Story with Pictures

dandelion 2.jpg

Once upon a time there was a young woman who loved photography. Spent hours in the darkroom (yes, this is a story from the olden days) and took pictures every opportunity she got. She even got a nice new 35mm camera as a gift during her senior year of high school. Then, that same year, tragedy struck, in the form of an incoming Atlantic Ocean tide, and her camera was no more.

She continued for a while, borrowing cameras and making do as she could, but college and adulthood and limited means (darkroom time can be expensive when you’re not a student) whittled away at her time and her enthusiasm, to the point where she no longer got the same joy from photography. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you are quitting something because you are lazy or discouraged or because the thing you are doing is no longer the right thing for you. Whatever it was, she stopped taking pictures, and pursued other interests.

Over the years, while she wasn’t paying attention, photographic technology changed, and darkroom time came to be less necessary. Digital cameras and photographic software and home printers made taking and printing photos simpler and more accessible, and after many years, the now-not-very-young woman decided to give it another try.

This month, my blog will be about photography, some of my own and some by other, much better photographers. I have a new (old) camera, and I’ll be playing around with it and seeing what I can do.

I’d love to hear about anything you’ve loved and lost and maybe started to love again. What are your stories?

(Composite image by me, from photos of the same dandelion, playing with focus and settings on my new [old] camera.)

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Posted in Challenges, Photography | Tagged | 3 Comments

Learning Late

classroom

I’m fascinated by learning, and the ways we learn. It has always seemed to me that there are three main ways to learn – by example, by experience, and by explanation. Example comes first – when we are babies, all we have are the examples of our parents and the people around us, showing us how to talk, walk, etc. Once we get a little older, experience and explanation enter the picture, though anyone who’s spent time with a toddler – or a teen, or an adult, for that matter – knows that sometimes explanation will only take you so far.

And learning is a fascinating process, because the things we learn from the lessons we are given do not always play out in the ways we might expect. Think about it: If someone we like and trust tells us something that is actually wrong, we are still likely to believe it. Possibly even more likely than when someone we dislike or mistrust tries to teach us something that’s factual. Our feelings about the person can shape how we interpret information much more than how true the information is.

Now, if adulthood has taught me anything, it is that you cannot always believe the things people say, however you might feel about either the people or the things. And you should be particularly careful about believing things folks tell you about yourself. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of incorrect pronouncements, and I’m not even talking about middle school bullies or anything like that. Many were well intentioned, delivered by people I loved and trusted, and quite often they had more to do with the person talking than they had to do with me. But boy could they be insidious.

From ‘you’re tall’1 to ‘you always know what to say’2 and ‘you’re the kind of person who can get away with eating anything’3 all the way to ‘you’re so confident!’ 4 I have been told an awful lot of things about myself that were just plain wrong. When I was very young, I actually believed a lot of those things, often to my detriment. When I was a bit older, and a bit less credulous, it was hard to know what to believe. Now, a whole lot older, I see these things for what they are – though many were well intentioned, they usually had more to do with the person talking than they had to do with me. But they can also be insidious. And I doubt I’ve been alone in all of this confusion.

So it turns out that learning yourself is a critical step toward adulthood. It came later for me than I would have liked, making my learning curve very steep. To make up for lost time, my activity level now is pretty high. There is so much I want to get to. I want write, to learn whether I can write, and to get better at it. I want to learn Spanish – really learn it. I am determined to work on the skills that really matter to me, and leave behind the stuff that isn’t satisfying. It’s a process that feeds on itself, I’m finding – the more I learn what matters to me, the better equipped I am to find the right direction to move in, to learn who I really am, and do more of what’s important. Also probably I’ll be failing, really stinking things up, from time to time. Should be quite a journey.

 

1 – I’m not, but the person who told me that was really short.
2 – I don’t. I really don’t.
3 – And that was a nurse!
4 – What?!? Man oh man, if this is what confident feels like …

(Classroom image via tokyogeometry via Flickr.)

(Learning prompt via the WP Discover Challenge. I didn’t exactly follow the directions…)

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Staying and Going

shadow water 2

Entre irse y quedarse

Entre irse y quedarse duda el día,
enamorado de su transparencia.

