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Riley McFarlane: Lia Purpura Taught Me to Dissect the Scene

January 21, 2020

My writing comes alive when I describe the micro-scenes of my life. If the writing is read with an eye toward metaphor, occurrences can be inferred. The reader of my creative work about my mother may infer that she may have an anger problem, an obsession with buying gifts, and perhaps a lack of desire to update the interior of her cabinets. There could be an assumption that either her sense of smell is less than acute or that she doesn’t consider that the stale smell of cigarettes linger inside the cabinets.

“The kitchen of my mother’s home is the size of her fist. There are corner counters opposite of each other. The bigger one is used for stacked bills and catalogues for what could be Christmas gifts. The cabinets are wood and have a thin cushioned lining in the bottom of some. The lining has a repeated singular tulip with leaves in a grid-like pattern. The inside of the cabinet above the microwave smells like cigarette ash. It is the plate cabinet. I imagine the plates coated with a film of the dingy scent. The vitamin supplements and Advil are also housed in the cabinet above the microwave. I wonder if the microwave radiation infects the supplements. I am not worried about the Advil because I refuse to take pain relievers. I’d rather feel the pain.”

If read without an eye toward metaphor, this excerpt would seem almost emotionless. But if the reader can pick up that the kitchen explained in detail is a metaphor for the mother’s world, and therefore the daughter’s world, then a lot can be understood by the reader about the mother/daughter relationship.

My craft analysis of Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report” showed me the power of using precision and senses to describe a scene. Purpura wrote, “I shall touch, while no one is looking, the perfect corn rows, the jacket’s wet collar” and continues, “four or five holes like ragged stars, or a child’s cut-out snowflake” referring to the bullet wounds in the body. The description of the wounds is not emphasized by their gruesomeness, but by the snowflake-like shape on the body they create. One would not normally compare bullet wounds to something a child would make. This allows the reader to assume that Lia Purpura sees beauty in the death of a human. Purpura wrote, “A call to jettison the issue, the only issue as I understood it: the unknowable certainty of being alive, of being a body untethered from origin, untethered from end, but also so terribly here.” It may be that Purpura felt relief when seeing bodies at their end. It may also be that Purpura felt relief when seeing the body on its way back to its origin.

The reader can infer that being “here” is what’s beautiful, yet simultaneously gruesome. There is the seeing, the being seen, and the lack of words to describe that interaction or occurrence. The only way to define that feeling is to call it God, yet that is too rigid in itself, so we must call it being here. And being here can “be at once mourning and gestures of ease”. Being here can be terrible and concurrently lush. The universal message of the Purpura essay may be that there is a grossly overlooked fragility in humans, and how we stay alive with the kind of barrier that seemed so easily breakable on the autopsy of bodies.

I guess my point in writing this now is to capitalize on the concept of writing micro-scenes. Purpura wrote detailed descriptions of the body being dissected, and I’m inspired to continue to describe the scenes in which I find myself in¾my mother’s kitchen, my childhood bedroom, my current bedroom, my apartment’s kitchen. Through these detailed descriptions, deeper afflictions will emerge, as if from the core of the earth.

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Riley McFarlane is attending Columbia College Chicago with a major in creative nonfiction writing. In their work, emotion bleeds through words that have the movement of curious musings written with plain language, allowing a strikingly close relationship with the reader. She believes that there is truth where there is love. She values genuine human connection and prefers to have honest and respectful relationships with everyone, mixed with a touch of dark humor and sarcasm.

Semi;Colon

Tracie Taylor: My girlfriend burnt a piece of toast while I’m writing this and I can’t wait to write a poem about it (praise for Olivia Gatwood)

December 17, 2019

I feel as if I’ve only stuck one measly pinky toe in the wide pool that holds poetry authors and their work. More of a toenail when it comes to poet authors I can actually talk about or have an opinion on. I have a fascination with poetry, but as a poet and actress, I have a special adoration with spoken word. As a unique form of performance art, I believe that spoken word is a spell cast like in a theater production or an open mic reading.

