Archive | Self-development

Tips for Adulthood: Five Recurrent Dreams

dreams

dreamsWell, as long as sleep is now the new sex, I thought I’d tap into what actually happens when most of us sleep: we dream.

Not all of us, I suppose. An old boyfriend of mine used to maintain that he dreamt mostly in images:  he’d be standing out in the middle of a field or perched atop a mountain.

Huh?” I thought. “You mean you don’t dream that someone’s chasing you around your kitchen table with a knife?”

Not only are my dreams hopelessly plot-driven and transparent, they are also recurrent. There are four or five dreams that I must have at least once a month. Every time, I wake up bathed in sweat. But once I began to reflect upon these dreams and analyze them more closely, I realized that they are all – in one way or another – telltale dreams of adulthood.

On the off-chance that you’ve had them – or similar recurrent dreams – I present them here so that we can all get a better handle on our collective demons:

Read the rest of this post over at Better After 50

Image: Realm of Dreams via PublicDomainPictures.net

 

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Why Anger is Useful

anger

angerI once took a course in college called Anger. Because I went to Brown University –  which has a reputation for being a bit groovier than the rest of the Ivies – it’s easy to mock a course called “Anger.” As one of my fellow Brunonians once quipped – “What did you do in that class? Hold hands, sing Kumbaya and pass around a ‘talking stick‘?

Sort of. There was a final project where you were encouraged to develop your own personal reflection on anger. One person did an indigenous dance. Someone else sang a song. I read aloud from a short story I’d written about discovering that my college boyfriend was cheating on me.

But most of the course was about reading. Each week, the professor would focus on one text –  the Old Testament, Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The students would write a one-page paper on the text and discuss it.  The punch line of the course  – but one you only came to once you’d digested all of these treatises – was that anger, in the end, was really about sadness. When we feel angry about something, it’s because we are actually hurt by someone or something. And anger is the emotion we often use to express that sadness.

That insight rung true to me then and it rings true to me now. I’ve been really angry lately. In one instance, it’s with a relative of mine who has proved to be a real disappointment. She’s done some horrible things, including to me and other members of my family, and some of those things are not fixable. In another case, I’m angry with a friend who didn’t show up for me when I asked him.

But when I sat down and thought  – and, more importantly, wrote about these experiences in my journal – I realized that I wasn’t really angry with either of these people.

I was sad. I was sad because in both instances, the people in question revealed a side of themselves that I either hadn’t seen before or didn’t want to see. And in revealing these less appealing sides of themselves,  I experienced a sense of loss. Loss for the person I thought they were – or perhaps more truthfully – loss of the person I wanted them to be.

Letting go of anything that matters to you is profoundly sad. It could be selling your childhood home or being laid off from the company you love or breaking up with your therapist. And, let’s face it:  feeling angry is a heckuva lot more comfortable for most of us than feeling sad.

But one of the realizations I’ve come to as I age is that I’m actually better off confronting sadness than avoiding it. So in embracing my own anger of late, I have tried to observe that feeling, peel it back and allow myself to feel the enormous grief of accepting what is, what is not, and what cannot be.

I won’t lie to you:  it ain’t fun. But it does feel more honest.

Image: Anger, Angry Bad, Isolated Dangerous by Geralt via Pixabay

 

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Lifelong Learning: Cultivating Curiosity as we Age

Continuing Education

Continuing EducationNot long ago, I attended an all-day workshop on PowerPoint. It was designed for people who felt comfortable using the program, but who wanted to take it to the  next level. As I use slides all the time in my new consulting business, I thought it might be a useful skill to hone.

It was.

I’m a big fan of taking classes in adulthood. Since moving to London twelve years ago, I’ve taken classes in everything from public speaking to improvisation to  how to write a business plan. In past lives, I’ve taken classes in freelance writing, beginning Hebrew as well as the  Continuing Ed class to end all Continuing Ed classes: I’m Jewish, You’re Not.)

People go back to school as adults for many different reasons. Often, it’s to pursue a hobby. You try something new (or return to something old.) You meet new people. You collaborate. Above all, you have fun. (I’m currently eyeing a course entitled Actors Singing From West End to Broadway. Bring it on!)

