When Breath Becomes Air ⎟ Book Exchange Series

Dear Reader,

I recently took part in a Book Exchange. A friend of mine posted a status asking if anyone wanted to take part in a gift exchange. I had often seen posts like this before. In the past, I’ve never answered the call because I felt uncomfortable giving my address out to total strangers. This time, I decided, I was just going to jump in. My friend sent me a long message immediately after I replied that asked you to send your favourite book to Person A; you would make a similar post on your wall and those who responded would send a book to Person B (the person who’s post I had seen and to which I had responded). One swapped addresses as the chain of connections grew.

At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was about to say, oh, maybe this isn’t for me. But, I embraced it. I embraced that I would be asking my friends to send my friend a book and that their friends would be sending me a book.  I was to send a book to the person who caught her in this web of gift-giving, and those who responded to me would send my friend a book.  I kind of liked that this whole experiment was at least once-removed. It felt like a connection wherein you shared part of yourself to someone you did not necessarily know. I didn’t even think about the books I would get, I just thought about the book I wanted to give and the person who would receive my book.

Since money is tight and our government insists that young people just need to get used to precarious employment, I told the friends who responded to my post that it was perfectly okay to send a used book or to buy from cheaper online shops, an advantage being that one can ship directly to their person. I know that we should be supporting independent shops, but there just aren’t any around me. I suppose the ideal situation would be to send a book with a care package and a small gift, but that wasn’t in my budget and I didn’t want to ask anyone to spend beyond what they were able. The only downside of this method is that the person who receives the book doesn’t know who sent the book. I’ve decided to make a post for every book I receive and extend my most heartfelt thanks and bow in humility to those who sent the precious gift of a book to me.

 

***

Yesterday, I received a book from the book exchange. At first, I was trying to remember what books I had purchased. I was awaiting some Roald Dahl books and Black and British, and when I opened the bubbly envelope, out popped When Breath Becomes Air. Afterwards, I realized this wasn’t a book I’d purchased because of the name on the label, it had my nicknameI was a bit shocked. I knew that everyone was super hyped about this book; I was not. Two humans in my life had told me about Paul Kalanithi, one before Kalanithi’s death and one who had fallen in love with this book.

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I really wasn’t convinced. He was sold to me as someone who had crossed the invisible but very tangible boundary between the arts and sciences. It seemed ludicrous to me. In my experience, science has heralded itself as the worthy occupation, and arts are usually sidelined as a luxury. It felt that science was a career, but literature, art, history, economics (not commerce), philosophy, etc., those things are considered to be hobbies. I’m wary of this crack in the earth, this line in the land, this unfathomable fissure. I never used to feel that divide so strongly when I was younger, I had studied physics and maths in secondary school, and I loved reading and history. I, myself, debated between studying engineering and history. My dad’s friends, engineers that had lived through Nortel Networks, told me to do history. So, I did.

As I studied, the prejudices against the arts from the sciences ruffled my feathers. It was like constantly going against the grain, and even though I was moving through molasses, people believed that work was somehow meaningless in the greater scheme. I had many existential crises in the library: what was the meaning of anything? History and revisionists and philosophies, oh my!  So, I let those experiences inform my opinion on this book, and I decided against reading it. I was wrong to have those prejudices.

Certainly, Kalanithi understands his own prejudices, the arrogances and ego that come with medicine or any career, really, and he conscientiously works against them. He notices it, and he remarks that it doesn’t feel right. Next time, we do better. I think that is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book; he recognizes that we are not always going to have the answers or be the same person day after day. Each day we have to struggle with the good and bad things that inform our past actions, we must be held accountable, and we must strive to shift our experience beyond what we know to be true.

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Although Kalanithi doesn’t explicitly state: BE EMPATHETIC, his entire memoir is an ode to empathy and understanding. It does not bridge the gulfs created by class, race, and gender, but it does remind us that privileges may make us heedless to how others think and feel. We might become solipsistic, the sole ego that denies souls to others.

