Winter Living With The Cree pt. 3

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So, I woke up the day after running trap lines and setting nets feeling a bit off. I attributed it to all the rich food we’d been eating. Moose meat is wicked heavy, and I ate enough of it to sate a bear for hibernation. As the morning progressed it became clear I’d picked up a stomach bug that was going around Ouje. Not a great experience on a trip like this, but after a day of rest and lots of water was feeling leaps and bounds better. The bug caught a few of the other guys as well and forced a sort of “sick v. well” rota for all the tasks around camp. I missed out on a day of setting marten traps and getting started on making Cree snow shovels.

 

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Catfish Ben with our first hare

 

The next day, however, was a full one. We started the day walking our trap line with Laurence and checking the snares we’d set. We caught one snowshoe hare and carried it back to camp after resetting the snare. Walking a trap line first thing in the morning has an almost meditative feeling to it. You don’t speak because you don’t want the animals to associate the place with loud noises and human interaction. The trudging of each step creates a rhythm as we fall into line behind one another, matching the stride of the trail breaker and packing down the snow with each step.

 

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Doug watching intently as Anna works the otter’s pelt.  

 

When we got back, Anna led us over to one of the other shelters in camp and explained that she’d be skinning out an Otter and we’d be helping Laurence skin out a Fisher Cat he’d trapped a few days prior. I’m not particularly versed in hunting and my only experience gutting out an animal is with fish (The scales are the best part if you fry them right! Why would you take ’em off?) So I wasn’t sure what to expect. I really shouldn’t have worried. Anna and Laurence made the process look like art. They chattered back and forth with us the whole time, explaining each step as they went. Anna working with the otter was something akin to seeing a master carpenter shape out the pieces he needed for a cabinet. It was slow, and the attention to detail was absolutely impressive. Doug, a member of our group, had been trapping otters on his property in Maryland (Oh, did I mention three of our group of five hailed from the land of pleasant living?) and had found preparing the pelts difficult. Otters, like any other mammal that lives in the water, have a thick layer of fat to insulate them against the cold water. Doug had found removing this layer frustrating and time-consuming. As we watched Anna work, it became apparent that the layer of fat wasn’t even something she worried about. There are tools marketed to trappers that are “specialized” for use on Beaver, Otter and other animals with fatty hides. Anna used a simple, cheap and small knife set for her work. I watched realization spread across Doug’s face as the mental arithmetic added up. Talking with him later he explained that the knives he’d been using were too big, and didn’t allow for the slow methodical method that Anna used.

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While Anna was working with the Otter, I helped Laurence with the fisher. Fisher Cats, for those who don’t know, are a large member of the weasel family. They’re sleek and move through snow and water like a bit of black grease slides through moisture. They’re also known up here in the north for their scream. If you’ve never heard it before I highly recommend taking a minute to go listen here.

Done? Like a banshee right? Imagine hearing that at night time while you’re camped out far away from any infastructure.

Aaaaaaany way, sorry for the little side trip down “What the hell was that?” lane.

As I worked the hide away from the fishers body I was struck by how lithe the musculature of these animals is, and how narrow certain parts of their bodies are, before exploding into a wide ribcage. While we worked away at it, David told us about using dried fisher testicles as slingshot ammo for hunting small game. It’s hard to tell when David’s joking. A lot of the older Cree we met have a very specific laugh that they use almost as punctuation, a short sharp chuckle that ends a sentence. David used it almost constantly, and it was very telling of how happy they are living this lifestyle. Always laughing or smiling, even while doing hard physical work, or talking about hard times in the Cree’s history.

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While we skinned out the fresh hides, David went and got a lynx pelt that he needed to stretch. Seeing a lynx hide up close is something else. It’s large and the paws are like dinner plates, almost shaped like the smaller variety of snowshoes that allow for quick turns between trees in the woods. Watching David stretch the hide out was an education in simplicity (Seems like a trend is forming here), he simply pulled it over two planks that formed a pincer shape. Then using a third wedge-shaped plank forced the pincer apart, pulling the lynx taught. After the otter and fisher had been skinned out, he did the same with them. Once they’d been stretched long enough anna would pull them across a frame to finish treating them.

