And Still I Write*

In the early spring of 2013, my husband and I left our careers in Seattle to move to a remote peninsula in the northwest reaches of the state. It’s the place where we’d intended to retire someday, but we had another twenty years of work ahead of us. After crisscrossing the country and oceans to the east and west, we’d at last found jobs we felt we could live out our salaried lives growing into. We worked for the same company, one that seemed to espouse our personal and political ideals. We were earning a comfortable combined wage with excellent benefits.

 

And I was writing. By the winter of 2012, I had published several short stories and I was deep into the first draft of my first novel. I’d been admitted into an MFA program starting in the fall at a local university, and thanks to a flexible schedule, I knew I could make it all work.

 

It was a good life. We were happy.

 

There’s a story churning in my gut, a contemporary drama about a corporate culture that allowed a stream of employees to be bullied into impossible corners and intimidated into silence, a cautionary tale of a mentally unstable, power-sick company executive who targeted a worthy rising star, and bullied him with impunity. It’s a story with ripple effects both beautiful and grave, circumstances that opened doors and burned down buildings. In it, a couple refused to remain silent or back down; they worked in solidarity to shine light in the darkest of those tight, unforgiving corners.

 

Seattle is now a place where I once lived. All that happened is a memory in a shared life story.

 

 

That ending to our tidy lives, the cleaving of our employment, became the beginning of my full-time writing career. Leaving the city life for a village by the sea meant simplifying and we created a budget that allowed for one income. It also meant sacrifices and a resetting of expectations, but my husband declared his willingness to support us for as long as it took me to build a sustainable writing career. He became my sponsor, a gesture of grace and generosity.

 

I worked hard, writing hours a day, seven days a week, rarely a day off. I landed an agent and sold two novels and completed a third in the first two years as a fulltime writer. I published short stories and essays, my first poem. I began leading writing workshops and started a freelance editing business. I was awarded a writing residency in Ireland and saved up enough to send myself on a writing retreat in France. I was living a writer’s dream, at least one in its early stages. My income was modest: moderate advances and whatever I netted from teaching and editing gigs. Not enough to sustain myself, but enough to give me confidence that I was on the right track.

 

My first novel launched in February 2016, an event concurrent to the collapse of my marriage. That spring, as I publicly celebrated the most fulfilling, rewarding thing that could happen to a writer, a twenty-five year marriage was very privately coming to an end. How a couple slides from unity to dissolution is a tapestry of mistakes and sadness I will be unraveling for years. But the ending became delayed by something that still shames me to admit: I knew if my husband and I separated, my life as a fulltime writer would end. My security would vanish. I would be forced to return to a day job, giving up my dream almost as soon as it began. Yet to continue in a marriage that was less than either of us deserved would be to continue in a lie.

 

Ten months to the day after my first novel released, I punched a time card. I was fortunate to have found a job in the wine industry, a world I’d left three and half years before. I worked first for a resort, where the hours were long, the nights were late, the work physically demanding, commuting white-knuckled on dark roads all through the fall and winter. The summer I spent at a winery close to home with better pay, but no benefits and an uncertain future.  Then a few weeks ago, a phone call from a new, local, non-profit arts school asking if I would join their staff. A return to my long-ago, rewarding career in education administration, creating systems and processes to advance a mission I could wrap my head and heart around.

 

And still, when people ask what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Somehow, in the midst of life’s chaos, the grief of a marriage ending, the bewilderment of another broken relationship blundered into from fear of loneliness and excitement of freedom, I scribble away still, determined to hold on to that which defines me: my words.

 

My second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA (Ashland Creek Press) released in September. I had neither the time nor the funds to mount an in-person book tour. I released myself from the expectation of a sprint after launch and the novel is serenely flying alone. I settle into my new job, reclaim my routines, and set my sights on making bookstore rounds in the spring, knowing now from experience that promotion is a marathon, a slow and steady race without a finish line. A third novel is recently on submission. I have made tentative steps into a fourth project, having promised my agent I would have a draft of something solid by summer. Late summer.

