Justice First, Then Love

Man surrounded by sun rays

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

“Say: ‘My Lord has commanded justice…'” – Quran, Surat al-A‘raf, 29

Some people speak of love as it if it is the answer to all the world’s ills:

“All you need is love”… “God is love”… “Jesus loves you.” And so on.

But Islam chooses instead to focus on justice, because when people perceive that they are being treated fairly and justly, everything else becomes possible. The Quran does speak of love, but it emphasizes justice more strongly.

“You who believe! be upholders of justice, bearing witness for Allah alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether they are rich or poor, Allah is well able to look after them. Do not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist or turn away, Allah is aware of what you do.” – Quran, Surat an-Nisa’, 135

What does it mean to speak of love while at the same time oppressing people? What does it mean to speak of love while harboring racial prejudice, or while supporting the occupation of another country, or engaging in oppressive labor practices? On a personal level, what does it mean to speak of love while abusing one’s spouse or children?

No. Be just and give people their rights. Harm no one, cheat no one, and oppress no one. Be kind and compassionate to friends and strangers alike. Do that, and everything will follow: peace, harmony, love, and progress. That’s the Islamic way.

If we do not see justice being practiced in the Muslim world today – and we do not, for the most part – it’s because many Muslims are not  living Islam. They are infected with un-Islamic ideologies and behaviors such as tribalism, sectarian hatred, and misogyny. We have lost our way as an Ummah. The last few centuries have reduced us from kings of the earth to squabbling children, and now we have to grow up all over again.

Read that verse again. Be upholders of justice even against yourselves. Carry the torch of truth. Judge yourselves before others. Be fair, be kind, and help the ones sitting in the dust, crying for a morsel of food, or for safety from the guns. Think of your spouse’s needs before your own. Fulfill your duties to your children: not only financially, but the duties of time, care, playing, hugging, and always being honest.

And here’s something you may have realized: justice practiced at this deep level begins to look a lot like love. The difference is the starting point: not flowery words, but the practical expression of justice on a societal and personal level.

Justice and kindness are the rich soil from which loves grows. Be just.

Faith, love and kindness are secret weapons to change the world

Sunrise about snowy fields

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

Faith, love and kindness are not cute ideas or naive catchphrases. They are elemental forces with the power to alter human hearts, and to change the world. They are transformative emotions and behaviors that were bestowed upon us by Allah, who is Al-Rahman (The Most Merciful) and Al-Wadood (The Most Loving). They are stronger than hurricanes, and they transcend the birth and death of individuals, and the rise and fall of nations.

Don’t we still have love for the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), and for the Sahabah, all of whom lived many generations and nations ago? In fact we look upon them as our heroes and leaders and we love them as if they were dear friends. This is proof of the enduring nature of love, which survives when all else changes around us.

Faith, love and kindness are the secret weapons that Allah has given us to conquer corruption, cynicism, hatred, racism, and evil, in ourselves and in the world.

These ideas are not naive, as some might say. Was the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) naive? He suffered in his mission, but he persevered. His mission was rooted in faith and love of Allah, and expressed through kindness to all people. There are so many stories about him showing tremendous kindness to rude and even murderous people, and changing their hearts in the process. He succeeded in the face of impossible odds. His success is a testament to the power of these noble emotions and behaviors.

That’s why I illustrated this piece with a photo of sun rays shining on a dark and snowy world. Because these powerful emotions and behaviors are not the stuff of sunny afternoons, cotton candy and daisies. They are like a guiding star that is only seen in the darkness. They come into their own and show their true power by confronting and overcoming hatred, bitterness, painful loss, war, poverty and despair.

I describe them as behaviors because faith that exists only in the heart is not true faith. Faith is proven by action. Faith is defined by the way you live your life. The same is true for love and kindness. Love is a verb, not a noun. It’s not an abstract feeling in your heart, but a matter of behavior, the way you treat people, the way you help, forgive, and show mercy to people.

Love Works Miracles in the Heart

It may be a cliche’ to speak about love changing the world. It’s not something we can envision in concrete terms. So let me bring it down to the level of one human being.

