Everything You Wanted to Know About Sheep Shearing (But Never Knew to Ask)

Sheep shearing, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia

Marino Sheep, waiting to be shorn.

After spending time on a sheep station, one would assume we had quite a bit of up-close and personal time with some sheep (There are some jokes in there, but please keep moving along. We’re a respectable bunch here).

However, 8,000 sheep spread about 40,000 acres means you really need to go searching for some of those furry creatures. And sheep, being the docile and shy animals they are, don’t exactly stick around out of curiosity when people try to stroll up to them.

Sheep shearing is an annual exercise and our time at Almerta Station in South Australia missed it by three days (we wouldn’t have been able to stay there during the shearing anyway as the Shearers Quarters were occupied by workers).

Fortunately, Almerta’s owner, Paddy Rowe, invited us to stop by a neighboring station where he and his crew were shearing.

We arrived at the station mid-morning. While we had only recently finished our breakfast, the shearing crew had been working since 7AM. Sheep shearing is not for the weak (nor for those who like to sleep in).

We entered the Shearing Shed to find Paddy standing in a series of wooden pens, surrounded by sheep. In one hand was a large rattle with metal disks that made a tinny, clanging noise. As two dogs raced about, springing on and off the animals’ backs, Paddy vigorously shook the rattle (A “Tin Dog” he told us). Unsure, though submissive, the sheep crowded into the nearest open pen.

Sheep shearing, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia

Paddy Rowe, separating sheep into various pens.

Sheep Shearing, Merino Sheep, South Australia, Australia

Sheep dogs, sheep shearing, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia

Sheep dogs are amazingly intelligent and respond quickly to commands. They nimbly jump on and off sheep when working.

Sheep shearing, Merino sheep, shearing shed, South Australia, Australia

Sheep waiting in catching pens.

Along one side of the Shed was the shearing area, called the Board. Five muscular though wiry men of varying age were bent over the sheep, each clenching a set of electric shears hanging by a long cord from the ceiling. Clad in sleeveless shirts and long pants, the men worked furiously on the sheep at their feet, barely looking up at our entrance. Music blared from a set of speakers, adding to the din of barking dogs, bleating sheep and the whirring of the machine-driven shears.

The men were sweaty, each concentrating on the job at hand. Paid by the sheep, the best shearers work quickly, racing to shear as many sheep as possible in a run, or two-hour period. A typical shearing day consists of four runs, or eight hours of intense manual labor. A top shearer, called a Gun or Ringer, can shear more than 200 sheep per day.

A shearer grabs a sheep from the holding pen next to his station, embracing the animal from behind before grabbing the sheep’s front legs in what looks like a well-practiced wrestling move. He drags the sheep backwards to his station and begins to shear with long, sweeping cuts or blows.

Like the peel of a potato, the dirty wool is stripped away from the sheep, producing the clean furry softness within that will someday line a pair of UGG boots. The naked sheep, looking like a poorly-peeled orange, its pithy, white skin lined with a thin membrane of leftover wool, scrambles to its feet and exits through a chute to the yard. Outside, additional workers apply an anti-lice solution to the animals’ shorn backs.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool

Sheep shearing, Shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, wool, Australia

One down, 799 to go…

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, sheep dip, anti-lice treatment

Workers applying an anti-lice treatment to the shorn sheep

The shearer works quickly, turning and twisting the sheep at his feet while his shears fold back the animal’s coat. Watching the shearers bent over and twisted in their labor, it’s easy to envision each worker’s future- one of gnarled and contorted agony.

“It’s like running a marathon every day,” Paddy tells us. It’s plain to see that his supervising position is the elite role in a profession of pain.

We later hear a comparison between shearers and professional athletes. “They need a back-up career,” we’re told. “Once their bodies fail them, they need a Plan B. Few shearers can last a lifetime in this business.”

There are other, less physical roles, in a shearing crew. A couple of people, including the lone woman in the group, scurried about the Board picking up shorn wool and sweeping smaller amounts out of the way. Called a Roustabout, this shed hand keeps busy with whatever odd jobs need to be done to keep the process moving.

