Fall

I’ve noticed that as I grow older, as I continue to push myself to embark on challenging journeys like living in Colombia, my mind instinctively works to not let things bother me so much. For example, in the past when I’d lose something—an unfortunate pattern of mine—I would fall to pieces; feel painstakingly ashamed and disappointed in myself. Now, when I lose things, I still feel disappointed, but I calmly think, “What’s done is done.” Getting overly upset doesn’t change the situation. This reaction is helpful, in a sense, but sometimes I feel that this instinctual composure has become too much of a reflex; that tuning in to my feelings is like trying to kick in a door that stands directly before a brick wall.

I can’t remember ever having been particularly good at goodbyes. What makes someone “good at” goodbyes is probably fairly subjective, but to me it involves understanding what a given situation means, what realities are implied. Even if you’re the type who sobs at the airport, blubbering all over your boarding pass, this is still a form of an appropriate response. It means you get it.

It has been two years since I’ve seen the leaves turn in autumn. The red and gold leaves dazzle and distract from the coming cold, but they can only hold on to their branches for so long. Family trees know seasons, too. Still, knowing that these facts of nature exist and experiencing them are two different beasts. Death, like winter, is evitable, but since leaving the states I have been able to keep my distance from both of them.

I’ve known for about a year of my grandfather’s declining health, from being diagnosed with lung cancer to the chemo to the pneumonia, but it never really sank in. Though his condition was getting worse, his memory remained intact; he continued to tell stories and even to this day, at 88, he continues to send texts—in my case, an e-mail— from his smartphone every Friday night to wish his children, in-laws and grandchildren a “Shabbat Shalom.”  Two months earlier when I had visited the US, he was using a cane but, in general, doing fine. Since then, I’ve received messages from my parents that his condition has been worsening, which, from afar, seemed both abstract and unreal. A few weeks ago my parents told me through the Skype call on my computer that he was being returned to his home from the hospital to be “made comfortable,” and that he was preparing to “check out.” I was given the choice to fly back in the next week or so or to come in for his funeral. I told them I’d find a way to get off work for a few days and my dad (very generously) bought me a ticket to fly in on the 9th. Between the time my dad got me a ticket and my arriving to O’Hare airport, I still hadn’t done much processing of the situation. Being given the opportunity to say goodbye to someone before they die is an incredible blessing but also confusing, especially for someone who isn’t very good at registering the weight of parting in the moment that it takes place.

Part of the incentive to move abroad was to separate myself from distractions and focus on what I want to do with my life. I felt like in the year since graduating from the university I hadn’t accomplished as much as I had hoped and that drastic measures had to be taken to not get stuck. Honestly, in many ways the move can be boiled down to a selfish act as means of pursuing more selfish endeavors. I am essentially responsible to no one. Still, prompted by no one/nothing but my “Jewish Guilt,” I often experience recurrent feelings of remorse, tell myself that if I must make my family and friends miss me that I should, at least, be making something of myself; making the distance worth it. This past June when I last said goodbye to my grandmother, the wife of the aforementioned grandfather, she began to cry into a tissue retrieved from the sleeve of her periwinkle sweater, “Why do you have to be so far away? When am I going to see you again?” Granted, in these days she could cry even if the butcher called—her words, not mine—but, realistically, her response made sense. At my grandparents’ age, time is not infinite. For the past few months, my family has been taking frequent shifts to care for or visit them. Not only do I feel as if I am missing out on spending time with them but that I am skirting a responsibility to care for two people who have done nothing but show kindness and give unconditional love for their family their entire lives. I wanted to move forward while everything back home stayed exactly as it was, like a Netflix account I could deactivate and reactivate at any given time, finding my preferences saved and waiting for me.

Last week, when my mom and I pulled into my grandparents’ driveway, I sat in the passenger seat for a moment, buckled in, looking up through the windshield at the amber leaves dangling like young legs from the seat of a swing; the former inertia of up up and away nearing complete stillness. I didn’t know what to expect inside.

