Diagnosis: Wounded Spirit

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“I can tell you she’s a borderline–watch out for drama, Cynthia. Be careful, just calmly back off when she gets hysterical.” Trina peruses the inside of the staff refrigerator and pushes aside my lunch and her leftovers from last week.

“No, more narcissistic, I suspect.” Henry pauses with an out-sized bear mug in his hand, staring at the wall. “At the least, sadly.”

Mary strides in, hair disheveled, face a bit pale. “And I have yet another Asperger’s with severe social anxiety waiting in my office. Two the last week. I need a drink…just kidding, I need cheddar and crackers and pass me that apple juice.”

“Anyone want the leftover salad? Vegetables are critical to the positive progression of my jam-packed day. Could we get more emergencies, you think?” Trina doesn’t wait for a response and pours on balsamic dressing.

Henry emits a snarky bark of a laugh and mutters to himself, “For me, another sociopathic sex–and meth, of course–addict, so away we go.”

I’m exiting to my own office with my cracked blue and white mug of peppermint tea, wondering when this day will end. When, in fact, I will no longer be working here. It’s not that I don’t give some credence to my co-workers’ professional diagnoses. It’s not that I do not care about my clients. I’ve been doing this work for years and though I am not a psychologist and provide basic mental health counseling within a context of intensive addictions treatment–even though I cannot argue effectively against their specific education and insights, I am long past weary of the diagnostic web.

So finally, I retired three years ago, and this is partly why. I saw too often that the people I was trying to help had become caught up in defeatist mode, the standard cures often complicating their lives. And I also have always wondered why the health of the spirit is not addressed as part of treatment. It seems a no-brainer to me, whether it is addressed outright or, at the very least, considered an influence upon well being.

Once cast into the sticky weaving together of mental health services, clients can have a very hard time extricating themselves from it. Anyone would, likely, if you consider how die-hard labeling of people casts them in a certain mold, right or wrong, with its attendant interventions, secondary diagnoses and uncertain prognoses. Once on record–the DSM-V Diagnostic and Statistical Manual tagging you as having a certain disorder, say–it lasts a very long while if not always. And people carry this with them secretly or fearfully (due to worry of stigma) or with a certain pride: this underlies who I am, this is what happened, this is what can be fixed now. It’s an identity, an explanation, a cause for thinking and behaving certain ways. But people too frequently become inured to an insidious helplessness that accompanies such labels. It’s powerful stuff–it keeps one stuck within a point of view that shapes an entire vision of his or her life. It also can become an excuse or a burden: “I can’t help it; it’s haywire neurology; it was imprinted on me by environmental factors; it’s genetic; it’s just how I learned to cope. And I sure can’t change now.” Worst of all, it becomes a convenient identity card: “I am anxious and OCD” or “I am traumatized, have ongoing PTSD” or “I am on the autism spectrum so I’m of course really different.”

I heard hundreds of histories of uniqueness for decades. It was the common threads that interested me, for each of these persons shared underlying similarities.

And all those years I sat across from people sent to me for their alcoholism or opiate dependence or methamphetamine addiction and so on. But what I really saw were persons who had had profound harm visited upon their spirits. Not their egos, not their minds, not their bodies–though all those were also impacted. Their very spirits.

I wanted to set up my own shop with a sign hanging outside my window: “Spiritual Self-Healing/ Support Services Available/No Fee Charged.”

I realize I’m going out on a limb here. I’m not going to write a research-based treatise decrying current mental health practices. But I am suggesting rather strongly that people who need or want help sit down for intake and within a couple of hours are given a diagnosis, They then can walk out and more fully live out that diagnosis. They are anxious. They are delusional. They are reactive. Rather get better or even recover, they name the symptoms and perhaps it does bring some comfort in the naming. But if one is vulnerable, any sort of intelligent-seeming explanation looks like a fluorescent life jacket. And perhaps it is a real beginning, the way to extend a helping hand.

But then what happens? After the medications are adjusted and readjusted and deleted and started again, after the therapy sessions are extended a year or two or more, when groups multiply and become mandatory…well, what of the person who walked in that door desperately looking for better control of her own life? For freedom from confusion, a burden, the dependence on a substance to try to govern his mood or behaviors, his seeming destiny? At home again, sitting in their rooms, what do they see in the mirror then? They see trouble and sorrow, a loneliness that permeates all else as they are deemed sick people now, not struggling people trying to become stronger and wiser.

