Beth Bates is a blogger, living in the Indianapolis area. She says, “I wrote “Senior Photo” for the nonfiction workshop I’m currently taking at Butler University, in the MFA in Creative Writing. This personal essay was a rewrite of a larger work and is a snapshot of a moment in time when I was probably suffering from PTSD — a truth I would not grasp until about 20 years later.”

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Senior Photo

In a darkened studio on a seedy side of Indianapolis, swallowed by a purple blouse, I sat on a hard stool and posed for senior pictures. [Kids who missed the springtime shoot at my affluent suburban high school were penalized in this way.] Feeling twice my age, va-jay-jay aching, I contorted my face into expressions of purity and youthful optimism.

“How was your summer?” asked the photographer from behind a giant camera, clicking away. He didn’t necessarily want an answer, but I yearned to give him one. I felt wearier than a seventeen-year-old ought to, and alone.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. He didn’t hear me, or pretended not to hear. He adjusted the umbrella to light my face, tilted my chin and stepped back behind the lens. No doubt he was immune to the attempts of teenagers to engage him in conversation that dipped too far into personal territory.

Something in me needed to talk about it, to bring it into the light. A tender place, a gnawing, two-week-old emptiness yawned, greedy to be tended, salved, and filled. I needed someone — anyone, even a stranger — who might help me apprehend this adult turmoil that had set up shop in my brain.

I didn’t feel grief, or at least did not recognize it as such. Mostly, I felt Odd. Old. Worn out. Thrust into adulthood with no adults with whom I could connect. To them, I looked like a kid. To kids, I was Different. The courageous girl. A cautionary tale. And relieved was what I was supposed to feel.

The emptiness was beginning to make itself at home in my heart, the void a fresh tattoo on my self. My appearance said “sweet young thing,” but beneath my size-three dance team girl exterior resided a dumpy, used up chain-smoker in a housecoat.

I was a baby, and two weeks earlier I had given away a baby. Per specific instructions intended to reduce emotional trauma, and to minimize proprietary attachment to the baby, masked people dressed in scrubs swooped my — whatever it was — away from my body and rushed it out of the room. For a moment, a sweet, strong cry filled the room, and then the doors swung shut.

Labor screams and infant song were replaced by the hushed, sober sounds of medical personnel repairing surgical slices. No happy tears; no shouts of “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!”

The blue-eyed Superman anesthesiologist who had stayed by my head through the delivery left to numb another patient. My mother and sister sat in a waiting room somewhere in the hospital smoking bummed cigarettes, maybe calling the prayer chain.

Chilled, I lay alone under blaring lights in the sterile room. I forced my mind to wander, to distract myself from the stinging needle in my lacerated young girl parts. “Purple,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll wear that silk purple top for my senior picture. I should fit in it by then.” But I did not fit, nor would I for many years. Not in the blouse, not in my own skin.

story by beth bates, all rights reserved

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Bobbie Jo Morrell is a mountain woman, poet, writer, leather crafter, rustic furniture builder, cat owner, technical writer, website designer. She says, “Colorado’s Front Range, with the smell of pine trees in the cool air of morning, is my home.” Her blog address: http://soulscompass.blogspot.com/.

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Highway to Reality

Wow, what a weekend, surrounded by a bunch of gung ho young Christian types. OK, so they say “Joke!”  in situations where I would use a different four-letter word (beginning with the letter “f”). Still, not a bunch of dour faced puritans, or those fakey smile types that you see on TV with plastic hair. Fun people.

At the end of the conference, all the students from our campus took off together, a four car convoy rolling straight up I-35. First went a car full of young men, followed by Christine and me in my Pinto, the other cars with two or three young women in each behind us.

The scenery of southern Iowa on a rainy March day lost some of its appeal to the women at the end of the line after a while, and they suddenly came roaring past us in the blue Citation, holding a piece of notebook paper to the window on which was written, “TAG – You’re it!”

Chris immediately grabbed her notebook to scribble a similar note as the next car went flying by us as well. I laid on the gas and we raced up to catch the women in the Citation, making faces at them as we went by. The three of us leapfrogged like this, orange Pinto, blue Citation, red Toyota, for several miles, until I got one of my brilliant ideas while we were ahead of the other two.

