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QUINTESSENCE

A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

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Blossoms from Regrets

A wild thistle of Sicily
I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret..."


- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

Old Regret.

Sorrow chipped away over the passing years by forgetfulness or forgiveness, buried in moments and years we might choose not to remember. Large hearts of darkness. Is there an end to old regret?

These few lines of May Sarton's poem "The Balcony" expose rich layers of meaning. One voice of a couple, of a certain age perhaps, or world weariness, acknowledging the accidental accumulated joys and pains of life. Words that hint to the years past, to damaged relationships, shaded losses. Longed-for opportunities swept away with the passage of time.

"The Balcony" ends with this final tribute, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. What an exquisite image. The heart in its layered translucent suffering, finally and fully comprehended. From the wisdom of acceptance, this extravagant beauty.

There is a thread of durability in the poem's voice. How do we find within ourselves the strength and desire to carry on? To start over from the disappointments of the past? John F. Kennedy described his father, after the elder man's stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." Yet we feel from Sarton's words that perhaps the collection of years is not limit but context. We are always beginning. Over and again. In life, in work, in love. The passage of time has worn lines upon our foreheads, to be sure. But the times we regret -- lost, burnt, wasted, empty, wronged, violated, wounded, misspent -- needn't be the only melody of the heart. I love the thought that releasing regrets might allow us to blossom, "lavishly at ease."

Here is May Sarton's entire poem. Enjoy.

THE BALCONY
by May Sarton /after Baudelaire

Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries,
You will remember how we supped each night
There on your balcony high in the trees
Where a heraldic lion took late light,
Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries.

The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears;
The old cat begged a morsel from my plate,
And all around leaves stirred in the warm airs
Breathed from the valley as the red sun set.
The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears.

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret
In the eternal presence of the trees -
I thought of all the pain and how we met.

There every night we drank deep of the wine
And our love, still without history,
Yet the completion of some real design
Earned with much thought, muse of the mystery.
There every night we drank deep of the wine.

While out of deprivation a huge flower,
The evening's passion, was about to bloom.
Such intimacy held us in its power
The long years vanished in a little room,
And out of deprivation, a huge flower.

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Light

Haleakala, sunrise

11/10 again
by Lucille Clifton

some say the radiance around the body
can be seen by eyes latticed against
all light but the particular. they say
you can notice something rise
from the houseboat of the body
wearing the body's face,
and that you can feel the presence
of a possible otherwhere.
not mystical, they say, but human.
human to lift away from the arms that
try to hold you (as you did then)
and, brilliance magnified,
circle beyond the ironwork
encasing your human heart.

Dear A,

I learned of your death this week. I was stunned. Bereft is too small a word to describe the pained sensation of the absence of your presence on this planet. Others have said your death was a perhaps a gift, a release from a more difficult illness. But I know it was, and always would be, too soon.

You have meant many things to many people, A. Theologist, professor, mentor, friend, father, lover, student of knowledge. You had many gifts, but I deeply admired the way you opened yourself to others and gave of your heart. You had an ability to forge human steel. To hammer together that blend of compassion and conviction that made the people around you stronger and good.

To me, you were my friend. It doesn't seem so long ago that we first met through my husband Ken. As the leader of a small group of entrepreneurs struggling to do better, be better, in the often souless corridors of Silicon Valley, you became both mentor and dear spiritual confidant to Ken. When Ken became ill, you left the boarding line of a flight to Paris - leaving with your lovely wife on a much deserved vacation - and instead flew north to sit and talk with Ken at his hospital bedside. Who does this? Many of us think we would for our closest friends. You actually did. You engaged with Ken in the deep questions, the unanswerable mysteries. You sat with him and wandered into the dazzling light that is not enough time and too much time all in the same moment.

You hugged me and let me scream at God, angry and desolate to my core. You were large enough of heart to carry all these things. And when the time came, without qualm you accepted Ken's request to co-lead his funeral, along with R, another member of your close friendship circle. And that was just what you did for us.

In the years after when I was alone and raising our children, you were always there. My quiet cheerleader. A note arrived each year, remembering Ken on the day he left this earth. Generous always, you stood up on my behalf as I sought to reconstruct a future. I treasure one particular memory: A visit here, with M at your side. We lunched, shared a good French wine. I felt nurtured in your company. There you both were, the embodiment of love and completeness in the presence of one another, and I warmed in your light.

I like to think of you on the bay. Taking a break in the late afternoon sun on your sailboat. I imagine you looking up at the sky. Surrendering all the world's heartbreaks along with your own to the quiet painted layers of blue on blue that deepen to night. You walked your faith on this earth, A. Stood for all that is beyond our understanding and yet particular to each of us. Even me, devastated and angry. You saying to me simply, God is big enough for your hurt.

