Decision Fatigue

Right about now is when I’m thinking longingly of being traditionally published. Going indie and choosing myself and all that is fine and good, but now I’m down to the final 10% of work, the final 10% of decisions to be made. And anyone who’s ever moved knows that the final 10% is the worst.

Twilight gif: I can't do this anymore

I am generally so decisive that it’s a discipline for me to curb it so the less decisive don’t feel railroaded. But there’s a limit. And I’ve hit it. I didn’t understand half of what I had to fill in to fully register my ISBN with my title. In fact, I may have abandoned it half-way through, which means I have to go back to it.

This is too much

And I haven’t even started trying to upload my novel yet. Asking for help doesn’t always solve things; I accidentally started a ridiculous argument between two fellow indie publishers after I asked a technical question in a Facebook group.

I was going to talk about how good traditionally published authors have it, but they have to deal with constant changes in their publishing house and editors leaving and the new editor not liking your work, not the mention feeling like you should be getting help with marketing but you’re not, which is probably akin to my getting an epidural 28 hours into labor with my son and still being able to feel everything. Not cool.

So all authors have it tough, just in different ways.

The lesson there is a good one: it’s a fiction that that person over there who looks like they have it all together, actually has an easy life. Don’t let yourself believe that lie.

Mona Lisa oh no you didn't

That woman with the sweet voice and temperament had to leave her abusive family at seventeen and figure out how to make it on her own. That man with the great career and adorable family was sexually abused as a child. And cancer eventually hits every family and friend group — talk about decision fatigue. At least I’m not having to decide what treatment to pursue against something in my own body that’s trying to kill me. Or my child’s body.

I started out this post, admittedly, whiny. And now I have that glorious thing: perspective. Which means I have energy to go forth and make ever fussier decisions.

But not yet. I’ll be spending most of the morning thinking about someone I love who is getting a mastectomy today. Which, for all the kidding around we’ve done lately about being one-boobed, is too serious for a gif.

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Big City Sidewalk

I’ve got a fun guest post up today at the always interesting You Are Here Stories — a site for stories centered around Place, around those places that have been important to us, to our communities. Please click on the last words of the excerpt to join me over there, even if all you want to see is a photo of me at age 12 (sweetly earnest and awkward).

 In my forty-seven years, I’ve been all over the world, but all it takes are a few cues to haul me back to my childhood.

A certain sharp and damp and lumber-ish smell brings me to my grandparents’ farmhouse in Michigan (a smell it retains years after their deaths and despite my cousin’s attempts to eradicate it). Outcrops of red, grey, and black veins of Great Canadian Shield rock bring me back to camping trips and weeks at the cottage.

But the capital-P Place where I feel the instant settling of my spirit that says “home” is the big city sidewalk.

Settling the spirit might be an odd response to a place that’s loud and busy and can be crowded and chaotic, but that’s where I grew up: in the middle of the great city of Toronto, Canada. Truly in the middle: one block from the main north-south thoroughfare of Yonge Street, and two-thirds of the way up our subway line.

I was taking the subway by myself…

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This is my punishment

The Stocks, by Steve Knight

A skilled and generous writer and teacher, John Vorhaus, sent me his soon-to-be-published book (How to Live Life) for me to read and spread the word about. I’d really been looking forward to this book, because he’s funny, and in his more recent essays for Writer Unboxed, he’s brought some moving truths, not just about writing but about life. Which is my favorite way to receive truth: wrapped up in something that makes me smile. I’m all disarmed from the smiling and then WHAMMO. Truth.

cover of how to live life, by John VorhausVorhaus was a workshop leader at the Writer Unboxed UnConference I went to last November. He led the session on Failing Big (my notes for it are 1/3 of the way down the page here) and what he said there finally kicked me out of the disappointment spiral I’d been wallowing in for a couple of years. He also taught me how to play poker (a kind of poker I can’t remember the name of anymore, which is rather par for the course — in our first conversation he teased me for not knowing the make of car I’d just driven halfway across the country). He’s funny in person and he’s funny in writing and I knew that this life advice book would make me smile. And it did.

