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QUINTESSENCE

Choosing Voice or When Voice Chooses You

 
From the Start
 
Who did I think was listening
when I wrote down the words
in pencil at the beginning
words for singing
to music I did not know
and people I did not know
would read them and stand to sing them
already knowing them
while they sing they have no names
 
W. S. Merwin
 
 
How does any story tell its tale? Does the narrative speak in a voice that is distant and measured, addressing a full universe of characters and events as though we are that curious fly on the narrative wall? Or does the story speak in the diarist's voice, in a direct first person voice free with its secrets, private thoughts, and sometimes blissful lack of awareness? 
 
Point of view is the way we tell a story. The choice of a first person, second person, or third person narrative shapes the underlying structure and craft. When we talk about character voice, we shift to the perspective of character thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, attitude. In my experience, landing on the right point of view for a narrative often follows a sense of voice. Voice may be known to a writer from the first word she hears in her head­—before she's even put pen to paper. Voice may grab the plot outline or the rough beginning and shake new perspective into it, entirely flip the planned point of view. A writer may not see the right voice coming, but always knows when it's arrived.

 

The immediacy and intimacy that accompany a first person point of view closely connect a reader to the narrator. It may then become deceptively easy for a reader to confuse character with author. To entangle fictional first person narrative with the reading of autobiography or memoir—a confusion that illustrates both the power of a first person "I" point of view and its chief drawback. The narrative is story, not confession, and it is the writer's work to make that distinction. I recall a comment made by an editor who declared that he "never read first person if he could help it." I was puzzled by his vehemence. Was it a particular dislike of close voice, or action filtered through the perspective of a primary character? A reader would miss out on centuries of marvelous literary characters as a result of such an edict.
 
Second person point of view, with its curious, distant use of "you" to refer both to a self and subjective other, can at times feel standoffish to a reader who craves the straight heart of the story without the effort of figuring out who the "you" is in each instance. You as in me, or you as in all of us? The language can be intimate or distancing, depending on how the writer intends it.
 
Finally, there is third person point of view—distant and close, as well as the omniscient third—often thought of as the wide "stage direction" point of view. The writer unveils the story from the viewpoint of many characters, and the narrative may be perceived by readers as more objective, layered, or multifaceted, the way a film is. 
 
I began SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, my novel of twin sisters growing up on the road and finding their way into country music, with an omniscient (third person) perspective. I saw the sisters, Andi and Marley Stone, and their mother, Donna, in a universe of their own. I shook the narrative and watched how pieces swirled apart and bumped back together. I didn't yet sense the core of these characters, however. It wasn't until Marley jumped out—and for the "quiet sister" took a rather unruly attitude—that I understood this novel belonged to her. The moment I yielded to this first person point of view, the novel unspooled itself without a hitch. The twin with a voice of her own had something to say. Marley Stone had found her footing in the narrative and took the story places I never anticipated. 
 
All points of view available to the writer are valid and interesting ways for characters to tell us their stories. None are bad. All require craft and skill. In the end, I believe the characters eventually gravitate to the right voice and we are wise writers and happy readers to let them. 
 

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Landscape As Character

In the Same Space
 
House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
That I see and where I walk; year after year.
 
I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
Out of so much that happened, out of so many things.
 
And you've been wholly remade into feeling; for me.
 
–– C.P. Cavafy, 1929
 
When it comes to writing, geography––the physical surrounds and locale of our real or fictional story––is more than just placement. Geography is also environment, history, belonging, experience, metaphor. When a writer uses geography as more than part of the setting, or the physical grounding of the story, it is because the landscape the story is set in, or draws from, is a character of the narrative.
 
How is that, you might ask. A character?
 
How does a writer bring the hills, trees, or the wide flooding river into the story as a participant? Can the setting interact or influence our characters? Yes, it can. The poet understands, for example, the way the language of the river may be the language of loss. Or adventure. Or memory. A film might translate a script description of a moor into the brooding moments before a fatal encounter and the unspoken dread of our hero. We become engrossed in a book that is more about the secrets of a mountain than the adventurers who climbed it; or a memoir in which the four timbered walls of a house become a terrifying presence or a psychological mirror. Geography is landscape. From the weather, dwellings or structures, to the seasons at play. Writers turn these nonhuman elements, imagined or drawn from real life, into challenges and setbacks; pathways to feelings and decisions their characters face. The story of a final trip back home may begin with turning onto that familiar curve of the road, catching a glimpse of the faded paint on the door, the For Sale sign in the yard. The sea is as much a combatant or ally to the captain as the wind or the whale or the unreliable first mate.
 