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Continuing Education Adult Education Expo via Wikimedia Commons

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Tips for Adulthood: How to Cope with Sadness

sadness

sadnessOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve been feeling sad lately. For many years of my life, I pushed sad feelings away whenever they arose. I felt that if I just kept moving fast enough, I could out-run them. Often times, I did.

But one of the things that happens as you age is that you begin to confront your fears. And, hopefully, you develop new coping strategies to deal with your demons.

So this week, here are some strategies for how to deal with sadness when it comes:

a.  Meditation. I’ve written before about the power of mindfulness. One of the things mindfulness encourages you to do is to treat your thoughts and emotions as fleeting. The idea is that just as the breath comes and goes, so, too, do thoughts and emotions. So when anger, or sadness, or regret pop up, you don’t push them away. You see them, acknowledge them, and move on. “Oh, that’s anger,” you say to yourself. Or: “Oh, I’m feeling sad now.” Over time,  instead of  saying, “I’m an angry person,” or “I’m depressed,” you begin to say: “I’m sad right now.” But tomorrow my happiness will return. Because it’s in there too.

b.  Reframing. Over on Maria Popova’s brilliant website, Brain Pickings, she writes about the famous Austrian poet and novelist, Maria Rainer Rilke, and how he conceptualised sadness. While we may feel paralyzed by it in the moment, the ability to sit silently with one’s sadness is also central to personal growth. As he so eloquently puts it, “…this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside.” Sadness is painful; yes. But it is also transformative. And it reminds us that we are alive.

c.  Poetry. I don’t read a lot of poetry. But when I’m sad, I find that poetry is the very best way to commune with my sadness and embrace it, as Rilke advocates. My mother, who does read a lot of poetry, has shared a lot of powerful poems with me over the years. Lately, I’ve been reading the Irish poet, James Claren Mangen, because, let’s face it, no one quite does sadness like the Irish. I’m quite taken with his poem, The Nameless One.

d.  Music.  As with poetry, I don’t actually listen to music all that much. My love for show tunes notwithstanding, I don’t tend to have a CD playing or Spotify playing in the background as I go about my life. When I’m sad, however, my go-to music is the music of my young adulthood, when I lived in Central America for a year. During that year, I spent an enormous amount of time listening to the likes of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, two giants of the Nueva Trova movement. So lately, instead of podcasts, I’ve been listening to that music as I walk around my neighbourhood or do the laundry. Much like watching a sad film, or reading a sad novel, this music speaks on some deeper level to my feelings right now. If you speak Spanish – and even if you don’t – go have a listen to Mi Unicornio Azúl.

e.  Writing.  And, of course, I write. For me, nothing helps quite so much in confronting sadness as putting thoughts like these down on paper.

How do you cope when you feel sad?

Image: Sadness by Serge Mercier via Flickr

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Happiness in Later Life

happiness

happinessLong ago and far away – back when I was still an academic – I once took a long drive home from a conference with a colleague. It was a two or three hour drive, the kind where you start off talking about work and end up talking about your childhood. About an hour and a half into the drive, I turned to him and asked: “Are you happy?”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t really do happy,” he confessed.

I knew exactly what he meant.

I don’t really do “happy” either. Content…animated…joyous…silly. I do all of those at different times. But “happy” feels more permanent. Like something you need to commit to. And I’ve never been good at commitment.

That Happy Feeling

Lately, however, having finally – 30 years in – fashioned a career for myself that feels right, I’ve started having this weird sensation in my body. I say weird, because it’s so unusual, I don’t recognise it immediately. I think it’s called happiness.

It’s like a friend of mine who – beginning therapy late in life after a divorce – confessed to me that one day in a conversation with her therapist, she felt this strange thing well up inside her. “And I was like ‘What is that?'” she recounted to me afterwards. “And then I realized: Oh, that’s an emotion!”

Damned straight, sister. I think a lot of us walk around for half of our lives carrying feelings inside of us that we don’t even recognize, possibly because we’ve forgotten they are there.