Only a small percentage of the emotionally challenged are chronically unable to function daily or to learn how to carry out a better balanced life. And the majority of substance abusers are not doomed to a fatal addiction. But they do need an emotional and spiritual overhaul, a goodly change of direction, and lots of support along the way. Not a label that tells them they are one thing and that is how it is and it will never be different. What has happened to a guided transformative process in the diagnosis- and pill-driven therapeutic process? People who are looking for happiness or peace want to participate in their rediscovery of both. To gradually take responsibility for the search and finding. They need a mirror to show them what’s still good and hopeful inside so they can begin, then sustain the work. I could (and can) do that.

I understand why mental health providers–myself included at times–like to identify, categorize, organize their caseloads into neat diagnostic slots. This one needs that, that one needs this, and these few cannot be in the same room together for more than fifteen minutes. It makes matters more manageable for providers and can seem helpful to the clients. Such sorting and tagging aids treatment planning and points us all toward a direction. It takes on the semblance of cogent action. It targets an outcome. We humans do like explanations, and if they sound and look like science, so much the better–whether in truth they are effective or not.

But what is the science of personal suffering, the significant bio-neurology of it notwithstanding? We know it erodes health, from the arterial inflammation to  dodgy digestion to restless sleep. We know it creates cognition deficits and emotional lability. We further know it can lead to breakdown, bit by bit, of one’s common functionality. Diagnostic criteria can aid in this information tabulating, yes. Yet the spirit of the person–what of that? How can that science go deep enough to find and heal the devastated soul of a human being–that is what I asked every day. That is what has me all these years in and out of the field.

I have not forgotten a great many of my clients’ therapy sessions and groups. They stay with me, perhaps, because long before I decided to retire I had begun to see the majority of people had a very hard time recovering–from grief and loss, from abuses of all sorts, from failures to love and be loved. Seeing diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder or general anxiety, acute depression with psychotic features or schizophrenia did not tell me nearly the whole story, however. Barely any of it.

What spoke to me was how they sat, how they did not speak of what mattered most, of how they sought or avoided my eyes as the pain rushed in the chinks in the armor we had discovered or made together. Their anger toward some omnipresent but blurry God for feeling forgotten and left behind. Their bitterness toward the ones they had once loved and now blamed. The pain that they had swallowed year after year because no one wanted to know of it. They were truly sick at heart. Broken of spirit. Or had had so much overload, diminished by months or perhaps years of substance abuse, that they could note very little as an authentic feeling. The identity they had been given was addict or alcoholic or crazy person.

How does a counselor propose hope as a tool to those who do not embrace it’s value? How is the path forged that helps them find their way back to some semblance of wholeness? We didn’t so much talk about their symptoms. We didn’t study weekly assignments. They didn’t have to enjoy being there or even like me. They just had to show up and I needed to be utterly present with them. To listen not only to the words but the undercurrents, the shadow of feeling, the ghost of the past that kept showing itself despite complex camouflage. Slowly, the masks designed to keep the world at bay would begin to fall away. Even the criminally active. Even those who heard odd voices. Even street-savvy heroin lovers. What they choose to do when that reveal was up to them. It mattered far less that I had to send a family services report or call their psychiatrist or probation officer. What I looked for was the barest resurfacing of who they were and could be. What they needed to stay alive without such regrets.

First and last I offered compassion. That is all. Because people who are in pain need the balm of kindness and those who rail against the world’s inequities and cruelties need steady, non-judgmental caring. Just as we all do. Love. It comes down to that. When someone is ready to accept an outflow of love, then spiritual and emotional healing can initiate and a lifelong, rich adventure unfolds–with less harm and more good being done by the very one who came in for help. Hurting persons, hungry for relief and finding love supplies that, are far more apt to pass it along. We –counselor and client–can work with each other in familiar ways even if it seems foreign at first to the client. Common denominators include being human, and we all suffer and we all are also spirit. Or so I, and so many others, do believe.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, inventor and physicist alive in the 1600s, wrote that humans are restless, want to fill our craving with things that are of no real help, when the “infinite abyss can be filled with only an infinite and immutable object, in other words by God himself.” (from Pensees VII) We can be cognizant of the God-shaped void, yet dismiss or forget it’s importance when all is well. When it is not, people once more to reconsider. And an even partly honest reckoning is hard.

