Check Under the Hood?

When I was a young boy in the 1950s and early 60s we still had full service filling stations (that’s what we called gas stations, in case you didn’t know). And each time someone drove up and parked beside the gas pump the attendant would come out and ask, “Shall I check under the hood?”

If the driver answered in the affirmative the filling station attendant would raise the car’s hood (most cars had hoods that opened from the outside then), check the oil and the radiator along with pumping gas and wiping the windshield. Invariably, he would find that the car needed about a quart of oil, and he was happy to accommodate the driver (and add that to his/her bill).

My father taught me early on not to pay attention to the station attendant’s measurement of the car’s oil, since (he said) it takes about 15 minutes for oil to drain back into a measurable place in the crankcase after the engine has been running for a while. In other words, expect that you will always appear to need some oil if you take the measurement at the wrong time; in truth, if you added oil at that point you would likely be overfilling the crankcase.

We all know the truth of a matter, and how things appear, can be quite different, don’t we?

I was reminded of this today as I arranged to take my Toyota Corolla to a dealership for a safety recall repair. I am seldom pleased when dealing with car dealerships of any kind; I suppose there is good reason for the negative stigma they carry.

The dealership was impressive: well manicured lawns, immaculate buildings, shiny new cars, even glimmering pavement in the service area where you drive in. The signage was absolutely gorgeous, and the uniforms worn by employees colorful and attractive. The opulence was everywhere.

But . . . the service was less . . . much less than first rate. The appointment I had made on the phone seemed to make no difference whatsoever; the person I had been told to ask for was not even at work today, and the schedule did not allow for the service I had been promised. [By the way, I can tell you that they made some changes and finally did accommodate me in the end].

The opulent exterior of the dealership in no way represented the way things actually were once you were “under the hood.”

I was reminded of this same phenomenon early this morning as it was announced on the radio that almost all of the eleven Atlanta Public School officials indicted in a cheating scandal had taken the deal offered them by the prosecution, i.e. to admit guilt, and agree to a $5,000 fine, and community service.

Needless to say, school children were harmed in all this craziness, too. But adequate payment for that loss . . . well . . . can that even be quantified? The teachers and administrators involved in the scandal just wanted student test scores to look good to state and national officials, so they doctored them a bit. The lie looked good on the surface, but underneath, it was what it was – a lie.

I am no doomsayer, but . . . I don’t see our society growing into a better and more loving collection of communities. It could be argued that we exhibit more moral devolution than evolution. Ask yourself how many of our national leaders you trust.

We are no longer even shocked when we hear of scandals involving actors, entertainers, athletes, politicians, academicians, religious leaders, corporations, non-profits, etc. Or even . . . the neighbors down the street.

We have come to expect that there are numberless closets with countless skeletons hanging in them. If we don’t know of any scandal in a given situation, we suspect it is just because it has not yet come to light.

We have become dyed-in-the-wool cynics.

Now you may point out that the gas station attendant in my childhood story was exhibiting some dishonesty as he wiped the dipstick and reinserted it into the crankcase to measure the oil level before it had time to settle. And you would probably be right. [Although, I must add that any attendant worth his salt in those days would allow some margin in his assessment for that very reason; not everyone was dishonest. In addition, he would show the dipstick markings to the customer, and let him/her make the decision.]

Granted, what is truly “under the hood” has been a challenge for human beings since man first walked the earth. Humans migrate toward the shiny exterior; we like to dress up the outside even if the inside is going rotten. It’s in our hard wiring, our DNA (if you will).

That may be one reason why we have embraced the fitness rage in our country. We are enamored of beautiful bodies, and we will do almost anything to . . . .

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” [I’m getting onto myself, because I am really interested in fitness and looking good – even in my old age. Ha!]

I don’t mean to start a war here. I just want to say this: “Look at the way we emphasize the importance of how things APPEAR, as opposed to how they really ARE.”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” a 12th century cleric has said. But I would add that it did not fall in a day either. There was a gradual disintegration.

It crumbled from the inside.

When the inside of something is rotten; that is, when the outside of a thing is not representative of what is truly on the inside . . . there will come a moment when the truth emerges out of the subterfuge. I have seen it happen in my own life, and have witnessed it in countless others.

