about, and many aren’t happy to appear in our pages. Following Yeats, I sought permission from my hiking friend to include her in my memoir. I received no reply.

Mark Doty suggests that “beyond the personal ethics of memoir . . . there’s a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art.” To put it in bare language, Doty is suggesting that the best way to handle our anxieties is to write well. Regardless of the age or the particular cultural moment, the only standard is the work itself. We must assess safety and protection and privacy against the aesthetic and ethical demands of our art.

We can’t avoid the issues, but we can put them in their place. Doing so won’t eliminate the damage, the possibility that we might lose people whom we write about, just as Mark Doty’s relationship with his father was severed by his own writing

My advice, then, is to make the writing worth the cost. And prepare two envelopes.

AWP2015: Other People’s Privacy: Secondary Characters in Nonfiction

Originally posted on In Present Tense: Assay's Blog:

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Marcia Aldrich, Emily Fox Gordon, Debra Monroe (moderator), John T. Price (replacing Bob Shacochis), and Robin Hemley

These superb panelists discussed how they strive to craft fully nuanced secondary characters. You need to make your secondary characters as well rounded, nuanced, and fallible as you make yourself.

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The Free Memoir: A License to Thrill

 Principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each
particular thing ask, “What is it in itself? What is its essence?”
The Silence of the Lambs

Vivian Gornick says that memoir is “a genre still in need of an informed readership.” I agree.

A first step to better reading would be recognition of the different types of memoir, which have proliferated in the last three decades. Most of these types have been labeled plain memoir, a term that has resisted customizing. We have made do with one heading—as if shoes were simply shoes, instead of slippers, flats, oxfords, sandals, high heels, boots.

Stuart Dybek has said, “I, personally, could care less what anybody calls anything. I just care about the character of the piece.” I wish I could say labels don’t matter, but not everyone is as clear-sighted as Dybek. Some readers need help. What you call a narrative can prime them with the right assumptions and tamp down the wrong ones, preventing certain irritations and disappointments.

In reading a memoir we need to ask, What kind of shoe am I slipping onto my feet?

One type of life story is the free memoir, a form of nonfiction that, in presenting the past, deviates from factual and literal accuracy. This play of truth distinguishes the free memoir from the memoir per se, the word “free” meaning what it does in free translation, that is, “not literal or exact.”

Writers have on occasion been called to account because the nature of the free memoir isn’t understood. Sometimes readers apply the wrong convention, truthfulness, and free memoirs are lambasted as deceptive. Even writers themselves sometimes fail to see what sort of thing they have written. I suspect that James Frey got into trouble over A Million Little Pieces because he didn’t grasp just what kind of narrative he had composed.

Well, maybe I’m projecting my personal doubts onto Frey, who is certainly much more crafty than I. My own book Girl Rearing is a free memoir. Before the book’s publication, I had discussions with the publisher about giving readers a heads-up. I wanted to hint at the nature of the book in the subtitle, and suggested A Memoir of Girlhood Gone Astray. That would have left ambiguous whether it was the girlhood or the memoir that had gone adrift. (The publisher was not impressed by my idea.) Doing it all over again, I would just title the book Girl Rearing: A Free Memoir.

The nature of the free memoir’s infidelity to fact is clarified if we think of movies that are “based on a true story” (BOATS movies—there’s another useful term), among which the biopic is closest to the free memoir.

Moviegoers don’t worry just because biopics stretch the truth. Most audiences are untroubled by a tightening of the subject’s life and a heightening of its drama, the invention of scenes and characters. Audiences expect as much. They want as much. They don’t care if Ray portrays the true Ray Charles so long as he’s a blind black singer-pianist and the movie tells a good story.

In other words, with creative works like these, the accuracy of the facts is not a criterion of evaluation.

This doesn’t mean BOATS movies are never panned for inaccuracies. But such accusations often emerge from the motivations of the viewer. Argo, which portrays American diplomats’ escape from Iran after the Iranian Revolution, is a perfect example. The film critic for Maclean’s, a magazine out of Canada, complained that the movie minimized the role Canada played in the diplomats’ escape.

The film’s director, Ben Affleck, who understood the essence of the particular thing he had made, responded, “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth.” Making use of its poetic license, the movie invented a thrilling effort by the Iranians to catch the escaping diplomats’ plane as it taxied down the runway for takeoff.

In that same spirit, the spirit of the free memoir, my own story in Girl Rearing begins, “I was born in an alley.” I did not write, “I felt like I had been born in an alley,” which would have been more factual, but less satisfying, the impact of the sentence diminished by the qualification. I was not born in an alley, but that’s what the story of my birth felt like. Nothing better captured the truth of my situation in my family. The alley, its poetics of space, was where my story began.

The Things We Carry

Class assignment: Take an inventory of your bag, pick three telling items, and let them tell.