God has surely welcomed back to his side one of the finest men I have ever known. Your gifts to others shine here on this earth. Your leaving us has stopped the clocks. I think of W.H. Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, and these lines, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. To those of us fortunate enough to know you, A, you were everything that is good.

Love and friendship,
me

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Carries a Notebook


THE IDES OF MARCH
by C.P. Cavafy (1911, translated from the Greek by Stratis Haviaras)

Guard well against the grandiose, my soul.
But if unable to curb your ambitions,
pursue them reluctantly, and with caution. the more you
progress, the more skeptical and aware you must be.

And when you achieve your full powers, A Caesar now,
assuming the distinction of a man of eminence,
be ever mindful, when you go into the street
(a master, conspicuous by your devoted entourage)
should someone from the crowd approach you,
someone called Artemidoros, to urge upon you
a letter, and to implore: "Read this without delay,
it concerns matters of grave importance." Don't fail
to pause; don't fail to put off any speech or affair;
don't fail to push aside those who hail and bow down to you
(you'll see them later). Even the Senate can have patience;
and without delay read the crucial message of Artemidoros.


I happened upon this poem of Caesar by Cavafy, and was struck by the parallels of fate, unheeded advisement, and the consequences of murderous secrecy and destruction then to what grips the world today. History offers the careful reader both preface and epilogue. What then will we do with the pages lived in between?

This is the week of Purim, the week of Easter, and a week of unthinkable violence as the world once more suffers an obliteration of peace. We do not know what time will reveal, or history finally discern, but we do know humanity has tread this path before and does so now with trepidation. How do we preserve life, accommodate our differences, and embrace good over evil? As I despaired of an answer, and wondered if the world was in fact lost, I came upon this poem by Denise Levertov in her book, "Sands of the Well."

FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
by Denise Levertov

Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
magenta, orange,
unflickering furnace, gaze
unswerving, innocent scarlet,
ardent white, afloat
on late light, serene passion
stiller than silence.


More sacred than a prayer, this sacrament of the earth. Hymn to the beauty and miraculous wonder of all things given to us without reservation, lost at a terrible price. The more than and greater than that is the natural world. What can you or I do? What change might we be? What hope might we bring forth from our grief and sadness at this terrible human loss and pain, the senseless murder of the innocent?

Be the witness. Hold to the good. Sing of hope. Attend to nature's life-giving promise, her time and seasons. Remember, remember the love.

And finally, this poem.

THE POET ALWAYS CARRIES A NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?

Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?


We are all poets of change and belief. Work the world. Record your wonder and gratitude. Learn from the lost innocence of the beloved, and the hard wisdom of history. Above all, give attention to what matters. Nourish love, family, all light. Place beauty in your heart.


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Walls


WALLS (1897)
by C.P. Cavafy

Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they've built around me enormous, towering walls.

And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:

because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?

But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.


I want to tell you the story of a girl, in her mid-twenties, who died this weekend. She was brought into a trauma center Emergency Department in the afternoon, by her friends, who hadn't noticed soon enough she was no longer breathing. Her heart had stopped. Perhaps for too long. Heroin, and valium. They abandoned her then; without leaving even her name. They never came back.

The hospital staff brought her back three times: holding her pulse, holding her to life. My daughter, working emergency CPR, said she was too thin. You felt her ribs cracking beneath your hands. The girl did not make it. My daughter came home from the hospital that night and cried. She's just a medical student, after all. Her own age...the feeling of the ribs...the futile effort. No one wanted to give up.

I said to my daughter, Let's call her April. I think she loved the spring.

It was just a feeling I had. Imagining the probable story of addiction, aloneness, moments of yearning for the walls to come down, to do and see and be all that might be waiting in life. This girl, I felt, believed in spring. Believed in a spring of her own some day. I listened to my girl pour her heart out, knowing she would never forget this young woman.

No one should die unknown or unnamed. Let's call her April, I said. I think she loved the spring.

April is not an unknown. Not to me, especially not to my daughter. I do not know if anyone mourns April. I don't know if her soul is headed into the earth or to a desired rebirth - a chance to try again, better. Perhaps she has simply run her race; ended the life that somehow was built around her, without ever looking over that wall. But I do know she will not be forgotten. Not by us. And I hope if you're reading this, not by you. Say a little prayer for April, will you? Put a flower in a vase perhaps. Light a candle, read a poem.

And if you encounter a wall, or someone trapped behind one - step around it, look over it, lend a hand. For April.



*In keeping with applicable medical privacy regulations, any identifying information has been removed or changed - GB

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So Hush A Masque

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vincent van Gogh

How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?
- "Ode on Indolence," John Keats










Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws.

