Tag Archives: questions

Lemongrass and Music

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You’ve got to do things that make you happy, Cath. It’s okay to take care of yourself.

So I brew lemongrass-ginger tea in my little brown teapot.

I curl up on the couch and knit a blue sweater with white whales on it.

I ask for book suggestions on the sovereignty of God, on the unknown. I start to read Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. There is comfort in these words.

I journal in haphazard ways, round and around with no goal. I think about making sure I burn all my journals before I die.

I sit beside my roommate as she sings me this song. I sit and look out the window while she plays the guitar.

I buy a few too many dresses for the weddings and other occasions this summer. I wear the mint-green one to work.

I drive with the top down and feel the sun on my winter-skin.

I listen to all the music I love: The Lone Bellow, Ivan and Alyosha, Ray LaMontagne, Josh Garrells.

I sit at the piano and play hymns. We used to sing them with my great-grandmother in the living room, and now they are as much a balm to my soul as they are an offering to the Lord.

I preoccupy myself with apartment searching. I go a little crazy, a little manic. I apologize to my friends profusely, but it pays off. September first will find us moving into a city-apartment that I never thought we’d find.

I re-read old poems, old blog entries. My past self speaks to my present self, and I try to believe her and not feel like I’ve let her down.

I sit by the lake and sip a Dunkin iced coffee. My feet dangle like I am happy, but really it’s just because I’m short.

I imagine teaching my new courses next year. I make a list of books to read, activities to do. And then I stop when this feels overwhelming.

I think about our annual trip to the Cape and the ocean and the fact that the ocean is still there.

It’s been there all along.

So I do these things that make me happy, and I practice patience and trust. Risk involves not knowing what will happen, I know this. Time will tell, they say, and it will.

Give thanks in all circumstances. Like I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago, we do not know how to praise God because we do not know all that he has spared us from.

An Offering

IMG_1467I am walking along roads I know well — well enough to anticipate dips and turns without thinking. I am walking in the slanted light of morning, and the air smells like spring.

I pass an older woman in purple slacks. She carries a purse, so I know she isn’t out on a leisurely stroll like I am. She has a purpose, a place. I have a purpose, too, but it’s not quite so tangible.

There aren’t many places I feel closer to God than when I am walking. Walks are my response to uncertainty, to fear, to wrestling. I walked around and around on 9/11, and again the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. I walked as graduation approached and I mourned the loss of my little life at college, and I walked the day I realized I would not be able to take that job with AmeriCorps back in 2012.

As I go, I talk to God. I slip in and out of actual conversation with him and conversations with others in my life. I shape thoughts and how I feel and how best to convey these things to other people. But God listens the whole time, and I feel his shaping of my words, too.

I stop by the stream and sit on the crooked cement slab, watching the water flow from under the road. It foams and swirls and swirls together, one floating foam into another, until they converge and slip over the rocks and down the stream.

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I think about how we are all “others” and how this is scary.

That seeing and accepting another’s otherness is what community is about.

No one drives by to see me in my striped hoody by the stream, and I know what waits for me on my return home: Bonhoeffer and YA literature, a couch made soft with blankets and the sound of the neighbor children racing their bikes in the street.

I sit for a moment longer, and I want to sing to the Lord. I want to sing a song of trust and faith, a faith that covers and holds up all the brokenness and sadness I sometimes feel.

I want to sing, but no song comes. I wait. I am open.

I want to sing.

But there, by the stream on that quiet road, with birds chirping in the weeping willow, no song comes.

At first, I am concerned. Where is my song? I want to have an offering, but my hand — my throat — are empty.

And then I think that maybe my offering is too much me and not enough listening.

Too much sound and not enough quiet.

Too much struggling for answers and not enough allowance of questions.

And so I sit a moment longer, get up, walk home.

An offering of listening.

A Thank You Note

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I’m standing in a living room filled with fancy strangers. I’m wearing my new black dress and a string of pearls. I’m standing in the rosy-soft lighting, and I’m about to sing. I’d been asked to perform at a fundraiser for a local theater company, and as I look out at the faces I don’t know and the few I do, I wait to sing.