When I discovered the spoken-word poet, Olivia Gatwood, I was just discovering my love for poetry, and how it becomes a special kind of performance art when it’s spoken word. I’ve been surrounding myself with contemporary poets: living in big cities, socially awkward, bare-faced and brutally honest in their Instagram posts. She caught my eye as an author, a Pisces with a Scorpio moon, so poetic and breezy in her words.

Her content so far has revolved in the nature of women, their bodies, and most recently how true crime somehow sickenly glorifies the murder of women. I just recently went to her show that was a part of her tour promoting this genre, titled the “Life of the Party.” It is also the name of her new poetry book. She is a true creative author, her tour inhabited small, quiet spaces as well as large arenas. She had touring with her a singer, Ari Chi, and Caitlin Nolte, a cello player. While she was performing spoken word Ari’s voice and Caitlin’s cello underscored her verses. As an author, her words were simple, they never stumped me like some poets tend to do when getting elaborate. As a poet myself, I enjoyed the sense of grace that was still able to convey emotion in the reader.

When I heard the poems finally read aloud, I was expecting to be taken on a slightly different journey. I knew Olivia had been doing this a long time; she captivates an audience like she’s reading from a storybook. I feel like her poems are little stories, quick and fierce as a gust of sudden wind. I chose her as an author I admire because of her simplicity, but also her quiet and fierce nature as a poet. I’ve read so much of her work, that there are other poets I am gaining a love for: Melissa-Lozada Oliva, Natasha Thretheway, Ocean Vuong, and the classic Edgar Allan Poe. I feel as if my collection of favorite poets can come across as cliché, but everyone begins somewhere and at their own damn pace, right?

 

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Tracie Taylor is a first year graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. In her undergrad (Ball State University) she earned a BA degree in English with a Theater minor.  She loves to write about her deepest (and darkest) emotions, with themes pertaining to her identity as a queer, biracial woman. She also, of course, has a passion for acting/performance. Her work has been published in From Whispers to Roars, Eclectica Magazine, and a special feature on Indolent Books, What Rough Beast.

Semi;Colon

Vlora Xhaferi: Survivor Stories

December 17, 2019

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a novel based on the true story of the Holocaust, on the challenges of escaping the concentration camp and how a young man named Lale found love with another survivor. Lale Soklovo, whom this true story is based on, was once a prisoner of the concentration camp located in Auschwitz-Birkenau in April of 1942. During which time, his captors discovered that he spoke several languages, so they made him work as a tattooist. From April 1942 to January of 1945, Lale was tasked with marking his fellow innocent prisoners. Throughout the story the writer, Heather Morris, does her best to stay true to Lale’s story. In her writing, I could visualize, listen, and read how determined she was to keep everything of Lale’s story true—down to even the most heartbreaking detail. If a survivor from a terrible event, such as the Holocaust, is going to trust you with their story, you need to stay true to what they say.

The first time I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, it was a warm, but dim summer’s eve in June of this year. I was about to turn twenty-one, which I was not happy about, and embark for my third trip to a language camp in Spain. During this week my grandfather, Arif Xhaferi, was getting ready to see our family in Albania for a month. Before we each left for our trips, I had spent some time trying to write the story of my surviving grandfather. He is one of the very last survivors from the communist attack on Albania in October of 1941. I struggled with how I was going to possibly get him to talk about his past; he went through so much at a young age and many of those things were the furthest thing from pleasant. At the same time, I was also afraid that if I started, there was a chance I would lose him the next day, and ultimately fail him by not completing his story. Everyone in my family knows the story of his escape, survival, and journey to America. But only he knows and remembers what that journey was like to endure. When I made the decision to begin reading The Tattooist from Auschwitz, I had nothing else to do. I snuggled up in my bed without thinking more about my big trip. There were many thoughts spinning through my head when I started reading my new book. But the two strongest thoughts were, one, keep in mind that everything in the book actually happened. And two, throughout my school years learning about World War II and the Holocaust, I never had the opportunity to learn about a true survivor’s story during that dark age.

