The Psychotherapist: From Trainee to Professional

The first reading I ever completed for my three-year psychotherapy diploma program was in the summer before starting the certificate (In the UK we get our Postgraduate Certificate before we can progress to the Diploma). I can’t remember what book it was from, but the author seemed very determined to instill in the reader that any trainee counselor was going to need an incredibly strong support system (they called it an ‘anchor’) in order to survive this course. I thought they were being overdramatic. I read this aloud to my boyfriend-at-the-time’s mother and she stated that she expected her son to fulfill this role. He left before he had to, but that’s okay because by then I had my cat, Lucy.

Lucy became my anchor – my cat was the reason I got up to go to work so I could buy her food and treats. She was the only way I began to create any sense of attachment theory. I hesitate to describe her as a transitional object, but I can’t deny that I see myself very differently now than I did at the beginning of this course. I arrived believing I knew everything but was secretly terrified of having to sit with someone face-to-face instead of over the phone (my background is in peer support hotline work). What if they didn’t speak? What if I couldn’t help? What if I wasn’t good enough? I am now leaving this program fully aware of – and embracing – what I don’t know; yet feeling much more confident in my ability to sit with a client no matter what is brought – and survive a possible hour of silence with a stranger!

My journey to becoming a counselor began many years before that summer. At age 17, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Fearful of speaking to my parents about it, I took myself off to the general practitioner surgery where I was prescribed Propanolol. The doctor was my mother’s own doctor when she was pregnant with me and thus he had always treated me as an extension of a family friend. By just giving me some pills, he managed to cement my idea that I was broken and needed to be fixed. It was only after I hated the pills (initially I hated the idea of them, but then I disliked the way they made me feel) that he suggested I look into counseling, which ironically made me feel even more broken. I didn’t know anything about counseling then, other than what I’d seen in films about psychoanalysis and that scared me. I made the appointment over the phone in my friend’s bedroom and ended up sneaking out of school every week for eight sessions of CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy.

I’ve been in and out of counseling ever since. My style of therapist and senses of accomplishment have varied, as have the labels I have acquired from different professionals. I’ve stomped my feet every step of the way. I’ve been angry at the system, angry at not feeling heard, angry at feeling that my age prevented me from being taken seriously. I’ve disagreed with nearly every label and fallen out with nearly every therapist. But I can’t argue that they’ve helped get me here. I can’t say they hindered me -just that it’s been an uphill battle. My counseling history has helped me now find therapists that I enjoy and taught me how to feel comfortable in my own practice for my own clients.

I began my course angry with the way the system worked, thinking that if only I could get my foot through the door with a qualification, I could attack it from the inside and perhaps gain a greater understanding about how people fall through the net or get left behind. I could help bridge the gap. I could help make this system work.

I’m still angry and I still want to change the system. However, when I was asked why I wanted to do my course, I originally refused to give this reason, because I thought it would be mocked or seen as naive. Whilst I can still see the possible naïveté in it, I don’t believe I could continue to do this job without that anger, without that strong desire to make sustainable mental health more accessible.

So it’s ok to be angry.

It’s also ok for me to say goodbye to my course. The three years have gone by in the longest blink. I notice in my client work, I’m always aware of making sure it’s okay for my clients to leave at the end of a session; can they return to the real world as their outside selves? I really value the time it may take them to put their outside faces back on and slip back into who they need to be. I’ve done this. I’ve cried my tears. My makeup is fixed. I’m okay to leave.

I’ve said before that I think this course is really more a driving test; I’m only going to learn to drive once I’ve passed. I have a whole new journey ahead of me to discover just what type of counselor I really am, once the reins have been cut. I’m really excited to start.

That first reading was right. This course has been testing and it has completely restructured how I view the world around me. But I think what it’s taught me most is to be my own anchor. Whilst Lucy is a wonderful companion to come home to and ride a train with, it’s me that I take everywhere I go. She cannot physically sit in a therapy room with me, although I can channel the self I provide to her to be the self I try to provide to my clients. But it’s me that I need to be able to rely upon – my knowledge and control of my selves that I need to have faith in. This has been difficult when also factoring in a long-term illness that means my body might not always be able to be relied upon and brain fog is never too far away. But I’ve done it. I’m here.