 

I know of few writers who write fulltime, sustaining themselves on advances and royalties. Most of us, even those with bestseller in their bios, teach and freelance to supplement an uncertain and meager income, or we work full or part-time at jobs unrelated to our writing, jobs that provide health insurance, that pay the mortgage, the college tuition, the credit card debt, the medical bills. Those who have partners able to provide financial stability are the fortunate ones, as I was once. And fortunate I am still, for I have found stability on my own, with a vocation that sustains me financially and intellectually. My avocation, that as a writer, sustains my soul.

Julie Christine Johnson’s short stories and essays have appeared in journals including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; and River Poets Journal. Her work has also appeared in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and psychology and a master’s in international affairs.

Named a “standout debut” by Library Journal, “very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review, and “delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life (Sourcebooks) went into a second printing three days after its February 2016 release. A hiker, yogi, and swimmer, Julie makes her home in northwest Washington state.

Visit www.juliechristinejohnson.com for more information on Julie’s writing.

Follow her on Twitter @JulieChristineJ

 

 

*This essay originally appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books, November 8, 2017.

A Hive of Words

My head is a hive of words that won’t settle. ~ Virginia Woolf

 

The urge, the need to write. I tremble with it. And yet all that must spill from my head onto a page overwhelms me: essays and Author Q&As for imminent blog tour; a client’s manuscript awaiting feedback; three workshops in September to assemble, not to mention a weekly class beginning in October. Presentations about new novel. A newsletter; book reviews; e-mails to write and respond to. Most importantly, and yet the one thing I put off in favor of mopping the kitchen floor, arranging the spices, venting on Facebook about health care reform: my work-in-progress.

 

Today is graced with hours of unstructured time. I swim at dawn. A haircut this afternoon. Yoga and a date later this evening. But in-between, I sink into these two days off. I vow not to check work e-mail. To do what I promise myself I will do when I have a stretch of time: write. I finish my client’s manuscript. I submit an essay for my upcoming blog tour. I start another. I hide from the heat wave with the blinds drawn, my glass full of lemon water and snapping ice, the dog twitching with dreams, the cat ‘s sleek little body sprawled on the cool tile floor. I think I will take a nap, a slim memoir my companion until my eyelids close, my mouth slackens, my breath deepens. I am so tired. I will write after I sleep. But sleep giggles and I am awake. Because of the words.

 

At some point in these past two months, I abandoned my Bullet Journal. This assiduously maintained analog system that is the intersection of daily to-do list, planner, and diary stalled and then blacked out. Where once were plans and ideas are now the blank page equivalent of Crickets. A Black Hole.

 

The thought of chronicling all that I need to do seems far more harmful to my psyche than simply leaping onto the windmill blade itself, giving myself up to the spinning madness of daily life. A new job. The end of love. The beginning of love. A novel to launch. Another novel newly on submission. A dog who ate my sofa and my yoga mat and several blankets. Furniture. Shoes. We still find feathers from a demolished down comforter floating down the stairs on breezy afternoons. She becomes the symbol of what is wrong, what must be changed, how mismatched expectations and impossible hopes strangle love.

 

I quit attending to my organizational system when it seems my daily bullet points will read

  • Breathe
  • Accept
  • Heal
  • Buy one-way ticket to Chile

And yet. There it is. A new notebook, slowly filling with character, settings, questions, possibilities, themes, magic. I leave myself a trail to follow each time I write. My planned life ends in June, about the time my writing life kicks into gear. Even as I arrange those spices, mop that floor, craft others’ work schedules, delight in stolen moments with a beloved, even as I catch up here with you, I’m working on what matters most. A young woman trapped in a land of eternal rain, plagued by dreams of summer and a family lost to battle, possessing a power that renders her both misfit and divine entity; and a shepherd, five thousand miles and five hundred years away, haunted by his own dreams and a war that will prove to be without end.