The book is chockfull of references and allusions to erudite and esoteric literary works, and, by applying texts that might seem elusive, dusty tomes directly to his professional and personal experiences, Kalanithi encourages us to think of them as relevant to our own lives. Things that seem elitist are within our grasp; he evidences this by the fact that his mother’s revolutionizing force in the previously somewhat bereft local education system gave opportunities to all students.

Indeed, I’m still figuring out how education and elitism go hand-in-hand, particularly when so many  young people are educated but lack the hoards of moveable property that accompany the elite. Moreover, I know reading classics of western literature is laden full of privilege and historical prejudices, and, surely, our sense of their beauty is tied to the colonialism that accompanied(s) them. And yet, words, literature, and thoughts are profound and full of meaning. Canonical western literature is not the be-all and end-all. There are so many voices to whom we should listen. We must actively make social and public spaces for those voices.

We must also not forget that Kalanithi had an extraordinary education, Stanford and Cambridge. I cannot ignore this in my review because it would deny the fact that many persons will not and do not have access to these kinds of experiences. I would also like to make note that the book does contain some privileging of able bodies and able minds. The book, at times, seems to preclude a world inclusive of neurodivergence, but that these are problems to be solved. I am not well-informed enough in this area to speak to it fully.

Kalanithi’s bridge between Literature and Neuro-science and -surgery echoes his investigation of the mind/body nexus, a philosophical problem as old as time. We accept that language gives us the tools of expression, meaning, feeling, intelligence. ‘Man’ has believed that what made him man was language. (Animals, meanwhile, have argued that it was the red-flower.) And then there is the brain that controls the lot. If we want to understand how we think and what we think, do we engage in philosophy or neuroscience? If parts of the brain that become damaged or put under the pressure of a tumour influence how we behave and act, then what does that mean about what it means to about selfhood? Kalanithi doesn’t give us a straight-forward answer; rather, he engages in a well-thought discourse that attempts to meaningfully untangle the seemingly unsolvable. Unsolvable things such as life, death, mortality, suffering, the liminal experience of the patient who may or may not return from the cusp of death, and the place of those who remain after death.

To me, and I think most people will agree, it is the abridged and purpose-driven autobiographical narrative that a parent would hope to leave their child, especially if the parent will die before the child can ask the parent questions about their life.

Finally, I’d like to finish by quoting one of my best friend’s favourite lines: ‘You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving’. A life in motion, a life that moves forward, learning from others, ourselves, and how to engage with people as people and not as problems or a ticking clock.

 

Heaps of Love,

Kat Xx

[Edit: see below]

P.S. In my desire to publish this before I had to take my dog out, I forgot to emphasize a few things. The main takeaway that I want people to have from this book is the importance of reading and the act of reading as a tool to build empathy. For all of its flaws, children that grew up reading the Harry Potter series have been shown to be more empathetic. Because so many young people have this shared experience, they are also able to connect through it. Likewise, we may not agree on which religion or why, we might agree that Hermione’s activities through SPEW are indicative of white feminism. We were given a language to discuss child abuse and the loneliness that teens and young adults feel alongside the loneliness and isolation of adults (re: Sirius). Literature is important. People who study literature are important. Their brains work in wonderful and often uncelebrated ways.

In addition to noting the importance of literature, I did make the point about the prevalence of western literature throughout the text. When I was studying, I was co-Chair of an off-shoot of a charity that builds local-language libraries, supports local-language publishing, and gives money for girls to go to school. When I was part of this charity, it was always important to me that the books that were placed in the libraries and the books that were published were not western exports. Those books are usually readily available, but it was important that money was given to regional and local authors. It is never about exporting the western canon elsewhere; it is about recognizing that we need to support local publishing. This is why writing, and empathy, and developing our individual and shared vocabularies through reading, writing, and supporting authors is important.

Look at the ways in which my own world was broadened by this book. Those are the things that are important.

 

Book rating: 3.5/5

E.M Forster’s Maurice ⎟ sex, love, and philosophy

PODCAST REVEAL ⎟ E.M Forster’s Maurice

 

Dear Reader,

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The podcast is finally here! Click below to hear about E.M Forster’s Maurice and about sex, love, and philosophy! I mean! Rock and Roll! iTunes link to come soon.