~     ~     ~

The day before, I sat at the piano teaching a voice lesson, and I was trying to get my student to become the character. She was singing Eponine’s “On My Own,” and I kept asking her questions, trying to pull the character out of her imagination instead of handing it to her from mine.

What are you thinking about?
Why are you singing?
Are you sad? Angry? Lonely? Anxious? Disappointed?
WHY ARE YOU SINGING?

She was a good sport, my student, and she started to craft her character. It was harder to get her to open her mouth, though, to support the higher notes, to let go of her fear.

I said, “You’ve got to just trust yourself. Just let it out. Think about Eponine and her feelings, not the note or the pitch. Just sing the story.”

And it hit me — right there in the tiny practice room with the twinkly Christmas lights and art I’d hung on the walls in September — that I’m a little bit of a hypocrite. I’m pretty good at encouraging other people; I see their potential and I push them and help them and tell them not to give up. There are times, maybe, when I push too hard, but more often than not, I’m right and they can.

Then there’s me. There are the nerves that I haven’t felt since early college right before a performance. There’s the fear that I’ll mess up, and — because everyone knows I studied voice in college — the judgement will be harsher, sharper, like a final indictment.

I pushed my student to embrace her character and let go of her fear, and I sat on the piano stool clutching to mine.

My student looked me in the eye, shook her head with determination, and sang through the entire song. I sat there, listening, but also a little bit ashamed.

I’d be singing this same song the next day, but would I be able to sing the story? Would I be able to get over myself? Would my student be proud of me? Or would she wonder where I got off, chastising her for not having courage while I floundered exactly the same way?

When she stopped singing and stood there for a moment in silence, the last moments as Eponine, I saw on her face a little hint of transformation.

“Beautiful,” I said, quietly, because both of us know that we get emotional when we sing this song.

“Beautiful,” I said, because there was a part of me that envied this 8th grade singer who is slowly discovering her voice.

~     ~     ~

As I start to sing, I know I am too quiet, and that I’m letting my fear take a stranglehold on my voice. I release. I open up. I become Eponine. For me, though, this is a tricky balancing act. So often becoming a character leads to too-strong emotion, and there is nothing worse than a performer experiencing deeper emotion than the audience. I become Eponine, but I restrain myself. I feel her pain but at a distance. I see the hopes and dreams of lights on the river and mist and moonlight, but I do not let myself settle in too comfortably.

I forget a few words but it’s okay because I sustain one word through the line and it’s smooth enough and maybe two people realize.

And as I get to the last page of the music, the part where she’s lonely and broken and loving emptily, I take my time. Because that’s what it’s all about, really, taking time. Resting in silence and resting in the soft suspension of song.

As I stand for a brief moment as the piano finishes and I release Eponine into the room and out of myself, I wish my student were sitting there, just so she could see what a work she has done in me.

Old Wheels Bite the Dust

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What do you do when you’ve had something since  you were sixteen and it’s breaking?

What do you do when you realize a little too much of yourself is tied to a thing?

What do you do when you realize that maybe there is more weight to a thing and its memories than there is freedom?

I drove for months with a window that wouldn’t go up in my car. It wasn’t bad in the summer – often the top was down anyway, so who cares?

But then it started to rain.

We had a week of straight rain. Of me running out of grad class with a towel and garbage bag to frantically cover the gaping hole (it only sort of worked). The rain came in, no matter how hard I tried to cover it. I was pretty resourceful, though, I think.

Then it got chilly, and the morning commutes got less and less comfortable.

For weeks my students laughed at me.

“Magistra, why do you have a towel on your car?”

Ummmm…

My neighbor jokingly yelled at me to “get that fixed already!” I told him it was too expensive, that I couldn’t sink another thousand dollars in a ten-year-old car that was falling apart.

“I’m just looking out for you,” he said, smiling.

“If you were really looking out for me, you’d buy me a new window!” (To which he shook his head because we’ve had many years of back-and-forth.)