“It must take such emotional and mental energy, I admire that you can do this. I surely could not,” I heard over and over.

Or: “Well over twenty years in this field? How do you do that? I burned out after five (or ten or fifteen)  helping people.”

Yes, to be of hopefully good use to other humans can be taxing. I think the power source makes the difference. It’s not veggies or tea or rest and exercise that fuel me. There was a primary source of my commitment and stamina but not my stubborn will or that I’ve always felt called to be of some help to others. It was God’s love of me. Every time before I met with another client (or groups) I prayed for more guidance and mercy, the strength to be a witness; also for good humor and patience; for my own petty ego to step aside and let God use me. Each hour of every day was nowhere close to any sort of perfection. I wasn’t looking for a mark of success. But I knew from my conviction as well as experience that with Divine Love to empower me, I would do what was needed or discern what other options would be good.

How much separates us from one another, the ones who become diagnosed and treated and the ones who pride themselves on doing just fine, thank you, true or not? A very thin line. No one knows what might happen that can tilt the balance, upend gravity so that your life starts seesawing and you cannot keep all in orderly balance. And I can assure you, it won’t strictly be a diagnosis or pills that will delineate your path and empower your life. That will be your seeker’s soul and whoever can hear its cry. It will be seizing the opportunity to avail yourself of compassion given, then learning how to plant the tiniest seeds of hope and faith in its fertile sustenance. I assure you, it happens. Life changes us but we, too, can effect great change.

Passageways Through Pain

 

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If you have not been very conversant with pain or find it a breeze, skip this post. My past couple of weeks have been a mishmash of physical and emotional tribulation. I have felt a little like a ping-pong ball at times, with one “player” being my current dental misery, the other being some family concerns. For a week of nights I succumbed to relief available from a prescription pain-killer for dreaded “dry socket” phenomenon. I have spent a lot of money on my teeth and had some unwelcome adventures. But is there any other pain like a dry socket? (Maybe an abscess.) I underwent a simple extraction (of which I have had a few) and it turned into a series of events that dominated all else. I don’t appreciate medication that deadens responses, provokes nightmares or an upset stomach. But in this case the ping-pong ball, that cumulative force of continual anguish, finally rolled to a halt. I got greatly needed rest.

But true respite–one that offers more lasting relief from the stress of pain or worries that impair equilibrium–arrives in other forms. If it didn’t, I don’t know how I would effectively live my life. Let me explain why, as well as how, I have learned a few effective helps.

I have had a chronic intestinal disorder since I was a child, often being doubled over by the pain, debilitated by nausea and cramps. I always knew where a bathroom was located. My life was many times curtailed by this although I remained mostly active and engaged in a variety of activities. It escalated until I was in critical condition and landed in the hospital by age twenty-one. I was unable to eat and was given sustenance via IVs, was stunned and frightened. Surgery was eventually considered an option; I refused a colostomy at thirty-eight. Medications had been used for decades with limited success. I became addicted to one of them and gave it up in the quest for better health. Then, in my fourth decade a new doctor suggested I might, among other diagnoses, be severely lactose intolerant. Had I ever been tested for that? I had not. After four weeks with no dairy it was as though my health was reclaimed. I gained critically needed weight (I averaged 100 pounds or less most of my life) while I avoided dairy. But that wasn’t to be the end of it. Many other foods as well as stress levels had to be monitored. Otherwise, I’d become ill though for shorter durations. The pain from having inhospitable digestion can feel unbearable. We have to eat to live, after all. But I have found ways to manage it, even surmount it so that food is no longer my enemy.

Coronary artery disease has varying pain levels. It is sometimes overwhelming, unpredictable, often nagging and sleep-depriving. Even with two stent implants (to provide a critically needed propping open of a major artery) there are moments when arrhythmias make my chest ache badly and I feel faint. Angina can cause an additional burning sensation. Hiking up even gradually steeper grades can create a heart rate that is so fast and hard I stop along the way, sweat pouring off me. But as long as my heart beats strongly, I have gratitude–even if I need to call 911 at times. I stay active (flamenco dancing is my newest thing) as it is healthy, but primarily I love being physical.