But even before breaking into Hollywood, I knew that teaching something was a great way to learn it. I’ve used this strategy many times in my life to increase my understanding of songwriting, poker, comedy, creativity, sailing (that was dangerous), archery (that was worse) and more. I have come to believe that an inspired learner makes a good teacher. So that’s the real source of my authority, such as it is: my gape-mouthed wonder at the fact of my existence, and my desire to know it more fully.

This book, then, is an intensely selfish exercise.

But I don’t think it’s all that pretentious, not really. No more than life itself is pretentious. I mean, here we are in the midst of this incredible, unbelievable experience, and something tells us that it should be even more incredible and more unbelievable. We should be… I don’t know… painting pictures, writing poems, staring at the stars, communing with God, digging life’s mysteries, getting down to the isness of it all.

I love that attitude (particularly because this is a non-religiously-affiliated book, but there’s room in here for people, like me, who are communers with God). But then he did something that made me feel crabby and rebellious: he left spaces for me to write my responses to the questions he was asking. Many spaces. Many questions.

Make a list.

You’ll hear me say that a lot, make a list. I’m a huge fan of lists because lists…

Let us create without consequence
Give us hard data we can use right away
Are emotionally neutral; they don’t judge
Yield much information for little effort
Put things where we can see them 

This was not going to be a book that was both funny and deep and that I could enjoy reading and adding to the general thoughts in my mind. This book was going to make me actually do the work. I know myself. I know my process. I know that I have to write things down to truly work through them. Which is why I didn’t want to.

So, as punishment, I’m going to do it here, in public.

[Just so you know, I did absolutely everything else possible before doing this: the laundry, the household filing and bill paying, the dinner making, the nagging of children, the ferrying of children, the buying of toner, the returning of the video (yes, we are pleasantly old fashioned enough to still rent DVDs sometimes). I did filing, people.]

1. What wouldn’t I do if I had six months to live:

  • clean my house
  • cut down on beer or cookies
  • play so much online Boggle
  • go to “mandatory” mass parent meetings at school

2. There was a question about externalizing motivation to help one overcome inertia. I’ve tried some — I like Jerry Seinfeld’s method of X-ing off each day he’s written, and seeing the line of Xs motivates him to keep the line going. That works okay. For awhile. I think I need another person to hold me to a timeline. I’ve been working on a collaborative project and we have meetings, and I need to have things done for our meetings, and I do them. I don’t get stuck in freak-out mode or find other things to do. Like filing.

At this point, Vorhaus brings out some big guns: the centrality of acceptance to this process of growth.

Acceptance is called for here, the sense that whatever emotions we experience are fine, completely allowable, totally cool, no matter what they are. Without acceptance, we are afraid to approach ourselves. With it, we can appraise ourselves openly and honestly, without freaking out. …

I see me, and it’s all okay. 

Just to be clear, acceptance doesn’t mean surrender. To accept means to process information with emotional neutrality. Acceptance provides an objective perspective where nothing is made worse by the editorial judgment that this really sucks. 

How wonderful to be free from the feeling of this really sucks. You can be. It’s a choice you get to make. Simply seek to acquire the habit of saying, and thinking, “I accept.”

3. Pick something on your list above and dive deeper — if you tell yourself nasty things about yourself because of that thing, try to push past them with acceptance.

  • I wouldn’t play so much online Boggle because it doesn’t add anything to my life — it doesn’t add connection or knowledge or feed my imagination. I’m hiding and anesthetizing. If I had 6 mos to live, I’d dive in, I wouldn’t space out so much. I like the word games, I really do. There is a real satisfaction to them. But I go for the easy rush and choose it way too often and then don’t do things I actually like better.

4. “Got any questions you’d like to ask yourself? Just ask. Just answer. Explore. Don’t judge.”