La tarde circular es ya bahía:
en su quieto vaivén se mece el mundo.

Todo es visible y todo es elusivo,
todo está cerca y todo es intocable.

Los papeles, el libro, el vaso, el lapis
reposan a la sombra de sus nombres.

Latir del tiempo que en mi sien repite
la misma terca sílaba de sangre.

La luz hace del muro indiferente
un espectral teatro de reflejos.

En el centro de un ojo me descubro;
no me mira, me miro en su mirada.

Se disipa el instante. Sin moverme,
yo me quedo y me voy: soy una pausa.

Octavio Paz

 

Between going and staying the day hesitates,
in love with its transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay:
the world swaying in its stillness.
Everything is visible and all is elusive,
everything is close and everything is untouchable.
Papers, book, glass, pencil
Rest in the shade of their names.
The throb of time repeats in my temples
the same stubborn syllable of blood.
The light turns the indifferent wall
into an ethereal theater of reflections.
I find myself in the center of an eye;
Watch myself in its blank gaze.
The moment scatters. Without moving,
I stay and I go: I am a pause.

 

 

This is a poem I came across when I was putting together my Q post last month. I wound up using a different quedar poem, but this one stuck with me and wouldn’t be forgotten. It reminds me of a summer afternoon, getting lost in the spell of sweltering heat, struggling to come back from wherever your mind has drifted.

Octavio Paz (1914-1998) was a Mexican author, poet, translator and Nobel Laureate.

Translation by me. Comments and corrections always welcome.

(Water/shadow image via Mike Linksvayer via Flickr.)

Posted in Español, Poems | 2 Comments

Seeking Some Perspective

doors in perspective

I’ve been struggling a bit for the last few days. Nothing major, just feeling a little scattered. Not as on top of things as I would like. The thing is, and this is hardly news, sometimes it’s hard being an adult. More so for some than for others, and I’m actually in a relatively fortunate position, because I have a job, a house, and enough money that I am never faced with really difficult decisions, like whether to buy food or medicine. I’m fortunate. Comfortable, relatively speaking.

But I still have my challenges. Being an adult, having a family and a house and a job and all that, means that you never really run out of things that need doing. Some of those things, lets face it, you may never actually get to. And if you want to do extra stuff, like writing or learning another language, then there’s even more stuff that may never get done.

My yard? Kinda shameful. Dust bunnies? Breeding. Those books that have been piling up on my nightstand? Probably won’t be reading them this week. Or next.

And then there’s family. Friends. It’s a bad idea to neglect the people that matter to you.

And, to be honest, I also really like to sleep. Nothing extravagant, just seven or so hours a night. You’d be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) how much that can cut into your productive time.

It’s hard letting things go, though. Especially the things that feel like proper grown up responsibilities and obligations. And, sometimes, too, there’s the things that used to matter more. It can be hard.

So I’ve been struggling a bit with my priorities. Trying to balance things out. Trying to come up with a plan. Trying find useful words for the experience of being, lets face it, a fairly ordinary person with fairly ordinary problems. Because here’s the thing: Knowing that none of this is unusual, or extreme, doesn’t make it any less real. Just because we all have ordinary, boring challenges doesn’t make the challenges any less challenging.

Sometimes, when I am struggling like this, I realize that what I really need is perspective*. And for these moments, I have a list of names of accomplished women, mostly historic but some contemporary. When I really need to get outside my own head, I select one at random and read up on her.

Today it was Christine de Pizan. This woman, who was born in Venice and lived from 1364 to about 1430, was married at 15 and widowed at 25. She had two children, plus her mother and her niece to take care of, at a time when the options available to women in her circumstances were extremely limited. So what did she do? She became a court writer for several French dukes and for the French royal court. At the time of her death she had written at least 41 works of prose and poetry, including two influential books. Some have called her a (very) early feminist writer, and while she was definitely a crusader against negative representations of women in literature, it may be a bit of a tough sell to call her a feminist. After all, she did also advise wives to “be cheerful to [their husbands] all the time.”

But. To be a self-supporting writer, arguing for the humanity of women, working in the royal court and writing prolifically in your second language – and all this waaaay back in the early 1400s – certainly qualifies her for role model status. Possibly even proto-feminist role model.