Headaches? Some last three to four days with unremitting pain, like an embedded thorn that refuses to be ejected. I enter and walk through this particular fog of pain many weeks each year. I had a neck injury years ago that has haunted me ever since with the addition of  herniated discs. I get migraines occasionally, less so since I no longer work in an office under flourescent lights during long hours of counseling work. But I have learned to address all this with good results, too.

This does not cover all challenges this flesh presents me but I make my point. I haven’t inhabited the most serene and damage-free body, yet everyone has physical challenges at one time or another. We each have been intimate with pain. We know we’re born with nerves that send countless signals to the brain. Pain alarms warn us of trouble, draw our attention so we can help ourselves. Endorphins are released in an effort to lessen pain and support endurance. Our bodies are our allies, despite what we may want to think at times. They want us to feel better, to be strong, heal well and carry on the best we can.

The pain of emotions is not so dissimilar. An event occurs that brings sorrow, hurt, anxiety, anger. We experience it in the solar plexus, stomach, heart, aching muscles, or via nightmares and insomnia. We weep, cry out, limp through daytime and wrestle with darkness. But when we are in discomfort, our bodies and minds tell us we need extra aid to get on with life effectively. We’re built this way so we can experience life richly and deeply but also so we can develop coping skills that can be used whenever we need them. Nothing like having to learn something new; it is a relief to do so.

I developed PTSD at a young age due to trauma that was later compounded but it rarely distresses me. I am not disabled by it. I was as a youth. It is simply not true that we cannot heal from even many abuses; it requires time and openess to wellness, good help along the way. We can make new memories that are fulfilling and overshadow the old. I don’t feel like a survivor as much as a person who experienced some grave difficulties, then mended over time. I am rarely fearful, do not often experience distrust, harbor no bitterness (a tough one that took awhile), do not feel compromised. I know who I am. I realize the value of being alive. Forgiveness and self-acceptance are key. I am presented with daily opportunities to be present and authentic. There is, increasingly, an ever-embracing joy. At sixty-four, it is a pleasure to be here.

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Human beings live through things that others may not think possible–until they experience their own dark hours. And discover otherwise. We each can strengthen our courage, acceptance and peace. The capabilities we have to repair our broken-down lives on any level are remarkable and eclectic. What has worked for me may not work for you. Then again, it might.

1. When physical or emotional pain digs in and holds on, I check for two things: Do I have the energy to address tasks? Do I have acceptable mental acuity, still? If yes, I stay in motion, remain engaged in my daily tasks. A body that moves defeats much distress, engaging all senses and resources. I have found that lying down grants me permission to give more attention to the discomfort. I then feel it more keenly, start to worry over it, find myself succumbing to it so I become disheartened. Even self-pitying, the question “why me?” haranguing me. Unacceptable. I can shed a tear or two but then it is over. It can be tricky for heart pain, however. I might need to come to a full stop to evaluate more, but I can discern when that time is. Otherwise, I keep going as I acknowledge it, then distance myself from it as I go on. Pain that worsens or changes tells me it is time to stop and rest, and at times to seek professional help. This is true for emotional pain that does not improve when I am ready for it to diminish. There is a time for giving all feelings their due. But a second opinion with helpful ideas can be very useful.

2. When I feel rest–even twenty minutes, which can be enough-is critical, I give in and allow myself to focus on the pain with the intention of accepting it, then gradually disabling it as much as possible. It is not a war, Me v. Misery. First I make it a friend, become an ally. I greet it benignly in my being and mind, locate the place of origin, grant it my kindness and respect. I let it know I am paying attention and will be there with it. Can I see what is beneath this stubborn torment? What is being taught with this? What have I failed to acknowledge or change? Emotions are often easier to identify (it has been my trade, afterall) than bodily sensations. The answer often comes to me but sometimes it remains a mystery. I allow my intuition to clue me in. Even if the answer is not enough, I engage in a partnered healing process.