Growing up, I had a friend named Ismail. He was a few years younger than me – when I was 17 he was 14, I think – and had grown up in a dysfunctional family that had moved around constantly and had not bothered to educate the children, so that at the age of 14, Ismail was functionally illiterate.

I began tutoring Ismail and his younger brother, teaching them to read and write. I started from scratch, teaching them the alphabet and the sounds of the letters, and working up to small phonetic words. I tutored them for one hour every day, seven days a week, in the living room of their apartment. Their parents were not supportive. I was never paid. Sometimes their parents were fighting with each other at the same time I was trying to teach. At times I noticed that the two boys could not concentrate because they were hungry, so I began feeding them before our study sessions, and giving them multivitamins. Slowly they began to learn, until they could write short essays and letters on their own.

Back then I worked for the United States Geological Survey, measuring water levels at farms in the Central Valley, and taking water samples to be tested for various fertilizers and pesticides. It was hot, difficult work. I’d ride my motorcycle more than an hour to the huge corporate farms on the west side of the valley. Armed with survey maps, I would trudge across vast farms in 100 degree heat, seeking the sumps that brought up ground water for irrigation. If the farms had been recently irrigated the ground might be soft and my feet would sink into the mud with every step. Some of the sumps were a dozen feet deep or more, so in order to get a sample I had to toss a chain link ladder down into the sump, climb down, fill a test tube, and climb back out. I was very aware that if the ladder broke I could get stuck in the sump, and I might not even be missed for two or three days (no cell phones in those days). It worried me.

So I began asking Ismail to come to the farms with me. He wasn’t doing anything anyway – he was not enrolled in school because he could not function anywhere near his grade level. He’d ride on the back of the motorcycle as we passed through dusty, poverty-stricken migrant towns like Mendota and Firebaugh, sometimes swerving to avoid patches where tomatoes or oranges had fallen from farm trucks and been splattered by traffic. By the time we arrived, our helmet face shields would be crusted with dead gnats and butterflies. At the farms, Ismail would help me locate the wells, keep an eye on me while I climbed down, and then ride back with me. Sometimes on the way home I’d feel him tilting a bit and I’d realize he had fallen asleep on the motorcycle, so I’d give him a nudge with my elbow to wake him up.

Ismail was like a brother to me. I tutored him not because I wanted anything from him, but because he was like family. I loved him, though I never would have told him so. I was not raised to speak such words.

When I was twenty years old, Ismail got a scholarship to study at the Islamic University of Madinah, in Saudi Arabia. When it was time for him to leave I drove him to Los Angeles and took him to the airport. The next year was hard for him. The living environment in the university dorms at Madinah was austere, and Ismail was lonely. I used to send him letters with jokes, or stories about the people back home.

One day Ismail called collect, and as we spoke I told him to keep his head up, that we were all proud of him. Ismail’s voice became choked with emotion and he said, “I love you, Wael.” Strange as it may seem, I had never heard those words before from anyone. I was never aware that I needed to hear those words, or that they would mean anything to me, but the instant I heard them, they struck my heart like a hammer, and I found myself speechless.

I don’t know if I can explain what those words did to me. Somehow they gave meaning to all the difficulties I had been through up to that point. The failures at college, the confusion and deep loneliness, the brief bouts of homelessness. Those words seemed to crawl through my chest, sowing seeds of light and warmth. They gave me strength.

Even now, twenty five years later, I feel the impact of those words. I am still close to Ismail, though we live in different states. I call him sometimes – he told me recently that he is writing his autobiography, ma-sha-Allah – and I worry about him. I love him. And I find that the light of those words – and the sincerity behind them – is still inside me, and is one of many things that inspire and empower me. This is the miracle that love performs in the human heart.

Love Overcomes Hatred

A few years later, when I was working in Fort Worth (in my early 20’s), there was a supervisor who used to harrass me. He was abusive toward everyone, but he seemed to have a particular dislike of me. I don’t know why. Well, I had been experimenting with meditation, and had been reading a few books about spirituality. One day I decided that I would go about my day trying to see the soul within each person. With each person I met, I would look past the exterior appearance, past the external behaviors, and try to perceive the soul inside.