So, what is truly “under the hood” in our society? Shall we check? If so, we must do so one person at a time.

The answer will be found in your own heart.

Here is the procedure:

  • Sit quietly (for at least 15 minutes; to allow your inner oils to drain into the crankcase)
  • Use an accurate dipstick (one you’ve wiped clean of past stains)
  • Add adequate SAE approved lubricant as needed

Let’s make sure we spend at least as much time making our insides look good as we do making our outsides look good.

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Finish Line

We celebrated Easter yesterday!

We not only had beautiful flowers in the house and in the yard, but we hid brightly colored plastic eggs (candy filled) for the grandchildren to find, entertained guests for a late lunch (egg casserole, bacon, fried potatoes, biscuits, fresh fruit salad, and a variety of muffins and cakes etc.), and had pleasant conversation with family and friends while the kids played outdoors.

Thankfully, we ate that sleep-inducing food after attending church (trying to stay awake in any public gathering subsequent to that meal would have been impossible), where we celebrated the resurrection with hundreds of others in our brand new church location.

As my readers know, I am cautious about using this blog to promote or discuss religious beliefs (I have another blog where I present those kinds of thoughts, http://www.thegodstory.wordpress.com), and so I am not writing today with any agenda of that sort in mind.

Nevertheless, the season of Spring, the gorgeous Easter Sunday following the blood moon, the television shows discussing Jesus, the brightly colored candy and decorations in stores, as well as the sixth anniversary of my father’s death (on April 9) . . . have gotten me to thinking about the one aspect of all our life stories that is seldom discussed.

The End.

Or . . . as I was thinking of it, today . . . the Finish Line.

Everyone will experience it: believers and unbelievers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. There is an end for us all, a finish line (if you will) that we must cross. It matters not whether you see this line as just a transition to another state of being, or whether you see it as a true END of existence in any form. Either way, it is a line we must all cross.

And for all parties concerned, those with a professed faith, and those without any professed faith, that line is drawn at the same place: death.

A friend of mine lost her husband of 40 years last week; he was 73 years old. We attended his funeral, offered what comfort we could, then went on with our lives – only, we were slightly more aware of the fact that we, too, would one day be crossing the same line he had crossed. For him, it was no longer just a concept; rather, an experience.

Much is made of the final words of Jesus as he hung on the cross: “It is finished.”

Theologians, of course, have provided various interpretations of his intent in those final words. What exactly was finished? His life? His mission? His agony? His ________?

The truth is, we will all say, “It is finished.” We may not say the words, because we may not be able to do so. But we will all say it with our passing; we will all finish.

What concerns me is not whether or not I’ll finish; rather, how well I will finish.

I was never a very fast runner. But decades ago, when I used to run regularly, my friends and I trained to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. We had run some 5K and 10K races, and had run from East Memphis all the way down Poplar Avenue to the Mississippi River in Downtown Memphis, timing our run so we could arrive downtown just in time to run in a 15K Oktoberfest race, all in preparation for the coming marathon.

Clearly . . . I was much younger then.

I will never forget the excitement (and the pain) as I crossed the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC in November 1983. The Marine Corps band was playing “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along” at that poignant moment, just over 4 hours after an 80mm howitzer had signaled the start of the race.

I go back to that memory whenever I experience hard times, and I recall the pain I felt, the prescribed Butazolidine (race horse medicine, now illegal) not quite equal to the task of taking away the pain caused by my tendon as it struck an inflamed bursa sac with each and every step.

But – I finished. And it was glorious!

And what of your life’s 26.2 miles? The marathon you are in?

For we are all in a race of sorts, are we not? Our purpose. Our intention. Our mission. Our agony.

As human beings we share this together. This human . . . race, we sometimes call it. Will you finish well?

I watched my father finish his race 6 years ago. Then I watched my mother cross her finish line 2 1/2 years ago. They finished well. Brave, resigned, lucid, and prepared . . . they embraced their “ending” with aplomb. I have watched as close friends have broken the tape at their respective finish lines, and passed to the other side; it is awesome to witness the end of a life lived well.