I was determined to get one more summer out of that cream colored bug. I was determined, actually, never to buy a new car. I was determined to hold on to my sixteen-year-old self that cried when she got home and saw this thing that she never dreamed of having. This material thing that had brought so much joy to her life and her friends’ lives, too.

But the truth is, I am a very different person than I was at sixteen.

I got a letter from a college friend yesterday — a kindred spirit — and she told me how there are so many versions of herself she’s not sure which one to be. And I thought, Yes, that’s exactly right.

When I was sixteen, I was angry. I was afraid. I was sure that I’d never get into college and I was sure that I didn’t deserve whatever love I received.

But I also loved to laugh. I loved going to the diner for pie after performing in our high school shows. I loved walking to the library with my best friend and reading books, teeheeing in the stacks when we came across Portnoy’s Complaint. I was a better baker and cook than I am now, with the time and desire to perfect.

I wrote more in high school than I do now.

I got in a bad car accident and, after being spared, realized that God must, indeed, have work for me to do.

What a frightening thought.

I took trips to Maine in the summer — two teenage girls (I can’t believe we were allowed to do this!) cruised up the highway with the wind in our hair, spent the weekend on the ocean eating seafood and kayaking, shopping in Freeport, feeling the freedom of adulthood that lay just over the way.

All this to say: adulthood is here.

I handed over the keys of this bizarrely dear friend.

I walked away with a new car that has already begun to stand for everything that is new and hopeful.

And I said goodbye to the parts of me that need to go — in the shape of a cream colored convertible bug.

Goodbye, Buglette. It’s been real.

photo 2[And Auntie, don’t worry. I kept the orange flower you gave me.]

[P.S. My 8th graders, on seeing my new car: “It’s not quite as Magistra as your other car…”]

Too Personal

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“Why haven’t you been writing as much?”

“Oh, you know, don’t have much to say these days.”

Which is true. Lots of thoughts, not a lot of formation.

But the real truth?

“I read your blog — not all the time. Sometimes I feel like it’s too personal.”

So, there you go.

That’s what’s been keeping me away: this quick sentence from a friend that has made me reevaluate and second-guess almost every post I’ve thought of.

I don’t think of this blog as too personal.

“Really? You do?” I asked. “Because I was thinking how I leave so much out, how there are always these glaring holes of what’s really going on.”

~     ~     ~

This weekend, I posted pictures on Facebook of my trip to Brooklyn to visit my recently-relocated friend. We were smiling in the sun and looked absolutely ridiculous with ring pops.

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What I left out was that we both tired of those ring pops before they were gone. That
I got lost on the subway a grand total of three times. That I had blisters like you read about. That I wandered the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone with a backpack weighing thirty pounds slung across my belly “to protect the art.”

That I couldn’t sleep on the train ride there or home because my mind was racing to the blur of the landscape.

Even today, I posted a picture of the girl I babysit. The caption?

A woman after my own heart — how do you not love kids who beg you to take them fishing?

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The sun was beautiful on the water. It was still and quiet. The lily pads were in bloom and blue and red dragonflies swooped together among the flowers.

What I didn’t write?

That five minutes later, I had two whiney kids who couldn’t cast for the life of them (and apparently aren’t able to put a worm on a hook). There was pushing and accusations when a brother knotted the line, whining because it was so hot and the water bottles I’d painstakingly packed were “warm.”

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It was only about half an hour later that I decided:

You know what? Let’s just sit with our feet in the water, ’cause this is exhausting and I can’t take it.

~     ~     ~

So what am I trying to say? Something about social media? How it’s a manicured version of ourselves? How we present only the good and beautiful and leave the ugly at home?

A little.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are some things that need to be ugly. It’s the unique parts that make someone worth reading. It’s the specific that makes writing resonate with you.

Sometimes armpits are hilarious. Sometimes they’re just gross.

More than that, though, it’s an echo of what I’ve written about earlier.

