Author Archives: Gabriel K Smith

Beloved Bald Guy #1

Every once in a while I become enamored with a story. This inevitably leads to short bursts of undisciplined binge watching said story either late at night or super early in the morning. These are my margin hours in life right now where I freely choose how to spend my time. Usually I work out or read in these hours, but sometimes I am drawn into the less admirable, but common, habit of curling up on my couch with headphones in while I click through episode after episode.

When I think about what makes a show “binge worthy” two things come to mind: 1. A well formed plot and 2. Well developed characters. I think the best stories portray people in very nuanced ways, drawing out the intricacies of their smaller stories and weaving them into a larger narrative where some great tension is ultimately resolved. 

Why do we love watching stories play out in the pretend world of our screens? I think it’s in part because we too are characters in our own stories. We love the nuanced personalities in the world of entertainment because in them we see versions of characters we experience in our own lives. But unlike the sanitized and safe space of Netflix, our lives are complicated places, with stories we struggle to decipher and characters who defy clean categories. 

As I think about my own life as a story I’m drawn to two thoughts. First I am most at peace with the smaller day to day narrative I am living when I am cognizant of a larger story that surrounds it. This is the power of the meta-narrative. We all seek it. This is what drives the power of politics and activism. People long for the mundane events of their common existence to be framed in a larger context that gives meaning to everyday life. As a Christian I believe that the ultimate meta-narrative is the story of the Kingdom of God. This is the story that envelops all the other stories. It is the story of a good and faithful King who sets out on the greatest rescue mission ever undertaken in human history. When I keep this big story in view, the events of my life are both more and less significant all at once. The every day, walking around events of my life carry less burden because the ultimate things are already decided. The world isn’t dependent on what I do or fail to do. My identity and worth is determined by the King before I do a thing. At the same time my smaller story carries great meaning because it is one thread woven into the great tapestry of the big story. The events of my life make up part of a grand narrative where the King eventually makes sense of everything that has happened or will happen to me or through me.

The second thought I have when I think about my life as a story has to do with how I see myself in the script. I think I very often either see myself as the hero or the villain in my narrative. On my best days, when I’m winning at life I’m the conquering hero at the center of all the activity. I see other people in terms of how they relate to me or contribute to what I’m focused on. This is seriously unhealthy because I’m not good enough or strong enough to be at the center of anyone’s story, including my own. It’s a weight I’m not made to carry. My success doesn’t determine the course of my life and certainly not the fate of the world. 

On my worst days I see myself as a villain. On these days I see my frailties, weaknesses, and imperfections as the reasons why things aren’t going well. This is also an unhealthy perspective because it makes too much of my role, overestimating my capacity for undoing the plot and underestimating the power of the true hero and ultimate end of the narrative. When I’m the villain in my story I’m unable to be kind to myself. I’m also unable to be kind to others. This is no way to live.

I think a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of myself as a character is what I will call “beloved bald guy number 1”. You know how you see the credits roll at the end of a movie and after all the big actors are named you finally get to the end where the struggling actors who appeared momentarily in some scene are briefly recognized not by a name but merely a description? What if the meta-narrative that covers all of our smaller stories is way bigger than we thought? What if the hero of the story is far more courageous and good than we ever imagined possible? What if the villain is significantly more evil than we ever knew? If these things are true: a bigger story, a better hero, a worse villain, then maybe it is right and good to be beloved bald guy number one. This rightly positions us as a character who shows up in the credits but whose contribution must be understood in light of something much more significant. This seems like a freeing way to think of ourselves. 

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My Bones Hurt: How to Navigate Pain

When others do harm to us through their words, actions, or neglect we feel pain.

When we do harm to others through our words, actions, or neglect we feel pain.

When the circumstances of life conspire against us and we experience loss we feel pain.

Life is painful.

I wish it were not so, but this is just how things are.

In our pain there is something to be said for managing expectations. What do we expect from ourselves as we navigate loss and difficulty? What do we expect from others? What do we expect from God?

In the ancient Hebrew text called the Psalms, a collection of poems and prayers, the writer of gives us insight into all three of these questions. 

2 Have compassion on me, Lord, for I am weak.

    Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.

