The Ink that Broke the Writer’s Hand

At this point, I think it’s easy enough to say: I’ve been out of sync for a long while. I have tried recreation, rebirth, but unlike the Phoenix, I never emerged with a wildfire, merely a sputtering spark. A thousand new moments have made a thousand new me’s in the years since I devoted myself to writing, always pushing forward, always trying.

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Vonnegut: One of my literary idols.

But this, I’m sad to say, is not a story of how passion and commitment pays off. This is reality. It doesn’t end well.

I have made creation my profession and my striving goal for 11 years now – not to mention the youth I spent before that idolizing, learning, scribbling in secret, courting my passion, growing into myself as a writer. It has, as long as I have lived, been the predominant force in my life – my creative spark and one of my few focuses. Others came and went, but never this.

If any of you have followed me over the years, you likely know I’ve never found things easy in spite of always knowing my life goal.

In 2007, I first began submitting my writings to magazines. In 2009, I first started submitting to publishers. I joined ground setting online institutions like OneStopPoetry, helping build communal sites dedicated to creativity, all while going through college and churning out story after story, poem after poem, and refining novels over and over again. I opened a Patreon. I started this website. I dipped my toe freely into everything which felt a natural fit for the modern writer’s journey.

Flash forward to today: I have written 7 novels, more than 100 short stories, and literally hundreds of poems, only the smallest fraction of which line this website’s pages, and those of its predecessor.

Rejection is part of the industry. It’s an awful part, but it’s part – a trial by fire through which you are supposed to learn, and grow, and inevitably weasel your way. Except the industry isn’t actually built like that. It’s not skill that determines who gets in. It’s luck – who sees it, at the right time, in the right context, how a particular word will make a five second pitch stand out more than another, that an agent doesn’t con you or mislead you, that market saturation doesn’t render an attempt obsolete through no fault of your own.

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Society doesn’t value writing any longer. They tend to look at it as something anyone can do – it’s simply a matter of how grandiose the scribbles you desire. You’re expected to work without pay, submit for “exposure,” work countless hours with no guarantee. In the end, perhaps 1 / 100,000 writers will get anywhere at all, and most of those won’t get far. The idea of the creative, struggling genius is flouted as a dream for all to aspire to, and those who fall short don’t tend to be seen as anything more than not having lived up to what was necessary. The industry shrugs and moves on – there are, after all, a million others waiting in the wings. Besides, it’s just writing, it’s not a “real” job – focus on career and do this free thing on the side, just for you, yeah?

The isolation like a tumor festers and grows.

So I wandered. In college, I turned to journalism. The pay wouldn’t be great, but there would be benefits, a certain sink or swim adaptability that would assure that life would never be dull, and a chance to work on some real important stories that could impact a community or a nation. It also helped that it could potentially get a name out there and hone skill. Many a great writer has, after all, begun their lives in the journalistic trenches. I didn’t hold myself to any one form – I threw myself in and tried to learn as much as possible.

The Great Recession hit partway through college. The industry crumbled. What emerged in the aftermath was largely a contract gig, demanding advanced knowledge in dozens of areas and skills far beyond writing. Photography, Videography, Social Media, Marketing, Coding – journalists needed to know everything, work themselves into the dust for nothing, and do so with no benefits, barely a survivable salary, and no stability at all. One day you might be employed, the next not – no warning. Contracts don’t require them. And then the self-employed taxes would come on top…

So many masks came and went. It wasn’t easy, but I made it work, barely above water, working odd jobs on the side, never making anything to save. I bounced between papers, but the job hunt was nearly continuous, and fighting for them cutthroat – switch largely to robo-generated news, fire hundreds of journalists while new ones are emerging from school, consolidate the news into a few key corporations, and what you’re left with is a lot of people vying for the same few scraps.

But that’s fine, I said. I still had good days. It gave me time to work creatively – hours and hours spent on writing endlessly, missing so much to gain nothing at all. A few magazines picked up the occasional scribble. I self-published a three book series, because publishers wouldn’t touch it. Then I was told anything else that might be published after would be tainted by that fact. I wrote under pseudonyms, and still no headway was made. Seven books, plus the trunk stories every writer has and learns from, came and went. Nothing caught a publisher’s eye.