 

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Otter hide being stretched

 

Once the hides had been processed, we spent a bit of time working on making snow shovels, but I’ll save the details of that for the next piece. Laurence had roasted two geese all day by hanging them next to the stove in his tent, and after a long day of work, we couldn’t ask for a better meal to end the day.

 

I really hope you guys have been enjoying these articles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them up. It’s hard to encompass all the subtlety of the world we only got a glimpse of, but I’m having a blast trying.

 

Stay tuned,

Slainte Maithe everyone.

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Trapping And Winter Living With The Cree.

For the last nine days Tim, a few other Jack Mountain Alums and I were lucky enough to spend time with David and Anna Bosum in northern Quebec. David and Anna run Nuuhchimi Wiinuu , a guiding service that allows them to share their way of life as Cree trappers. It was, in all aspects, a perspective-shifting experience. David and Anna were born and raised in the bush, (David told me the that the first time he lived in a town he was in his forties). They both radiate a love for the land they live on, as well as a breadth of knowledge about the flora and fauna that inhabit it. This trip is going to get split into two or three articles, because even in just a week the Bosums, and the Cree we met in Ouje-Bougomou taught our group more than I could possibly do justice in one.

So, let’s jump right in here.

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We arrived in Ouje-Bougomou on a Saturday evening. It’s a long ride from New Hampshire to northern quebec, but after two days of being on the road, our spirits rose as soon as we crossed out of Quebec and into Ouje. A little background here is probably necessary. Ouje-Bougomou is the most recent Cree community to gain the rights to their own land. The members were relocated over and over for decades until gaining recognition of their territorial land rights in the early nineties. Ouje is a part of a larger territory called “Eeyou Istchee”, which is made up of multiple Cree Nation townships around the James Bay region of Quebec.

On arrival, we found out that David was feeling under the weather, and we’d be staying in a traditional domicile in town, instead of heading right out to the Bosum’s camp in the bush. The shelter was simple. A large one-room home, with fir boughs neatly woven together to make up a cushioned, heat retaining floor, and a large camp stove in the middle for cooking and heating, with wood piled neatly behind it in seperate stacks of dried wood and fresh green logs.

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Around the walls were tools used in the traditional lifestyle of the Cree. A hide scraper made from birch and moose bone, a knife held together by leather cord and duct tape, but with an edge on it that showed it was a tool, not a decorative piece. To my eye, the home looked beautiful, and became more so as it dawned on me that nearly everything in it had a purpose The parts that were simply decorative? They were simple. A few designs stitched into the canvas door flaps, a ring of grouse feathers hung on a nail.

The next morning, David still wasn’t quite recovered. So he sent his son Thomas to take us “up the mountain”. We didn’t get much more information than that, until Thomas and a few friends showed up on Snowmobiles.

I should mention that I guess? There was four feet of snow AT MINIMUM everywhere we looked. If you’re walking on anything but paved, plowed roads, you’ll likely need snowshoes. I have never used snowshoes in my life until this point, but we’ll come to that later.

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The snowmobiles brought us into the trail that led up the side of the mountain, then left us to hike the mountain while they headed up to set up lunch at the summit. The hike wasn’t long, but it was steep in certain stretches and was a good first introduction to snowshoeing. Our guide up the trails was Katalina, a local teacher who gave us some insight into the changing culture of Oje. We chatted as we walked the trail, and asked questions about the youth in the area, and her observations about the interest in the traditional Cree ways of life. It was fascinating to see the merger of those ways of life and the modern influence of technology and the internet.

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Once we reached the summit, Thomas and his friends Antonio and Ron had a fire built, and were cooking moose meat over it. The view combined with a hearty meal of moose and heavy bannock was an experience I can’t imagine getting anywhere else. The wind and clear sunny skies sapped any heat we’d built up while hiking from our bodies as we stood and chatted about life in Ouje. They talked about growing up hunting and trapping on their territories, and how they’d watched a lot of their community shift away from that lifestyle in the nineties once Ouje started to build itself up as a modern town.

