Category Archives: Stories

A Story of Atonement

As I was driving home from Nashville Tuesday afternoon, I began to surf the radio for some entertainment.  I prefer talk radio, specifically sports talk.  But, when the local station begins to beat the proverbial dead horses of UT football, the NHL lockout, or the Titans, I start looking for alternatives.

Many times, I’ll wander down to the left end of the radio and listen to National Public Radio.  It’s there that I can hear all manner of information regarding culture, politics and music.

This past Tuesday, I was enthralled as I listened to an interview with former Marine Lu Lobello and author Dexter Filkins.  It wasn’t a heated war-policy debate, nor was it an account of some strategic victory that raised the cockles of patriotism – it was instead a story of pain, hurt, death…and forgiveness.

In the early days of the Iraq War, Lobello was part of a Marine unit that found themselves in the middle of an intense engagement with Saddam Hussein’s soldiers.  In the middle of a firefight, three cars began driving toward the Marine unit in what appeared to be the usual and obvious tactics that Marine units encountered in the early days of the war.

The problem, though, was that, in the three cars, were members of the Kachadoorian family.  They were fleeing from the fighting that had erupted, and, in their panic, drove into the middle of the fight.  The Marines, doing what they had been trained to do, defended themselves.

Years later, Lobello, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, met Dexter Filkins.  Filkins had written an article about the incident, and it was through this article that Lobello met Filkins and then, later, the Kachadoorians.

Lobello, in the interview, explains why he needed to relive the horror of that day:

A lot of the times, these stories don’t get told. What gets told is the other side and the heroism. And what you miss out on is that this is a part of any war. No matter the training, no matter the terrain, you will always have innocent civilians killed. And if more stories are told about these innocent civilians, maybe we will start to think twice the next time we decide to go somewhere and have these battles, or maybe at least we’ll come up with some programs to take better care of these people that are caught in the crossfire.

Yet, the most poignant part of the story, and hence the title, comes from Filkins explanation.

One of the oddities of the story — and there are so many, and I’m not sure what it means — but they’re Christian, for one thing, which makes them a minority in Iraq, some 2 percent of the population.

So every time I asked them about forgiving Lu, or what had happened, or how did they feel about it, or why are they not bitter, because they’re not, they would just default immediately to the Bible, or they would start talking about religion, of God and forgiveness. And it was amazing. You could just see the power of religion at a really micro level. They believed deeply in their religion, and she said — and they said, over and over again, ‘We have to forgive them. This is what God commands us: He’s forgiven us; we must [as well]. And there was no doubt in their mind about it. And the conviction with which they did it was very moving.

As you listen to the interview, or read the story, you can feel the pain, the uncertainty, the need for closure in the voice of Lobello.  A young man, trained to be an elite, efficient soldier, doing a job but suffering the consequences in so many ways.  But, as Filkins titled his article so eloquently, there is atonement.

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Old Men and Baseball

There’s a line in the chorus of one of Toby Keith’s songs that says,

I ain’t as good as I once was,
I got a few years on me now.

That line is painfully evident in my life right now. At 51 years-old, I’m not what I used to be.  Even more, I can’t do now what I used to do then…or something like that.

This is a painful admission for a man…any man.  Because, in my mind, and in the minds of most men, we can always do what we set our minds to.  It’s that pioneer spirit, that conquering mindset that says we can go into that dark night and do it…nay, we will do it.

Yet, there comes a point when reality rears its ugly head and tells us that it’s time to stop doing what you’re doing because, well, you can’t do it anymore.

This past weekend, Lipscomb University baseball held its Father/Son Day.  The Baseball Bison would have a scrimmage game on that day, but, beforehand, fathers would take a little batting practice with their sons.  I thought it was a great idea.

As the weekend approached, I was just a bit nervous.  After all, my main objective was not to embarrass my son.  Just hit the ball, I reasoned with myself.  After all, how hard could it be?  I’d hit a baseball plenty in my younger days.  I was even a member of the .300 club when I was a senior in HS.  So, I thought, just relax and do what you know how to do.

As I arrived at the field Saturday morning, my son, Griffin, came to the backstop and told me to come on down to the field.  When I worked my around to the steps and onto the sacred space of closely-clipped bermuda grass and crushed brick, he handed me a jersey that I was to wear throughout the event.  A nice touch.

It went downhill from there.

The team – and dads – began the session with some stretching and running.  This wasn’t really a problem, except that I was stretching muscles that I hadn’t used in a while.  Well, actually, probably hadn’t used them since 1982.  But, I figured, how hard could this be?

After we finished stretching, we proceeded to throw…you know, play some catch.  Great.  This would allow me to catch my breath from…well…you know, stretching.  As Griffin and I progressed in the “playing catch” department, it quickly transformed from “throw and catch” to “heave it as far as I can and then try not to get killed by the ball coming at me Mach 2.”

After taking a few grounders at first base (my foremost objective there was not to…you know…get hit…there), batting practice – or BP – now started.  Thankfully, I was positioned behind a screen.  It was a God-given place of refuge, a sanctuary, where I could watch the balls zing from the bat at the other dads who were busy dodging the missiles.

