Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Examining the Soul

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

What is the soul? This is a question science can’t answer – at least, not satisfactorily. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” And various religions offer various definitions – some equating the soul with the spirit, some differentiating the two terms.

In an earlier post – – I examined whether humans have souls or free will and I explained my position mostly in terms of free will because that’s where the science led me. Psychologists have studied the issue of free will much more than the issue of souls because the former is much easier to quantify and measure.

But the soul (or spirit), if it exists, generally amounts to a God-given essence that lies behind or beneath the individual – an inanimate something that provides a connection to the divine, lifting us above the animals and plants that surround us.

Possibly this is nothing more than human consciousness, the ability of a collection of cells to exponentially increase the body’s understanding beyond what one might expect from a group of chemically driven biological entities that have coalesced into a larger whole.

And possibly it is a holy noumenon handed down from on high and judged according to how well it handles the human machine it drives. If so, we have a slight problem because our understanding of what God wants (assuming God exists) relies on texts that are often obscure.

One holy book may tell us to do X while another instructs us to do Y. Even the same book can offer contradictory notions of what kinds of behavior are pleasing to the Lord. The sacrifices of the Old Testament give way to the forgiveness of the New. Yet even the New Testament contemplates slavery as an ordinary human practice.

Putting that aside, another question occurs: what happens to the soul when we die? Does it go to heaven or hell, purgatory or limbo? And when does it depart the body? Upon brain death? The heart stopping? Somewhere in between? We know that electrical activity in the brain continues for a short time after death. Is that the soul getting ready to depart or something like the run-on of a car engine after the ignition is turned off?

If we could transfer our consciousness into a computer or robot, would the soul follow? Or would the soul stay behind in the slab of meat that no longer holds the mind? If the transporters of Star Trek existed and we could beam ourselves (recreate ourselves, actually) to another location, would the soul come along?

Although the question of whether we have souls is for philosophers, not scientists, the bottom line is that we likely will never know the answer while we occupy the green side of the grass. If one particular philosopher makes sense to you, then you should feel free to follow the teachings espoused by that person.

But to assume that this one philosopher speaks the universal truth of all mankind is to lock yourself in a cage, allowing yourself to be fed by only one jailer (even if a benevolent one).

What do I believe? I don’t know whether we have souls. I suspect we don’t. I think the most likely explanation is that we – being desirous of anything that helps us understand the world – created the notion of the soul as a way of accentuating our belonging in a community separate from the rest of the world – a special community that makes us feel better about ourselves.

Either way, isn’t it nice to be able to contemplate the mysteries of our existence in this grand universe?

For more on this topic, packed into an acclaimed thriller, you can get The Devereaux Decision by clicking on the image below.


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Do We Have Souls? Free Will?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Do humans have souls? This is a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries. Aristotle, for example, believed that plants have vegetative souls, animals have slightly more advanced souls and humans sit at the top because they have intellect and reason. But Aristotle believed the soul and body are one thing – not separate.

Descartes, on the other hand, believed that the body and soul are different – that the soul exists apart from the body. To Descartes, the mind must be different than the body because we can doubt that our bodies exist but we can’t doubt that our minds do.

Yet the mind (or soul or free will) and the body interact. We think of things and make them happen by telling our bodies to perform the necessary acts. I want that ice cream cone so my hand reaches out and grabs it. The mind (insubstantial) tells the body (substantial) to act and the body obeys.

Is that what really happens? How does a non-material entity cause a material entity to move? What is the mechanism at play?

When we measure physical movement, we see the causes at the microscopic level – how the electrons, protons and neutrons act in concert to lift the finger or pet the dog. It’s all quantifiable. But we can’t measure anything beyond the physical. We can’t determine whether an insubstantial entity (like God or the soul or free will) is directing objects in the material world to move.

Even stranger, many scientists now believe that when we act, we do so before we consciously decide to do so. In other words, when I decide to lift my right arm, the parts of my body that are needed to move my right arm begin to work toward lifting my right arm prior to my brain transmitting the signal to the body. In the 1980s, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that electrical activity builds up in the brain before the person consciously decides to move the arm.