Lessons from Mindfulness

Which is why, among other reasons, practicing mindfulness is so useful.

If you’ve ever practiced any mindfulness, you’ll know that one of the key ideas it drives home is that we all have a “blue sky” inside us – a happy place where the clouds part and the birds chirp and the rays of sunshine fill our world. A lot of the focus is on accessing that blue sky feeling and realizing that it’s not something we need to reach for outside ourselves; it’s something that’s already there.

In my own case, I think I’d gone so long thinking about work as this stressful, difficult externalized thing that I’d forgotten that work could also be an extension of “happy me”… and fun. So when I’d deliver a workshop on public speaking, for example, and feel really great afterwards, I’d be like: “That’s odd; Why do I feel not just OK, but good?”

Escaping the Scarcity Mentality

It’s also the case that some of us just aren’t wired to be happy.

I grew up in a large-ish family where a scarcity mentality prevailed. If you got up from the dinner table to go to the bathroom, you risked having someone still the last potato off of your plate. So I think I have always approached life as if everything were a finite resource that was at risk of running out:  money, love, food, happiness.

Undoing that scarcity mentality has taken  a lot of work. One of the things that helped me most was reading Julia Cameron’s brilliant manifesto on creativity, The Artist’s Way. Cameron views creativity (which for her, comes from God) as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one. The idea is that whatever the origin of your creative process, it is an unending well of ideas and inspiration that never dries up. She encourages everyone embarking on a creative path to adopt this expansive view of how it works.

That has been s a struggle for me. Given my own hard-wired scarcity mentality, I come to the world with more of a zero-sum framework: if I get something, someone else loses something. There’s only so much to go around. But embracing Cameron’s “abundance” mentality with respect to creativity has enabled me to extend that idea to other areas of life.

As a result, I’m able to feel happier now without fearing that at any given moment, happiness might run out.

It’s still a work in process. Many days, I still feel off-kilter when I experience “that happy feeling.” But I’m learning how to live with it.

Image: Woman Happiness Sunrise Silhouette by Jill111 via Pixabay

Creativity, Random Words and Self-Definition

random words

random wordsI’ve started reading Tim Harford’s book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Its basic thrust is that creativity is fostered not by carefully organizing our time and ideas, but by allowing disorder to interrupt our routines. One way to induce this creative messiness, Harford argues, is by introducing random stimuli to trigger new ways of thinking.

So, for example, when I taught a workshop on creativity recently for a group of researchers out at Oxford, we did a “random word” exercise. I had them open to a random page of whatever they happened to be carrying  – a book, a magazine, instructions for a writing exercise – and select the eighth word on that page. I then asked them to use that word – whatever it happened to be – to help them generate new ways of thinking about a challenge they were facing in their lives:  personal…professional…in their research.

I myself did something similar yesterday. I was on a day out with a group of coaches and clients at The Writing Coach, where I work as a consultant. These periodic gatherings are a way to foster real life interaction among a community of writers that is otherwise largely virtual.

As the gathering was held at The National Portrait Gallery in London, our fearless leader suggested that we might also use this as an opportunity to do some writing. So she handed out a list of random words and invited us to use them as a prompt for some aspect of our writing – e.g., a character, a scene, a setting – as we gazed upon the pictures. It was your proverbial “artist’s date,” in Julia Cameron parlance.

My word was “resurfacing.” Here’s how the Cambridge dictionary defines it:

a.  Covering or adding layers (as in to put a new surface on a road)

b.  To rise to the surface of the water again

c.  To appear again after being lost, stolen or absent

As I strode through the early 20th century wing of the museum, I reflected upon this word and its myriad meanings. And I realized that “resurfacing” was a wonderful prism through which to think about the current stage of my professional life.

As I embrace a portfolio career,  I am in many ways “resurfacing” the different aspects of my professional self: the writer, the editor, the coach, the teacher…even the project manager. Just as I could readily detect where some of the modernist artists had applied new layers of paint to their renderings of, say, James Joyce, the original image was still visible underneath. Together, they yielded one person, rendered simultaneously through multiple angles.