3 I am sick at heart.

    How long, O Lord, until you restore me?

4 Return, O Lord, and rescue me.

    Save me because of your unfailing love.

9 The Lord has heard my plea;

    the Lord will answer my prayer.

First, in our painful moments it is right and good to be honest with ourselves about the state of our hearts. Perhaps you identify with the words, “I am weak.”, “My bones are in agony.”, “I am sick at heart.” 

We feel these same versions of grief when we are harmed by others and when we do harm to others. Whether we are the cause of the one who was harmed is inconsequential to our initial experience of trauma. Often we judge ourselves too early in the grief process, beating ourselves up for the ways we have fallen short before simply allowing ourselves to fully feel the weight of harm either done by us or against us. 

 In either case, the first important step in our healing is to be radically candid with ourselves and name our experience of pain. Note that emotional and physical pain are linked. Sickness of the heart, that sinking, heavy, dark night of the soul, is so often accompanied by a visceral feeling of physical pain. I’m so often caught off guard by this dynamic in my own life. I look back on some of my more difficult seasons and recognize that I felt physically weak, tired, aching bones, and general malaise, just before I realized that I was also experiencing emotional pain of some kind. For me the physical symptoms of grief come before the mental and emotional ones. I know for others it can be the other way around.

The second step in healing from pain is to acknowledge the role of our helper God in navigating the fraught waters of grief. The Psalmist writes, “Have compassion; heal me; return.” As you think about your own current experience of pain and suffering, imagine the power of asking God for these three things. “Lord, have compassion on me in my weakness and suffering.” In this cry to heaven we acknowledge our desperate need for someone more powerful and good to come alongside us, to see us as we are, and to love us anyway. “Lord, heal me.” In this cry we acknowledge our brokenness and our inability to bring healing to ourselves. We need one who knows us better than we know ourselves to enter into our stories and bind up our wounds. “Lord, return to us.” In this final utterance we send out a distress signal from a dying body in a dying world, declaring that we viscerally know that things are not as they should be. We need a rescuer from outside of ourselves to come back and make all the sad things untrue. 

Wherever you are today I imagine that pain is a part of your world. It is definitely a part of mine. But in Jesus we are not alone. In our grief, loss, and brokenness we can call out to one who knew pain intimately and knows us too. “Lord, have compassion. Lord heal me. Lord return.”

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What It Looks Like to be Anxious and Hopeful

The fire flickered as it danced around the shiny metal bowl, casting a soft glow on our feet as we sat in the yard. The warm fire on one of the first cool nights of autumn was just what my soul needed. We spoke words but not too many and felt a settling of the heart and mind I haven’t known in quite some time. 

The simplicity of night, fire, and conversation with a friend began to unravel a certain kind of anxiety that has become more common in my journey than I’d like to admit. The speed of life, difficult remembrances of loss in days gone by, and too much connection with too little depth seemed to crescendo this week in a symphony entitled, “all is definitely not well with my soul”. 

That’s a tough thing to admit in a world where it sure seems like everyone else is doing so well. Rationally I know that we are all struggling, but the mechanisms for presenting ourselves to one another do not lend themselves to authenticity. Instead, our virtual and in person common spaces for connection are “mask only” venues where the only safe way to enter is to cover with a false self and pretend that you are fine.

This is an exhausting way to live and frankly it’s wearing me out. I need more fireside chats with friends. I want to drop the act and just be real. I want to be seen, heard, and known without judgment. I suspect most of us want these things.

But wanting to drop the pretending we are fine act and finding a safe way to do that aren’t the same thing. It’s a dangerous thing to lower your shield when arrows are flying at your chest. In this world, the arrows are real. People are unkind. Life is painful. And we are afraid. 

The longing to uncover, be real and vulnerable, and show up as our true selves requires courage, but it also requires an alternative strategy to deal with life. We catch glimpses of a different way around the fire with friends. In those brief moments of real connection we imagine that maybe life could be fuller and we could be more present in it. The trouble is those moments are fleeting and if we are honest we don’t know how to keep them at the center of our chaos.