Every action we take can be explained by observation of physical processes. So if that’s true, where does the soul come into it? Or free will?

Libet’s experiments seem to suggest that there’s no such thing as free will, because if we have free will, we must intend to act before we do, and our bodies, as shown by his research, instigate movement prior to our minds being aware of it. So how can we have free will if we act before we know we’re going to act?

What apparently happens is that our brains create a story to explain our actions after our bodies have already set the wheels in motion. Thus, the “free will” that we have is actually the sum of our genetic makeup and environmental experiences up until the point where our bodies decide to act, at which point our brains decide to explain to ourselves why we acted the way we did.

It’s important that we think of this as free will because studies have shown that when we believe we don’t have free will, we become less moral, less creative and less grateful.

So even if we don’t have free will, we should act as if we do. As for souls, the jury is still out on that one.


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The Pursuit of Truth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all claim to be interested in truth and yet our actions often tell a different story. Why is that? Partly it’s because truth is often difficult to ascertain. Some folks, for example, believe that vaccines cause autism despite the fact that every legitimate scientific test to date disagrees.

Some people believe that fluoride in the water causes arthritis and cancer and brittle bones and brain problems and kidney problems and … well, you get the idea.

Some people believe that climate change is a hoax and that since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is around .04% – 400 parts per million – it can’t possibly be warming our planet to the level most scientists claim.

Some people believe that banning immigrants from 7 countries that are largely Muslim will make us safer even though the 9/11 terrorists came mostly from Saudi Arabia and that country is not included in the ban – and even though some countries in the ban (like Iran) have not produced terrorists who have attacked Americans on our own soil.

The truth can hurt.

Part of the problem is that for many scenarios it is difficult to ascertain what truth is. For example, when a massive flood strikes a Midwest state, that event usually has multiple causes – like heavy rain and the inability of the soil to soak up water (often because too many trees have been cut down and trees capture a lot of groundwater). Climate change isn’t the sole cause of the flooding. Sure, it contributes to the flooding, but it isn’t the only cause.

This gives people wiggle room to continue believing what they want to believe, to cherry pick the facts that support their belief system. After all, it’s uncomfortable to admit we’re wrong. And the more deeply held the belief, the more difficult it is to admit our errors.

Look at slave owners in the pre-Civil War South. They were convinced that they were following the natural order, that African-Americans couldn’t take care of themselves. The slaves seemed unable to understand what was being demanded of them; they worked slowly and made lots of mistakes. “We’re taking care of them,” the slave owners said, “because they’re subhuman.”

Now imagine you’re a slave and forced to do your master’s bidding, the worst jobs, with no pay and poor food and subject to being killed or tortured if you disobey. Wouldn’t you pretend not to understand? Wouldn’t you work slowly? Wouldn’t you fight back in the only way possible? Of course you would.

So the slave owners had a distorted image of reality based on conditions they themselves created that sabotaged the opposing viewpoint. These are the kinds of contortions we put our minds through every day in order to reconcile what we see with what we believe.

Many truths are not absolute. As a result, many of us have come to believe, wrongly, that there is no such thing as absolute truth. We sow distrust of those who preach opposing views and point to subjective truths as evidence that we’re right and they’re wrong. And we get to keep believing in the world we have invented for ourselves.

But in the meantime, we march inexorably toward certain realities, like the fact that if we continue on this course, much of Florida will be underwater in a hundred years. Tornadoes and floods and droughts will become much more common as weather patterns shift due to changes in the jet stream caused by a warmer Arctic and increased evaporation. Even though that will be long after I’m dead and I won’t be here to witness it, that doesn’t mean I don’t care if it happens.

So we need to stop babying ourselves, nurturing our narrow worldviews. We need to study what the experts in given fields say and discount the solitary voices of extreme dissent. We need to make sacrifices for our collective future or else that future is going to be awfully unpleasant.


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Near Death Experiences

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Most of us have heard about people who have had near-death experiences – seeing a bright light or loved ones who have crossed over or floating above their bodies and looking down at themselves.

