Galveston Rising – The Light

Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum.  Confronted by any sudden or unexpected absence she rises, turns and looks about, seeking remedy, overcome by her own irrepressible urges to fill, replenish and restore.

Ironically for coastal dwellers, it’s Nature herself who often empties out their lives by means of great, unpredictable weather systems that arrive complete with names and histories. The storms are spoken of so often and with such familiarity they could be members of the family: Carla. Andrew. Gustav. Hugo. Ivan. Gilbert. Opal. Katrina. Rita.  Some are massive, maintaining their destructive momentum for hundreds of miles. Others are smaller, with more localized effects, but all arrive as harbingers of emptiness, desolation and loss.

Galveston’s most recent losses came courtesy of Ike, a storm apparently determined to consume not only a city but an entire coastline.  In some places, he left great piles of debris – homes, boats and businesses splintered and collapsed, heaped up and tumbled down, a beach-comber’s horror.

In other places, entire communities were swept out to sea or washed into the bays. Houses were swallowed whole, cars washed out of parking lots and people  carried away, never to be seen again.   Filled with debris or swept clean of life, the path of the storm was clearly visible: a wound, a void, a vacuum waiting to be filled.

In the midst of so much human loss and suffering, Nature was forced to confront her own emptiness.  Long after the storm had passed, both daylight and dark resonated with an eerie and distressing silence.  No songbirds twittered in the brush.  No fish slapped the surface of the darkening water, no startled heron squawked its disapproval of unexpected midnight walkers.  No insect buzzed, no seagull took wing.  The tiny lizards that shelter in the hibiscus, the ubiquitous ants, the sleek shadow of the nutria and the plump, lumbering oppossums – all had disappeared. 

Nothing, it seemed, was unaffected. Even the rain was gone. Though mud-encrusted plants and salt-soaked soils pleaded to the skies for cleansing and renewal, the rains refused to come.  Bare trees, dying plants, silent skies and empty ponds – the voids were everywhere. In a terrible irony, the anguish of natural loss was sharpened by the need for Island residents to continue what nature had begun, cutting down and removing forty thousand of Galveston’s trees. The emptiness created by their loss was both poignant and painful, and would not easily be filled.

But then, something astonishing happened.  Once the trees had been cleared, once the wood was gone and the emptiness of Islander hearts was made tangible in the great, open vistas of a newly-naked Galveston, Nature herself appeared to begin filling that void with a vibrant, shining  presence – the presence of light.

 

Galveston always has been a city of remarkable light, but in the years I first knew her, that light seemed focused on her beaches, the Seawall and the Gulf .  The vast, open spaces that shimmered and sparkled beneath her semi-tropical sky were complimented by the dappled, shaded portions of the island.   Massive live oaks planted by survivors of Galveston’s 1900 storm had a slightly different flavor than the windswept and scrubbier oaks of Rockport and Fulton or the thickly clustered stands of Texas hill county oak, but they distinguished the Island in the same way that the palms of Port Isabel and Corpus Christi distinguish those cities. They lined the path through the city to the sea and they enticed tourists into the historical districts. They were Galveston as much as the sand and sea, and they were glorious.

On the other hand, those huge oaks concealed as much as they revealed.  After the Ike-damaged oak standing before this pair of historic homes was removed, their wonderful form, the intricate details of their trim and their cheerful, whimsical spirit became evident.  As crisp as good linens and as pretty as the best doll-houses, their appearance changes as the light changes: soft and romantic in the dawn,  flat as cardboard cut-outs in the harshness of full noon, nostalgic in the fading dusk.

Throughout the island, the effect is the same. Everyone regrets the loss of the trees, but in their absence sunlight washing across the houses makes them astonishingly beautiful. Best of all,  their suddenly treeless state makes it clear the original home builders knew what they were doing.  While they waited for their own trees to grow, they designed shade into the homes themselves, deep porches and galleries that still serve as perfect gathering places at any time of day.

