July 2009

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I have always yearned for a space to write, my own space, a place where I could close the door away from the obligations and responsibilities and just think and be. .   

It was just a few yards from the river, on it’s own small peninsula, where the dark stream from the forest joined the larger flow of water coming down from the lake.  Trees grew all around it, birch, spruce, and tall graceful pencil pines that caught the sun on their chestnut trunks and the shimmering aspen.  The forest floor was covered with bilberry, heather, small bright green ferns that made intricate patterns like an oriental carpet,  sphagnum moss, horsetails and Ledum paludris, swamp rosemary.

 The hut was a raised roofed box, 15 foot square, constructed of  broad horizontal planks of pine, weathered grey and caulked with resin.  To the right of the door was a  single window divided into four squares of glass.  In front, the roof was extended over a veranda and supported on corner posts.  The floor was loose and springy sending cups tumbling off the rough wooden table.  A wooden railing ran and hand height half way round.  Access to the veranda was by a tilted block of cemented red bricks.  There was a blackened metal coffee pot hanging from a hook to the left of the door. 

To the right of the hut was a simple open woodshed with a lozenge shaped opening that tapered towards the floor.  Stacks of logs stood to the side of it and more logs were arranged against the wall of the house.  A narrow path led to what looked like a tilted wooden sentry box with a door and a wooden latch, the sort of casual contruction, Australians call a ‘dunny’!   

A key was hidden in a round hole above and to the right of the window and the door opened with a subdued and respectful click.  The space inside had the kind of rustic cosiness, I enjoyed as a teenager; my den!   The walls were rough and lined with fire- blackened planks of wood.  The pine floor was new as were the rugs, a homely touch.   A stove rested on a metal platform in centre of the room.  It was the sort of stove you would find in a sauna, an oblong box with doors and topped with large pebbles, and a black chimney that was cemented into what looked like a big tin box below the ceiling.  The red paint on it was faded and flaking. 

There was a wooden bunk in against the back wall to the right of a simple oblong window that looked back into the forest, and another adjoining bed on the right wall.  On the left hand wall were shelves and cupboards which held mugs, matches, paper towels, red plastic bowls, a large saucepan for boiling water and smaller cooking pot with a metal handle.  A small axe, its blade protected in a leather sleeve hung up besides saws and knives, an assortment of fishing equipment and three pairs of carpet slippers.

There was a table to the right of the door.  It was made of pine and varnished to a smooth shine. I could ‘see’ pencils, notebooks, a sketch pad, my favourite pen with the silky nib, a field guide to the flowers and trees, a slim volume of poems, some trophies, a stick chiselled by a beaver, some polished stones, pine cones, a small branched antler.

 I could work here.  I’d sit there and gaze out of the window at the river, the white clouds over the dappled greens of the swamp, the play of light on the pines, lulled by the breeze in the trees, the occasional muffled riff  of water and the soft lilt of a forest bird. There is a melancholy peace about it, a place to rest, a creative meditation.  

 In the evening I’d make a fire and cook the pike I had managed to hook earlier. I’d mix up a sauce from the  mushrooms that sprung up after the rains and perhaps, if was lucky enjoy a dessert of cloudberries.  Then I would sip my coffee, gaze into the fire and let the river, the fire and evening work their spell.

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When I read Richard Mabey’s book, Nature Cure, I could feel the how removing himself to a cottage in Norfolk for several months cured him of the ennuie and depression that had afflicted him after completing the mammoth enterprise of Flora Brittanica.  The book was like a course of treatment, page by page, healing slowly took place.  But what was it, the magic component, the secret ingredient, that brought about the healing?  Was it just the rest, distancing himself from deadlines and responsibilities, finding a new sense of meaning in life, adapting to a slower pace, relaxing to the rythms of the day, the seasons.  Was it all of the above or none. 

I have just returned from the taiga, a wilderness of forest and swamp in Northern Finland.  There I sensed yet again that for me, the essence of nature cure is about living in the present.  I have spent too much time regretting the past and worrying about the future.  I have analysed, rationalised, explained, even understood, but none of this has brought peace.  I am not denying the pleasures of nostalgia or the excitement of hope, but these are too often tempered by guilt or fear, whereas the present just is.  You just have to get on with it. 

