T for Tom

An Open Letter

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 26, 2017

An open letter to my parents, their friends, and strangers like them:

Did all your dreams come true? Do you have everything you’ve ever imagined and more? I imagine you must be sitting there in a broad, window-lined living room, a small dog at the foot of your lounging sofa, the room dimly lit with ornate lamps, the spaces filling with the sound of Sinatra and a crackling fire while you or your spouse finish cooking in the kitchen where all the countertops are marble and the stove is electric. Somewhere in the garage are two SUVs and a stable of camping equipment for the many vacations you’ve taken and the many more you plan, miles of American highway that never stand in your way from the time away with your family. You return, you always do, because of the obligations of work and family, and spend the days in between your weeks alternately going to work and walking into church. The pension is growing, and there’s no need to worry when the boy and girl both need football equipment for their summer teams (soccer for the little girl, of course) because you’re on track for your third promotion and should have yourself set up quite nicely by the age of 55. No, nothing else could be needed.

Is that why you won’t let us have anything? Are you sitting there in that living room right now thinking, no, there’s nothing else the world could have or do, and so I will do everything I can to keep it just this way? Because I can’t think of any other reason to support the ideas, policies, and moral politics of a corrupt body that willfully, purposefully, and cruelly works to malign, injure, and put to death millions of people swiftly and at once.

If you are sitting there comfortably on your way to a rich retirement (and I don’t think you are), how did you get there? I believe you had opportunities, plural, rich opportunities in a world with less competition – when an entire race (or many entire races), gender, and age group are not allowed to gain employment in the only few sectors that pay salaries commensurate with a single family’s needs, do you feel that you fairly competed for the things you enjoy? Do you think that you got to that home, the two vehicles, and the recreational time by being treated equitably? If you think it’s been fair, you should look around. It hasn’t been, has never been fair, but the world is not ready to quit changing.

I have a strange fear, a real deep fear, that I’m wrong – you aren’t sitting there with a book in hand, staring out the windows at the light snowfall, dreaming of your upcoming beach vacation. You’re standing over the work desk, driving a truck cross-country, tossing boxes into the delivery truck, loading fish from the dock, or chopping trees. When you’re done you head home to a two-bedroom house with a five-member family, a kitchen without a stove, and only one car to drive the family. Worse, no car. Your marriage is tense because the bills are paid paycheck-to-paycheck while the children beg for more. Worse, no bills are paid and the children are still begging. And to top it all off, you remember sitting there in your parents living room – that same one I imagined for you – where the Christmas tree is lit, the presents stocked underneath, and you wonder why you don’t have the same. And worse, in your wondering, you believe the best way to get it is by getting back to that world where it seemed so possible – the world where everyone else (those weirdos with their dark skin and gay lovers and young punk hair) are stifled, put back in their place.

I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish you had the open-ceiling sunroom, afternoon sky gently illuminating your cocktail hour. I wish you had the trim garden outside with the veranda where you entertain your guests, telling jokes about the 18th hole. I wish you had the dreams of your fathers fulfilled just as they imagined for you. Because it would mean that these things were possible, in spite of the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials.

Because the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials aren’t going anywhere. This is their world to inherit. You and your friends have held on longer than usual, the benefit of growing medical science. There is reason for grievance – at the age now where you’ve either secured the healthcare you need through riches, or by simply living long enough to own state-funded Medicare, your choices and decisions and feelings about others (everyone else) is that they don’t deserve it. It might be even worse. Maybe you know they deserve it, too, but because you can’t think of a way for both of you to have it, you’ll selfishly deny them to keep your own. I can think of a few ways, but me and my generation, haven’t been allowed the clout of decision. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

I wish I didn’t grow up knowing I’d never have full garage or a mantel trimmed with Christmas stockings. I wish I didn’t grow up making plans to own very little, not even home to call my home, for fear of debt and the subsequent inability to move about. I wish I didn’t have to show up at work worried that my hair might make me seem out of place, or that I’ll never get promoted in time to cover my expenses because the supervisory jobs are held by boomers who never got their retirement. I wish I didn’t have to consciously, deliberately deny myself children because this world can’t sustain any more, or worse, the consequences of war and climate change would keep them from even living a full life. I wish I could sit there, like you wanted for yourself, without a worry in the world.