Years ago, Galveston reminded me of a child’s finger-painting project. It was filled with bright, bold colors – red plastic sand pails with yellow shovels, blue beach towels, purple, orange and green shaved ices and a rainbow of swimsuits.  Today some of that boldness remains, particularly around the Strand, the historic center of Galveston commerce. When the high humidity and haze of summer give way to autumn and the Blue Northers blow in, buildings seem to sail on a sea of light. The white-washed churches breathe Mediterranean sighs, while colored patterns of brick and stone glisten their insistent reminder: form and function, perfectly joined, can rise to the level of art.


But for now it’s summer on the Island, the season of heat, haze and humidity.  For the first time in decades, the sun holds sway across the neighborhoods as well as on the beaches, and the city gives up her bold, finger-painted tones.  In the cemeteries, light bleaches the stones and washes out the mausoleums.  Clacking in the steady breezes from the Gulf, palms glitter as though fitted with metallic fronds.  Concrete becomes ethereal as the thin, cerulean skies, and the rows of cotton-candy-pink shells seem as sweet as the trees that once gave shade.

One day, of course, Galveston’s trees will become themselves again,  growing full, reaching skyward, branching out to tangle the high-riding moon by night and dappling the sunlight by day. Until that time, Islanders have a new and rare possibility set before them: to walk in a thousand shades and intensities of light.  If they are wise, they will take for their walking companion Henry David Thoreau, that close observer of nature who loved her presence and never feared her voids.  As he once said, in words bright with clarity and saturated with shades of wisdom, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness, I am sure to be filled.”

 

 
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Published in: on July 22, 2010 at 7:06 pm  Comments (20)  
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  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many beautiful homes in one place. And to see them in such a magnificent natural setting is especially gratifying. I’ve visited many places that were naturally beautiful, yet filled with hideous man-made structures. If I ever get to Texas, I’m heading to Galveston. Thank you, Linda, for another delicious post — a feast for the eyes, the heart, and the imagination.

    bronxboy,

    Galveston isn’t a stage set, of course, and it has its share of unreconstructed hurricane damage, generally run-down neighborhoods and just flat ugly sights. But the city as a whole is dedicated to more than “prettification”. They’re serious about historically accurate restorations, and educating visitors and new residents alike about the wonderful, complex past of the Island.

    I think one of the reasons I appreciate Galveston so much is that so many of its residents and civic groups seem intuitively to understand the importance of Faulkner’s great line: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

    It’s a great place. You’d love it.

    Linda

  2. “The Light” And Nature.

    Write on! I am reading. We need new ways to look at changes that affect us.

    I build things for a living and would be proud to have built the houses pictured – got some good ones but nothing like those.

    Ken,

    It’s amazing, isn’t it? We think we have all the tools and techniques to make us the be-all and end-all of creativity, and then we look at what was created in the past and are astonished. I wonder sometimes if the two “tools” we’re missing are precisely what those earlier folks had: a willingness to take time, and an ability to be patient. ;-)

    Linda

  3. The words are lovely, as always, but this time it’s the photographs that stand out. The lone house surrounded by devastation–so poignant. The beautiful bleached white of the church. Those incredible Victorian gingerbreads. The light. It is amazing, that light.

    As is the light you shed on everything you see. Thank you.

    ds,

    The photographs were such fun to collect. The first were taken in February, I think. They’ve just been waiting in my files until I discovered where they were meant to be used.

    It’s interesting – photography is teaching me something about writing. Focus, focus, focus – and crop out what doesn’t belong! The picture of the shells was taken in front of Murdoch’s Pier, one of the oldest souvenir shops on the Island. Totally destroyed by Ike, it’s just been restored and is – well, it’s a souvenir shop. Here’s a different view of the shells, in context.

    Somewhere in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, Annie Dillard talks about her experience of looking through the column of light before her, seeing what lives and moves within it by not focusing on the “things” themselves, but by focusing on the light. I think I’m beginning to understand her meaning.

    Linda

  4. I love historians because they offer perspective, and that’s what you’ve done here.

    It’s so easy to drown in such loss, but something always remains. Something always offers hope. Every word you’ve written speaks of your love for your home. Such beautiful photos to complement your words. I feel the optimism in your writing while at the same time you make me understand the loss. Just wonderful, Linda.

