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Kelly

It’s a beautiful Friday evening here in Ithaca–temperate, breezy-green, calm. The air finally cooled down after a sweltering couple of days, and I’m hoping the forecast is right in predicting a week of cool weather and even showers. I felt like I was trying to sleep in some stranger’s hot armpit. Not sleep-friendly without air conditioning.

Tonight, on a friend’s recommendation, I strolled around the corner to check out a place called Felicia’s. Cute spot, with a live Old Tyme band playing inside, and folks milling on the sidewalks. They serve reasonably priced creative cocktails, $2 hot dogs with homemade ketchup, and pizzas assembled from local garden ingredients. I ordered something with caraway, vodka, and grapefruit juice–not exactly awful, but tasted a bit like dumping rye bread and a grapefruit in a blender. (I think green cardamom would have worked better.) Supposedly Felicia’s is “the lesbian bar” in town, but all I could see were hippies and beatniks and scruffy, middle-aged locals dancing their own varied jigs to the washboard and standup bass. Boulder, Santa Cruz, Ashland, Ithaca: Is there some kind of Ameri-pass circuit I don’t know about?

At any rate, I wedged into a bar stool and promptly had to text my restaurant-recommending friend, so as to sketch my neighbor to the right. He was sporting: long hair; a bright red ball cap with a $ sign on the front; thick prescription glasses with wacky banana-yellow frames; and a speckled chihuahua peeking out of a shoulder bag. (Text version abbreviated.) When I asked how the dog got to hang in restaurants, he explained, “Oh, I’m crazy, so he’s magic!” Somehow that made sense.

Kelly and I talked for the next ninety minutes. Or he mostly talked and I asked questions. Like me, he was returning to Ithaca after some time, “to regroup,” he said. But as his story unfolded I got the sense that regrouping was kind of an ongoing and layered process for Kelly. Most recently he’d been in New York City for six months, helping an old friend “start a business”–until the friend turned out to be a hard-core meth addict and went ballistic on him one day. Kelly barely made it out of the city with $6 and the dog, thanks to a friend who bought him a bus ticket to Ithaca to stay with her. He was hoping the friend would get clean and apologize. Before that fiasco he’d lived in San Francisco for almost a decade, working for an Internet company until it was bought out by Amazon and he got laid off. He made reference to mental illness (information conveyed in my first impression anyway), but didn’t get into details. It was clear that he was smart and articulate. He’d gone to Cornell, studied writing, lived a relatively functional existence for awhile. He’d been in rehab once, for alcohol. “But, like, my low was the softest low in the group. I went in because I once blacked out and peed the bed.”

His life, he said, was nothing like he thought it would turn out. “Like, I thought I’d be…you know, a little more stable, a little more…like an adult by the time I was forty.” Last week, though, the contents of the storage locker he had in San Francisco had been auctioned. “I had no choice but to let it go. I didn’t have the money! So literally now all I have to my name is what I carried with me when I got out of New York. Talk about tabula rasa. I’m working for a catering business–which is ok, but I mean…And I’m afraid to even ask the universe what’s next! After some of the stuff I’ve been through, I don’t think I even want to know.” (If you haven’t detected, Kelly was, in fact, the Gay in Gay Bar.)

I asked him what he wanted if he could have it. He wasn’t sure. He’d always liked writing, and been good at it, considered himself (with an embarrassed shrug) a writer. I brainstormed with him a little about maybe offering editing services to local college students. He brightened at the suggestions, thanked me, apologized for “talking about my whole story this whole time,” asked what I did. Then somehow we got on the subject of George Jones, and mid-sentence (my sentence) he suddenly ran off to get some tobacco at some shop nearby. I waited a few minutes and paid my bill, went back to my place. The bartender said she’d hold his seat. I figured I’d probably see him again.

Kelly obviously has some issues. But still. I remember that lost feeling, not that long ago and sometimes now, here and there. It’s strange to find myself on the other side in that conversation, the side of “success” and adulthood, relative stability, a career with a title. But there is no denying that I am on that side, even if sometimes I’ve felt like I was clawing my way there on my belly. I feel just barely there now. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve had resources–family support, basic self-esteem, the ability to stay focused, no major addictions–and having those resources has so much to do with dumb luck. I work hard, but I’m lucky. I could have been less lucky, more lost, much more lost. So easily.

