The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Marguerite Duras The Malady of Death (1982) *

* (restored)

 

‘In an article in Practicalities called ‘Men’, Marguerite Duras says “in heterosexual love there’s no solution. Man and woman are irreconcilable, and it’s the doomed attempt to do the impossible, repeated in each new affair, that lends heterosexual love its grandeur.” Earlier in the same article she believes “it’s between men and women that imagination is at its strongest. And it’s there that they’re separated by a frigidity which women increasingly invoke and which paralyses the men who desire them.” No man is perhaps more paralysed in Duras’s work than in The Malady of Death. Duras, born in 1914, brought up in Indochina, student of the Sorbonne, and one of the Nouveau Roman novelists along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute, is a great writer of that mysterious area of existence that concerns the inexplicability of love in the face of incomprehension between the sexes. When the central female character refers to love as “a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe”, it is perhaps because for Duras love cannot find a rationale between the sexes: that it occupies the space of the irrational. Yet Duras notes in homosexual love things are not quite the same: “in homosexual love the passion is homosexuality itself. What a homosexual loves, as if it were his lover, his country, his art, his land, is homosexuality.”

‘Duras’s comments here coincide with that famous theorist of sexuality, Michel Foucault. What Duras calls the grandeur and the irreconcilable are perhaps the further reaches of Foucualt’s interest in courtship, mentioned in an interview called ‘Sexual Choice, Sexual Act’. Here he says “the experience of heterosexuality, at least since the middle-ages, has always consisted of two axes; on the one hand, the axis of courtship in which the man seduces the woman; and, on the other hand, the axis of the sexual act itself.” Foucault believes “in contrast, the modern homosexual experience has no relation at all to courtship.”

The Malady of Death explores a relationship as irreconcilable, as about the gap between men and women that is not romantically resolved, but inexplicably opened. “You realize it’s here, in her, that the malady of death is fomenting, that it’s this shape stretched out before you that decrees the malady of death.” This short, hypothetical book about two people meeting up for sex has the narrator saying early on, “You may have paid her. May have said: I want you to come every night for a few days. She’d have given you a long look and said in that case it’d be expensive. And then she says: What is it you want?”

‘Here, the woman is presented in the third person as she; the male character in the second as you. “You say you want to try, try it, try to know, to get used to that body, those breasts, that scent. To beauty, to the risk of having children implicit in that body.” Julia Kristeva in Black Sun has astutely referred to Duras’s “aesthetics of awkwardness”, the way Duras will create a truncated syntax to achieve a certain sense of fragmented melancholy. “Duras’s work does not analyze itself by seeking its sources in the music that lies under the words nor in the defeat of the narrative’s logic. If there be a formal search, it is subordinate to confrontation with the silence of horror in oneself and in the world.” Kristeva adds, “such a confrontation leads to an aesthetics of awkwardness on the one hand, to a noncathartic literature on the other.” In an interview, ‘Black Sun: Melancholia and Creation’, Kristeva mentions students saying to her of Duras’s work, “We cannot read Duras because it is so close to us that it plunges us back into the sickness.” Kristeva later adds, “catharsis supposes that we leave depression, while I have a sense that these books plunge us into depression and do not give us a way to get out of it.”

‘In The Malady of Death, the literary style seems to force upon us an inevitability that cannot be reversed; for these are characters caught in a metaphysical battle of sexual wills that goes far beyond their individual characteristics. This isn’t quite the same thing as saying they are archetypes; more that given the condition of a certain type of man, and a certain type of woman, the result is inevitable. The man wants to “try loving”, but he is also paying her, and the more intimacy he requires, the more money she will charge. When he says he wants to sleep “with your sex at rest, somewhere unknown,” and that he wants “to weep there, in that particular place”, “she says in that case it’ll be even more expensive. She tells you how much.” Is this why the malady of death takes over; because he is in love with a woman that he cannot possess except on economic terms? Duras’s genius is for balancing the singular and the general – the inexplicability between the sexes, but also the specific problem given the relationship she is looking at. Here is a man it would seem given to control, and perhaps he believes by paying for the woman he will retain that power; that he can go to the very deepest part of himself emotionally whilst holding on to his full identity.