Lale Sokolov and my grandfather, as survivors, are alike in some ways. They witnessed the loss of good people, they found their own strength to survive, and most importantly, they were very fortunate to have survived the many terrible events and try to leave it behind to have a good life. In the story, Lale had to summon enough courage to do things that would most likely get him killed by his captors. He used his tattooist position to trade in contraband goods for foods, medicines, and other comforts for his fellow prisoners and his future wife, Gita Fuhrmannova. After escaping with her in 1945, they both made it to his town of origin, married, and were blessed with one son, Gary. Lale knew that if he could not get them out of the country, he could only do what was necessary to keep them alive long enough to be free one day. When my grandfather was thirteen years old, the communists attacked Albania.  He decided he would flee the country after the tragic death of his parents and two of his three siblings.  His other living sibling chose to stay behind.  Knowing that he might get caught and killed, like his parents and two siblings, my grandfather knew that it was better to try to flee rather than look back later in the future and regret trying. After escaping, he made it to Italy, London, Korea, Vietnam and after so long, he made to America and met a Polish woman, my grandmother Agnes, and she blessed him with four boys. Lale and my grandfather, both had to fight their own wars. Whilst my grandfather fought to survive, wherever he was, for his life and a chance to live a better life, Lale fought to stay alive and ensure that he could help others, including Gita, and get out of the concentration camp. Both men, fortunate in many ways, knew that by not doing so, would have never lived to see better days.

After reading this book, it gave me the boost I needed to continue writing my grandfather’s story. Although the Holocaust and the communist attack on Albania happened many years ago, there are still survivors living with untold stories. I especially feel a sense of sadness that people may have forgotten Albania and its historical event.

Lale Sokolov told his story before it was time for him to join Gita, because he knew that it was a story that deserved to be told. I felt inspired to tell my grandfather’s story because, after everything he had gone through, he deserves to have it told. Just as Lale did.

 

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Vlora Robin Xhaferi is an undergraduate student at Columbia College Chicago.  She enjoys drawing, painting and writing.  Her grandfather Arif Xhaferi, is one of the last survivors from the communist attack on Albania in 1941.

Semi;Colon

Elijah Abarbanel: A Personal Retrospective on Guilty Pleasures and Erin Hunter’s Warriors

December 17, 2019

I’d like to ask you, the reader, to try and recall your first—or most notable—guilty pleasure; I’d like you to remember a piece of media that you kept telling yourself you should despise, but found yourself unironically enjoying it nonetheless. Think about how you felt when talking to others about your love of that piece of media. Were you at all embarrassed to do so? Did you deny liking it when asked, or were you unashamed? I, for one, can say that ten-year-old me was thoroughly embarrassed of my many guilty pleasures, and none more so than my attraction to the Warriors series of novels.

Warriors, is a long, popular series of middle-grade fantasy novels produced and written by a collection of authors under the pseudonym of Erin Hunter. The protagonist(s) change for every subseries, but the setting and societal entities concerned in these novels always stay the same. Warriors is—by and large—about a society of four “Clans” of feral cats in an unspecified area of modern-day earth. United by “The Warrior Code,” a code of ethics concerning the structure and laws of the clans,  their rejection of living with humans, and an equally spiritual and supernatural connection to their forebears,  the clans struggle to coexist with each other, mired by political disputes, of territorial, ethical, and personal nature.

As a fifth grader attracted to any story concerning animals, I quickly fell in love with Hunter’s world of sapient cats. The very first novel in the series, Into the Wild (not to be mistaken for the non-fiction book of the same name), seized my young imagination with both hands. The story was told from the perspective of Rusty, a young house cat who one day, after a chance encounter with certain members of “Thunder-Clan” one of the four that reside within “The Forest,” leaves his home to become a “warrior” and live with his new, large cast of acquaintances. It had the drama! It had the intrigue! It had the characters! It had the large-scale cat battles! I loved every moment of that first book. In fact, I loved it so much that I immediately picked up the second book after finishing the first. However, it would prove to complicate my relationship with the series.

Fire and Ice had numerous and simultaneous plot-threads, but the one that burrowed its way into my memory was the one concerning romance. In this book, Rusty—now known by his newly given name “Fireheart”—discovers that his closest friend, Greystripe has been secretly having romantic meet-ups with Silverstream, a warrior from a rival clan. This, according to the “Warrior Code” (as well as the law of cross-clique romances in fiction) is explicitly forbidden. And this changed things.