3. I slow my breathing, seven counts on intake of air, seven counts on release of breath. I then seek Light, watch it appear. It is in the center of me, my deepest mind, in the velvety darkness that is both inner and outer space, both near and far. Right at hand. I pull this Light to the pain and let it simmer on the nerves, the ache, with tender warmth. It is a strange stew of discomfort and comfort initially. Then I envision the Light moving throughout my body, every bone, tissue and cell, eyelash to toenail, back to the center of my forehead. It spills over into my chest. The Light connects with my spirit. My soul realigns. Calms and frees me again. This Light is God, often Jesus, whose transformative prowess is unparalleled in my experience. I am clothed in Divine Love. I am safe from greater disharmony, ready to accept what is, yet open to healing. I ask for help. I surrender to the strength and wisdom of immortal love. My bodily and mental resources are refilled like receptacles with life-giving water. Rest comes. Pain dissolves bit by bit. I practice this as often as is needed. And get on my feet again.

4. Prayer. I begin the day with prayer, end it with prayer and during the day I speak to God with thoughts or spoken language. I praise God and this life I am given and wonders of earth. I seek guidance so the best of who I am can meet (perhaps aid) the best of who you are. I pray for others to find their way. Personal surrender of problems brings clarity and increased power for change. I believe in and have experienced God’s interventions countless times. I know we are not alone in this journey. Believe you are not, either, and find the eternal unity that is always there.

5. I seek serenity and caring. If something unduly disturbs or endangers me, if it seems to lack positive benefit for my well-being, I back away and choose another option. An exception is when my presence is needed to deal with a crisis. Then I take a moment to call on God’s wisdom, clear my thinking, perhaps brace myself. Yet it also can mean quitting a job or leaving a relationship or a town. It may be as simple as changing the station on the radio or television, vacating a deleterious scene, altering my direction. It likely includes doing what I love to do: creating something, exploring nature, talking with friends and family, reading a good book or magazine, sitting on my balcony and gazing at the Big Dipper and the moon, going on a walk (which cures everything, I say). But it also means giving less attention to myself and more to others. Ever notice how being focused on someone else’s need lessens your own discontent?

Human beings require one another for comfort, simple companionship, for inspiration and problem solving. For shared laughter. We gather together naturally, then we take time apart. There is an inherent, adaptable balance in human living as there is in nature. We determine what works for us, then make it the priority.

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As I finish this, I think: all these words articulate only a smidgen of what works for my particular needs. Perhaps it comes down to each of us wanting to do whatever it takes to make life better. Our time on earth is short, indeed, but not too short. It was my childhood dream to be a positive force, to bring forward the luster of life. To love as God loves us, a big goal. But without this and an active committment to hope, earth living is unnecessarily complicated. Trying, exhausting. I know life will not be pain-free. And I cannot keep those I love from grief. But I can surround them with care as can, and no doubt do, you. Rise up and fight for whatever matters dearly but in the end, seek, accept and give ever more peace. Be alert to God’s power in even the worst moments. You will find passageway through the narrowest places, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Truth on a Mountain Trail

I read a couple of articles recently about writing with honesty and being true to the essence of one’s self. These aren’t necessarily one and the same. I could write factually, historically, about what has occurred in my life, and likely there is some validity and value in that. I have lived in peculiar times; my personal decades have reflected those changes and challenges. And I have experienced a number of events that have been unusual or dangerous, insufferable yet inspiring, curious and surprisingly sweet. So why not just write about those, the unvarnished truth–put them out there and see how they do?

But usually it is another story that draws me. It is the one recalled by an inner vision, or that simply seeks my attention and pulls me like a magnet. This hideaway of stories is a vast and homely palace where who I am lives, made of bits and pieces of wonderings,  snippets of images and visions. It is a place of wonders.  It is erected and maintained in my heart and in my dreaming. Call it a writer’s way of being or maybe just a lowly pilgrim’s. But this process of seeking the whole story cracks open much of what I know as truths, at least mine.

So I will tell you a small tale about climbing up a trail in Mt. Hood National Forest to see Mirror Lake.

It was a brilliant day, the sort we have been waiting for all year in the northwest. I had heard about the trail for years. Walking and hiking are like bread for my soul and body–basic, a daily requirement, a tool in my toolkit. But I have a coronary artery disease diagnosis, and even with two stent implants to keep the blood flowing nicely,  I wasn’t certain if I could climb this trail for an hour and a half. But it is  considered relatively easy , so is popular with families. There is, after all, only a 700 ft. elevation change. And at the end of that trail, there is the reward of a lovely lake and a grand view of Mt. Hood.

