Stars in the Shadows of September

A part of me is always frozen in September. Time slows down and it hurts. My heart feels numb but it also aches; it beats strong and yet it is so fragile. It is both and neither, and so am I. For many years that is also often how I have felt about this life- and I stay and I sit with that sense of duality. And I think about the reasons and I make meaning in every way I know how because I stay.

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Many renowned academics have spent their lives agonizing over the solution to a profound problem: Living hurts. A lot. It is hard to contest that. Almost without exception, if you are a living being on this earth then you will come to know physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and suffering. This suffering is often a part of what connects all of us in our time together on earth- along with our moments of reprieve from it, however short or long. The meaning we make throughout all of it, the joy we find, the community we share, the novelty we seek- all of it held together can make experiencing life so tremendous. It is a tremendous thing to be a part of existence as we know it.

I see the good and the bad; I hear the joy and the despair; I feel the sting and sorrow. It’s constant and I’m still here. The “and” is important. Yet so are the buts, the dissonance of it all. Can you hear it? Can you see it? Do you feel the warmth and the cold when they come together? It’s all and nothing at once. If there are miracles, surely this must be one.

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The past may grow hazy, like the sunset turning to twilight. We can usually still remember all of its colors, though some might become harder to make over others as the sun sets into the night. Sometimes we never see the same colors strike the fading sky in the same way again. We miss them, even griever them. Some of us hold tighter to our memories so we might never lose them- but is this even truly possible? How do we know what we know? And how much does that matter?

I know I am here now. “Time” keeps me here. My memories hold me tight. Love endures here in spite of all the hurt or so I must allow myself to believe. And I will not apologize. I do not apologize I do not apologize I do not apologize; and I am here I am here I am here- and I am staying. And if I am to keep staying- to be so audacious in taking such space- I want to help make this world a safer, kinder place for everyone else to stay, too.

Because it has been so many years, now. And the pain still isn’t gone. So often it barely feels bearable- or even any better. I hate admitting that- I wish so badly I could say pain always gets better over time, but that is not my truth. I often wonder if perhaps a more accurate reality for others like me is that we might simply learn how to better carry the weight of it all- as our muscles and minds grow accustomed to it always being there. And we grow stronger the longer we carry it. Or rather, we simply grow. And that growing process is indeed ever-mysterious.

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I believe that for many of us, if we are so lucky, sometimes special souls come along and help carry the weight- they lighten the load for a bit and they travel lonely, winding paths with us as we make our way through time and space. They listen; they receive. They are present; they understand the healing power of simply being and bearing witness. Because yes, emotional states may very well be temporary- but for some of us, certain perceptual states and bodily sensations- deep embodied memories and somatizations- are infinitely more complex than mere feelings that fade into the background over time. We need one another’s support as we travel lonely paths drained of color and shrouded in shadow. Support helps us find our guiding lights.

There are things that may make pain and suffering easier to hold, to examine up close. Sometimes those fractals of faded colors are illuminated by guideposts in an inky sky, and all the light obscured from view shines again even as shadows seem to creep in at every corner. Once, I looked deep into the shadows; inside them I I saw stars- I came back here for the light they promised. This is still a reality I know; I understand it’s not always an easy one to contemplate for long. But please don’t look away; please just stay- and help to make this world a little brighter and a little kinder instead.

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There is joy and warmth that will demand to be felt if we allow ourselves to find it, that will demand for us put down our shields and be vulnerable in sparingly precious moments if we just listen. But truly listening requires a gentle strength- a true willingness to let go, authentically.  Being soft after trauma is a tremendous and lonely undertaking- but with all my heart, if I am to stay too, I cannot believe that any of us are truly alone or incapable of taking steps towards trust and reparation. The sunlight and the shadows and the blinking stars- the nothings and the somethings and everything in between- they can all hold meaning if we let them.

You are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. I don’t always know who I’m writing to or for-often I just write for all the fragments inside of me and that’s enough. But to anyone who may take meaning from the words I write, please- if nothing else- know that you are not alone, and even still, it’s okay to feel lonely. I hope you stay and fight longer, too. It is okay to be here.

