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16 posts categorized "Healing Language and Healing Images"

October 06, 2006

A Apple Pie and Finding What You Didn’t Lose

This week I was thinking about a book that was magical for me in childhood—a book that connected letters and things—a book called A Apple Pie by Kate Greenaway.  Perhaps you’ve read it or seen it.  Well, I typed "greenway apple pie" into google and google knew that I really meant greenaway (with an a) and it led to me this magical site, “The Celebration of Women Writers” which publishes online editions of out-of-copyright books by women authors.  I found there reproductions of all the pages of A Apple Pie, a book first published in 1886 and which I first received as a gift when I was four or five (a bit later than 1886).  After I discovered--actually rediscovered--those pages online, I made my way down to my basement and managed to locate the actual book—a bit worn and water-damaged and with my name and childhood phone number written on the inside page.  Those pages evoke something for me.  They evoke a particular time.  They evoke for me something of that mystery of language that Helen Keller experienced and wrote so well about.

What does this have to do with writing and healing?

I’m thinking now of a book by John Fox called Finding What You Didn’t Lose.  John Fox is a poet, a teacher, and a poetry therapist who last year formed the Institute of Poetic Medicine.  The premise of Fox's book, Finding What You Didn’t Lose, is that creativity can be reclaimed by reconnecting to early or significant experiences that may seem lost—but they’re not lost.  Finding what you thought you lost but you never really lost it; you only perhaps misplaced it, or forgot it. 

On p. 7 of Fox’s book he quotes Albert Camus:

A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Perhaps it would be helpful here to restate this quote in a more inclusive way.  (I suspect Camus would have done this himself if he’d written in a different time.): 

A person’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence the heart first opened.

Sometimes we don’t know when our heart first opened.  We don’t remember or we think we don’t remember.  Writing is a way to get back there.  Writing can reclaim an early experience by conjuring its details.  The slant of light in a particular room.  The billowing of curtains.  The sounds out in the street.

I think all of this has something to do with healing, but then I have to admit that I tend to think of healing in very broad terms.  I tend to think it’s all connected—the healing of creativity—the healing of the mind—the emotions—the healing of the soul—the spirit—the body—all of it—I think it’s all connected—though not necessarily in simple or uni-dimensional ways.  (I don’t happen to think, for instance, that people who are experiencing illness in their minds or bodies are necessarily any less healed—or whole—in their souls and spirits than people who are at the moment without illness.) 

What do you think?  Is any of this connected?
Is Camus on the right track?
Do those early experiences of the heart opening matter?
Does reclaiming those experiences matter?
And does this have anything to do with healing?

October 08, 2006

So What is Healing?

This is one of those questions that seems so basic we could almost forget to ask it.  But I think it’s important to ask it--and to keep asking it.

As a way to begin, here is a graphic from a site called Visual Thesaurus. If you visit the site you’ll discover that it also allows you to try out a couple words for free without purchasing any subscription.  You simply type in a word and it gives you a kind of thesaurus map.  I like the site because it’s a way of giving a word a shape—two dimensions.  If you like, you can use this pictorial definition of healing as a kind of template for creating your own definition—beginning to map out your own synonyms and connections.


October 10, 2006

So What is Healing? (Part 2): Images and Metaphors for Healing

The World Book Dictionary defines heal this way: “to make whole, sound or well; bring back to health; cure”.

At WordNet, an online database developed at Princeton University, healing is defined as “the natural process by which the body repairs itself”.

And here is how three women—all in various stages of recovery from cancer—and all participating in an ongoing writing and healing group—pictured healing on one morning in North Carolina a couple of years ago.  The following excerpt is from my notes:

“Healing is movement,” E. said.
“What do you see when you hear the word movement?” I asked her.  “What do you see inside your head?”
“I’m mulching,” she said.  “I’m working in my garden, raking.  I’m thinking about this tee shirt I have that says, ‘I’m not getting older, I just need repotting.'"