I am thankful, however, that you raised us in this world. Without the heartache, the unending the debt, the racism, the age discrimination, the wars on your behalf, the political manipulation of women’s bodies, the general diaspora of hate and filth, I wouldn’t be here today wishing you well. I might be just like you, in that living room telling the world to stop growing, stop changing, I like it just the way it was. I am thankful that I am eyes-open to the starving, the slaving, the shaming, the stealing, the warring, and the killing. Because I don’t want that for anyone. And that’s more important than what I do want for even just myself.

There isn’t enough for everyone to have large homes and multiple gas-fueled cars. There isn’t enough for everyone to have retirement funds or closets full of clothes or food for baby or books on the shelf or luxuries upon luxuries. There’s barely enough water on the planet as it is. We’re all just trying to survive. Those of us who suffer are catching on that the good life is an oasis, if not a myth outright. Don’t be so ignorant as to suffer and not yet be aware.

Because whether you have it now or never got it and still dream of having it before you die, I’m tired of you taking it from me before I ever even get it.

Signed,

T

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It’s 2017

Posted in poem, Prose, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 26, 2017

I was raised in a world that believed in better.

Fresh out of war,

hope and virtues lapping up like waves on the shore,

Bright-eyed, starry youthful dreams because we landed on the moon

Before I was even born.

But

Right back to war and now

It’s 2017 and people are starving.

It’s 2017 and men carry guns in the street.

It’s 2017 and black people die everyday.

It’s 2017 and seeing a doctor, wanting to live, costs money, at all.

It’s 2017 and people walk through the streets,

Into shopping malls,

Into church,

Listening to Hells Bells,

Talking of Reagan,

Afraid of changing,

But changing can’t come soon enough.

Get with it.

It’s fucking 2017 and y’all out there shooting, hating, killing,

Watching people die.

How far we’ve come to have gotten nowhere at all.

It’s 2017 and the shores are rising from the ice that’s melting

And

One day if we’re lucky

The waves will wash over the shore and cleanse the earth of all and sundry.

2016 Midyear In Music

Posted in Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 17, 2016

It’s been a fantastic year for music so far, with great, major releases from some of the biggest musicians and artists of my generation, and ever.

Here are the albums:

  1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool – pretty sure this won’t be unseated at the end of the year. Radiohead always defies expectations, but in older age and wisdom, they’ve surprised us by being as sparse, delicate, and hollow as ever. The best review I read called it a “middle-aged sigh of relief” and I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly right.
  2. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake – had never heard of it, but I’ll be damned if isn’t the greatest collection of throwback indie music. For the first time in awhile, it doesn’t take overproduction to make a warm, uplifting album.
  3. David Bowie – Blackstar – if you haven’t heard it, you’re missing out.
  4. Bloc Party – Hymns – out of left field but still in play, Hymns is Bloc Party’s version of Moon Shaped Pool: soft, wise, aged, but a bit funky.
  5. DIIV – Is The Is Are – somehow shoegaze punk has never been so arena-ready. There won’t be a record with more energy and purpose all year.

Songs:

  1. Radiohead – “The Numbers” – I’ve never heard something more climactic and beautiful, and the haunting and jarring 30-second introduction of sleigh bells and nonsense just seals it.
  2. The 1975 – “Somebody Else” – This band just keeps getting better and better: this is a house funk disco slow-jam that sings “I don’t want your body but I need to think about you with somebody else.” Goddamn.
  3. Guy Garvey – “Angela’s Eyes” – What a fucking amazing and psychedelic song.
  4. DIIV – “Take Your Time” – it’s like floating in space, and repetitive two-minute bridge is the bridge in time.
  5. Bloc Party – “Different Drugs” – Somehow disco, somehow nightmare, all fantastic: “Trying to broach the distance… like we’re on different drugs.”