T.Y.L.

When I was in high school, my friends and I fancied ourselves masters of a sarcastic parlance only we fully understood. We coded our language in opposites, like “yeah right, this bikini makes me look real skinny,” when we meant “totally fat, just look at the cellulite on my thighs, you guys!” A lot of it was inflection: “I like your dad, he’s real niii-hice” could mean “you know, your dad’s a real bible-thumping dick” (which is what it usually meant with my dad). Anyway, one of our favorites was “TYL,” which meant “Ten Years Later,” or, translated into Newport Beach teen talk, “you couldn’t possibly be taking longer if David Bowie was about to make out with you, ya big loser.”

So, I know, TYL since my last post. So sue me, I was trying to keep my job and finish some stuff. Still trying, never finished.

Also: TYL since I was living in Ithaca, New York. Or, to be precise: eleven years since I last arrived in this town, nine since I left. Which is weirdly unbelievable, in the way that the movement of time itself becomes hard to believe as you move from definitely young to middle-er age.* So much has happened in the intervening years, and yet (can’t see a way around the cliché here) when I get back here it really seems like just the other day that I left.

I actually remember the day I left, in May 2003. I had hauled my Penske truck up to campus and parked it outside the building, White Hall, that housed “my” office. Loaded the truck up with boxes of books and papers that had probably doubled in the time I was doing my post-doc, and then sat on this bench and said a prayerful goodbye and thank you to the place and the opportunity.

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Rock of ages.

It was one of those rare moments when you actually have a sense of the significance of something. My 2-year paid post-doc at Cornell was, I remember thinking on that bench, like having been invited to live in a distant, rich uncle’s castle, where you got to live in luxurious surroundings and no one paid you much heed. You had the run of the place and it was freedom and comfort and once-in-a-lifetime. I swam in the quarries, drank the wine, ate the food, slept in (and worked a lot), was lonely some, learned to cook, made friends, fumbled my way through the aftermath of September 11th, trying to figure out what it meant to be an American and a citizen of the world, and an academic. It certainly hadn’t been stress-free, but it was for sure one of the best things in my life up to that point. I knew it had been profound. When I set off back for Denver, I had no idea how/whether the next chapter would come into focus (in fact, it turned out to be a total dark-night-of-the-soul year).

Who would have thought that 9 years later almost to the week I’d be returning for a paid, 6-week course in the famous summer School of Criticism and Theory, where I’d get to be a student–which, by now, had become a tremendous, rare relief. That I would have traded in the Honda I bought in Ithaca for, finally, a new one and come back to campus tenured, with a fair amount under my belt and a pretty damn happy life in Denver. Lots of ups and downs in between, you all know, but over time, it turned out, I was building a life.

Yesterday I saw the campus again for the first time. I felt as awed as when I first visited at the beauty and bounty of this Ivy League outpost, and surprised by my own much greater confidence, weatheredness, humility, fragility/strength. I had to set up the self-timer when I saw the bench, because capturing these moments seems much more urgent now:

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I age much faster than rock.

Even waiting for that image to upload I think, it’s not that it’s more urgent all the time, to capture the moment, because there’s no possible way when you’re in the middle of your 80 m.p.h. life that you can. That’s why this blog has been TYL for four years (and maybe also because I’m still a big loser). I couldn’t always capture it while I was trying to do the million things on time/in time. But in those fleeting moments when I catch my breath it seems critical to get it down somehow. Because I am 10 years younger now than I will be in a decade! Because time is flying by and I am a forty-four year-old person on this planet already, and I was thirty-three just a second ago, and my eighteen year-old students did not seem that much younger than me then, but now they really do. I actually texted one of my first students, with whom I am still vaguely in touch, yesterday, to tell him I was revisiting campus, and he replied that he’d just done the same thing. Sometimes you have to go back, see what’s happened, and even if it’s good and really good it will freak you the hell out and simultaneously inspire a good kind of stillness inside you.

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Waterfall falling, right THEN.

Anyway, no way to capture all of the existential profundity I’m feeling in pictures or words. Meanwhile, life goes on: Paco, who was with me 10 years ago and 1 week ago is missing back in Denver, and I’m worried. He has been a tremendous comfort to me for a dozen years, and yet I know that all this ends in ways we can’t always control. And emails have to be written, and books read, and things finished, and dishes done. And it does really come down to this moment, and are we paying attention, because in just a split sec it’s going to be TYL?