 

 

<<Download this episode here>>

 

litwit

 

Heaps and heaps of love,

WordPlay Xx

¶ Purgatorio, Commedia II ⎟ PEA

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There was a time, dear, when
I was led by poets of yore
Through mountainous terrains,
penitent mourners, and the
sins they had cast.
I ascended the Spanish Steps
Heaving sonnets and verse,
trying to find my way to
Love.

On candlelit nights, sweet
with the scent of burning pipes,
You filled my belly with stories,
Rich fruit plucked from fearsome trees;
I seized hold of your words,
Clutching at them, catching at them,
like swirling smoke in my hands.

Seeds grew in my belly,
Ripe apples, plums, pomegranates, and
Intoxicating lyrics that inebriate
reason.
I swooned to your hymn,
And danced in the shadows cast
by the crackling, luminescent fire.

Captive and captivated by your presence,
I lapsed, malnourished,
on a diet of life and knowledge,
Our Hellenic silhouettes dancing upon the wall:
the only truth to comprehend
the only truth of love
the only truth
the only truth
that I may see.

The poets led me past my sins,
and I saw the pain and suffering
that we endure for the pleasure
of proving our devotion,
hoping our wickednesses
will be understood
and forgiven on the alter of
passion,
by one who loves us
completely.

Here I stand, alone,
atop the Spanish Steps,
chilled with
the fire of earthly desires,
I hold handfuls of water
and sand,
fathoming the
steadfast nature of
your fickle love.
–fin

giphy3

Wordplay Xx

 

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Modern Philosophy ⎜Philosophy Nook

“Modern philosophy begins with the generally accepted basis upon which the world is interpreted ceases to be a deity whose pattern is assumed to have already been imprinted into the universe. The new philosophical task is therefore for human reason to establish its own legitimacy as the ground of truth.”

Andrew Bowie

cogs are turning, Chaplin style.

A Rumi Kind of Day

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I have been meaning to post about Charles Dickens recently, but I’ve been a little busy reading about Hegel. I have also been distracted by Rumi. I love his poetry so infinitely much. I don’t own any Rumi collections, which makes me sad. I tend to go into bookstores with people, and I think buying Rumi is such an intimate act that I don’t want to share that with someone else. To me, it’s like sharing something so intrinsic. I find buying books to be very intimate; it speaks to the words you want to swim in your head, the voices you want to tell you things, and the stories you want to collate in your being.

Last year, I almost bought a Rumi collection, but I purchased a wicked copy of The Iliad instead. I mean, it’s not a bad choice! In a game of Would You Rather, I think that could, potentially, be a deal breaker. Do you chose Homer or Rumi? What DO you do? So, I chose Homer, and I can’t say I regret that decision because I knew that I needed Homer at that moment in my life. There was a battle raging in my mind, and Homer gave me the tools to watch how battles can be glorious and well-fought but that your hero will die. Well, that was the aesthetic of the time, the hero must die for it to be considered beautiful and tragic–a sublime melancholy. J.K Rowling showed us the hero just needs to love and “DO” out of love for our fellow humans, beings (of all creatures), and earth.

But, now, I think it is time for Rumi. To me, reading Rumi reminds me of sinking into the most luxurious, healing bath water. I should explain this metaphor a little further. I am a water person. When I was little, other kids would play with each other during fun-swims, but me, I would go to the deep-end and swim as deep as I could. I’d swim under all of the feet of the swimmers, like their feet were seaweed leaves swaying at the surface. And, in my own underwater world, I’d live. I swam with dolphins and mermaids; I solved mysteries of life; I was. That sense of being complete is what I feel when I’m in water. Two years ago, I swam in Lake Ontario. I have been in lake water before, but never in such a large, uncertain body of water. I used to always stare at the water, and I’d watch the ripples grate into each other, a perfect infinity. Being in the water epitomized the intellectualization of a vast infinity. When you look into infinity, you admire its presence. When you are within it, the forces of the other, alien forces, push you and desire you to become part of that system. Like being really tiny in an average-sized tub of jello, you are thrust back and forth, bouncing. But, it is not jello, and you are in the mechanism of infinity. That is how Rumi’s words make me feel.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
-Rumi

Infinite.