  • Why do I keep falling into mindless activity? I used to be a horrible slob. Impressively messy. Every fall, when one mouse would come into our house, it would come to my teenage bedroom because there were so many piles of things for it to hide into. As I got older, I liked it when I made things clean and neat, but didn’t care to do the daily practices to keep things that way. And then I had children. There was so much chaos and overwhelm in my mind and in my life that I couldn’t stand a chaotic home environment, and presto: I am now very neat. So I know I can go from non-effort to regular-effort. Why won’t I do so for the practices I care so much about (writing, prayer, dance)? It’s like I’m still in teenage-mode: occasional and impressive outbursts followed by accidental ignoring followed by guilty ignoring. That is a question I imagine it’ll take me this entire book to figure out. So I’m not going to try now.

5. Name some things you know you want, but rarely dare to say out loud.

  • I never, ever, ever say this out loud, but I’d like to drop a little weight to make dancing easier.
  • I want people to read my books.
  • I want to be a better mother.

THERE. That’s chapter one. I’m not saying I’m going to blog my way through every chapter of the book. In fact, I won’t. But I will finish the book and I’ll make my lists and I’ll report back to you. I’d thought that declaring my word of the year to be PRACTICE meant that I’d improve my practices. Instead, it’s shaping up to be about exploring why I resist doing just that. Which may be more helpful in the long run.

 

 

 

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What if you’re the one in the ditch?

 One day an expert in religious law … wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. [A priest and a Temple assistant crossed the road to avoid the man.] Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him….
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The Good Samaritan. We often read this famous story as a call for religious people not to be so self-important that they refuse to help those in need, even when it’s inconvenient.

But that’s only one way to read it.

* * * *

Our expert in the law understands the use of stories in making a theological point, so as he’s listening, he’s figuring out:

  • Who is the hero of this story?
  • Who am I in this story?

Although Jesus’s first two examples (the priest and the temple assistant who pass by the man in the ditch) are the ones most culturally allied to our expert, they are definitely not the heroes. The hero is clearly the Samaritan — the despised one, the one our legal expert crosses to the other side of the road to avoid even being near. This might make our expert uncomfortable enough.

But “Who is my neighbor?” is the question that started the story.

Who is the neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

“The one who showed him mercy.”

Which makes the answer to the original question: “Your neighbor is the Samaritan.”

Our expert is the man in the ditch, broken, bruised, in need of help. He is not the hero, but the one who needs saving. That is probably not who he was expecting to be.

That’s not who many of us expect to be in the story, either. But what if we are?

What if you are the one who is hurt and broken and needy? 

A painting of The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall
The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall

Then your neighbor is the one you think is gross, the one you think you are morally superior to, the one who is the butt of your jokes. That neighbor is the one who will help you, the who will show you mercy and make it possible for you to receive the healing you need.

Which makes the story of The Good Samaritan a whole lot more uncomfortable to live out — but then, Jesus doesn’t tell these stories to help us justify our actions. He tells them to challenge our self-justifications.

 

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The Spiritual Discipline of Apathetic Prayer

Finally, a spiritual discipline I can conquer in one easy step.

RDJ and Jimmy Fallon slouching

Apathy and discipline don’t normally go together — apathy meaning “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern,” and discipline meaning “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior.”

How could lack of enthusiasm or concern be a code of behavior? Let alone a beneficial code of behavior. Don’t they each repel the other?

Jimmy Fall ew

But think of the people you know who radiate peace.

Might they have a lack of concern about specific outcomes, or about plans? Aren’t they difficult to get riled up?

Many of my best parenting days were those when I didn’t have an agenda of any kind, and we let the day unspool as it did, so I tried to be agenda-free as often as I could (at least until I had to start making dinner).

mom trying to cook

Let’s go to my favorite word resource, the Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828):

Want of feeling; an utter privation of passion, or insensibility to pain; applied either to the body or the mind. As applied to the mind, it is stoicism, a calmness of mind incapable of being ruffled by pleasure, pain or passion. In the first ages of the church, the christians adopted the term to express a contempt of earthly concerns.

Ew.