It may sound silly or new-agey, but I noticed a difference immediately. I was able to see things in people that I had not previously perceived. In particular I saw a lot of fear. As I was walking toward the cafeteria, I saw the abusive supervisor standing near the door. I tried to forget everything I had experienced at his hands, and look to his soul. I can’t say exactly what I saw, but as I approached him, he smiled at me. This was so unexpected and incongruous, that I didn’t know how to react and I continued on my way without response.

After that day, I noticed a change. That supervisor and I certainly did not become friends, but he stopped being hostile toward me. I cannot really explain this, except to speculate that the act of looking to a person’s soul is a form of love, just as listening deeply, without judgment, is an act of love. We are so unaccustomed in this life to people regarding us in a pure way, without judgment, without responding to our appearance or dress, without resentment for past mistakes, that when someone does it, it’s disarming. It transforms.

This is the power of love.

I’m not suggesting that all oppression in this world can be overcome with a look. There is evil in the world. There are times when we must fight to defend our lives and our families. Certain entities are immune to the power of love (the current murderous regime in Syria is not going to be overthrown with love). But even in the context of conflict, love and faith are powerful. Some Russian soldiers in Chechnya embraced Islam after being captured by the mujahideen and treated with kindness. Some soldiers in Egypt who were ordered to fire upon civilians refused to do so after being embraced or kissed by protesters.

The Prophet Muhammad (sws) himself was a reluctant warrior who disliked fighting except as a last resort. He was one of the first military leaders in history to lay down stringent rules for humane warfare, prohibiting even the killing of animals or burning of crops. He was a champion of faith, not fighting. His mission was one of compassion. The most powerful tools in his arsenal were the Quran and the testimony of “Laa ilaha il-Allah” (there is no God but Allah). That is how he changed the world.

Proof of this is that, as Wikipedia reports, “The sum total of all casualties on all sides in all the battles of Muhammad range from 1200 to 1500 dead according to the most authoritative sources.” This is outrageously low by today’s standards. We are talking about a series of defensive battles over the course of a dozen years, involving hundreds of thousands of fighters on both sides, in which all of Arabia came under the sway of Islam. But the key is that the Prophet (sws) was not fighting for wealth, or personal power, or vengeance. It is said that he never took personal revenge on any human being. He fought for truth alone, and taught his followers to do the same.

Love Defeats Bigotry

I don’t mean to portray myself as an enlightened soul. I’ve made my share of mistakes and I still struggle not to be judgmental or reactive. But I’ve also had experiences that have shown me the way forward. One was with my former sister-in-law, Crystal. I am divorced now, but I was married for ten years. Laura (my ex-wife) and her family were not Muslim, and her family had their reservations about our marriage. Her mother expressed a fear that I would kidnap our future children and take them to Egypt (even though I’ve never lived in Egypt). “Like Sally Field in ‘Not Without my Daughter'”, she said.

One day I was at a restaurant with Laura, her mother and her sister. When the waiter came to our table, he said to me, “As-salamu alaykum.” I did not know him, but I was wearing a kufi and had a beard. I replied, “Wa alaykum as-salam.” Crystal began laughing, and after the dinner was over, when we were going to the car, she began saying, “Salami, salami, baloney.”

At the time I was in a mental state where I was fed up with bigotry. I had experienced a lot of it, and I had no more patience for it. I told Crystal that her behavior was rude and bigoted. She got extremely angry, and after that I was a persona non-grata at my in-laws’ house. I was not invited to their home for any reason, and there was no communication whatsoever between me and them for more than a year. After that my mother-in-law reached out to me tentatively, and offered a makeshift apology, which I accepted. But Crystal remained angry.

Later, Laura and I moved to Panama. The place where we lived was so beautiful and peaceful, and the natives were so accepting of us, that I found my heart healing. The in-laws still didn’t quite accept me – in fact Laura’s father came to visit once and told me angrily that my religion was ridiculous and backwards – but I found that it did not bother me so much. When I returned to the USA for a visit I spoke to Crystal. I said, “I apologize for my attitude in the past. I love you and your family. You all mean a lot to me.” I said that sincerely, holding in my mind all the good I had experienced from Crystal over the years, and forgiving the bad.