My grandparents bought this special bed that is divided into two parts, each side with the ability to incline and decline by remote control. Papa Art, as he is referred to, is permanently in this bed now. A long, plastic, oxygen tube winds under his nose. Every hour, for a short period of time, he uses an oxygen mask to provide additional support. My mom and I went to visit him every day and each time the house seemed to be a revolving door of visitors. Some days he would talk a little and some days barely at all. Coming from a man who always had a response or a story for everything, this silence, this shortness of breath, was more difficult to witness than even the mask. Not wanting to tire him, I mostly just chatted about everything I could think of and took naps next to him.

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At one moment I asked him if he thought he had any “unfinished business;” anything he wish he had done different. (Clearly, my experience with death has been educated by the movie, Casper.) He responded no, that he lived a good life, surrounded by family. By all intents and purposes, he did everything right: he loved his job, he married a woman who makes him happy, he traveled the world, went to glamorous parties, has a beautiful family who he has treated like treasure, gave back to the community, and brought laughter to friends and strangers alike. A few weeks ago he had my mom go into his phone and tell all of his contacts how grateful he was to have them as friends.  Up until the last moments, he has been doing everything right.

When it was finally time to say goodbye, I hugged Papa Art and told him I loved him. We each made the I Love You sign language hand gesture and touched our pointer finger and pinky finger to that of the other person— our special handshake. He said he loved me and he wished me a safe trip. I looked at him for the last time, studying his face, trying to stamp the image of it into my memory the best I could… And then that was it.

On the car ride away from their house, it rained so hard that I knew even if I were to stay, the leaves on the trees would all be gone soon. When we arrived back to my parent’s house, a place of so many memories of adolescent vulnerability, I finally cried. And I remembered why I had put up that wall in the first place.

I’m still trying to figure out the implications of living where I do. What does it mean to live far away from the people I love? What does it mean to not live in a climate with seasons? What constitutes “growth?” Without springtime, it’s easy to forget that in order to begin anew, everything, in its own way, must let go.

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Selfies and Long-Distance Existentialism

In this day and age, our relationships are remarkably hinged on the internet. Particularly for me, living abroad, my ability to stay connected to my friends and family depends on it. This is how I know where my friends and acquaintances are living, what they’re doing or if any major events have occurred in their lives. Also, the connection that the majority of my non-Colombian Facebook friends have to me depends on it. By moving to Bogotá and wanting to continue having relationships with people back in the states, I have inadvertently divided myself into two: the me, in the flesh, in Colombia and the me that remains visible only in the realm of technology; in that which I share and allow on the internet, in that which I consider acceptable representation of myself. If the latter is all that is seen of me by those abroad, am I, in essence, my profile? Without it, would I even exist to the people with whom I once shared a continent?

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A concept by Jeremy Bentham was put into effect in the influential design of the Pentonville Prison, built in London in 1842: the design was called the “Panopticon.” It involved a circular building with jail cells lining the interior, making their behavior visible to a guard who could monitor anyone and everyone within it. “Assuming that the omnipotent governor was always watching them, Bentham expected that this ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’ would ensure that the prisoners would modify their behaviour and work hard, in order to avoid chastisement and avoid punishment”1.Obviously, one person can’t possibly perform total surveillance upon all of the inmates at all times, but the fact that one never knew for sure when he or she would be watched would be, in theory, enough to keep them in line.

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According to this model, we can deduce the positive effects of being observed. However, when the eyes of those we care about do not see us—be the circumstances influenced by location or ambivalence—we have two choices: create our own auto-surveillance or, by all intents and purposes, disappear.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a person moves to a foreign country and he or she doesn’t have a Facebook, does this person still exist?

Everyone I know who has lived abroad has, at least for some period of time, struggled with the loneliness and isolation that comes with it. On various days without morning work, I have thought, “Why get out of bed? Why do anything at all? No one is watching. No one would know the difference.” And so, for lack of a Panopticon, we make our own. We make Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts and hope that someone is watching because the idea gives us purpose. But now I’m not talking about just ex-patriots, anymore: the same goes for a large percent of internet users wherever they are. Up until recently, photographs depicting our activities were enough to feel seen, but in recent years this has changed. In 2003, “Selfie” became Oxford Dictionary’s new word of the year2.