1. Pencil

In the back pocket, a green Michigan State University pencil, sharpened at a steep angle, with a fresh eraser the color of a garden pot. It came in a pack of fifty, bound with a thick rubber band, purchased at the campus surplus store, and given to me by a student named Harold. It was our last day together, and pencils were needed for course evaluations on mark-sense forms.

Harold was a Vietnam vet with a slim build who wore wire-rim glasses and held a job on campus. He often brought me small items of the sort needed by those of us who work on paper—erasers, pens, paper clips.

I wasn’t the only recipient of his gifts. He gave little things to his fellow students, too. He baked cookies with macadamia nuts and brought them to class in a special tin. He was always thinking of ways to encourage the others.

One afternoon the class was discussing the writer’s voice. A compelling voice, I said, isn’t always pretty. Behind a strong voice is the character and power of a lived life. It’s a sound you want to listen to, but it doesn’t have to purr. “Like Bob Dylan,” I said.

The students, decades younger than I, groaned. En masse they agreed that Dylan’s voice stank. Once they got up a head of steam, they couldn’t say enough about just how awful it was.

Harold spoke up: “If you think Dylan can’t sing, listen to Nashville Skyline.” The next day he arrived with Nashville Skyline burned on a CD.

Harold’s own voice expressed a self-deprecating humor with the softness of a dove.

“You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand,” sang Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Years later, Harold’s pencils still roll when I pull open the top drawer of my desk.

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2. Chalk

The assignment was to write a poem in imitation of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I wanted students to write their imitations on the blackboard, have them cram together at the front of the room, fitting their lines between others. How stuck we are in our seats! Wedged into little desks hour after hour, looking at screens, while all our energy drains down to our feet. I wanted to get back to basics, to chalk and words, to the slant and length of the letters, the indentations of lines, to scraping the letters onto the blackboard, like a wet, black bough.

I wanted to read the poems out loud again and again, until the students became poets, accustomed to hearing poets’ voices in a classroom, speaking their poems—to fill the boards with the electric colored words, and to leave them there for those who came next.

My plan required colored chalk, so I went to Office Max. I found the stubby kind for sidewalks, but not the thinner sticks that are easier to manipulate. After searching in vain, I located a clerk and asked where I might find chalk.

“Chalk,” he said, as if dimly trying to recall his days in second grade. He led me to an aisle I had already searched, and examined the shelves, filled with the accoutrements of digital techno-wizardry. He soon gave up, pulled his phone from its holster, and called back to the stockroom. Another clerk came out to help.

“This lady is looking for chalk. Do we have any?”

“We don’t carry much chalk anymore. People aren’t using it because, you know, PowerPoints and whiteboards,” the second clerk said. He walked me back to another aisle I had already scoured and pointed to a small, solitary box hanging from a display hook. The box was empty. Someone had stolen the chalk.

“I’ll check the storeroom,” he said.

I looked at Pilot V5 fine-point pens for a long time. At last the clerk reemerged, carrying the jewel in the Office Max firmament—a tiny box of chalk.

“It’s the last,” he said, “the very last.”

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 3. Book

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s story of saving herself from addiction and despair by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In preparation she stuffs her backpack, which she calls Monster, with thirteen books, including four of my own favorites: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, and Dubliners by James Joyce. After finishing a book she burns it, shrinking the Monster on her back.

But the Dream she carries all the way to the end, reading the poem “Power” at night like a prayer (“her wounds,” says Rich of Marie Curie, “came from the same source as her power”).

Cheryl carries the Dream all the way because she cannot reach the end of her venture empty-handed. Her bag must not be exhausted. There must be something to find at the conclusion, something to discover, the journey’s revelation and truth, the truth of her story of rescue, the conversion of wound to power: a book.

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Raylan! Raylan, Come Back! Mother Wants You!

The sixth and final season of Justified has begun. I’m not happy about it. The final part, that is.

The show’s creators say they’re breaking it off because they don’t want to overstay their welcome. I say take your shoes off, stay as long as you like. The creators say they don’t want to repeat old tricks. If they don’t make new episodes, I’ll watch the old ones. What do I care if they repeat a few tricks?

But like it or not, the producers have made their decision, and I’m left with wondering how Justified will end. How will the battle between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his childhood friend turned criminal, Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), be resolved? Raylan chose the law, Boyd chose to blow things up, but the line that separates them is thin. They are pitted against one another, yet they often join forces against a shared enemy.

There are women involved, of course. There’s Ava (Joelle Carter), who had a romance with Raylan and then took up with Boyd. She’s going to be pivotal in the resolution to come, whatever it is. Raylan might join his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his baby daughter in Florida after he completes his last task—put Boyd Crowder behind bars.