I’m ready to leave. I’m ready to pass. I’m ready to support my clients through their own versions of this journey. I’m also ready to continue learning in my own way. After seven years of university, I’m ready to let go of the ‘trainee’ title and embrace the ‘professional’ one.

 

Why a Psychotherapist?

At the end of one of our sessions, a client apologized to me for leaving me with all of their problems. This wasn’t the first time a client has apologized to me for this and I’m sure it won’t be the last. We were running out of time and my rushed response became a garbled, “Oh please don’t worry about it, this is my job.” I heard the words come out of my mouth and immediately hated them.

I should have taken them back, but I didn’t. I kept quiet because it was the end of our session and there wasn’t time to discuss this in depth and I needed to get ready for my next client. I heard the phrase, “this is my job” as it came out of my mouth and thought about what it would sound like to my client: this is my job, to listen to other people’s fears and complications. This is what I do all day, and often the only thing I want to do all day. What does that make me sound like? What type of a person wants to wade through a stranger’s misery day after day? I want to say it’s because I want to help. I think I can help.

Given the opportunity to think about it, I would have liked to have offered a short summary of how listening to their problems is what I am trained to do, that I have my own supervision and therapy I can go to if anything said to me became too much. But I would have reiterated that the space is theirs to use as they wish, as am I. There’s a part of me that wants to reassure and rescue, to reiterate how much I love my job and remind them that they aren’t burdening me with anything. But that’s not necessarily what my clients are asking. And to say they are not a burden may suggest that their problems are not as heavy to me as they feel to them, which would also be a lie.

There’s a really fine line between taking what my clients tell me and holding it in the room instead of taking what they tell me home. To hold it in the room is to do my job to support my client. Not letting it leave the room and taking it home is my job as part of supporting my own self-care. But to explicitly describe this feels clinical. Telling someone that I am sitting with them because it is my job feels superficial, as though the time they spend with me is simply a paycheck — which could not be further from the truth.

In reality, when it does get heavy, I will measure how the heaviness is affecting me and discuss that with my supervisor. I will discuss it (anonymously and confidentially, with no identifying details) with my peers and I may practice the different responses I might try in the next session in a role play. I may look for extra readings, I may work out a little more in the gym, or buy an extra bottle of wine and binge watch something on Netflix. I will endeavor to bring up how I’m feeling with my client because it may be something that they themselves have been struggling to name and my opening up might help empower them to name their own emotions. I might stomp my feet a little and berate the way the world works. I will always return to the room, to the client and sit in the muddy puddle of whatever emotion feels most overwhelming. I will bear witness and I will try my hardest to hold because that is my job – that is what I am there to do.

In truth, I believe without a doubt that this is what I am supposed to be doing. So yes, it’s ok that you tell me everything you’re worried about, everything you don’t like or even your deepest fears and your most superficial ones. Because it is my job, but also because it’s what I love doing; because it’s what I believe is my life’s purpose; because if there is some divine providence somewhere that’s dictating my life story, “Listener” is scribbled all over my book’s cover.

I would love to tell my clients just how privileged I feel to be able to listen to what they wish to tell me; how lucky I feel to know that I can make a living out of something I believe in; how yes, this is my job, but it’s also my calling; how actually, they may be giving me far more than I could ever give them back.

 

 

Contour Queen: The Power Of Makeup Revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called “Send In The Clowns”. As a photography student who was enthralled by feminism and bodily autonomy, I captured my thoughts on makeup through a series of pictures that expressed my confusion- whether weaing makeup was feminist or not. Two years on, I would’ve never thought that my makeup journey would have progressed this much, and my thoughts around feminism related to makeup have finally become clear.

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I’ve had to defend my choice to wear makeup amongst feminist circles countless times, which was disheartening, to say the least, when I started out experimenting with makeup. I’ve always seen makeup as a form of self-care, so to be met with negativity (especially from people I looked up to) made me question whether I was damaging my feminist integrity.

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I can’t say when the turning point was. I just stopped caring. I slowly began to realise that I loved what makeup could do for me, and starting owning it. Being a perfectionist, I would spend hours upon hours replicating beautiful looks I’d seen, getting frustrated when I couldn’t get it 100% right. However, slowly but surely, I started getting it “right”. I didn’t have to meticulously plan out every look I was doing the night before, making sure I had all the right palettes ready for me to start first thing in the morning. It was so empowering.