As readers we understand more about characters from their relationship to their environment than we might perhaps garner from only their physical description. The farmer stands in the dry field in the dusty wind, legs splayed and arms crossed, searching the sky for a rain cloud. The rain falls but evaporates before it hits the thirsty earth. What do we feel if in desperation he waters a limp seedling with the sweat of his neckerchief?  What if he silently turns his back and walks away? The young girl on a stoop on the garbage-strewn street, drawing. What changes if we place this same girl, carrying a white fur muff, on a train traveling away from home, rocketing through a strange countryside? What if we place her instead at dusk in the kitchen of her grandparents' cottage and the kettle is whistling? Setting is all these details and geography is the landscape of these details. Geography in writing has a great pull on both the reader's memory and sentiment, and writers use this to bring vibrancy to their stories. Even a story that occurs in a single room, a cell over the course of a few hours, has geography. As readers we imagine everything beyond the cell that we do not see, we experience in this harrowing landscape of white walls all the emotions the character does.
 
When I began writing So Long As We're Together, I knew there were going to be three important landscapes in my story: a ramshackle lake cabin in the northern woods, a solitary late-night studio, and the stage––the performance venue of music. I felt all three landscapes had distinct qualities that uniquely impacted my singing twin sisters. These landscapes were vessels, like Greek amphora of old, gathering history, memory, and desire. I knew these landscapes would interact and interweave with the main characters, carrying voices of the past. Particularly their absent mother and a difficult history that was anything but forgotten. At one point I thought I might name the novel after the cabin, so significant was its role in the story. I soon understood it was the relationship between the sisters that framed everything, from the first night of rain in Seattle to the last sunset in northern Idaho. So Long As We're Together is a narrative of the ways we are and are not our shared experience and history. And ultimately, this is the landscape in which Andi and Marley find their footing.
 

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Last Year's Words

"Solitude" by David Lorenz Winston

 

For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.

 

- T. S. Eliot, "Little Giddings," THE FOUR QUARTETS

 

This quote from T.S. Eliot is my way of marking the end of the old year and welcoming in the new. In three beautiful sentences, Eliot expresses the truth about why we must change with the passage of time. Not only leave a part of ourselves behind in the history of the year ended, but define a new perspective for ourselves going forward. Or at least try to, else find ourselves mired in the past, chewing over the husks of old experiences, the things shelved and ended. Perhaps that is the wisdom Eliot wishes to impart: Be fresh. Live forward. The past has put its flame out. In ending, embrace a beginning.

 

Endings are concrete. Beginnings are powerful. Most of us feel the New Year is a time for breaking old patterns and for making fresh resolutions: to set new and better goals for ourselves. Perhaps this sense of opportunity is why we take pen to paper and reflect on what the old year wrought. What we wish to keep going forward, and what is essential to release and finish. There are burning bowl ceremonies and resolution lists, pledges and secret vows, pages tossed in the fire, so intense is our desire to begin anew. A new language, a new voice. We seek a different context and expression for ourselves.

  

What do we need? Confidence and well being light the fires of personal energy. Brianna Wiest wrote a very cognizant essay for Thought Catalog on this topic, "Next Year Let Go of the People Who Aren't Ready to Love You." [ https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2018/12/next-year-let-go-of-the-people-who-arent-ready-to-love-you/ ] Follow the link and read for yourself what Brianna has to say. It's a short essay, to the point. Brianna writes, What you give time to is what will define your existence. She adds, "...the foremost thing you can do for your life and yourself and everyone you know is to protect your energy more fiercely than anything else." And what is good energy but positive mindset and confidence? A fresh language and a strong voice rising from within; rising stronger from what has come before. We learn by living. We become happier by acting on what we learn. Show up for you.

 

In the past I have shared here the resolutions or changes I seek to embrace in a given New Year. Everything from changing specific habits to expressing grand hopes for the world. But this year my thoughts are simple:

 

To move toward freedom of spirit and joy

To live in an attitude of gratitude

To limit the things that dim my optimism and embrace the things that fill my heart

 

Happy New Year. Please enjoy this beautiful image by David Lorenz Winston beside Eliot's poetry. You deserve the beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IN THE CENTER OF IT


ONE LIFE TO LIVE
by Billy Collins

 

This is the only life I have, this one in my head,
the one that travels along the surface of my body
singing the low voltage song of the ego,

the one that feels like a ball between my ears
sometimes, and other times feels absolutely galactic,

the life that my feet carry around like two blind
scholars working together on a troublesome manuscript.

This is the only life I have, and I am standing
dead in the center of it like a man doing a rope trick
in a rodeo, passing the lasso over his body,
smiling inside a twirling of ovals and ellipses.

This is the only life I have and I never step out of it
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel
or when love makes me want to remove my clothes
and sail classical records off a cliff.

Otherwise you can always find me within this hoop of
myself,
the rope flying around me, moving up to encircle my head
like the equator or a halo or a zero.


