@

The bank’s assistant manager approached me with a friendly smile and an immaculate suit. Charles looked his part—competent, precise, rational. He also looked younger than I am, much younger, but appearances are tricky. He asked why I’d come in. I explained I needed to shift some money around to keep it liquid. I was a writer who dipped into savings and was contemplating a move to another state.

After he revealed the dismal CD rates, and whispered that he’d love to have my business but perhaps I should look at bigger banks for better ones, Charles asked what I write. Fiction—novels. Some nonfiction. My first novel came out a few years ago, I told him.

“That’s great,” he said. His enthusiasm seemed genuine. He asked what the novel was about and whether it was available as an e-book. Indeed. He jotted down my name and the title. “I love to read. Wow, that’s really great.”

“I got lucky,” I said.

We talked as he prepared the paperwork for the fund transfers I chose.

“Are you moving to New York?” he asked.

“No. North Carolina maybe. No big hurricane threat. Rare snow. It’s so beautiful, all four seasons. I’ve visited New York, but I couldn’t live there. I’m into nature. The first morning I woke up in a hotel and couldn’t hear birds, I knew it wasn’t the place for me. But it’s amazing to visit.”

Charles said he loved it and traveled there as often as he could. He was fortunate to have family in the city.

He stepped out of the office to grab some forms. On his desk, I saw a photograph of a beautiful young woman, an engraved first anniversary gift, and a model of the Empire State Building.

empire-state-building-souvenir

“So besides finance, what are your other interests?” I asked when he returned.

“Architecture.”

“Do you have a favorite style?”

“Art Deco.”

“No wonder you like New York, then.” I shared that my partner and I were into architecture as well. Todd liked mid-century design, and I preferred the styles at the beginning of the 20th century, including Art Deco. The conversation turned to include what Todd did for a living—information technology—but that his true passions were music and house restoration.

Charles commented that people who were musical often were good in math, abilities that fit well within IT. I’d heard the same thing and saw the proof of it in Todd. I said I thought skills like that suggested a high-order brain. Architects, too, blended art with science.

As Charles completed the forms, his story came out.

New York City thrilled him because of the buildings, the skyscrapers especially. He loved large scale structures. He’d started college in architecture. Several semesters into his studies, he gave it up because it was affecting his marriage. He remembered one month when his projects took up so much time that he hardly saw his wife at all.

Charles switched his major to finance. A number of family members were in the business. His parents were supportive of his interest in architecture, but his grandparents pressured him into that major and line of work. He was part of a close-knit Southern family. The recent move from his hometown to take his present job had been a welcomed break.

I thought to myself that I was lucky to have family and friends who encouraged my writing, although I can’t say I received the same message from the outside world as a whole. It’s often a doubt-full place. Chase dreams, sure, but expect to ground yourself in a regular job, relationship, and routine and stay there.

“Well,” I said, “my guess is that they thought they were doing what was best for you.”

He nodded. He said he was married with two children. Finance gave them a steady life. Then Charles said a customer had come in recently who was an architect. She focused on contemporary design, houses and office buildings. She told him of a graduate program not as intensive as others, right in the city where we lived.

“Really? I had no idea that was offered. Have you looked into it?” I asked.

“I have. It looks interesting,” Charles said. He glanced up at me. “The thing is, I want to build skyscrapers. You’re away from home a lot with that kind of work. You’d be in your studio for months to do the planning, but then you could be anywhere, on the job site.”

He didn’t speak their names, but I felt the tangible presence of his wife and children in the room. I sensed the lingering judgment of grandparents, certain friends and acquaintances. Frank Lloyd Wright suddenly came to mind, a brilliant man who traveled the world and was not home every night for dinner. Everyone, regardless of the breadth of talent, must make sacrifices.

Charles left the room to finalize my paperwork. An elderly man walked into the lobby, and the main branch manager greeted him. The man said that he needed to speak to Charles. I watched him ease into a chair to wait.