Looking back on it now over a decade later, there is still a part of me that wants to label the many romances of the Warriors saga as generally “typical” (lack of a better term). Romances were almost always complicated by a love triangle or existed as an instance of star-crossed lovers. That being said, I’m still as enamored with all of them as I was back then, eagerly reading page 153 of Fire and Ice, detailing Fireheart’s discovery of this code-breaking behavior.

 

Fireheart held his breath as a face appeared on the far riverbank. With barely a sound, the silver she-cat emerged from the undergrowth and slipped into the river. Fireheart felt  his heart miss a beat. It was Silverstream, the She-cat who had rescued his friend!”

            She swam easily across the river. Greystripe stood up and mewed with delight. . . .

 

Up until that point in my life, I had shunned all romance, in all media. Romance is stupid I would tell myself, kissing is gross. All that toxic nonsense is the stuff that had taken root in my perception of the world around me, and of myself and who I was. And yet, I loved every minute of this cat-romance. As a child, that scared me beyond reason.  It began to crack the fragile identity I had constructed for myself.

I told myself that I thought it was stupid, I told my friends that I thought it was stupid. Yet, the more I read of the series, the more I became unable to deny that I was a giant sap for romance, no matter how much I tried to bury it under pretense of ironic enjoyment. All those love triangles, all those stories of star-crossed lovers—I ate them up like an oversized bag of chips. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that there is no reason to be guilty about loving them. The more I try to deny a part of myself, the worse I feel. In burying myself as an identity, I create a thin persona that serves only to bring me stress—this immature need to maintain an appearance that, really, no-one would judge me for.

When I eventually started embracing the fact that I enjoyed Erin Hunter’s Warriors, I became closer with some of my classmates because of it. The depression that I had sunk into that year after being forced to confront and live through an increasingly emotionally-taxing life at home, would temporarily disappear as I engaged within a small microcosm of Warriors fandom in the confines of a classroom. I was happy!

If there’s anything at all to take away from this story, it’s this: Guilty pleasures need not be guilty pleasures. Acknowledging your love of anything, will hopefully help.

 

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Elijah Abarbanel is currently pursuing a BA in creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.  He is a writer and editor from Boston, Massachusetts. He primarily writes a mixture of fantasy and “literary” fiction but aspires to write for every form of media that catches his fancy from animation to games.

Semi;Colon

Rachel Martin: Emulating an Author

November 20, 2019

“Dutch poet Harry Hoogstraten . . . managed to shake [Richard] Brautigan from his creative death and together they produced seven improvised drawings, which Hoogstraten kept in his archives.”

 

When asked, “What author do you emulate in your own writing?”

Well, that’s rather like asking “What quirks has your family passed on to you?”  Mom gave me the sense of humor; Dad, the reticence to go to parties; “Aunt” Carolee, the specific way of coloring in a coloring book, outlining Princess Cinderella’s dress in dark blue before shading the inside of the dress her usual, lighter shade; and the wariness of men and their stranglehold on our governing bodies (and bodies) from Great Aunt Shirley.

I am not as well-read as some of my compatriots, in terms of the ‘greats’ (that might have something to do with Great Aunt Shirley’s teachings, now that I think about it).

Pinpointing to an author I emulate also triggers a panic-response—am I not a unique voice?  Should I take it as flattery if I am put in line with Brautigan, Kafka, or Roethke?  Let’s throw in Woolf, just so we don’t have only men to consider; I think my aural tales could be taken as a ‘Street Haunting’ stream of consciousness, but not my writing.  My fiction is highly character-driven and dialogue-heavy.

Runner 1907-1908

 “In [his] diaries,” writes Jonathan Crow for OpenCulture.com, “Kafka doodled incessantly¾stark, graphic drawings infused with the same angst as his writing.”


My work falls into 2.5 categories—novels and graphic novels.  When I wasn’t reading novels, I was reading manga.  Then I was drawing almost as much as I was reading comics.