I go through motions already made in another life [wrote the husband].
The room is cold. I must unpack. But not yet. Night is almost here.
Another one without I was going to say but that wold be weak.
Another one.
I stand firmly on the foundation of the love I fashioned, yes, our love.
You will disagree. But look inside yourself. there you see a world
traveling silently through space. On it two specks. We are
indissoluble. Three minutes of reality! all I ever asked.


She stands looking out at rain on the roof.

- from "The Beauty of the Husband," by Anne Carson

A good book plucks us from the concrete bunkers of the present. A good book lifts us from our circling preoccupations, puts wings on our thoughts and hands us navigation coordinates we've never flown before. A good book sits in our thoughts like the most erudite and giving of guests, discussing the world at length long after the book has closed. A good book is an all-night diner with an open bar and our favorite people alive and dead, known, unknown, stirring coffee across from us with a bent spoon, chin in hand, asking, "And after you decided to do that, then what?"

Life, as the saying goes, is to be be lived. A life, your life, is not to be postponed or sidetracked, minimized like a competing channel on a bigger screen. Anne Carson, in her incomparable book-length prose poem, "The Beauty of the Husband, a fictional essay in 29 tangos," explores Keats' idea that beauty is truth. And does so telling the story of a marriage. As you might imagine, truth thus becomes personal, subjective, illusory, intimate. All of its beauty released in the telling. Truth and beauty, we discover, are synonyms for what is real.

Beauty, it turns out, like truth can be cruel. Transcendent. As goes one of my favorite lines from the poet Masahide, Barn's burnt down. Now I can see the moon.

When you read this prose by Anne Carson, think of what you understand as the narrator speaks. What is truth, what is illusion, is it possible to experience differing threads of the same story? A good book lifts us above the landscape even as it plummets us into the heart of action. A good book inhabits our thoughts because of its beauty. Because of its truth.

Life, in all its formidable beauty.

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

This sentence, posted last night by two gentlemen on Twitter, is from the novel "Ulysses" by James Joyce. Perhaps, as one of them said, the most beautiful sentence in the English language. I gift it to you. Be overwhelmed.


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Synchronicity

Ostia Antica, Italy

For whom and to whom in the shadow
does my gradual guitar resound,
being born in the salt of my being
like the fish in the salt of the sea?

- from "Songs," Residence on Earth, Pablo Neruda

I was born on the 22nd of September. Today is the 22nd of July - the day my first husband, Ken, passed away...and birthday of my second husband, Greg. Reverberations pass through our lives - touched by this one number, 22.

A strange and mysterious, sad and joyful tumbler of emotions accompanies every July 22nd for me. I am twinned in both my past and my present on this one, extraordinary day. Acknowledging loss while acknowledging joy, aware of what is missing and what is found. Greg was aware of the synchronicity of these dates before I was. We had just met; Greg had read THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE and he texted me that day, wishing me peace and comfort, as he knew my son and I were out at Ken's gravesite. Greg never told me that day it was also his birthday, which speaks to his sensitivity and respect for Ken's place in my life, although later it caused me some remorse as his birthday should have been something to celebrate. If only I'd known. Would I have believed it? Would the shared dates have shaken me?

Since our marriage, Greg and I, as well as my children, dance in the complex realities of this date. We've embraced it as uniquely ours. The anniversary of Ken's death is etched on July 22nd, Greg came into life on July 22nd, the 22nd day is the day of my birthday in the fall...it seemed natural that going forward we would chose the 22nd day of any month as our choice for important events and decisions. We married on the 22nd of April. My daughter schedules major exams for this date (she is taking one today), and my son releases new music projects whenever he can on the 22nd.

How fitting that last night my beloved Ken was spoken of in the course of a writing workshop I taught at Auntie's Books on memoir - and I came home that same night to share and celebrate the class with my dear Greg. Today, Greg's birthday, is full of joy. We celebrate the doorway that opened between our lives and loves, and the powerful synchronicity that is for us, the number 22.
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In A Given Day


WHAT ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO ANYWAY?
by Jack Ridl

Trying to know what to do is difficult
enough, let alone knowing what to do

anyway. I could take that at least two ways,
maybe more. For example, I could take a walk,

even a long walk and I would expect to walk
through the woods or a field or a park or downtown.

But what if i take a walk and instead just kept
the walk to myself, kept it here amid all the indecision

about where to take that walk? I might pop open a Coke,
kick off my hiking boots, put on a smoking jacket,

and pile up some Jane Austen and some Henry James,
just pile them up. And then maybe I'd talk with you

even though you are no longer here. It could be like that,
or maybe it is like that. And at night the sky would be full

of the same stars as the night before last. At least it seems that way.