At the same time, however, I also feel that I am reappearing to myself  – as my whole self – after being absent for a long period of time. And in so doing, I am rising to the surface of the water in a new, more integrated form.

I’ve long been an advocate of choosing concepts, not lists, to frame my New Year’s resolutions. As of yesterday, however, I think I’m also going to embrace the idea of choosing words as a metaphor for self.

Is there a word that’s helped you to redefine yourself? Have you ever used a randomness strategy to stimulate your thinking?

Image:  Random Words Make a Sentence by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr 

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New Year’s Resolutions: Choose Concepts, Not Lists

new year's resolutions list

new year's resolutions listWhile home visiting my family over the holidays, my sister mentioned a few of the resolutions she’d set for herself this year. They included doing more fiction writing (and, specifically, being willing to endure 100 rejections ), upgrading to varifocals so that she doesn’t need to hold a book within an inch of her eye to read, and a handful of other standard-issue resolutions.

“What are your goals?” she asked.

I paused to think it over.

“Thanks for reminding me,” I answered. “I need to set my concept for this year.”

Goal-setting: In Defense of Vagueness

As someone with a fairly strong Type A personality, it’s tempting to use the beginning of the year as an excuse to set even more goals for myself than I normally would.

But a few years back, I resolved that I wouldn’t do that anymore. Instead, I decided to embrace the idea of setting broad, overarching “concepts” to frame the coming year.

I’m aware of all the advice out there claiming that you need to set specific, actionable objectives if you want to get anything done. I’m also aware of all the research suggesting why if you go too far down the measurable outcomes path, you might end up abandoning your goals altogether.

To that end – and, let’s be honest, what good is research if you can’t cherry-pick the stuff that suits your needs? – I have anchored my defense of conceptual resolutions in a Stanford University study entitled In Praise of Vagueness.  Because of the way the brain processes negative information, this article suggests that we are actually better off motivating ourselves through a general principle (e.g., “I’d like to be more fit”) – or through an acceptable range of desired outcomes (e.g., I’d like to lose between 5-15 pounds) – than tying ourselves to one specific number ( e.g., “I need to lose 10 pounds by June 1st.”)

The basic idea is that presenting information in a vague way allows you to sample from the information that’s in your favor and choose the part that seems  achievable or encourages you to keep your expectations upbeat. That way, you are motivated to stay on track.

Goal-setting: Choosing a Concept

But I didn’t really start embracing conceptual New Year’s resolutions because of what the research said. I did it because I thought it would help me to bring greater coherence to the many different hats I wear, both personally and professionally.

I felt that having an integrated, “catch-all” concept would make me feel more comfortable being pulled in so many different directions. I also thought having a concept would encourage me to think more creatively about the different aspects of my life and how they fit together, rather than thinking in siloes.

So, for example, one year my watch word was “authenticity.”  That was all about bringing my personality out more in social media (principally blogging and Facebook), but also about choosing to read books that illustrated other people’s journeys towards self-discovery.

Another year, my watch word was “change.” That year, I knew in advance that I’d be laid off for my job and that I needed to be open to trying out different career options while I took time off.

Yet another year, I embraced slow living.

This Year’s Resolution

This year’s resolution, you ask?

It’s about balance. Not just the professional balance yielded by a portfolio career mentioned above.  And not just work-life balance if all that means is not being a workaholic.

But work-life balance in the sense articulated by author and entrepreneur Robert Glazer, which he defines as follows: …”an understanding that each day or week might bring different combination of things to attend to at work or in your personal life, but they total a portfolio of quality experiences. It’s not about the time itself, it’s about being fully present and engaged in each of the pieces…”

I like that idea. Balance as being fully present in each of the pieces of my life, whether that’s teaching or coaching or writing or swimming.

How about you? If you could pick a concept for 2019, what would it be?

Image: New Year’s Resolutions list via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Giving Up My Addictions in Middle Age

cell phone addiction

cell phone addictionI stopped using my cell phone for several weeks last summer. Ok, that’s an exaggeration. What I really did was to stop checking my phone incessantly.

I didn’t do this voluntarily. My house was burgled and they took all of our phones save one. Which meant that for a couple of months  – while we waited for the insurance claim to come through – I shared my phone with my two teenaged children.