What a dazzling sketch of imagery. The mundane wrestling the extraordinary. What are we breaking, what are we taming? Our wants, our transgressions? Collins's poem breaks open a nugget of strange truth. To be human is both small and "absolutely galactic." Days and thoughts loop in continuous gyration. As if this one life were a tilting, dizzying ticket to ride.

 

We soon will end one year and begin another and I imagine that lasso tossed through time, whirling, whirling, circling over our heads. Is this the the year of mastery? Will the lasso sail around with ease? What is past is finished, and what is yet to come a thing of both hope and dream. 

 

I wish for you in this new year the deep belly joy of belting out your own song. Let life be that tune you hum in your head, the beat that carries you along. The sweet spot of this one life.

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Carried You Everywhere


Today I remember an extraordinary poet, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century. He immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his words pulse with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare and gorgeous musicality.

 

RUINS UNDER THE STARS
by Galway Kinnell


1

All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about "Mugwumps",
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has "tasted battle…"
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

 

 2

Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

 

 3

Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V's-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

 

 4

This morning I watched
Milton Norway's sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

 

 5

Just now I had a funny sensation

As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.

 

 

The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on these words of the poet, ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

 

I invite you to explore the wrok of the late Galway Kinnell. To close, from "Trust the Hours (Wait)":

 

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?

 

 

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The Last Passerby

ODE AND ELEGY OF THE STREETS

by C.P. Cavafy

 

The footfalls of the first passerby;

the first peddler's lively shouting;

the first windows opening,

the first door--these are the song

of the streets in the morning.

 

The steps of the last passerby;

the last of the peddlers shouting;

the doors and windows shutting--

are the elegiac sound

of the streets in the evening.

 

I am recently back from travel. Hiking and exploring in the Alps of Switzerland and the lakes of northern Italy. There is a rhythm to a faraway journey. First the excitement of planning the journey, then the taking leave and letting go. There is disorientation, a solitude, the opening of heart and mind. Finally, the thoughtful return. In chapters of travel we lose and find and redefine ourselves, along with our sense of the world we live in.

 

Travel gives us our definition of home. In strangeness are found the outlines of self and belonging. Where we are and where we are not. Yet what lingers of our explorations resets the familiar. We are somehow bigger in spirit, more generous, less partisan about our niche in place and time. We have come to know something of the larger world, the connected community of peoples and histories, and the unturned stones and sweet curiosities still to discover. 

 

When I was young, I traveled with my family in the military life of my father's career. I also traveled in books, reading voraciously across history and geography. In my early career I explored every corner of the planet, curious to know it all. To understand new things and to see the places I had only read of in books come to colorful life. Their grandeur, their ruin, their romance. The worn footprints of human history. The bold direction of change.

 

I travel now to understand myself and humanity. Pursuing what connects us to this earth and to each other. Translating the past. How will we engage with the future and our collective presence in the here and now? The Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1963-1933) was himself a lifelong traveler. His poems of the Mediterranean and its history lead us from fabled Ithaca into the dusty streets of late afternoon in the medina. If you have not read much of Cavafy's work, I encourage you to do so. His is a way of seeing and writing about strangers and strangeness, the sensuality of unfamiliar places, and of the inscrutability of history in a way that, like storytelling, becomes the song of a journey.

 

Journeys are our own, very personal, human myth-making. In our curiosity we find our connectedness. In our solitude we make friends with ourselves. In reaching toward the unfamiliar we find home.

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The Ordinary Hours

Only connect.

- E.M. Forster

 

I think, to a poet, the human community is like the community of birds to a bird, singing to each other. Love is one of the reasons we are singing to one another, love of language itself, love of sound, love of singing itself, and love of other birds.
- Sharon Olds

 

Hello friends. The autumnal equinox is almost upon us, that great shifting of light across the world that heralds the dip toward winter here in the northern hemisphere. The equinox is also my birthday, the beginning of my personal new year. A perfect time to take stock, plan and dream, and celebrate another year on this incredible planet. Let us gather in the apples of hard work and sheaves of lessons learned. There's much about life we hurry past and neglect to notice, challenges and accomplishments eclipsed by newer goals and growing to-do lists. Acknowledging the work of the year and the fruits of our labors entails more than just a pause for applause. Giving attention to our efforts consolidates the foundation of goal-setting and confidence. It's good to take a compass reading now and then, don't you agree?

 

There is wry truth in what Helen Frankenthaler once observed, The price for living the life I have - for any serious, devoted person, is that at times one must live alone, or feel alone. So as fall draws us inward, let me remind you not to forget community, your people. Your friends, loved ones, peers. As we work and plan and create, we must remember to balance our focused hours alone with playful and gentle hours together. To give ourselves to others in their time of need, even as they support us in ours.