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We didn’t stay at the summit for long, as the sun was already starting to set as we headed back down. When we reached the bottom, we were greeted by some of the camp dogs. How in the world have I not mentioned them yet? The community constantly has dogs that roam around. They all belong to someone, but they aren’t indoor pets. They each have a look to them I haven’t seen in dogs anywhere else. London’s descriptions of dogs in his northern adventure stories come to mind. All muscle and grit. They ran alongside us as we rode back to town on the snowmobiles, keeping pace every step of the way. I’ve never seen happier dogs than these. Sheer joy at the energy expended to bound along beside sled and machine.

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Once back at our camp, we loped around with the dogs, continued getting to know some of the Cree, and stoking the fire in preparation for nightfall. As I chased (and was chased) by a large dopey black and tan mutt with paws like backhoes and mismatched eyes, dinner arrived in the form of fried walleye. In the midst of eating, one of the other dogs managed to sneak into our tent and deposit himself on Ben’s (one of the other alumni) sleep pad. We threw him out a few times. Eventually though, he wormed his way into Ben and the rest of our hearts. We couldn’t find it in ourselves to kick him out. We talked and joked late into the night. Well, it felt like it anyway. The sun going down around four thirty in the afternoon really makes judging time hard.

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Be honest. Could you have kicked this guy out?

That’s just our first day, keep an eye on this space. There’s a lot more to come. Our time in town was fascinating, but the real learning experience started once we got out to the Bosum’s camp.

Just a warning to the squeamish, the Cree trap and hunt extensively. So a lot of what we learned and took part in involves skinning and cleaning animals, as well as methods of harvesting them. I’ll be writing about the process, and will have photographs to accompany them.

Slainte Maith everyone.

“The Most Penetrating Of Preachers”

 

If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of Hermann Hesse’s work. I recently found a piece by him that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. “Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte” is a collection of poetry about trees, and Hesse has a piece in it. Stumbling upon that was like finding out a Christmas stocking had a secret compartment in the toe, with a sampler of scotch stored away in it. Talk about a good day.

The piece is phenomenal, and if you have the time there’s a wonderful reading of it here.

It got me thinking though, about this last year.

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I had some rough patches. I’m not going to bore you with the details of that, because those rough patches were eclipsed by finally finding something I can throw myself into completely. I found that thing that calms that indefinable lust for something larger than myself that I’ve ached for as long as I can remember. I had a lot of false starts ( considered the priesthood, political work, botched attempts at romantic relationships, etc) but the answer came during a moment of frustration in the north Maine woods.

I do not cope well with blowhards and people that take themselves too seriously. I worked with enough of them in my time with Governor Holden. In the world I’m getting into, there’s a lot of that it seems. During some of our downtime on a canoe trip, I eventually got fed up with a conversation that was essentially a pissing contest and wandered off for a little quiet time. (If I keep up this “disappear as a coping mechanism schtick, I’m going to be that old man who people have to ‘keep an eye on’)

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I took a book, and just found a spot a few hundred yards away from camp, sat cross-legged under a pine and started to leaf through the book and the scribblings in my notebook. That lasted for about a minute before the landscape in front of me stole my attention. I was sitting at the edge of clearcut, where tire tracks were still visible. It was sort of a sad sight, but the more I watched the more I saw bits of life creaking their way through. In the middle of this clear cut, was a pine sapling, green as the woods on either side of the cut and probably only able to grow because the larger trees around it had been removed. It had free reign of the sun, water, and nutrients from the ground. I’ve got the campsite’s location written down, and I plan on going back to see that sapling every few years or so once I’m up north for good.

Now, at this point, Tim and I hadn’t even talked about School of the forest, but I already planned on doing outdoors work with youth. My vague plan was to get involved with Outward Bound, or something similar. The sight of that sapling sort of drove it home, in exactly the sort of sappy sentimental metaphor I’m susceptible to. I saw something new, and promising growing from the remains of something old. What could possibly be more important in life, than helping that metaphor happen in young people’s lives? If the work I do in the future, helps bring this passion and peace found in the outdoors to others then I’ll be proud to have done it.