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay Xx
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Symptomatic

Why do we choose to see things as emblematic
Instead of symptomatic
Of a much bigger whole?
A whole lot of pain
Could be
Would be
Should be
Avoided.
Why do we find fault with those suffering
Rather than offer the help
You say you would
give?
Lend me your ears?
But hide your hearts
B’neathe callousness and anger.
I’ve thrown away my anger.
I buried it deep.
It won’t fester
It can’t mature.
For, I mature.
I’ve tossed aside the broken pieces
of my heart
The shards of glass that
pierce my organs.
Like a balloon,
I deflated.
I am now
elated.
Soon.
My silence is not emblematic
My silence is symptomatic
Of a world that chastises women
Of a world that silences
Of a world that won’t hear about
the oppressions we all commit
Every day.
Every second.
On the wisp of every breath.
I am not holding myself hostage,
I do not demand a ransom.
I just ask for kindness
Peacefulness
Gratitude in us all
Openness
Selflessness
In myself.
I cannot ask from you
What I, myself, will not give.
If I am silent.
I thought I was giving the world
The perfection it asked of me.
Shh, the men are speaking.
Shh, they have jobs to do.
Shh, creativity is meaningless,
Only economy and efficiency is
meaning-full.
People can’t communicate
With how you phrase your verbs,
Its convoluted shenanigans
Send shivers through our minds.
Commit to business ethics,
Models of corruption and dreams.
Picket only your house with whiteness
And wood.
My silence is emblematic.
Of how
the system
quietens.

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay Xx
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A Vengeful Tangle of Thread

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The page sat empty; full of its property to be,
An equation appeared, solve it to be free,
Discuss. Solve. Explain. Understand. Know.
For full marks, all your work you must show,

A pencil scribbles symbols, meanings, and truths,
An alphabet of day-dreams abandoned in youth,
Cognisance amongst those who comprehend,
The simple, diligent task of making amends.

As memory eats our heart-ridden sleeves,
One paces, lusting for a last-minute reprieve,
Words unsung, songs unsaid–a silence to hear,
Rethink our days, nights, dreams–tremble with fear,

Is it God’s revelations that we search for in skies?
For I’ve seen God’s truth in the glint of your eyes–
Of death and of life, I sigh and moan their beauty,
Caged together, wrought by love and by duty,

Slumber’s cold breath rattles my spine,
Restless thoughts abate as we entwine,
Like swimming deep in an endless sea,
At first we fear our path to timeless serenity.

When words become chess pieces across a board,
Prudently spent, a censored life is flat and unexplored,
Shades protect our eyes from too much light,
Withal, be wary, lest ye forget sight,

Look at the page with the equation on it,
Not one step in its solving do you omit,
Logic and training bring forth its solution,
Annihilating binary affinity in favour of one,

The formula untangles anatomy,
You become You and I become me,
The result conceals, rather than illuminates,
A vengeful tangle of thread littered by the Fates.

–fin
WordPlay Xx

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Trilby | Svengali, Jewishness, Englishness, & Colonialism

Drawing by George du Maurier

Trilby and The Three Angliches. Drawing by George du Maurier

Allo Allo,

I just finished George du Maurier’s (1834-1896) Trilby (1894). You may recognize du Maurier’s name. There is a Canadian cigarette brand named after his son, Gerald du Maurier. Speaking of children and whatnot, Gerald is Daphne du Maurier’s father. So three generations of artistic du Mauriers. In addition to the well-accepted fame of the surname, du Maurier was a gifted artist, who made many illustrations for Punch, the charivari magazine. He wrote three novels, and I will be discussing Trilby here. Whilst, Trilby’s name is relatively unknown, we will, mostly, all recognize, the name of the identified core villain, Svengali. The name has come be a commonplace term to describe a person who controls an artist or, in the courts any person, through manipulation.