There’s good news though. I’m writing it to say it out loud for those who have never heard it and to repeat it for myself and others who have forgotten. Here it is. Life is hard and you are broken. But God is love and he made a way for you to be whole. Jesus says both of these truths talking to his friends, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) 

There are a couple of important things to note here. First, the thief is Satan. He is the father of lies, the deceiver, the enemy of God and humanity. His objective is to “steal, kill, and destroy.” He steals our joy, kills our hearts, and destroys our hope. And he does it through the common things of the world – the pace of life, where we are convinced that our value is in what we produce; social media, where we are told that people only love our posed life; and the overwhelming false narratives of the world that convince us there is no reason that our losses and pain will ever make sense.

The second significant point that Jesus makes is that God acted so that we could have a way out of the tunneling, spiraling, gut wrenching anxiety that life lived on its’ natural course produces. The way out isn’t a do more, get better, pull yourself out of the pit strategy. Instead Jesus says that the way to the life we long for is to simply trust him. He promises that all who lay down their broken strategies, see him, and choose to come to him in faith, will find the rest we all long for. This isn’t the kind of rest we find after a good sleep. Instead this is the sort of deep down, stop striving kind of peace living that we only catch glimpses of around the fire with friends.

I’m longing to be whole and I suspect you are too. Jesus is inviting us to trust him. I’m taking a risk and laying down my mask. I hope you will too. And I hope to sit around more fires with friends in the days to come.

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A Monday to Remember

The Men of Guns Platoon. I’m third from the right in the back.

It’s not often that you think about the day before the day that everything changed. It’s hard to go back there, not because the day itself was anything but good, but because what followed was so painful. Wading through the memories on the journey back to the last good day requires an elusive depth of courage and energy. Still, I think the journey is worth it. For the recollection of what once was is a reminder also of what could be again.

My day before was a Monday. I remember that it began in darkness as I rose unusually early to begin my last hours of normalcy. I was a twenty-four year old First Lieutenant in the Army serving as the Commander of the Presidential Salute Battery. We were the platoon in the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest unit in the Army, responsible for firing twenty-one gun salutes for the President and other dignitaries. We were also the mortar platoon for our Regiment, maintaining combat proficiency in the unlikely event a war broke out requiring our services.

I drove in darkness to meet the men of Guns Platoon at our barracks in Arlington. A charter bus idled in the parking lot as some of the men stood in groups smoking cigarettes and teasing each other, the way that young soldiers do. I sipped on black coffee while our platoon sergeant, Bobby Stringfellow, gave instructions and took roll call. The mood was light. This was a rare day in the Army. This was known as “mandatory fun”, an obligatory but not wholly unpleasant assignment. We had the privilege of wearing “civies” our civilian clothes, which most of us wore poorly as we were accustomed to doing most of life in an Army issued uniform. We loaded the bus and began our early morning drive north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We were going on what the Army calls a “staff ride” which is basically a field trip for soldiers where you tour a battlefield, studying the way the battle unfolded and capturing leadership lessons along the way. 

As the leader of our platoon, I had planned this excursion for months. I have always enjoyed learning about history, especially the Civil War period. My great, great, great grandfather fought for a Regiment in Pettigrew’s Brigade in the war that ripped our country apart. The history books record that James Augustus Whitley was one of three men to advance the furthest at the famous Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. He survived the assault but was subsequently captured by Union troops and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp in New York. So for me our trip that day was a journey into the collision of worlds where my familial forefathers engaged in pitched combat against our 3rd Infantry predecessors.

The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that we were carefree. I remember that we laughed. I remember the kiss of the sun as we walked through the tall grass between the tree-lined ridges. I remember riding home with a feeling of satisfaction at a day well spent with men I respected. 

That Monday was September 10th, 2001. The next day our young lives were upended by the violence of war. We didn’t know it then, but that day was the last day we would know peace. Tomorrow our young eyes would see, smell, hear, and taste the stench of death in a way we could have never imagined.

That was twenty-one years ago. The remembrance of this last day of peace is significant for me. In the remembering I am strangely transported back to more innocent times, where life was less complicated. Where the world felt more secure and life more certain. The journey is a good one, for in it I find hope that one day we may find peace yet again.