Okay, here’s where I have to confess that I misheard a friend. I heard apathetic prayer, but she’d said apophatic prayer, and the mishearing stuck in my head as kind of funny.

Truth is, I couldn’t be apathetic if you paid me.

Amy Poehler dancing

While I seek increased calmness and rootedness in my mind and in my life, I have no desire to be incapable of being ruffled by pleasure, plain, or passion. This earth is what I have — I am concerned about it and about its citizens. I’m glad I can easily laugh with people, cry with people, cheer them on, get bothered about things. My passionate nature keeps me connected to the people around me and to God.

So while there’s something that sounds good about coming to God in prayer and not being attached to the outcome, it really would have to be a discipline for me. In some ways, I do that already: I’ll often just lift people up in prayer, or ask for blessings, or for love to wrap around someone. That way, I’m not telling God how to do the job. But I’m always passionate about those people and those prayers, I always have my own hopes and desires for that person and that situation, and I’ll probably cry about it, whether it goes well or poorly.

So no apathetic prayer for me.

Apophatic prayer, though… “‘Apophatic’ prayer has no content. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God.” 

That sounds appealingly experiential; I think I get there sometimes when I dance in church, or on those rare occasions when I’ve danced a prayer. That’s something I could try to practice (assuming that I will do it poorly for a good long time).

* * * * *

If you want to listen to the conversation in which my friend Lisa Delay does not say apathetic prayer, here it is. It’s in the second part of the podcast, in her interview with Ed Cyzewski.

Also, I had a lot of fun with http://giphy.com/ for this post.

 

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A family legacy of words

At my recent family reunion, my second-oldest uncle talked about the work he’d been doing to clear out his house in anticipation of downsizing. He said he had all his father’s letters and poems. And then he said the most glorious words:

Would you like them?

I don’t know what made him think of me for such a treasure, but I am so grateful that he did.

the poetry files
Opa’s poems, both original and translations

These are the files of poems and songs, both his own and his many, many translations of other Dutch poets and songwriters. And in the middle, a chapbook of his poems from the 1920s — all in Dutch.

There are some materials in English, though. So far, I’ve found benedictions, poems written for friends’ wedding anniversaries, a limerick, a rewriting of a hymn so it’s about a man watching hockey, a very silly poem (half in English and half in Dutch) written for his young daughter, and his copy of one of my favorite things: a poem he wrote for me when I was a baby.

For Nataly, by Klaas Hart, 1968
For Nataly, by Klaas Hart, 1968

He had stayed in our house in Toronto some night when we were all gone, and this was the gift he’d left. His poems often had elements of what was in the news, hence the reference to David Lewis, who was a politician at the time. The “cardboard cellar” was where I was sleeping at the time: in a refrigerator box with a mattress in the bottom. My dad had used it as a prototype for the beautiful mahogany crib he’d later build me, so the cardboard had stylish curved cutouts, but I rather love that my box bed is immortalized in verse.

But wait, there’s more.

Opa's letters and assorted documents
Opa’s letters and assorted documents

There are liturgies for church services, articles for religious publications, notes on Synod meetings. And letters. Oh, the letters! They start from before the war, and I’m sure there are some from during the war, when he worked in the Resistance, and was often separated from his young family. All in Dutch. Which I don’t understand. I’m hoping either to hit it big enough some day to pay for someone to translate them all, or to entice a Dutch professor to turn translating some of them into a class project. (Any leads, send them my way!)

Tucked way in the back was a file labeled 1953. The year they emigrated to Canada.

ticket to Canada

This is my father’s ticket to his new life.

I don’t know whether I have any more words to describe the gift my uncle has given me.

Okay, I do have more words. Does anyone out there know how anything about how to archivally store a two-foot-high stack of papers? I want these to be around for a good long time, so I can root around and see what all there is to discover.

 

 

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O Lord, how long?

clock at the Heidelberg Project
God clock at the Heidelberg Project: When will it be their time? How long, O God?

With the Psalmist, we cry out,

I am sick at heart. How long, O Lord, until you restore me?