These experiences lead us to believe that we have a soul separate from our bodies and that when we die we will be transported off to heaven or some other afterlife. It’s a pretty thought. But is it accurate?

Obviously, we don’t know with metaphysical certainty.

However, we’re starting to understand these experiences much better. For example, a Dutch neurologist, Gert van Dijk, at Leiden University Medical Center, has been carrying out experiments involving making patients faint and seeing what sort of near-death experiences they have when that happens.

They commonly hear voices, sense pleasant things or feel like they’re in a different world. And this actually happens, according to his measurements, because of a temporary impairment of blood flow to the brain. If blood flow is stopped for too long a period, that oxygen deprivation will impair memory so much that you can’t remember the near-death experience.

This is why some people who have heart attacks (or nearly die for some other reason) recall these “afterlife” sensations while others do not. For those whose brains were deprived of oxygen for short periods of time, they can “remember” these experiences. If their brains were deprived of oxygen for a longer period, they recall nothing.

NASA uses centrifuges to create massive g-forces in a controlled environment as a way to teach pilots how to keep blood in their brains. During these training sessions, pilots eventually black out. As they go in and out of consciousness, they report visions and hallucinations much like what patients experience when they almost die. Tunnels, white lights, family coming to greet them: they experienced all these things.

Why does this happen?

One theory is that the brain needs to construct a narrative to explain the world and our place in it. So as the brain loses oxygen and can no longer function properly, it attempts to explain why that is happening by piecing together a story.

But why this particular story? Because when the body is shutting down, it releases opiates or stimulates the brain’s reward system in the temporal lobe. This warm sensation often coincides with strong spiritual or religious feelings. It happens commonly with people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy.

A University of Michigan study showed that rats’ brains continue to function as if the rats were conscious for about 30 seconds after cardiac arrest. And some of the electrical activity was greater than what the rats would normally experience while awake. So we think rats have near-death experiences too, though it’s difficult to get them to open up about them.

At any rate, this isn’t proof that there’s no afterlife, but it does give one pause. There may be something beyond this world. But there may not. Believe what you wish, but remember that belief is all it is. It’s not certainty.


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The Power of Placebos

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Many of us have heard of placebos – fake medical treatments that are used to analyze the efficacy of real treatments. But the interesting thing about placebos is that even though they aren’t real medical treatments, they have a real effect on patients who receive them.

Sometimes the effect is negative, but often it’s positive. For example, people taking a placebo might experience the side effects that generally come with a particular medication. On the other hand, they might begin to feel better and even become better as a result.

One of the odd things about placebos is that they can even be effective when people know they’re taking a placebo. Because of ethical concerns, the dispensation of placebos has gotten a bit complicated, but some studies have allowed for giving patients placebos in addition to their regular medication and telling patients that even though the placebos do not contain active ingredients, they might feel some relief from taking them.

And then, surprisingly, a number of people do feel better. One would think the mind would inform the body that the “treatment” these people are receiving is nothing – a sugar pill or colored water – but the mind doesn’t work that way.

Instead, the mind somehow decides to manipulate the body to achieve the result the mind wants. It’s sort of like the power of positive thinking. And it can be good or bad. If a person takes a placebo to cure cancer, more than likely, the person is going to die. If, however, the person takes a placebo to fight depression, there’s a good chance the person will be helped just as much by the placebo as by antidepressants.

And the placebo effect isn’t just a medical phenomenon. It works in other ways too. For example, many (if not most) office thermostats are fake. Yet people feel better when they can “adjust” the thermostat in their office. Also, the “Close” button on most elevators doesn’t actually speed up the process of closing the doors. Yet people feel better when they’re allowed to press the button. They feel like the doors close faster.

Prayer may be another placebo. We pray for someone who becomes ill and the person recovers, making us believe our prayers had something to do with it. And perhaps they did, even if the person didn’t know we were saying a prayer for his/her benefit.