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I still had thoughts that were harmful to myself and others around me; maybe I was better without makeup on, more natural, maybe I would be seen as intimidating to others by having strong brows and bold lips. Was I supporting an industry that makes it’s money by tearing women’s self-confidence down, telling them that a blemish is the end of the world, and that no one will love them if they have chubby cheeks? After some tough talks with myself, I came to realise that it was the intention behind my cosmetic obsession that what was really mattered in my personal journey. I wore makeup as an extension of my personality, as a creative outlet, and as part of a self-care routine; and identifying this felt profoundly feminist. 18579307_1898696840350555_2027954573_n

From this long and exhausting journey, I started to love my own skin. I became aware of why my skin would break out, and learnt to forgive myself for mistakes. I became more conscious on what would give me the best value for money in regards to what products I was buying, and hugely boosted my creativity. I stepped out of my comfort zone, and reaped the benefits of it. As I realised that I was good at what I do, I was being told that I looked confident, and I felt it.

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I have become aware of the flaws in the beauty industry. I try not to ignorant. I give advice where I can, and I learn as much as possible. I dedicated my Instagram to purely makeup (give it look here), and I practiced, practiced, practiced. I write makeup pieces for Rosewater. But most importantly, I feel confident, inside and out. This weird and wonderful art of makeup has allowed me to embody the sharpness of my eyeliner wings, the glow of my highlight, and the holographic wonder of my glitter. And even after a long, hard, exhausting day, if my cheekbones are contoured sharp enough to kill a man, it’s all worth it.

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A Catcalling Story

Catcalling has increasingly become a mainstay in my life. I’m not sure whether it’s the colder weather or simply the fact that my moving off campus has made my time on public transportation increase exponentially, but it seems nearly everyday I can’t escape the unwanted attention. I can’t differentiate between the innocent hellos and the gateway conversation progressing into an uncomfortable territory.

Everyone has a catcalling story. The most impactful story for me occurred during one of the many times I missed the shuttle to the metro station. I decided to brave the 12 minute walk to the station as my feet and back weren’t yet at the point where they ached due to the weight of my too heavy tote bag or my black heeled boots. Walking down Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC is always interesting as one passes through the mixture of students, faculty, people waiting or the bus, street vendors, and those hanging around, everyone soaking up the atmosphere of faint GoGo music and construction work. As I was walking past a corner store with my earphones in, but not playing anything, two men having a conversation on the side of the street stopped to say hello. I gave a small nod and continued on my way, just wanting to make it to a train leaving the city. As I passed one of the men made an “oh” sound and asked for my number. My face warmed and I flinched, about to look back, but remembering that replying in any way was more trouble than it was worth. One girl, who I assumed was still in high school due to her backpack and khaki pants ,must have sensed my slight panic. As I continued to pass, much slower and more visibly uncomfortable she whispered “just keep walking.” I whispered back a “thank you” and continued down the street. Luckily, the man had no more words for me.

What this young woman did was one of the nicest things a bystander could have done at that point. In that situation I felt alone and embarrassed. What that simple phrase did was assure me that I wasn’t alone and that someone was paying attention and gave me a reminder that the best thing to do for myself is to keep moving. I had never had anyone do that for me, and I have never done that for another woman, but I will now.

I want to thank that girl again, even though she most likely won’t read this. Thank you, that small act brightened my day and encouraged me to help others. It reminded me that even during times I feel alone, I am connected. May bystanders continue to be brave in face of  crappy catcalling.

An Open Life

I had been foolish, once again, to let my heart be torn open by men.

My mother had warned me about this once. Strict, autocratic, with a tinge of neuroticism dyed into her every nerve, she had ruled over my household with an iron fist. No wonder – she had escaped communist China with her family, shattered but alive. She had seen the horrors of war. There was no room for romanticism in a world that required survival. She had always talked about marriage in a practical way – marry rich, ensure a caretaker for your children and keep your bank accounts separate in case he ends up betraying you, as men are wont to do.

This was and still is the antithesis of my very nature. As a child, I started to rebel against the narrow guidelines of an Asian-American culture that my fellow first-generation children know quite well, in search of freedom where I felt there was none. Instead of math, I relished art and literature, consuming books by the dozen. In high school, when I was supposed to be studying economics and business, I worked for our theater department by day, then wrote short stories and plays by night.