Sharing your telephone with two adolescents is worthy of a blog post of its own. If not ten. But that’s not what captured my attention most during that period. What’s really struck me was how amazingly freeing it was to not be tethered to my phone all the time, because someone else was using it.

This shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve read Andrew Sullivan’s amazing account of what it was like when he cut himself off from technology for a year, including a stint meditating in the wilderness. I’m familiar with all the studies detailing why digital addiction is a real thing and exactly how it works. Just this morning, I heard a report on the BBC about the fact that theaverage British adult checks his or her smartphone every 12 minutes.

I’ve always smugly considered myself to be above that fray. When I write, for example, I keep the phone in another room. I can go hours without checking it. When my family goes to bed, none of us brings a phone upstairs. (Hence, the robbery…cough. They didn’t even need to leave our living room to make off with plenty of bounty).

But still, it’s been instructive to realize just how often I check my phone and how much happier – and relaxed I am – when I’m not on it.

Which got me thinking – pre-new years resolution season – about what else I might usefully abandon – or at least curtail – in the interest of personal wellness.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Rawpixel via Pixabay

How I Finally Came To Enjoy Work In Middle Age

molting

moltingI’ve got a confession to make:  For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying work.

I realize that’s not exactly a shocking admission for those out there who find their work to be fulfilling.

But I’m well into middle age and have been working for the better part of three decades. And it’s only in the past few months that I wake up and truly look forward to the day ahead.

 

Wearing a Costume to Work

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the various jobs I’ve held over the years. I feel privileged to have worked across multiple sectors:  academia, the government, the media, non-profits. Each job I’ve held has been an enormous learning experience, not to mention the source of life-long friendships.

But I never felt 100% myself in any of those jobs. It was always as if I were wearing a costume to work. And waiting for someone – possibly myself? – to rip off the mask and reveal the real me cowering underneath.

Taking time off for self-discovery

So after I was laid off from my last job, I made a determined effort to sort out this whole work thing for once and for all. To do this, I formed a sort of chrysalis around myself. Much like the butterfly, who needs to form a hardened, outer shell so that it can finish growing before it emerges, fully formed, into the world, so too did I feel that in order to properly check in with myself, I needed to check out with others.

So I stopped talking to other people about what I wanted to do with my life and spent more time pursuing a range of activities designed to help me gain clarity on my professional future. (I even uploaded the image of a chrysalis to my Facebook page to be sure people knew where I was “at” psychologically.)

It worked. One of the many things I did last year was to spend time as a visiting fellow at a local university. Mostly, this meant writing my book in a different environment. But it also meant attending seminars around campus on topics I was interested in, blogging here and there, (as well as fantasizing that I’d been cast in a remake of Brideshead Revisited…)

But the more I began attending workshops by assorted academics around campus, the more I would find myself subconsciously re-structuring these talks in my head. Why didn’t she start with that slide? I’d wonder. Or: Wow. This is a potentially interesting topic but I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes and I still don’t know why I’m here.

The same thing happened with blogs I would read by academics read that were written by academics from all over the UK. The content would be brilliant. But the blog would read more like a short essay or – worse – an academic article, footnotes and all. Somehow, all these great ideas weren’t translating into engaging content.

One day, sitting in back of a lecture hall, I realized I could help.

Back to the Future

Last spring, I launched my own communications consultancy . The goal is to help people write, speak and lead more effectively. To do this, I offer a combination of personal coaching and group workshops. So far, I’ve worked mainly with the higher education sector, although I’m beginning to branch out into the private sector as well.

It is, in many ways, a perfection combination of the assorted skills I’ve honed over a lifetime:  writing, editing, coaching, and public speaking, with a bit of improvisation tossed in for good measure. But my new business also draws heavily on all that social science training I got back in the day – the side of my brain that craves order, logic and coherence.

There’s nothing weird here at all except that  if you had told me 20 years ago when I left the higher education sector that I would be back teaching at the university level – and enjoying it – I’d have laughed you out of the room.  And yet, here I am, going to the library and preparing lecture notes and helping students of all ages improve their writing and communication skills.