Sometimes it is as if the musical score of our lives gives us a chance to repeat an important musical phrase when it instructs us as follows: D.S. al fine, i.e. go back to the Sign, then proceed to the End.

But proceed to the End we must. Eventually, we all cross that line.

The message of Easter, of course, is that endings can be deceiving, that finish lines are sometimes starting lines in disguise, that there is a fine line between graduation and commencement.

Just my musings. I know.

But I do think about these things a great deal now. And when my own race ends . . . and I cross my finish line . . . I hope to raise my hands high above my head, press my chest against the tape, and burst into whatever awaits me on the other side.

I expect there to be a crowd cheering. And I expect to hear a band playing my favorite military song about the caissons. You see, fifteen years ago I received my instructions: D.S. al fine. I went back to the Sign, and repeated the phrase. Now I am bound for my finish line.

With aplomb.

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The Ring

Fifteen years ago my marriage was in a shambles. I had done 24 years of damage to our relationship and, as Malcolm X said regarding JFK’s assassination, “the chickens” had “finally come home to roost.”

We were at a breaking point, several events serving as the final catalysts of our destruction; we were headed for divorce.

We had just celebrated our 24th anniversary when some secret damning information came to light; the demise of our relationship was on the horizon, and I started to plan the way I would explain our separation to friends.

I won’t bore you with the sordid details, but suffice it to say I gained some valuable insights in the ensuing weeks; these came from conversations with friends (both past and present) as well as strangers in a support group I had joined. The crumbling marriage held together somehow, and we began to make slow progress toward restitution.

In my support group I was given literature to read, and in the process of reading I came across a phrase that stopped me in my tracks. It was “commitment of permanency.” When I read the phrase I realized it was something I had never had in my marriage. I did not even know how to be fully committed, fully invested, totally involved in any relationship.

As I began to learn more about myself, and face the deleterious behaviors I had embraced, I realized that “commitment of permanency” was a quality I aspired to possess, and I set my mind and heart to the task.

My wife had given me back her wedding band in disgust. So . . . unbeknownst to her, I carried it in my front right pants pocket each day; it rested inside the circle of my own wedding band (which I had removed as well), symbolically encompassed by my protection, my love, my new commitment.

Symbols are interesting things. Clearly, they are not the substance which they represent,  and they can be as hollow as empty words. On the other hand . . . they can be as powerful as a battle flag that rallies the troops, or a shiny badge that carries with it the whole vested authority of a sovereign nation.

I took my chosen symbol seriously. I carried those two rings, one encircling the other, for many weeks. Because for me, it was significant that I learn how to shield, guard, prize, cherish, and encompass my chosen bride. I was reminded of the framed counted cross stitch we had been given at our wedding; it read,

“Choose Thy Love. Love Thy Choice.”

I could not afford a diamond engagement ring when we were planning to be married (39 years ago now), and as the years passed it seemed a needless expense. But a decade and one-half ago I made that a new priority. I picked out a diamond ring, surreptitiously paid on it for six months, then planned the special way I would present it on our 25th anniversary in Charleston, SC.

After we recited our marriage vows to one another, we exchanged rings (except that I had secretly replaced her wedding band with the new diamond ring for this occasion). It served to mark an anniversary that would not have happened at all had I not honored the new reality those rings symbolized in my heart.

Our relationship has steadily improved since those days. Now we are true partners. Not perfect, mind you. But best of friends, nonetheless.

And it all began . . . with a ring.

I was just reminded of all this today as I listened to Craig Groeschel talk about the book, “From This Day Forward.”

And I was prompted to write this brief synopsis of my experience with rings, because – in a very real sense, by all accounts, our story should have ended 15 years ago.

But it did not.

A large ring surrounded a smaller ring. And in that nested place of refuge a new relationship was born. The never ending circle of the ring tells the tale, and symbolizes the beauty that can be found – in the refusal to ever give up.

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The Bourne Veracity

Matt Damon may once again breathe life into his alter ego, Jason Bourne. A 2016 release date has been mentioned, but it is still unclear if production will happen at all, so don’t get too excited just yet. Nevertheless, if you are a Bourne fan it’s hard not to get at least a tiny thrill out of the idea of this proposed sequel.