Catching Boyd may mean Raylan gets himself killed. It’s hard to imagine Boyd going down without pulling Raylan with him. The question for this last season is Who will get out of Harlan alive? Many viewers seem to want a shoot-out, a final duel between Raylan and Boyd. Many believe it will be Raylan whose luck runs out, as his past wrongs catch up to him.

What are the possible resolutions of the plot?

  1. Raylan puts Boyd in prison with help from Ava, or Boyd is killed, maybe hoist with his own petard. Then what? Raylan could ride out of Harlan and settle down with Winona. But this can’t be. For one thing, I don’t want Boyd to get caught in one of his own blasts, even if poetic justice would be done. And we haven’t seen anything of Winona lately except on Skype. She can’t hold her own against the claims of the flesh-and-blood characters. And really, is Raylan going to start changing diapers?
  2. Boyd kills Raylan, and he and Ava head off into a fresh start. Can’t get invested in that one either. I don’t want Raylan buried in a plot out back of his father’s house. And redemption for Boyd after all the killing and blowing shit up? Can’t see the show giving him the last word.
  3. Ava sets up a deal in which she gets rid of both men and takes over as queen of Harlan County. There’s some justice in this scenario. Both men have used her for their own purposes at times. But would the show end pleasingly with such a bitter tableau? I don’t think so.
  4. Raylan and Boyd kill each other, and Ava dies too. This is a variant on number 3, except no one gets out of Harlan alive. As for the men, one can’t live without the other, just like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty going over the falls together. This may be the actual conclusion. It stays true to the story lines of the five seasons beforehand, and to a core story—how their fathers doomed Raylan and Boyd.

I don’t like any of these endings.

Here’s what I want. I want Raylan and Boyd to live. The show must end, but the characters don’t have to. They must depart Harlan after all the harm they’ve done. I accept that. But if the show wanted me to take seriously a domestic future for either man, the writers had to do a whole lot more with Winona and Ava. The screen goes blank when I imagine Raylan or Boyd in some kind of home life, even with a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the table.

What if we look to the law of genre for help? Justified is a late western. Raylan’s a marshal and wears a cowboy hat, shoot-outs are part of his job description, and Harlan is the law’s frontier, a modern-day Dodge City. So maybe the final scenes in iconic westerns will lead us to the right conclusion.

There’s John Wayne framed by the doorway at the end of The Searchers, restless and alone, but with a measure of peace that he has won by completing his quest. There’s Paul Newman and Robert Redford in freeze frame in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, seconds before their death, in their own way as immortal as figures on a Grecian urn.

Justified needs a combination of these, a mash-up of restless motion without satisfaction. I think we need to add another western model, Shane.

Shane picked up the gun he had vowed to holster forever, rode into town, and killed the hit man and every other bad guy. He made the town safe but killed his last chance for domestic companionship and peace. His brand is violence. He must ride into the mountains, alone. I am the kid who ran after him, calling, Mother wants you . . . Shane, come back.

That’s how it must end, Raylan and Boyd, in eternal, restless wandering, but together, moving into the fog of an uncertain future.

Or is there a more satisfying outcome I haven’t thought of?

No matter how it ends, I’ll mourn Justified. The hills of Harlan County will echo with Raylan! Raylan, come back! Mother wants you!

The New Empathy

In conversations with new acquaintances, Paul Ford asks plenty of questions and lets the other people do the talking. He tries not to ask what they do for a living, but if it comes to that, he responds with “Wow. That sounds hard.”

If anyone wants to come over, we’re here. If not, reach out. I can use all the support I can get. I’m hurting.

Parole was denied for John Lennon’s killer in his eighth appearance before the parole board. An earthquake of 6.0 magnitude struck the northern San Francisco Bay Area.

42 people like this.

A dozen parents and children killed a shark for a selfie.

Aww hun, if I lived on the west coast I’d come visit. Sending lots of love.

A massive fish swallowed a four-foot shark whole off the Florida coast. Kathy Griffin is sick of some middle-aged white guys on late-night TV.

Hun I am so sorry for your great loss! Big Hugs.

A mysterious giant crack splits the ground in northern Mexico. It runs nearly two-thirds of a mile, measures close to thirty feet deep.

So sad I can’t go but you know I love you.

A thirteen-story Gaza building was leveled in an attack after Egypt-mediated ceasefire talks broke down. A British woman vowed to become the first female jihadist to kill an American captive.

I’m so sorry. I’ll stop by in a week or two.

J-Lo says she doesn’t whore around. Obama ordered a review of police militarization. After Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, his body was left on the street for four hours in the summer sun.

I hope you get all the support you deserve!!!

Iggy Azelea fell off the stage at the Pre-VMAs concert plus Nicki Minaj’s VMA dancer was bitten by a snake.

Oh Darling.

Poachers killed an estimated one hundred thousand elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012.