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The Art of Remembrance

We are born time travelers. The earth spins and we hurtle through the years. We breathe, act, decide, love, and create. We do all of it in the present. That’s all we have. Today only comes around once, so we experience life as it comes, each moment precious and brief.

In this way, we travel through time, moment built upon moment. But the journey of life is much richer than the simple now. The quality of our sojourning, at least in part, is rooted in our ability to embrace the art of remembrance. For we arrive to the present laden with hearts full of memory waiting to give meaning to our days.

Remembering is often so hard. For a long time I chose to forget. Several years ago I discovered that my default orientation to pain and suffering is to run faster into the future while actively forgetting the past. For a while this worked. I lived, created, built relationships and a life. I didn’t know it then, but I did all of that with half a heart. The half that could feel deeply, experience true joy, true agony, no longer worked. In the forgetting, in the numbing I learned to survive. I forgot how to live.

Everything changed when a friend and mentor asked me a simple question. “What’s your story?” he asked. I began relaying my list of achievements and simple facts about where I was from, places I had lived, jobs I had. When we got to the part of my story where I was a soldier in a war he paused and said, “Tell me more about that. What happened to you there?” I didn’t know what he meant and I stumbled through an answer. In that question my friend invited me on a journey of learning to remember.

One of the things I have learned on this journey is the significance of set aside remembering days. Sometimes we need time to slow down so that the space between the past and present is suddenly thin. On these days, the mundane activities of life fade into the background as the beauty, pain, images, people, events, and feelings of yesterday take center stage. I have grown to both cherish and dread these remembering days. When I slow down and remember, my heart awakens to real things and I feel deeply once again. I feel joy and sorrow rushing into my numbed consciousness and I know that I am alive. I look forward to the joy, remembering little things about someone I loved – a favorite phrase, a smile, the goodness of their presence. At nearly the same instance I feel the jolting dagger of sorrow piercing deeply into flesh and soul, for the life lost, the things left undone, the things that will not be.

This weekend is a remembering day for me. For most of the eighteen years that have passed since I returned from war I paid no attention to Memorial Day. It was just another blur in the racetrack of my movement forward. But then my friend invited me on a journey of story and remembrance. So in these last few years I choose to slow down, and become a time traveler once again. I pull out pictures. I sit on my porch and read their names. I tell my loved ones this part of my story. I tell their stories. For a moment I let myself feel the real sorrow and joy that I shoved down into the recesses of my soul for so long. On my day of remembrance, my friends are with me again even if for a moment and then they leave once again. But they leave me a little more whole. For when the remembering brings a rush of life it heals me a little more each time. I’m less afraid of pain and more weary of returning to a life without feeling.

So this weekend I raise a glass to my friends who left too soon. You are not forgotten. And your memory still brings me life. Until we meet again dear ones, I’ll keep traveling back to see you.

Passenger Parenting

You never see the big moments coming. Life kind of just moves and then suddenly something changes. In those moments you realize that the categories you held close, the ones that made sense of things, no longer apply.

I had one of those life moving, category shifting moments a few weeks ago. I should have seen it coming. She was obviously changing and growing. The girl was fading, the woman becoming. I overheard her talking while in her online driver’s education course. I listened as she recounted her first harrowing experience on the freeway with a stranger, a driving instructor in the passenger seat. I saw the learner’s permit she now carries in the back of her pink phone case. All of this should have clued me in that big things were changing. They didn’t. My category for my daughter simply couldn’t hold them. She is my little girl. I take her places. She needs me to navigate the world. She needs me to cut the edges off of her peanut butter and jelly. How could she be old enough to drive?

And then it happened. She climbed into the driver’s seat. I slid into the passenger’s seat. We buckled up. I gripped the handle next to the door made for parent’s in this very situation. My knuckles were white I think. She asked, “Daddy are you okay?” “I will be.” I replied. She pulled out onto the road and right then it hit me, “Things are different now.” It’s not just that she’s learning to drive. She’s learning to leave. And that’s a beautiful and gut wrenching thing all at once. 