“Healing is the apex,” S. said.  “Healing is eureka.”
“What do you see with eureka?” I asked.
“I see myself throwing my hands up in the air,” she said.  “After I’d gotten good news on the telephone.  The doctor called.  I was so afraid it was going to be bad news, but then it was good news.”

Healing is mulching, raking, repotting. 
Healing is the apex, eureka.
Healing is not just one thing.

“Healing,” N. said, “is a taskmaster.”

There was this pause, I remember, after N. spoke.  I could feel a slight shift in the room.  N. had stage four breast cancer.  The tumor had spread to her liver and bones.  In the past couple months she’d become so much frailer than when I first knew her.  But, still, the fierce intelligence was there.

“Would you mind terribly,” I asked, “If I were to ask you what you see in your head when you hear the word taskmaster?”
N. answered immediately.  “Ichabod Crane.”

Ichabod Crane is that stooped and bony schoolmaster in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  He teaches in a one-room schoolhouse.  When students don’t study properly he strikes them with a birch rod, the rod landing with a sharp thwack on their shoulders.

Is this what healing is like sometimes?
Is this what healing is like sometimes for some people?
Is this what healing can be like sometimes for all of us?

Healing is therapeutic, sanative, alterative.  It’s making whole.  It’s making well.  It’s the natural process by which the body repairs itself.  Healing is repair, therapy, movement, mulching, raking, repotting.  Healing is the apex.  Healing is eureka.  Healing is a taskmaster.  Healing is not just one thing.

What do you see inside your head when you hear—or say—the word healing?
What are the words and images that get at the truth of it?


October 12, 2006

Looking at the Language of Sickness

When I went back to Visual Thesaurus and entered the word illness I didn’t get much in the way of synonyms. But then I put in the word sick—and here’s what I got:


Unlike the graphic of healing which I found appealing—and filled with a sense of possibility—this graphic took me aback. Especially that cluster of words around the word disgusted. And then that cluster of words around the word demented. This graphic got me thinking, not for the first time—but in a new way—about all the meanings and connotations that have gotten attached, at least in some instances, to sickness and illness. Maybe some of these words fit for some people. Maybe some of them don't.

I suspect a person could write an entire book about this cluster of words that radiates from this single word: sick. Maybe one of you will—or maybe one of you will write a poem about it or a paragraph or a something. Or maybe you will revise this graphic--or construct an entirely new graphic that contains entirely new words and new connections.

October 26, 2006

Is There a Conflict Between Writing for Wellness and Writing Well?

Whvenn_2Not all writing is done with the intent of healing.
And not all healing requires writing.
Perhaps this is obvious--but perhaps it's also worth saying upfront.

I'm interested in the place where the two might overlap.  The place where writing and healing might overlap.  I'm also aware that each person's area of overlap might be somewhat different.  A tiny sliver?  A wide swath?

And, at this place of overlap--intersection--I found an article of particular interest: Writing Well: Health and the Power to Make Images.  The article, written by Mark Robinson, a poet and critic in England, appears in the journal, Medical Humanities. In the article, Robinson presents his hypothesis: "that the writing process itself is an integral part of any [health] benefit."  In other words, those same elements that foster good writing may also be some of the same elements that foster health.  And one such element is the use of vivid imagery.  The entire article is available online, and is well worth reading, but I’ll mention a few highlights here:

Virginia Woolf, in a diary entry from 1926, links her depression to having “no power of phrase making.”  In turn, she links her lifting of depression with a gradual recovery of the ability to write.  She writes: “Returning health: this is shown by the power to make images; the suggestive power of every sight and word is enormously increased.”

• In a survey of 34 poets—including not only poets receiving mental health services, but also poets with no particular physical or mental illness history and poets with several published books—84% responded that writing had had a therapeutic use for them.  These poets reported that they’d used writing to deal with stressful incidents in their lives, including the death of parents and children.  They reported using writing, among other things, to deal with emotions, to sort out thoughts, and to provide a means of catharsis.

• Interestingly, a number of these poets who were surveyed reported that when they did not write as regularly as they wanted they experienced negative mental and physical effects.  More than one poet mentioned that when (s)he was able to begin writing regularly again (s)he felt better.