Seeing the tan coupe that the men were driving in up ahead, I thought it only appropriate that they be included in the fun game we were playing.

“Let’s pass the guys! Get the sign ready!” My foot moved to the accelerator again.

“No,” said Christine in an odd, flat voice, “Let the men lead.”

My foot fell off the gas pedal and I turned my head to stare at her, mouth hanging open. What? What?

Confessing her own doubt, Chris talked a little about how she was learning that women should “submit” and men should be the leaders because that’s what God wanted. She shook her head, puzzled and confused.

I said nothing. That was absolutely insane.

Shortly after this, we all pulled into a truck stop to get gas. The rain had revealed the pathetic condition of my windshield wipers, so I jumped out and shouted to everyone, “I’m going to see if they have wiper blade refills that fit here!”

Immediately all of the guys clustered around my Pinto, flipping my wipers over, pulling off my blades while conversing about them to one another, all without reference to or consultation with me.

Now, I had been doing my own car maintenance since I was fifteen: changing my own oil, adding water to the battery, replacing spark plugs and distributor caps. My dad trained me well. Wipers were no big deal; done it dozens of times.

So I stood there, watching young men who probably didn’t know what a distributor cap was messing with my car, ignoring me, and generally behaving like I was some helpless know-nothing. Rage began to warm my face, and I clenched my fists to keep from shouting at them to leave my car alone.

Chris, knowing me pretty well, came up and said quietly, “Stay calm, Bobbie, they’re just trying to be helpful.”

Yeah, helpful. I spun around and went to get new blades. When I returned they took them from me without a word, and began to do the replacement. Apparently I was completely irrelevant. I’m surprised they didn’t see the smoke coming out of my ears as I watched them put the first blade on backwards.

As we drove on, Chris kept a strained silence, and I tried to calm myself down. Men should lead! Women should follow! Men know it all! Women know nothing! Gah!

By the time we got home I had relaxed some—I did realize they were just trying to be helpful—and enjoyed Chris’s company again. But eventually I shut my door, stood in the middle of my room, and gave God an earful.

“Is that what you think about women, God? Is that what you really think? Because if it is, then I tell you, I am outta here!”

A long dull silence followed my rant. Then a sense of God – nothing so clear as a voice, no – just a sense.

Wait. Hang in here with Me. Find out what I really think.

Hmph. All right. I would wait and see.

story by bobbie jo morrell, all rights reserved

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Bobbie Jo Morrell is a mountain woman, poet, writer, leather crafter, rustic furniture builder, cat owner, technical writer, website designer. She says, “Colorado’s Front Range, with the smell of pine trees in the cool air of morning, is my home.” Her blog address: http://soulscompass.blogspot.com/.

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Chapter 12: Navigating a Sea of Navigators

by Bobbie Jo Morrell

Less than two weeks after my spectacular and personally mortifying barge into Christine’s Navigator group as a brand new christian, the two of us piled into my Pinto and took off down I-35 toward Kansas City. I was headed for my first Navigator conference.

The brochure describing the conference was simple black and white, the front looking like an excerpt of a page of want ads. In the middle was one large ad, circled in red: “Laborers Wanted” followed by a Bible reference. Yet I had no idea what the speakers were going to talk about.

After throwing our stuff in the motel room, we gathered with the two hundred other college students in a large meeting room with no windows. I stuck close to Chris, as I knew no one else who was there, not even the folks from our group at college.

Everywhere I heard excited young people reading out of Bibles, reciting verses off of little cards that they carried in their pockets, talking about being “sold out” to Jesus. Here and there the older Nav staff folks wandered, offering encouragement or listening with smiles on their faces. I hadn’t realized there were so many of these radical-type Christians in the whole world.

The speakers spoke, encouraging us to seriously consider what it meant to be a “laborer in God’s harvest” and the possibility of full time christian work. We met in small groups in our rooms to get to know each other better, and hear each others’ stories. I excited many people by saying that I had been a christian for only 9 days—they asked for all the details of my story, and Christine watched with a big smile. Tentatively I began to enjoy being a part of this group, this movement, although I still wasn’t certain what it all meant.