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Whereas in the era of Myspace the Selfie was considered a cry for attention from self-absorbed pre-teens and teenagers, now it has become an acceptable form of internet presence. So what changed? Here’s my theory:

(1.) Just as we would like to ignore that using pesticides, cutting down trees and burning fossil fuels are linked to global warming; we ignore the connection between the proliferation of technology and that of the Selfie. I’m not talking about the obvious connection—being that cell phones and social media enable the trend—but that more technology puts greater distance between human interaction, making us feel the need to fight for attention like never before. According to the Forbes article, The ‘Selfie’: Mental Disorder Or Insight To Getting Better Results?, “The cultural phenomenon of the ‘Selfie’ exposes a very basic human desire—to feel noticed, appreciated and recognized.”3 Of course we’re not feeling noticed: everyone is too busy staring at their phones or computers! As such, doesn’t it make sense that the increase of Selfies is reflective of a decrease in feeling valued? Consequently, it doesn’t matter if our feelings of isolation stem from actual distance or emotional distance. Either way, the trend made it acceptable to fill that gap with more 2D—rather than 3D—versions of ourselves.

(2.) Social media has been around long enough that people are finding new ways to be in control, and that means not waiting for pictures to be taken of us just to conclude that we don’t like the way we look in them, anyway. Today at a coffee shop, I saw two guys sitting at a table, one taking pictures of the other. The subject of the photo insisted over and over again that his friend take another shot, changing positions and even tables to get the light just how he wanted. He wasn’t taking the photo himself, which is what actually constitutes a Selfie, but in the same way, he had his friend take shot after shot until he got exactly the outcome of himself that he desired. Control means filtering out vulnerability. This, dangerously, further feeds into the construction of a fake reality.

(3.) The Selfie is not only used to sculpt our internet personas, but to be presented to the world as a memo; as a reminder that we’re still here.

But who are we really trying to convince?

This yearning for validation can become as much of a prison as the Panopticon. Being concerned with how we are seen or whether or not we are seen can become so all-encompassing at times—especially when mediated by technology—that we have a hard time focusing on anything else. Have you ever Skyped with someone and gotten distracted from the image of the other person by the image of yourself? As a result of this multi-tasking, of dividing our attention between outward examination and introspection, we fail to delve beneath the surface of anything; not the people we are interacting with and certainly not ourselves.

The problem with technology and social media is that it tries to convince us that images provide truth; that if we want to express “truths” about ourselves to the world, this is the best way to convey them. In reality, an image can only possibly express a part of a whole. Therefore, we must ask: is it even possible to keep in touch with those who we cannot touch? Can we experience real connections when the interaction is mediated by an internet connection? If genuine exchange can only truly be achieved face-to-face, in an environment without mirrors and with vulnerability, then distance does not make the heart grow fonder: it makes it grow fuzzier. I realize now I was disillusioned to think that the internet would be enough to maintain the relationships I had back home. Yet, at the end of the day, there is a sense of satisfaction from comments on our Facebook wall, from “likes,” from being “followed.” As far as substitutes go, it’s not great, but when those we love are out of reach, a little blue thumb feels better than nothing at all.
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1http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/who/panopticon

2http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013/

3http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsturt/2014/04/29/the-selfie-mental-disorder-or-insight-to-getting-better-results/

GAME DAY

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A motorcyclist wearing a Colombian flag
rumbles around cars; the yellow, red and blue stripes
tear off his back like cartoon speed lines.

It is morning, which means the fog over the mountains is still dense
as is the traffic beneath it.
There are only a few hours to spare before the game.
Plastic tri-colored horns attached to flailing bodies
hang out of car windows. Dedicated lips take breaks
only to chant and howl and laugh at the thick clouds
which couldn’t dampen the mood if they tried.