Being out in the wilderness focuses attention on survival.  You have to engage with the business of collecting wood, building a fire, preparing a meal, even hunting or gathering, making sure you have shelter for the night, dealing with the midge, getting to the next place or just staying put. 

And with nature, there is so much going on all the time, light, weather, plants growing or dying back, animals, birds, the river, the mood of the lake.  It’s like a never ending test series, a book you can never put down, but much more so.  Nature captivates, asks questions, inspires curiosity, demands engagement. 

The book that accompanied my thoughts in Finland was Roger Deakin’s ‘Wildwood; a journey through trees’.   In the first section, entitled Roots, he described how his love of nature was kindled by an inspiring biology teacher, who took groups of boys on nature expeditions to the New Forest.  Over the course of 8 years, the boys made a detailed ecological exploration of a three mile stretch of countryside near Beaulieu Station.  One of their projects investigated the links between the unusual preponderance of the dwarf buttercup, myosurus minimus, and the ancient habit of corralling of wild new forest ponies for selling by the commoners.  They discovered how the tramping of the horses hooves and the heavy manuring of the ground destroyed competing plants but is ideal for the buttercup.  Another project demonstrated how half of the seedpods of the Needle Whin, Genista anglica, were infected by a weevil, Apion genistae, which was in turn eaten alive by the larvae of a chalcid wasp, Spintherus leguminium.   How wonderful to have a teacher who could inspire such curiosity and fascination. When mental energies are focussed on the meaning of the present, there is little time for regret and worry. 

Ernest Neal, my biology teacher, might have been an inspiration to me.  He probably was.  He wrote Woodland Ecology, based on the analysis of a Somerset wood and his dedicated investigation of the intimacies of the Badger led to the discovery of delayed implantation, an ovum fertilised one steamy night in autumn would not implant in the uterus until the following spring.  But the nearest I got to ‘understanding the importance of being Ernest’ was when he leant over my dissection of the sex organs of the Dogfish and said with feeling, ‘You know, Read, sex is a beautiful thing.’  In my innocence, I replied with an enthusiasm I considered appropriate for the situation, ‘Yes sir, I suppose it must be.’      

The books I read then, I still treasure;  King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz,  The Peregrine by J.A.Baker,  The Life of the Robin by R.Lack,  all products of  detailed observation over a long time, a fascination leading to a complete immersion in the object of enquiry.  I got the impression that these authors were happy in their own skin.  The same kind of self sufficiency comes through in A Fortunate Man, which describes the author’s life as a country doctor or Oliver Sachs account of his chemical childhood in Uncle Tungsten

Engaging with life in the present takes you out of morbid preoccupations with the self or a dependence on others and a happiness that derives from a fascination with the external.  It takes you out of yourself.  But you need courage to let go of the familiar and entrapping and a will to commit to a wider purpose.  

Analysis may lead to a kind of understanding, but not to happiness nor even necessarily to health.  The paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott indicated that the purpose of emotional development was to enable people to be themselves in the company of others.  I would suggest that this might be extended to encompass self sufficiency in the natural world too.  A few years ago, I suggested the notion of therapeutic camps for those enmeshed in the miseries off their everyday lives.  May be whittling should be part of an analyst’s stock in trade?   In a sense, it is!

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A troupe of black musicians with southern accents and joyful, toothy grins were waiting to board the flight to Stockholm.  They wore earphones and were jigging, jerking, twitching, beating out syncopated rhythms on their knees, table and the arms of their seats.     

In the restaurant, a conclave of heavy metal rockers, long hair, serious beards, provocative shirts.  One is in a wheelchair.   

A Viking, his long straw-coloured hair parted in the middle and plaited, a wispy beard and dragon head tattoos on his shoulders; his face lined with cruelty. 

Lonely faces in repose on the Underground, their tragedies land fears etched deep into their skin.

Smooth, blank round eyed faces, like those of infants lost in transit, their expression a mixture of boredom, fear, and need.   

Buzz Aldrin, a face of wide-eyed wonder and disillusion.  ‘I’m the man who walked on the moon, damn it.  Why has my life been so tragic?’