    Bella

    Bella,

    Text and context – it’s not just for books any more! Or, to paraphrase another advertising favorite: got context? That’s the key, I think. Good history provides context, and infuses the otherwise merely “pretty” or “interesting” with meaning.

    Something else these two Galveston posts have taught me is that occasionally it’s the task of words to complement the photos. Both this post and the one about the trees took me FOREVER to put together. It was as though words and pictures were having a dialogue, and my task was to figure and record what they were saying to one another! ;-)

    And isn’t it true that hope always is there to be found? Pessimism and optimism are human. Hope is eternal.

    Linda

  5. What a beautiful city you’ve highlighted here! And thank you for showing us a slightly different perspective about loss – that occasionally it helps us see the details more clearly and appreciate the beauty around us in a more intense way.

    Becca,

    It absolutely does – help us to see more clearly. I was thinking again about music in this regard. Given complete silence or unceasing sound, there is no music. Weave sound and silence together and you have Bach, or Bon Jovi. It wasn’t until after Ike that I truly understood a common expression. After weeks of nature’s silence, I was sitting at my desk one evening with the windows open. Suddenly, a fish jumped, and the sound carried through the night. It truly was “music to my ears”.

    There are some other moments of intense appreciation that always come after a storm: flipping a switch and discovering the lights have come on. Finding a neighbor with a chainsaw at your door. Being told a mobile laundromat has pulled into a local parking lot and learning you can get some clothes washed. All that can lead to some pretty intense appreciation!

    Linda

  6. Wonderful photos. I’ve never been to Galveston and had no idea how beautiful the architecture is there.

    I’ve been through several hurricanes. In fact been in the eye three times. One thing that’s extraordinary immediately after the storm passes is the quality of the light. All the dust and debris that’s in the air and goes unnoticed by us since it’s so pervasive is gone and the light shines through unfiltered.

    One of the reasons artists for a couple of centuries found the light so appealing and different on the French Riviera is due to the Mistral that blows through. These storms, while not hurricane strength, blow out of the northern quarter and blow all the dirt and dust out into the Med for three to four days at a time. When they finally peter out you get that same quality of light for several days. Having lived for almost three years between Cannes and Nice I’m as familiar with that unique light as I am with the post hurricane quality and they are almost identical. Just the destruction isn’t there with the Mistral.

    In the summers we’d alternatively be subjected to the Sirocco winds from Africa. When the first blast would hit it had the same effect you get when you open the door of a very hot oven. These winds were usually short lived. Generally only a day or two and would leave everything coated with a light film of reddish powder that we fondly referred to as “Gaddafi dust” as we hosed it off the boats.

    oldsalt,

    Galveston’s very much a hidden treasure. She’s not hidden to Texans, but for some reason she just hasn’t quite achieved the cachet of places like South Padre Island or Corpus. I suppose part of it’s her beaches and water – river runoff and a different, coarser sand don’t match what people are looking for compliments of those travel brochures – but the history is so rich and complex, and the activities so varied, it’s just a wonderful place to visit.

    It’s a good place to live, too. Many of those Queen Anne and Eastlake houses are being restored by people who live on the Island but work in Houston. It’s a bit of a commute, but if I could trade a couple of hours a day in the car for a chance to live there, I’d do it in a flash.

    That’s very interesting, about the Mistral. I had to delay coming back into town after Ike until the dust was getting stirred up again, but I remember that absolute clarity after Alicia. And many, many of the descriptions I’ve read of the Med and the Riviera have focused on that light – I just didn’t realize the role played by the Mistral.

    On the other hand, your Siroccos were our Harmattans. One of the most famous books about life in Liberia is titled “Red Dust on the Green Leaves”. When the winds blew from the Sahara, the color of the dust could vary a bit depending on its source, but there was no escaping it. Unfortunately, we had to wait for the rains to come to wash it off!

    Linda

  7. I feel very blessed you know that our part of the Philippines, Cebu, never had this share of devastation. I fear too that we may receive the hardest blow.

    Those houses take my breath away. I gasped at the sight of it, the effect the sunlight made, the color, the designs and the detail – it’s all beautiful.