• Finally, Robinson also reports on some work—a bit complex—but very interesting—in which a professor at Adelphi University, Wilma Bucci, proposes a model for why writing has an effect on physical and emotional health.  She proposes that writing works particularly well at stimulating health when the language of writing is grounded in specific and concrete images.  She describes a process whereby a person begins with a kind of amorphous knowing and then through the process of writing begins to form images, allowing for a “breakthrough in writing.”  A person moves from amorphous—literally no form—to an image.  A form.  A shape.  A something.  And this breakthrough can foster health.

This last point seems to resonate with Virginia Woolf’s reported experience (thus the title of Robinson’s article) and also resonates with my own experience.  When something that has been amorphous emerges as an image—a concrete something with a concrete name—this can offer a kind of breakthrough—and that breakthrough can both make for better writing, and at the same time, it can feel good—it can look and feel like healing—

October 27, 2006

Count Crackula: An Example of a Breakthrough in Writing and Healing

I wrote yesterday about Mark Robinson’s article: Writing Well: Health and the Power to Make Images. I wrote, among other things, of the way images can sometimes offer a kind of breakthrough. And it occurred to me that it might be useful to offer an example of one such image. The one that comes to mind—perhaps because it was the first time I recognized this kind of breakthrough—is an image that emerged over ten years ago when I was teaching creative writing to a group of men and women recovering from addiction.

Count Crackula.

This image emerged in a tale that R., one of the more inventive writers in the group, came up with. He had written a tale—a kind of myth about addiction—and he’d named his characters. The nemesis in his tale was Count Crackula. And when R. read this story aloud to the group—when he named Count Crackula—it was as if this character burst into the room. Something new was happening. You could just feel it. Addiction wasn’t quite so invisible or shadowy. Crack was Count Crackula. A worthy—and vivid—and slightly ludicrous—opponent. (I tend to see the count from Sesame Street when I hear this name, though others may see a different visual image.) In any case, a crackling of energy had come into the room like that feeling in the air just after a flash of lightning---

Names have energy. They can take something that was previously invisible—or amorphous—and give it a form.

October 29, 2006

Poemcrazy: A Recommended Book

This book, by Susan G. Wooldridge, is one I recommend when someone tells me that they’d like for their writing to become more creative, more playful—or when someone tells me that their writing is a bit stuck. Wooldridge is a teacher. She’s worked for many years with CPITS, the California Poets in the Schools. She’s a teacher, but, as she says in her introduction, she doesn’t believe it’s possible to teach someone to write a poem. Instead, she says, “. . . we can set up circumstances in which poems are likely to happen. We can create a field in and around us that’s fertile territory for poems.”

Poemcrazy is that fertile territory. Sixty short chapters. You can read the chapters in order—or not. Many of the chapters contain ideas for writing practice. And each chapter holds out the possibility of replenishing and rejuvenating language. Language for poetry, yes. But also for sentences, paragraphs, journal entries, letters, stories, myths—and perhaps for healing—

Much of the inspiration for Poemcrazy comes from children—both Wooldridge’s own children and the children she’s worked with in the schools. She’s particularly adept at hearing and noticing those moments—those words—and combinations of words—in which language illuminates. She writes of a Cherokee child in Thermalito, California who can’t stop raising his hand during one of her workshops and then breaks out in a Cherokee song which he subsequently translates (p. 119): “I am one with the magnificent sun forever forever forever.” She writes of an image of “smelling sunlight,” that emerges from a Hmong child who knows very little English. And she writes of the images that she hears emerge in her own children’s language—

Her son, Daniel, saw his newborn sister, swaddled, with only her head visible, and thought she looked “yike a hotdog”. Cows on a hillside looked “yike popcorn”. And, my own personal favorite, Daniel’s observation after they’d transplanted a small tree from its pot to a hole in the ground: “The world will be its new pants.”