Once the fleece is shorn, the Roustabouts carry it to the Skirting Table where two men, called Classers, sort the wool by touch. Quickly feeling and rubbing the fleece between their fingers, they then toss the wool into the appropriate cages.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, Classers, wool sorting

“Classers” sorting wool.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, sorted wool

Sorted wool, waiting to be packed.

Paddy handed us some shorn wool to touch. “The softer and lighter it feels, the less wiry it is- the better the wool.” We obediently rubbed the wool, the lanolin from the sheep’s skin leaving a slippery sheen on our fingers.

“Your fingers must be so soft if you touch this all the time,” I said, thinking a pair of unwashed wool mittens were in order.

Paddy displayed his own cracked, dry hands in response. “Nah… sheep shearing actually dries your hands.”

After sorting, another shed hand stuffs the wool into a machine to press it into bales. Once pressed to capacity, the worker pins it shut and lugs the approximately 172 kg (379 lb) bale to a loading area, where he stencils information regarding the station and the wool class onto the canvas. Eventually, the bales of wool will be sent to a wool mill for washing and processing.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, wool press

Shed hand packing shorn wool into a wool press

Sheep shearing, Shearing shed, Merino sheep, bale of wool, South Australia, Australia

One bale of wool, ready to be sent to the wool mill for processing.

Paddy’s wife, Shane, later tells us how the sheep industry is currently under attack for what are considered inhumane practices. The Rowe’s business includes both shearing and crutching, which involves the periodic shaving of wool from around a sheep’s tail and rear legs.

“There are 60 million sheep in Australia,” Paddy adds. “Fifty million of which are Merinos- bred for their wool.”

The Merino Sheep has a heavy, dense, wool coat that requires human intervention to maintain. Failure to remove the wool, especially around the sheep’s rear, can lead to flystrike, a revolting and painful condition where flies lay eggs in the damp wool and the resulting maggots bury under the sheep’s skin to feed. Crutching is different from the more controversial Mulesing, which removes skin from around the sheep’s tail area.

Shane shook her head, “The people protesting have never seen a bad case of flystrike. It’s extremely painful for the sheep and can eventually kill them.”

It’s an age-old question of competing interests, but I didn’t witness any instances of overt cruelty to the animals. Learning about the scourge of flystrike, and knowing the heat of an Australian summer is quickly approaching, it seems that the failure to remove the wool would be the barbaric option.

But given a choice, I probably wouldn’t choose to come back to this world as a sheep.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool

Break time between shearing runs

 

 

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Mindfully Hanging Out

sunrise, South Australia, Sheep Station, Almerta StationI was telling a friend about our recent stay on a 40,000 acre sheep station in the South Australian Outback when she smiled at me.

“No offense, but what did you DO there?”

I had to think about it.

“Um, we hiked… we helped on the farm… played with the dogs… kids went for swim…”

I thought some more. “Really, I guess we just hung out.”

We did “hang out” quite a bit and looking back, I’m realizing how much I enjoyed that.

We are not a society that values time “hanging out”. Meet anyone on the street corner, at the café, the shop, in the schoolyard, and someone will say how “busy” they are.

What’s more, we say it with pride: How are you? Good! Busy! It’s a badge of honor. The more places you have to be, the more tasks you have to do, the fuller and more complete your life must be.

I’ve recently read some articles about the growth of “mindfulness”- the intentional focus of present-moment emotions, sensations and thoughts. It’s a movement that has shifted from meditation centers into the boardroom. Some of the world’s largest corporations, behemoths like Google, American Express and General Mills, have instituted mindfulness programs for its employees.

Irrespective of its value, it seems a bit trendy when mindfulness is instituted into the corporate world. It becomes a buzzword, a current phase that will be replaced next year by positive transference, global realization or whatever new movement is adopted by the enlightened masses. Imbedded in the workplace, it becomes measured, something on an agenda. How mindful are you? Have you done your daily twenty minutes of deep breathing? Have you centered yourself? Great- then get that report done before your next meeting.