A crooked, yellow grin of Colombian soccer jerseys
dangle like loose teeth in a line
over the open back of a shipping truck;
its massive wheels clanking across the worn highway.
For a moment the sun squints through
and illuminates the inside of the back of this truck.
There are benches on both sides
of which are covered in entirety
by two rows of soldiers, uniformed in camouflage.
There are four people standing, as well, in the far back
and each and every one of them
is playing one instrument or another.
Traditional salsa music–
quieted some by the highway traffic–
shakes, rattles and thumps
from accordions and maracas and drums
as their guns rest, off-duty, in their holsters.
It is a tune of celebration.
A light mist in the air is the softest of instruments.
It dampens my face as I ride my bike behind the truck.
Nearing it, I lift one palm off the handlebar
and wave.
Managing to not compromise the rhythm of the music,
they wave back.  Today, there are no teams
in this country. We are all fighting
for the same thing.

If we win or lose,
we do it together.

The Expat Pyramid (A la Freytag)

Freytag’s Pyramid is a diagram to explain the general plot structure of dramatic works such as novels, film or plays. We’d like to believe that in real life our journeys are unique. Though each experience molded by unique events and variability, there are undeniable patterns between them.

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For someone who moves out of their country to live abroad, this is no exception. As such, I made a tailored version to fit the journey of the expat, using relationship analogies:

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Let me show you what I mean…

(1.) The Move:

This period is more about the transition from the previous chapter of your life than it is about the actual place you move to. Before newlyweds really begin to enjoy one another, they must make peace with the fact that their single life is in the past now; that they must move on.

(2.) The Honeymoon Phase:

Like in a marriage, this is a period of being totally mesmerized and enamored. You notice the beauty in small details and wake up grateful every day. When I was in it, here, it didn’t matter how bad of a day I was having, I would look at Los Cerros (the mountains) off to the east and instantly feel calm, again.

(3.) The Lovers’ Quarrel:

Remember that new spouse who had the most precious nose? And you could stay awake just watching it sit there on that pretty face as it snored adorably? Well, little by little, that precious nose and adorable snore become less and less precious and adorable. You notice, now, that the pores in this nose are HUGE and that there two families of blackheads living in gated communities above each of your lover’s nostrils. One day, you stop thinking about everything that is where you live and only think about everything it isn’t. It begins to have prison-like qualities. It is your ball-and-chain. You yank the covers to your side of the bed, because, in a way, you feel cheated.

For me, this stage came when I began piling work onto my schedule. At first, it felt great: I contracted classes for myself without any sort of institute or agency; I perfectly factored in the time needed for commute by bike; I was making money; I was gaining experience. I was working about five, 2-hour classes each day; plus commute, which was about two hours of commute each day; plus lesson planning and cooking my meals in the evening. I was clocking in at about 5-6 hours of sleep a night, which began taking a toll on my nerves. To make matters worse, the construction for a six-story apartment building was in full-swing outside my window. (The construction is still happening, now, by the way, but at least there isn’t a concrete truck churning thunderously anymore.) All this bustle (a) made naps impossible and (b) brought dozens of hungry-eyed construction workers in to the neighborhood. Even when leaving my house at 7 AM, I would get attention in the form of flagrant staring or hissing or whistling or kissy faces or grunts or grumbling some other sort of unwanted two cents directed my way.

I began thinking about how Bogotá was chipping away at me: I had even begun shaving my arm pits, which compromised a preference I had rocked for the past year. It brought me great pride to use my body to say, “The media cannot tell me what is beautiful and what I should feel ashamed of.” Alas, as a woman in a South American country and particularly as a foreign woman, I got to the point that I wanted to do anything and everything in my power to not call attention to myself. I put my shorts back into the suitcase collecting dust under my bed. I stopped going for jogs. The rumble from construction drilling plus living near a major highway made the outside world feel uncomfortable and repelling from the moment I woke up. I felt stuck and resentful.