 

Today’s to-do list

  • Write
  • Read
  • Breathe
  • <deliberatelyleftblank>

I shared with you recently that In Another Life had been nominated for a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Award. I’m delighted to report back: the novel received GOLD for Fantasy Book of the Year, awarded at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, June 2017. 

Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I’d breathed all day. I’d arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

 

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web’s bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

 

Spider’s commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

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My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider’s web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

 

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I’ve turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I’ve had little desire to offer more beyond what’s already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I’ve filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

 

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider’s web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It’s what she does. Spin or die.

 

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

 

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I’ll always dance between the two, but I think I’m ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

 

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

As Stars Begin to Burn

Three months to the day since my last blog post. Sounds rather like a statement fit for the confessional booth, doesn’t it?

 

“Forgive me Father, for I have . . . ‘  

 

I’ve been asking for forgiveness often of late. Of myself, for myself. Life, having flipped upside-down in recent months, leaves my inside-out heart pushing through a thick fog of self-doubt and anxiety with occasional glimpses of bright blue joy above. Love and belly laughs. Bonfires and beaches. Une chienne blanche. La ville rose. 

 

EndingsBeginningsLossesFinds freefalling like a poem snipped apart and flung into the air, its wordpieces floating to the ground to form new lines, new meanings.

 

When I began writing full-time three summers ago, I worried that stepping off the traditional work-life stage would distance me from life’s theatre, that I would fall into a too quiet existence, all the potential characters and their stories passing me by. I would no longer really live life, only observe it from a comfortable remove.

 

Turns out, I had nothing to fear. Life chased me down. Smacked me upside the head. Said don’t even think about getting comfortable, girlfriend. 

 

And so I am in the thick of it. My own story as large as life, almost larger than I can handle some days. But, fuck. It’s mine. In all its hot mess merry-go-round spinning whiplash glory of possibility and bewilderment of massive change. I am so alive I can scarcely breathe from the force of it.

 

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Manzanita, Oregon Coast, June 2016

And ever the writer, a part of me stands slightly outside, taking note of the emotions that hit my solar plexus like a hammer blow, the characters who crash through my heart’s door in all their noisy love and fury, unlooked for, uninvited, but inevitable. Intended. I create word photographs of the tsunami, knowing my way through this to the other side, to peace and equanimity, will be found on the page.

 

Thank you, precious friend, who read this Mary Oliver poem to me over the phone last night, over the sound of my sobs. Thank you, Poetry, for always speaking my heart.

 

Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to me these past weeks, wondering where I was, whether I was all right, when I’d be back. I’m here. Writing my stories. I’m here. Living this one wild and precious life.

 

I’m here. 

 

The Journey 
 
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

by Mary Oliver 

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

Fear is boring.

Yes. This. I spent forty-one years (okay, maybe thirty-five; for the first six I was blissfully unaware that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up) being afraid to pursue my dream of writing. What if I sucked? Then what dreams would be left to me? Finally, it was the fear of seeing my chances to live authentically running out that propelled me to try. Fear that I suck is still a demon on my shoulder, but I’ve learned to acknowledge that demon and move on, despite its claws digging in painfully. I could spend my time paralyzed by fear, or I could spend my time writing. My choice.

 

The notion that creativity is a magical, enchanting process may seem too woo hoo for some readers, perhaps many writers, but it resonated with this one. Yes, it is true. There is little that is magical about putting your butt in the chair, day after day, most particularly those days when you least want to write, and simply getting on with it. It is the only way to be productive, to finish what you have started: there is no glitter and spark to dogged determination.

 

And yet. The magic has twirled and sparkled in my own creative process. It doesn’t stay long, or it comes and goes, but when it flashes, I’m aware. The rest is on me, to do the hard work of turning inspiration into art, and then to find my audience. I don’t wait for the muse to guide me or put off writing until I feel inspired. But I work to be more open to and aware of the Divine Sparks, so when they occur, I can capture and hold them long enough to let them burn into my mind’s eye, etched until I have time and energy to return to their outlines.