This type of structured mindfulness isn’t the same as hanging out. I think what’s needed is an acceptance that it’s ok to take time out to do nothing. There doesn’t need to be a set schedule for it. Stare into space if you wish, for as long as you want. If you want to do something, go for a walk. Wander around in the dirt collecting rocks. Just be. Just breathe. Just hang out…

Why do we always feel like we have to be doing something? Why do we value organized activity so much that we feel we need to justify our free time?

Back at the station, I rose early one morning and hiked up a ridge to catch the sunrise, with just enough dawn to light my way. Armed with my good camera, I began taking photos of the early light blushing upon the far-off hills, colors changing from a pale pink to a soft rose before bursting forth in a brilliant orange. I took shot after shot of the distant hills as the sun rose higher in the sky.

As the light spread around me, my focus shifted. Where before I aimed my camera on the far-off distance, I began looking closer at the parade of gum trees bordering the station or the sheep grazing in a paddock below me.

Slowly, my view shrank even more. I looked down at the Shearer’s Quarters, where my family lay sleeping. I saw our dust-covered car parked near the eaves. I listened to the sounds of the farm waking above the wind that whistled around me. The alarm of a rooster crowing, an occasional turkey gobble, the cows lowing and the distant sound of sheep bleating. A lone bird squawking in the wind. The sounds of life waking to a new day.

Then I started to find the bushes, scraggly and twisted, some soft with pale green, spongy branches. And then flowers- so many flowers I hadn’t seen before. Flowers of light purple and tiny yellows, fighting to grow from a fissure in a rock, the tiny stems twisting frantically in the wind. I saw pieces of quartz at my feet, nestled in the ground as if an ice storm had just passed through.

Eventually I stopped taking photos and just sat on top of that ridge. I was grateful to be alone; no one would have had the patience to stay with me. My eyes grew keener and my vision narrowed to what was directly in front of me, but it took 1 ½ hours up on that ridge to find that focus.

What did I do during those 90 minutes? I had no agenda, no time frame. … I took some photos… I listened… I looked… I breathed… I hung out. Really, I did whatever moved me at the time. And I hiked back down from the ridge feeling calmer and more alive than any forced exercise of mindfulness could have done.

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Almerta Station

Almerta Station, sheep station, outback Australia, South Australia I squinted at the text on my phone as the setting sun left smoky purple shadows on the distant hills.

“It says to cross three gum creeks before taking the turn-off,” I read to P as he gripped the steering wheel and raced north. He looked sideways at me in confusion.

“What’s a gum creek?”

I shrugged, “Perhaps it means, ‘Three Gum Creek’ instead? Like, it’s the creek’s name?”

Conscious of the disappearing daylight and the last remaining bar of service on my phone, we sped onward. As we hadn’t seen any open water for at least four hours, we chose to interpret a gum creek as a dry creek bed and, with fingers crossed and a quiet regret that our car wasn’t four-wheel drive, turned onto a dirt road as the last of the sun disappeared behind a lonely bluff.

We bumped along in the dark for nearly six kilometers before seeing a sign for Almerta Station. The owners, Paddy and Shane Rowe, had plans about 60 km away in the town of Orroroo that evening and, due to our late start from Melbourne nearly 13 hours earlier, we were arriving much later than expected. We had assured them we would be fine as they explained they would leave a light on at the Shearer’s Quarters.

“It’ll be an adventure!” we laughed. Now, we cursed our late start as we strained for a glimpse of electricity amidst our inky surroundings, finally spotting the lone beacon that marked our home for the next three nights.

Almerta Station, Sheep station, outback australia, south australiaAlmerta Station, a 40,000 acre property three and a half hours north of Adelaide, advertises itself as a place “where kids can be kids and adults can reconnect.” Shane later told me about a mother who had wanted Shane to plan her children’s activities during their stay. “This isn’t that type of place,” she explained. “If you’re here, it’s to spend time with your family. We give you the location- it’s up to you to do what you want with it.”

We had booked accommodations in the Shearer’s Quarters, which are open to guests outside of shearing season, but it wasn’t until the light of the next morning that we could truly see our surroundings.