But Saturday afternoon Chris began to be irritable, and kind of upset about something; not her usual cheerful and extroverted self at all. Even I could see it. She wasn’t talking about it, though, and went at one point to our room to lie down for a while, leaving me alone in the sea of Navigators.

I was a relational moron at the time; I had no idea what was going on, or what to do. But I fidgeted, knowing that something was up with Chris and that I wanted to be there for her, to help her if I could. But how?

After some reflection, I decided to try this Jesus thing, and I asked God directly for help. What do I do about Christine?

“Just love her,” a voice rang in my head.

What the hell…? Quickly, furtively, I looked up and down and around the meeting room, but there was no one talking to me—much less anyone that could have read the question in my mind.

“God?” I answered in my head silently—I didn’t want people to think I was nuts. “OK, great idea, but HOW?”

“Just love her.”

“OK, yeah—but could you be more specific?”

The rich voice was endlessly patient. “Just love her.”

“OK, OK…”

So I walked back to our room muttering, “Just love her…” to myself. I had no clue what that meant or how to do it.

Christine was curled up on the bed, reading. Still without a clue I walked over and sat on the bed next to her. Then suddenly a strange and brilliant idea struck me: why not ask her what was wrong?

Terror washed over me at the thought. What if I pissed her off? What if she told me to get lost and stay that way?

I screwed up my courage, opened my mouth, and asked, “What’s wrong, Chris?”

She looked quickly up at me; my hands and feet were suddenly like ice, and my face flamed. But her expression immediately softened and relaxed, as though she had been waiting hours for me to ask just that question. She spoke with relief of the growing fears that had crept up on her this weekend, and what she thought God was doing in her life around them. I listened with relief and wonder. She trusted me! Later I spoke of my fears also, and of what God might do in my life.

A deep, serious conversation about important things, about relationship that didn’t involve a painful injunction for me to back off or go away, and in fact brought Christine and myself closer in friendship! Apparently, God was right.

story by bobbie jo morrell, all rights reserved

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Bobbie Jo Morrell is a mountain woman, poet, writer, leather crafter, rustic furniture builder, cat owner, technical writer, website designer. She says, “Colorado’s Front Range, with the smell of pine trees in the cool air of morning, is my home.” Her blog address: http://soulscompass.blogspot.com/.

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The Morning After

My eyes opened to the dull February dawn, and I knew that something had happened. Yes, margaritas and nachos at Lost and Found. I looked over the edge of the loft and saw the garnet cross glittering blood-red on my desk down below.

Christian. Follower of Jesus. How odd.

A memory of the previous night’s sense of peace washed over me, the friendly smiles of  Trina and the other women, Chris’ exuberant bear hug and rich laughter over margaritas. I flipped over again and gazed at the cracked white ceiling.

“Now what?” a small voice seemed to whisper in the back of my mind. “Now what are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?” the front of my mind asked back, with a nervous tremor.

“What are you going to do now? Now that you’ve actually become a follower of Christ? All that peace and love stuff is nice, isn’t it? But now you have to get out of bed and go out to classes and face Christine and your other friends. What are you going to tell your drinking buddies? Are you gonna just go on as you have been?”

“Shit,” I muttered, my forehead creasing.

“Remember a few weeks ago, when Christine broke her ankle?”

“What about that?” I squirmed around under the blankets uncomfortably.

“When she came home in pain and wearing a cast, you were drunk off your ass. You wanted to be there for her, to help her, right?”

“And I couldn’t even see straight.”

My head sagged in the remembered sense of failure. That image of the hogback ridge arose in my mind’s eye, the cold at the top, the darkness at either side.

Last night I had chosen the darkness of hope and seen it fade away in light as fog dissolves in the sun. Now I saw that I was free to choose again: a rocky path that led on beyond my ability to see towards more hope, or a shortcut back over to the old familiar darkness again.

What might be asked of me on that rocky path? What painfully difficult things might I have to do?

The whisper came again. “So. Now what? Are you going to follow this Jesus guy and see where he can take you? Or do you just want to go back to sleep in the darkness?”

What the hell did I have to lose, anyway?

I flung off the blankets and slid down the ladder of the loft.

“Let’s go, Jesus, and see what happens.”