From that moment on, my relationship with Crystal was transformed. She came to visit us in Panama and had a great time. After my divorce, when I returned to California, Crystal actually began attending my martial arts class. She became more open minded, began exploring religious thinking outside of the narrow Christian fundamentalist box she had always lived in. I’m not saying that any of that is because of me. But what I can attest to is that ever since I gathered the resolve to say to her, “I love you and I value you,” she has not showed a hint of bigotry or anger toward me, and in fact has become a pleasant person to relate to.

I”m afraid I may be telling a string of random stories here. I don’t know if I’m communicating this thesis I have, this understanding, that sincere love is transformational. When you can love someone without desire, expectation, or judgment, it utterly changes your relationship with that person, even with those who hate you. I believe this is the essence of faith. It is the heart of da’wah. It is the Golden Rule.

I have given examples of one-on-one interaction, but I believe that love and kindness can work their wonders just as well when it’s one to a thousand, or ten to a million, just as a single great ocean wave can flood a whole city, except that love is a good flood that washes away the fires of hatred.

Lead the Way

Do you want to see something different in the world? Show it. Do you want to see things moving in a better direction? Then get stepping and walk it, and I guarantee that others will follow, because they have seen the problems as well, and they are waiting for someone to lead the way.

Do you want to be a better Muslim, father, mother, son, daughter, sibling, or friend? Then be it. Now is the moment. The past is prologue leading to this moment.

Are you waiting for someone else to show love and kindness first? Are you waiting for someone else to be vulnerable or brave, to put himself out there, to take the first step, to show the way? There is no someone else. You are the someone else. You…  are…  someone.

Le’ts open ourselves to faith, love and kindness. Let’s change the way we move in the world, the way we behave with Allah, the way we treat people, the way we interact with every person. Let us become testaments to the power of these transformative behaviors, not through our words but through our actions. Let’s express a new sincerity from our hearts and walk through the world like believers. Let’s become people of Allah, people of Jannah (Paradise), people of imaan (faith), love and mercy.

We Get What We Give

Green waterfall and stream

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

We get what we give. This is one of the laws of the dunya (this earthly life) and al-ghayb (the unseen) as well. When we give money to the poor and oppressed, God rewards us with more than we can imagine. When we share truth, greater truths are revealed to us. When we teach, we learn. When we show mercy, our Creator has mercy on us. When we smile, people smile back.

The same is true for love. When we give love, love comes into our lives.

Some people think, “I will open up my love when I meet someone who loves me truly.” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. It’s only when we open up the gates and let our love flow, that loves comes rushing in.

A Witness to Your Life

Green waterfall and stream

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

When seeking a marriage partner, remember, a husband or wife is not just some pretty face that you get to admire or possess, or show off to your friends. This person is not a checkbook, a status symbol, a servant, or a household maid. This is not someone that you’ll see for a few minutes each day after work, and take to dinner parties.

You could marry someone only for looks or status then find yourself miserable, harped on, arguing every day, lonely within your marriage, or abused. All you rich and attractive people don’t take offense – you might be perfectly lovely and sweet – I’m just saying that appearance, wealth and lineage are no guarantee of happiness, and if you focus on those factors to the exclusion of the soul, then you will likely find yourself mismatched, brokenhearted and forlorn.

A spouse is someone you abide with for the rest of your life, even when you are wrinkled and bent. Someone to hold you when you’re sad, to support you when you’re tired, to cool your forehead when you’re sick, to share in your joys, tell jokes and play frisbee with; someone to pray with in the still morning hours, and struggle with to achieve Paradise.

This is someone to be a witness to your life, to know you intimately and recognize your worth as a human being (not that we need someone else to affirm our value – but it’s always nice to be recognized and seen). Someone to love you unceasingly, like a great river, even when you disagree. Someone to see your faults, and keep on loving you.

Make sure your priorities are in order. Look past the surface. Connect with the person’s soul. Find someone who will make you smile, and with whom you will be happy to share this strange journey we call life.

I Asked Allah for Strength

Trees and sunshine

 

“I asked Allah for strength and Allah gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked Allah for wisdom and Allah gave me problems to solve.
I asked Allah for courage and Allah gave me obstacles to overcome.
I asked Allah for love and Allah gave me troubled people to help.
I asked Allah for favors and Allah gave me opportunities.
Maybe I received nothing I wanted, but I received everything I needed – Alhamdulillah.”