‘Yet perhaps this identity is shattered before the encounter and can never recover from it, and Duras opens the book implying this: “You wouldn’t have known her, you’d have seen her everywhere at once, in a hotel, in a street, in a train, in a bar, in a book, in a film, in yourself, your inmost self, when your sex grew erect in the night, seeking somewhere to put itself, somewhere to shed its load of tears.” The man may be paying for the pleasure, but the woman is denying him some notion of the essence he wishes to understand. “She’d always be ready, willing or no. That’s just what you’ll never know. She’s more mysterious than any other external thing you’ve ever known.”

‘What Duras’s book captures is the further reaches of that unknowability, a grandeur of the inexplicable, we might call it, the inevitable gap between the sexes that will occasionally reveal the abyss. One reason why Kristeva feels such trepidation in the face of Duras’s work is that it traps the reader in a state of inevitable melancholy. In the interview, she sees Duras’s work as perhaps personal, but that touches upon “something general that joins a universal symptom of our generation, I think. That is why her books speak to so many people.” Kristeva reckons, though, that the work’s danger lies in that “it is not cathartic but, let’s say, an echo, a connivance with depression.” This connivance meets the gap between the sexes, and Duras talks interestingly of the idea that men in heterosexual relationships are biding their time. “The number of men in heterosexual couples (or in drawing rooms or on beaches or in the streets) who are just waiting,” she says in the essay ‘Men’, “all alone, with no language in common between them and their partners, and don’t know it.” Here we have the flipside of The Malady of Death and yet not at all contrary to this work. If we have the man searching out the unknown other in the novella, we also have in ‘Men’ man falling not into the abyss but into boredom. Is this partly where Duras’s non-cathartic melancholy lies, from the male perspective, and in turn perhaps for the woman also? If the woman is finally no more nor less than an obsessive revelation of nothingness, or someone with whom time stands too still, what hope is there for the couple?

‘This is not the place to address alternatives, for that would be to defy the point Kristeva sees in Duras’s work: that in the hopelessness resides the noncathartic. Now before meeting the woman in The Malady of Death, the man seems never to have loved. “Haven’t you ever loved a woman? You say no, never. She asks: Haven’t you ever desired a woman? No, never.” Yet near the end of the book the narrator says “even so you managed to live that love in the only way possible for you. Losing it before it happened.” What does the narrator mean by this? Perhaps a sidelong glance at that great male writer of love, Cesare Pavese, can help us here, and some comments he makes in his diaries This Business of Living. When Pavese says in an entry on October 13th, 1938 “it is stupid to grieve for the loss of a girl friend: you might never have met her, so you can do without her,” Duras might say that though one may never have met the person doesn’t mean you can do without her. This is surely what Duras means when saying the man lost her before it happened. It is a crack awaiting an opening, a space that the woman creates that reveals the nothingness within him. The final entry in Pavese’s diaries, before he killed himself partly over a failed love affair, opens with “the thing most feared in secret always happens”. Has the man in The Malady of Death met the thing most feared – not so much the woman of his dreams as the one who can open up the nightmare of non-being? In one moment near the end of the book “the tears wake her. She looks at you. She looks at the room. And again at you. She strokes your hand. Asks: Why are you crying? You say it’s for her to say, she’s the one who ought to know.” Is it because, she says, he has never loved, never known the wish to “keep him for yourself, yourself alone, to take him, steal him in defiance of every law, every moral authority – you don’t know what that is, you’ve never experienced it?” The man replies “never”, and the woman says “a dead man’s a strange thing”.

‘Has the man always been like Pavese when he says in the diary entry on 30th September, “the best defence against a love affair is to tell yourself over and over again till you are dizzy: ‘this passion is simply stupid; the game is not worth the candle’”? Would Duras reply that the man isn’t avoiding love but confronting his own basic absence of feeling? When the woman says love takes place “perhaps through a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe”, “never through an act of will”, can a man quite countenance this acceptance? In another essay in Practicalities, ‘The Man Who Was a Lie’, Duras says of a man she knew, “he thought men and women were as fundamentally different in their flesh, their desire and their shape as if they belonged to two different orders of creation.”