“Sometimes,” Wooldridge writes (p. 32), “part of writing a poem is as simple as looking carefully and bringing things together through simile and metaphor. This bit of moon looks like a canoe. The moon is a cradle, a wolf’s tooth, a fingernail, snow on a curved leaf or milk in the bottom of a tipped glass.”

Yes. And those connections she makes—right there—the moon looks like a canoe—the moon is a cradle—a wolf’s tooth—this strikes me as the kind of fertile territory a person might want to visit in order to rejuvenate language for writing----

October 31, 2006

Writing and Healing and Sweets

The first time I went to a Bar Mitzvah I loved the part where someone—the rabbi?—scattered candy across the steps at the front of the temple and the children were invited to come forward and retrieve it. The rabbi explained something about making a connection for the children—between Torah and sweetness. Not just telling them the Torah is sweet, but letting them experience the connection: reading the Torah and tasting sweetness. This week I looked this up (Google: Torah child sweet) and found a piece written by a Rabbi Levi Cooper. He explains a tradition in hassidic communities of initiating children into the study of Torah at a very young age—at the age of three—and doing so with a cookie. The teacher offers the child a cookie in the shape of the Hebrew letter, aleph. When the child can correctly identify the letter the cookie is dipped in honey and the child gets to eat the cookie. “Thus,” Rabbi Cooper writes, “we bless our children that their Torah study should always be as sweet as honey.”

Wikipedia adds this:

This is not just to show the child that learning is “sweet”, nor that Torah study is “sweet”, but also, to learn the sweetness of the Hebrew language.

I love that—to learn the sweetness of the language.

In my last year of college I managed to schedule my classes so that on Thursdays I had only one class—an eight o’clock. I loved Thursdays. As soon as class was over, at 9:15, I walked out of the classroom, across campus, and down Rockhill Road to the Alameda Plaza. This was in Kansas City, Missouri. The Plaza was, and still is now, this lovely outdoor shopping square with restaurants and shops. Back then there was a restaurant there which was called, simply, The Place. I’d go to The Place on Thursday mornings and I’d order the same breakfast each time. A poached egg. An English muffin. Strawberries with cream. A mug of coffee. The strawberries came in a blue bowl. The coffee was strong and hot. The cream was real. I ate and I wrote. For me, it was the beginning of falling in love with writing. And this falling in love with writing was all of one piece with the egg and the strawberries and the blue bowl that the strawberries came in and the strong coffee, the real cream.

A strawberry can be a sweet.
A chocolate can be a sweet.
A good cup of coffee.
A hot cup of tea.
A new mug.
A blue bowl.
A good pen.

Pat Schneider, a woman who has taught writing workshops for some twenty-five years, has written a very good and useful book about writing called Writing Alone and with Others. In a chapter on discipline, she suggests that the discipline of writing does not arise best out of obligation but will always arise best out of love. p. 51. “Rather,” she says, “than thinking of going to your writing desk as the ‘ought’ and ‘should’ work of your life, think of it as a longed-for pleasure, as a hot fudge sundae, as that which pleases you, delights you, that which you love”

Yes, I agree. Though, for me at least, I sometimes find it's easier for me to think of writing as a hot-fudge sundae if, at least now and then, I actually have an experience of writing while I'm eating a hot fudge sundae. Or some kind of sweet, whatever that may be. Creating and recreating that physical connection—between sweetness and writing—between sweetness and words—sweetness and language--

November 02, 2006

A Look at the Word Breaking

This graphic of synonyms for BREAKING is from Visual Thesaurus:


November 07, 2006

On November and Breaking and Holding that which is Breaking in the Light

I was raised a Catholic but for the past ten years or so, since joining a Friends meeting, I have considered myself a Quaker. One of the things I like about the Quakers is their potential for inclusiveness. Another thing I like is their use of language—the turn of certain phrases. And one of my favorite Quaker phrases is this one: holding something or someone in the light.

This phrase took on a personal significance for me one November, six years ago now. During that November I’d been seeing a patient, A., a man in his fifties, a member of our Quaker meeting, who had previously been entirely well and then had discovered that he had metastatic colon cancer. I’d worked with A. a little over a year, and during that year, while receiving treatment for his cancer, he’d done a great deal of work with healing imagery, including imagery with light. Perhaps, because his imagery was illuminating in and of itself, and because I have received his permission to do so, I will write some about his imagery here later.