I understood Charles. I could see that simmer behind his eyes, the dream he hadn’t suffocated. There was no way to dismiss the brightness in his face and gestures when he spoke about architecture and his aspiration. He’d told me how long he’d been married, and I did the math. He was younger than I am, barely 30. There was time, if he was willing to take the risk. I sensed it could mean losing everything safe, stable, and socially acceptable in his life.

Charles returned and began to slip my documents into a folder.

“You have a customer waiting, but I want to share something with you,” I said.

He looked me square in the eye. His were pure dark blue.

“When I was eight, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew that’s what I was supposed to do. I wrote fiction through high school, but I didn’t much in college. I figured, what’s the point? What were the chances of making it as a fiction writer? So I graduated in journalism, and all of my jobs involved writing in some way. But the burn never left. Never. When I was 29, I literally woke up one morning and knew I had to get my MFA. It made no sense. I had a perfectly good job, a perfectly good life. My partner wondered what the heck I was doing. I entered graduate school at 30. My thesis was my first novel, and that was published when I was 36. It’s not about age.

“The point is, the heart knows what it wants. It sounds to me like you know it here—” I tapped my chest, “but the pieces haven’t fallen into place yet. Have faith that it will. It can happen. It did to me. I’m proof.”

Charles had tears in his eyes. “Thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” I said as I shook his hand. “Good luck.”

I walked outside to a spectacular autumn morning, cool air, warm sun. My visit with him brought me back to something I’d forgotten. Four years of effort into my second novel—a process that has been often joyless and frustrating—I am in fact living my dream. I took those tenuous steps with no guarantees, plenty of fear, and just enough gumption. Luck met me somewhere along the way in the midst of risk.

May it be so for Charles, and for everyone whose heart knows what it wants to build.

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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

57 Responses to “The Heart Knows What It Wants”

  1. I absolutely love that you took the time to encourage Charles this way! I hope he did go on to be a skyscraper architect. What a lovely story of paying it forward and appreciating wherever it is we are in our journey as artists, etc.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I almost didn’t say anything at all. Like, it wasn’t my business to get in his business. But I felt compelled because I recognized an old part of myself in him. And he seemed to really want to talk about his interests.

      Paying it forward, indeed!

  2. Matt says:

    I’m with Charles. Tears in my eyes.

    Good for you.

  3. alexis says:

    I must agree with the two previous commenters ; very moving how you advised Charles. I so hope he goes for his dream!

    I also was particularly taken with your sharing “When I was 29, I literally woke up one morning and knew I had to get my MFA.” I have often wondered if all people experience this groundbreaking moment where we know in an instant what we are to do in life. I too experienced this moment before I’d read your book and become so inspired by your work and the thought of being an author. I remember the moment being so one of as kind that neither My lovey or I will ever forget; he found it profound to watch someone realize their passion and we both wondered at never seeing

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      A few months before that momentous morning, I received a great deal of encouragement from a workshop teacher and a new writing friend. Their support was a little net under my cautious attempts. But as it often happens with me, it took a revelation to light the fire under my feet.

      Keep your fire burning, Lexi. When things get tough, remember what you REALLY want to do. You will find a way, I promise.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    This is such a wonderful, layered story, Miss Ronlyn.
    So many gems in here. The portrait of Charles, the history of you, the wise words you share – all of it is like a rich, soul food cake.

    How lucky for Charles that you came into his bank. How lucky for us that you shared this story. Your words to him – “The point is, the heart knows what it wants. It sounds to me like you know it here—” I tapped my chest, “but the pieces haven’t fallen into place yet. Have faith that it will. It can happen. It did to me. I’m proof.” – speak also to me.

    It’s funny, but often when I have a crisis of confidence or doubt my ability or passion, you will post a piece or make a comment on my post, or simply a quick note on Facebook and I will feel like your guiding hand is setting me back on the path I should be following. I don’t have enough words to thank you for that. But I do have words to say that I just adore your writing and you.