I know there are so many other people who are caught in their own frozen September. Or perhaps instead it might be a January or a July, or maybe there are years stuck together in time filled with painful memories that might become warped, hazy and confusing. We might feel trapped in these constructed timelines that seem stuck at a stand-still while everyone else is passing us by at a different speeds; sometimes maybe it’s more like time is always running out and there is no way to hold on. We fight and fight to keep track of it, because where does it all go? And we can’t lose more, but it’s so hard to stay- and what would happen if we just floated away? Staying hurts. Leaving is all but impossible. The past hurts; the present seems impossible. Staying hurts but we keep fighting and finding reason. We search and find, search and find- that life is not but an empty dream.

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I am here, and I will no longer let apologies slip from my lips even in the times when I want to cry them out and curl into a ball on the floor and fade from this existence. I am a dissonance defined and I am here, and as I write this I promise to keep trying. It hurts all the time; I’m still staying. And I want everyone else to stay- and to grow and to heal. I want us all to heal because the pain in this world is too much- it’s an injustice and I believe there must be better. So I’m done being quiet; I will be loud and I will be fierce and I will learn to forgive and let go as I’m ready. I am searching and I am finding.

Sometimes it’s okay to hold on to whatever makes up the past. And sometimes we will let go of it. We can cherish the dissonance. I’m learning every day- and I can do so imperfectly, while holding space and leaving a footprint and a memory behind in time and for the world surrounding me.

To everyone who has been lost, I miss you every day. To everyone who finds me over and over again, you are my eternal reasons. Thank you.

Lots of Love,

Morgan

Healing the Heart of Healthcare

Perhaps one of the most important components of cultivating caring communities is providing accessible, culturally competent, trauma-aware healthcare.

What might this look like? Do we have any existing models for such communities? What would be important structures to avoid in designing or organizing communities free of oppression and discriminatory practices? This is a topic enormous in scale that deserves to be addressed methodically, but for now I want to call attention to community-driven efforts to treat, prevent, and reduce social and socioeconomic crises.

We see many relief efforts organized independently, growing at the grassroots-level which sometimes transform into larger non-profits, carrying out formidable endeavors on a regular basis; it is so important to recognize the individuals within our own communities who are serving our most marginalized, at-risk members of our society. How can we all participate in helping communities founded in compassion- and how can we begin to break down the borders surrounding access to care?

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I believe the heart of a compassionate healthcare system is mental healthcare. There are many different ideas of what mental healthcare should like, who can and should provide it, and who can and cannot. Yet is there only one form of mental health? One kind of wellness practice? Certainly not. So why are there so many barriers to accessible mental health care and coverage? I research these questions.

Speaking with folks, I find that a lot of them don’t know how to begin looking for mental healthcare- specifically psychotherapy. They don’t know where to begin, or what to ask for- how to advocate for their needs and wants. I feel I hear the same questions and concerns reiterated: “who am I to advocate for myself? To determine how I should be treated? I am no expert. ”

There is a fine line between understanding a need for outside help and feeling a lack of autonomy created through oppressive structures. Stigma itself surrounding these systems exists as an oppressive force. It’s as though a kind of collective learned helplessness develops; folks find themselves either afraid to seek help even when they know they need it, or they find themselves stuck in toxic healthcare environments that are hurting more than helping; they grow afraid to try and leave or to speak out against discriminatory practices.

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Creating better wellness systems will consequently necessitate boundary work, advocacy work, deconstruction, reconstruction, and openness to new thought in these thoroughly westernized, colonized fields of science. If mental healthcare serves as a cornerstone to the healthcare field, can it also serve as a good access of entry in a collective effort to liberate healing work?

Medicine and healing don’t have to be delivered so exclusively by white men in white coats who enforce western philosophy and theory. Have you personally reflected upon what has provided healing to your mind, body, and spirit on your journey thus far? Do you know what best serves you and your boundaries?

Morgan

Living with the Unimaginable

This is about “the suffering that is too terrible to name…” and learning to live

with The Unimaginable.”