But for now, what I want to say is that six years ago now, in November, his wife, S., had decided to gather a small group in their home for a Quaker meeting—a meeting whose purpose was, in the language of Quakers, to hold A. in the light. I’d been invited to come to the meeting, but had been unable to attend because I was flying back to Missouri that week to visit my mother who was suffering (and who, unfortunately, continues to suffer) with a rather severe mental illness.

That trip to Missouri was, for me, a difficult one. But this is what I remember—and why I am writing about this now: Before leaving southwest Missouri in my rental car to drive back up to Kansas City to catch a plane home, I checked my messages at work and found a message from S.—A’s wife. She reminded me that the meeting in her home would be that day, and she told me what time it would be—at eleven I think. And she told me, at the end of the message, that they would hold me in the light.

I am not a person who talks frequently or easily about religion, or of spiritual matters for that matter. I was raised Catholic, but, the way I remember it, most of the language for things of the spirit stayed inside the church; it resided in the liturgy and in formal prayers. I’m the kind of person who tends often to think that spiritual matters are so large—or so something—it is difficult to find language for them. But that morning—driving back to Kansas city—one of those lit-up November days and the landscape is very flat there and the sky is very large—on that morning I felt the beauty of the Quaker language—of S’s language—and the comfort of it—to be driving away from a difficult time—a difficult place—and while I was driving to carry the sense—that knowing—that for this one drive—this hour—I was being held in the light.

When I think about what’s possible with writing—and, in particular, writing that has to do with breaking—or with grief—this is one of the images I hold for writing: that writing is a way to take something or someone—including something or someone who is breaking—and hold it in the light.

November 21, 2006

On Gratitude and Embracing What Remains

I was looking for something to put up about loss and gratitude before taking a brief break for the Thanksgiving holiday and then I remembered this from the end of Andre Dubus’ essay, “Broken Vessels,” (which I wrote about earlier this week).

The passage can be found on p. 194 of Broken Vessels, this the next to the last page of the essay, and the book.

A week ago I read again The Old Man and the Sea, and learned from it that, above all, our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits: our choices, our desires, our loves. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses. No one can do this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life not only without people or God or both to love, but without love itself. In The Old Man and Sea, Santiago is a widower and a man who prays; but the love that fills and sustains him is of life itself: living creatures, and the sky, and the sea. Without that love, he would be an old man alone in a boat.

I like the language Dubus uses here—the way, sometimes, we have to work to “achieve” gratitude—the way this might not always come naturally—but still it can come—at least at moments--and sometimes those moments can be enough: moments in which we are able to embrace what remains.

December 22, 2006

Whatever Leads to Joy

The book, What the Living Do, was written by Marie Howe in the wake of her brother’s death from AIDS. It’s a book that, perhaps better than any other book I know, walks that delicate balance between making memorial—remembering who and what has been lost—and choosing life in the wake of such loss—figuring out, day by day, what it is that the living do (after). There’s joy in the book—and in the poem—but it’s that bittersweet kind of joy—

The poem, “My Dead Friends,” can be found here.

The poem consists of only thirteen lines. Here are six of them:

I have begun,

when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear. . .

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer. . .

February 08, 2007


One of three places that I've come across Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese, in the last month or so was as a kind of epigraph—before the table of contents—to the poetry anthology, Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley.  The anthology, first published in Britain, is one I would recommend, and I’ll probably get around to writing about it more here on this site one of these days.  Meanwhile, today, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular poem that I found in the anthology—a poem called “Sweetness,” by Stephen Dunn.

The poem is freely available on the web, this because of a project--Poetry Out Loud--which encourages high school students to memorize and recite poetry.
The poem can be found here.
(Incidentally, if you want to browse the poetry on their site you can click here.  They have a fairly extensive online collection---)

But back to the poem, Sweetness—the first seven lines—

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
     has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it. . .