    I hope Charles builds those skyscrapers and I’m so glad you build such beauty withy your words.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Lots of luck all the way around. I hope my story at least gave him a chance to reflect on his desires. Moments like that can turn the world on its axis. But he was also a mirror for me. I’m no longer an aspiring writer–I’m a published one. I owe Charles some thanks for making me appreciate my journey more.

      Oh, Zara, you spin your web of light on me as well! Your words have the same effect on my tender soul. We must remember that lags of confidence and passion will happen no matter where we are as writers, and people. Yet the kind, sincere encouragement of friends DOES have the power to get us through the dark times–as long as we allow it. I constantly look forward to see what you’ll share next. XO

  5. alexis says:

    oops. my finger slipped before finishing that last thought. The rest of it is:

    the possibility before. As you said I wrote stories when I was a girl too, but stopped after middle school. The little college I attended was Liberal arts and the bulk of the classes I’d chosen were all literature and psychology You really are so right in your sentiment ” the heart knows what it wants.”

    Loved the article!

  6. Judy Prince says:

    “I could see that simmer behind his eyes, the dream he hadn’t suffocated.”

    I love the way you put that, Ronlyn.

    Just talking about one’s dream to someone advances the dream. Transferring one’s thoughts and plans to another person strengthens the thoughts and plans and the dreamer. Translating our half-formed aims for someone to hear and comprehend brings the us fresh ways of seeing the dream. And, often, relating our desires to someone else opens us to ways we can realise the dream, manifest our desire.

    Your recognition of his desire awakened all of this, in him and in you. How marvelous!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Talking about the dream is one step toward its ultimate manifestation. You know, in the beginning, there was the Word kind o’ thing. It’s so true that sharing helps to shape the way one perceives and acts. Occasionally, I’ll blither on about my next novel, and Todd sits and listens, then inevitably I’ll say something that makes sense or he’ll ask something that makes something click.

      Thanks for reading, Judy!

      • Judy Prince says:

        HA! Yes, Ronlyn, I see how talking to Todd about your next novel somehow leads you to make more sense of it or clicks something in your brain.

        I laugh because of how you characterised your talking as “blither,” but really you are telling as much as you can and as much as you know at the time, and you’re groping for the words as well as for more ideas—–which, then, appear.

        Rodent and I do the same with one another’s research and writings. Sometimes we’ll listen with “half an ear,” but blithering one’s ideas doesn’t always really need a fully awake audience. ;-)

        Frustratingly, even when he’s asleep, Rodent remembers what I say—-word for word. He will repeat it to me if I say he hasn’t been listening! Conversely, and embarrassingly, most of the time I daydream while he talks. Thank goodness he never asks me to repeat what he’s said.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Oh–the GROPE FOR WORDS. Sheesh. The transmutation process from idea to image to word is really agonizing. I’m glad to know you have such a good extra half an ear.

          Rodent has superpowers. I spew to Todd only when we’re both awake, because neither of us would remember what I said otherwise.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Well, it’s true that Rodent can remember, word for word, what I’ve said, even if he’s sleeping, but then why did he not remember the time of our wedding ceremony? ;-)

  7. Greg Olear says:

    Great piece, Ronlyn. What dreams need, more than anything, is encouragement.

    Are you really moving to NC?

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Encouragement, absolutely. My accomplishments aren’t fully my own. They also have root in those who helped me along the way.

      Yes, we’re seriously thinking about a move there. LOTS of reasons why. I think a big shift is going to happen once I sell my next book.

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    I think Michael Crichton? maybe? pointed out that child prodigies occur in only two fields, music and maths, and the two are so closely related they may as well be the one.

    Truthful or not, it stuck with me.

    29, huh? Was there a Saturny smell about the place?

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Might have been Crichton. Anyway, music and math may just be different forms of the same essence.

      Dude, Saturn was all over me. His advances were sneaky and untoward. I still feel dirty.

  9. Dreams deferred are insidious little buggers…. what a wonderful coincidence that you happened into his office…. lovely, Ronlyn, lovely.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Perhaps it was meant to be. Ordinarily, I am not chatty, but there was instant rapport. Mysterious. I really do hope he figures out how to fulfill what he wants to do.