Almerta Station, Sheep station, outback Australia, South AustraliaThe Shearer’s Quarters consist of a cluster of buildings. The largest building has a lounge area (with a pool table- time to school the kids…) and six bedrooms, each one opening directly to the outdoors. Another building houses three full bathrooms while an “Ecohut” held two more bedrooms. Finally, an original building had a last bedroom, a kitchen and a large dining area. Outdoor seating areas and a fire pit completed our temporary home.

All of this was just for our family. While the Quarters can house large groups, the Rowes will only rent out to one group at a time. So the five of us had this massive amount of space, which, considering the massive amount of space surrounding us, seemed fitting.

DSC_0020 Almerta Station, sheep station, Shearers Quarters, South AustraliaActually, I had no concept of the space we were dealing with when we first set out on a hike the next morning. A map of the property mentioned natural springs, so we packed a picnic lunch and water, and headed out, a small puppy from the property following at our heels. A few hours into the hike, it occurred to us that we might not have had an accurate understanding of just how vast this property was. Our eleven year old had begun carrying the puppy, whose ambitions didn’t match its ten-week old legs. Our eight year old looked like she was close to following the puppy, so we returned to the Quarters to drive to the springs instead.

Balcoonda Gum Creek, gum creek, Almerta station, sheep station, South Australia

Hiking Balcoonda Gum Creek

Natural springs, Almerta Station, South Australia, Sheep Station

The Natural Springs, or waterhole, on Almerta Station.

Almerta Station, Natural Springs, Sheep station, South Australia Almerta Station, South AustraliaIn addition to hiking and exploring the property, we were free to experience farm life up close. We gathered eggs for our breakfast from the chickens and turkeys (Personal discovery: Turkey eggs are AWESOME, though seriously difficult to crack), we fed the pigs our meal scraps and we wandered over to watch the cows at feeding time (though we could watch them anytime- the cows had the run of the farm- at one point I looked up from my book to see a cow chewing quietly, staring at me from ten feet away). For dinner, we could even special order kangaroo meat, a service provided by the Rowes. For one meal, P cooked marinated Roo Steaks and Roo Tail over the fire. The verdict? The steaks were delicious but the tail was a fatty novelty that didn’t need to be tried twice.

gathering chicken eggs, Almerta Station, South Australia

turkey and chicken eggs, Almerta Station, South Australia

A turkey and a chicken egg. I’ll take the big one, please…

Dog stalking cow, Almerta Station

Red Dog, one of the Rowe’s pets, was one of our favorite animals on the station. A bit cheeky, he loved to stalk the cows at feeding time.

Dog Stalking Cow, Almerta Station

The cows were not amused…

One of my favorite parts of our stay was the lack of internet, television and phone. If you needed to check in with the outside world, you had to hike up a nearby rise (“Internet Hill”) to catch a signal. Otherwise, we were blissfully ignorant and free to focus on what was in front of us.

On one of our days, the Rowe’s ten-year old daughter (who had quickly befriended our daughter) joined us to hike to the top of the Bluff- the highest point of the property. At one time, Australia was covered by shallow inland seas and the bluff had been an island. Now, it was an unparalleled vantage point from which we could gaze upon the Rowe’s 40,000 acres. As our oldest put it, “That’s some backyard.”

The Bluff, Almerta Station, South Australia, sheep station, Outback

The Bluff at daybreak

From the Bluff, we had a clear view of a line of gum trees that looked like a blue-green vein running across the property. Gum creeks, as we suspected, are dry creek beds. Sometimes called “Upside Down Creeks”, the water runs several feet underground, nourishing the large trees that grow along the banks.

The Bluff, Almerta Station, South Australia

The Bluff, Almerta Station, South AustraliaDSC_0355As a rule, we don’t often return to the same travel destination. There are too many new places we want to explore. But I can see us returning to Almerta Station. Perhaps it was the kindness of the Rowe Family that so warmly opened their home to us. Maybe it was the chance to slow down without the distractions of the outside world beckoning us through our phones and laptops. It might have been the open sky that stretched beyond a horizon untouched by building or road.

Let’s go with all of the above.

Almerta Station, South AustraliaNeed more info? www.almertastation.com.au

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On the Road Again

South Australia, Outback, road,

Eating a muffin in the middle of the road, because he can.