Nice, huh?

The poem makes me think, among other things, of that bag of tomatoes and that rotisserie chicken in Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer.  But any way you look at it, I think maybe he’s onto something-----

March 13, 2007

Quest: A Word-Map from Visual Thesaurus

Here's a graphic of the word QUEST, courtesy of Visual Thesaurus:

March 15, 2007

Toni Morrison on Beowulf and Grendel: Two Very Different Kinds of Quest Stories

Evening before last, Tuesday evening, I got a chance to see, in Greensboro, a lecture by Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Song of Solomon, among other novels. I’d never seen her speak before. She has a wonderful—and inspiring—presence. She’s a natural storyteller—dramatic, funny, pausing in all the right places. She held the audience in her hands. And the stories she happened to tell were, interestingly enough, quest stories.

She began with a brief introduction—her belief in the importance and power of story. She then proceeded to retell the ancient story of Beowulf—an epic narrative about a monster, Grendel, who ravages a Scandinavian kingdom. She told, first, the original story in which Grendel is depicted as the epitome of pure senseless evil, devouring the citizens of this kingdom for no reason other than because he can. And then a hero arises—Beowulf. This hero’s quest involves protecting the kingdom, defeating the monster. He manages, in battle, to cut off the arm of Grendel. But then the story—and the quest—becomes more complicated. Grendel, the monster, returns home to his mother and she turns out to be a yet fiercer monster—and vengeful. She launches her own attack on the kingdom, slaying large numbers of citizens and placing their bodies in her pouch. (Here Ms. Morrison added one of her nice touches, offering a memorable visual image: How wonderful, she said, how perfect, that the mother was carrying a pocketbook.)

Beowulf’s quest continues. He follows the mother monster to her lair, engages her in battle, and manages to take her sword and, with this sword, cut off her head. And the blood from her body proceeds to melt the sword.

The original Beowulf is a bloody quest story—the hero’s quest ends in violence and conquest.

But then, as a counterpart to Beowulf, Ms. Morrison offered another story--a shift in point of view—a different kind of quest story. Drawing from John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, she offered a retelling of the story from the monster’s point of view. There's not enough time or space here to do Gardner’s novel justice—but this is the part that I took away from Ms. Morrison’s lecture. In the retelling of the story, Grendel has an inner life—he is no longer a beast, Morrison told us. And, unlike the original story, he is capable of some degree of transformation. This transformation occurs, at least in part, via a character in the novel, Shaper, who is a poet. And, she suggested, it is through language—the comprehension and use of language (rather than his former bestial sounds)—that Grendel is transformed.

This second story offers a very different kind of quest—a quest that Arthur Frank might call a post-modern quest—a quest that has to do with inner transformation rather than with conquering.

Ms. Morrison suggested two things near the end of her talk that separate humans from other creatures—that separate us, she said, from, for instance, asparagus. First, love—namely the ability to care for creatures that are not our own and from which we may not receive benefit. And, second, language. Ms. Morrison believes language is capable of transformation. She believes, I think, that language is capable of transforming evil. Of transforming individuals. Of transforming kingdoms. Of transforming countries. Of shifting stories from violent ones to stories in which something new happens. And she said this the other evening with such a confident and august presence—it was inspiring----

May 08, 2007

The Guest House by Rumi: A Quiet Revolution?

I came across this poem, The Guest House, by Rumi, for the first time, week before last, when I was looking for a clean link for Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey. Here are the first twelve lines:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house

Empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out For some new delight.

How wonderful is that? The image of sorrow and all the other emotions—joy yes—but also the difficult ones—anger—shame—fear—all as visitors—some pleasant visitors and some more difficult ones—and all of them guests. And guests with a broom no less. Sweeping through the rooms—clearing it. Rumi’s lines here resonate for me with those lines by Paul Simon from his song, “Sound of Silence”:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again.

But now I’m picturing Darkness with a broom.


See also:

Full text of Rumi's poem

More about this poem at my new site

Healing Poetry entries

November Angels