Success, this country has made clear, is a privilege, not a right. Not everyone is destined for success, not everyone has the natural talent or luck to rise above, not everyone chooses skills the world needs or has the money to invest heavily in others – and the “spend money to make money” notion is a crock meant to make the lives of the rich easier and leave the poor broker and more indebted.

In essence: not everyone is destined to be happy. You practice, you persist, and you age, watching others live and grow and enjoy such happy lives – and you fade away, realizing you have nothing for all your trouble.

Factor in depression, lack of means, and an unregulated society gone suddenly to a nationalist-authoritarian sort of feudalist nightmare – and you’re taking day after day of brutal beatings and getting absolutely nothing in return. “But the joy of indulging your passion,” some will say. “It’s just for you!” It’s not like that with any other career. Art is art. It’s a beautiful, passionate thing, but it’s still hard, grueling labor. You do it because you love to do it, sure, but you also do it because you want it to be seen. You want to grow, you want to be successful, and you want to be told your work is worth something. When it’s not, you adapt, you grow, you build on it. But after enough time, if trying again and again ever yields the same result, it breaks first your heart, and then it breaks your spirit.

For me, the last straw came earlier this year.

To preface: after a decade, for the first time last year I found an agent willing to touch my work. His name was Mark Gottlieb, of Trident Media Group. He’s a big name: a previous top Literary Agent on Publishers Marketplace in overall deals and other categories, lots of positive interviews, works with F/SF. He read one of the novels I submitted, professed his love for it, and offered to represent me. We had a rapid, furious back and forth by phone and e-mail.

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I was over the moon. Finally, I thought, I had broken in. This was my chance. I had done my research, and I was all for it. At his request, I attached a pen name to the work and got it ready to go. Oddly, he didn’t have any recommendations on changes, but I figured that would perhaps be more of a concern when publishers got their teeth into it.

Then the nightmare began. Months passed with no word. I attributed my antsiness to first time jitters. I had sent out a couple e-mails in the interim to address a few details on the book, but never got a response. After two months, I called, got no answer, then e-mailed to see where things stood, where the book had been submitted, etc. In reply, I got a single line response:

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Strange stuff, but alright, I assumed, perhaps he was just busy. Another 3 months passed. New Years came and went. I sent over another e-mail wishing holiday cheers and asking some questions about where we stood and industry developments I had heard about.

Again, that same reply: “No takers as of yet but hang in there.

Word for word, and nothing but.

Winter turned to spring, spring turned to summer. More than a year had gone by: no calls, no e-mail updates unprompted by me. Nothing but those nine little blue words. I wrote a last letter at this point, referencing Mark’s previous words and demanding to know what was going on. At which point, he broke the news that no editors had come forward, and that was that.

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By that point I had figured as much, of course, but that I had been strung along for so long…and then I saw what was being posted about him on QueryTracker. Certainly, he has a sterling reputation if you go to Google. But former clients and aspiring writers? They don’t seem as forgiving.

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Gott5

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Notice any similarities to my case?

That was the ink that broke the writer’s hand. Coupled with the closure of a paper I worked for as well, and the subsequent decline in paid work…my faith has never been lower in this industry, and in writing in general. Thousands of dollars spent on college, for nothing. Countless hours wasted – a life, in many regards. Yet for me personally, it means so many other things, and admitting it all is a failure that weights me down lower than any concrete shoes.

Life is supposed to be messy, but it’s supposed to have a goal for which to aim. In 11 years, I’ve never gotten an inch closer to that goal, only seen it slip further and further away. I feel those that say to stick it out are much the same people who in middle school, and high school, and college, and thereafter, told folks time and again: “Oh it’ll only get better!” only to inevitably do a 180 and add, “Those were the best days of your life. Never forget them!” without a shred of irony.

Detractors say it all comes down to willpower and how badly one wants to achieve. A lot of people – even otherwise well-meaning friends and family – meet such situations with a lack of empathy and understanding. They neglect that we live, assuredly for the worse, in the midst of capitalism, and it is made quite clear to us that nothing we do has value unless it earns – and further, surviving is quite impossible if it doesn’t. Those born with means can stick with art through wind and rain, and weather all opposition. The poor do not have that option.