Svengali’s character and the characterization of Jews as evil, manipulative, dirty, cheap, and less than human exist throughout the novel. Svengali, from the beginning of the novel, terrorizes Trilby, a young, poor English woman living in Paris—a figure model (nude) for the aspiring bohemian artists of the Latin Quarter. When Trilby and Svengali are discussed side-by-side, Trilby’s whiteness is emphasized in subtle ways. She is “English.” She is made into a “girl”. That is not to disregard the daily sexism women experience(d), but these contradistinctions do not exist when Trilby is discussed next to other English or French characters. Indeed, Svengali hypnotizes and terrorizes Trilby to become La Svengali, the greatest singer of all time. She may only sing under his hypnosis (unaware, of course), because her conscious singing voice is cacophonous. Indeed, we should be cautious to understand Svengali’s manipulation as part and parcel of Jewishness. It is racism perpetuated in literature. It is and was a lazy way for authors to signify a dubious character. We should also recognize that this trope of the demonic Jew was imbedded culturally, in literature, and socially—ghettos and dehumanization.

Svengali described as a spider. Drawing by George du Maurier.

Svengali is a manipulative character in du Maurier’s text. He is articulated as the kind of person we do not want to know. He’s the person that you try to avoid at parties, group gatherings, and daily. But everyone wants him there because he is an exceptionally talented musician. People (the right kinds, of course) want him around because when he plays the piano, they feel something beyond themselves. For a moment, they escape into a synaesthesiac abyss. Music, in the novel, is a powerful force. Indeed, the stereotype of Jewishness that Svengali is able to hypnotize Trilby is exaggerated because whilst others are hypnotized by his very power of music itself, she is not. Indeed, at the beginning of the novel, she is quite unaware that he even plays. Whilst the others are listening intently, she calmly eats her lunch and smokes a cigarette looking out into the temporal world rather than experiencing the spiritual through the sensuousness of his music. She has not interest in him and his music. She is more interested in the painters and sculptors.

Trilby, model to the bohemians, but not “in the altogether” to the three artists around whom du Maurier’s story centres: Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird. Trilby is in love with Little Billee, and so she integrates herself into their lives. She darns their socks, finds them props for their scenes, cooks them meals, and loves each artists (platonically or otherwise). We are aware of Trilby’s affection for Little Billee for quite some time, but we only later learn that Billee has proposed to her twenty times. On Christmas Eve, she finally accepts. But of course, what middle-class English mother would let her son marry such a “girl” as Trilby. Is this where everything changes? —

I’m getting ahead of myself. Indeed, both Trilby and Little Billee are in love. But all of the Latin Quarter is in love with Trilby. Her feet are accepted as the finest in creation. Many artists have sketched, sculpted, and painted her feet. Du Maurier describes her has quite unaware of her body as a source of shame–as women are taught to do. She models her feet and in the nude. She does not comprehend her body as sinful. Du Maurier repeats that she was uninhibited by the social mores of covering one’s body to save from “womanly” shame. For example, he writes,

“She would have ridden through Coventry, like Lady Godiva–but without giving it a through beyond wondering why the streets were empty and the shops closed and the blinds pulled down–would have even looked up to Peeping Tom’s shutter with a friendly nod, had she known he was behind it.” (Du Maurier, 60)

Du Maurier wants the reader to be aware that Trilby’s nudity is unabashed because it is not sexualized by herself. She does not see herself as an object of lust or sex, and so when she poses in the nude, she sees it as commonplace. Of course, this mentality must change for the patriarchy. Eve did not get to wander around Eden forever—there had to be a fall. Trilby’s prelapsarian reign over the Latin Quarter ends when Little Billee goes to the studio where he and fellow aspiring artists study—and there he sees a naked Trilby modelling. He makes a scene and runs out of the studio. It is at this moment that Trilby recognizes shame. I suspect that this is, in fact, when everything changes. It is here that Trilby tries to model herself, rather than being the model, into a pious and respectable, young, English lady.