 

Everything I’ve gotten so far:

The 1975 – i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Atlas Bound – Lullaby EP

Band of Horses – Why Are You OK

Bat for Lashes – The Bride

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals – Call It What It Is

Blink 182 – California

Bloc Party – Hymns

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

David Bowie – Blackstar

Dr. Dog – Psychedelic Swamp

Chairlift – The Moth

Deftones – Gore

DIIV – Is The Is Are

Drake – Views

Explosions In The Sky – The Wilderness

Gallant – Ology

Guy Garvey – Courting The Squall

Honne – Gone Are The Days [Shimokita Import]

The Jezabels – Synthia

Lapsley – Long Way Home

Lily & Madeleine – Keep It Together

Little Green Cars – Ephemera

M83 – Junk

Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Rüfüs – Bloom

St. Lucia – Matter

Travis – Everything at Once

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

Nico Yaryan – What a Tease

 

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Day 23 – Shot of Love – 1981

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 15, 2016

 

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It’s a great cover, though.

There’s a spirit of music here, but it’s void. The same vibe and feeling that personifies the emphasis of Saved is null on Shot of Love. It just seems faked. And while the music isn’t overly or inherently bad, it’s just not genuine.

And I think that’s the culmination of a period gone wrong. A man, known so long for being so good, got away with doing something outrageous on the strength of the music for two albums. But by the third it left a stale taste. Overdone and old to a point.

Again, taken on its own, Shot of Love has its hits – “Shot of Love” the track is a banger and even “Property of Jesus” rolls to a high lull. But in spite of its greatest achievements, it comes off as more of the same. This is after all a man who spent his whole career shifting paradigms with every record, and to get something redundant seems strange and bizarre.

It should seem equally strange and bizarre that the first time we get redundancy with Bob Dylan is with his Christian trilogy. That he lasted this long should seem like something of a trophy, but here we are 23 albums on.

And that’s the most I have to say for this record. It’s just a complete repeat of something I’ve heard before.

Not bad, but not what I go to. Probably the reason he moves on as quickly also.


Song: “Property of Jesus”

By now it would make sense that his greatest song would be his most overt. But let’s not discredit him for trying. It is a great, great song.

Day 22 – Saved – 1980

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 13, 2016

 

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Original Cover.

In a word, magnanimous. Saved is the middle record of the Christian trilogy, and it comes off as a shot in the night. I said before that “Forever Young” was a tent revival, but in metaphor. This is actually that.

From the opening refrain of “Satisfied Mind” to the last pleas of “Are You Ready?,” Saved is Dylan’s richest attempt at converting the masses, a true collection of stadium-ready, evangelical rock’n’roll so big that it was rightly called “too big for the genre” upon its release. And man it’s a banger.

The inverse of what I said about Slow Train Coming is true of Saved – the music is so good that the words come off as seamless. I couldn’t hear this music and think of anything less than spirituality. By the time it crescendos with “Pressing On” I know that answer is in fact, yes, I’m ready.

I started listening to this record in college after seeing I’m Not There, the fragmented and slightly fictionalized retelling of Bob Dylan’s life directed by Todd Haynes. When I saw Christian Bale trying to evangelize a crowd of middle-somethings in a dark basement, I just knew I had to listen to this record. It became and remains a favorite, for its power and glory.

Throughout is the arena sounds of a plucked and banged Stratocaster, filling the space with screams and cries. The organ wails with the heaviest of burdens, and it all makes Dylan’s voice seem like the least important of the bargains. The dragging, train-like roller “Solid Rock” continues the revival started by the title-track’s frantic and frenetic pace, supplemented by the wiliest piano solo you’ve ever heard. Whoever these players are behind Dylan are surely some of the best he’s ever had.

And all the while I don’t mind the prayers and sermons. Somehow it would be less perfect if it weren’t so strange.