(3.) Decision Time:

To many people, the expression, “The world is your oyster,” seems uplifting and inspiring. Many expats with whom I’ve spoken—including myself– think, “If I could move here and find an apartment and a job and friends, I could do this anywhere! I could do anything!” And the thought of it is not uplifting, but frightening as all hell. It is after one becomes settled in a foreign country, after a significant amount of time passes and the concept of “home” is transient and intangible, that the stress of possibility kicks in. When you realize the amount of options that truly exist in this world, you realize how much potential you have to screw up and pick the wrong one. The weight of this doubt makes you re-examine if you’re happy where you are: if the reasons for such happiness or unhappiness stem from the place or from you. You examine yourself on a deeper level (blah, blah, blah), figure out what it is that you want (or, at the very least, you try) and you address the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma. (Every wonder where that gust of wind came from? It is the collective energy from millions of ex-pats all over the world flipping coins.) Some people are able to reignite the flame with this new home of theirs or they divorce themselves from it, hope for a more lasting connection in the future.

As for me? I decided to stay; for now, at least. In terms of the fight-or-flight response, I’m damn stubborn. This is not to say that the “flight” response is not a good fit for some people, as staying in a relationship that isn’t working isn’t so much fighting for something as it is beating a dead horse.

(4.) Dealin’ With It:

It’s at this point that the stock, ex-pat character must deal with his or her decision and move forward. He or she either moves out or decides to go to couples therapy or whatever. The problem is that one can’t help but think about all the other potential pearls in your ambiguous oyster. Though I haven’t fully completed this pyramid, I already can sense the importance of putting the doubt to rest. If you can’t do so, it really doesn’t matter which path you end up choosing because the doubt will ruin it; nagging every step of the way, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

At the end of this month I’m taking a month-long vacation back to the states, which will hopefully allow me some time to miss Bogotá and return reinvigorated. I know I was right when I realized that I needed a change, but at least for now, I’m testing the theory that it can be pursued through my outlook rather than my location.

 – –

The banal eventualities of the pyramid which I presented may suggest a kind of disenchantment, to think that all your fretting is some stock grievance in a diagram that has already been set. This self-discovery thing you’re doing has already been done before. However, if you can put aside the fact that you aren’t as unique as you had supposed, you can appreciate the fact that you are not alone.

“Are You Nervous?”

People say that in the past ten years, more or less, the streets of Bogotá have been cleaning up, considerably. Still, the topic of safety is not off the table of conversation. Some people I’ve met have commented that they have lived in Bogotá all their lives and have never been mugged, while others have been mugged upwards of five times. I once read an article about how muggers pick their targets based on vulnerability, pace of walking and how likely a person is to put up a fight. Last week, I took in a 20 year-old backpacker from Buenos Aires and asked him about his experience with the matter. He explained that it is not only body language but perspective that determines how likely you are to have a brush with danger.

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“If you think something bad is going to happen to you, it probably will,” he said. “If you don’t, it probably won’t.” Obviously, these guidelines aren’t 100%, but I would attest that there definitely is some logic to them. And while most people will think of Bogotá as the last place to move to for these reasons, to me, taking these factors into consideration really isn’t so bad; comparable, in a way, to the trade-offs presented living in any given place. In Minnesota, for example, I would have to consider the weather as a great factor as to how I would dress, how I would get around, if the elements might damage things I would bring in my bag, etc. When I leave the house here, I almost never take my credit card or camera or anything that would be tragic to have stolen. If I see someone that could be stronger than me about to pass by on the same side of the street, I cross to the other side. I do not wear flashy clothing. I do not wear an expression of fear. I act like I have walked down any given street a thousand times until I actually have. And, thankfully, nothing has happened to me thus far.

            I believe it changes you: the NOT happening; the moment you realize that although it would be a solid hiding place, there might not be any monsters lurking in your closet or under your bed. This isn’t to say that bad things aren’t out there, just that your life doesn’t have to completely revolve around them.  

I’d like to think I have formed an understanding of these neighborhoods which lie outside the trendier ones in the way one can draw two points on their skin above a curved scar to make a smiley face. These sectors dressed in pot holes and trash piles and rusty metal playground slides don’t make the cut for tourist pamphlets. The expression, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” might be amended in Colombia to, “If it ain’t broke or even if it is, the government pockets the tax dollars so it ain’t gonna get fixed, either way.” And yet, when it rains—the mountains hidden behind a gray fog as thick as the concrete beneath it— the pot holes in these tired streets become puddles for children to play in. Trash piles and lone car tires disappear when fathers wearing tiny, pink backpacks bike ride slowly past them, tiny daughter in school uniform and braids safely balanced on the handlebars. Beside an old metal slide along the highway is a cracked patch of sidewalk painted with a Parcheesi board in chalk. At sundown, when the auto shops of 7 de Agosto beam with gold, a group of mechanics sit around the colored square with a concentration that could hush even rush hour traffic.  “Fearful” and “cautious” are two very different things. The latter I practice regularly, while the former seems to me counterproductive and inhibiting of appreciation for everything else; everything that has survived.