There’s always more going on under the surface. Perhaps I do get too personal here, but it’s usually because it feels comfortable. It feels like the space to write things I care about. It feels like the space to figure out what it means to be me — both as a writer and as a human.

Prayer and Desire

photo 2 [“I don’t understand – what’s the point of praying? It’s not like we can change God’s mind.”]

When I pray — when I ask God for what I want — I am opening myself up for blessing.

I am trusting that God is capable of meeting my needs, my desires. Beyond capable, even. I am trusting that He wants to.

But, just as possibly, I am opening myself up for disappointment. For “no.” For dissatisfaction.

I am reminding myself that I am vulnerable. That I can be hurt and confused by circumstances. That I am at the mercy of my God.

[“So you’re telling me that prayer is all about our attitudes? It has nothing to do with God’s actions?”]

If I do not pray — if I choose instead not to commune with the Creator, not to bare my wants before the Lord — then I cannot say I am hurt. I cannot say that God withheld from me what I am convinced would be good for me. I cannot say that he told me “no” or directed my life down a path I never would have chosen.

If I do not pray, I can convince myself of my own strength.

I didn’t want it anyway.

Like the fox and the grapes, I will slink away in sadness cloaked in falsehoods.

I didn’t want to sing.

I didn’t want a home, a farm.

I didn’t want him.

I didn’t want little blonde babies.

I didn’t want to be a writer.

If I never want, I will never be disappointed. It has very similar outcomes to not loving, really: If I never love, I will never be hurt.

[“Don’t we choose? Don’t we get to decide what our lives look like?”]

I’ve gotten good at prayers of gratitude; ever since my blood clot, I look to the sky, see the peachy-pink shades of a sunset, and words of thankfulness tumble from my lips. It isn’t hard for me to remember the Lord’s goodness in what He has already done.

I haven’t yet mastered the trust that God remains good regardless of what happens. photo 2 And so, I come to the place I often find myself. The place where I must choose to live fuller – and probably be disappointed – or live safer, and walk the earth with shells of avoided disappointments.

Their very emptiness is enough to make me cry.

~     ~     ~

I prayed for the first time in weeks.

Yes, I’ve had random thoughts to the Lord, thanking Him, asking Him, talking to Him.

But I have been avoiding my desires. I’ve been avoiding admitting there are things I want. And I’ve been avoiding telling Him that I know He is in control.

Because if I don’t think He’s in control, He can’t allow (or not allow) things that will disappoint.

[“I just feel like He’s been removing all my reasons for going. All the reasons I thought I was doing this don’t exist anymore. I don’t understand.”]

I prayed for the first time today.

The first time in weeks.

And I asked Him for what I want. I do not know yet what the outcome will be. This could go the way of the beach house. This could go the way of so many of my life’s sister ships.

I do not know.

But I have prayed, and opened myself up to both the possibility of blessing and the possibility of disappointment.

A Blossom in February

IMG_1696You know that moment when you think: This person is going to be good.

My midwestern friend, the one whose marriage we celebrated with dancing last summer, is good. After three years of separation, three years of poetry-writing, slaving over images and words and form, she has become a poet.

Our senior year, as our friendship was forming, I remember wanting desperately to have her gift. Her sensitivity to acknowledging the small, her ability to work within structure. I thought she knew what she was doing then, but now?

Now, I see growth and shimmer where there was only the hope of it before.

~     ~     ~

[I bought two copies of a friend’s book of poetry last week, and they arrived in the standard yellow mailing envelope. Two, thin chapbooks. A Bow from My Shadowit’s called, and my pride over knowing such gifted and hardworking poets makes me give that extra copy away, a gift and an acknowledgement of artistry.]

~     ~     ~

For two years after college, I wrestled with what to do next. I wanted so badly to get my MFA, to write and stay in the world of creativity and critique. Part of me still wants this – still longs for a group of people who will force me to put thoughts on paper and shape those thoughts into something remarkable.

[I go to my writers’ group every other Thursday. I read to them these things I’m hoping are poems, and I eat up their praise and critiques alike. Better writing is happening because of these thoughtful, diligent friends.]