– Anonymous author

Poem: Bring it In

Beautiful farm painting

Bring It In

Let’s bring it together.
Everything moves in circles,
everything whirls, but sometimes
you cut across the tide
and find yourself in the light
of a strange sun. Bring it in.
Smaller circles, far from the din
of the city, we meet:
your breath and mine,
warm and sweet,
tighter, closer, moving in time
to the galaxy, earth, air,
until we are the center, paired,
and all turns in harmony.
Let’s bring it in, become
lion and lioness, oak and stone,
shelter and home.
Mother and father,
husband and wife,
lover and loved,
passion and fire,
dunya and deen,
family, hearth, laughter
and one true dream.

– Wael Abdelgawad, June 2008

Poem: Let Me Be True

Lonely desert road

As-salamu alaykum. Islamic Sunrays was founded to express ideas of inspiration and hope in Islam. I try to tackle issues of personal responsibility, keeping faith in difficult times, understanding Allah as a compassionate and merciful God, realizing that all of our lives have value and meaning, and following our dreams.

It may seem at first that the following poem does not fit with these ideas. I think it does, but I’ll leave that to you readers to decide, and I will not prejudice you by trying to explain my concept of the poem’s meaning. Comments are always welcome and appreciated.

Let Me Be True

When it all comes down,
let me be true.
When seas thicken to brown,
and the world grows dim,
and love scatters
like ash on the wind,
and every man lies
to protect his skin:
let me be true to You Allah,
let me be true.

To the Messenger,
let me be near:
when in a dream I sat by him
against the beam of a wrecked ship,
he in a green turban, and a battle clashing…
we drank water, and breathed,
then he turned to me, and said,
“It’s not what you speak that matters
but what you do.”
To my heaven-blessed hero
let me be true.

To my love, let me be sincere.
I stand beneath a lamp
in a sphere of light
on a desert road. I don’t peer
into the night. I listen,
beard dewed with rain,
for the footsteps of her soul.
Let me lead her to Jannah
and fulfill the shepherd’s goal.
Let me soothe her sight,
carry her through storm,
and stand like a lion
as armies swarm on.

To my little daughter,
O Allah I implore you,
let me be forever true.
When she laughs and exclaims,
“You’re so strong, Baba!”…
When I speak God’s name
and she listens solemnly,
when she leaps and believes
that I’ll save her…
To her nature and her dreams,
let me be true.

To myself – the greatest dare –
let me be real as earth.
Through the cinder heaps
and broken cities of the world
let me sweep, through black smoke,
eyes streaming, striding
like a bear. Let me hold on
to Book and pen, knife and drum,
true love as gun and guide.
Let me bow down on the roadside,
true to the Lord of the Dawn.

Let me rise, head up,
bloody and torn
but voicing truth
to the livid eyes of death,
and spreading peace
where only hate was found.
Dress me in taqwa.
Feed me dust and bone
and find me where sea meets stone
at the Western edge
when, finally, every secret is dredged,
and the world is used and done.

Wael Abdelgawad, 10-25-2010
Fresno, California

Choose love and peace will follow

Statue of Lady Justice

Statue of Lady Justice in London

By Wael Abdelgawad for IslamicSunrays.com

There is a saying: ““Choose love and peace will follow. Choose peace and love will follow.”

As Muslims we also understand that justice and fairness are vital, and I think this is one of the distinguishing factors of our deen (our Islamic way of life). Other religions speak of love, but do not emphasize justice. But when people are brutalized and oppressed, what does it mean to speak of love or peace? When a man has his boot on another man’s neck, while he loots his home and hurts his family, does it mean anything to tell the victim to be peaceful?

No, without justice you can never have peace. That’s why Lady Justice carries a sword in one hand and a balance in the other. The sword represents the authority of law to enforce peace and punish criminals. But the sword would be meaningless without the balance, which indicates the principles of fairness on which laws must be built. This representation of justice is common, and in some versions the lady is blindfolded, indicating the justice should be applied equally to all regardless of race or social status.

War, bigotry and hatred are not the original human condition. They are not inevitable. They don’t represent the natural state of the human heart.