Predictably, my mother and I clashed over my freewheeling approach to life. This included my relationships with other people. “Don’t give your trust so easily,” she advised, “and keep your heart not on your sleeve but firmly in your chest. Always smile. Keep a check on your temper. Never, never let people know how you really feel.” (And men – men, they will always hurt you.)

In all my loyalty to my truest of selves, I always balked at her advice. I hated wearing false masks, shunning duty for passion. People were something I felt unduly passionate about. As a writer, I understood that everyone possessed good and evil, that everyone was capable of hurting and being hurt. What was the point of human relationships if you couldn’t open yourselves to others and let everything good or bad in?

Of course, this approach has hurt me, time and time again. One may think I am masochistic for opening up my heart only to have its fragile contents trampled. I myself have wondered if it was foolish of me not to heed my mother’s warnings.

But I remind myself that life hurts. Life includes pain. I should feel so lucky, perhaps, to feel pain and be alive or to feel anger and fight for the things I believe in. It isn’t easy to concede that point, not after a good thing has started to crumble, and especially not after having to unstitch and unwind two lives that were deeply connected for two years, but here it is – I’m alive despite the pain.

And to be honest, pain and heartbreak has helped inform my writing and my art. I wouldn’t ever support the notion that artists must be emotionally tortured or clinically depressed to be successful but to know the depths of pain is just as important as knowing the depths of happiness in order to taste all the multitudinous colors of experience that we’re granted. It has allowed me to humanize others, to widen my understanding of humanity, and to search for solutions that benefit people I’ve never met. It reminds me that life is never a simple, straight line, but instead a road full of twists and tumbles. That to truly live fully, we must embrace all of its curves.

When I went to film school for college, my mother and I again fought viciously over my choices. Of course, she had wanted me to follow my sister into the world of finance, where the paychecks would be large and I would have no want for money, namely an easy and happy life. Art would afford me no comfortable life. In her mind, if I followed my sister, I could retire by age fifty and make art then, travel then, be happy then. It’s a sentiment that I would imagine is oft repeated to children of immigrants: toil now, reap the rewards later.

While that’s an honorable way to live, the more she suggested it to me, the more I resisted. No, I can’t make art later, when I’m fifty. I have to make it now, to save the parts of me that nothing else can save. Financial struggle is something I’m familiar with. It’s life without art that sounds inconsolable to me.

Of course I understood why she had been so insistent on my finding a financially lucrative career – after having a home and a life ripped away from her at age nine, then leaving everything for a new country where she didn’t speak the language, she had experienced poverty on the harshest of levels and didn’t want me to have to do the same. My mother didn’t want all of her sacrifices to be in vain.

“You”, she said, “you have had it easy here in America. You don’t know how much life really hurts.”

I thought of all the moments that had caused me pain in my life. Of all the friends who left me behind, all the lovers who said, “No” and thought me unworthy of love. Of all the mental illness caused by being raised by a mother who bordered on it herself. Anxiety, emotional dysfunction, neuroses caused by a war –  who could name them all?

“Yes”, I said, “I do.”

 

The Brooklyn Conflict 

They made my hometown common knowledge said Calel 

on the back of the Dragon Deluxe Bus 

15 bucks 

And some guts 


And you in New York City for the price of a movie ticket 

Or 15 bags of them bags that used to be 25 cents

They got the nerve to make the bags bigger but just add more air 

But yeah 

They made my hometown common knowledge

Trendy bike path paving, organic food stores placing 

reusable bags toting, common knowledge  

Peeping at me behind glass like I don’t belong on the streets that scraped and shaped my knees  

In between sips of agave sweetened tea or some coconut water in a BPA free can,

my favorites. 

-Amani O+

amanipoet.com

The Power of Pee

Tonight is the third night in a row I have left the support center I volunteer at once a week, needing to pee. There is a perfectly acceptable bathroom that I have access to before I leave, but I never use it. There is always this little voice in my head, as I watch the minutes crawl to the hour when I can leave that whispers, “At least this way if anyone does attack you on your way home, you can pee on them.”