*************

On Saint Patrick’s day I gathered with Christine and a handful of friends, including Tom and his girlfriend, and Pastor Manske baptized me in the large stone dimness of Memorial Lutheran Church. He had me lean over the little bowl of water on a stand, and three times he dipped his hand into it and  drew a cross on my forehead with his finger.

“…in the Name of the Father…and the Son…and the Holy Spirit…”

Amen.

I felt like the cross glowed with light from my forehead. Our small group shared hugs all round, then went to Great Plains Sauce and Dough for pizza. Five hours later, after pizza, after hanging out joyfully with Christine, when I was alone in my room, I could still feel the cool burn of the cross drawn on my forehead. I was marked—invisibly, indelibly, irrevocably.

story by bobbie jo morrell, all rights reserved

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Bobbie Jo Morrell is a mountain woman, poet, writer, leather crafter, rustic furniture builder, cat owner, technical writer, website designer. She says, “Colorado’s Front Range, with the smell of pine trees in the cool air of morning, is my home.” Her blog address: http://soulscompass.blogspot.com/.

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Deeper Warrior Chapter 10: Laundry on the Edge

One hand tipped the plastic basket, the other shoveled dirty clothes into the washing machine. Christine was in her room with her Navigator friends, doing “Bible Study.” For me, a quiet evening doing laundry and studying. I shoved the quarters into the slots and headed back upstairs to my room.

Once I reached the mailbox hallway, I saw Tom knocking on the door to my room. Short, barrel shaped, a kind of teddy bear type who would be equally at home on a Harley Davidson, he was dating a friend of Chris’. Why was he visiting me? I considered hiding until he gave up knocking and went away, but that would be rude.

“Hi,” I said, opening my door. “What’s new?”

After a few minutes of awkward chatting—small talk has never been a gift of mine—he got to his point.

“I just felt that God was telling me to come talk to you tonight.”

My left eyebrow rose in a classic Mr. Spock expression. “Really?”

I’d had visits from wacky Christians before, long ago: unnaturally friendly and smiling strangers handing me small, cheaply printed pamphlets with titles like “The Four Spiritual Laws.” I’d avoided them religiously. I had discovered that pretending to be a Buddhist just encouraged them, but pretending to be already “born again” had worked well to keep them at bay.

Now, though, I couldn’t play that game. Not only did Tom know me through Christine, but I was also stuck up on the ridge of choice, the cold watershed trying to decide which darkness to choose. Tom rambled on about Jesus, and I heard that carpenter’s voice chanting, “Hope, hope, hope…” I stared at him helplessly, until one sentence finally penetrated.

“What’s keeping you from becoming a Christian right now?”

What indeed? I rehearsed all my traditional responses, and they echoed hollowly in my mind. Don’t want to give up drinking? Well, where had drinking gotten me? Don’t believe that God created the world in a literal 6 days, after all I am a scientist? That didn’t seem to stop Chris in pursuing her degree in agronomy. Don’t want to be tied down to some restrictive and primitive belief system? The Jesus I was getting to know through reading Matthew seemed to be offering me something different, something richer and deeper. I felt a cold sweat pop out on my forehead and I opened my mouth to reply.

“I have to go put my laundry in the dryer. I’ll be right back.” I fled downstairs.

Desperately I pulled out the wet clothes and stuffed them into the dryer. Where were those quarters? Into the slot with them and the whir of tumbling dampness. I leaned back against the warm dryer for a moment. Run away? No, too late for that. And I knew that I had to choose—this was my last moment on the ridge. Which way?

Slowly I climbed the stairs again. My excuses were gone. Even though hope scared the shit out of me, I couldn’t deny it tonight. I told Tom that there was nothing to keep me from becoming a Christian.

He began to pray, and I bowed my head with him. I couldn’t take life in the darkness anymore; I wanted what Jesus was offering, even though I didn’t know what it would look like, what it would feel like, what pain I would have to go through…

I can’t remember what Tom said in his prayers. But as soon as he said, “Amen,” he jumped up with a big smile and gave me his classic bear hug.

“Now,” he said, “we must go tell Christine and her friends the good news!” He grabbed my arm and hustled me out the door into the hallway.