* I once shot an oral history of my maternal grandmother on videotape. One of the few things I distinctly remember her talking about is how time moves differently with each decade. “When you’re fifteen,” she told me, “you think sixteen will NEVER come. But when you’re 20, time starts moving faster. When you’re 30, a year goes by before you realize it. When you’re sixty, a whole decade goes by in the blink of an eye.” She laughed, but she was clearly, visibly, stunned by this.

I’m crawling back from the place I have been, the place I had to go to try and finish creating something I’d started. “Had to” as in obligated, required, pretty much necessary. “Creating” as in describing, assembling, analyzing, refining, repackaging. A lot of it was dry, tedious, hand-numbing work. It required me to be in a land in which I had to use a different voice, speak a different language, one that doesn’t slide easily off my tongue. A planet I’ll have to visit again all too soon, but hopefully not for as long.

While I was gone it became harder and harder to find this voice, the one that lives here. Eventually I couldn’t hear it at all. When I thought about this blog, this thing that I very much felt the loss of, I had nothing. I was blank. Couldn’t think of anything to offer, even though life was continuing to unfold.

I’m starting back small, trying to remember what this voice sounds like, feels like.

Pogo reminded me recently that people who scale Mt. Everest often report feeling nothing but exhausted when they get to the top. Not elated, not victorious, not woo-hoo! Just tired. And anxious about making it down. That’s what it felt like to turn in a 358-page manuscript draft that in one iteration or another had been in my life for more than a decade: a little relieved, mostly tired, and anxious nevertheless. I dream at night that old, powerful men are flipping through its pages with critical eyes and pursed, judging mouths. I worry about it. I know it won’t be done done for, reasonably, another year if it makes it through reviews and revisions. I worry about “the worst” happening and being cut free from this whole, weird academic life that I’ve never been sure fits me anyway.

And in the wake of that I have maybe a sense of what post-partum depression feels like.

All the same: It is spring. We had lots of rain in the last month. All the soft buds and leaves have been blossoming, uncoiling. I have been blessed with elements of new life–sunshine, warmth, good company, laughter. Some days I want to hide in a cave and just abide in the dark quiet for awhile. Other days I have the sense of waking up and reentering life. I am trying to trust that all the work has been, will be for something. Starting back small.

November, Finally

Here on Colorado’s Front Range, people worship sunshine and blue skies to the point of fetishism. I like to say that after more than six hours of clouds between them and the sun, Denverites go running for the Prozac. There’s something perplexing about a population (many of whom are transplants from drearier places like Ohio) that can’t get enough mountains, snow, and the outdoors but drops into depression when the skies are even slightly moody. Michiganders or Minnesotans would scoff; this crowd ain’t too hearty.

It’s been either bright, blistering, or unseasonably balmy around here for the last six months. I could count on one hand the days of rain or even spit we’ve had since May. But I think Coloradans have gotten so used to the effects of climate change, including nearly relentless drought, that they’ve forgotten that spring and autumn aren’t supposed to feel like August. Up to two days ago it was consistently over 70 during the day. This is not Southern California, people.

Did I mention I’ve been sad? Like, wringing every drop of moisture out of my body every day or two sad. Like, what is that white stuff on my eyelashes? Oh, it’s salt deposits from all that crying sad. I’m ok; I’m getting through it with a lot of writing, a lot of aloneness, prayer, and a few key wellsprings of support. There’s no getting around sorrow you just need to feel in order to move forward; I accept that. But to wake up every god-forsaken morning with relentless sun streaming through my bedroom window and not the faintest sign of a cloud, in late October, gets to be a little much. Can I not just huddle under the sheets for awhile on a Saturday morning without feeling like I should find myself a Labrador retriever and go hiking, or ride my bike up to Mt. Evans?

Thank God, then, for yesterday, when at just about noon a glowering cold front tore through town and shoved a cheerleader-perky morning aside, muttering, “get out of the way, candy asses; welcome to NOVEMBER.” I watched the faces fall across the cafe where I was working, and I brightened up. People slunk into their sweatshirts and cast wary glances at the fat flakes falling on the asphalt. Customers bought soup instead of salad. Good. I got more work done in four hours than I had in the previous four days.