The ninety-eight separate muscles under the skin of the face are controlled by twiglets of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves and advertise the complex nuances of our feelings.  

After a lifetime, the dominant emotional themes of culture and experience, that has constructed the rail network of nerves, is fixed in the shunting yards of our faces.

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Exhausted with the pressure of office work, the deadlines, responsibilities and sheer bustle and clutter of city life?  Then don’t head for the crowded beaches of the Mediterranean,  follow the geese and go north to Finland.     

Arola farm lies in the north east just south of the Arctic Circle within sight of the watchtowers of the Russian Federation.   It is situated on the edge of Martinselkonen National Park,  a Tolkien-like wilderness of vast open forests of spruce, pine and birch, carpeted by mosses and lichens, with broad expanses of  grassy bog, and dark lakes.   A hundred miles away from the nearest town, you can wander through the forest all day long without meeting a soul, but your every step is noted by the tree top conversations of Ravens, the laughter of woodpeckers, the mocking calls of the Cuckoo and the long drawn out trills of summer Bramblings, as smart as guardsmen in their coal black heads and red chests.  Trekking in Finnish National Parks is very easy.  The trails are well maintained  and marked,  the traverses across the swamps are dry and boarded and there are comfortable huts equipped with stove and fuel and clean toilets, where you can stay  overnight at no cost at all.  

Martinselkonen is a refuge for the few remaining large European mammals; in fact you have to remind yourself that you are not in Canada.  There are Brown Bear, Elk, Wolves, Lynx and Beaver in the forest, but you do have to know where and how to see them.  Arola has its own bear hide, at the side of a clearing a few miles into the forest.  Eero leaves 100 kilos of fish and elk meat out for the bears every evening.  With their own five-star restaurant,  the bears, normally shy, venture cautiously out of the forest in the long light nights often bringing their cubs with them to feed, play and even make love.  European Brown Bears are enormous creatures.  The male weighs in at over 200 kilos and stands over ten feet tall.   The female is not quite that size, but when they make love, the earth really moves!    But this is no zoo; these are wild animals.  In the hide we speak in whispers and cover our skin to disguise the smell.  Bears have a very good sense of smell.  If they detect the slightest whiff of human presence, they will gallop off into the forest.   Bears are not the only creatures to come to Eero’s restaurant.  Occasionally a Wolverine, a kind of large polecat,  will venture out for a snack if he thinks the coast is clear.  And around the clearing, a pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles wait from their unlikely perch of the top of the spruce, fending off attacks from the gulls.   Suomussalmi is on the migration route and many of the species that winter in England, such as Whooper Swans, White fronted and Brent Geese pass through in late spring en route to Siberia while others such as Fieldfares, Redwings, Brambling, Waxwing and Golden Plover breed here and can be watched from the window of the farmhouse.  A few Siberian species, such as the Bluethroat, Siberian Jay, Common Crane and Lapland Bunting, are resident here.  Other common residents include the Ruff, Green and Wood Sandpipers, which are on the British list, but are rare. One morning while canoeing slowly up river, we came upon a Red Throated Diver,  late for the wedding in his light grey morning suit, black and white striped shirt and crimson cravat.  

The Sappinen family have farmed in Arola for generations, even throughout the chaos of war when this region was occupied first by the Russians and then by the Nazis.  In 1939 it was Eero’s mother, Lempi, who bundled her children in a blanket, put them on a sledge and escaped across the thawing river to warn the people of Juntusranta that war had broken out.  In Finland, as in many parts of Europe, life for small farmers has become increasingly difficult.  And so Helena, Eero and their son Jeru gave up the farm just two years ago and decided to invest in the growing international enthusiasm for eco-tourism. Visitors can stay here at any time of the year.  There is always so much to see and do.  All they need is a love of the wilderness and a sense of adventure.  It is a wonderful place to bring children.  In the summer, there is trekking or cycling in the forest,  bear or beaver watching and canoeing or swimming in the broad, shallow river, but in the long winter, the forest is transformed into a wonderland, which can be explored on skis, on skidoos, or even on sledges pulled by eager teams of huskies.  Arola is on the route of the long distance cross country ski trails and visitors can even use the trail that runs along the border and is kept clear by Finnish soldiers. 