PART 1

For all of the elaborate treatments which western medicines have tried to co-opt and create to treat mental illness and suffering, I question whether there are any that truly address bereavement in all its spiritual, social, and emotional complexities.

How do you mediate the effects of bereavement? If you ruminate, then you are wrong; if you avoid your grief, you are wrong; if you turn to coping mechanisms unproven by empirical evidence, you are again likely wrong. So how many things might be deemed “right”? What can possibly fill the hollow void left behind in the wake of a lost body and soul? The pain and emptiness that- for some- simply never seem to go away?

Who can possibly decide the right way to live with those emotions, those sensations, those perceptual states? What is most ethical, purposeful, or correct, truly? Could there ever be a right answer beyond the individual level?

I’ve gotten into trouble for asking questions such as these since I was a twelve year-old child, following the death of my father. It was as though adults around me thought that by asking such things I would become a weapon, dangerous to myself and to others. I was told not to think too hard; that was surely the problem (Rumination). Focus on other things; get a hobby or two. The pain of losing loved ones- in whatever capacity- will go away with time. Emotions are temporary.

I froze my brain as best I could; I numbed myself quietly through the false persona of a shiny happy blonde teen who tried to please everyone. I picked up as many hobbies as I was able, while I grew increasingly ill. Finding purpose and meaning as an adolescent is hard for many young people, but still I was guided towards dreams and aspirations- which my reality crushed hard. Because doing anything while living with debilitating chronic pain and fatigue- no matter the origin- is not often all that dreamy.

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Today, I feel that my questions remains valid. What is the danger inherent in asking who decides what is right for my mind and my body after they were shattered in childhood? Who decides my narrative- or for that matter anyone else’s? Why do so many societies seek to hide and control those of us who grieve profoundly, those of us who feel this world with our whole being?

Does we hurt to look at? Is grief painful to look at? Is it so incomprehensible for those who don’t feel such indignation in their bones every day that there are some people living in this world who just might?

Or perhaps- does bereavement bring up a painful reminder of the human condition itself? Of life’s fragility, and of how we as humans simply cannot control everything? We are mortal- we are stories with beginnings and endings, some much longer and more acclaimed than others. How do we hold that knowledge?

While this world cries out in suffering and I am alive to witness, as I watch my friends suffer- some more loudly, some silently- as I watch more lives vanish from this world, I will not apologize for my grieving. I will not apologize for getting angry. I will not apologize for not always immediately ascribing some sort of reason to all the chaos. For not ACT-DBT-CBT-ing my way through life. That is not the therapy which I believe to be my solution to pain and suffering. And I know it’s not the answer for many others, either.

 

I believe in listening, first. I believe in witnessing, first. I believe in radical compassion. I believe in contextualizing the entirety of an individual’s experience and asking someone what they make of their time here on this earth. I believe, I believe, I believe.

And as for joy and awe- sometimes even magic- and the possibility of the great beyond, yes, I believe in them, too. With all I have in me. But it’s my choice, and I believe in my way. And as others find their paths through ethical egoism and modified behavioral therapies, I respect their ways- so long as they don’t diminish the pain and lived experiences of others. Everyone deserves to find their way.

Perhaps the connectivity I imagine and yearn for won’t ever be truly captured in textbooks, journals, or research papers, even as I fervently search to better analyze it in my own research and studies surrounding the human psyche. I’ll use the DSM as I am required; I’ll work earnestly for my diplomas; but I won’t ever stop trying to plant seeds of change, of thought, wherever I go and grow.

I will continue to ask: What do we do when there are no words, when there is suffering too terrible to name?

“They are working through The Unimaginable.”

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Photographs from 2015-2019

 

The Burdens We Carry- NEDA 2019

“You must be a dancer.”

“Are you a ballerina?”

“You’re so tiny I could just pick you up!”

Those words stayed with me for years, and I remember them every time I look in the mirror. These were things frequently told to me while I was at my “smallest” size and weight- when I felt I took up the least physical space, and numbers on a scale and a clothing tag reflected that.