More likely, however, is that the placebo effect was at work, either on the patient or on the person doing the praying. If the patient knows about the prayers, that can serve as a motivator to get well. Depending on the nature of the illness, a placebo might be enough to bring about real healing.

If the patient doesn’t know about the prayers, then the healing might just be coincidence. Certainly the person praying believes in the power of prayer and attributes the healing to the prayer while making excuses if the prayers don’t work. “I didn’t pray hard enough” or “God said: No” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Many studies have been done on the power of prayer and almost all of them show that prayer is no more effective on healing than the rising of the moon. Yet people still believe. Why? Maybe because prayer is like meditation. It provokes a relaxation response in the body, whereby stress levels are reduced.

What does all this mean?

I think we should be happy our minds are strong enough to allow us to heal ourselves by many different methodologies. We can’t cure ourselves of everything, of course. And sometimes, prayers and placebos are downright harmful – such as when people rely on them too heavily, to the exclusion of more efficacious treatments.

But they have their place. So if you derive benefits from prayers or placebos, by all means: carry on.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Losing the War

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We fight many battles in our lifetimes, some of them external, many more internal. We see perceived injustice – the world not operating the way we want it to – and we attack. Sometimes those battles are more easily understood than others: like WWI and WWII.

Sometimes the battles – particularly the internal ones – are harder to understand.

Why am I not full after eating half a pizza? Why do I yearn for yet another pair of shoes? Why do I feel unsatisfied with my life?

One battle (or perhaps, war) we can’t escape is over climate change. Why do some folks insist that the planet isn’t warming? Or insist that even if it is, human actions have nothing to do with it? I think it’s because people are comfortable within a certain range of ideas, and the notion that running one’s air conditioner at 68 degrees can somehow melt a glacier in Greenland seems ludicrous.

Plus, people have been screaming about the sky falling for years (decades, even) and nothing really bad has happened so far – at least nothing that scientists are willing to pin on global warming exclusively. Too many of us don’t see what the long-term problem is. “So what,” they say. “We’ll figure out a solution when we have to – and not before.”

This leads some of us to want to do battle. While the rest of us look around and say, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re an idiot. Things are fine.”

The Olmec said that. So did the Nabateans, the Aksumites and the Mycenaeans. And the Anasazi. Empires all, once upon a time. Now all gone.

Some of those people left their societies, recognizing the inevitability of collapse. Others stayed and fought until the end, hoping to save their culture, their fellow citizens. But at some point, the end became known to all but the deluded. Their world was dying and they could no longer save it, so those few who remained, those few still alive, were finally forced to move on.

I fear in many ways that we have reached that point. The end is known, at least by some of us. We have fought the battles and lost. We can continue the fight, hoping that this isn’t the end, but we know, deep down, that it is. We’re too late. We offer too little in the way of achievable solutions.

And this time there is nowhere to run. Our planet is full. We can’t just pack up and head to some undiscovered country where we can settle down and start anew. So do we keep fighting? And if so, how do we do it? Many of our fellow citizens don’t know what we’re upset about. They don’t see the decay. They think we’re like the old Greeks who lamented the youngsters disrupting their glorious empire.

Only those old Greeks were sort of right. That empire died out centuries ago. Yes, there’s still a country called Greece, but it’s no empire.

A call to violence seems too extreme. But civil discourse and peaceful protest seem to get us nowhere. Maybe the death of empires is inevitable. Maybe fighting against that kind of decline only results in frustration at our impotence. Maybe we should just accept that it’s too late to win the war.

But the smaller battles still rage around us. How do we continue the fight? One battle at a time, I suppose. One battle at a time.


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Ramblings on Snow

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A single snowflake consists of many trillions of water molecules that form around a tiny particle of dust. A single snowman contains millions of snowflakes. A single snowstorm carries the seeds of thousands of snowmen.

We think of snow as pure because of the way light bounces off it, making it appear white to the human eye even though it is no more pure than rain. Still, if we are in the right mood, we find something in it that transcends its basic nature, its ordinariness.