“No, I mean, really…we shouldn’t disturb…” I pulled against him to no avail. He banged on Chris’ door loudly. As soon as the door opened, he pushed me in front of him into the midst of these women, shouting, “We have a new sister in Christ!”

My first prayer was that I would sink through the floor and disappear.

Everyone exclaimed loudly, and their surprised faces blossomed into happy grins. I stood silently, wiping my forehead and face with my hand. At last, after a whole, say, two minutes, Tom and I retreated and they resumed their Bible Study. With another bear hug, Tom said good night and left me alone with my laundry and my new choice.

Slowly I carried my dry clothes up in the plastic basket, set them on the semi-decrepit chair and began to fold. All the frantic tension of the past few weeks had gone, and a weird, resting peacefulness had suddenly descended. No more cold and windy ridge. I chose hope, as unknown and frightening as it was.

Presently I heard Christine’s door open and her Navigator friends spill chattily into the common room. And then came a knock on my door.

Trina, the leader of the Navigator group that Chris belonged to, came in with a smile. “Welcome to the family,” she said and gave me a hug. I felt very shy and silly, but it warmed my heart.

After everyone had gone, Christine dove back into her room for a minute, then burst out again to meet me in the middle with a big grin and her former-shotputter bear hug. She held out a gold chain with a cross made of deep red garnets hanging on it.

“It was my grandmother’s,” she said. “I want you to have it.”

Overwhelmed and silent, I let her put it round my neck. She seemed about to burst with laughter or something big and joyful.

“Let’s go out to Lost and Found Lounge for margaritas to celebrate!”

story by bobbie jo morrell, all rights reserved

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Bobbie Jo Morrell is a mountain woman, poet, writer, leather crafter, rustic furniture builder, cat owner, technical writer, website designer. She says, “Colorado’s Front Range, with the smell of pine trees in the cool air of morning, is my home.” Her blog address: http://soulscompass.blogspot.com/.

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deeper warrior 12Chapter 9: Original Documents, Jesus Edition

Christine bounced into my room and plopped into the semi-decrepit armchair.

“I have an idea.”

I pushed aside my microbiology notes without much regret.

“Let’s read the book of Matthew together,” she said. “That way you can read about Jesus, and we can discuss as we go. What do you think?”

I considered. Things were getting kind of bogged down in Proverbs, so maybe something new would be good.

“OK. When shall we start?”

We started. What a story; I mean, I’d heard a lot of the general idea of the story all my life, right? But I was startled by the same thing as when I read the Old Testament: the story came to life just as in Tolkien’s world. Prophecies were fulfilled, prophecies were spoken; fish and bread multiplied profusely, mysteriously; people of all kinds were healed; the hero walked on the boisterous sea as though it were the smoothest highway.

This Jesus guy really seemed to know who he was and what he was meant to do—and turned the world upside down with grandiose ideas like “Blessed are those who are persecuted?” “If you lose your life, you will save it?” “The greatest is the servant?”

As the climax approached, I began to see what kind of story it really was: a bold rescue mission deep in enemy territory. Real danger—torture and death—was necessary to forge the passage out of the prison for those trapped. And I also began to see that I was one of the prisoners that Jesus had gone to such lengths to set free.

There he stood in the dark tunnel, a sturdy bearded carpenter with his bloody hands held out to me, saying, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But it didn’t look like rest; it looked like torture and death. I felt panic rise inside me.

Like a cornered animal, trapped, I was stuck on a high razorback ridge with a terrifying choice set before me. I would have to descend one side or the other. My choices? Both were full of enemies like fear, unbelief and pain. One side, the darkness I knew: isolation, alcohol, despair. The other side even more unpredictable, an unknown odyssey into a new world: the hope of the possibility of hope.

I didn’t think I could stand returning to the old void, cold and desolate. But the thought of the darkness of hope paralyzed me. Like jumping off a cliff into a Kansas thunderstorm just because some disembodied voice whispered to me, “I will catch you.” Yeah, right.

Life and school went on; I attended classes, worked on assignments, took tests. But inside I huddled shivering on an icy mountain pass staring down into two black pits on either side.

story by bobbie jo morrell, all rights reserved

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Bobbie Jo Morrell is a mountain woman, poet, writer, leathercrafter, rustic furniture builder, cat owner, technical writer, website designer. She says, “Colorado’s Front Range, with the smell of pine trees in the cool air of morning, is my home.” Her blog address: http://soulscompass.blogspot.com/.