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Re-release cover, after fears of it being too religious.


Song: “Solid Rock”

It’s supposed to mean that the lord is his solid rock, but really it’s cause this song is Solid Rock’n’Roll.

Day 21 – Slow Train Coming – 1979

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 12, 2016

 

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On first listen there was something about Slow Train Coming that stood out to me, beyond the obvious Christian themes of the music. And after a quick cursory history reading just now, I know: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits plays lead guitar throughout Bob Dylan’s revival record.

And what a strange and grand thing to stumble on – I’ve been shielding myself for days and weeks now, in loathe anticipation of reaching the gospel phase. I’m very familiar with Saved, which is yet to come but one I listened to many times over in college because it’s somehow funky, but I hadn’t ever spent much time in Slow Train Coming territory. This is however, the album with that song “Gotta Serve Somebody” that inspired John Lennon to write “Serve Yourself” just before passing, and for obvious reasons. But then Dylan was also awarded a Grammy for that very same song.

So many contradictions.

The only thing that’s leftover from anything previous would be the “essentially iconoclastic temperament” of the man, coined by Stephen Holden of the New York Times, as he continued to defy expectations for better or for worse.

Robert Christgau, the oft tumultuous critic of Dylan’s home New York paper The Village Voice, called it the best record since Blood On The Tracks. And while I don’t think that’s the case, it is remarkably good in spite of its lyrical and thematical flaws. Knopfler is rich throughout, and the entire record carries the Muscle Shoals sound from Alabama that Dire Straits continued to ride all the way into the 1980s. It’s brooding, dark, and eloquent, but never too spacious or atmospheric to lose its musical way. If you don’t listen to the words, and really even if you do, it is again another testament to the man who comes in way ahead of everyone else with his music.

They maybe wouldn’t follow his testimonies, but then again have we ever?

I know I’ve learned a lot about Bob Dylan during this, and I’ll continue to learn more. He’s growing into a life-sized icon for me personally, beyond even the tattoo of him I’ve had for five years now. But while I will keep looking for reasons that made him tick, and reasons that maybe I can move by, I know I won’t get stuck on these passages. Not everything a prophet says is gold.


Song: “Gotta Serve Somebody”

It’s a great opening track for a record of such biblical proportions.

Day 8 – John Wesley Harding – 1967

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 30, 2016

 

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I’ve never listened to John Welsey Harding in full. It’s the first along this journey I can say that for, and won’t be the last. But I’m already learning why this is an important turning point – goddamn, what a good record.

It is from the beginning, at the last note of the opening and eponymous track on into the hanging but equal opening note of “As I Went Out Into The Morning,” a piece of work unequal. For the first time, Dylan’s music seems in sync – it isn’t his best or strongest by a single tune, but the whole achieves something beyond ornamental. We’re 18 months on from his rock’n’roll years and even though it’s a return to form, outdated as it was at the time, the act of returning itself is an act of forward progression. When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and His Satanic Majesties Request were the top albums ruling with psychedelia and things unexpected, Dylan did something bold – he gave the people something they’ve already known for years, but in its best form. Recorded at the same time as the now legendary and vaunted Basement Tapes that would surface 10 years later (and upcoming in my retrospective), it’s no wonder that it sounds so good.

The content isn’t as much important. We are listening to a man whose life was changed by a motorcycle accident. For as folkloric as the event has become, its possible that the mere fact of living was inspiration enough.

And if so, it would make sense that his first effort since – his first attempt at making his living again – would be safe, close, at home, and sophomoric. But it was the 60s, and the violent, protestant, changing 60s. Dylan knew this, and creating an album of relatable, passionate frontier music would be the boldest move.

For a man who made an impression so quickly for always changing the game and there forward seeing the game always becoming one of change, he would be the first to strongly step outward by changing not at all.

And I’ll be damned if it isn’t his most enjoyable work to date.