That moment didn’t come from “adventure” or “challenging myself”, the way a lot of the outdoor industry seems to be geared towards. It came from just existing in that ecosystem and seeing a “restart” button having been pressed, instead of just destruction of the land. Call it hope, call it optimism. I’m a big fan of both of those. It isn’t either of these things though. It came from an inkling of understanding of the life cycle of a forest, and observation.  I didn’t have a good handle on the term at the time, but it came from a sense of “frilustliv”.

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So going forward with school of the forest, that idea will be baked into the bones of every course I run. This idea of simply being in nature, and being at peace with your place in it. As I’ve said before, if I’d stuck with the path towards the priesthood, I’ve no doubt I’d be as evangelical about it as anyone. I’m hoping to bring a bit of that fire to this project. Not because I think it’s right and everyone should think the same, but because the peace I found through experiencing “free air life”, and then studying it and seeing the correlations between what I’d experienced and the benefits others had reported were so compelling that I have a need to pass this on. To anyone, but especially to youth with too much energy, and minds that move too quick for them to harness and ride. I’ve been there. Hell, I’m still there some days, but this lifestyle has helped immensely. I’d be selfish not to hope that I can show others this peace, and earlier in life than I found it.

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This has been your monthly “Christopher lets the preacher out of his cage” broadcast.

I’ll leave you with the bit from Hesse’s piece that struck me. it’s the final few lines.

But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Now get of your phone/computer/ machine with the magic buttons, and go outside.

 

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

Stoicism and Empathy

Stoicism is the closest thing I have to a set “world view”. It’s a big part of my personal identity, and that’s part of why I’ve had so much trouble writing this piece.

Stoicism, in the basic sense revolves around not allowing anything outside of yourself to affect your thoughts or actions, unless it’s an influence that helps the practitioner become a more rational person. It’s been compared to Buddhism by some, in that the practitioner is trying to achieve some sort of enlightenment via detachment and the performing of actions that benefit society as a whole.

Lately,  I’ve hit a stumbling block with it though. The thing that keeps tripping me up is how little room it seems to leave for empathy on an interpersonal level if you focus on the dogma of detachment instead of the philosophy as a whole. A friend of mine, who’s one of the most empathetic people I know, and I had a bit of an argument about something I’d done that upset her. It spiraled into an overall assessment of our friendship in general. The discussion eventually reached an impasse of sorts. With one of us needing more understanding and communication, and the other (myself) being pig headed and stubborn in the way only someone trying to detach themselves can accomplish. All she was asking what that I voice concerns and complaints so that they could be discussed. All I wanted was to let the anger I felt about the situation go, and get on with it. (If my mother’s side of the family had a motto, it’d be “Just shut up and do something”. Not a talkative bunch when it comes to complaining about personal things)

Here’s the thing. When I finally “let things go”, for the most part, they really go. Some of the bigger things take a while (Still haven’t forgiven my brother Joe for pushing me off our bunkbeds years ago). Otherwise I’ve gotten pretty good at detaching myself from the outcome of things, especially over the last couple of years. That’s not necessarily a good thing. It shows that I’ve been too focused on the detachment side of the stoic philosophy, and not enough on the “grow into a more rational human being” side of it.

“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

~Marcus Aurelius

It’s easy to fall into that “Self-deception” aspect, especially with personal beliefs that we hold dear. I’m particularly guilty of it in interpersonal interactions. The politician and debater in me wants to come out on “top”, rather than accept criticism of my stance on a subject. It’s part of the reason I left that field of study. I saw the traits and habits I used in my work start to bleed over into my personal life, and the relationships I had suffered for it.

Sometimes in killing one aspect of ourselves we find superfluous, we allow room for something else to grow. In this case, it was apathy. Apathy is actually one of the goals of stoicism, but only towards suffering and discomfort the person practicing it experiences. I’ve gotten a good handle on that, but I let it encompass a lot of other aspects of life it shouldn’t.

It’s taken me weeks to work out a solution to this. Not because it’s a hard answer, but because I’m stubborn and proud. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been wrong, but I take that distaste to a level that’s probably analogous to a “Scorched earth policy”. So I’ve come to realize the answer is to only use ONE can of gasoline on friendships that are difficult.