When I entered a creative writing program, the drawing dropped off and the writing in a recognizable novel and short story format picked up.  (The .5 I mentioned is fanfiction—nothing more character-driven than finding more and more creative ways to revive your favorite character and spend more time with them than fanfiction.  And it scratches the instant gratification itch with each new Like, Kudo or comment.  I would categorize it as the novel’s cousin, but that is a blog for another time.)  The writing I produced, online or otherwise, was very precise in imagery when the character themselves were concerned—which direction they looked when speaking, what they held, what their eyebrows did—because the comic book format limits you in and frees you from inner monologue.  Much like a stage play, the viewer only knows two languages:  Spoken and Body.  The setting itself was mentioned briefly in these scenes before I let the characters loose.

Rife with 90’s fashion and Japanese spiritual mythology.  Cover art and story by Yoshihiro Togashi

 

It was third grade, on our new fourteen-acre farm in rural Ohio—we had just installed our first satellite dish.  Cartoon Network’s early evening lineup was something like:  Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho—the style of all three was so different to the other TV shows I had previously encountered—Tales from the Crypt, Hey Arnold, Rugrats.  Cartoon Network seemed more elegant; the stories spoke to unity and community and supernatural strength—much like the Marvel comic books my uncle Greg collected, but without every character being built like a professional wrestler.  Muscles have never appealed to me.  Sailor Moon was my first experience with a very elegant style emulating women and their feminine qualities as unabashed strength.

It was then my drawing took its new form, that of which I have improved upon and use even now.  Ponytails snatched to the Heavens—pretty boys—tough stories and tougher women—fantasy worlds telling very real truths—all of it stemmed from the anime based on the Sailor Moon manga.  Naoko Takeuchi’s desire to “create girls who I wanted as my friends” gave me my first taste of a cast of teenage girls as strong, unique, and most importantly, taking agency; they saw injustice and confronted it head on—with fabulous hair styles, painted nails, and shoes I could only dream of owning one day.  I now firmly believe their supernatural strength is the only way they were able to function in those shoes, so my characters are strong proponents of practical footwear.

Hair game strong.  Sailor Moon characters, drawn by Naoko Takeuchi.

 

As I grow as a prose writer, I carry these elements of visual art with me, but expand on its shortcomings re: the scene itself.  Much like the inner monologue being cast to the wayside, simple cues can be drawn in to show we’re in a diner, in a forest at night, or in a library. Prose requires these sets be built from the ground up using all five senses, not just sight.  The physical acts of writing and drawing activate the two separate parts of the brain and I find that when I’m focused on drawing, I no longer produce prose.  And when I am in a writing or editing mood, I do not draw.

Original character by Rachel Martin.

While reading manga has helped me “see” scenes, props, and characters more vividly, the “smelling,” “hearing,” “tasting” aspects of the world have gone unexplored.  That is what I am currently studying, to fill in that deficit.  But the parts of manga I carry with me—the sense of community, the social strings each character creates as they move through their world—has been integral to each of my stories, written or drawn.  In this way, it would be more accurate to say my writing reflects the media which I was consuming from an early age, and continue to consume as an adult, rather than a singular author.

 

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Rachel Martin is a published writer, blogger, and journalist. She earned her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University where she was the editor-in-chief of Prairie Margins, the university’s undergraduate literary magazine. After spending five years in the workforce, she is currently studying at Columbia College Chicago to earn her MFA in Fiction.

Semi;Colon

Rachel McCumber: A Bad Blog Post by a Bad Writer

November 5, 2019

It is often frowned upon in art school to say your work is bad before you present it. They say “you are setting yourself up for disappointment and you should appreciate whatever you create.” While I agree with that statement, I also don’t.

Before I present this blog post I would like to say: I am a bad writer and this writing is bad.

I don’t like half the words I put on a page. I don’t have great grammar skills or a sophisticated vocabulary. I am writing for a blog called “Semicolon” and I don’t even know how to use the damn thing. I don’t read as often as I should. There are days where the pages in my journal are as empty as dorms during winter break. My work often lacks emotional vulnerability and contains a messy structure. Pure chaos lies between the one-inch margins of every paper. My heart twists its way into my stomach each time I have to read my words aloud. Embarrassed by my voice and by my words, I want to crawl into the double-spaced, 12pt font and die. 