 

My birthday wish is probably an easy one to guess. I wish for all of us a new year of joy and connection. Faith in ourselves and in others to remember life is not ultimately about success, power, or fame, but about finding, nurturing, and celebrating love. The value of life lies in the meaning we give to the ordinary hours. May they be golden.

 

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The Last Flower

 

The last flower has opened on the stem,

the first two mostly done by now: call home.

 

I slipped my skin

walked off & left myself & left

 

feeling the first snow of the season falling

cold on my face running to catch that downtown bus leving

 

my life behind & abandoned my whole self, was I

a colt or a fresh coal afire with each chain of nerve

 

alive naked & loving the feeling of feeling

my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling

 

- Lightsey Darst, from "Thousands"

 

 

Lightsey Darst's quiet revolutionary poems, THOUSANDS, are written in journal form, in a notation of private thought that rages across the page. The above poem is taken from "Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2012."  A mysterious shift of awareness powers Darst's poem. I am drawn by the element of recovery. As though the shape of some unvoiced loss has only just revealed itself. The line "I walked off & left myself & left" traces the poet's slip from the familiar into the unexpected. Chasing her bus, a first cold snow swirling in her face, Darst surroundings dissolve on a wave of raw sensation. A transformation of presence. As if tasting a bite of watermelon we remember a summer in Kansas, a particular garden bothered by horseflies and dust. 

 

The daily self has met the deeper dreamer. 

 

I thought of this poem today and that opening, The last flower..., noting an unmistakable mark of fall color, of rust, crimson, and dry brown, in the wilderness foliage. Trees standing silent in a stagnant haze of wildfire smoke and heat. No breeze rustles the leaves, there is no murmur of birdsong or insect life. It has been a difficult, burning summer in the Northwest. Yet the turn toward a changing season is unmistakable here. The downshift. Letting go after a fierce season of difficult growth. This transition in seasons feels equally personal. As though I, too, will turn a corner. That I will have "left myself & left," rediscovering what is lost as though new again, experience what is hidden as seen.

 

Autumn can be a rest or a beginning. Perhaps both.

I am ready for my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling. Aren't you?

 

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Motions

Mosaic, Pompeii

 

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 would 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 present and lifts us from our preoccupations to chart navigation coordinates we've never flown before. A good book sits in our parlor like the most charming and giving of guests, discussing the world at length long after the last page. A good book is an all-night diner, our favorite people seated across from us, stirring coffee with a bent spoon, chin in hand, asking, "And after you decided to do that, then what?"

 

Anne Carson, in her book-length prose poem, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, a fictional essay in 29 tangos, examines the philosophy that beauty is truth, an ideal made famous by John Keats in his 1815 poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In his meditation on the perfection of an object, in this case an antique urn, Keats reframes the poet's traditional use of ekphrasis to redefine beauty. Beauty is more than an aesthetic ideal, Keats argues, it is a reflection of an object's inherent, authentic truth. The organic essence is the perfection. Carson twists the ideal of beauty yet again in the story of a marriage, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND. In this sharply observed telling, Carson employs a framework of "tangos" to chronicle the passionate back and forth of the couple as the prose sweeps through a concentric narrowing to the truth of the couple's marriage. Truth becomes personal, subjective, illusory, intimate. The relationship's beauty released in the telling. Beauty, like truth, we understand can be cruel. Transcendent. To quote the poet Masahide, Barn's burnt down. Now I can see the moon. 

 

A good book dwells within because it resonates. We have touched the edges of understandings we sense to be universal, eternal. Motions we have already made. A good book offers truth, sometimes beauty. Always a new way of seeing. "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." A sentence from ULYSSES by James Joyce and perhaps the most beautiful sentence in the English language. I gift it to you. Be overwhelmed.

 

 

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a call back home

Hans Christian Andersen's LITTLE MERMAID, Copenhagen

 

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.



This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, TEN POEMS TO LAST A LIFETIME. (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."

Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats [which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating any art]: Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance.

The promised-to's, the ought-to's...how we endlessly defer our personal must-do's. We shelve for later the experiences, projects, and journeys that call us deeply, explorations that delve into the corners of our being. Do you remember the moment when you knew the shape of your personal life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood, and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall how you felt the truth in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the silver branches, staring up through an endless sky?

That sudden shiver holding a newborn. The life history suddenly recognized in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held that tea cup and waited by the window. Nye's poem is a call back home. Live your life, know life; for life is finite.

I resonate with the honest fierceness of Nye's poem. This poet doesn't mince words. I need that. She reminds us that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for our own life is essential. "Being present" is not the denial of relationship, an avoidance of responsibility or connection, but it is practicing our purpose. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is ours alone. Answer the call.

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.



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