Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

photo courtesy of Lisa MacArthur


Longtime readers of this blog know that I celebrate February 14th with a Valentines Day Poem Blitz. I try to post poems featuring every kind of love—romantic, platonic, familial, and whatever you call love of the earth. I’ll usually throw in a poem for the broken-hearted as well.


This year it’s going to be a little different. This year love seems at once so present (all the beautiful stories of people helping, nurturing, nursing, encouraging, connecting) and at the same time so absent. Pandemic isolation and political division have given love a good thrashing.


So I’m going back to basics. This year I’m only working with two “poems” instead of six or seven. They aren’t actually poems at all (although I’ve inserted line breaks for the sake of easy reading}, and they sure aren’t romantic. If you’re looking for romantic verse for your sweetie, this post will be a cold shower of harsh truth. (You’ll find more traditional Valentines Day fare if you search in the side bar on every month of February since 2011, like here for instance.)


If I didn’t lose you at “harsh truth,” read on. I had Poem Elf helpers all over the country—east coast, west coast, Midwest—post two quotes from Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. Yes, a celibate, monastic Catholic priest here to tell us all about love. Dr. Ruth he is not, but his words have implications for every kind of love. They inspire me to love better, more deeply, more authentically. I hope they’ll do the same for others.


Thanks so much to all the helpers! You are my special Valentines this year.


Let’s start with the first quote, posted in a flower shop in northern Michigan by my friend Lisa:



The beginning of love is the will

to let those we love be perfectly themselves,

the resolution not to twist them to fit

our own image. If in loving them

we do not love what they are,

but only their potential likeness

to ourselves, then we do not love them:

we only love the reflection

of ourselves we find in them.

—Thomas Merton


[Note: I deleted a word in the first line because taken out of context, as this quote is, the word “this” is confusing. What Merton actually wrote:  The beginning of this love is the will. . . ]





My nephew Beau lives in San Diego and taped the quote to a rail on San Elijo Beach in Cardiff, California.






Jumping across the country to Vermont, my grand-niece Emma Jane left Merton’s words in the parking lot of Sugarbush ski resort.


poem is on the #10 sign





Heading south to Washington, D.C., my niece Charlotte taped the poem to a park bench in Logan Square:






And finally, back to the midwest, where my pal Becca left the poem on a lamppost in snowy Chicago:



One more from Becca—a very pretty presentation!




Two of my helpers tackled the second quote, which is even less Valentine-y than the first. Buckle up and love on.


Michigan Lisa found the perfect spot for this quote—at Walmart, positioned between “Love” and “The Hate U Give”—



As long as we are on earth,

the love that unites us will bring us suffering

by our very contact with one another,

because this love is the resetting

of a Body of broken bones. Even saints

cannot live with saints on this earth

without some anguish, without

some pain at the differences

that come between them.


There are two things

which men can do about the pain

of disunion with other men.

They can love or they can hate.

—Thomas Merton





Charlotte also left this one amongst books. Look for it on the lower shelf tucked next to Dan Siva’s book. The books are in the wonderfully named “Miss Pixie’s Antique Store.”





Thanks again to Lisa, Beau, Emma Jane, Charlotte and Becca! I am so grateful for your time and creativity and willingness to be an elf.


To all my readers, Happy Valentines Day. Let’s love like dogs! . . . like dogs love, that ispurely, unconditionally, affectionately, sloppily.





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Day 22 of the 2020 countdown finds us on a small pond in a nature center, contemplating contemplation. One of the biggest gifts this year brought us is time and space for contemplation.


poem is taped to dock


Priceless Gifts

by Anna Swir

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan


An empty day without events.

And that is why

it grew immense

as space. And suddenly

happiness of being

entered me.


I heard

in my heartbeat

the birth of time

and each instant of life

one after the other

came rushing in

like priceless gifts.



If someone designed a Rorschach test using poetry instead of inkblots, here would be the first question:


Does the phrase an empty day without events fill you with

  1. existential horror
  2. relief
  3. I don’t even understand what that means


The pandemic has emptied our schedules. We leave the house on a need-to-go basis. We said goodbye to our usual distractions—shopping, movies, coffee shops, concerts—and embraced a new one, at least in the massive increase in attention we give it. Screen time.