Cold, crystalline, laden with our collective wonder, it drifts downward, blowing with the wind, whipping across the tarmac ribbons that cross the prairies, eventually settling beside fences or accumulating in corners, compressing itself into ice if left to its devices long enough.

In some ways, it reminds me of granulated sugar – silent but dangerous if you get too much of it. I learned recently that the sugar industry paid researchers who sought to downplay the link between sugar and obesity (as well as heart disease). So, just like snow, sugar in small quantities is pleasing – a delightful change of pace. In large quantities, it can be deadly.

And what is snow anyway? At times it seems like a liquid, flowing and blowing with gravity and wind. Other times it seems like a solid, compacting into hardness that can – over years – become ice – even though it actually is ice already: just loosely connected ice crystals.

They say that (like fingerprints) no two snowflakes are alike but I don’t think anyone knows that for certain. It’s just an assumption made from the study of thousands upon thousands of individual crystals, each one a smidgeon different than its neighbor, just like people.

Yet to us, the ones who traverse it or shovel it or just watch it fall and drift, there’s almost no difference, one from another. The flakes are all simply part of a larger mass, like grains of sand in a bucket. A few of them, to someone who has never seen them before, seem like a miracle. An avalanche of them seems like a nightmare.

I like snow, in small doses, on warm winter days, when I can nestle by the window and observe it, unbothered by the need to brave it.


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The Most Important Sense

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Answer quickly now: What’s the most important sense? Sight? Many of you probably said so.

I have to disagree. Our sense of touch, which we take for granted, is by far the most important.

Yes, the loss of sight or hearing can be very traumatic and even fatal. But the loss of the sense of touch can be even more harmful. Imagine being unable to feel pain as your hand encounters a burning stove. Imagine falling down the stairs and not knowing you’ve broken your leg or hip. Imagine, as a baby, not knowing to close your eyes when you’re flailing about in your crib and as a result you poke yourself in the eye and blind yourself.

Or imagine being emotionally wounded and seeking the comfort of a loved one’s arms, but never being able to satisfy that urge. Imagine never feeling a kiss.

Touch is vitally important.

Without touch, we cannot fully engage our world. A number of studies have shown that infants who are severely touch-deprived (for example, in an orphanage that is understaffed) suffer developmental problems, which can include obesity, an impaired immune system, heart disease, diabetes, psychosis and poor impulse control, among other maladies.

Conversely, babies receiving touch therapy have fewer infections, better sleep, gain weight more quickly and do better with motor coordination and cognitive skills. Even babies who have been touch-deprived benefit greatly when obtaining touch therapy afterwards.

The social rewards of touch greatly outweigh the social rewards of vision or any of the other senses. Touch transforms how we interact with the world far more substantially than the other senses – both for good and ill.

Consider, for example, a number of documented cases of people who cannot feel pain. Many of us would say they are lucky, but that turns out not to be the case. Pain is a signal to the body that some sort of damage has occurred. If we aren’t aware of the damage because we don’t feel pain, we could be seriously injured or even die.

Or consider people who are afflicted with extreme itching. What kind of torture must it be to endure that all the time? The loss of sight would be a blessing if it would remove that kind of torment.

So, if your sense of touch is relatively normal, be grateful. Things could be much worse.


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Why We Ignore What We Need

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We all have basic needs: food, water, shelter and clothing. Some would argue that we need love too or at least human connections, though plenty of people live without those things. Look at people with severe dementia or brain injuries, people in comas, or many of the homeless. They are often unaware that they are loved and yet they soldier on. So I think we can state that love is a want rather than a need.

But even if I’m wrong about that, my point is that we need relatively little. And most of us have what we need almost all the time. Very seldom do we go hungry or thirsty or want for clothing or shelter.

We have serviceable sustenance, yet many of us feel dissatisfied with what we have. We want nicer clothes or housing or comestibles. We want a newer car or a fancy vacation or the luxury of working only when we’re in the mood for it. Or we want the world to be a certain way, with a certain president or a certain weather pattern.

Why is that?