‘Yet again we have Duras talking of the grandeur of inexplicability, and of course there is nothing more grandiose about the inexplicability of The Malady of Death than the premise upon which it is based: the man hires the woman to stay with him for a couple of weeks hoping that by the end of this relationship he will be able to experience love with a woman. It is a premise containing its own inevitable failure: as we’ve noted the woman saying, love is not an act of will, nor an act of purchase.

‘At the end of the book, Duras muses over ways in which it could be presented as a play or as a film. “He ought to disappear from view, to be lost in the theatre just as he is lost in time, and then to return into the light, to us.” Another suggestion is that he walks around the young woman; a third is that the “man the story is about would never appear.” This would be the mise-en-scene of the inexplicable, finding a way of staging the piece that brings out at every moment the tragic grandiosity of the gap. This is a gap Duras has often been accused of hyperbolizing, saying in an essay ‘House and Home’, “people tell me I exaggerate”, as Duras again and again points up the differences. “Men and woman are different, after all.” In the essay ‘The Chimneys of India Song’, she says “most people stay together because together they’re not frightened. Or because it’s easier to live on two salaries than on one.” There is in so much of Duras’s work in various permutations (in The Lover, in The Ravishing of Lol Stein, The Sailor from Gibraltar) this consistent pessimism towards the possibility of the heterosexual couple. Yet is it not the simultaneous attempt and the awareness of its impossibility that makes for the grandeur Duras so often also speaks about? In The Sailor from Gibraltar the narrator says he was “one of those whose tragedy it was never to have encountered a pessimism equal to their own”. Duras’s work can often feel like an alleviation of that tragedy but only to replace it with something equally devastating: an inevitable collusion, as Kristeva notes, with depression and melancholy.’ — Tony McKibben

 

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Extras


Marguerite Duras – Worn Out With Desire To Write (1985)
Watch it here


Marguerite Duras MARGUERITE TELLE QU’EN ELLE-MÊME


Marguerite Duras (1/4) : Vivre et écrire


Marguerite Duras – “Écrire” (ARTE)

 

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Further

Margerite Duras/Wikipedia
‘In Love with Duras’, by Edmund White
‘Intense Vocalization: Marguerite Duras’, by David Ehrenstein
The timeless Marguerite Duras
La petite cuisine de Marguerite
Serge Daney in conversation with Marguerite Duras
A Sublime Passion
Short Cuts
THE STOLEN PIGEONS, by Marguerite Duras
THE BIBLE, by Marguerite Duras
The obsessions of Marguerite Duras
In the electric light the traveler is writing
Mort de Yann Andréa, dernier compagnon de Marguerite Duras
Le Château de Duras, lieu d’inspiration pour l’écrivain Marguerite Duras
Narrative Features of Marguerite Duras’s Fiction, Drama, and Cinema
Buy “Malady of Death’

 

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Adaptations


Trailer: ‘La Maladie de la Mort’, a film by Asa Mader


Haegue Yang ‘The Malady of Death’ (excerpt)


‘The Malady of Death’ (group F)


Trailer: ‘La maladie de la mort’ / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord


Excerpt: (KUOLEMANTAUTI) Marguerite Duras: La maladie de la mort, 1982.


‘La Maladie de la mort’ et Aurélia Steiner (d’après l’œuvre de Marguerite Duras) (Extraits)

 

____
Interview
from the New York Times

 

IN THE DARK, CRAMPED HALLWAY OF THEIR apartment stand a tiny woman bent with age and a handsome, middle-aged man — Marguerite Duras and her companion of 11 years, Yann Andrea. She wears a plaid skirt and green stockings, he wears leather pants and has a mustache; together they evince images of whimsy, intellect and danger.

We walk into a small, dusty room filled with strange objects: a broken candleholder that is a model of the Eiffel Tower, a box of old postcards, little tins of tea next to a piece of curled red ribbon. There are piles and piles of paperback books and a round table in the middle of the room where Duras seats herself in front of some blank pages and three pens.

Her head is so large that her cheeks spread out toward her narrow shoulders. She must be less than five feet tall. She wears many rings and bracelets.

“Let me tell you something,” she says. Her voice is gruff, energetic and frank. “I am finishing a book. I am going to pick up the story of ‘The Lover’ without any literature in it. The fault I have found with ‘The Lover’ was its literariness, which comes very easily to me because it’s my style. But you won’t understand that.”