It’s like with travel: we all want to do it, and there are plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t afford not to, but when it all comes down to it, the majority of us have so small a disposable income that we cannot afford to put things on hold long enough to play around with our fantasies – and it only gets worse, year after year, as the nation sinks further into debt and student loans, eliminates benefits and savings programs, and saddles families with an increasing need to work with and support one another just to survive. We barely have time to be individuals anymore, let alone engage our passions.

Which is exactly where I find myself now. To those that can still write, still create, still travel – whatever their passion may be – I applaud them. I am envious.

Yet every soul has a breaking point, and I have long since met mine. After more than a decade of work with nothing to show for it, I have gotten out of writing, and I am in the process of reformulating my life to find some new course that will keep me breathing.

This website will live out the year before it reverts to its WordPress origins. If anything else fills its pages, it will likely be little things, creative whimsies. No more updates or announcements or essays will come to pass, no more novel ideas down the pipeline.

It doesn’t mean I don’t love to write. It breaks me into a million pieces to turn my back on the only thing I have ever felt like I belonged to – but feeling like I belonged is much different from actually belonging there. I am just a number, at a time when we need voices to speak out against tyranny, to stand apart, to rally people to something more. I tried to give voice to the loss and pain. I tried to tell the stories to keep the dream alive. I tried to make escapism that would set us free from it all as well, however temporary.

I have nothing left to give, yet I must keep on, and I cannot let the machine consume me in the process. There are still people I owe that much. But where that leaves me…I just don’t know.

 

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Separation and Renewal: An Ode to Abuse Survivors

To all those affected by the devil Tyler Carpenter (@Adarael), whose full scope of crimes against those he professed to care about have only lately come to public knowledge. This one is close to my community, and many I hold dear, and who have given me a home lo these past few years.

Separation and Renewal

 

The city expels exhaust

tenuous as the wind which precedes

a volcano. She traces his ashes

through the commotion, the pregnant

light nested in separation;

all they want is to gather

it into themselves, his lies,

the history the heat

has orphaned among faces

that crack like teeth.

 

She is more than a notch

but to the magma each she

was nothing until it

finally erupted, just a shallow hole

into which light flooded

a semblance of hope:

what each might be

born again in the valley

with the boundless community

of the gathering dawn.

DfHSlFiVQAAlP2YTyler was a game developer for Harebrained Schemes, for Monolith Productions and Xbox before that. He ran shows in conjunction with Hyper RPG, Zombie Orpheus, and GeekSpaceTV. And he spent his days grooming, isolating and abusing women, cultivating sympathy from his communities and ingraining himself in the hearts and minds of even the most wary. He is a predator, a very skilled one. But he is finally facing justice, at least from his victims, from the community, and from his employers. In a truly just world, he would be rotting in jail at the least.

Blessed be these communities, who have banded together in support and love, and are working together to actively recover. Believe women. Deny abusers any ground in which to hide. Grow stronger, together.

To read more, you can find information on the situation here:

  • https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/yweqk5/harebrained-schemes-designer-accused-of-sexual-harassment-resigns?utm_source=wptwitterus (Though take with a grain of salt, as this article also gives him far too much play and ability to shape a martyrdom message)
  • https://twitter.com/ZombieOrpheus/status/1004541656429817856/photo/1
  • I would post the statements from the abused, at this time, but I have no interest in giving them the additional harassment that tends to come from furthered visibility. They have said their piece. Search them out if you will — there are eight that I know of, at the time of this posting. This is a traumatic situation and I have no interest in increasing the trauma with which they must deal.
  • If any of you think, “Well, he apologized, so he must be trying at least,” I’m sorry to tell you that, no. He thrives on attention and validation. A recent transcript from someone close to him of DMs behind the scenes as all this has gone down shows that even as he presents one thing in public, he will still cut down victims from behind. DfHtqhpUEAA8BXF

 

Willow

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

In the shade of a Willow Tree

the heart of dreams took root:

Keats, fertilizing the shape of men

with flesh-wrought words

turbulent, wind-blown

beyond the cusp and ken of mortal grunting

a passion of time, a labor of spirit

the blooms to which even sunlight bows

while apples, stirring thoughts of gravity

tempt us by the notion:

what lies within.