    This reminds me so much of a house I found while my Dad was driving and we got lost. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t find the right words to describe it. It’s like a mix of circus and a fairytale.

    Oh the things you find when you when you get lost.

    Lex,

    If you don’t know Enya’s wonderful song, “Orinoco Flow”, you’ll enjoy it. I thought of it because Cebu is mentioned in the song (at about 1:24 the lyrics include the phrase “from Peru to Cebu”). I listened to the song over and over when I sailed from Hawaii to Alaska – every time I hear the song again, I feel the motion of the boat.

    But the video should appeal to you for another reason. The artwork is very much in the style of things you enjoy posting on your blog. It truly is beautiful. And it reminds me that some of the purest experiences of light, darkness and color I’ve had have come offshore. There must be a thousand shades of blue, and a million densities of light. No day ever was the same.

    Isn’t it wonderful to round a corner and find something unexpected and beautiful? Sometimes I think it happens more when we’re “lost”. We’re trying to reorient ourselves, to figure out where we are, so our senses are more acute. The trick is to pay more attention even when we’re not lost!

    Linda

  8. WOW

    The light.

    The houses.

    That BLUE sky.

    WOW

    Bug,

    And that’s what that sky looks like, by golly. It’s been a while since we’ve seen it, but when it arrives, the best response in the world is exactly what you said: WOW!

    We’ve all got our fingers crossed that we stay with our slightly hazy, slightly washed out and transparent skies until those bright blue skies arrive again. I’d prefer not to be looking at steel gray and lemon yellow, because we all know what that means. ;-)

    Linda

  9. Linda,

    I enjoyed the images you drew, though I’ll not single any out in a line-out. Who wants to play favorites? Not me. Not today, at least.

    But saturated with thoughts of writing, your essay left me comparing your thoughts on nature with my teacher’s thoughts on writing. She said,
    “Half of writing is magic. The more you pull back, the more space you leave for the reader to feel.”

    In the spirit of her words and yours, I was tempted to leave this hanging on the line without connecting dots. But here’s one: Nature pulls back what was there… and voila: we feel more intensely and see more clearly what was hiding between the lines of trees.

    Janell

    Janell,

    Your writing teacher’s point has been echoed again and again in the other arts. I’ve been looking for but haven’t yet found the wonderful quotation about sculpture – that it’s really quite easy. You just take away from the block of stone what doesn’t belong, and the sculpture reveals itself.

    On the other hand, I enjoyed Rodin’s comment that sculpture is “the art of the hole and the lump”. It’s analogous to music, of course, and to painting. Each approaches the issue differently, but the issue is the same. Over the past two years, I’m sure the most important words in any of my blogs have been the ones I’ve removed. You never know what’s hiding in there, between the lines. ;-)

    Linda

  10. While reading this uplifting story enriched by the beautiful photographs, I kept thinking of certain lines from the ‘Prayer of Saint Francis’:

    where there is despair, hope
    where there is darkness, light
    where there is sadness, joy

    From the darkness of the storms the light arose, bringing joy where there was despair.

    Maria

    Maria,

    Someone else often recalled those lines, I suspect, molding their spirit into something equally beautiful and inspiring. From Eliot’s “East Coker”:

    “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

    Or, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a time…” The same truth, expressed a thousand ways. There is a time for trees, and a time for light.

    Linda

  11. Oh Linda,

    Another beautiful story that I really enjoyed. It does make sense to see those homes in a different light…. and what amazes me is with all the destruction Ike brought….those houses which are about 100 years old are still standing. I guess they were built very strong to endure intact so well.

    Thank you for another lovely read that will linger for awhile in my mind. I love your stories!

    Patti,

    The truth is there are other photos I could post, of homes still waiting to be purchased and renovated. Those aren’t so pretty, and they don’t look quite as substantial. But you’re right that even the ones that need attention have survived a lot. I don’t know because I’ve never paid much attention to the restoration process, but I suspect the houses that have been renovated over the past years are meeting more stringent codes, too. That will help them remain intact for much, much longer.

    Believe it or not, some of Galveston’s homes are over 150 years old! As a matter of fact, the Galveston Historical Society celebrated its 135th anniversary in 2006, and there are around 1,500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. You could spend a lifetime exploring Galveston, and some people do!