 

I adored the anecdote about Gilbert and Ann Patchett exchanging ideas in the ether—it released me from the angst of recognizing my ideas in others’ work, of realizing that each idea has its time and will find its right and true voice.

 

You are not required to save the world with your creativity.

 

I will admit to feeling a certain . . . pressure, expectation, as a woman, as a woman over forty, to write Big Important Things. And I have done, in short stories, in essays; even in novels that appear commercial on the surface, the themes of grief, redemption, addiction, faith ground the narrative in larger, more universal contexts. But I resist writing to an agenda, I resist the notion that I must write to educate. There are times, yes, when I feel compelled to share lessons I’ve learned that may be of use to others. But I am a storyteller at heart. Really, what I want to achieve as a writer is pleasure. Enjoyment. Fulfillment. Mostly mine, if I’m honest.

 

About pursuing an advanced degree (i.e. The MFA). I get this question on occasion and now have an abridged answer that I can credit to Elizabeth Gilbert: Writers have it easy. The only education we need awaits us for free in a library or at moderate cost in a bookstore. Connections, networking, community, feedback, support—all can be obtained for free if a writer reaches out, both for support and to lift up others. MFAs can be lovely and advantageous, but *need* is not a reason to pursue one.

 

I’ve read a few reviews that scoff at Gilbert’s breathless enthusiasm, she who now perches comfortably on the pinnacle of artistic and financial freedom afforded her by the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love. As if commercial success somehow taints or diminishes or renders meaningless all the years of hard work she put in and rejection received before the runaway success of EPL. Whatever. Move along. We all enter this with our own advantages, disadvantages, lucky breaks and unfair blows. Acknowledge yours, celebrate, embrace or forgive them and stop wasting energy belittling or dismissing others who have achieved what you would like. Write.

 

There’s so much more. I need to reread Big Magic again in bits and pieces and perhaps return to this review and amend, change, modify, as I grow as a writer and my books grow up and away from me. For now, though, it is enough to have simply been allowed to return to what is important: that I write because I and the Universe have chosen it to be so. That’s enough.

 

Create whatever you want to create—and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice.

And that’s awesome.
 

Yes. Yes it is.

 

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A Book is Born!

Friday afternoon: Exhaustion has turned my limbs to chilled butter. Tears press against the back of my eyes, my nose stings with heightened emotion. Nothing is wrong; everything is right. I am just so very tired and this week, the week I saw my novel launch into the world, is nearly at an end. Half an hour on this ship, another hour on the road, and I will be home. Silence. Bath. Cat. The last season of Mad Men on Netflix. Wine.

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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

How to put into words what this week has meant, all that has happened; the outpouring of love and support from people I’ve never met in the flesh; others whom I have not seen in nearly thirty years, taking a seat before the podium where I stand, poised to talk about my novel; the flooding of photographs on my Facebook feed by friends who have found my book on shelves in Hawai’i and Florida, Boston and Houston; others holding up my book in Ireland and Scotland while their friends and family chime in to say, ‘What’s this? You know the author?’—all who have embraced me with such unqualified belief, joy . . . the words don’t come. Only the warm flush of gratitude, the spark of amazement.

 

While I’ve been in Seattle, reading, meeting, signing, celebrating, In Another Life has had at least as full and busy a virtual launch week as its author has had in real life.

 

Here are a few highlights:

 

Trade Reviews

  • A gorgeous review by Nicole Evelina from the Historical Novel Society‘s print publication: Historical Novels Review (Feb 1, 2016)
  • And another that left me wanting to throw a ticker-tape parade, from the Washington Independent Review of Books (Feb 5, 2016). Ann McClellan brought out the novel’s themes with such clarity and grace.
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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

On the Virtual Road

The Blog Tour for In Another Life kicked off a few days before launch and it’s been a whirlwind of interviews, guest posts, and reviews. Here are my stops so far. Warm hugs to these bloggers, who do what they do out of sheer love for reading and the satisfaction of supporting authors and bringing books to their readers:

 

Virtual Launch Party!