But to experience the priceless gifts Anna Swir describes, empty time has to stay empty. I’m lucky to have experienced such soul-opening more than once, most recently this fall on a long walk on a hilly country road. Cool air, sunshine on yellow trees, wide open fields, and suddenly my heart opened, just as Swir describes. It’s almost a physical event. Unfortunately, in the middle of this rapture, the phone in my fleece pocket rang. It was my daughter, crying. She had tested positive for COVID, she didn’t feel well, and she was scared.


That pretty much sums up 2020.


I love this poem, I love the careful, precise way Swir illuminates a delicate emotional state. If you’ve ever experienced transcendent joy and tried to describe it to someone, you’ll appreciate the craft in this deceptively simple poem. Swir is the master of marrying complex internal events with clean and clear language. (Her poem “The Same Inside” is another example. It moved me near to tears, so deeply did I relate to it.)




Here’s a biography of Swir from a previous post:


Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.


She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.


Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.




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poem is on palm tree


Poem in Thanks

by Thomas Lux


Lord Whoever, thank you for this air

I’m about to in- and exhale, this hutch

in the woods, the wood for fire,

the light—both lamp and the natural stuff

of leaf-black fern, and wing.

For the piano, the shovel

for ashes, the moth-gnawed

blankets, the stone-cold water

stone-cold:  thank you.

Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here–––where I’ll gnash

it out, Lord, where I’ll calm

and work, Lord, thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!



Thomas Lux’s “Poem in Thanks” is a good prayer for the self-described “spiritual but not religious,” all those people who call the woods their church and the birds their choir. Given modern distaste for high-holy formality and the corresponding love of irreverence, Lux has a big audience.


The speaker in the poem is on a retreat of sorts, trying to get work done or work things out. He’s holed up in the woods in an old cabin with an old blanket, a fire pit, and water from the creek. In other words, his basic needs are met. He has air to breathe, water, shelter, light, warmth and presumably food. For these he offers thanks, beginning and ending his prayer in less-than-ecclesiastical language:


Lord Whoever. . .

thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!


The poem has a wonderful slapdash spontaneous quality, as if the cranky poet were drawn into prayers of gratitude against his will.


Funny thing though. Look past the cheeky irreverence and improvisations, and there’s actually theology and structure (call it formality).


I was surprised to count the lines—fourteen—and realize Lux wrote his prayer as a sonnet.


And then surprised again to realize “Poem of Thanks” is less spoken prayer than a hymn. It’s no accident that


Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here


echoes the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:


Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home


The last four lines, with the thrice-repeated, direct-address “Lord,” sound hymnal as well.


As for the theology, look no further than the first line, “thank you.” Gratitude is foundational to all religions, and Lux has trained his eye to see the graces in every part of life, the good and the bad—in the things we have that we need (Give us this day our daily bread); in those things we have that we need but aren’t perfect (the moth-gnawed blankets); in the things that are bonuses, a few levels-up on a Maslow scale (the ability to make music and art whether it be on the piano or on the page); and in those things that irritate and distract us from our work (the goddamn birds).


That Lux is a true believer in giving thanks for all things at all times is illustrated by this anecdote from poet, memoirist and novelist Mary Karr:

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.


Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.


For what? I wanted to know.


. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.


It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.


At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?


To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.


In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?


No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.


(You can read her complete essay here.)


I taped “Poem in Thanks” to a palm tree next to Hanalei’s Waioli Mission Church, established 1834.


I’ll re-post Lux’s biography from a past post.

Thomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist—his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.


Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.


He directed the poetry program at Georgia Tech. He was married three times, had one daughter, and died in 2017 of lung cancer.



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To the mountain of tributes to the great Mary Oliver, I add this little pebble.


In a world with so many hysterical people running loose, shouting and fighting and festering outrage, I miss her. Or I miss the idea of her, the poet walking along the shore in her barn jacket, quiet and alone, observing. This wise chronicler of grief and joy, confusion and discovery, this plain-dressing, plain-spoken witness to the extravagant beauty of the natural world, this translator of the unvoiced spiritual impulse, this New England gal, our very own American Rumi—is gone, alas. Fortunately her poems are here to stay. She’ll be read for ages.