If you ever need anything please let me know.

Thousands marched peacefully through Staten Island to protest the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

I’m coming over tonight, if that’s OK with you.

James Foley, a missing American photojournalist, was beheaded by ISIS.

I know that this is going to be hard for you and I wish I could be there to help but I can’t.

Kim Kardashian has issued an invitation to see her without makeup.

It’s been years since I’ve seen you and you’re writing for my love and support.

Starting when she turned twenty-nine, Lucy Hilmer has taken a self-portrait on every birthday for forty years wearing nothing but a pair of Vanity Fair underpants, shoes, and socks. She says, “Armed with my camera and tripod, I found a way to define myself on my own terms in the most open, vulnerable way I could.”

There’s nowhere to park where you live.


On Wednesday I asked the students in my class to describe what they’d been doing earlier in the day, before our afternoon session began. While they scribbled I wrote alongside them, producing a dull summary of actions and toil—until I came to waiting

There is always waiting. It begins in the still-dark morning when my dog barks at a sound I can’t hear. I wait for R. to get out of bed and take her outside so I can go back to sleep. But really so I can go back to waiting.

If you want to write, there’s no way around waiting. Over waiting the writer has no control. Oh, I’m in charge in the sense that I can follow a routine known to be helpful to the production of words. Keep to a schedule is one common suggestion. But there is mystery in writing. Who can say why one day, seated before my screen at seven in the morning, nothing but verbal clutter comes, and the next day, seated at seven, I put together words that have never before been arranged in just that way. Both days are born out of me and my life, and yet I don’t have control over them. I can only put myself in a position from which something good may come. And then I wait.

If you’re a writer, there is always waiting. Send off a submission and bide your time until the results come in. I used to print out my work, meticulously compose a cover letter, prepare my SASE with a stamp that seemed right for the occasion, slide it into a larger envelope so there were no creases, take the assembled whole to the post office, and hand it to the clerk, all with the seriousness of great expectations. A deliberate and time-consuming process. After counting a few days for transit in each direction, I began to wait for an answer in the mail, which meant attending on each afternoon’s delivery. Each day the truck with little tires would make its stop at the end of my driveway. There was something deliberate about walking out to the mailbox, pulling out the envelopes, magazines, and catalogs, flipping through to see if an editor had replied. Most often there was nothing, each day a little death. (How many jokes did Shakespeare make about that? “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.”) And then the rebirth of waiting, until at last rejection or acceptance came, sometimes signed with a real signature. Sometimes there were real words on the sheet of paper, written by pen and hand. The verdict had heft, a weight that matched the seriousness of the waiting.

Nowadays submissions are handled by Submittable, that anonymous and efficient online service. I log into my account and upload my essay, maybe pay a fee, and my process is done. I still wait, but the waiting is not the same. It has no cycle, no order determined by the earth’s rotation. Waiting is a continuous hum of the nerves that can continue for months or even years, as if one were a hunger artist.

Or there can be no waiting at all. I once submitted online to a journal and was rejected twenty minutes later. I uploaded my essay at 7:30 p.m. and by 7:50 p.m. had been repelled without comment. I shot off an aggrieved message to the editor, doubting that anyone could evaluate an eighteen-page essay in so short a time, certainly not with care. The editor replied that she had given my essay every consideration.

So there are things worse than waiting. One must be patient, I tell myself. Worrying won’t hurry the process along, and the outcome, or verdict as I prefer to think of it, is more likely a resounding no than a joyful yes. I think of myself as a defendant standing in the courtroom, listening for the jury’s decision. Whether the verdict is a yes or no, I have no power to direct its course. Someone else has presented my case, and I must remain silent and stoic. That’s why they call it a submission—you submit to another person’s power. Depending on the verdict, I will either turn and embrace my supporters, if there are any, or be led from the courtroom and back to my cell.

Some mornings I feel sure a no is barreling toward me to lodge in my inbox. Perhaps it was delivered overnight while I slept and is now coyly poised to spring at my unprotected eyes. Sometimes, unsuspecting, I innocently open my email, but sometimes I sense, like a barking dog, that something troubling watches me, even though I can’t see it.

Some people are crestfallen when the cake comes out heavy or the pizza slides off the stone or the zipper won’t zip, but those failures stun me little. They roll off because I have invested nothing in them to begin with. But writing is another matter. To write is to give with all of myself, to feel that what I am doing matters, even if the subject is small, invisible, unmoving. Writing is entire. And so I react with the entire self when word comes back from the world.

I crave nightfall, the end of the day, when waiting is over, and I am wrapped in the fur of dogs, the touch of love, and sleep. Waiting is the condition of our birth, our waking, what we’re born into, this lovesickness or homesickness, the lump in our throats that will only clear when we can wait no more.


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