I am such a bad writer that my fear of exposure prompted me to skip class the day this blog was due. I was afraid to let my classmates and my professor know that I’m a poser. I walk around with my caffeine addiction and yellow legal pads, but I’m not one of them¾I’m not a good writer. So instead of embarrassing myself, I sat in Grant Park staring at my blank word document and felt it staring back at me. The glowing white screen was blinding. Occasionally, I would type out some insecurities with my writing that didn’t make my skin crawl. But it never felt good enough. 

I closed my eyes and put my hands on the grass behind me and leaned slightly back. I tilted my head upward to stare at the sky between the tree branches above me. The sky was so blue that day and I knew Chicago winters would soon take away sunny days like this. My friend sitting next to me was writing like a machine. The words were flying out of her fingertips and I wished I had that confidence. She poured life onto the page with reckless abandon. 

I asked how she did it. I read the first couple paragraphs of this blog for her and said I was embarrassed to turn it in.  She said that I would always be my worst critic and that no one will ever hate my work as much as I do.

I loved that. It sounded like a challenge. 

As long as I hate my work the most, no one’s opinion will ever touch me. Maybe that mindset won’t be helpful long term, but it got me to start writing again. 

I procrastinate writing even though its my true passion. The writer Gaby Dunn said her therapist once reassured her during a session that “Procrastination is a part of the creative process”.  Maybe I needed to wallow in self-pity in Grant Park that day. But procrastination and doubt can only hold me back for so long before I start writing something I hate again. 

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Rachel McCumber is a student currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing with a focus in Nonfiction at Columbia College-Chicago. This will be her first published work, but she has made some really funny tweets and Instagram captions. However, she also enjoys writing personal essays that explore her ethnicity, pop-culture, and the reasons she is in counseling. 

Semi;Colon

Brigitte Riordan: On Writing and Food

November 5, 2019

 

The Tasting Menu Reads Like a Novel

I haven’t read many books this past year, but I’ve read countless menus. I’ve learned something about storytelling through eating. 

Eating from a tasting menu at a fine dining restaurant is like reading a novel: it’s divided into chapters that linger and carry on into one another. The experience will begin and build and end. 

It begins with the menu. 

A well-written menu is withholding many key pieces of information. Many fine dining restaurants list only the ingredients of the dish with no words for preparation or hints toward texture, or flavor of the ingredient. The cooks and chefs I work with tell me this is intentional. No jargon, no nonsense, nothing for guests to wonder about. The work done in the kitchen should be mysterious. I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” as I eat delicious food while knowing nothing of who prepared it. People should only question the craft if the food is so divine that it seems impossible. The well-written menu will leave a guest guessing and hungry. 

The amuse-bouche, French for “mouth amuser,” lights up the palette. In a book it is the prologue, or even a review written by Maya Angelou printed in italics on the first page. It is what reads,this is going to be interesting, this is going to be good.It is simple in its focus: to prepare. It touches on the range of flavors, hints at reach and ability. 

The first course is designed to be light on its feet. It introduces flavors and makes a statement. It is a thesis statement. The first course establishes voice, so to speak. 

Some tasting menus will have ten courses, others just three. The basic parts do not change, they may just be drawn out. Either way, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. The entrée courses are plot peaks, climaxes. They are typically rich, flavorful proteins. The main components may be familiar: lamb, beef, fish. A good restaurant will use this stability and tradition to play off of and be creative. In writing, it is the classic plot arc, where toward the end of the book two characters might learn they are in love with one another, or where a character hits rock bottom and has to come to terms with his situation. The story is familiar but is special in its context. 

The dessert (I think many would agree with me) is the best part. Some flavor from the beginning of the meal lingers and appears again. Fennel from the first course appears dressed in fruit compote. Motifs dance on the tongue in harmony. Dessert can’t be too sweet. There may be many textures and they must play well together. 

When I leave the restaurant: get up out of the seat, stretch my legs, and refocus my eyes. I adjust to my immediate reality. I process¾I talk to my dining companion about the details or I just think about them. My senses have experienced new combinations of colors, smells, tastes, and feelings and my mind has yet to fully acknowledge them.  

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