The poem below is not one of her greatest hits, but I’ve been thinking about it since I came across it. Like so many of her poems, it’s planted a seed in my soul that has taken root.


This Morning

by Mary Oliver


This morning the redbirds’ eggs

have hatched and already the chicks

are chirping for food. They don’t

know where it’s coming from, they

just keep shouting, “More! More!”

As to anything else, they haven’t

had a single thought. Their eyes

haven’t yet opened, they know nothing

about the sky that’s waiting. Or

the thousands, the millions of trees.

They don’t even know they have wings.


And just like that, like a simple

neighborhood event, a miracle is

taking place.

*. *. *

Spend today—spend tomorrow, spend every day of the rest of your life for Pete’s sake—thinking about those little birds and what they don’t know. The trees that await. The wings waiting to be used. So much is beyond our perception. Again and again in her long career Oliver lifted the veil and gave us a glimpse of the trees, the sky, our wings.


R.I.P. Mary Oliver. With thanks from a grateful reader.


They don’t even know they have wings. 



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poems are on car windshields all the way down the block



by W.S. Merwin



with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

standing by the windows looking out

in our directions


back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you


over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you


with the animals dying around us

taking our feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

thank you we are saying and waving

dark though it is



I had a few more left so I left “Thanks” on another street—


Who doesn’t believe in gratitude? Every religion and most women’s magazines instruct us to grateful. It’s the key to happiness, we’re told over and over. I myself love to be grateful and raised my kiddos to believe it’s the thank-you note, not cleanliness, that’s next to godliness.


But there are limits, as we see in W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks.” Does it make sense, he seems to ask, dark though it is and even with nobody listening to run around saying thanks, thank you, thanks so much. We begin to look like idiots. Because the rote “thank you” can be as empty as “thoughts and prayers” if there’s no accompanying action. Against Merwin’s litany of terrible events— illness, violence, death, injustice, ecological disaster, aging and memory loss—saying “thanks” seems anemic if not downright silly.


Someone else might read the poem differently, perhaps as an injunction to stay grateful no matter what. But given Merwin’s activism, I can’t read it any other way.


I left the poem in downtown Detroit, the same day the city learned it had not been a finalist for the Amazon headquarters. Thanks a lot!


Here’s a bio of Merwin from an earlier post:

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.


Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.



He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.


He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.



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If I had any sense I’d be in the kitchen right now, chopping and endlessly washing mixing bowls and spatulas. Instead I’m sitting at the computer. I’ll pay for it tomorrow with panic and exhaustion, but meantime, here’s a few poems for Thanksgiving.


At the grocery store I left Czeslaw Milosz’s”Encounter” in an empty aisle  where I would encounter no one, next to one of Paul Newman’s products.


O my love, where are they, where are they going–  sounds like a lovelier version of what my husband and I say to each other after the too-quickly-grown-up kids leave home after the weekend.


(The words that got cut off in the picture are “at dawn.” Sorry for that.)


Outside another grocery store (because one grocery store is never enough for Thanksgiving preparations), I left e.e. cummings’ poem in an abandoned grocery cart. Maybe it was mine. (Poem is to the right of the “Ayar” ad, on the seat of the grocery cart.)


i thank You God for most this amazing/day could be the start of dinner time grace. Little kids might like the twisty-ness of the lines.



Still at the grocery store, I put Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by a credit card machine at the check-out.


I’ve long had a few lines of this poem committed to memory

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–

A Ribbon at a time–


and this, one of my favorite images from any poem, ever

The Hills untied their Bonnets–


The beauty of that, when I see it and when I read it here, fills me with gratitude for the world as it is and the world as only a poet can see it.



Finally, I left Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” at Starbucks. Where I was sitting for over an hour, once again not cooking.


What does the agony in “Vietnam” have to do with Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder. As we gather with family and friends to enjoy a bounty of food and the comfort of safe shelter, let’s remember those who have none of those things. Let’s give our thanks for what we have and leave space in our hearts for victims of war, for refugees losing hope–



And in the last few minutes before I give myself over to cooking, let me thank all you dear readers and commentators. I am so grateful for your readership and support.


Happy Thanksgiving to all!





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Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like  getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling,  a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)


Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the deadand the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.


I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.


There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:

How like you to be kind

Seeking to reassure

It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.