    Thank you so much for your nice words. This was especially enjoyable to put together.

    Linda

  12. Just beautiful… not only the houses you post here, but the idea that some ‘good’ could come after the tragedy. With the trees gone, light can pour in so we can see the beauty of the houses. How wonderful a thought. The houses remind me of some of Hopper’s paintings. These homes seem to have a character of their own, each a work of art. I’ve learned of Galveston only from the Glenn Campbell song, never known its beauty and resilience until now. Thanks for writing about it… a place I’d love to visit someday.

    Arti,

    I’m intrigued that you mention Hopper. The initial impulse for this post came one day when it occurred to me I’d always thought of Galveston as finger-painted, but that since Ike it had taken on the feel of a watercolor. Looking at Hopper’s watercolors and the work of one of my favorites, Winslow Homer, I found myself thinking of other changes as well. For most of us, Galveston always had been “the beach”. Now, it seems to have taken on some of the attributes of a more traditional “seaside” community. The changes are immensely interesting.

    You would fall in love with it, I know. I hope you do get to visit one day ~ I’ll show you the sights!

    Linda

  13. The pristine pictures are very telling…the color, the detail, the gingerbread, the height and breadth of the homes. I had no idea. But it’s the quote at the end that gets me: “If I can only walk with sufficient carelessness…” – what a wonderful phrasing, what a wonderful truth …. geez. That fine line of carelessness and care….I don’t know – that one just really resonates this morning.

    I’m about to take a walk following the dead-of-last-night’s violent rain storm. I shall try to go with “sufficient carelessness”…and be filled.
    Beautiful stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    PS Having seen your pictures of Galveston, I have to say that someone should do a new song about it. Glen Campbell’s tune of yore doesn’t come close to showing off this city (who in several ways reminds me of Charleston. Beauty is in the details…and the sun and the white porches and chairs in the sun…)!!!

    oh,

    Just to reassure myself, I went to youtube and checked out some of the videos of Glen Campbell’s song. A few were wonderful because of their old footage – I saw places that have been gone for 30 years! – but his song really isn’t about Galveston. When I hear it I focus just on the things that evoke the Island. The seawaves, the sand. But it’s essentially an I’m-in-love-and-I’m-lonely song. You’re right. She needs a new one!

    Isn’t that a superb quotation? Who has the time to be care-less these days. Most of my friends start out to walk saying, “OK. I’ve got a half hour and today I want to get this distance covered.” I don’t think that’s what Thoreau had in mind ;-)

    And yes, from what I’ve seen of Charleston, there are similarities. I’d love to have one of those galleries!

    Linda

  14. Oh my! What gorgeous photos, what gorgeous houses. . . I just want to get on a plane and visit Galveston – A place I never had on a travel list before. You, Linda, should get paid big bucks by the Galveston tourism department!

    How on earth did that one house remain standing? There’s a story there for oh. . .

    Jeannine,

    Ah, ha! Now we’re even. Every time I see photos of your wonderful homeland, I want to get on a plane and visit South Africa – we’d better double-check our schedules so we don’t pass each other mid-air!

    That house remained standing because it was BUILT to stand, by golly – but the folks didn’t know if it really would until Ike came along. There had to be a thousand stories written about it. Here’s one from CNN.

    But the very best is this page from Boston.com’s Big Picture feature called One Year After Hurricane Ike. The house is in the next-to-last photo. You can click the photo and see the restoration work. All of the photos are worth clicking to see the difference one year post-storm made.
    Now, of course, things are even better, and we all have our fingers and toesies crossed that the BP well is killed before another storm comes along to cause mischief.

    Linda

  15. Oh, Linda — these photographs are dazzling. I had absolutely no idea Gavelston was so lovely, and like your discussion with Oh, my main thought of this city was the Glen Campbell song. Funny how those things stick with you.

    I must have been under a rock when Ike hit. I heard about it, but never saw footage, never had a clue the devastation was so intense. Your description of the silence after, and waiting for the rain is so poignant, so moving.