Jack Ridl, midwesterner, poet and professor, dedicated this poem to John Bartlby. But what he means us to know at the end of our reading is expressed in the last three lines. A man misses his friend. And this sudden, shattering absence measures, for our poet, the width and depth of the gulf between the tenuous temporal and the fixed eternal. Our poet glances upward. Stars. In their infinite lives, so much longer than our own, they fill the night, evidence of continuum. Today like yesterday - is it not full? But he feels the difference, our poet. A light has dimmed and changed the sky.

Anyway.

Ridl's poem begins in the physical. In the body of the poet and what he will do with himself. The living, and the no longer living. Failed by the futility of action, unable to find release in the movement of his muscles and breath, the poet moves into the hypothetical, the wondering, the hungering, the intimate. Again he returns to what is physical as he seeks comfort in the presence of what still is. Stars. Stars that remain the same, yet that some, now, do not see. Is it still as it always is? "It could be like that,/or maybe it is like that."

We know absence. We know loss. Take a walk. Or not. Boots on, or not. Books...or not. Thinking about the thing and internalizing the thing that thought signifies. Where do we go with vastness? An endless night? How does the heart embrace space too big for words?

What are you supposed to do anyway?
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Pent In The Shadows

CHRISTMAS SPARROW
by Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent -

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.



This poem by Billy Collins, from a 2013 compendium of new and selected poems "Aimless Love" (Random House), evokes many feelings for me.

Interiority (noun): being within, inside of everything. Loosely that which is within; going inward, further toward a center.

For many of us, the holidays are not easy. We are the ones with grief tucked in a back pocket. Interiority a place we dwell in instinctive rebuff of a season frequently marked by chaotic family gatherings, lush sentimentality, bombastic festivities, and prickly, achingly nostalgic traditions. We take refuge, wait out the hours. Wary of the ways the social carousel tenders the blues. The mood is not exactly melancholy, certainly not joy, but more fragile. A splintered heart. A clear-as-glass gathering of the self.

I was reminded of all of this recently chatting with a friend in New York about the recent loss of her mother and her difficulty enjoying the season. "How is it for you?" she asked.

Indeed. How is it for me? After a decade of widowhood and a recent remarriage, I find myself in a different place now than in the years leading to this moment. The word I reached for was "serene" as I answered my friend. But that is not quite right. "Serene" implies a peaceful contentment when I am thinking of quiet still waters. The truth is I am not beyond it, even a decade later as I reflect on the death of my first husband, Ken. But I have come to accept it. And as time swallows the insignificant and polishes the pure, I have found comfort in the goodness of our years together. There is acceptance in surrender, knowing loss is nonnegotiable. I have learned I can thrive at the kinder edges of that once-gaping hole. I want to tell my friend, Time will gentle loss, and life will come to mean more than enduring sadness. There will be joy - and that is okay.

The commitment to a new marriage - to growing, building, loving - helped free my life from loneliness. For loss is lonely. Others skirt its cold shadow. I will never not feel my grief, but that pain no longer paralyzes living. I have come to see grief and sadness as one more beautiful ring of color encompassing the soul. Much as a seashell forms bands of ridges, rings, and patterns in response to the ocean, so have I, living this life given me. Part of the beauty of Collins's poem is its inexpressible awareness of the nuanced shadows of danger and mercy, moonlight and grace - the very Christmas sparrow I want to place in the hand of my friend, closing her fingers gently around the gift. This is life. And someday, that acceptance will be enough to fly to joy again.

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Consoling Broken Hearts

Isadora Duncan, Photo Credit: Arnold Genthe, 1917

In the last weeks much has happened in America that deeply wounds the heart of all of us. Even if we are distant from the terror attacks at Newtown and the Boston Marathon, from the massive explosions at West, Texas, we feel the pain of the innocent, the victims. Before there is acceptance, before there is forgiveness, there is grieving. I came across this essay from Isadora Duncan from her memoir, My Life, that speaks of inconsolable loss and what we may say or do that offers genuine companionship and solace to those grieving. Duncan lost both of her children in an accident when a taxicab in which they were riding drove off into the water and they were drowned. She then fled to her friend, Eleanora Duse, and stayed with her in Italy.

From MY LIFE

The next morning I drove out to see Duse, who was living in a rose-coloured vila behind a vineyard. She came down a vine covered walk to meet me, like a glorious angel. She took me in her arms and her wonderful eyes beamed upon me such love and tenderness that I felt just as Dante must have felt when, in the "Paradiso," he encounters the Divine Beatrice.

From then on I lived at Viareggio, finding courage from the radiance of Eleanora's eyes. She used to rock me n her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that I had not been able to bear thew society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me with forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:

"Tell me about Deirdre and Patrick," and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show her their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, "Cease to grieve," but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.


- Isadora Duncan, 1878-1927
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