“Even I am struggling to understand,” says Yann, smiling. “Another version of ‘The Lover’ without the style of ‘The Lover’? It’s the same story.”

“Not exactly. Another novel. It is between the little girl and the Chinese.”

“Why go over the material again?” I ask.

“Because there is a film maker who is one of the greatest in the world, whose name is Jean-Jacques Annaud, who took on ‘The Lover.’ He told a story that I didn’t recognize, so I said: ‘Now you’re going home, it’s finished. I don’t want to work with you anymore.’ I was a little nasty.”

The film is being made in English with two unknowns playing the leads: an English girl and a man from Hong Kong. Duras waves her hand in dismissal when I ask her if she will watch the shooting. “It doesn’t interest me,” she says. But, of course, she has her new book, which more or less throws down the gauntlet to Annaud.

As Yann plays with a piece of ribbon like the one on the table, twisting it through his fingers, she looks at me expectantly, and I begin by asking about early literary influences. She denies having any. “My mother was a farmer,” she says bluntly. “She had no idea what literature was all about.”

“Did you know you were a writer when you were young?”

“I never doubted. I wrote when I was 10. Very bad poems. Many children start out writing like that, with the most difficult form.”

The form of a typical Duras novel is minimal, with no character description, and much dialogue, often unattributed and without quotation marks. The novel is not driven by narrative, but by a detached psychological probing, which, with its complexity and contradictory emotions, has its own urgency.

I ask her why she has said in interviews she feels suffocated by the classical novel, especially Balzac.

“Balzac describes everything, everything. It’s exhaustive. It’s an inventory. His books are indigestible. There’s no place for the reader.”

Yann says gently: “There is pleasure too, in reading Balzac. You’re very reassured.”

“If you read it at 14,” Duras barks back. “Balzac was my earliest nourishment. But I am a part of my own time, you have to be a part of your own time. One can no longer write as Balzac does. And Balzac could never have written ‘Lol Stein.’ ”

I ask her what sort of state she was in when she wrote “Lol Stein,” and she tells me a curious story.

“With ‘Lol Stein,’ I screamed. I was by the sea, in a house in Trouville. I was in the living room, and at a little distance was my lover. I heard a cry. I leaped up. I went to see the young man. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said: ‘What are you talking about? I’m the one who should ask why you screamed.’ I’d cried out, without even . . . it’s funny.”

“Have you ever known someone like Lol Stein?”

She picks up the papers before her, stands them upright and taps the edges to align them. She is so small that her face disappears behind the pages. I hear a deep sigh.

“One day I took care of a madwoman. I went to a psychiatric hospital and asked for a young woman who had attracted me. She was very beautiful, very elegant. I took her out in the car. She didn’t say anything. We simply went to a cafe. She ate and ate and ate — like a clochard , crudely, with her hands. At her core she was very sick. I wanted to see it physically. I saw it in her. The gaze. That’s Lol Stein.

“I’ve been thinking about this character for 10 years. I have an image. Not another book. Maybe a film. She is on the beach at Trouville. She is in a rickshaw. There’s no roof, she’s exposed. She is very made up, like a whore. She’s wearing dirty dresses, and it’s as if she grew old in an asylum. And you know where she’s going? She’s going to the dance.”

“Terrific!” says Yann. “You have to do it! Write it!” She turns to him with a distant look in her eyes and a faint smile. Silence prevails.

In a 1974 booklength interview with Xaviere Gauthier, Duras said: “I have a bedazzled memory . . . of the night in the forest when we’d walk barefoot, barefoot while everywhere it was teeming with snakes! . . . I wasn’t afraid at 12, and then, as an adult, I’ve said to myself, ‘But how did we get out alive?’ We would go to see the monkeys, and there were black panthers too. I saw a black panther fly by a hundred meters away. Nothing in the world is more ferocious than that.”

Thinking about that panther, I ask her: “There seems to be a chronic underlying panic in your books. Did that come from your childhood?”

“Who can say? It’s true that it exists. Endemic, as they say.”

During another long silence I gaze at a strange tableau on a table. A mirror with dried flowers drooping from the top is propped against the wall. In its reflection is a poster of “Destroy She Said,” her first independent movie. Leaning against the mirror is another, smaller mirror.