And without a doubt, her circumstances and accomplishments can also help put the ordinary problems of an ordinary 21st century person in perspective.

In other news, I have decided to let my garden go to seed, at least for this summer

(Image from The W. Martin Johnson school of art. Elementary instruction in color, perspective, lights and shadows, pen drawing and composition (1909) via The Library of Congress [Internet Archive Book Images collection] via Flickr.)

* An extra few hours every day would be nice, too, but I’m not counting on them showing up any time soon.

Posted in Miscellany | 6 Comments

The Story-Teller

NYPL Girls Club Atalanta

The Story-Teller

He talked, and as he talked
Wallpaper came alive;
Suddenly ghosts walked,
And four doors were five;

Calendars ran backward,
And maps had mouths;
Ships went tackward
In a great drowse;

Trains climbed trees,
And soon dripped down
Like honey of bees
On the cold brick town.

He had wakened a worm
In the world’s brain
And nothing stood firm
Until day again.

Mark Van Doren

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling and poetry lately, and found this poem as I looked through a book called Potato Chips and a slice of moon. This was probably the first poetry book I ever bought, undoubtedly by way of a Scholastic book order form, when I was in grade school. I don’t have many mementos from my childhood, but this book is one I hang on to. I remember reading it a lot back then, and I still have some of the poems memorized.  I loved this one for it’s almost tactile quality – I could picture the trains dripping off the trees, almost feel their stickiness.

Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) was an American poet and academic. My favorite title from among his poems is Apple Hell. Aside from the great title, how can you not love a poem that includes the line “Time is Tarnish”? You can’t. You just can’t. That’s how.

(Image:  Rivington Street Branch Library, story Hour: A Girl’s Club Listening to a Story of Atlanta via the NY Public Library Digital Collection. No date is given, but it’s definitely from a time when boys and girls were expected to join clubs and listen to stories separately – if you look here you’ll see a group of boys being told the story of Pinocchio. My guess is that the girls in the picture got the sanitized version of the Atalanta story, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole for a whole other time.) 

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Instead of About

women prospectors

If you’ve poked around here at all, you might have noticed that there’s not much on my About page. In part, this is because it’s hard to know what to say about me that hasn’t already been said. Works in an office. Right handed. Not very tall. Can’t dance worth a damn.

And after all that, really, what’s left?

Well, I guess there’s the writing thing. That’s a semi-recent development, in the sense that it only dates back about five years, and during most of those five years, it’s been more of a nebulous concept than an actual activity. There’s been some on, but until last year, it’s mostly been off.

Then late last summer I decided (for maybe the 12th time) to start taking myself seriously as a writer. Even if nobody else ever does1. I started writing every day, giving attention to a couple of stories that have been rattling around in my brain, and looking for opportunities2 to do more structured, directed work.

The very first thing I did was to return to 750Words, a site that I have been using (again, off and on) for several years. It’s not perfect, but can be really helpful in terms of starting and keeping up a daily writing practice. Right now I am thisclose to 300 days of writing in a row there, and that alone feels really good.

In October, I participated in the Writers Digest Platform Challenge. This challenge offered numerous valuable lessons in considering all the possibilities and expanding my comfort zone. The Platform Challenge also introduced me to a great group of writers from all over the US and the world, a group that has become an important source of inspiration and humor in my writing life.

By the middle of October I had decided to participate in November’s National Novel Writing Month for the very first time. This gave me the impetus to start working with an idea that had been bouncing around in my head for several years, based on an old news item about a woman who disappeared days before her parole ended. After writhing through innumerable variations, this ultimately turned into a book about a prison that doesn’t look like a prison. (In addition to being my 2015 NaNoWriMo project, it was also my 2016 Camp NaNo project. I hope to have it done by the end of this year.)

Taking the sage advice of numerous writers who tell you to always have two projects going, I also (in a leisurely way) did the Writers Digest NovPAD (poetry) challenge during November. This was a lifesaver on days when I couldn’t face my story, and it turned out that I actually enjoyed writing a lot of it. My results were mixed – some of the poems were, surprisingly, not too bad. (A few of them are posted at this site, in fact.) Some were not so good. Some turned out to be like little jokes I was telling myself. However they turned out, the challenge helped keep me writing.