  10. Dana says:

    Absolutely beautiful Ronlyn. And what a lovely gift you bestowed.

  11. J.M. Blaine says:

    the dreams we suffocate
    always
    come back to haunt us
    again

    So what is the balance?

    This is a story
    that in the wrong hands
    would have been all kinds
    of dull.
    But you got it.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I know all about the haunting. For several years, it came in the form of dead baby dreams. How’s that for the unconscious trying to send a message?

      My sincerity may have tempered the schmaltz. At least a little bit.

  12. angela says:

    what a lovely story, ronlyn.

    it’s been over 10 years since i earned my MA in writing, and i’m only now totally immersed in the writing world. during those 10 years, i worked for a huge corporation, where it was really easy to hide out and get complacent.

    then i had a terrible boss. he was a nice guy but an awful manager. he’d constantly pressure me into deciding what i wanted to do – move up and up in marketing, or not. he’d say, “one year will pass, three years will pass, five years will pass, and you still won’t be doing what you want to do.”

    but his words backfired when a year later, i quit my marketing job, and then a year after that, left the corporate world entirely to write full-time.

    so i thank my terrible boss for pushing me to live my dream.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Strange how we sometimes owe thanks to those who were rather rotten to us.

      It takes courage–and sometimes a little madness–to break from a steady gig and take a leap. As an acquaintance once said, you can always get a job…but that doesn’t mean it’s going to satisfy you.

      You’re a wonderful writer, and that raggedy manager did you and those who enjoy your work a big favor! Keep living the dream!

  13. Gregory Messina says:

    That was really lovely and something I can absolutely related to. Thank you.

  14. D.R. Haney says:

    I went to open a bank account last year for friends who were having problems with eBay. They’d been thrown off eBay, where they made their living, and eBay wouldn’t let them back because they owed eBay a small sum of money that eBay wouldn’t grant them an extension in paying. So I was opening this bank account so my friends could hide behind it and continue to sell on eBay, right?

    Anyway, I’m talking to the guy at the bank, and I asked about his name, which sounded like it might be Serbian. He looked Serbian, and I used to live in Belgrade, as I’ve mentioned many times. Well, the guy wasn’t Serbian, he was Armenian. But one of his best friends was Serbian, and so he’d spent considerable amount of time in Belgrade, which surprised me because no one who’s Serbian has generally been to the place, and besides, here we are in L.A., thousands and thousands of miles from Belgrade. And we just sat there talking, comparing experiences — “Did you go to any parties on the river?” “Oh, yes, I sure did!” — while I was signing these forms, and by the time I left, I felt like we were friends.

    Of course, this is only slightly, because it happened in a bank, like your story, but it did make me feel better about the world. As did your post.

    Here’s hoping Charles does exactly what he wants, no matter what that turns out to be.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Great story, Duke. You could have said nothing at all and would have missed the chance to discover what you had in common. Proof that is really is a small world.

      Moments like yours make me feel better about the world, too. Thanks for today’s antidote to chronic despair. :)

      That last sentence–right back at you.

  15. I’m with Judy, This line made me buckle: “I could see that simmer behind his eyes, the dream he hadn’t suffocated.”

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      To be able to see that in another, we have to experience it ourselves.
      Here’s to new dreams that get to breathe!

      • Brad Listi says:

        i’ll drink to that.

        life, i think, is intolerable when you choose to live it without dreams.

        a lot of people do that.

        i need to not do that.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          A good bit of soul crushing happens to most people before they leave childhood. That’s where the dreams take root.

  16. Jude says:

    There’s nothing sadder than seeing someone who has let the dream die. And so often this happens because ‘other people’ think they know what is right for you.