“There was a sexual fear, fear of men, because I didn’t have a father. I wasn’t raped, but I sensed rape, like all little girls. And then afterwards I had a Chinese lover. That was love.”

Yann serves us grenadine. I remember French friends telling me, with eyebrows raised, that between them is un vrai amour , even though he is a homosexual.

“Do you think most people live with continual fear?”

“Only the stupid are not afraid.”

Of course, a writer who concerns herself with disjunction and alienation is difficult to pin down in conversation. She used to say that as a film maker she wanted to “murder the writer,” and recently she said she wants to “kill the image.” I wonder how it is possible to make a film without image.

She answers: “With words. To kill the writer that I was.”

All right. Suddenly she picks up the pen that has been in front of her for two days and begins to write on the paper. “I’m thinking of something.” She looks up. “Sensitivity depends on intelligence. It’s completely connected. There’s an innocence also. Luckily.” She puts down the pen. I record it as it happened. I do not fully understand.

“Are you still a Communist?”

“I’m a Communist. There’s something in me that’s incurable.”

“But you left the Party.”

“The Party is not Communism.” Her mouth hardens into a straight line across her wide face.

“Has there been any true Communist government over the years?”

“Not one. There was one Communist year: 1917.”

“Do you hope to see that sort of Communism return to the world?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I am a Communist within myself. I no longer have hope in the world.”

Yann begins to laugh. “And the other?” he asks. “Do you have hope for the next world?”

She is not amused by his question. “Zero. Zero.”

 

___
Book

Marguerite Duras The Malady of Death
Grove Press

‘A man hires a woman to spend several weeks with him by the sea. The woman is no one in particular, a “she,” a warm, moist body with a beating heart—the enigma of Other. Skilled in the mechanics of sex, he desires through her to penetrate a different mystery: he wants to learn to love. It isn’t a matter of will, she tells him. Still, he wants to try . . .

‘This beautifully wrought erotic novel is an extended haiku on the meaning of love, “perhaps a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe,” and its absence, “the malady of death.”‘ — Grove Press

‘The whole tragedy of the inability to love is in this work, thanks to Duras’ unparalleled art of reinventing the most familiar words, of weighing their meaning.’ — Le Monde

 

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Excerpt








 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** Tea, Hi. Gotcha. Me as well. Obviously I’m happy and potentially proud if the blog has a part in springing your writing. Rock this day. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. Thanks for your concern. I’m pretty sure it’s just a cold. I have a few friends here who just had or have them. I’m already feeling better today. But if starts acting big or lingers, I’ll get a test. Feel much better on your end. ** _Black_Acrylic, Thanks, Ben. I’m already improved, but I’ll go for a test if I start feeling untoward. ** Jack Skelley, Hi, J. I seem to be on the mend already, thank you, pal. So I need newz! Newz, I tell you! Or the opposite. xo, me. ** malcolm, Hi. Oh, okay, I was just overreaching in my haze. Yeah, it really does sound you guys re-becoming friends is just a matter of some future, probably random mood meld. My guess, for whatever it’s worth, is that he welcomes your check ins. I don’t know, we’re all so complicated. Follow your heart. I always do that, and I’m squared away with almost all the people in my life and past. I mean, I think I am. No, I almost never get sick, it’s weird. My immune system likes me apparently. And when I do get sick on rare occasions, like this cold, it tends to zip through me, as this cold seems to be doing (thus far). Thanks for caring. I think I saw the email with the new draft in my email box when I was gazing at it pre-cognizance this morning. Thank you! ** Dominik, Hi!! Thanks, I think it’s dying. It feels like it is. It could even be argued that BeeHive is even more beautiful for not putting guys at risk of impregnating her. I’ve already crossed ‘My Policeman’ off my list, but I will go back and make the cross even darker with a Magic Marker. I’m afraid I’m one of those people on whom Harry Styles’ appeal does not work. It’s true your love of yesterday made an important correction to the dictionary definition of sexy. Love making the Foo Fighters go away, G. ** Steve Erickson, Ah ha! Everyone, Mr. Erickson requests the presence of your ears thusly: ‘I released my new song “Stochastic Terror” today. I don’t know if its intent as a protest song comes across, or if it’s just a bunch of atonal samples looped over each other.’ I’m feeling somewhat better today, thanks. Yeah, colds are rather rampant among my local social set du jour. ** Gick, Hi. Yeah, it’s annoying, but it could be worse. Thank you. Mm, you know, I hate honey. I always have. I can’t stand it. I don’t know why. I think I’d need to be pretty sick to allow it in my mouth. And any slave that tried to put it in my mouth would be in big, big trouble, ha ha. I’m sorry covid got you, but I’m happy you’re far afield from it. Love, me. ** Bill, I’m upswinging, thanks. I too found the poke choice odd and thus amusing enough to include. I’m glad you’re liking the Lambert book. Yeah, he’s a prose wiz, I think. How’s the prep going for your gig? ** Okay. I decided to restore the spotlight on my favorite Marguerite Duras novel for your possible delectation. See you tomorrow.