These are the facts of this post so far. Now comes the rest.

The heat dallied, then gradually seeped out of the deepening forest but it was quite warm enough. I was good with sandals and jeans rolled up, a light t-shirt. I climbed with Marc, my spouse, and as we pushed forward l sought to turn out all thought and let nature envelop me. In fact, the goal here was to fully empty my mind–and find refuge from stress.

This is the hard part. It has been a rough start of summer, ragged ’round the edges. Many changes in my family and more to come. Some of it has brought pain, the sort that needles me unless I surrender to work or the joys and passions which overflow the flexible parameters of my life. The harder life becomes, the harder I tend to work, as though I can tame it, put all the unruly things back into their corners. Or smooth out the creases with a strong and steady hand. And in the midst of the work, find solace and release. I have great energy and will but sometimes it seems small match for this adventure we call human life.

I kept on. The trail curved and steepened. I was breathing harder, so paused. Beads of sweat had sprung up on my forehead and neck. I studied others who passed. They looked cool, relaxed. Nearby was a stream which swirled and tumbled, its music buoyant. I examined soft moss that clung to logs crisscrossing the water, then started again.

Each step brought air that was thinner in my lungs, to my brain. My breathing was labored. Perspiration snaked its way down my chest and back; it was as though tears fell from my pores while my eyes stayed clear. My heart, at moments syncopated, began to settle, and beat well if quickly. Clusters of people came and went with their enthusiastic children and lively dogs. How far could it be to the top?

I let many pass, in need of more communion with nature. I was closer to that vivid moment when all falls away and life becomes again harmonious, within and without. Treetops shimmered in the swish and sigh of breezes. Looking up, I felt dizzy with warmth and pleasure. My mind began to recalibrate. My soul sat up.

The ascent went on like that for me, climbing as long as I could, the sweat dampening my skin but my breathing steadier. Then a long pause. My legs were heavier but moving as demanded, and my arms swung so that I fell into the rhythm of it, feet sure, knees a bit cranky but doing their job well. And the forest kept beguiling me with its perfumes and beauties and odd asides.  We admired plants, bugs, berries; watched ground squirrels scamper; wondered over cougars and bears. We were moving into the wilderness, though well-travelled by humans there. I kept on, heart shifting smoothly,  lungs filling with redolent, clean air. I was well challenged, more attuned. Heartbeats took oxygen to blood and brain; my senses sharpened.

We were nearing the top. Light spilled into shadows. The trees encroached less, patches of sky were more often visible. We gazed out over Zig Zag Valley, an exquisite scene. Such heavenly blueness, like an infinite cape.

When we arrived at Mirror Lake I heard, then saw, adults and children splashing and laughing. They were relieved and happy to be cooled by an alpine lake, with sunshine hot and golden on their backs. I felt that feeling I always have when seeing a body of water like this: a great dash of joy, a familiar peace.

It reminds me of childhood summers in northern Michigan where only good things were allowed if at all possible, like boating and swimming and laying in a chaise lounge and reading all day. Sitting around a fire and roasting marshmallows. Listening to birds and catching fireflies.

There was a feeling of being brave back then, and of life so rich with possibilities. And even when the bad times came (which they did, as they do, with a vengeance), there was that muscular power to my belief that all could be overcome. Endured. Healed. It was the feeling of an ancient and eternal love made visible in sky and water, in the mellifluous sounds of life. Way back then, as a child, it made its way into the cells of this body, the synapses of this brain so that I am, unapologetically, a believer. In the supreme design. In God alive. Here. Now.

Mirror Lake may not be the most breathtaking lake I have ever seen. But imperial Mt. Hood reigns if you walk to a grassy spot on one side of it.  There, in the brazen mountain sunshine, is the reflective quality that gives the lake its name. I like how it spreads gently among forest and rocks. As we sat in the shade my mind was clarified. The sharp stings of my difficulties had left no poison behind. I was small here at the top of the trail, and yet had my place.

How can I forget that the pain I hold too close slips away when my heart opens wide? I was given gratitude at the top of this trail, in the center of a summer day. This is much of the truth, the real story that sooner or later finds me.