Promoting the “Other” When You Don’t Fit the Bill

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Photo by Nong Vang

Storytelling is one of the most fundamental, universal aspects of the human species. We tell stories to learn what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. The notion that you can’t tell someone else’s story is ludicrous, and so is the idea that you can’t learn someone else’s tales. Will you tell it the same as they could? Almost assuredly not. Does that make you any less genuine in intent or depiction? No. Does it make the story any less important? Hell no.

The key is consideration versus appropriation. Empathy is critical.

Example: a character should not be included simply because they are black, or trans, or bipolar. These are aspects, not the sum. A scene should not unfold where a character enters and we are left to think, “and here is the gay character.” It’s an aspect of who they are. It may be completely unimportant to the story you are trying to tell. Yet they are there, and they should be there, with stories to engage. That story should not begin and end with their gayness, blackness, mental illness, disability, etc., but hell if each of these traits don’t affect a person’s life to varying degrees. They are important. They matter.

We’re all human. We have love lives, yes. But we also have passions. Doubts. Fears. We have quirks and faults.

It is the sum of our capabilities and failures and deeds—not the prominence or lack of any one—which makes us who we are.

It is unfathomably tricky to write outside of who you are with the care it requires, but I also fully believe that those with the power and stage to write should, as well as working to open the doors to equal voices throughout, in the meantime, speak for those who can’t. To do so, they must work as hard as possible to be authentic. One of the main points of writing is, after all, to tell the stories of people we may not recognize, so we might better understand everyone.

The story is not about you, but it can be about people, as much as ideas and events.

The word of the day is nuance, and it should accompany any scribbles. Yet it is especially important when including the traditionally underrepresented – particularly if you aren’t one of them. I dare say it’s more important now than ever, as the world slides into an age of illiberalism and authoritarianism, lashing out at one and all seen as “the other.”

There are some out there who do take umbrage with people who write outside their element. Whether it is an extension of the belief that writing is experience and nothing more, or  addressing things beyond your own experience is disingenuous, or even using the idea as a convenient way to stifle inclusion, the fact is the uncertainty shows one important thing: it’s not easy. As such, if you’re not a member of the community you’re writing about, you must be amazingly respectful.

Note I don’t say “should.” I say “must.” Treat your subjects as any less than human for an instant, any sense of caricature, and that’s it. You’re done. That’s all she wrote. Pack up the bags and head home, because you just undid everything you were trying to do.

To those who say don’t do it, I say: as long as you recognize your space, your power, and your limitations, approach it from that. Be open to feedback, be prepared to accept criticism, but most importantly, work hard to do it right and open a space and opportunity for the voiceless to come forward.

To those who fear appropriation, I certainly can’t blame them, but I urge just as much caution. After all, to silence ourselves entirely for fear of facing appropriation anywhere, we lose chances left, right and center to learn about the myriad identities which make up our world. More people should be able to write and engage with who they are and what that means—but people should also be able to think and opine outside of who they are. Fiction lets us do that, and sometimes it does it wrong, horribly wrong, but the best writer acknowledges this when it happens and uses it as an opportunity for serious discussion.

So what it all comes down to is this: nuance is good. Engagement is good. One needs to do it without being insincere, but they do need to do it. All of us have a responsibility as creators and influencers to do better.

It is our responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.

Their Eyes Watch Childhood Blossom

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Spring has a way of resurrecting memories.

I found the fox on the far side of the river. At first, I took it for a kitten—it was young, too young and slight to mistake it for a dog. With all the leaves about it, colored to its shade by the passing touch of winter, I probably never should have seen it, but some motion caught my eye. A twitch of the ears or a flexing of the bushy tail.

Either way, it was already dying by the time I got across.

A child’s thought: someone hit it, someone left it to die. My first dog, a chocolate lab named Rufus, had been not long in the ground by then—a passing memory of love that ran until his hips gave out, disease rattled his bones, and it would have been crueler to let him live than to let him die. I had not come to terms with that yet, and there, then, another animal lay before me on its side, curled into its haggard self.