This is due, in part, to the excellent acting of Matt Damon who seems to grace every movie he is in with a unique flair that is his and his alone. But the Robert Ludlum stories are classic in their own right, so the two go hand-in-hand to produce an unbeatable package.

Some think the name “Bourne” is a reference to 19th century Ansel Bourne whose “dissociative fugue” (loss of identity and memory) became famous in psychological circles, but it is hard to establish this with any certainty, although it sounds quite plausible to me.

I must admit that when I woke up this morning and lay quietly in bed the word “bourne” came to mind. But I was not thinking of the movie; rather, the phrase from Hamlet, i.e. “from whose bourn no traveler returns . . . .”

That is, I was thinking about my mother and father, both departed from this world.

“Bourne” means boundary, limit, goal, or destination [evidently, bourne and bourn are the same word with a variant spelling]. And Shakespeare’s reference in Hamlet’s soliloquy is clearly describing death, that “undiscovered country” from which visitors never return. And I woke up this morning thinking, “where are they?”

The thought is not a new one for me, of course. It visits me regularly.

Religious faith offers some answers to this question, of course. But it is devoid of the kind of detail I seek. Well meaning persons can sometimes pontificate on the subject, but in the final analysis their words often lack credibility.

So, what assurances are we left with? Can our departed loved ones see us? Do they care about what happens on earth? Can they offer assistance to us in difficult situations? [The questions are endless].

Friends and relatives of mine who are of the atheistic persuasion believe that when you die you are “like Rover, dead all over” (as the preachers used to say when I was a boy). And my intention in writing this today is not to argue that point. It is merely to make some observations about which I’ve been thinking.

When life departs from a person, I mean the moment the last breath is drawn . . . the soberness of the moment is astounding; the silence is deafening. The moment is sacred even if the departed one is not someone you know.

But if you know the man or woman, or if you are a close friend or family member, the moment of his/her passing has a gravity that rivals Jupiter; you may gasp for air or even grow faint. And if you are not affected in this kind of way you will, no doubt, find that your emotions are arrested, held captive by the momentous event you have just witnessed.

Something monumental has occurred. Of that, there is no doubt.

Is it simply because every person is important to someone else? And so we instinctively and naturally respond with compassion when someone departs this earth, even if we don’t know him/her?

Or is it that the gift of life itself is so unbelievably valuable to us that we agonize over its passing whenever we see it go?

My father crossed a boundary almost 6 years ago, a bourne from which he has not returned. My mother reached that same destination 2 1/2 years ago, and I have not seen her since. Others relatives and close friends have made that same journey. Either they have gone nowhere and have simply ceased to exist, or they have passed into an alternate state and will eventually reappear in another form in the circle of life, or . . . they have indeed reached a destination, crossed a boundary, entered a realm with a one-way door – and they are there now.

[BTW, Christian people find it all-important that Jesus crossed this same boundary and yet returned; this is the bedrock of their faith. My parents shared this faith, as do I.]

Life is so sacred. Relationships so precious. Living is an invaluable gift. Existence such a privilege. Awareness is priceless.

I cannot conceive of it just ending. Everything in me finds sonority, enjoys resonance, when I entertain thoughts of a life after this one. Does that prove anything about where my parents currently reside? Of course not.

But it is consonant.

After all, if Jason Bourne can be resurrected for another episode . . . anything is possible. In fact, it would seem inconceivable . . . if he did not return.

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Waiting . . . for Snowfall

Many businesses are closed today. Schools are playing it safe, too. After all, just one year ago Atlanta was inundated with a winter storm that snarled traffic literally for “days” and the Governor (and other officials) were given a sound verbal thrashing by stranded citizens and parents of school children who had to spend untold hours on their school buses.

So today, they are playing it close to the chest (so to speak). “It’s coming,” they say. But the forecast is changing slightly. Now it looks like more rain than anything else. And it may come later than expected.

And I am home, too; the job I was supposed to go to today was canceled late last night. Of course, there are always things to do. But . . . I am still left in somewhat of a holding pattern – like a jet airplane waiting its turn to land or on a runway waiting in a long line of planes for take off.