If our needs are being met, shouldn’t we be thankful? Shouldn’t we accept our stations and not worry about the might-have-beens of our existence? The answer, surely, is yes. But that’s not how most of our minds work.

We are driven by our wants precisely because our needs are largely met. We see others with more or imagine ourselves with more and that creates a spark of desire that can ignite into a conflagration with only the slightest breeze.

If we had a different governor, then life would be better. If we didn’t have so little rain, we’d be happier. If my neighbor’s dog would stop barking all the time, then I’d finally get some peace and quiet and be able to enjoy myself.

None of these are necessities and yet we feel extremely passionate about many of these wants. Protests in the streets, people shooting those with different ideologies – anger and resentment and fear building to a crescendo of negative emotion.

Conversely, people screaming their delight at a football team, anguishing with each bad play, celebrating every touchdown as if it were some momentous occasion. People tattooing a celebrity’s likeness on their body. All these circumstances deal in wants, not needs.

That doesn’t mean people are wrong to feel the way they do or to focus on intangibles that add a little spice to their lives, but it makes me wonder why we care so much about so many things that only indirectly affect us.

I think it’s because we want to feel. We desire the sensation of belonging or love or of being scared or outraged. All these emotions make us feel alive. Otherwise, we think, we might as well be robots. Yet, taken to extremes, these emotions wreak havoc on our lives. They push us to actions that are often not in our long-term best interests.

The Buddhist who claims that all suffering is caused by desire is onto something. The absence of desire (or more correctly, the control of desire) leads to a kind of inner peace, a calmness that slowly works its way outward to our fingers and toes and beyond, radiating out into the world, to an acceptance of those things that are not threats to our needs.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series


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The Lone Leaf

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A lone leaf lingers on the lilac tree, rustling in the autumn breeze, oblivious to the demands of the outside world, the pressures that compelled its fellows to succumb: the dimming sun, the cooling nights, the hard rains and gusty winds.

It holds a vigil for its lost companions, a ceremony unaccompanied by others, witnessed only by a curious man’s eyes. With the passage of each day, its desperate struggle to remain attached to its foundation brings a sense of wonder to the curious man who cannot but check every few hours to see if it has lost the war yet.

But there it is, still fighting, gripping tightly to the bough that connects it to the roots, that connect it to the earth from whence it came. It looks defeated, yellow and splotchy brown, curling up on itself a little, and the curious man knows it cannot maintain its hold forever. Soon it must fall.


Yet not today. It has courage, this small leaf. Or does fear keep it attached to the summer it will never see again, to the friendships formed in springtime as its compatriots formed around it, sheltering it as it sheltered them, waving hello and finally, as light retreated into November gloom, goodbye?

Perhaps it clings to the branch for biological reasons, outside any sensate notions it might possess: an overly thick stem that will not surrender to winter but will only depart once the rising vernal sun brings a replacement, a tender shoot to keep a watch on the world, a sentry to record the movements of the squirrels and birds and the curious man who cannot look away for long.

Or perhaps some prankster crept along in the night and fused the leaf to the tree with Crazy Glue or some such adhesive, though why anyone would do such a thing is a mystery to the curious man.

No, some things cannot be understood; they remain unsolvable without Herculean effort. Besides, the reason for the leaf’s tenacity doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact of it, the motivation that can be derived from the lone fighter who bucks the system, who continues on beyond all reason or hope, knowing he is doomed to fail but nevertheless fighting.

This little leaf, this paragon of fortitude.

One morning, the curious man knows, he will wake to find the leaf finally gone, caught up in a particularly heavy gust or a driving rain, some unstoppable force that even its greatest effort could not repel. It will have flown horizontally, twisting and turning on its way to the ground, or dropped under the weight of water to the carpet of grass and clover, long after its fallen comrades have been raked away.

There, it will stand sentinel until the snow has melted and the sun has moved higher in the sky and the universe has given its blessing for the leaf to finally let go, relinquish its hold, to rest, to crumble, disintegrating into the dirt that birthed it once upon a time.

And the curious man will weep at the loss and the regeneration, and wish he had the courage and will of the lone leaf.


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