 

Kidding.

 

A big part of the solution for me personally is just to listen, and listen well, to what someone else is telling me. It’s not an easy thing to do. My mind automatically looks for openings and weaknesses in their “Argument” instead of just boiling down what their saying to the root of their personal grievance and figuring out, “Is this something I can fix and by doing so improve myself as a person? If not, what is the most appropriate way of explaining why I won’t or can’t change my behavior? ”

Easier said than done. That big ol’ bit of pride in my belly is going to rear it’s head over and over. Maybe I’ll hold onto that can of gasoline. I’m not how you burn a character flaw (probably involves some sort of unholy ritual, I’d guess) but I’m certainly going to try. I’m not big on mantras, but if there’s one that’ll be bobbling around my head while I work on this it will be this.

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

Fix yourself, not the people around you. If they bring you a valid concern over your actions, take it to heart instead of trying to rationalize it. If it is valid, and they’ve brought it to your attention, they’ve done you a favor. Be grateful for it, and do your best to improve on the problem. That’s not to say that you should accept any criticism as gospel, down that path lies a personality akin to a damp towel. If you can see that what you did produced more harm than good, start to work on cutting that habit out of your daily life. It’ll take time. Rome wasn’t burned in a day.

Oh wait. Yes it was. Maybe there’s more to the scorched earth policy than I thought.

Kidding. Again.

 

Màthair

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

~Marcus Aurelius: Book one; Line Three

Today I’m twenty-six. I’ve been on this wonderful, odd, planet for over a quarter of a century now. This article actually started as something about the odd paths life takes you down, but while writing it I noticed a trending constant. A constant that, to be honest, should have been obvious from the start. That constant is my Ma.

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My mother is something incredible. (I’d never tell her that in person. We’re not that sort of family.) When the issue of my siblings and I’s education arose, she took that burden on herself, homeschooling all of us through all of it up to college. When I say “all”, I mean six. Homeschooling six children with energy levels like ours isn’t something I’d ever have the heart to attempt. We were even referred to as a litter once by a stranger in a pet store. My mother was incredibly upset by the encounter. Little did she know the woman who made the comment had seen me, and one of my brothers trying to climb into a pen filled with puppies ten minutes earlier. (We told her this years later, to her dismay. Or amusement? Could be both)

I make it sound like we were a bunch of wild heathen children, causing havoc wherever we went. That’s somewhat true, and it’s a testament to my ma’s dedication to us that we all grew up with an ingrained desire to learn and to work hard at it, when we started out as a bunch of feral blonde monsters.

I am almost certain I was the toughest of the bunch to deal with. I was her first child, and that combined with a stubbornness and innate desire to do what I want, when I want to, couldn’t have been easy. I honestly don’t know where she found the endless patience to deal with educating me, let alone all six of us.

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                                                   (Still a horde of feral monsters)

And trust me, I know I tried her patience to no end. A favorite story around my parents’ house is the time I built a fort by turning over all her living room furniture, and barricading myself in it because I didn’t want to do a math lesson. (I still hate math. Sorry Ma.) After an hour of me yelling, and not getting anywhere with that stubbornness I mentioned, she finally cracked and chucked an orange off the counter at me. It’s a funny image, but looking back on it I know two things. Firstly, that she immediately felt awful about it, and secondly, that I absolutely deserved it. Hell, I deserved a whole bushel of oranges with an anvil and a really irritated ape of some sort buried under them.

She’s taught me a lot about how to interact with people. She taught a selfish man, how to find more value in what I’ve done for others in a day, than what I’ve done for myself. She imparted to me my endless love of literature and the outdoors. Finding ways to rev up my wandering engine at home through reading classics that are now books I read the way some people use a security blanket, then turning me loose on the woods, parks, and long drives.