Waiting disrupts everything.

And in the end you want the waiting to have been worth something, don’t you? Almost to the extent that even if you are waiting on another Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse (as some termed it last year) you find yourself disappointed if it does not occur. Then we accost the meteorologists, deriding their computerized weather models, and vowing never to trust them again. At least . . . until the next time a weather disaster is predicted.

Instead of being glad we were made safe, and no weather disaster occurred, we are angry that our normal way of life was disrupted “for nothing” (as we put it).

We cannot be pleased, can we? We border on insufferable with our attitudes sometimes.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to me how life patterns become so ingrained in us that change to them leaves us in a state of confusion. It becomes hard to order the day because our normal routine has been upset; the things we normally do as a matter of course are not done, and it is as if the absence of those habitual procedures leave us stranded and without a compass.

We manufacture our own personal Snowmageddon sans the snow. We leave our vehicles in the middle of the interstate highway of our lives, and begin to walk . . . rather, trudge through unfamiliar terrain. It is cold, bleak, and disturbing to us.

Give me routine.

I know some folks seem to thrive on the unpredictable, and for them the more uncharted the day – the better! I am not one of those persons.

And I am not ashamed of that!

I dare say that waiting is not in anyone’s hip pocket. As I mentioned in the previous blog article, it is hard for all of us. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned as we wait (if only we will learn them), and we can train ourselves to be more adaptable to altered life situations. And I promise to work on this skill if only . . . if only you would go ahead and give me back my routine (for goodness sake)!

So, here I sit. Here I wait. I thought I could at least write about it as the time passes.

In another hour or two the cold rain will likely begin, followed in the wee hours of the morning by some snowfall (or so they say). Temperatures will hover around freezing in the early morning, then give way to milder temperatures that should melt anything that has accumulated up to that time. So, tomorrow promises to be a bit closer to normal.

But today’s apple cart has been upset. No doubt, the news tonight will be filled with comments of disgruntled persons who will say that officials should have better predicted the weather and given us another normal day of commerce. No matter! Remember, we can’t be pleased.

Soon, my routine will return. And I will probably find that I long for something . . . (you guessed it) . . . unpredictable to occur!

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Did You Get the Virus Yet?

Intercostal muscle strain. That’s what they call it.

It happens when a 61 year old man tackles a fallen tree with a hand saw, subdues it, cuts it mostly in half, then attempts to military press it over a fence and send it crashing to the earth beneath.

I’m in pretty reasonable shape for my age; I lift weights and walk on the elliptical on a regular basis, am only about 20 pounds overweight, and eat relatively well. But . . . that did not exempt me from the consequences of straining to cut that tree down.

Actually, it had been there for months. And I had put it on my “to do” list. One night during a storm the tree had fallen and I found it the next morning straddling our backyard wooden fence. In short order I went out and shifted its position slightly so that it was resting on one of the wooden support beams concreted into the ground (rather than resting on the flimsy slats). “There! That should hold it until a later date,” I said to myself.

Months went by . . . . Finally, I decided (the fact that my wife kept asking me to deal with it had nothing to do with it) it was time to cut this tree down to size. So, after trimming the other bushes in the backyard I headed for the unwelcome intruder. And . . . you know the rest of that story.

So, about 8 days ago I began to feel a strong pain in my right rib cage. It was in a very definite area, but I could not get to it, could not touch it in a way that identified the exact spot of assault. Ice couldn’t seem to deaden it, and ibuprofen didn’t seem to phase it. If I was sitting I could not usually feel it. But rising from a chair, or with legs extended in bed it was clearly present.

I went to the gym (as was my usual course) and tried to do exercises (much lighter, of course) in an attempt to identify the exact motion that would aggravate the pain. But to no avail. Nothing seemed to reach it. I spoke with several trainers about it, googled it online. Hernia didn’t seem to be the culprit, but intercostal muscle strain sure fit the bill. And there you have it.

With a repair time of anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 months I’ll be good as new. What?

Then to add insult to injury my eldest daughter came down with a nasty virus, then my youngest daughter, and then . . . me. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer with it as violently as they, but it has zapped me, nonetheless. In fact, I am still not over it.