When I listen to my friend talk about her program, I am proud and jealous, happy and wondering.

Did I make the right choice?

[The same friend whose book I just bought said to me: “I write best when it’s not all I do.” And I knew this was true of me, too. I didn’t do my best writing in college, when it was forced from me. Sure, the revising and peer editing helped, but now? I am inspired by so much. When I doubt, this is what I cling to.]

~     ~     ~

And so, on this gray February Sunday, I watch as my friends blossom into themselves. I read their words with quiet joy and a pen. I write that poem that’s been bouncing around, and I begin the research for my Classroom Management class, because my path is shaped differently than I ever dreamed.

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Dare to Surprise

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There was a boy in high school who stood out. For both good and bad, for his height, his clothes, his penetrating gaze when he talked to you, his arrogance. I noticed him early in September freshman year, and immediately I knew that I didn’t trust him. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him, but that I knew every time he would choose the wrong thing. That he didn’t know how not to let someone down in his laziness and youth.

For four years, our paths crossed occasionally, a mutual friend, a witty conversation, an awkward comment as we passed. I watched as he made reckless decisions, hurting young girls who saw only the handsome prince and not the boy. I had my hackles up because I knew exactly what he was like. No one had to tell me that I wasn’t the only he made feel like a million dollars, that I (along with everyone he talked to) was the only person in the room. No one had to tell me that his confidence in his charm was a very part of that charm. Even as I allowed myself to laugh because I like a quick tongue and an educated joke, I knew that I could never truly be myself.

That’s the thing about early assumptions: you almost always think they’re wrong. You second-guess yourself. You remind yourself that you are critical, that you expect too much of people, that you put people in a pretty little box with a label (“Fake,” “Selfish,” “Socially Awkward,” “Immature”) and set the box on the shelf in your closet, never bothering to open it and rethink that decision you made so many years ago.

And because you know your tendencies, you force yourself to rethink it. You figuratively slap your own arrogance in the face, and you dare them to surprise you.

Surprise me, I whisper, when I begin to trust.

[For once, don’t promise the big grand thing and forget in your rashness you ever said anything.]

Surprise me, I hope when I let someone begin to love me or someone else I care for.

[For once, choose the best for the one you claim to love most. For once, refuse your own selfishness.]

Surprise me, I dare, even as I watch again and again as they continue not to.

[For once, make your word count for something.]

What I’m really asking for is this:

Prove me wrong. Please. In this one instance, I want so badly to be wrong.

I guess what I’m realizing is that sometimes you’ll never be surprised. Sometimes, that immature fourteen-year-old-freshman-self wasn’t as dumb or judgmental as you claim, and really, here is a young man who’s grown up to be just a taller, more successful, equally-self-centered gentleman with a penchant for desiring goodness but without the will-power to get it.

The same laughing blue eyes, the same way of leaning towards you with an intensity that – for just a moment – feels like yes.

There are some people who live up to their reputations.

There are some people who, after years and years of chances, will never surprise you.

And you can love them from a distance, but that is all you can do.

Thoughts on Courage

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Working at the loose leaf tea shop my first year out of college was such a beautiful time of my life. It was a difficult time (because who likes floundering and admitting that you aren’t sure where life is headed?), but I look back on those days of Earl Grey and Mao Feng and Russian Caravan with a sweetness. We sampled tea, we mixed tea, we talked to interesting people, and we had some of the best discussions.

You know how there are certain things people say that burn into your brain? I have one of those friends who consistently says sentences that stick with me. It’s a friendship I treasure, but there is also a little carefulness to it because hearing truth isn’t always the easiest thing.

The sentence that has been reverberating in my mind from those days in the tea shop is this:

“Don’t make choices based on fear.”

It went along with a conversation about how you can’t always have 100% pure motives but that waiting until you do is paralyzing. Living out of fear is paralyzing. Being a coward is paralyzing.

I took this to heart, this choosing not out of fear but out of trust. I’ve been attempting to live this way, in both my private life and in my professional life, but it’s an in-progress evolution.