I am reminded of a drunk driving course I had to take in high school in which the woman leading it told us all not to bother asking our speeding friends to slow down, but simply to threaten that we were about to vomit because no self-respecting speed dragon would ever wish to ruin their upholstery. This was directed at all of us, regardless of gender, when she said it. I remember being shocked and then impressed by how simple a threat it would be to carry out. Of course, nobody likes vomit on their upholstery; that’s expensive and time-consuming to clean up. Equally so, vomiting is a bodily function we don’t always have control over. Nobody could blame you if you did vomit due to fear of speed, you wouldn’t necessarily evoke the label of ‘wuss’ in the same way as you might if you cried. Vomit is more serious and much more unsettling than tears.

As I leave the building that’s located in a small cul-de-sac just off a busy main road littered with takeaways, pubs and bus stops, I keep my head down as I head to my car. My hair is always down – no ponytail, no extra allure to grab onto – my hands are dug into my pockets and my phone is always speed-dialing my mother or my boyfriend, usually on speakerphone. I used to live in a dodgy neighborhood, two cities ago, where being followed was almost a rite of passage one should expect to go through, especially if one is female and in her twenties. I used to be able to escape to the local grocery store where there was a security guard on the door if it happened back there, or I could call one of my male housemates to come and meet me at the end of the street. Here I live alone and whilst there are several pubs along the road, there are plenty more dark alleyways without security roaming.

It never takes me any more than about 100 steps to get to my car. I always arrive early to scope the closest parking spot. Every night, as I take a big deep breath before I leave the building, I wonder what life would be like if I felt safe in my skin, in my gender, in the patriarchy that fills me with terror every time I leave my door. What would it be like if I didn’t hold my breath every time someone walks too closely behind me in the street, if I didn’t panic dial my partner whenever I get off the bus in the dark, or even if I could tie my hair back without thinking about it.

What could I be accomplishing if I wasn’t worrying about my bladder and whether or not I need to use it as a weapon? What on earth makes me think that if I’d peed before, I’d have been protected by urine?

It’s a topic I would never bring up to my co-workers, although I know they fear unlocked doors at work and feel uncertain of the giant, dark old building we work in. I don’t think it’s something I’d feel comfortable discussing with my friends either, not because I think it would be met with derision, but rather because I think it would be met with understanding. The fact that someone could understand me thinking of using my bladder as protection, that it might not be such an unreasonable idea to forego using the bathroom, this might make the world outside seem just too scary for me to bear.

Because if even that chance, that shock, that minute of horror could give me an opportunity to escape, to protect myself, I might never use a bathroom again.

Misgendering Freedom 

Beauty in a box.

Comes with a secret

Deep in the lining of her packaging

She conceals the origins of her birth

Fearing a discovery that destroys the facade and sends some running for the hills of normalcy

See a person

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Mahodd Harvin IG: @savant_of_art

I look at you and see a collection of body parts that translate into pronouns.

Gawdamnit

I know nothing.

Learn More

Love Fierce

Don’t just “see a Person”

See Light

See Unity

Union

Hope

Purpose

Wisdom

and Experience

Call them Freedom

-Amani O+

amanipoet.com

How Nightline Saved Me

Nightline Awareness Week runs this year from the 14th-20th November. This annual national campaign  seeks to raise awareness of the student-run, student-led Nightline services. These non-directory information and listening services offer anonymous and confidential peer-support (without advice) and are managed on University campuses all over the UK and Republic Of Ireland via phone lines, Instant Messaging, Text Messaging, Email and Skype.  Nightline Awareness Week celebrates the students who strive to keep these services open 7 nights a week during their host University term-times.

University Mental Health comes under relentless fire as we continue to battle student suicide, self-harm, and rising levels of mental illness amid funding cuts and other priorities. The importance of breaking down the barriers that surround these taboo subjects remains as paramount as ever, and the determination required to stand up and tackle these obstacles can seem insurmountable. This is evermore so true in today’s political climate. With Trump and Brexit reigning, the importance of standing true to our own beliefs, of tackling the bitter-tasting and ever-pervasive fear surrounding us head on is now key to our survival.