Song: The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

It’s at times sweet, friendly, funny, and prophetic. For all the times he tried to be Homeric, this was his best attempt, and the tune is so delightful.

Day 2 – Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1963

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 24, 2016

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I am intimately familiar with this record, as it was the first Dylan record I bought at the age of 15. I just don’t think I knew where else to start, and I remember seeing it featured in Vanilla Sky. At the time I was enamored by seeing this man, then only a boy, walking sweetly down a snow-covered street with his love, thinking it emblematic of an America I never knew, the America that may have last fostered endless possibilities and true love. The record reflects this in melody, in contrast to the doomed first release. But true to title, Dylan already knew what I’m just learning.

Freewheelin’s legacy exists in giving us his most cherished, and closely relatable, protests – Masters of War, Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – which over the years have become the mantel for 60’s nostalgia. Forty years later these tracks were the reason this record was the only American musical recording accepted in full into the Library of Congress National Audio Archive’s inaugural collection. Likewise, Girl From The North Country remains his sweetest romance. For these and others, Freewheelin’s is scattered and scattershot, and only now I recognize the power of the name.

The artist was exploring his music.

I do not think he was exploring any thematics. After offering only two original songs in the first release, the second album contains 11 originals, many of which top 5-minutes in duration. Further, there is little change in Dylan’s fears – we are Talkin’ World War III Blues, and get Bob Dylan’s First Dream. It’s only through his developing craftsmanship as a musician that he grows stronger.

Only the strongest conviction could make a man sing, without subtlety, to his politicians: “the money you make cannot buy back your soul, and I hope that you die.” Think, will you, have you ever heard someone directly sing for someone’s death? How even in the worst moments of political history, we’ve rejoiced with hope as much as we have with mourning? But never before had I heard this kind of curse, in earnest. I believe Dylan said what he meant.

This is all, for me, in hindsight. I was not there when he said it, and can only imagine the power he thought, or had hoped, to wield. I’d never really listened the other 100 times I’d heard him say it, but then I wasn’t engaged with the meaning nor cared to agree. This appears to be the case fifty years over for all those that ever listened. But now as an older man, I’m frightened to hear the words as truth, and more frightened to think that it did little to change the world, then as now.

Dylan knew this before he said it. While there still exists clearly the man who wants to change the world, we’re greeted by Corrina, Corrina and long away the gravity of death-wishing subsides to facsimile, metaphor, satire, and absurdity. Only Bob Dylan can call his closing epic I Shall Be Free and sing Well, I took me a woman late last night / I’s three-fourths drunk she looked alright / ‘til she started peelin’ off her onion gook / She took off her wig said, “How do I look?” / I’s high flyin’, bare naked, out the window… / Well, sometimes I might get drunk / walk like a duck and smell like a skunk / Don’t hurt me none, don’t hurt my pride / ‘cause I got my little lady right by my side / she’s a tryin’ a-hide pretending… she don’t know me…

Freewheelin’ indeed.


Song pick: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

When so much of the world’s music is about making love, it’s exceptional to hear such a lovely melody about being in love instead with ramblin’.

Day 1 – Bob Dylan – 1962

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 22, 2016

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This is the first in what will be a daily entry for a series I’m calling A Dylan A Day, where I’ll be listening to each of Bob Dylan’s studio albums and major releases in sequence. I’m unsure what I’ll learn, but it very possibly might be a discovery about myself. Maybe that’s what I’m hoping.

In My Time of Dying appears quickly, violently early on the eponymous debut of Robert Zimmerman, Bob Dylan. I came into this with early notion of Dylan as poet, author, and storyteller, though gifted already with a guitar, he, as we perceive him, was first a bard. With the fact that he did first appear at the Witmark Studio to record and sell music, songs, tunes, I can’t completely dispel the idea that he never intended to be remembered foremost as a musician. What I do know after a full listen of the first release is that he was a man full of fear.