    When I was a teenager, my father asked me what I wanted to ‘do in life’. I replied that I wanted to be an architect. Because he came from a working class background, I guess he just couldn’t fathom anyone in his family doing such a ‘grandiose’ job. He paused for a moment before replying, “Oh no, I don’t think it’s easy for a woman to be an architect – why not be a draughtswoman instead?” I didn’t even know what a draughtswoman was… Apparently it’s a person who practises or is qualified in mechanical drawing, employed to prepare detailed scale drawings. A far cry from being a architect/designer. So I put the dream away.

    At another point, my father asked me the same question again. This time, I answered, ‘An artist.” Again his working class background influenced his answer, and he replied, “Oh no I don’t think you’ll ever make any money being an artist.” Again I knew I would have no support if I chose this profession.
    So I left high school, bored with academia and with no interest in any profession.

    As time went by, I came back to my love of art and designing, and although I never became what I had wanted for myself, I at least continued to ‘dabble’ and at times make a little money from art. Occasionally when I think about it, I wish I had been encouraged, emotionally and financially, to follow the dream I once had for myself.

    I’m so glad you were there to keep the dream alive for Charles. I’m sure he will often look back on that day, as one when a special woman came into his life with words of wisdom to help him on his journey. Bravo!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Jude, I want to give you a big hug! I’m touched by your story and the honest way you told it. Like you, I think your dad was speaking from a place that reflected his background, and no doubt the era itself. He probably meant to protect you, but a cage is still a cage.

      I was fortunate to teach fiction writing when I was a graduate student. My students were sophomore-level undergraduates. The English Dept. chair asked if I would mind having an older student in my class. I could sense he wanted to place her somewhere she’d be welcomed. I had no problem with it. M. was in her sixties, married, with grown children–taking classes for personal growth. In time, I learned that she always wanted to be a writer, but her parents–father especially–discouraged her because that’s NOT what proper ladies in Texas did. She was “allowed” to do art–that was marginally acceptable in her culture–and pursued that over the years. During the months in my class, she progressed tremendously. I encouraged her because I could see the innate talent. I was sad that she’d been thwarted. We lost touch, but I hope she’s still writing, if only for herself.

      No matter where the roads led, honor your gifts. The dolls you shared with me reveal a bright, creative, whimsical spirit. That essence, dear one, survived, thrived, and cannot be taken from you. XOXO

  17. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Beautifully told story. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to pursue my own creative dreams that, of course, have required personal sacrifice and sacrifice from those close to me. At the same time, I keep multiple dreams going at once, the hopes and goals for my family being another strong pull on the trajectory of my life. Sometimes it’s out of sync with my goals as a writer, and other times I’m able to strike the right balance. Perhaps, the banker’s dream was deferred because of what could very likely be the heart wanting a fulfilling and meaningful family life, too. They are complicated little muscles, after all. I’m capable of being just as frustrated that my writing has taken my time away from children, as vice versa. Though my unfinished word docs tend to be more patient.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      No doubt Charles wants to have a happy family life, too. I don’t have children, and won’t, but I can imagine what a balancing act it must be to find fulfillment through one’s work/vocation while attending to the needs of little ones.

      You know, I feel blessed, too. If I had to name what urged me forward–besides the soul’s call–it would be family members, friends, and especially teachers who provided encouragement at pivotal moments.

  18. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn,
    You are the A #1 nicest person on earth.
    I am proud to know you!

  19. Erika Rae says:

    That simmer…that’s a look I have often recognized as “being awake”. It seems to me that so many people I meet are asleep to their dreams and, well, just being real and alive. I think it’s how I choose my friends. I’m not picky about background, beliefs, hobbies – it’s whether a person is awake or not that attracts me to wanting to build a friendship. Anyway, the world could use more Ronlyns in it, that’s for sure. (The Ramona the Pest image of a wake-up fairy just came to mind – probably evidence of an early morning half-asleep misfire somewhere up in the gray matter.)

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I love how you put that–being awake. Yes!

      What the dream is doesn’t matter. It’s whether it’s true to that person’s core. On some level, we Westerners are pressured to think we should all want to be mega-wealthy ____whatevers___. Total b.s. When we reach for our heart’s desire, no matter how huge or humble, that’s where contentment lies. That’s where a life is well-lived.