I have been relatively impervious to illness for a number of years now. Oh, on occasion something would put me below par for a bit, but not for long. I have been rather healthy. But embarrassing as it is, I must admit there is a sense of great pride that goes along with not getting sick “right along with everyone else.” [NOTE: The fact that my wife began to have a twinge of it last night, but seems to be fine now, exacerbates that deflation to my pride.]

Then . . . this happens. And I am . . . just like everyone else. Isn’t it amazing how a slight change in a person’s temperature – even just a degree or so – makes them listless and incapacitated? We are delicate beings whose quality of life is maintained within a relatively small spectrum.

“To heck” with schedules, plans, goals and objectives. When you get hurt, or sick, all your best agendizing must be laid aside. It must wait. And you . . . must wait.

I am not a good waiter. No . . . I am not talking about waiting tables (although, that is one job I’ve never done in my life). You know very well what I’m talking about, because you have the same problem, don’t you? None of us is very good at waiting.

And yet . . . some things can only be arrived at by waiting. In those cases no amount of “by hook or crook” can advance us toward our desired destination. Healing comes gradually, and in its own time.

So, there has been lots of Netflix, napping, and trudging to the bathroom and back; a few pieces of toast, boiled eggs, and broth with soda crackers; Gatorade and Sprite, etc. But I am confident that one day we will emerge triumphant into a life that is a bit more fun to live. And, frankly, that’s how it has always worked.

So, have you gotten the virus yet? If not, I hope you don’t! I hope you continue to feel strong, impervious to disease, and unable to identify with the foibles and weaknesses of us lesser beings.

But if you do indeed find yourself flat on your back . . . embrace it as best you can, and remember that “this, too, shall pass.” Oh . . . and be careful using muscles you are not accustomed to using. Hire some professionals like I’m about to hire (to finish the job). It may hurt your pride (and wallet), but . . . your ribs muscles will thank you!

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The State of the Onion Message

Two nights ago President Obama presented the annual State of the Union message. To say that it “made history” is an understatement! Whether or not you agreed with all the President had to say, or whether you think our country is or is not headed for better days ahead, one thing is certain: we are headed somewhere.

And it behooves us all to take stock from time to time as to where we are headed personally, as families, and as a nation.

This analysis can be called (for lack of a better name) “the State of the Onion.” [NOTE: the unfolding and gradual revelation of various aspects of personal life have been described as something akin to peeling an onion, layer by layer exposing deeper, more private, and more fundamental building blocks of a person’s life]

I usually find State of the Union messages to be very uplifting, encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. I suppose, of course, that is their intended purpose.

But when I look at my own life, the progress (or lack of progress) I have made in my own personal endeavors, and the areas where I need improvement, I sometimes come away a little discouraged. That is, the State of the Onion is not always as inspiring as the State of the Union.

And yet . . . I must assert that improvements and insights into my own personal life have an eventual effect on the State of the Union as well. Unruly citizens make for an unruly nation. There is carryover from my personal life that influences the public policy of the nation of which I am a part.

So, as the New Year has begun, and the State of the Union presented, as religious organizations point followers to renewed dedication, as businesses gear up for the challenges of 2015, and as investors examine and prognosticate about our financial future – I would like to suggest that we not fail to focus on our own personal onion.

The truth is, you are the only person who can peel your onionskin. You can choose to delve deeper into an understanding of yourself, or you can refuse to do so and “go about your days.” You can peel the onion, layer by layer; or you an choose to let it be.

Trouble is, unless you eat like Jim Carrey in The Grinch, onions are not really good unless they have been peeled. Neither are human beings. We all develop a protective skin on the outside; there are no exceptions. But we are of little use until that skin is peeled.

Can it be discouraging to peel your onion? Definitely!

Will personal change be made mandatory by what is revealed? No question about it!

But the benefits, to you and to others, will outweigh all the pain – hands-down.

So, let me encourage you to get out your peeler and start to work. Better days are in your future if you peel the onion. That is a guarantee.

No matter what the true state of the union is in any given year, or in any given administration, you will have control over the state of the onion.

And having that . . . your life, and the lives of those around you, will flourish.

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