Finally, our turn came to take a few swings.  My son, Griffin, launched ball after ball deep into the outfield.  In my mind, I remembered the days when I, too, could hit a baseball high and far (sorta!).  My memory served to provide confidence as I stepped into the box to take my cuts.

Pitch after pitch came, and I swung mightily at each one.  Yet, as hard as I tried, ball after ball left my bat and rolled gently to the shortstop.  I swung harder, and still, the same result.  Surely, I could lift a ball to the outfield, just one.

Today, as I sit here, I cannot take a deep breath.  And, when I move to get up from my office chair, I am visited by pains and soreness in places I had forgotten.  The stretching, throwing and swinging all took its toll on this 51 year-old body and reminds me that I am…well…not young anymore.

The most painful result of this experience, though, is the awareness that I am not what I thought I was.  I am not young.  I am old.  What I remembered of myself is now a distant memory, and what I told myself beforehand was a mental lie.  Even though I willed myself to step into the box, I could not relive the memory of what I once was.

Don’t misunderstand me, though.  While I had a rude awakening of my current state of affairs, I was much more moved by the experience of sharing the field and the game I love with my son.  This son, once a little boy that I taught to catch and throw and swing a bat, is now a man who excels at the game we once shared together and continue love together.  On Saturday, though it lasted just an hour or so, my son and I were teammates, and we played together in a baseball cathedral adorned with red-laced pearls and immersed in the smell of glove-leather.

I am content, now, to watch him play and know that it is now his game.  One day, perhaps, he, too, will have the joy of sharing it with one he loves.

The glory of young men is their strength,
but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.  Proverbs 20:29 ESV

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A Hurricane is coming (great news for a weather junkie)

A hurricane is coming.

Hurricane Isaac is bearing down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, predicted to make landfall sometime Wednesday morning as a strong Category 2 hurricane.  Not great news for those living on the coast.  The good news is that it’s not a category 3, 4 or 5 storm….which, I guess, is like saying, “Hey, I had a wreck and totaled my car; but, at least I’m still alive.”  True, but it’s still some major hassle.

I’m a weather junkie.  I’m fascinated by weather, specifically bad weather.  I am amazed and awestruck at the power of a hurricane, or a tornado, or a thunderstorm.  And, it reminds me that there is a God who created all of this and controls it.  The Psalmist knew this, too, when he said,

For I know that the LORD is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.  Psalm 135:5-7 ESV

So, when God “brings forth the wind from his storehouses”, I like to watch.  I have numerous weather apps on my iPhone, and when bad weather is coming, I love the nights when regular programming on TV is preempted by constant weather coverage.

“Here it is…it’s coming your way…it’s in your area now”…now, go stand outside in it and watch!

Growing up and living in several areas in Mississippi, I’ve watched with interest when hurricanes came ashore.  Of course, when they reached us, they had (mostly) been downgraded to tropical storms, but they were nonetheless strong.

I remember Hurricane Camille in 1969.  Not because I was in it, but because we had friends who had survived it and lived to tell great stories of its destruction.

I remember Hurricane Frederic in 1979.  I was a freshman at Mississippi State University.  It was mostly rain, some pretty strong wind (science geeks were outside measuring wind velocity), and I was walking to class in it.  No one showed up to class…guess I wasn’t paying attention.

I remember Hurricane Elena in 1985.  Talking about aloof.  I drove north from Baton Rouge, LA, to Starkville to visit my girlfriend (now wife) over Labor Day weekend.  Driving back to Baton Rouge on Labor Day, I was totally unaware that I was driving directly into the “teeth” of the storm.  Young, stupid, and in love was my excuse.

I remember Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  Michelle and I (and our newborn, Griffin) were living in southwest Mississippi in McComb when Hurricane Andrew made its impact on the Gulf Coast.  After a long night, we emerged safe but without power.  This lasted several days, and I still remember a neighbor who reheated some bread pudding on their gas grill.  Gave it a smoky, nutty taste…but, good, nonetheless!

And, finally, I remember Hurricane Katrina.  We had moved to Murfreesboro, TN, from Hattiesburg, MS, in 2003, just 2 years before Katrina did its damage.  Friends in south Mississippi were severely impacted by that storm, and we hosted a family from Hattiesburg for several weeks while things got sorted out.  (As evidence of God’s Providence for me & my family…I had been contacted by a church in New Orleans about serving on staff not long before moving to Murfreesboro.)

I hope Hurricane Isaac passes without incident.  I know the people in south Mississippi are anxious, and my prayers are with them.  Yet, at the same time, I will be reminded that it is God who controls the winds and all He created.

He is a powerful God.

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Where’s Reggie?

This past week, my youngest son, Penn, and I were in Charlotte, NC, on a baseball trip and decided to take in a Charlotte Knights game.  The Knights, AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, were playing the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees, AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees.

The old saying, “it’s good to know somebody who knows somebody” is true.  A friend of mine had coached the Yankee’s 2B, Corban Joseph, a 2008 4th rounder out of Franklin (TN) HS.  After a few texts, we had tickets waiting on us at ‘Will Call’.