Half originals, half traditionals, the selection all full of death and dying – Man of Constant Sorrow, In My Time of Dying, House of the Rising Sun, finishing with Be Sure that My Grave Is Kept Clean. He speaks often like Whitman of America, Colorado via train and the mountains. I’m unsure if he had ever seen them before these songs made the record, and surely New York Livin’ is closest to his life at the time. But I could be wrong.

He could actually have always had a heart for the frontier. More though I think the frontier was the fever dream that is shared by many of our greatest artists, dreamt up while filling with the fear of dying young in a dark concrete world of sadness. Whatever he was trying to say though, it seems not enough were listening.


Song: Baby, Let Me Follow You Down

Why Not Me?

Posted in Prose, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on February 3, 2016

If it weren’t for language, we’d have nothing but actions. Too often our understanding of the earth and our place within it exists between the bookend given to a particular context. The realm of possibility, so far as our understanding can perceive, is relative to our knowledge of the meaning of the words. To wit: dreams are not only in the mind, nor are they dreams: they are real, and they are possible. More closely they are plans without bounds, desires unchained.

I see all around me a world of limitless possibility, and yet we chain ourselves to the limits of suffering we can physically and mentally endure; in the forms of income we can suffice, love we can take, and life we can live. A little bit here and a little bit there, but there is so much more and I for one can’t any longer go on with just a little bit.

After settling back into my home, I immediately joined a gym. Better said, I came back home. I didn’t continue on the other side of the planet, I didn’t board a plane to anywhere, I returned home to a place I knew and a place I had comfort in. Better said, I played it safe. But there at the gym now sits outside on the wall a piece of graffiti that, on my last day of my membership I will take with me as I never return again to lift weights. The work reads: “I buy things to feel better.” It is scrawled and slapped on the bricks with haste, to not be art but to be a statement. To some it may be waste, but I take it wholly to heart.

As I begin to discover that my life is changing again, I am beginning to experience within me the joys I had every time I set about to see some new place. I remember the feelings I experienced camped atop the Lincoln National forest watching the sun fall over the pines, and know that peace is within reach. I think of the simple, fulfilling ways that living a life without contrivance can bring, to know that I have with me only those things that I need and nothing more. And I want it again.

Away will be the possessions I’ve acquired, gone will be the distractions that limit my time to wither, and only will remain will be the absolute necessity to exist as human in a world of beauty.

These abstractions are not existential or obtuse, they are as direct as any feeling we can own. Inside of us all are feelings that mobilize our actions, but I implore that anything less that daring is dying, in that sense that all roads lead to the end. There is enough art and poetry to affirm what I’m saying, and the authors then didn’t set out to create ephemera but were as I am now trying to vocalize their heart.

I only want to vocalize my heart.

Crazy, wild, pointless, giving up, all things that could be said by others of packing bags and driving away, such as I will. I’ve travelled enough to know now that it isn’t crazy – crazy is being unhappy, crazy is watching too many moons rise over a day undone. Often, I use the context of the physical being that cannot travel in one distance or another because of the political barriers we as a society have created. I will not ever understand how any one human can stand at the border along a fence and be told that their body cannot travel even five feet further into another physical space, simply by writ of their birth. I will not be confined by my physical location.

Few others have gone about this, and we record their bravery in stories, chronicling their tales as legends for only the most sincere of intrepid actions. By placing their narratives in the realm of folklore we exalt their actions beyond the realm of possibility, outside of our own existence, as something that cannot be done.

But they are, like we all are, just people. If we could all only make the decisions they have made.

Because I’m tired of seeing so much death and dying and wasting away. Because I don’t want for myself the end to come so soon and because I don’t want for the world the same. This belief is beyond a personal level and can reach the furthest depths of the sociopolitical spectrum if we realize that a harmony for every individual will create a harmony for the earth. In my own way, I can start the revolution.

It is the on the road where my spirit soars and I can’t any longer believe that elsewhere I’ll find happiness. We are too old on this earth to think that we are too young to be so free. It all exists in your head.

Go about your business of being human, of being free. Many others already have, and I wonder why not me?

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