The pictures in this post were taken this past weekend as my own artistic way of reflecting upon National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and what recovery has meant to me. This is my body- it is a body not fully recovered, but no longer in pieces. It is the body I inhabit today, after years spent negotiating my relationship with my female figure and with this life.  At 24 years old, I have mostly maintained my “weight-restored” set point. I still struggle, I still survive, and often I even thrive. But I carry the weight of years gone by and pain witnessed deep in my bones. It doesn’t leave.

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So often, I want to turn my back and retreat somewhere still deeper inside myself where I can pretend that burdens don’t exist- that we don’t all carry painful stories that weigh upon our souls. I find myself desperately wanting to empty myself of that encumbering weight, to abandon it through any means necessary. I strive to be minimalist, to leave no trace; I wish to do no harm, be no one’s burden. And to never, ever be full- that old, poisonous rule still haunts me. Because to be full once meant to become a human container- to feel, and quite simply “to be” too much. Eating just felt like too much. I challenge these feelings and cognitions every day. It’s okay to take up space; it’s okay to be here. Everyone has a right to show up.

Today, I find thinking about that time to be deeply disturbing: Simply because I was “small” and appeared to fit a specific societal standard of beauty, people mistook me for being one of the strongest, most athletic kinds of performers; in reality my body was essentially falling to pieces as I slowly starved to death. My bones had grown brittle from lack of calcium, and I needed iron infusions to replenish my low blood counts. I was nowhere near capable of performing pirouettes or grand jetes. I developed a heart murmur from the stress on my heart that came with losing large amounts of weight and the purging that followed most meals, when I bothered to eat at all. And after enough time caught in a cycle of purging and restricting food, eating had grown to hurt so much that I often rationalized away my need to eat: “Why do something that causes you real, physical pain?” I would ask myself. (I later learned that painful sensation was the process of my stomach shrinking)

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But so long as I was still visually thin, young, female, white, and able-bodied- in other words, in possession of qualities the patriarchy has conditioned us to believe to be some sort of gold standard- I was both implicitly and explicitly praised by society and encouraged to maintain that very specific body type. Because any deviation from that standard is, through those patriarchal standards, implicated to be “less than”- and those toxic constructs continue to be reinforced through so many things we consume in our culture today. After all, our society usually teaches us that athletes and performers are the opposite of “less than”. They are the idols we aspire towards, they exist as our cultural symbols. So when society told me I looked like a ballerina, they were- perhaps unknowingly- praising my dying body.

I was objectified and praised for fitting into a box that created so much pressure for me to stay caught in my sick cycle, to keep hurting myself. Because if I tried to stop out of my own volition, what would the societal implication have been? My disorder always felt like a double-edged sword I had no choice but to fall down upon; my shame ran deep into my core. Eventually, it became a serious fight to survive.

By the time loved ones and medical professionals actually began to ask questions, I had become a master of deception. I was indeed performing; just not as a ballerina. I had learned to manipulate, to hide my eating, hide my purging, make up an excuse for every behavior. My disordered eating had taken over my life, my sense of morality and identity. And my disordered behaviors did affect my real performing art of choice: singing. As I continued to shed more pounds I also lost critical muscle mass, and I developed vocal dysphonia; my voice changed, and it constantly hurt to speak. As my eating disorder ate away at my voice, I felt my sense of agency slipping away with it.

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The more harm I inflicted upon my body, the more “scars” there were to heal. At my worst, I found myself scared to eat in public and, more often than not, scared to be around food at all. In my mind, almost no food was “allowed”; it was all “bad”. I felt so uncomfortable and trapped in my own skin, in my own body. I had entered a life-threatening starvation mode that depleted me of all energy, warmth, and joy. But the pain ran so much deeper than that. At the end of the day, my “disorder” was never just about how many calories I ate in a day, or if I was on the right diet and if I was being a good vegan, or even if my body conformed to social standard into which I never felt I could fit- unlike a seemingly benign dress size. It was about so much more than that.