Helena once worked as a nurse in Plymouth and speaks English fluently.  She can accommodate up to 11 people in two houses; the old farmhouse and Hevonkuusa,  a lovely log cabin, 500 metres down the track by the lake.  The latter comes with its own smoke sauna and diving platform.                            

Self catering is an option,  but it would be a mistake not to enjoy Helena’s wonderful traditional Finnish cuisine.  Locked in by snow for half the year and with the nearest store 5 miles away, self sufficiency is the by-word.    So berries picked late in the season are boiled and bottled; the delicious dark crimson blue berries swollen with sweetness,  the creamy cloudberries with their subtle hints of butterscotch,  cranberries from the bog and my favourite, the wonderful combination of sweet, sour and bitter flavours of the lingonberries.   Mushrooms are also stored over winter.  Some need to be boiled twice to remove the toxins and then dried.  Others are pickled in brine. Made up into a sauce, the rich earthy flavours are a delicious complement for the tender sweetness of fresh pike or the meatiness of Elk.  Fish is caught locally all the year round.  In the summer, swarms of roach can be caught by net, cleaned and cooked slowly in salt, onion, olive oil and lemon and bottled with tomato.  In the winter, pike can be caught by rod and line through a hole drilled through the thick ice of the lake.    Elk is shot during the brief hunting period in October and kept frozen overwinter.  It tastes like beef, but does not have the fat content.   Reindeer is smoked and salted and is lovely as midday snack in the forest between two slices of freshly baked rye bread.  Beetroot, cabbage and potatoes grow quickly during the light nights of the Finnish summer and can be pickled and stored through the winter. 

A week in Arola will broaden your mind.  It will appeal to the adventurous. The wild outdoors and range of activities will excite children of all ages.  In the summer, canoe up river to the rapids, trek all day in the forest and return for a wonderful sauna and nerve-tingling dip in the river.   Or why not ski through winter wonderland along forest trails and return to your cosy log house, warmed by a stove, that has been constructed locally out of heat radiating dark soapstone.  But above all, just enjoy feeling so in touch with nature and so healthy and alive.  

To book a holiday at Arola, visit the website at www.arolantila.susmussalmi.net or write to Helena Sappinen at Arolantie 5, FIN 89920 RUHTINANSALMI. (Tel/fax        +358 8 734 403     ). Travel is remarkably inexpensive.  Flights from various airports in England to Helsinki can cost around £200.  Then take a flight to Kuusamo (£80 return), from where Jeru will collect you and drive you the one and half hour journey to the farm.

‘When the village was built’, Simon said, ‘it wouldn’t have mattered so much that it got flooded. People would have been used to it.  They would have moved upstairs and carried on.  Everything they needed; food, water, fuel, had to be brought in by hand anyway.  Sewage and waste would just wash away.  People would have pulled together, helped each other out and carried on.  The community was resilient.’  Houses were independent units; built on principles of sustainability and resilience.

Salthouses, so I understand, is situated behind the shingle spit on the north Norfolk coast,  not far from Cley-next-the-sea.  The sea is gradually eroding the shingle.  For years now, the council have employed a mechanical digger, 52 weeks a year, to pile the shingle up.  Every day, it’s get taken down a little more.  A thousand years ago, King Canute demonstrated that man could not control the sea.  We have been slow in learning.  Now it seems, the decision has been made to let Salthouses flood.  It will become uninhabitable with the first inundation.

Modern communities are no longer self sufficient.  Gas, electricity, water, sewage disposal are piped in.  And with energy supplies on tap, comes heat, light, entertainment, information and communication.  And those services that cannot be piped in, food, and materials for home repair and improvement, for example, are brought to the door by road.  It’s a physiological system.  Every house is like a cell, the towns like organs, the country the whole body.  Supplies flow in along arteries, energy in nerves, waste is conveyed away in veins, spill over is mopped up by lymphatics.  Our society is maintained by a life support system, available 24 hours a day.  It is totally unable to manage without it.  And we are like astronauts, unable to survive outside our space suit or without the umbilical connection to the space craft and the complex cognitive resources of mission control.  Have you thought of how much an astronaut on a space walk resembles a foetus floating in its amniotic sea.    