It was a good game.  After a two-out, top of the 9th error by the SS, allowing the tying run to score, the game went into extra innings.  Free baseball!  We saw several players who had been in ‘The Show’ – Francisco Cervelli, Kosuke Fukodome, Darnell McDonald, and Jack Cust to name a few.  But, most notably, we saw “Mr. October”, Reggie Jackson.  He’s not listed as the manager on the MiLB website, but he was there in uniform.

I suspect he’s in exile, after his comments regarding Alex Rodriguez.  But, that’s just my opinion.  Regardless, people flocked to see him, and I’d guess there were as many Yankee fans there at the game as Knight’s fans.  As one who grew up watching Reggie play, it was a treat to see him in person.  I’m not his biggest fan, but I do recognize that he was one of the greats.

Between innings, Reggie emerged from the dugout to chat with a friend.  So, I took the opportunity to take a video of Reggie and Penn at the game together…kind of…sorta.

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Baseball and Billy Sunday

When I was a kid sitting about half-way back in the sanctuary at Antioch Baptist Church, I remember our preacher – or maybe it was someone preaching in a revival – telling a story about some guy named Billy Sunday.

Billy Sunday.

With a name like that, a guy had to be a preacher.  Or, a bank robber.

The story was told that Sunday was preaching, and as he came to the end of his sermon, he ran out into the congregation, yelling and waving as he went.  As he reached his final crescendo, he took off running to the altar and slid into the pulpit, standing to proclaim, in baseball verbiage, that he was home safe.

What I would give to see that.

Apparently, Billy Sunday, who started his baseball days with the Chicago White Stockings in 1883, and who was apparently a base stealing fiend, was converted to Christianity and became a well-known preacher.  Quite the story.

Billy Sunday: A Biography

Billy Sunday’s baseball stats

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Seeing the Gospel: Baby Calves and Cow Patties

While I was in high school, my mom, dad & I decided we’d start farming.  Well…really…it was my dad.  My mom and I were ‘the help’.  The pay wasn’t too bad…you know, the usual “we buy groceries and put a roof over your head and buy you clothes…” stuff.  The hours were the killer, though.  Who knew when the farm would call.

We started with a small garden.  Seemed like every year that thing doubled in size.  You name it…we grew it.  And, ate it. When the garden came in, we had the usual ‘vegetable dinner’.  No meat…just every vegetable we grew prepared Southern-style on the table in front of us.  We needed help to get up from the table.

Our cattle farming started like the garden, too.  Since my dad was raised farming in west Tennessee, I think he had a hankerin’ to re-visit the good ol’ days.  So…he announced that we were gonna get some cows.  Just a couple…maybe a few.  Nothing major.

Our first cow…a baby calf…was just a week or so old and had been orphaned.  My sister, a nurse in the veterinary school at Mississippi State, along with her husband, brought it to us after work in the back of her volkswagon.

Really.

From there, we acquired a few more calves, and we endured bottle feedings, the scours, penicillin shots, and so on.  It was ’round the clock.  Months passed, and seasons changed, and then changed again, and it was time to think about a suitor for our young heifers.  My papaw, who lived in West Tennessee, had arranged for us to purchase a black angus bull…we just had to go and get it.

So, my dad and I drove 4 hours one way to put a 1000 lb. animal with an attitude in the back of a Chevrolet pick up with side boards.  The ride home was an adventure and seemed twice as long.  Yet, we arrived with the bull and put him in to pasture with our heifers.

Our farming operation grew.  A bigger garden, hay hauling, bush hogging, wood-chopping, tractor-fixing and about 20 head of cattle kept us busy.  And, then, throw in the occasional midnight maternity visit for a bawling heifer…our farming operation had become…

…an adventure,

…a responsibility,

…hard work,

…most of all, a joy.

There was much learned in watching the struggle of new life emerging, or in placing the last bale of hay in the barn, or underneath the oil pan of a tractor, running from yellow jackets, or in the two glowing eyes spotted at the other end of pitch-dark pasture.  And, there was much joy sitting in the swing underneath a wysteria arbor with family and friends after sharing a garden harvest of vegetables and corn bread.

Our heavenly Father is like that.

He takes pleasure in his creation and He rejoices in me and you.  The prophet Isaiah said to God’s people,

…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.  Isaiah 62:5 ESV

He watches over us, cares for us, and, while we were once rebels to anything and everything that God is, he died for us.  His willingness  to leave heaven and come to this earth  in the form of a man, live a sinless life, die on the cross, and rise three days later, validating everything he said and did…

…is a joy!

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To the Freshman Class of Boston Conservatory

As a parent, you want your children to succeed…to be successful, self-sufficient…to be better and have more than you as a parent could give them.  Even more, you want your children to be part of the fabric of God’s plan for this place and time…and, even more, to follow God’s plan for them as they get older.

Dr. Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at The Boston Conservatory, gave this fantastic welcome address to the  parents of incoming students at The Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004.  It speaks more to the purpose and capability of music than anything.  Remember, God gave us music that we might praise Him!!

 

Karl Paulnack

Karl Paulnack

“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she said, “you’re wasting your SAT scores!” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet-even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings-people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70′s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

 

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