How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

We join with Habakkuk’s plea,

How long, O Lord, must I call for help? Violence is everywhere. Must I forever see these evil deeds?

We add our own call:

How long, O Lord, will white people be so consumed by their fears and prejudices that they kill African Americans? How long will the culture that feeds those fears and prejudices continue to thrive? How long will people deny that the virus of racism infects our country down into its roots?

Thank you, Lord, for bearing our grief and anger and frustration, for hearing our cries for help and rescue and action.

Thank you for being the source of the and yet.

Because of you, we can say, with the writer of Lamentations,

I have cried until the tears no longer come. My heart is broken, my spirit poured out … Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: the unfailing love of the Lord never ends!

Help us dare to hope — that there will be unity among your children, that there will be a “mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.”

Help us to be the hands of feet of your unfailing love.

Help us to uproot racism wherever we see it, whether in ourselves, our loved ones, our church, our school, our workplace, our entertainment, our government.

Protect our hearts from bitterness and despair and hatred while we do this work. Protect us from walling in our hearts and our churches because of fear. Protect us.

May we delight in your Word so we are like that tree along the riverbank, with roots that grow way down deep into God’s love, deep enough to keep us strong — not for our own private sake, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters, for the sake of your kingdom.

May the roots of your love smother and destroy the roots of racism — and may we be a part of it.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

*****

Bible passages quoted, all from the New Living Translation:

  • Psalm 3:6
  • Psalm 13:1-2
  •  Habakkuk 1:2-4
  • Lamentations 2:11, 3:21
  • Amos 5:24
  • hints of Psalm 1:3, Ephesians 3:17
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Images That Haunt

The Heidelberg Project: pile of shoes
The Heidelberg Project: pile of shoes

This is one of the art displays at The Heidelberg Project in Detroit. On the face of it, it’s a pile of shoes topped by a doll riding a plastic horse on springs. It’s a pile of discarded goods. Some might call it garbage. Or silliness.

But after last summer’s trip to Washington, D.C., all I could think about were its parallels to this other pile of shoes.

4,000 pairs of shoes recovered from a single concentration camp in 1944
4,000 pairs of shoes recovered from a single concentration camp in 1944

This is a display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here is how the museum’s website describes it:

When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps, they discovered huge mounds of shoes, hundreds of thousands of pairs, but very few living prisoners. At the sight of these inanimate witnesses, veteran CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow commented, “One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes. But how can you describe several thousand shoes?”

The 4,000 shoes displayed in the Permanent Exhibition are on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek in Lublin, Poland, and represent a tiny fraction of those found at Majdanek in 1944. 

Each pair of those shoes had an owner. Each owner was murdered. But before they were murdered, the Nazis mined them for every item of monetary value: clothes, eyeglasses, hairbrushes, suitcases, shoes, even their hair. Depending on how long the Nazis had been in charge where the victim lived, the shoes would be worth barely anything, since the Nazis closed Jewish shops and then forbade Jews from shopping in non-Jew establishments, so some of those shoes might have been patched and patched again, or “resoled” with newspaper found on the street (since Jews often weren’t allowed to buy newspapers, either). And who got the task of taking apart the shoes for any usable leather? Concentration camp prisoners who hadn’t yet been killed. 

In a building full of sobering images, this was one of the most striking. 

And I couldn’t help but see echoes in that more colorful pile of shoes at Detroit’s Heidelberg Project. In forgotten neighborhoods like so many in Detroit, people have been discarded by their elected leaders, used as lightning rods to ramp up racial fears and to perpetuate isolation. As we’ve seen in our newsfeeds in the last couple of years, people in these neighborhoods are more likely to be killed by police officers for offenses that might get a white person in a different neighborhood a stern warning. Violence is everywhere in many forgotten neighborhoods, whether due to drugs and gangs, domestic violence, sex trafficking.

It doesn’t escape my attention that the same word is used for the narrower and narrower neighborhoods European Jews were forced into and narrower and narrower inner-city neighborhoods that poor African-Americans live in (and some have argued, were forced into by government policies): ghetto.