Trilby is antagonized by realization that Little Billee was scandalized by her nudity. “The new-born feeling of shame was unendurable—its birth a travail that racked and rent every fibre of her moral being, and she suffered agonies beyond anything she had ever felt in her life.” (Du Maurier, 74). Indeed, Little Billee’s moralizations render the Edenic Latin Quarter a place where brother will kill brother; Trilby’s fall from grace makes her vulnerable to Svengali—to the “devil”. But let’s not consider it so easy. After all, Svengali doesn’t interfere with Little Billee’s plans to marry Trilby, that award goes to his mother and uncle. His mother meets Trilby and asks her to back away from her son; doesn’t she know she isn’t respectable for such a talented artist? Surely, Trilby should recognize that Little Billee would be turned away from all respectable places with her at his side!

Let’s really think about that. Ruminate upon it. Digest it. It’s shit. Svengali’s domination and manipulation of Trilby, making her into the most sought-after woman in the world, shows that people easily forget class and origins when they want something. Suddenly, her parentage is respectable. It was not respectable enough for Little Billee’s mother. Left alone, Trilby’s brother dead, and willingly ready to die, she sought out Svengali. He puts her under hypnosis, and whilst in this state, he trained her to sing, and, later, perform. La Svengali (Trilby’s stage name) becomes something everyone wants to have. Yet, her voice is ephemeral. Her voice is lauded as the greatest there ever was and will be. No one, but those who hear her, will have ever experienced such greatness. She is a luxury commodity; and she, of course, makes a lot of money for Svengali (since she is actually unaware). But royalty wants her. The middle classes want her. People on the streets want her. Advertisements pronounce her arrival. Svengali’s manipulation of Trilby is often discussed as something that he does. He is the guilty party. Yet, isn’t it more accurate to understand society as the real perpetrator? Svengali just makes them pay. Doesn’t Svengali’s character actually, subtly, expose how ludicrous, greedy, and money-grubbing everyone else is? Indeed, Trilby is respected for her talent, and the whole farce of Svengali’s manipulation reveals the fractures of Little Billee’s mother’s polite society. Ultimately, Svengali has the last laugh because Trilby hypnotizes and entrances the world. The things they fear the most, the Jew and the classless “girl,” who models in the nude, enchants the world; these two (conscious and not) usurp the whole system.

Little Billee’s mother will not permit her son to marry Trilby because it destroys his prospects. Do we sympathize with her because we think he is more worthy than Trilby? Do we sympathize with her because, good, English boys are not stereotyped as greedy or manipulative? Trilby’s brother died because she left Paris, at Little Bille’s mother’s request–he was an English boy. We cast stones at Svengali’s character, and, indeed, he did predatorily seizes upon Trilby, but other characters are similarly manipulative. We excuse the behaviour from white characters because we see their motivations as valid and not through a stereotyping lens. Yet, Svengali’s character is easily demonized because he is Jewish. What if we expand our parochial view of Englishness to one of Empire and colonization—does our view of the polite rules that rule out Trilby as a desired mate for a proper, English man change? I think it should. The fairy tale isn’t quite so simple, is it?

I am going to leave the review here, and I will post another about the way mental health is treated throughout the novel and give Trilby more of an opportunity to speak for herself.

Heaps of love,
WordPlay Xx

All Around

beatrix
Sun, sun all around.
Swallowing sand,
Mouth drenched with thirst.
A chill in my heart,
Bones shattered,
Flesh defrosted.

Space, space all around.
So small in size,
I can’t see that far,
anyway.
Confined in vast infinity,
Doors break down.

Dreams, dreams all around.
Broken hearts.
Lost souls.
Charon’s fee usurped,
The earth is for the lost,
Have we been found–
out?

Love, love all around.
Never inside.
Never between.
Never here.
Only in dreams.

fin.
WordPlay Xx

The Shakespeare Project – Lend me your Shakesp-ears!

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Hey friends,

I decided that I need to get back into Shakespeare. I feel like my soul breathes when Shakespeare in my life. I am going to attempt reading at least one Shakespeare play a month. I will share my thoughts, experiences and struggles throughout this project.

Does anyone have any suggestions as to where I should begin? I have read a few, but it has been some time. Let me know in the comments what you think! Thank you for your help! May a worthy feast bless your midsummer’s daydreams.

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay. Xx

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