  1. War is almost always a product of greed and selfishness.
  2. Bigotry is not a natural human trait, but is usually bred and whipped up by cynical leaders looking to exploit people’s ignorance for personal aggrandizement. People like Hitler, or Slobodan Milosevic, or the politicians and radio hosts who whipped up genocidal hatred in Rwanda, or even the USA’s new crop of radical right-wing fanatics like Sarah Palin. These people exploit ignorance, and not only cater to it but feed it for political gain.
  3. Hatred is not the original human condition, but a product of oppression and suffering.

Treat people fairly, be honest, and do not covet what is not yours, and there will be no war. Peace is not an elusive dream, or a mysterious goal at the end of some obscure path. The road to peace is obvious, but it takes unerring honesty, and total justice.

So I would amend the saying to, “Act justly and peace will follow. Choose peace and love will follow.”

“I Want” – a poem

Center of the Milky Way galaxy, as seen from Cherry Springs State Park

Center of the Milky Way galaxy, as seen from Cherry Springs State Park, one of the darkest places in the eastern USA. The Milky Way is a vast collection of more than 200 billion stars, planets, nebulae, clusters, dust and gas. Our own Sun and solar system are also part of the Milky Way galaxy. Brilliant Jupiter is the brightest "star" in the image, seen at left.

I Want

I want to travel back in time
and prevent my daughter
from jamming her toe in the shopping cart
and getting a blood bruise.
I want her to laugh so hard
she sprays her cereal and milk.
I want her never to shake her head
in shame or regret.
I want her to love Allah,
to raise hands in duaa,
to feel the deen in her veins
like a pulse.

I want my father
to be given the heart of a mustang,
and barring that
to welcome his Qadr with ease,
not squeezing his hands into fists
or cursing in pain.
Never mind what he thinks of me.
I want him to call on Allah
with joy and relief,
to find sweetness in the dusk of his life.
I want peace for him Yaa Allah;
caress him with endless rahma.

I want the Muslim people
to find their power, art,
science; and the quiet joy
of ‘ibadah and Allah’s love.
Let them step into the century
free from tyranny, standing tall
with Islam as hope and heart.
Let them drink from the bubbling spring
of the Quran.
Let them breathe.
Let them free themselves
and transform the world.

For myself, who knows?
Still I shake my head and laugh,
wondering who I am,
and when I’ll find my secret name.
I say with truth
that I don’t flinch,
no snarl crosses my face,
and I don’t lie about my past.
No acid fills my mouth. No fear,
no hate, no shame.
Instead, I want…
I want

to leap into the night sky
and grab a bushel of stars,
bring them to earth burning in my hands.
Once, in Tucson,
the morning sun turned everything
– the desert, the buildings,
even the men standing in line to eat –
yellow as an egg yolk.
I want to bottle that pure yellow
and drink it into my veins
until I’m hot and glowing
from heart to fingernails.

Laugh, I don’t care!
Yes I am a crazy man.
Let me tell you, somewhere
in a dingy cell a man is being beaten
and starved; somewhere
a sister is being raped;
I want to give my life
to put a stop to it,
and I offer it to Allah:
take it. I understand my words.
Use me for a purpose
and let me be remembered

for saving one life,
making one person weep in relief,
rescuing one soul from pain.
For myself I ask so little:
to be held in loving arms
and a sweet voice in my ear.
Is that too strange a dream?
To take a wife and hug her fiercely,
see my daughter learn the deen,
to graduate to black belt
after all these years.
To bring relief to pain…

For myself, so little.
In the end I forfeit all.
Yaa Allah, I surrender all
but your love! I give up
the stars and sun,
the run of time and coin,
and the embrace of love…
But for others:
my father, Salma,
and those I’ve lost; for the hurt and hungry
praying for relief… for them
I want, I want, I want.

– Wael Abdelgawad, July 2009

From a state of darkness to one of light

Sunshine and flowers

From a state of darkness to one of light

I changed from worrying to praying; from complaining to problem solving; from boredom to having good clean fun; from a state of darkness to one of light; from selfish love to love of self and others; from independence to interdependence; from winning or losing to learning, and growing; from telling to asking; from being aggressive to being assertive; from being reactive to being proactive!

-Hanan Bilal

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