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deeper warrior 8Deeper Warrior Chapter 8: Original Documents

Living across the common room from Christine, I got to know more of her friends. Carol, now a safe distance away in Wisconsin, had called me before I moved to Ash House to warn me that Chris was “…a…a…Navigator.” I had no idea what she meant.

A group of these “Navigators” came to Christine’s room every week to spend a couple hours talking about the Bible—at least, that’s what they said. They dressed like fashionable preppies of the time with the collars of their pastel polo shirts turned up and seemed otherwise to be what I referred to in high school as “popular.”

The weirdest thing about them though, was that they seemed to like me. They didn’t seem put off by my scruffy T, flannel shirt and jeans ensemble, topped by the unkempt pseudo-afro that my hair formed without encouragement. They always smiled at me whenever I ran into them, and even remembered my name and called me by it cheerfully.

I mean, Chris liked me, which was strange enough even though she wasn’t exactly in the preppie set. I thought she was just an outlier like me, only not as close to the fringe. I still vividly remembered the people at the church in Brooklyn, who accepted me and cared about me, even though they had never met me before, and would never see me again. These Navigator people were kind of like that.

What on earth made these people different? One day it occurred to me: all these people were christians. Whoa! Could that be the connection, the thing that made them different? I thought I’d better do some research.

Now, how to research this christianity thing? Were there original documents somewhere? Hmmm, perhaps at Christine’s church down the block. I slipped out of the house, walked past the Catholic church and into the Lutheran church just beyond it. Affecting nonchalance, I ambled through the library, browsing titles, until I found what I was looking for. The Holy Bible. I slipped it cautiously from the shelf, found a private corner to myself, and began to read. Genesis, chapter 1.

I was startled at what I found there: The world created in a glorious symphony of words; the earth flooded, then saved; plagues on Egypt; the Red Sea parted and a pillar of fire that led the people through; Joshua and company crossed the Jordan dry shod, and the sun stood still for them at his prayer.

Back in junior high I had discovered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading The Hobbit burst open the doors of my imagination—a technicolor alternate universe drawn in contrast to the shades-of-sepia reality around me. I was convinced that Middle Earth was my true home—far, far more real to me than the scene outside the windows of my parents’ mobile home.

Then I read The Lord of the Rings. Again I walked through Middle Earth, marveling at the richness it contained. The comfortable homeyness of the Hobbit lands, the green beauty of the deep forests. I could almost feel the bark of the trees beneath my hand, the rocks and grass beneath my bare feet, as though I walked right alongside the four travelers from the Shire.

Evil I saw there too; recognizing it from where I had met it here in the Shadowlands. The hungry jealous darkness of the Nazgul, the cunning and deceitful ambitions of Saruman.

I learned about honor, courage, loyalty, fortitude. I watched those who set themselves against evil take on incredible odds. When they could no longer ride, they walked. When they could no longer walk, they crawled. They continued to stand and fight even when hope was impossible. Better to die fighting evil than live, having conceded to its slavery!

How desperately I had wanted to live in Tolkien’s world! I’d grieved deeply the knowledge that it wasn’t real, that although I had this window into a rich and beautiful place, I was forever stuck in the old drab world.

But now, in the sacred writings of an ancient people, I had found the same kind of world. Full of beauty and darkness, and resisting evil and giving in to it and turning again. Messy and glorious and real. For this was my world, and as fantastic as it seemed, I might be able to join this adventure.

After several trips to the Lutheran library—somewhere in Exodus—Christine became curious.

“Where have you been going so much lately?”

I felt my face turn red. “Er, well… that is… I mean…” I paused and cleared my throat. “I’ve, uh, been going over to the, er, church and, well, reading the Bible.”

Laughing, Chris said, “Why didn’t you tell me? Here…” She left my room and returned carrying a hardbound Bible. “This is an extra one. Should be easier to read than the one you found over there. And you can stay here to read it.”

She was right, the English was a lot less stilted than the musty tome I had found at the church. I continued my journey through the messy adventures of God’ chosen people.

story by bobbie jo morrell, all rights reserved

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