Their lives are as valued as a pile of discarded shoes.

Which haunts me.

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A new metaphor for this stage

For years, when people have asked me how this writing/publishing thing was going, I’ve described it this way:

I’m doing everything I can to get hit by lightning. I’m out there in an open field carrying golf clubs and flying a kite with keys on it and anything else that might help me get published.

That was back in the day when I was still pursuing traditional publishing. I really liked that metaphor. It communicated both that I was working hard and that success was not guaranteed — after all, getting hit by lightning is fairly rare. Just as it’s fairly rare to get a traditional publishing deal, even with a well-written, engaging story.

But now that I’ve decided to become an indie publisher, I need a new metaphor. It took a friend asking me about my garden to get me there. My garden is usually a bit slower than other gardens in my neighborhood, so while everyone else’s peonies are in full and blowsy bloom, mine are like this.

fat peony bud in my garden

Fat buds.

That’s the stage I’m at in my publishing journey: the fat bud stage. Everything is there, ready to burst forth, but not just yet. The Giant Slayer is still with my Old Testament expert, but as soon as she’s done with it, I’m only three steps away from publishing it (edits, proofreader, book designer).* At the same time, I’ve got a picture book project brewing that we’re independently publishing through a Kickstarter campaign that will be live in mid-August. My words are all done, but I’m setting up the campaign and waiting for our illustrator for get me some art so I can get the website going and let everyone know about it. (There’s more information on my Books page.)

I’m SO CLOSE.

It could be driving me crazy, how close I am, but I spent too long wallowing in disappointment not to enjoy this stage of being on the verge. Fat buds aren’t as showy as full blooms, but they’ve got their own beauty.

Do you have a metaphor for an endeavor you’re in the midst of?

Edited to add: my expert is done! My bud just got fatter :-)

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What Time Is It?

My husband and I recently went to Detroit, and toured a powerful art installation called The Heidelberg Project.

In 1967, 12-year-old Tyree Guyton watched his city burn. In the aftermath of the Detroit riots, thriving communities rapidly became segregated urban ghettos characterized by poverty, neglect and despair.

In 1986, Guyton took a stand against the decay, crime and apathy in the neighborhood where he was raised. Using discarded objects from everyday life, he created a festival of color and meaning that has been described as a “Ghetto Guggenheim.” Using vacant lots and abandoned houses as his canvas, he transformed an entire block into a world-famous outdoor art environment and a thought-provoking statement on the plight of inner city communities.

As we walked around the couple of blocks, my attention kept being drawn by all the painted clock faces: different shapes and sizes, each with a different time painted on it, some alone, some in groups, nailed up to and painted on and leaning against every kind of surface, right-side-up and sideways and upside-down.

clocks against a wall at The Heidelberg Project
clocks against a wall at The Heidelberg Project

My husband walked up to the artist and asked him about it. Being an artist, Guyton answered in more questions.

What time is it? Where are you in time?

3 clocks at the Heidelberg Project
3 clocks at the Heidelberg Project

Guyton has been studying Plato and Albert Einstein and their writing about time.

Time is energy. It’s all about energy. What has time done to you?

clock at the Heidelberg Project
clock at the Heidelberg Project

As we walked, the same phrases played over and over in my mind:

It’s always time.

The time is now.

The time is now to do whatever it is that you so want to do. The time is now to seek change, whether personal or societal. It’s always time to do something that needs to be done.

And on a more personal level, the time is now to put in the work to realize my writing dreams. I need to put in the time.

God clock at the Heidelberg Project
God clock at the Heidelberg Project

And this one. This one cuts me to the quick.

Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
(Psalm 13:1-2, NLT)

Because this is/was a forgotten neighborhood, and represents all the other neighborhoods abandoned by the powers that be. When will it be their time?

So, for me, the clock faces were rallying cry and lamentation, plea and accusation.

What is it time to do in your life? In your corner of the world?

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