Since moving to the neighborhood where I currently live, since realizing that the bus lines are not as convenient or as agreeable in terms of personal space as a bicycle, I’ve been sticking to two wheels almost exclusively. There is a sense of security on a bike greater than when on foot. Those two wheels propel me to and from work, past construction-working whistlers, through national parks and through neighborhoods of whores, drunkenness and timeworn neglect. However, any potential danger in these unsightly parts of town seems to whisk off me like rain to Teflon as I pedal, bumping down broken streets: these areas provide a window into another world, yet my feet never touch down. I am nothing but another moving shadow in a darkened shortcut lit only by neon bar lights and car headlights reflected in the high heel rhinestones of other people just living their lives.

Having grown up in a “First-World” country, the roughness of Bogotá is undeniable: come to think of it, that’s probably one of the reasons why I chose it; because it reminds me of me. I can’t imagine talking to a single Bogotano who would attest that this is the best city in the world or even close: it is flawed and it is no secret. I think I’ve been looking at this city the wrong way for a while, looking past the dereliction instead of looking for something familiar in it; in the way the road forgives its perforations, the walls forgive their stains; in the way the landscape suggests that we all do the same.

Do you remember?

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A year ago today I was out of work.
Eight years ago today I was graduating from high school.
X years ago I was in Kindergarten, learning how the earth revolves around the sun by acting it out; spinning in circles while rounding a fellow classmate.

As humans, we look back, consider the past. Sometimes it’s a good thing: to marvel at the inch marked in the door frame that displays how far we’ve come. We braid hair that— not long ago— wasn’t long enough to entwine, pull tight the locks like flexed muscles because it often takes all the strength in the world to just let something grow.

Sometimes it’s bittersweet or simply bitter, measuring the space between the you of now and the you that you wish you could get back to. We never say out loud, Today is the anniversary of the day I quit having quit cigarettes or the anniversary of the day he/she left me, but the truth of it skulks under the porch of our breath. (Remember the time I blew the biggest soap bubble and for a moment, before it popped, I held it on a plastic wand and thought it might last forever?) We remember that which we accomplish but scarcely remember the fear that prefaced it. We think back to a time when we thought ourselves brave, even if we actually weren’t. We stretch the truth to fit our needs. When we mark our height, we throw on an extra quarter inch for good measure. We nestle into the fiction of our selective memory: tell ourselves that we’ll go to the gym after this last episode on Netflix; that we’re never to blame for our lateness; that everything would be better if we could go back to that perfect summer.

Live in the present? Carpe Diem? Who has the strength to live every die like it might be your last? Or worse to recognize the fact that we waste our days because we know that it’s not? When we live in the present, when we really recognize all that ALL is, we feel guilty for not appreciating it more; for not constantly seizing the day. Instead, we distract ourselves by reminiscing. We hold tight to memories of marathons we ran years ago or old trophies now caked in dust. We console ourselves for being inactive or flawed in the present with the notion that at least there was a shining glory for us in the past.

Or

When we’re not looking back on who we once were, we are fixated on the closed door of what comes next, hoping everything we want could still someday be.  It’s less scary when the door stays closed, when potential disappointed hasn’t yet been fed. Door wide open, the frame is shamed and real: an empty-handed magician’s hat, an exposed Wizard of Oz, a child that becomes a man and stops growing.

We hit the snooze button again and again because maybe, ten minutes later, now will be a little less nowish. We postpone the alarm of reality and by returning to sleep we pray to wake a bit more rested, taller, bolder, more blameless. We pray to find regret as a world that no longer revolves around us but one that might spin and spin ‘til it dizzily rolls away.