      So many years have passed since I read Ramona the Pest that I had to Google her. I’m totally charmed by the idea of a wake-up fairy flitting around the world rousing people from their naps.

  20. Scott Archer says:

    Timing is everything. Thank you for your inspiring words at absolutely the perfect time in my life.

    One of my favorite people alive today is Esther Dyson – she sums up the issue of never being too old to follow your dreams with what she wants on her epitaph: “I wasn’t done yet! There is still more to learn and to fix.”

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      You’re welcome, Scott. And thank you for reading. Timing DOES matter. When I decided to start writing fiction again (before I went to grad school), I enrolled in a fiction workshop at the college where I worked. The professor gave me comments on my first story that stoked me beyond measure—and that short story morphed into my first novel. I’d like to say I would have continued writing without his encouragement, but maybe not…

      I looked up Esther Dyson. What an inspiration. That’s a terrific quote.

  21. Gloria says:

    Ronlyn,

    I’ve been wanting to read this for days. And I’m so glad I finally did. Really – such an inspiration.

    Cheers,
    Gloria

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Aw, how wonderful it’s been on your radar!
      I’ve fallen behind with my reading because of work on Novel #2. My brain can process only so many words.

  22. Richard Cox says:

    This is a wonderful story, Ronlyn. Thanks for sharing it. I used to be hesitant to trade stories with strangers because I was either too shy or figured I had nothing of importance to share. But we all do, and little details we share might turn out to be very important to someone else.

    Like my neighbor across the street. A few months ago I was getting my mail, and he mentioned he was trying to get in shape and not having much success. I told him about the calorie counter/meal builder thing on Livestrong.com. He’s an engineer and I figured he might enjoy the tracking and precision of something like that. And recently he told me he’d lost twenty pounds since he joined the site. Imagine that! A chance conversation turned into real change.

    I also like what Erika said about being awake. I don’t know what causes it, but lots of us fall asleep after we finish school, and after that life becomes just a series of preordained check boxes. Even when you’re awake you sometimes need a nudge in the right direction. Sounds like you did that with the banker guy. :-)

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Same here. I’ve kept my mouth shut more often than not. Now I try to trust my intuition. It will tell me to say nothing sometimes, and others it will scream at me to speak, as it did in this case.

      Chance conversations might do more to move us forward than ruminating. I love that your neighbor has had such success because of what you suggested to him. Live strong, indeed.

      Preordained check boxes…wow…yeah. Some I’ve left intentionally blank.

  23. Alison Aucoin says:

    What you provided for Charles you do for me a couple times a week. Where ever would I be without you? Wonder where Charles will wind up?

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Where would I be without you? It’s all reciprocal, you know.

      I hope Charles ends up where’s he’s meant to be. Whatever it is.

  24. kristen says:

    What a gift, that artist-to-artist exchange you were a part of. And a lovely account of it.

    I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately–how it’s really so easy to reach out and connect w/ strangers, once a shared interest in doing so has been more or less established. And it’s often deeply gratifying, as your Charles-dialogue clearly was.

    Thanks for the reminder–such glittering opportunities are out there for us all.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      So true–it is rather easy to connect with others. The magic combination of a smile and a bit of sincerity makes the difference. I’m with you, Kristen!

  25. Kristen Elde says:

    Yeah… Perhaps not always as easy as I’d like (maybe ‘simple’ = a better fit?), just given my own internal hurdles when it comes to interacting in xyz-scenario, but still, in the scheme of things, it’s just not that hard a thing, and the payoff (connection) can feel so amazing.

    Here’s to smiles+bits of sincerity!

  26. Diane Pecnik says:

    You are so right about age not mattering and also about the “burn.” It cannot be denied or one’s hard wiring will go askew. Thank you for articulating it in such a simple, relevant way.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Thanks, Diane.

      Since I wrote this, I’ve pondered that regret is worse than failure. Even if one doesn’t achieve the heights of aspiration, there’s satisfaction in the reach.

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