And this morning: a wonder. I woke early. It was sunny, yes, but my central heating hadn’t yet turned on and I could feel the crispness of the first frost. I pulled on a cashmere sweater, a scarf, a cozy hat, and my new faux shearling, softer than soft coat, and headed to the corner for my every-other-day, half-caff vanilla latte (speaking of candy asses). The yards were sheathed in the telltale sugar coating of frost, the buildings of downtown sparkling like glacial waters.

Then I heard a curious sound that stopped me in the middle of the street. A sound like thin ice cracking on the surface of a creek. Or like sweet potato chips fluttering down to earth. I looked up. From what I think was a big elm tree, leaves frozen overnight but now thawing in the sun were pouring off the branches and clicking in their half-frozen state onto the sidewalk. A beautiful, melancholy sound and sight. I breathed and listened, honoring the falling, the abrupt, half-graceful, half-awkward letting go after a long suspension. Maybe I could pull that off, maybe not. My soul sung its respect. And I embraced, finally, November.

Sawing

In the ongoing adventures of my state of mind:

I’ve been catching myself doing something I’ve decided to call “sawing.” It goes a little something like this. If the thoughts we think help construct our material reality (because those thoughts reflect beliefs, beliefs create actions, actions create character, character creates who we are in the world and the decisions we make, etc.), then we would do well to attend to the thoughts we are thinking, and to change the ones that perpetuate realities we don’t want to manifest in our lives. And if the thoughts we repeatedly think affect our actual brain chemistry, as the brain scientists tell us, then thoughts have a chemical dimension, a biological expression, as it were. We know, for example, that rumination is not just a product of but actually a creator of depression. Likewise, fear thoughts perpetuate anxiety because they trigger hormones that prepare us to fight or flee. And so on with angry, happy, sexual, etc.

I have ample evidence of all this being true in my own life. (Caveat: I don’t believe thoughts alone create all of everyone’s life circumstances; no one thinks their way into a birth defect or life on a destitute reservation, for example. But there is such a thing as a poverty mentality.) And so I’ve put a lot of practices into my life that help me notice and where possible reshape my thoughts in more positive directions.

But when I’m worn down, or my self-esteem is floundering, or I’m sleep deprived (i.e., most of this summer)…that’s when the sawing begins. My thought-filter weakens and a thought creeps in like an insect. And it starts sawing.

Let’s take I’m always alone.

Ok, I’m not always alone. In fact, I often am surrounded with good company. I’ve been spending most days with my friend Lisa, working on our books together–which is a huge blessing. I have family in Denver that I love, and family in California that I can call anytime. I have amazing friends who love and take care of me, and who make all the difference in my life. I have a partner that I adore who, despite the rough ride she’s been on in the last year and a half, is a loving presence in my life. I also have students, mentees, neighbors, and acquaintances I could get to know better as friends if I chose to. Also: I, unlike a lot of people I know, actually enjoy spending time alone and feel agitated when I haven’t had enough of it. Alone is not my enemy.

And yet I come home from some day of doing stuff with other people and I am always alone gets in my head. It starts sawing a groove. I make something to eat. Always. I call someone who doesn’t answer. Alone. I sit at my desk and respond to some emails. Paco pads in to the office and flops down, purring. Right in the middle of an ordinary task: Oh god! Why am I always alone? Maybe I turn on some music, or go in the backyard and do some gardening. I’m not trying to avoid the thoughts, just doing things I enjoy. But maybe I’m tired from a long day, and some other worries are floating around in my head. Somehow that perpetuates the sawing. The ugly thought–which I realize is not only a thought but factually untrue–settles into its back and forth groove. It looks for evidence to prove that I have been or always am alone. It builds an argument. It makes a case. And, worst of all, it begins attracting emotional energy around it–a pool of sadness under my sternum, a kryptonite ball in the belly.

I try to build a shield in my mind, to catch the thought and “weed” it up before it can express again. Each time it tries to run its groove, I pluck it first. Sometimes that works, but if I’m tired, if I haven’t slept enough, it just saws and I don’t know how to stop it.

The only solutions I’ve found so far:  1) yoga, 2) sleep medicine, 3) reading (if I can concentrate), and 4) noticing, and naming, the sawing. And telling the thought that it doesn’t have permission. And trying to love the poor self that’s struggling with the thought.