12 Comments

  1. Ian

    My days have been good. Mostly filled with work, parenting and taking care of the day to day.
    I haven’t been doing any writing lately. In part because I’m borderline exhausted during all my free time, but also because I don’t know what I want to write. I have two weeks off at Xmas and will take the month of February off. I’m hopeful that I can get something started over Xmas and use feb to really pound it out.
    Wbu? What’s new in the creative world of Dennis?
    Ian

  2. Gick

    LOL I love the idea of a slave being in big, big trouble with you! Thanks for reminding me to read Duras. She was one of my mum’s favourite writers. Hope you’re feeling better today?

  3. _Black_Acrylic

    I had bought The Malady of Death when it was originally put in your spotlight and I’m very glad that I did. An object lesson in how to exceed the potential of the novella!

  4. Charalampos Tzanakis

    Duras novels are nice to read, last one I read was Moderato cantabile and was hypnotic to read. Have you seen her film Les enfants? The description reads – 7 year-old boy Ernesto intrigues people around him for several reasons. Despite such a young age, he looks like a man on his 40’s and also seems a little more intelligent than any of his peers – and the latter fact is what causes him to quit school, refusing to attend it because he doesn’t want to learn the things he does not know.
    I was so intrigued and when I watched the film even more 😉

    I unearthed two more drawings yesterday. The way I do it is I do the drawing in few seconds and then hide it for long time until I unearth – When I do I do not remember how it looks or when I did it 😉

    Love from Athens, Greece

  5. David Ehrenstein

    One of her best. tands apart form the “India Sing: series.

  6. Dominik

    Hi!!

    Good, good, I’m glad you’re feeling better!

    I’m definitely one of those people on whom Harry Styles’ appeal does work, but even the opportunity to watch him for two hours straight couldn’t save that movie.

    Haha, no love for Foo Fighters? I must go back to yesterday’s post to turn another one of my favorite lines into today’s love. Love new to this high as kite shit split from gf wana suck a dick a get bummed, Od.

  7. Bill

    I believe I’ve read Malady of Death, but that was in my pre-goodreads days and hard to verify. I should probably just revisit it.

    Good to hear you’re on the upswing, Dennis. It’s been pretty cold here (by wimpy San Francisco standards), and my recent shingles vaccine isn’t helping. The gig prep is going ok, and the rain will be helpful keeping me indoors.

    Bill

  8. Steve Erickson

    JEANNE DIELMAN topped Sight & Sound’s 2022 poll (and Claire Denis and David Lynch landed in the top 10). Holy shit!

  9. mlp

    this, along with “Blue Eyes, Black Hair,” is my favorite Duras. Love this post

  10. David Ehrenstein

    WORLD’S BEST MEATLOAF

  11. Robert

    Read a couple of paragraphs and went ahead and ordered the book, excited to read it when it gets here! Wow, a plastic skeleton turkey, yeah that sounds like it’d be a little bit too much for me haha. I think I’m getting sick again over here, I’ve been sick with something for probably the past four months straight (ever since I moved to Chicago it feels like), my doctor said there’s a bunch of stuff going around as people reemerge from isolation.

  12. charah

    Thank you Dennis for this post. I feel whenever I go on your blog I stay for hours and the urge to write takes me. A reminder of why write!!
    have a nice day

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