The other significant thing that I realized is that I’m the passenger now. In the car and in life, she’s behind the wheel. Her feet are on the pedals. She’s making big decisions, where to turn, how fast to go, and when to stop. I’m along for the ride. I don’t have any pedals. All I have is my voice and my presence. In the car I’m learning that calm, gentle, guidance is the way to sit in my new seat. “You might want to think about slowing down now.” I hear myself saying. She glances at me, a little smile, nervous eyes shoot my way and then back on the road. I’m still in the car. She needs me there. But I have to let her drive.

This sudden realization that my little girl is the driver and I the passenger blew apart my categories of parent and child. With shocking clarity I had the epiphany that my orientation to being her Dad needed to mirror my role in her training to drive.

There are three principles I’m trying hard to remember right now:

  1. My best posture is as a non-anxious presence. Be in the car.
  2. My time in this seat is short. One day soon she will drive off without me. This time is a gift.
  3. Encourage more than I criticize. She needs to borrow my courage right now.

I’ll admit that sliding into the passenger seat in her life still doesn’t feel right sometimes. She talks about her day, the people she knows, the things she is doing, and I want to grab the wheel. Sometimes I still do but I’m learning to let go and just be there. In the car and in life.

The Where of Leadership

I have taken many courses on leadership. Most of these learning experiences focused on the “how” questions – how to navigate conflict, how to plan, and how to inspire others. None of those courses ever had anything to say about the “Where” of leadership.

The “where” is a significant factor in the leadership task. The places we do life don’t merely contain the important conversations and interactions, they shape them.

When I was a Cadet at West Point I had the privilege of learning leadership from Army officers who served as professors but had decades of experience leading soldiers in the real world. When I think about the importance of “where” in the leader task, two very different conversations with two very different professors come to mind.

One older Colonel, the head of my department, always met with me in his office. He sat in a leather, high-back swivel chair behind a large, oak desk. He insisted that I stand while he addressed me. Needless to say my predominant emotion in those interactions was fear. The space, a cold professional, controlled environment, marked by intimidating furniture and an intimidating personality behind the desk, shaped the conversations that happened there.

The same week I stood fearfully in the Colonel’s office another professor, an Infantry Captain who taught military history, invited me to lunch. He wanted to talk about my recent paper, which as I remember, wasn’t very good. He took me to the officers club, bought my lunch and we sat at a table and talked. The shared experience of a meal, sitting eye to eye created the possibility for a different sort of conversation. The Captain had much more influence with me than the Colonel.

Sometimes the swivel chair and the desk is the appropriate space for particular conversations with people we lead.

More often the lunch table is a more productive leadership space.

How intentionally have you thought about the “where” of your leadership? How do the spaces you choose to have conversations, make decisions and plan shape your work and your relationships?

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Dog in the Glass

 

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I have a little, black toy poodle. His name is Bokkie. This morning Bokkie discovered his reflection in the glass doors of my office. He saw a black toy poodle moving back and forth in the panes and didn’t like it. He saw himself and it made him growl and bark.

Bokkie’s adventure in the glass reminded me of some of my less pleasant moments with people. Like Bokkie I too see myself in the words and actions of those around me. Their words often trigger something deeper in my story, something I don’t like about myself or some memory that causes me not to like myself. Like Bokkie I am unsettled and sometimes respond with loud barking.

This happens most often with my wife. The other day she made a comment. Her words were benign, something like “Have you finished your expense report?” And for some reason her question triggered something in me and I “barked” at her. Now I realize that I was barking at myself. I hadn’t looked at my expense report and knew that I should have. In that moment I saw the Gabe I didn’t like in her words. I saw the Gabe that doesn’t live up to my standard. I saw the Gabe that isn’t as diligent as I would like to be. And in her words I heard the lie, “See you are pretty worthless. You can’t even get an expense report done on time.” Those weren’t her words. She loves me. She was asking about my work because she wants to help me. She is my best friend, the one who knows me the best and yet I responded with barking. And my barking wounded her.

Today I hope to have more self awareness than my dog.