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Long drives. Let’s talk about those for a moment. I live for long drives, to places I’ve never been. It’s the closest I get to meditation or prayer. Those long aimless drives that to some people would seem like a waste of time, or gas, or an endless amount of other “commodities”. Not to my mother. When we got to be too much, or life in general got her down, we never saw it. I only see now, in retrospect that all those adventures we went on were her clearing her head. I don’t know if habits can be passed on genetically, but if so that’s one I definitely attribute to her. Not adventure, that’s ALL due to Mr. Jeff Russell. No, what I got from her was the soft parts of wandering. The gentle sense of calm that comes with simply going. Those little moments between destinations where you notice small details of the scenes that pass by. We still make fun of my mother for a

Not “adventure”, that’s ALL due to Mr. Jeff Russell ( I’m sure an article about him is coming in the near future, now that I’m on this tangent)  No, what I got from her was the soft parts of wandering. The gentle sense of calm that comes with simply going. Those little moments between destinations where you notice small details of the scenes that pass by. We still make fun of my mother for a particular summer involving her teaching us geology. When my mother takes an interest in something she’s teaching it invades all her thoughts I think. So our drives from class to class, or anything else really, were invaded that summer by the phrase that still makes my mother turn bright red when we say it back to her. “Look at that awesome rock formation!” It was the cheesiest, most contrived (to my, at the time Preteen mind) thing I’d ever heard.

No, what I got from her was the soft parts of wandering. The gentle sense of calm that comes with simply going. Those little moments between destinations where you notice small details of the scenes that pass by. We still make fun of my mother for a particular summer involving her teaching us geology. When my mother takes an interest in something she’s teaching it invades all her thoughts I think. So our drives from class to class, or anything else really, were invaded that summer by the phrase that still makes my mother turn bright red when we say it back to her. “Look at that awesome rock formation!” It was the cheesiest, most contrived (to my, at the time Preteen mind) thing I’d ever heard.

But that’s the beauty of my mother and her desire to teach. Not only her six maniacs but anyone who’ll listen. She has a way of doing things that stick them into your brain. I hear her voice in my head on every highway that cuts through cliff faces and along hills. I see her in every landscape. Her passion is unabashed. That’s a hard thing to be in a family of people who tend to keep to themselves, and keep what they really feel close to the chest.

That doesn’t stop her though. I’m terrible about texting most of the time, unless it involves work. My mother knows this, and doesn’t care. I still wake up most days of the month to a small something from her reminding me that I am missed, or some tidbit of information she found that she knows I’ll find fascinating. If you read this Ma, I know I don’t always answer, but I always smile when I see them.

Somehow, through all my boar headedness and idiotic desire to march to the beat of a drummer who, I can only assume at this point, can’t keep time and is probably missing at LEAST one arm, all the things Ma tried to impart in me through her curriculum, and simply through the way she lived, stuck. Not that I do them as well as she does, but that I strive every day to do them half as well.

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The biggest one goes without saying. Patience that is fueled by a deep love for others. Lisa Russell is the most patient woman I have ever met in my life, and after twenty-six years I think I’ve ferreted out what lets her be like that. She cares, for everyone, instantly and deeper than anyone else I know. I took it for granted most of my life, that if I really needed something she’d do her best to help me get it. I can’t really ever pay her back for all of it, but I don’t think she’d want that anyway. She’d want me to pass it on. So that’s what I’ll try to do. If I take one thing away from all the things she taught me it’ll be that. At the very least it’ll mean I don’t have to take away algebra.

The line at the top of this page is from a book she “forced” on me at a young age, that I detested at the time but has become the closest thing I have to a bible. I don’t know if she intended it to become so important. It was mixed in with a slew of other greco-roman classics that were part of our curriculum. I can say this without feeling as if I’m bending the truth though. My mother turned me on to stoicism, not only by giving me the book to read, but by embodying some of the ideals it professes without trying, or possibly knowing she was doing so. I am constantly left in awe of her, and the sacrifices she’s made to give my siblings and I the best possible life we could have.

So, it’s my birthday. Twenty-six years ago my mother brought me into this world, and she helped me navigate it through everything that reared it’s ugly head. I miss the hell out of her, and everyone else in my family, and this is the closest I’ll get to ever telling them. If you haven’t called your mother lately, go do it. Hell, go hug her if you can.

I figure if you guys do that, it’ll balance out me NOT calling mine.

Kidding…. Mostly.