At the end of November, I printed out and packed up everything I had done, and put it away for a while. Then I began expanding a story I started in 2011, about a woman who may be leaving an unhappy marriage at a time when doing so is pretty complicated. (A piece of this can be found here.) And I joined up with a great group of local writers whose feedback and encouragement have meant the world to me.

This year I re-launched my blog (thank you for visiting!) and got back on Twitter. Wrote some short pieces just for the fun of it, and developed the habit of actually writing down new ideas. (It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a good idea can enter and leave your head.) And in April I did Camp NaNo and the Blogging from A to Z challenge.

This year I started calling myself a writer, and for the first time in a long time I started feeling like I might actually finish a project.

Who knows? I might even get around to writing that About page.

What’s your journey?

 

  1. Let me be clear here – I am incredibly lucky, because somebody else actually does. A few people, including my husband, my child, my writing fairy godmother, and a few friends whose enthusiasm has actually been a really pleasant surprise. There are, of course, a few friends whose lack of enthusiasm has been a bit disappointing, but it’s certainly possible that I have let them down in small or subtle ways, so I’m cool. The good is so good, and sometimes so unexpected, that it definitely outweighs the bad.
  2. Among Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies, I am an obliger, which means that someone else’s project, deadline, expectations will always carry more weight with me than my own. This is probably why I like challenges – they allow me to externalize my projects and priorities, and that’s when things start getting done.

 

(Image: Women prospectors on their way to Klondyke, from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views via the New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

Posted in Miscellany | 9 Comments

Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You

adirondack cottage sanitarium
When I was in graduate school, I took a course in urban geography, and one of the texts that we read was a book called City of Plagues: Disease, Poverty, and Deviance in San Francisco by Susan Craddock. In the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of the book, Craddock describes a visit to a San Francisco homeless shelter in 1991. She found ‘a number of small rooms … located off a central hallway, each room containing six built-in bunk beds, three on each side with perhaps three feet separating each bed. None of the rooms has a window.’ She also observes that the few windows in the hallway ‘look as if  they have never been opened.’ There’s more, but you probably get the picture.

At a time when fully one third of the city’s homeless population was testing positive for tuberculosis, it would be hard to imagine a worse design for limiting the spread of the disease. Or, as she put it, ‘it would seem that the homeless shelter was designed specifically with the transmission of tuberculosis in mind,’ but not in exactly the way we might expect.

Even back in 1991, tuberculosis (or ‘consumption’ if you’re from the early part of the 1900s) was a disease with a long history, about which the medical and public health establishments had been fairly knowledgeable for a pretty long time. If you imagine an early 20th century tuberculosis sanitarium (like the one pictured above) you are probably picturing big, open rooms and big, open porches scattered with rocking chairs and frail women wrapped in blankets. You are probably not imagining a ‘beehive’ of cramped, windowless rooms with folks sleeping in bunk-bed close quarters.

I remember vividly when I first read that chapter in that book, thinking how bizarre it was that people could so easily dismiss or ignore information that was readily available. I’m sure I had heard of cognitive dissonance and cognitive bias before, but I found this example so concrete and so jarring that it really stuck with me.

Cognitive dissonance and cognitive bias fascinate me because they are so central to the ways in which our knowledge can fail to inform our behavior, not to mention the ways that our behavior can limit our knowledge. And even when you know your brain is playing tricks on you, the lure can be hard to resist. A few examples:

  • Confirmation Bias – Ah, election years. When you search for, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms your previously held beliefs? When you ignore new information that challenges those beliefs? That’s confirmation bias. (OK, maybe not this election year. I don’t think anyone saw any of this year’s stuff coming.)
  • Anchoring Bias – What was the first thing you learned about, say, how to cook? Or how to buy a car? Anchoring is when we rely too heavily (or ‘anchor’) on one thing (usually the first thing we learned) when making decisions. Was it Dear Abby or Miss Manners that said that for most folks, the ‘right’ way to wash dishes or fold towels is usually the way your parents taught you. The way your partner’s parents did it? That way is the wrong way.
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect – You know this one, too, though you might not know that you do. This describes the situation when someone who has a little bit of knowledge or skill takes themselves to be an expert, while the person who is actually an expert tends to underestimate their own knowledge or ability. This is one of my favorites, and reminds me of the lines from the Yeats poem:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst.
Are full of passionate intensity.