More importantly – and to come back to the beginning of this post – it’s fun!

Molting into the Integrated Self

So maybe the punchline here – if I can beat the butterfly metaphor into the ground – is that molting in adulthood doesn’t have to be about a radical break with the past.

I thought that professional reinvention meant doing something I’d never done before.

It never occurred to me – although it should have – that for me to be happy at work, I’d need to do something that was not only authentic, but integrated. That the secret to professional fulfilment lay in integrating my manager and maker selves; to incorporating, as the saying goes, “something old and something new.”

One thing’s for certain: I’m no longer wearing any costume.

Image: Cocoon butterfly insect by GLady via Pixabay

Why Acting Classes Are So Hard for Grownups

acting class

acting classI’ve often wondered how many of us out there have fantasized that in another life, we’d all be professional actors.

I know I have. My mother was an actress when she was young, and I was one of those classic theatre geeks in high school, playing everything from Helen Keller to Elizabeth Bennett.

For whatever reason, once I went to college I became far too serious for acting (or so I thought), and abandoned it in favor of my studies.

For a long time, I was plagued by that dreadful “What if?’ that we all apply with increasing frequency to the roads not taken once we hit middle age. Now that I’ve returned to taking acting classes in mid-life, however, I’ve come to realize that I was never good enough to be an actress. And the reason I’m not good enough is that I’m way too protected emotionally to take the kinds of risks required to be a truly good actor.

I know this with 100% certainty because I spend three hours every Friday evening taking an improvisation class with a bunch of other adults. Our teacher is steeped in the Meisner tradition, which means that we begin every class doing Meisner’s classic warm-up, the Repetition Game.

For the uninitiated, the Repetition Game amounts to standing opposite someone else for what feels like an excruciating period of time (but is probably only five minutes) and “calling” the other person’s emotional state, in the moment. The other person repeats exactly what you said until something shifts emotionally in one of the two players and then that gets called out, repeated, and so on.

So it might start like this:

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

Until eventually that gives way to something like:

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

And so on…

Sound easy? It ain’t. Meisner apparently wanted “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

Wow. I don’t even know if “intellectuality” is a word, but Dear God, I cling to it for all it’s worth. It is SO hard to be truly “in the moment.” And that’s coming from someone who is an evangelist for mindfulness.

I know I’m not the only person who runs like hell from the nakedness of their emotions as a grown-up. I was comforted to read an account of the Meisner technique by a young, University of Chicago adjunct business school professor named Jean Paul Rollert. Rollert sat in on four acting classes in an effort to unpack the concept of “empathy.”

In addition to noting (correctly) that “acting classes tend to attract the same assortment of individuals who often congregate in adult education programs: the curious, the bored, the lonely, and the strange…,” he also goes on to observe that “Meisnering” is the equivalent of being “whipsawed, smacked, dunked, tripped, and kicked down a flight of stairs—all in the course of a scene.”

It is, in a word, brutal.

I’ve been doing this technique for close to a year now. And while I’ve had glimmers of success with the technique (though my teacher would shoot me for applying such normative judgments to the process), I find it incredibly hard to access my emotions on demand. My teacher tells me that even my body language betrays this truth about myself. Apparently, I tilt my chest backwards from my hips and push my head forward during the exercise, as if I am literally trying to run away from all feeling and lead with my brain.

I did have one breakthrough moment a month or so ago. I was doing the Repetition Game with a guy in my class who normally laughs a lot as a defense mechanism. All of a sudden, his own underlying sadness came through. And then mine did. And for just that one moment, the whole world seemed utterly and unbearably painful. Because it was.

It was – in equal measure – both an exhilarating and a terrifying sensation.

But after a minute or two, it was gone. We both retreated to safer pastures – he to his laughter and me to my brain.

I really want to challenge myself to feel more during these classes. It feels like the right way to live my life, in my ongoing quest for authenticity and all that good stuff.

But Damn, is it hard.

I wonder what Helen Keller would do.

Image: Miki_peleg_rothstein_in_Our_Class_2 via Wikimedia Commons

 

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