My eating disorder had grown out of all the pain and emotions I had cast aside- the feelings I had been carrying with me for years and years and been too afraid to touch. My “disorder” was my dad dying- it was my lost friends, it was growing up as a sick kid with a disease no one could label. It was grieving over and over again and the universal emotions of loss and loneliness; it was feeling misunderstood and out of control; it was struggling to cope with all of it. Because those feelings can become so unbearably heavy if we neglect to carry them with the dignity they deserve. And sometimes we throw them into a metaphoric basket and label it “weight”.

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Emotions, the pain of the past and present- they can feel like such burdens. But we can’t allow ourselves to confuse their complex nature with physical weight and space, those things which we agree to quantify with more measurable numbers and statistics. We must accept that so often, we can’t see the burdens carried by those around us at first glance, if at all. Some things just run too deep. But we will all inevitably have our own baskets with their own unique labels, our own burdens to carry. And we are never, ever able to be encompassed through metric means and diagnostic criteria alone that can merely skim the surface of the human lifespan- of our unique human essence. I believe we would do well to remember this when considering every individual’s body and outer presentation.

I wish to make it abundantly clear at this point that eating disorders are not a choice- they are real and serious illnesses. But to an extent, we do have the option to choose recovery through our own self-determination and strength. And finding the road to recovery is different for everyone.

Recovery means doing your best to show up for yourself, if no one else, every single day- it means challenging even the smallest of things as you work to hold the good with the bad. It is frequently painful and raw, and it requires honesty. To choose recovery is to choose one of the most complicated, confusing, and scary paths one can take- that may also lead to great freedom. Recovery is healing, and it’s an ongoing process. I believe with all my heart that healing is possible. And I’m so glad, because our world has a lot of healing to do.

I’m starting with working on healing myself. How about you?

Lots of Love,

Morgan Michelle

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NEDA Resources

 

Recognizing Trauma and Oppressed Voices Outside Our Intersections

For many of us striving to educate ourselves in social justice theories and branches of traumatology- especially those addressing and healing intergenerational trauma- Black History Month can exist as nothing other than the utmost call to action.Something that grows increasingly apparent to me as a learner is this: we cannot continue to look at great injustices through our own narrow lenses; we must work widen the scopes of our lenses through doing our best to examine others’. I believe we may do this through practicing empathy and compassion, through active listening, and creating real conversation- discourse is often a core component of that.
When we acknowledge that something isn’t working, we can’t be complacent; and for those of us who wish to be agents of change in this world, we can’t allow ourselves to be complicit, either. I believe those of us who hold white privilege have a moral and social duty to insist better- of one another and of today’s society as a whole.

EDIT 1

Here’s one big way I believe those of us with white privilege must start doing better RIGHT NOW: we must not call Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) problematic when they raise their voices and call out injustices they alone experience. We have no right to challenge or diminish lived experiences which we cannot ever know or begin to understand; the most we can do is educate ourselves, learn from the lived experiences to which we are privileged to bear witness, and cultivate a greater compassion.  This is not to subscribe to a theory of moral isolationism, but rather something more akin to radical empathy.

I wish that as a society we can begin working collectively in moving towards a more trauma-aware language, one in which we may exercise care and thought before calling other human beings- especially those living under great oppression- demoralizing terms such as “problematic” or “toxic”. It is my most sincere hope that we will strive to instead honor and uphold the dignity of every human individual, especially those who may experience daily discrimination simply because of the color of their skin. I hope that we may instead work to address people’s behaviors, actions, and language without resorting to color-blindness, erasure, or hiding behind our own unaddressed white fragility, discomfort, and bias.

EDIT 2

I believe it’s important to recognize that many of us with white privilege won’t always be perfect allies, and we may falter greatly in our social responsibilities; that doesn’t mean we get to throw in the towel, give up, and walk away when we make mistakes (I know I have made plenty!). We were reared and continue to live among colonized communities that uphold and reinforce a white ideal, both explicitly and implicitly; we have all been deeply conditioned to reinforce this status quo. Let’s work on changing that.

If there’s one thing I can advocate most strongly for this Black History Month, it’s education. Truly, no matter where you are and where you come from, the color of your skin, your identity, or your ability, educate and re-educate yourself about how systemic oppression and trauma impact your life.