Leaving it was not an option. Though the words of others rattled my head like wind in the trees—“If it’s wild, don’t go near it; it might have rabies, it might be angry, it might…”—they were about as effective, and I hunched over it and pressed my hands into its fur. What I realized then was that there was no blood, no open wound—just a child in the grass. It stirred at my touch. A little thing—its paws moved, like my dog’s used to; like it was dreaming of a hunt time denied. Nightmares maybe, dampened with earthen sweat.

High noon beat down on us, teased the frost away from the rot. The fox’s eyes looked at me, little gold slits leaking liquid light. I started, sat back on my heels. There were many things I might have done. I had my backpack, and he was small enough to fit inside. Still, I hesitated—my mother, I thought, would know.

Instead, I gathered a pile of leaves and sticks, made a bundled pillow of the earth that I could balance between my outstretched arms. I do not know what I thought to do with it. Mother loved animals—by that logic, she could help him. She would know what to do, by needle and thread or a doctor’s hand. Wildness mattered nothing. Its body still held the warmth that endears life to a child.

Lethargy benefited no one. I slipped both arms under it, careful to come between its sagging claws as I lifted the fox off the ground. Our world thrummed with the passing thunder of a car on the roadway, maybe a few dozen feet over and away—worlds separated by a hill and some trees. It was enough to waken me to the coolness that slicked from the lipless breaths. Water, I said. Frost and dew and whatever else condensation wrought.

Blood, by the stain, leaking from the pointed, open teeth—teeth as small as mine had been, for the tooth fairy’s gifts.

It took a moment to sink deeper than my skin. The head could not remain risen into the crook of me—it flopped against the side of my arm, drooping down as if to reclaim the lost soil.

A haze of freedom carried us forward, past one tree and another. Another car brought the wind through the trees and I realized for the first time that afternoon, truly realized, that I was alone. Shade clung to the leaves still drooping from the canopies above our heads, silent as statues and every bit as cold. Even this close, the cars were muted, lessened for what stalked the trees. One might have believed themselves in a different world, with their toes in this heady soil.

It was dead in my arms. Slowly, I came into that reality. I think the shadows had moved by the time I set it down again, laid it at the foot of an ancient oak overlooking the river, where time and erosion might one day wash both into the rest of something else. Something bigger. I had nothing with me. Nothing that meant anything. So I buried it in leaves that crumbled in my hands, weighted them down with sticks someone might use for a bonfire.

Yet I dared not touch its eyes. Instead, I closed my own as I sat beside the river and began to wash my arms. It took a long time.

Princess, Quaintly

david-clode-341216-unsplashBy night the singing stars

glorified the pumpkin moon.

The princess, awaiting her carriage

asked a frog

how a prince would benefit her tale

before the frog puckered

and she roasted him for frog legs—

so convincing an argument he had made

she thought she’d be a prince herself

by the magic of consumption.

Two Minds

we are of two minds,

you and I

vessels pitched toward

names left shapeless:

light to hold

by the comatose

mewling of silhouettes

as if breezes

no land here

only digital connections

between separate hearts

hoping to download a soul

Two Minds

Beyond Limbo

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Photo by Nicolas Jehly

Somewhere north of nowhere, past a road fueled by rumor, where merchants but rarely travel and music seems to stretch on forever beneath the sky, a woman walks. In her wake is a train of sycophants—those who traveled here just to seek her, or those who were left here to whither under an endless cosmic array of appetites no belly could contain.

Yet come she does. Out on the parched dunes, far beyond the oldest ruins. The dunes, after all, cannot be bothered to rest on foundations. They eat and eat, savage as wolves and greedy as leeches, gorging on wind and earth alike. They know no names, unlike the hills they consume, and neither does she. She shuns those who ask one of her. She slaughters those who demand one of her.

Such is her right.

Her silence has as much to say as a thousand words sputtered from drunken men. It has turned folk to contemplation, deep in the caves where faith has become a palace only as great as the heart.

“You will only hear her on the full moon,” a caravanner whispers after drinks one night. “She will wear a crown of peacock feathers, and you will know her by the beat of a pellet drum.”

He has never heard it himself, of course. Those who do rarely choose to leave it behind.

North beyond the last tavern, north beyond the final well, north so far the rivers have turned back for fear of being forgotten, the world parches. Wind grinds the skin to pulp, wearing all to gold. Even prayer beads bleach, a bead for each prayer the desert does not hear.

At this point, there is no turning back.