I first heard of Nightline whilst attending a University Open Day before leaving high school. There was a huge banner flying over one of the Student Unions; it was of the brightest blue and it seemed to wave so welcomingly at me. I couldn’t wait for a chance to sign up. It wasn’t until my second year when I finally got to apply. I was living in a house that terrified me, watching someone I cared about self-medicate away daylight,  desperately looking for a moment that would allow my voice to count for something.
In this desperation, I sought to make a difference somewhere, to someone. If I couldn’t save this friend, there must be someone out there I could save; somebody I could be of use to.

The basic listening skills that I learnt as part of my local service team, the hours I spent on that hotline after dark, the camaraderie I felt working belonging to that team; those experiences are priceless. I learnt to listen in a way that could be empowering to my speaker. I learnt that being able to talk openly about deepest fears without a restriction of judgement is a skill of immense strength, and something humanity will always need.  The thrill of doing something you believe to be so incredibly worthwhile made all those sleepless nights addictive. I’ve since worked on other hotlines, in other countries, with differing core values and differing policies, but nothing has ever come close to working with those hard-working twenty-somethings, who believe they have the power to change the world. That drive, that passion, that absolute loyalty to the cause is hard-earned and thoroughly  deserved; this team is out saving the world every night! Their work is making humanity just that little bit kinder. Their listening ears and empathetic responses are opening worlds of possibilities that may never have been seen before.

I’ve been thinking recently about a publicity night I ran a few years ago. It was the last night out before Christmas and we’d taken the mascot and a handful of volunteers to the most popular club with the stickiest of carpets (everyone has one). I’d just managed to retrieve our kidnapped mascot and had helped to barter for the head back with some sweets the Christian Union were handing out. I was beginning to question every life choice that had led me into this situation, when I could have been out dancing with my friends, or — even better — been at home in my pjs with hot chocolate and a Disney movie.
I ended up outside in the smoking area, trying to raise morale with our mascot when I was barrelled into by a complete stranger who threw her arms around me, collapsed into tears and shouted “Nightline saved my life, thank you!”
Suddenly, every life choice made sense.
The truth is, Nightline has seen me from that terrified 19-year-old who just wanted to make a difference all the way through to the 25-year-old trainee psychotherapist who is still convinced that one day she will save the world; one day she will make that difference. Every job I’ve had since training has always seemed to come back to that one decision. My late-application for my place on my Counselling and Psychotherapy course was fueled and supported by the hotline work I’d been involved with. I channel the confidence I gained working on hotlines every time I step through that Therapist Office door and sit in the chair that monitors the clock. It’s that confidence and the belief in those skills learned that has taken me back through the doors of a University Counselling Service this time as a service provider, instead of a service user. For me, it all began with Nightline.
And I am reminded that it’s alright to want to save the world, it’s alright to save just one person, and it’s really alright if the one person I save is me.
 nlaw-short-poster

To follow the Nightline Awareness Week Campaign, please follow the Tagboard, found here: https://tagboard.com/NLBreakTheSilence/search

If you would like to learn more about the work Nightline does and to find a Nightline service in your area, please follow this link: http://www.nightline.ac.uk

Image credit: Nightline Association

Welcome To Existence

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Protest/Vigil Summer16 Jamel Mosely
You can make a me out of the most mundane things,

like dream

and drink and gravitational pull

and rotational calls

from beyond and forward reality

Flowing not Forcing. 
Not clasping hands around the direction of your own reflection

if it be going it’s own way

Some need halt it.

Some need crush and curse and thirst

to fault it.

To control it

no.

No!

No matter. 

“I”s can’t keep “we”s from where we are supposed to be. 

Loosened

Freed,

What might we Be,

Beneath the harshness

Dare Breathe

to,

Dream Free

to,

Just Leave.

Yet.

Something always brings me back.

For you.

And the ways that “I”s makes “We”saireals

and grow communities

Like gardens,

Here fallen,

Feeling you,

Holden

to a reinterpretation of time and sound

Song

Auld Lang on repeat like the seasons

Like

Snowflake, raindrops and a crystallized present tense

Us and we and you to share

like candy

Pristine, wrapped and proper

and sloppier than planning

A mess

A fragile beautiful mess,

each of us.

Ever strong in our malleability. 

Sculpted from the crust of imagination

Drenched in bottomless possibility.

Flourished in flow and synchronicity.

Welcome Home. 

-Amani O+ 

amanipoet.com