Learn about intergenerational trauma. Learn about social conditioning. Learn from people different from you in whatever capacity you can (the internet counts!). Check your privilege. Use your voice while still listening to those of others. And learn to apologize, and to apologize meaningfully.

Love,

Morgan

EDIT 3

Come What May: Finding Purpose

 

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“Who will scent the fragrance of a flower?

Who will laugh at snowflakes on the tongue?

Who will dance barefoot in the grass? Spinning and twirling and spinning and twirling

to welcome to warmth of May…”

I would like to say that I am a light-hearted and joyful spirit who laughs at snowflakes when they fall on my tongue; that I frolic barefooted through grassy fields of flowers;  that I remember to welcome the warmth of each May.

But the real truth is that there are days when I forget to open the blinds on my windows, when I cringe at the bright sunshine; there are days when I fail to comprehend the immense beauty inside snowflakes’ crystalline swirls, and I only feel the bitter cold that accompanies their frosts. There are days when I just can’t see the vast forest through the dense trees, and I just want to collapse in my own eternal winter-land, devoid of beauty, hope, and any sparkling snowflurries- a place where I believe I am all alone in my suffering and no one will find me- or even reach out to try. I find myself wanting to give up, to leave it all. 

I talk a lot of talk about being “here”, about how we all have the right, and the worth, and the purpose. I cheer out sentiments: “You’re brave, you’re a warrior!” and perhaps most of all, “Keep going- don’t give up.” But what does it even mean to “give up?” and to “be here”? To be on this earth, to be alive and to be so audacious in search of fulfillment, of these evasive and fleeting treasures such as love and joy- or even of reprieve from pain? 

The connotations of “giving up” and “being here” are vastly complex- but I would like to humbly assert that in the context of this conversation, they all come back to life and what it means to take part in it. And what that means will be different for every person who tries to define it- we all experience this world uniquely from one another. But the shared pieces of our human experience make for such an immensely less lonely existence- because we are never alone, not really. Our minds deceive us with that feeling of isolation; our egos can’t conceive of how big our world and the human capacity for empathy really is.

As such, I’d like to share with you how I have grown to personally define meaning and purpose in my own life, and why doing so sustains me and brings me peace  with my existence (or some semblance of it!). It is my hope that doing so may bring someone else some peace, or hope, or a feeling connection. You are not alone. If you are reading this, you are here. And I’m glad. Stay awhile longer.

 

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For me, being here- being alive- has become a thoughtful and ongoing journey about being in the present as we all strive to forge ahead into what may hopefully become a brighter tomorrow. It’s about treasuring the good memories and making peace with the painful ones; it’s about learning from both our past and our present as we create our future. It’s about telling our stories, singing our songs, and counting the colors of the sunrise so that we may later say goodnight to the fading sun, knowing what it looked like in all its splendor. It’s about engaging our senses in the whirlwind of the world around us while we’re here… because it’s all a miracle. Life is a miracle, and we are life. 

My journey will always include reflection, compassion, and prayer. I will pray that all of us can continue to find compassion for one another and compassion for ourselves when we at times will inevitably neglect to see the beauty all around us- even within our own hearts. I am making a vow here and now to do my best to welcome the warmth of each May, and the dawn of every new day- in all their sunny rays.

Peace and Prosperity to You All,

Morgan Michelle

Photography Credit goes to my Loving Husband

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This reflection was inspired by Joan Varner’s choral piece, “When I am Silent”. I performed it with my school choir when I was twelve years old, and its poetry has stayed with me to this day. I have included the lyrics below a link to purchase sheet music:

“Who will sing my song when I am silent?

Who will count the colors of the dawn?

Who will follow the lark’s flight?

Who will hear its song?

When I am silent

Who will sing for me?

Who will scent the fragrance of a flower?

Who will laugh at snowflakes on the tongue?

Who will dance barefoot in the grass?

Spinning and twirling and spinning and twirling

to welcome the warmth of may?

Who will dance when I dance no more?

When I sing no more?

When I am silent

Who will cry for me?

Who will cry?”

https://www.jwpepper.com/When-I-Am-Silent/3052495.item#/