And of course, I say ‘we’ and ‘our’ throughout, because I know I am not immune to flawed thinking. It doesn’t make it any less fascinating, though, and in any case, knowing about all of this stuff can’t hurt, now can it? (There’s probably a cognitive bias at work there somewhere, but I’ll ignore it for now.)

 

(Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium image via the New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

Posted in Miscellany, Quotes I love, Tools and tips | 5 Comments

May 12

flower buds.jpg

      34

Dedicado al undécimo aniversario del
«Aula de Poesía de Barcelona»,
12 de mayo de 2001.

¿Qué es un doce de mayo, para la Poesía?
¿Qué ritmos, qué efluvios,… qué vientos nacen
en esta fiesta levantada con bellos vocablos?
Cuando nace la palabra escogida de la tribu
(desnuda, rodeada de palabras serviles y átonas)
apenas si puede respirar en semejante atmósfera;
pero algo alienta en ella, y su lucidez de chispa
es cual flor brotando en aletargados espíritus,
ahítos del frío y envolvente hastío mundanal.
Quiero respirar poesía, respirarla de verdad
cual si de benéficos y sutiles aires se tratara.
Y sentirla dentro de mí, meciéndose liberada,
ajena al trajín de tiempos de mirada oscura,
tiempos que interrumpen el fiero impulso vital.
Pero si un doce de mayo se abriera el capullo,
y una forma con variopintos colores y ritmo
dejara escapar su íntimo vendaval, entonces…

 Juan-José Reyes Ríos

34
Dedicated to the eleventh anniversary of the
“Poetry Classroom of Barcelona”
May 12, 2001.
What is May 12, for poetry?
What rhythms, what outpourings, what winds are born …
at this event, raised with beautiful words?
When the word comes chosen from the tribe
(naked, surrounded by menial and toneless words)
you can hardly breathe in such an atmosphere;
but something is animated in it, its bright spark
a flower budding amid dormant spirits,
gorged with cold and surrounded by mad weariness.
I want to breathe poetry, really breathe it
its beneficial and subtle airs.
And feel it inside me, swaying freely,
outside the grind of dark faced times,
times that interrupt the vital, fierce impulse.
But if on May 12 a cocoon is opened,
and a brightly colored, rhythmic shape
releases its inner storm, then …

Juan-José Reyes Ríos was born in Barcelona in 1952. He is a writer and poet about whom I could find literally nothing online in English. Si hablas Español, puedes leer más de sus poemas y mas acerca de él aquí.

Translation by me – corrections welcome.

(Flower buds image by ahlea via Flickr.)

 

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Reflections from A to Z

reflection

The first place I learned about the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was at the WriteOnSisters blog, and initially I was confused. In retrospect, I’m not sure exactly why I was confused, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out, and once I did, I couldn’t resist. Having just recently (re-)launched my blog, it seemed like an excellent way to jump start my writing. I’d done National Novel Writing Month recently enough that having a month-long task felt really doable, and (bonus!) unlike NaNoWriMo, the A to Z challenge didn’t require that all the work be done during the challenge month itself.

So what did I learn? A ton, both about the mechanics of blogging and about myself as a writer and blogger.

One of the first things that I figured out was that pre-scheduling posts is a lifesaver. If I had an idea for a day, I wrote it and scheduled it and was done with it. It felt great. I could (and did) go back and tweak, but having a bunch of posts done in advance made all the difference. Another thing that made a big difference was creating checklists for myself. This is hardly a surprise, since I am a listmaker by long time habit, but for a challenge like this, and a newbie like me, a comprehensive checklist is critical for remembering all the little daily details. (Did you include the challenge link? Check! Check the slug? Done! Do you have the attribution link for that image? Got it!)