A flood would be devastating.  It would short out the electrical supplies, stop gas flow, the sewage would back up, the water would become contaminated, supplies of food would not get in.  We would be devastated, unable to survive.  Come the melting of ice caps, rising sea levels, villages, towns, even whole countries may have to be abandoned.  As communities have became ever larger, so society is ever more vulnerable to attack or natural disaster.   

Now, it seems all aspects of life are supplied and organised centrally; health care, education, farming (viz: cash crops versus subsistence farming), entertainment.  And it all has to be paid for via a centralised financial system. 

So not only wars, famine, flood and pestilence devastate society, but also collapse of the financial system.  But the physiological metaphor can be extended into a psychological realm when we consider how our recent world wide banking crisis has not been instigated by a real depletion of financial resources, but a virtual depletion induced by fear. Collective  emotion can have as great an impact on society as anxiety and depression on the human constitution.   

Every advance induces a loss of self sufficiency, an erosion of community and an overweaning dependence on a faceless centralised system of control.  These are the conditions for loneliness and with loss of community comes loss of identity and the ever greater risk of collapse of human society.  But in Derbyshire, something is stirring.  There is a movement to grow one’s own food, the institution of local farmers market, film clubs, local theatre. The church is hanging in there but needs, as His grace, The Bishop of Repton declared to me over a glass of champagne, to be ‘less Godly and more a centre of the community.’       

Simon lives on a big boat.  He generates his own electricity, collects his own water and fuel wherever he moors, gives the left overs to the gulls and lets the sewage look after itself. Come the flood, he will draw up the gangplank and sail away like Noah to higher ground.  His is a salutary perspective.

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Giver of life,  

You chuckle, crackle, inspire 

Your energy moves me,

You give me light and warmth

You are my sun,

My reason, my creation.


Never the same,  

You sway, dance, hypnotise

Seduce with your desire,

Your play of colour,

Makes me steam, melt,

Burn with temptation.


A greedy mistress,

You roar, consume, require  

Nought but disintegration,

Your hot breath, your hiss,

Reduces me to elemental fury

And black resignation.

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You rise alone at dusk, 

sick with longing;

a melancholy romantic,   

pale reflection of desire,

intent on seduction.


Your glance, inscrutable,

beguiles with suggestion,

creates shades of possibility,

among fragrant borders,

transplanted with lust.


You suck tsunamis from the deep

That sweep me from the beach     

to drown in your mystery,

that cold, silent accomplice

that fate cannot  deny.  


40 years ago this week, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin landed and walked on the moon.  ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’    

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It’s daybreak, and the meadow warms to 

the fragrant hum of towering limes,

while sheep cough on seed heads   

and speeding martins trace

patterns of light around 

their race track beneath the oaks.


And high above the drowsy vale,

by glowing rocks, where bracken toasts   

and clouds tack back across the sky, 

the harebells creep through longer grass

and a yellow bird chinks its coins and

orders bread without any cheese.


Now nettles crowd the stinging path,

the toadflax clings, the bramble tears,

the hogweed casts its giant shade,

and foxgloves lay out landing lights

by minarets of willowherb,

cranesbill, vetch and happy ox-eye daisy.


Returning through the woodland gloom,

So rank with mould and thick with leaf,  

a warbler sounds the same refrain, 

‘But why, but why, but why, but why?’

 I frown at the intrusion, look askance,   

‘I wish I knew, I knew, I knew.’


And the sparrows chatter on under the eaves.

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Show! Don’t tell!  Let the reader decide why the characters behave as they do.  Keep them guessing. It’s what can turn a good book into a great one.  But, to be honest, I didn’t think The Reader was a great book when I first read it about three months ago.  The plot, I thought, was barely credible and the characters far too sketchy.  That was before I saw the film.

You’ll know the story.  It is 1958 in Berlin. Michael, just 15, meets Hannah in the porch of her apartment.  It is raining, he is ill.  She is kind to him.  When he recovers some weeks later, he returns to thank her.  They have an affair.  Hannah, much older,  is in control; she demands he read to her, then they make love, but their trysts end abruptly when she leaves suddenly without telling him.   