At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)


Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:

peering into each other’s faces,

slow to let go of each other’s hands



Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”


How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death

another space emptied by loss 

Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.




No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.


Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —

no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums 

–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.



I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:



Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.


One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:



A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).


I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:



Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.




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The Travelling Onion

by Naomi Shihab Nye


“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an

object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion

entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook


When I think how far the onion has traveled

just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise

all small forgotten miracles,

crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,

pearly layers in smooth agreement,

the way the knife enters onion

and onion falls apart on the chopping block,

a history revealed.


And I would never scold the onion

for causing tears.

It is right that tears fall

for something small and forgotten.

How at meal, we sit to eat,

commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma

but never on the translucence of onion,

now limp, now divided,

or its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,




It is right that tears fall, Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her ode to the onion. I love the onion as much as anyone, but I can’t take such a philosophical view of it. I dread the chop. The dice is worse. Mincing is torture. What with my dry sockets from thyroid eye disease, dismantling onions can feel like the knife is working at my eye rather than the onion. I’ve tried it all—biting on a wooden spoon, wearing goggles, refrigerating the onion, cuisinarting the heck out of it, rinsing after peeling. Nothing helps. (To my fellow sufferers: I’ve just learned, thanks to a youtube video of the inimitable Julia Child, that painless onion chopping is possible if the knife is sharp enough. A sharp knife reduces onion juice splatter and allows the chopper to chop faster than tears can form.)


Mulling over that same line–It is right that tears fall–I heard something familiar, something ecclesiastical. In the Catholic mass and in many other Christian church services, the priest (or minister) says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” The congregation responds, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” (Or in the newly translated Catholic mass, the less melodious, “It is right and just.”) I don’t think this is coincidental. Shihab Nye was, after all, a religious studies major in college, and in this particular poem, religious phrasing and imagery are around every corner, like an old chapel stuffed with icons and statues.


Beginning with the epigraph on the ancient worship of the onion, the poem elevates the lowly vegetable, injecting it with a spirituality most cooks do not. The speaker considers the miracle of the onion and wants to fall to her knees in a prayer of praise. As the onion is peeled apart and unlayered, it’s layered with more meaning, becomes a holy object. The crackly, pearly paper of its skin is like a sacred text, its inside a fleshy sacrifice split open by a knife. Then comes a shared meal, a communion of sorts, graced by a limp onion, a death of sorts, and the understanding of the onion’s core purpose, the sacrifice of one for the good of all:


its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,



As much as the poem identifies the onion’s honorable career, it describes another honorable career, that of the poet. What is the work of a poet but to find “all small forgotten miracles”? It’s one of the reasons I love Naomi Shihab Nye. She shines light on ordinary events and people and things to show readers the wonders of the world as it is.


I left “Travelling Onion” at the motherhouse of a religious order my niece is in. This is a teaching order and semi-cloistered. The sisters interact with the outside world as students, teachers and principals—but back at the convent they practice silence, sleep in cells, and keep to a strict schedule of prayer, communal meals, communal exercise, and housekeeping. These sisters wear the full habit, shoe-length gowns with oversized rosaries hanging from their belts, hair shorn under long veils, blue aprons for kitchen work, blue overcoats for the cold. Their contact with family is limited and most everything they do is regulated.


Like the onion, these sisters work quietly behind the scenes, unheralded, unknown to most. Their work of teaching and praying is all for the sake of others.


My niece and her grandmother

My niece and her grandmother

You’d think this kind of order would be dying out in this age of selfies and self-promotion, but the convent is busting at the seams with postulants. Whenever I’ve visited, I meet cheerful and well-spoken sisters who love to laugh. You won’t find young women of such poise and confidence outside the debate team at Wellesley College or re-runs of Xena: Warrior Princess.


(I just saw my niece at her sister’s wedding in Tallahassee where she walked down the aisle as a most striking bridesmaid. She was excited when I told her I had left a poem at the convent back in the spring, so here, Sister Marianna, this is for you!)


I’ve posted on Naomi Shihab Nye before, so I’ll just copy and paste the bio I wrote in a previous post.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 1.52.15 PMNaomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.

She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels. She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours. Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.

In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.

She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.

You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together. Gravelly and fun.

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