    I always learn something when I come here, and leave thinking. There is much to learn and much to ponder in this post.

    jeanie,

    Well, my dear… Here’s a little linkie, also from Boston.com’s Big Picture, to give you just a taste of what Ike was like. I just looked at the photos myself. Now I’m pondering how well we compartmentalize such events, and how quickly they can come back. Ike was such a huge storm and covered an extraordinary amount of territory: Houston, Galveston, the Louisiana Coast, Mississippi, Alabama and a good bit of Florida. Other than that – no big deal! ;-) There are more photos in some of my Ike postings – just click the “Ike” tag on the sidebar.

    It is amazing what catches our attention and what doesn’t. I’d not heard until today about the dam bursting in Iowa, in a part of the state I used to frequent. At first I felt badly for not even knowing about it, and then I began to think about what it must have been like to live in the days before instant (read: incessant) communication. I wonder if big events – the 1900 Galveston storm, the completion of the Continental Railroad, the end of the Civil War, the 1927 Mississippi flood – were experienced differently because people weren’t bombarded with information. If what you know is pretty much what you see, or what your neighbors saw, or what passing strangers tell you, maybe such events have a more human scale. I don’t know.

    In any event, I’m glad you enjoyed the photos and learned a bit. You know, there are some lovely B&Bs in Galveston, too…. Just sayin’….

    Linda

  16. This is a stunning post. I happened to read it just after my students had been reading about the hurricane in Galveston in 1900 — one of those cases of overlapping experiences.

    charlespaolino,

    Serendipity and synchronicity ~ two of the wonders of life on the web. I do hope your students enjoyed their exploration of those events in 1900. The stories truly are fascinating.

    And thanks for your kind words. This one percolated for a while, and profited from it, I think.

    Linda

  17. What beautiful, beautiful homes! I hope the Gulf gets through this season without any big storms…

    Holly,

    Don’t we all have our fingers crossed!? The people who still are in the middle of their renovations could use a break.

    I just discovered the SOS program being promoted by Abita beer. They’ve got one of the neatest websites I’ve seen – I left my SOS, so if you click on the right pelican, you’ll see my message! And I believe I might contribute to their cause this weekend!

    Linda

  18. I would love to visit this city of light – what lovely colors! Most of my in-laws are now resettling into Houston this week, so it might be time for a visit south when the northern climes get icy.

    Mary Ellen,

    How nice you’ll have a connection with our fair city now – and depending on where your in-laws live, Galveston’s only an hour away. From my place, it’s about a half-hour.

    If you ever do come, a little time spent browsing the Galveston Historical Foundation website before your trip would be well spent. They have a terrific site that gives a wonderful overview.

    I suppose Paris gets to be “THE” City of Light, but Galveston does well for herself!

    Linda

  19. This was a wonderful introduction to a city I have never had the pleasure of visiting, but hope to someday.

    Your commentary on the light is so beautifully illustrated in the photographs. Are they yours?

    In Michigan we do not get hurricanes, but it is not uncommon that we experience forest fires. It is truly amazing to watch how rapidly nature rejuvenates after such devastation.

    Mike,

    You’d love Galveston. It’s a wonderful city for a photographer – the city herself seems to be just as receptive as her people. And yes, except for the photo of the single house on Bolivar Penninsula, which is linked to an article, the photos are mine. I had a wonderful couple of days taking them, and just love the ones of the white chairs.

    I didn’t realize that fires are part of your life. They are important for nature’s cycles, despite the havoc they wreak for people. It’s amazing here to watch the rebirth of the coastal prairies in the wildlife refuges after they’re burned. I think if I were forced to make a choice, I’d take a hurricane over a fire. I think I was scarred for life when I saw the movie “Bambi” as a child. ;-)

    Linda

  20. I don’t have an original thought, just the need to agree whole-heartedly with all of the comments before me and to repeat, “Gorgeous photos!” Beautiful and packing a punch after Ike threw his.

    Amiable,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. The conch shells and white chairs are from Murdoch’s Bath House, perhaps the most famous souvenir stand on the Island. It’s been there on the seawall for years, and I’m sure your kids will make at least one trip to it while they’re there. Everyone does. ;-)

    Linda


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