Tuesday, February 9, beginning 11:30 EST, I’ll be part of a party of 13 authors whose novels launch between January and March, 2016. Join us for an incredible opportunity to chat with these amazing writers about their beautiful books. And me! Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association Online Book Launch Party

 

Current Giveaways

  • Goodreads Giveaway (3 copies) happening now through February 14.
  • Teddy Rose is hosting a giveaway of In Another Life: 10 days left to enter!
  • And, I’m giving away a gift bag of love, plus a signed copy of In Another Life, now through February 13. Subscribers to my newsletter are automatically entered into the random drawing. Giftbag Giveaway

 

As I wait for the boat to bring me from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, a tweet arrives that pulls the exhaustion from my limbs and delivers tears and laughter. Three days after publication, In Another Life returns to press for a second printing.  My gratitude knows no bounds.

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A Word of Resolution for 2016

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them.

Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

 

January is tricky. I don’t know if this happens where you live, and I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest long enough to have scrubbed memories of common, dull Januarys elsewhere. But there is no darkness like that of a January morning. In fact, here at least, Sunrise simply defies the Solstice that is weeks old—rising later than ever, while Sunset tugs at the other end, stretching away from the day, striding farther across the Pacific Ocean. I notice the creeping length of the afternoons in increments: Last week at this time it was pitch black when I left class, now there is a faint glow of white across the Olympics. But the mornings. Oh. They grow heavier and darker.

 

I used to watch the calendar—where the timing of Sunrises and Sunsets are writ in tiny italics—for the day deep in January when the sunrise began to tick backwards. On that day my soul would inhale deeply and rise toward the light.

 

This year, though, I haven’t minded. I’m out early most mornings, grasping a chunk of fresh air and getting a few miles under my feet before I put my seat in a chair. Something about starting in the dark, in the privacy of absolute shadow, allows me to hold my inner stillness for a little while longer. Several miles later, as I close the distance between hill and home, it is light and I must reenter the world, share the sidewalk and the rain with other bodies, others’ thoughts.

 

It’s the first time I can recall ever embracing January (except, of course, in New Zealand, where January is a cathedral of light and July is an ache of chill and damp.)

 

Last January I joined the practice of naming a word to define the year to come. My word for 2015 was a sensation, a representation of feeling, a metaphysical concept wrapped up in a gorgeous set of syllables: charmolypi, loosely translated as joyful sorrow, a kind of letting go.

 

This year, however, I am going with something simpler. A verb. A drawing in, rather than a letting go.

 

 

Embrace. The solace of shadow, the singular sweetness of the dark season. No longer keeping my head down in January, simply waiting for the darkness to end.

 

Embrace. This season of madness. Book launch two weeks away, my every moment accounted for, writing guest blog posts, doing interviews, preparing for book talks, this busyness that borders on frantic as I reach out, connect, and try not to slip on the ice of my own expectations.

 

Embrace. The distant sparkle of creativity, the flashes in my periphery, reminding me that although I am here now and the open meadow of the blank page is a few days’ journey in the distance, I’m only just visiting and I’ll be back my story home, soon.

 

Embrace. That pain deep in my hip and groin grinding like a pepper mill. I’ve stopped running, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good. And as my hips shake loose and my back releases from the confines of a runner’s constricted muscles, I have access to yoga asanas I never thought possible. My body, embracing me in gratitude, my ego rebuilding. I walk 8 miles in my running shoes. I feel no pain.

 

Embrace. The softening of my shell in the warmth of others’ support. The love and encouragement that has come my way in the past year leaves me trembling. I shed a carapace of doubt and insecurity and learn to accept others’ generosity with grace and in wonder.

 

Embrace. The singularity of this time, as uncertain and strange, as full of bright lights and blue shadows as it is. For it will change, as all moments do, blurring into the next or bursting apart like a camera flash.

 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.~ T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”