What do you do?

Uppers & Downers

Educational drug prevention films of the seventies would invariably use the vocabulary of “uppers” and “downers”–dangerous substances likely to lead unsuspecting teens to the edge of a high balcony, or tragedy in a urine-soaked alley. Between these films and the biographies I used to read of people like Judy Garland and the Beatles, I’d muse about what it would be like to pop a pill and experience manic or morose moods while wearing, say, a crocheted halter top and bell bottoms.

I did try a Quaalude once in college, which was kind of passe by 1986. I guess it lived up to its rep as a “downer,” but mainly because it was like drinking a case of beer and then banging against dorm hallways, slurring like an idiot. One could do that any day in college. And I gave other things the occasional whirl, mostly so I could understand what people were talking about. Drugs had their pros and cons; I found sex a lot more interesting.

I’ve been reminded this summer that  life has turned out to present more than enough experience on the matter of uppers and downers, and I don’t even have to take the little red or blue pills. But now I understand the need for them.

A quick recap of some of the highs and lows as of the halfway mark in my summer:

Upper:  I finished my Spring Quarter classes with high marks from a really strong group of students.

Downer:  I started teaching a Summer Interterm class before I’d even turned in grades for the Spring class. That kind of overlap doesn’t make me happy when people comment on me having “summer off.” On the other hand, the Interterm class was filled with adult, working women, and it was rewarding and transformative. (So, Upper.) It did, though, include one very rabid, religious, and aggressive student who wanted an A for C-level work. (Downer.) At any rate, I feel like I’m meant to teach that class in some larger forum. If I could only figure out what that forum is, and how to make it pay financial dividends.

Downer:  I got paid $1K less than I’d calculated to teach that class. And then the next one I had on tap did not get enough students to roll. Nor did two other little side-classes I’d been planning. Which ups the ante on my already-dicey summer finances. And silver hair turns out to be a real liability on the hooking front.

Upper:  I’ve made some solid progress on my book, especially when I camp out in the public library or a cafe. It’s always slower going than I’d like, but conceptually I’ve made some breakthroughs and I think a lot of the writing so far is pretty damn good. It feels like I’m finally writing the book I want, and need, to write. Or I feel that most of the time, when I’m not torturing myself over some aspect or another of it.

Downer:  I’ve probably only gotten 10 full nights of natural (non-assisted) sleep since the beginning of June. Steady insomnia due to any number of factors in combination: worrying about money, career, or relationship; heat; R.A. pain/discomfort; and the chemical side-effects of not sleeping previous nights.

Upper:  It turns out that Kaiser now covers Ambien (a downer, surely) at the regular $10 co-pay rate, which was not the case a few years ago when I asked. Ambien is a huge comfort because 95% of the time it works for me. I mean, I fall asleep within 20 minutes of taking it. This means that I can *know* I’ll sleep at least 5 hours that night, usually more, which translates into not going 2, 3, 4 consecutive nights without sleep, as has happened in the past. But it also means I’ll likely feel kind of cloudy in the morning (but still better than Tylenol PM or even Valerian root). So I try to use it as a last-ditch solution, and I only take half. But there have been too many last-ditch nights as of late. That worries me. The last thing I need is to become an Ambien junkie and find myself like some Kennedy wandering the streets of D.C. at 3 a.m., dialing exes. In a crocheted halter.

Downer:  Given the fact that the bulk of next month’s pay source remains a mystery, I started looking at bartending jobs again, mostly on CraigsList. That has led to two promising no-gos and two humiliating experiences standing in line with 30+ others under the age of 30 to fill out 45-minute questionnaires–only to be obviously shunned by interviewing male managers (age: 27ish) who’d clearly dismissed me on sight. Consider the ego-blow of filling out the “education completed” section of an application to sling shots for people the age and mentality of my undergraduates. This raises the question: what the HELL am I thinking? Under the right circumstances, bartending is a sweet little side-gig. In this economy, the process involved in securing such a gig is…well, let’s just say, it makes me want to sit on the toilet eating Twinkies, like Elvis.