“G’day. Have any fruit in your car?” The mirrored-sunglasses peered in through the driver’s side window.

“Yes, here’s a bunch of apples.” I handed over the bag from which we had been snacking during the car trip.

He nodded as he took the fruit. “Can I look in the boot as well?”

“Absolutely.” A model of compliance in the face of authority, I jumped out to accompany him to the rear of our car. He shifted from foot to foot as he gazed at the packed insides.

“That an esky?” He pointed to a soft-sided cooler jammed into our car. “Does it have fruit?”

“It is, but it just has some dairy and frozen items. Oh, and some lettuce.”

I had visions of him unpacking our entire car and started to question what was at the bottom of a certain plastic bin nestled behind the middle seat.

Seemingly satisfied, he grunted and I returned to the car, driving off as he waited for the next vehicle to approach.

“Was that everything?” P asked as the checkpoint disappeared behind us.

“Maybe?” I hedged, thinking back to 5:00 am that morning when I was haphazardly throwing items into our food container. “Or maybe we might have missed a bag of mandarins…?”

We’d left Melbourne eight hours before, but it was only during the last two that roadside signs announcing our entrance into a “Fruit Fly Exclusion Zone” had sprung up. We passed rest area dump bins and signs warning of penalty fines for failure to comply.

“How serious is this?” I asked P but he shrugged, “This is new to me.”

Apparently very serious as, not long after crossing the South Australia border, we were directed into the sleek, multi-lane inspection complex where our car had been examined.

Feeling slightly panicky at the contraband citrus we may or may not have overlooked, I drove on, rationalizing that we were only driving THROUGH the quarantined zone, with no plans to ingest any potentially missed fruit prior to our destination.

Our destination was twelve hours northwest of Melbourne in the South Australian outback. Upon leaving the agricultural region around the Murray River, gum trees and bright yellow canola fields gave way to dry scrub and endless sky. Our car had sailed over slow-moving skinks and skirted past kangaroo carcasses, swarms of large birds rising up from the more recent kills as we flew by.

Lulled by the vast emptiness of the land and no other cars in sight, I hit speeds I hadn’t entertained since arriving in Australia. As I sailed over yet another flattened road kill, a small wedge-tailed eagle belatedly flew up from its dinner, colliding with our windshield with a jarring THUMP. Fortunately, our screen didn’t even crack, but I slowed slightly after that. Just because there weren’t other cars around didn’t mean there was nothing to hit.

Welcome to South Australia

Obligatory photo- like you don’t have any of these.

At one point, we had pulled over to take a family photo in front of the sun-bleached “Welcome to South Australia” sign. As I stepped from the car with my camera in hand, a swarm of flies flew up around me. Nearly gagging on the stench, I realized we had parked directly next to, if not on top of, the rotting remains of a kangaroo.

“Back in the car! Everyone back in!” I shouted as the kids squealed in disgust. Holding our breath, we reparked 100 meters up the road and took the obligatory photo, whiffs of rot floating our way.

Despite the periodic dead animal on the roadside, the scenery was stunning in its expansiveness. At one point we stopped to stretch our legs and wander up and down the empty ribbon of pavement as it flowed out to the horizon. So used to city roads and traffic, our middle child sat on the centerline and snacked on a muffin, reveling in the silence around him.

DSC_0014Even our thirteen-year old shrugged off any adolescent apathy to take in the emptiness surrounding us. “This is so cool,” he said quietly, before wandering up the road on his own.

We eventually returned to the car to continue on our journey, each of us a bit quieter as we stared out the windows.

 

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Gone Walkabout

South Australia outback, bluff, Australia, OutbackWe’ve just returned from a road trip though South Australia and as I wade through the nearly 800 photos I’ve taken,  I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Damn, this country has a lot of open space…

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Happy Spring

photo-14I’m hard-wired as a Northern Hemispherian (Is that a word? I think it should be). I can’t help it; I don’t think I’ll ever change. As I look outside this morning, I see blue skies, some type of white flower raising its head from a dirt bed and new buds dotting the few bare branches in our yard.