The other thing I did was to set up a document that had the reference and attribution links that I re-used. Otherwise I would be hunting them down daily, and that’s just annoying. I also learned to be careful about keeping source information for things that I wanted to save for future use. There’s nothing worse than having a picture or snippet that you love but you can’t remember (or find) the source.

On a more personal level, I learned just as much. Perhaps most importantly, I was reminded about how important it is to be a realistic judge of how long things are going to take. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in addition to the A to Z Challenge, I also signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo and had a fairly labor-intensive out of town work commitment for the last week of the month. Pre-scheduling posts eased this up a bit, but it was still probably too much. And however much I told myself that I didn’t have to finish both challenges, in my heart I knew I did have to. It was stressful, but in the end I was pleased with the work and the accomplishment.

All that did leave very little time to explore other people’s blogs, though, and that’s a real regret for me. On the more positive side, I unearthed a love of poetry that came as a real surprise. Although I definitely think of myself as a prose writer, the blogging format – for me, anyway – seems to lend itself more to shorter forms, including poetry. This was a very pleasant discovery. Another was how much I have enjoyed my forays into translation. I’ve been working for several years to improve my Spanish, and it turns out that translating Spanish poetry is a really challenging and enjoyable way to enhance that work.

In the last couple of weeks I have had a little time to start exploring other people’s blogs, and I look forward to doing more of that. There are definitely a few that I plan to stick with, and I look forward to finding even more. (Have any suggestions? Let me know in the comments.)

Will I attempt the A to Z challenge again next year? Probably. For one thing, I won’t have the weeklong work event at the end of the month, and hopefully I will be more efficient in both my blogging and my writing. Either way, though, I should probably give serious thought to choosing either the A to Z Challenge or Camp NaNo, rather than both.

(Reflection image via University of Washington Library on Flickr.)

Posted in Challenges, Tools and tips | Tagged , | 10 Comments

May Rain

rain dance.jpg

LLUVIA EN MAYO

¡Cuán hermosa tú, la desvelada!
Te lleva y te moldea dulce viento
encima de jardines y de estatuas.
Tu cuerpo es el de Venus en la orilla
eternamente mar dentro del alba.

Acude siempre a mí, séme propicia.
La fiesta de las hojas en sus ramas
te rinden los esbeltos soñadores
que en movibles racimos se levantan.

No tengo ni una flor… Sólo mi tronco
aloja por frutal una campana.
Lluvia que contemplo, melancólica:
no crezcas para mí. Vivo inundada.

Carmen Conde Abellán

 

MAY RAIN

How beautiful you, the restless!
The sweet wind takes you and molds you
over gardens and statues.
Your body is that of Venus on the shore
eternal sea at dawn.

Always go to me, I know myself propitious.
The revelry of leaves in their branches
the slender dreamers surrender to you
as they rise in moving clusters.

I have not even a flower … Only my stem
home for fruit like a bell*.
Rain I consider, melancholy:
Do not grow for me. Live flooded.

* One of the things that I love about attempting to translate poetry is that it can be really hard, and the process of trying to understand what the poet intended introduces me to new things and questions that I may not be able to answer. Take, por ejemplo, ‘mi tronco aloja por frutal una campana.’ That’s a short little phrase, right? Shouldn’t be too challenging.
Maybe. Except that ‘aloja’ means ‘house’, but in the verb sense (‘how will we house the new arrivals?’). And ‘frutal‘ means fruit, but in the adjective sense (‘fruit tree’). So ‘my stem houses for fruit a bell’? That can’t be right. Think hard about the syntax, and then I look at it some more, do some checking – and discover that there’s this fruit called a bell fruit. Could Conde Abellán have been referring to those?
And that’s just one line of the poem.
So I don’t know for sure. I do my best, try to maintain the spirit of the poem, and remember what Voltaire said about translation:
Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the meaning! It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life.
As always, comments and corrections are welcome.

 

(Carmen Conde Abellán (1907-1996) was a Spanish poet, teacher, co- founder of the first Popular University of Cartagena, and the first woman to become an Academic Numerary of the Real Academia Española, holding the ‘k’ seat.)

 

(Rain dance image by Theophilos Papadopoulos via Flickr.)

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