Upper: I rocked out an entertaining and informative public talk on Carl Jung at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Mixed Taste series last Friday. No small achievement, and kind of a coveted little opportunity I am fortunate to have had. Lovely life-highlight and a rare chance to do what I’m good at in front of friends and family.

Downer:  In the wake of that, all my major joints feel achy to the point of distraction and the fatigue hit Sunday like an anvil swinging on cables. I am pretty sure this is called an R.A. flare. And every time I look at CraigsList it seems to surge. That leads to the popping of pills–just Naproxin, but still. If I go looking for another source of income, my R.A. hurts. If I don’t, I worry so much I can’t sleep. I mean, this is ugly honest, but it’s where I’m at.

Upper:  I feel like I’ve totally rediscovered watermelon, and that turns out to be significant. I bought one for $3.99 a couple weeks ago, and on the first bite found myself devouring it like a starving dog.  It was like my whole body was THIRSTING for watermelon. And that craving has been steady ever since, so I keep eating it. I think I could survive the summer on watermelon alone (which is good, as I might have to). So I looked up the nutritional contents of watermelon and here’s the deal: Aside from copious quantities of Vitamins C, A, and B1 and 6, it’s full of this stuff called lycopene, an antixodant that kills free radicals, among other things. Free radicals cause the inflammation associated with, guess what, Rheumatoid Arthritis. How about that? My body sidestepped the rheumatologist and seized on what it needs.

Upper:  I also discovered (or remembered) that art is therapy. In the process, I happened on  the “monster” that is my forlorn, freaked-out inner child.

On the other hand (downer), I often feel guilty while drawing or writing that I’m not using the time to search for work or write my book. And then I feel humiliated that in my 9th year of teaching college I’m still having to whore myself out for side jobs to make ends meet. I try hard not to feel guilty about blowing a few hours on art, as I know the creative stuff helps everything else–not to mention it’s where part of my heart lives–but the pressure of getting that book out and under contract is getting pretty concrete.

All in all, I’m kind of a mess this summer. And though I know there are pills designed to even out the psychological responses, like anxiety and depression, that come with this kind of roller coaster, I guess, for now, I’d rather try to ride it out with minimal meds. But I may have to hit up the thrift store for some seventies fashion, as I’m definitely feeling like a poster child for uppers and downers.

Maybe if I write quick and start small I’ll find my way back to this beloved blog. I’ve needed to put all my writing energy into my book for the last few months, and that is still the case, but all-book-and-no-blog leaves me feeling a bit unmoored from my full writer’s voice. It becomes hard to find my way back.

Anyway, here’s one thing that’s been on my mind, as the results of our collective (yes) greed continue to hemorrhage into the Gulf of Mexico:

If we allow ourselves to feel this, we open ourselves to grief. We must have the courage to grieve.

If we don’t grieve, we remain numb.

To the degree that we are numb, gnawing anxiety, anger, and depression corrode us individually and collectively.

If we choose to remain numb, we cannot act.

If we cannot act, we cannot change.

If we cannot change, we die. And, more tragically (for doubtless our annihilation would be a gift to nature) we destroy a planet full of living things with us.

I know I need to grieve. I can barely watch the images of the oil spilling into the water, creeping over the beaches and marshes, drowning birds, killing the life that remains in an already desperately polluted Gulf. I find myself turning down the volume on NPR stories that upset me too deeply. But instead of bursting into tears, instead of taking minutes, hours–maybe days out of my toxically busy life would be at least the beginning of a fully awake response to what’s happening–I sublimate it in order to function. And then the sadness, fear, and anger move into my bloodstream and I wake in the morning to a strange, dull ache under my breastbone. Am I thereby entering into the shared reality of non-stop, low-grade Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder functioning that “civilized” culture has become?

It disgusts me to hear almost exclusively of the human cost of this; what of all the animals and organisms innocent in the face of this apocalypse? Why must we inflict ourselves on the world in such a violent way, when we are capable of so much creativity and healing?

I could go on, but what’s the point? I know we’re all overwhelmed. I know we know we need to change, and so many of us are trying, with our pathetic little “baby steps.” We all feel the fury at British Petroleum and Big Oil–as we listen to NPR, in our fossil fuel-consuming, carbon contributing cars en route to our massively energy consuming homes.

I know we can’t afford to get stuck in overwhelm or sorrow. But what is lost and what will be forfeited from not truly grieving all this?

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