I haven’t worn my “winter” jacket in weeks and my warm scarves are hanging limp and unused on the coat rack. The kids have started asking when they can begin wearing their summer uniforms to school and I should really find their wide-brimmed school hats as they will soon need them to play outside during recess.

I’ve wheeled the electric, plug-in heaters from the kids’ rooms back into a closet (the back of our house is not heated) and folded away the spare wool blankets.

I’ve started thinking about getting a good pedicure- sandal season will be here shortly and my toes aren’t quite worthy of public attention.

Whenever someone asks me the date, I am perpetually confused and have to look at my iPhone for reference. How can it be mid-September when it feels like April?

Yes, definitely hard-wired.

Happy Spring Everyone.

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Be Who You Are

My kids went to the dentist the other day. It was a normal check-up and everything went well with the exception that I was once again informed that ALL THREE are future candidates for braces (sigh… think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts…).

I like our dentist. He’s a nice guy, late-40s, immigrated to Australia four years ago with his wife and kids from Yorkshire, England. We had the typical conversation about what brought us to Australia, how often we go “home” and how our children have adapted to life down under.

It’s a conversation I have a lot here. I’m not sure if it’s Australia in general, or more of a reflection of the Bayside area of Melbourne to which we’ve moved, but there are a large number of people living here who have picked up their lives to give Australia a try.

A 2011 Census study shows that one out of every four people in Australia was born overseas. Since it’s actually four out of five in our household, I can believe it. If you break down these numbers by country of birth, the largest migrant group comes from the United Kingdom, with one out of every 20 people living in Australia originally from the UK.

On occasion I’ve had coffee with a group of moms/mums from the kids’ school and looked around to realize that out of the half-dozen women at the table, only one or two were actually born in Australia. The others are often from the UK, Ireland, South Africa or New Zealand.

When our daughter was admitted to the hospital a few years ago with her initial diabetes diagnosis, the seven or so medical professionals who worked with us in the Emergency Room were all non-Australians. We had a laugh (refreshing, considering the circumstances) as we questioned where all the Aussies were hiding.

I like spending time with other people who have chosen to upend their lives despite the inconvenience and impracticality of such a move. It makes me feel slightly less unorthodox, knowing other people have chosen to do it as well.

For another, we seem to “get” each other, without the need for an excessively analytical discussion. We’re far from home, we live with a foot in each country, never completely settled anywhere. It can be a disjointed existence, but it can also be one filled with new experience and perspective.

We left behind a good life filled with loving family and friends in first world countries. None of us fled dictators or wars; none of us have entered Australia as an escape from conflict or poverty. We had perfectly good lives back home.

Why we did leave was for change, for adventure, for not wanting to live a life wondering “what if”. It’s such a 21st-century, first world privilege: to change tracks midstream solely due to desire and curiosity. To even have the time to reflect on such a move is a privilege a large percentage of the globe lacks.

I recently said goodbye to a friend I made here in Melbourne. Another expat, she and her husband had migrated from London over ten years earlier on a whim to see what life “down under” could provide. While in Melbourne, they had acquired a home and careers, friends and a life. And they were moving again.

Not back to London, no- her gypsy soul had once again begun to stir within and her family was moving across the Southern Ocean to Tasmania.

As I offered genuine congratulations (Tasmania is one of my favorite places), her smile waned.

“I’ve started to worry about what I keep doing to my kids,” she said, between sips of coffee.

I know what she means; is it selfish as a parent to follow your dreams and expect your children to keep up? Our oldest really struggled with the idea of moving when we first shared our plans with our children. And yet now, after two and a half years here, he is grateful we did- he loves the lifestyle and has made some good friends. But it would be difficult to move him to somewhere new again.

I assured her that it was fine, that she would know if one of her children couldn’t handle it or if one of them wouldn’t grow and benefit from the experience, as difficult as it might be at first to start over.

She looked up and paused, seeming somewhat embarrassed.

“I saw a psychic recently… it was at a party. The psychic looked at my hand and she spoke of our moves. I asked her why I always have this need to leave, why I can’t stay still.”

My friend smiled and relaxed, “She said, ‘it’s who you are.’”

Be who you are.

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