Michael next encounters Hannah when he is a law student attending the war trials. He is shocked to recognize her as one of the prisoners.  She was in the SS and was responsible with 7 other officers for transporting 300 Jewish prisoners. There was an air raid, the church in which their captives were locked, burnt down and all except one of them died.  The guards could have opened the church doors but they didn’t.  The other women accuse Hannah as the ringleader.  They say that it was her who wrote the false report of the incident.  To validate their claims, Hannah is asked by the presiding judge to provide a sample of her handwriting.  Instead, she admits she wrote the report and is sentenced to life imprisonment. 

But Michael guesses the truth.  He realizes that Hannah is illiterate.  That’s why she was so keen he read to her.  She couldn’t have written the report.  He could have saved her. 

Some twenty years later, after his marriage has failed and he is living alone, Michael again reads to Hannah via a Dictaphone and sends the tapes to the prison.  Hannah devours them eagerly and uses them to teach herself to read.  It is her purpose and a kind of redemption.  She has no family.  When her time for release comes up, Michael is contacted to take care of arrangements for her, but he is reluctant.  The night before he is due to pick her up, she hangs herself.   

Stripped down to its essentials, this is a raw disturbing story.  The plot is roughly sketched in broad brush strokes. The film, directed by Anthony Minghella, captures it brilliantly.  Kate Winslet conveys the nuances of Hannah’s defensive secrecy to perfection. David Kross, who plays the young Michael, convinces as the callow youth ridden by guilt.  The love scenes are tentative and caring without being salacious.  But the greatness of this film and indeed the book resides in how it raises questions, days, weeks after the credits have wound down.    

What was Hannah’s background?  Where was she from? She had no family. What had happened to her parents?  Why was she illiterate?  Did she have no education?  We suspect a deeply disturbed background, perhaps abuse. 

And why did she join the SS as a guard?  Was she afraid her illiteracy would be discovered.  Was it this fear of exposure that caused her to run away from Michael. She had just been promoted from being a conductor on the trams to work in the office. Her shame would be discovered.   

And why was her illiteracy such a deep source of shame that she would rather die than admit it.  Did it represent another shame?  Or was it more a fear that if she exposed her illiteracy, her vulnerability could be exploited? 

Hannah is an enigma. Her secrecy is her protection and power. Those who are so fearful of being exploited themselves, tend to exploit other people.  Hannah undoubtedly exploited the innocence of Michael for both sexual and intellectual gratification. She  devastated his life.  He could not love again.  But darker still, there were hints from the trial that she would target the weaker of her captives, get them to read to her, perhaps gratify her lust and then select them for the gas chambers. 

But could she have done that?  We are sympathetic to Hannah. We see her through Michael’s eyes, a kind woman caught up in an awful situation. She is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. 

We all need to know that the one we love is good and will care for us. We cling to the romance of it all, the make believe.  The reality can be impossible to bear.  So why didn’t Michael rescue her?  Why did he say nothing?  Did the trial strip away the illusion,  expose Hannah as a human being who could perform the most evil deeds if the risk of not doing so demanded it.  Michael had glimpsed her dark side. Did he fear her liberty?  Or was it the shame of exposure that he feared?  How could he admit that he had consorted, not only with a much older woman, but he had loved a war criminal and mass murderer?    

The only way Michael could reconcile his obsessive and enduring love for Hannah with the awful truth was to conduct their relationship at a distance by reading to her and sending her the tapes.  She was safe in prison. He could express his love with no risk to himself.  But then, the stark reality of her release fractured the cover. He had to look after her. His ambivalence was obvious. How could Hannah commit herself to a dependant relationship with anybody, let alone a man who could no longer care for her unequivocally. It was impossible. How could she manage outside prison. She had to kill herself.        


The Reader was released late last year.  Kate Winslet was successfully nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars.  

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Arriving at the watershed

between regret and despair.

when fate replaces hope and

is companioned by fear,

the mind fixes on  a

 moment of being,  

of  belonging; 

not to compete,

more to repair;

  less an excursion as  

a better …. way

…. home.    

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