~     ~     ~

I thought cowards said “no.” I thought that it was the brave who grasped life by the horns and ran, who said an exuberant Yes! to all that came their way. And so I say yes because I want to be brave. I don’t want to turn my back on possibilities, and I open my hands.

Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea that perhaps “yes” is not always the answer, or at least that maybe it is sometimes the answer born of fear. In more than one instance, I have said yes because I was afraid of reaction. I was afraid of seeming weak. I was afraid of hurting someone.

But where does a weak “yes” get you but to a later, more painful “no”?

~     ~     ~

In 2014, I have said a few “nos” that were hard. I dropped a grad school class because I knew in the pit of me that two at once was too much on top of teaching. I never drop classes. Not once in college. It was humbling for me to say, You know what, I don’t think I’m gonna do this.

I was telling a student the other day (she was asking me for advice on a program to study in college and music and what to do) that I am not the person to go to if you want to be talked out of something. If you want to be encouraged and fired up and emboldened, I’m your girl! But you want to be told to let go and drop it? Find somebody else.

But that’s exactly what I let myself do this January.

No to that second class that will ruin both classes and my life.

No to that second date because we have nothing in common (I’m sorry, but trust me, some girl somewhere will love to sit and watch sports with you and make you chicken wings).

No to feeling guilty about skipping small group once in awhile to rejoin my college trivia night team.

No to trying always to be perfect, to following a timeline, to forcing myself into a little mold that can’t hold me or anyone else, really.

Too often I have said “yes” because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of hurting people, of letting them down, of being the woman who’s weak and can’t handle it.

I’m learning that sometimes it is as fearful to say “yes” as it is to say “no.” I’m still figuring out the difference.

[Photo: Sarah Hawkins]

July 5, 2013

I am sitting in a colorful floral dress. The tent I am under blocks the sun, but there is no denying the 95-degree heat, or the fact that there is a line of men standing at the front in three-piece suits. I am immediately grateful for my female status (and the accompanying summer dresses).

There are so many people sitting around me – many I know peripherally, a few I’ve known for over twenty years, their faces as familiar as family. July 5th, 2013 crept up on me, after a life of Dunkin’ Donuts Dunkaccinos and chocolate doughnuts, White Farms key lime pie ice cream, wiffle ball, touch-football, volley ball, “Tribute to the Best Song in the World”, Strong Bad, three goofballs talking and laughing over a beer.

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I have had the amazing privilege of watching one of my oldest friends marry one of my dearest friends. Not too many people can say that. As we all stood, singing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” I listened to the harmonies that filled the air in that tent, and I thought how beautifully lives were converging right in front of me. From the multi-colored florets made lovingly by women in the bride’s life to the music performed by gifted family, this wedding was like seeing their two souls overlaid.

~     ~     ~

The ceremony is over, we are standing, clapping, hooting, when suddenly music starts playing. They are singing – the newlyweds – singing and dancing and the bridal party joins in. A wedding flash mob? Yes, please. Make it to the Muppets’ “Life’s a Happy Song” and let me join in from the audience, surprising my family, and it’s even better.

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I sing “Life’s a piece of pie!” and run up the aisle to join the dancing. We’re all smiling, singing to the surprised audience, all these faces I have loved for so long, and I’m grateful to be part of this day.

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[Later, at the reception, I will need to leave the room as the bride dances with her father to Eva Cassidy’s rendition of “Fields of Gold.” I will rush past the groom’s mother whose eyes will also be glistening, I will run down the stairs and walk around the parking lot, crying alone in the hot summer evening. I won’t fully understand this strong reaction, but I will know that it’s all mixed in with growing up, friendships, changes, love that never happened and love that might happen, and the realization that the midwest is calling my friends away from me. All this will happen, but then I will wipe my eyes, run back up the stairs, and dance for the following three hours.]

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[Proof that I take my dancing a little too seriously. And that my friends are cool.]

Babies grow up and marry their great loves and change the lives of those around them.