When the desert wears the sun for a mane and walks between rest and sleep, the world loses meaning. A bell that rings, rings on forever, inviting the rain, calling to wisdom, and receiving no answer. In such a moment, it is as wise as any sage.

All that is left to do is to feel the tapping of a heart’s demands. It counts the seconds, minutes, hours, inexorably pressing toward the moment.

A hand closes its fist about the blazing heart of the world and she appears.

Her drumming is a conjured echo of the bell. She is as unquiet as the howl of the wind, and as ancient. Wrapped in skins and cloths dyed as if by iron, she swirls through the contours of her starlight hammered realm. Incantations pour from beauty glowing with the alchemical crescendo of the world, and for once, there is no deceit to be sensed.

About her the hungry ghosts dance in an endless parade, without malevolence or concern. Every strum of the woman’s hands sign words for them, sign voices for them, and it can be felt all the way to that tapping of the heart. It becomes the beat of it, wailing in tune.

For a tick, all is reborn and unborn, a hollowed out train of eyes pouring from the darkness. It stains the world. There is no escaping it. Only then does the drum settle and the woman cup her palm instead to the distant mountain. Her other hand hovers, as if waiting to clap it—but the sound never comes.

It is at this moment one might bear witness to the henna birds on her hands. They circle her, rising into the clouds of her garments, and one cannot be sure where they end and she begins. Other stories tell of men and women that can become birds that fly and fly until they find their hearts’ desire, somewhere in the green that exists beyond the sand. This is the birds’ favorite song when they fly.

Tears track the woman’s face, and she begins to call to ignorance.

“Leave me!” she cries. “Be not shackled by your lust and your hate and your pain. There is peace beyond the limbo. There is magic yet to be found in the emptiness of existence. There is a silhouette of a cage just beyond a rainbow. Tears will rust it. You would break it.”

From the unborn expanse, the ghosts mewl until no line can be found in the sand. The woman sinks, drifting through fog and silence, to the finest dab of dew on the ground. In this light, her garments are a prism, and the faint slants of light make her polychromatic. It just so happens the gesture is a bow to the full moon.

There is nothing for it but to bow with her. The gesture scatters and compels, until there is no chasm between the world and its ghosts. She looks up on approach, waiting for the hiss of self-interest.

But the perch is empty. Love has made another summit, somewhere closer to earth.

A Tribute to Ursula K Le Guin

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Art by Rebecca Guay for “A Wizard of Earthsea.”

You taught us the meaning of humanity

out on the Sea, where the Earth

falls away and leaves us with nothing

save the mud of our struggle

visions of utopia left behind

when mad men came ashore

looking for Heaven.

 

When I hold my Left Hand to Darkness,

no one asks if I still suffer

what those men work in the shadows;

instead they take my hand and show

a map to the stars holds hope

that we are more than what we are

and not everything can be bought.

 

Perhaps we will never break the echo

the clatter of coins leave on the Farthest Shore

but the journey will chip at our bad habits

and remind us that happiness is to live

to a ripe old age where pain

is a memory of the Dispossessed

before we rejected the banality of evil hopes.

 

The revolution drifts in orbit now

asking for trouble where only spirits and fire

can touch its priceless permanence, as with

love—neither sits, waiting

for someone to give it meaning

they get out there and remake

the universe on their own terms.

(For Ursula: 1929-2018, but whose mark upon speculative fiction, the world, and my own literary motivations, is eternal. Your journey was truly worth it.)

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Ursula K Le Guin

Rhythmic Gambles

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Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Rhythm is not just speed

but the thought of where the signals lead;

away, spirit, into the motion

of the universal devotion

to life beyond routine

the confines of a paper-thin screen

freedom, by any other name

a laughter of notes experiencing the game

without any fear; sacred, and devout

before the collective trance of the communal bout

whirling meditations to the bleeding and the broken

speaking without ever suffering outspoken

methodologies through the fighting,

to find out what they’re lighting and writing

and talking about, exhaustion

a sort of Faustian

gamble for the peak in breaths

that strips identity, time and flesh

to bone, where shyness will not lurk

nor stimulation shirk

the magic of connection

only the body gives direction:

Dancing with the waves of the oldest seas,

Dancing to be wholly free.