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Fears Over Forty

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I am forty years old. I have many friends who are also forty years old. One thing that I find we have in common is an increasing desire to for our days to count for something of value. Forty is an interesting age. In some ways I still feel the energy of my youth. I still have the desire to compete, to spend myself for something worthy. I still possess a youthful optimism that the best is yet to come.

I also feel the creaking of my bones when I wake up. The glasses that hang, usually a bit skewed on my face remind me that my vision isn’t what it used to be. At forty I know the wisdom of numbering my days.

Like any season of life, this one is marked by certain hopes and certain fears. The hope is that I haven’t wasted my life, that my days have counted for something of worth and that there are still days ahead where things might even make more sense. There is hope that my mistakes haven’t been fatal, that I will still grow and improve and become what I am meant to be.

And then there are the fears. This morning I realized that I live with two levels of fear. On one level I fear not making enough money, losing the bit of material stability that I have. I fear losing influence and relationships. I fear a life of mediocrity. These are fears rooted in one story, a liturgy if you will, of the world. This story says that becoming is about being valuable – relationally, financially, vocationally. In this narrative I earn my value through the sweat of my brow. I win in relationships when my goodness outweighs my brokenness. This story exhausts me. In this story I can never win. In this story I can never be certain of my value because it’s determination is subjective and comparative in nature.

I also live with a second level of fear. On this level I fear living on the surface, giving into the liturgy of the first story. I fear living without courage and faith. I fear taking the easy road. I fear making decisions that make life comfortable but lifeless. I fear not fully drinking in the joy and peace offered without measure. I think these are good and helpful fears. These fears are also rooted in a story. This is the true story of the world. This story tells me that I am the beloved. This story says that I am made to live full life marked by a reckless faith, trusting that even my pain makes sense in the long run and is leading to something beautiful and whole. This story always says that the best is definitely yet to come, that I was called valuable before I ever did anything. In this story I am free to dream and explore and trust. This story is exhilarating.

Today I see the two stories and their promises and fears. Today I choose the second story. I choose a life of faith. I choose to believe that I’m beloved. I choose to believe that joy and peace aren’t a product of my circumstances rather they free gifts that are mine for the taking. And I choose to believe that my best days are yet to come and that my best will come not out of a clawing and grasping for meaning and value but from a deeply settled sense that I am chosen, loved, forgiven, and blessed by the King who is good and who will one day make all things new.

The Beauty and Pain of Forgetfulness

sea-of-forgetfulness-missy-borden

To be human is to be forgetful. We forget more than we remember. Think about it. In the last year every one of us lived 8,760 hours. How many do we remember? Each day we speak thousands of words. How many do we remember? Over the course of our lifetime we watch thousands of television shows, listen to thousands of podcasts, speeches, and participate in countless conversations. How many do we remember?

In some ways forgetfulness is painful. As we age we forget where we put our keys, what we had for breakfast and eventually events and people of greater significance. We forget birthdays, names, the sound of loved ones voices after they walk the earth no more. We also forget the beautiful things we are privileged to experience. We forget blessing. We forget the gifts we are given. This forgetfulness is part of our brokenness and weakness. It disempowers and shames us. We wish that it weren’t so but it is.

And yet in other ways forgetfulness is a gift. We forget many of the wrongs done to us, allowing once acute pain to dissipate into distant memory. We also forget how ugly we were to others, the harshness of our words, the intensity of our hatred and so we are able to move on. Forgetfulness allows us to be forgiven and to forgive. This is a divine quality for he who made us chooses to remember our sin no more. Perhaps we do not possess the same power of volitional forgetfulness, but it empowers love for others all the same. Forgetfulness is gift.

This human quality of fading memory is blessing and curse. Like an anchor our memory steadies us when we need hope in the midst of raging swells our lives inevitably bring. And like an anchor pulled onto the deck in calmer waters our forgetfulness allows us to shove off and continue course towards new destinations.

Let us lament the curse and mourn our low estate. Let us celebrate the blessing and revel in the glory that our past does not always dictate our present. And let us keep moving towards the distant shore where memory will lead to thankfulness and the shadows of glory we once saw in part give way to the fullness of glory without end.

**(Painting: Sea of Forgetfulness by Missy Borden. Located at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/sea-of-forgetfulness-missy-borden.html)