What’s Important

I wrote last time about the long hours my brave wife was putting in at the hospital. She’s a nurse, working under intensely stressful conditions like all healthcare workers right now.

I hold extra tension in my body on the days she works. But that’s nothing compared to what she goes through. She didn’t get home till 11 that night, after going in at 6:30am.

Being yoked to someone “on the front lines” (as they’re calling it) means I don’t have the option of forgetting the real human suffering that COVID-19 represents. I may be trying to figure out how to live in this new social-distanced reality, making meaning as best I can… but people are struggling to breathe, possibly dying without a last touch from their loved ones, just a few miles from where I sit.

When my sweetie got up yesterday after sleeping late to recover from the long shift, I was in the middle of my workday. I went to sit with her as she drank coffee on the couch. I put my arms around her and listened to her talk about what it’s like. At some point I had this guilty thought: “I should be at my desk, working.” Then I recognized this for what it was: a remnant of my pre-pandemic priorities.

Offering my presence and touch, supporting her—what’s more important than that? And isn’t it just as much my “work” right now as anything?

I remember when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly everything else receded in importance. I feel like this time is parallel to that, making me more grateful for the relationships in my life, more attentive to community. Bringing me back to what’s really important.

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” —Margaret J. Wheatley

What do we care about? And how shall we direct our power for change?

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Gratitude: A couple of blue-sky days. The flowers are really popping.

Tip of the Day: Look at a flower. Really look at it. That flower knows nothing of COVID-19. It’s going to do its thing, make seeds and fruit. (It’s going to die doing that! That is the way of nature.)

Resource of the Day: I love this guided meditation from Dawson Church, which my sweetie and I listened to together last night. I’m cooking up a blog post addressing fear in the time of COVID-19, but in the meantime this is a useful tool to calm anxieties. Never mind that he refers to fear as a “negative” emotion and speaks of “suppressing” it. That language doesn’t totally resonate for me—but the meditation is soothing. It starts around minute 7. I’ve only done it once without falling asleep.

How is it for you? Do you find that you are loving your special people a bit more tenderly (while maybe also feeling—at times—cranky and snappish due to a little too much togetherness, if you’re all in the same house?) Or are you using technology to connect, and missing the touch of the people who know and love you? How are you staying distant-but-connected, if you are in this situation like most of us?

“Creating Beauty in the World We Find”

Last week I listened to a podcast with author Terry Tempest Williams, in which she says that one job of writing is to make other people feel less alone.

I started this series partially for that reason (as well as for my own sanity) and I’ve gotten a few notes from readers affirming that they do feel less alone. Because we’re all feeling it: The uncertainty and pain of everything we know being upended, the sorrow of losses (ours and those we empathize with), the loneliness of isolation, the fear and dread of what may come, the anger too.

These are things we have to breathe through. The only way out is through.

Terry Tempest Williams also talks about staying in the present:

“If you are present, then there is no past, as you well know. And there is no future. You are there. And whether it is being with a family member who is dying, you are present with them. You are breathing. And in that breathing there is this commitment and communion to that breath. Presence. And you don’t look away…I think when you are present, fear is still there, but you are moving with it. You are breathing with it.”

Seeking pathways to stay in the present: That is one of my top priorities now, when thinking too far ahead can completely derail me. My hope is that this blog series can contribute to some grounding for others, even as I regain my own footing over and over after being knocked off balance.

There’s this idea that “If we’re not all OK, none of us are,” and I feel like we are being shown its truth in real-time. If I have something to contribute to that OKness, it isn’t medical care. (That is the role of my nurse spouse, bless her, and other healthcare workers all over the world, who all need our support and light.)

One thing I can do is send these words out, in case they are a comfort, because “…finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.” —TTW

I’m not used to sending words out without first parsing every single syllable. But these are different times. And even though I often write these missives in the evening when my brain is tired, and I don’t remember all the insights I planned to share, I feel like this is an evolving conversation. There’s time to explore.

Gratitude: The sun peeked out today while I walked Opal. Also, I got to see my mom (we sat on her back patio, 6 feet apart). Plus: online dance and yoga classes  saved my patoot during a tense day when my beloved was pulling a long shift at the hospital.

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If a sycamore sees its shadow, how many more weeks/months of pandemic will persist?

Tip of the Day: From Lani Weissbach, who teaches EmbodieDance, here’s a good way to ground yourself if you feel off-balance. Put your hands firmly on/around your upper leg and draw down with strong pressure, all the way to the foot. Do this several times for each leg. Good for rocky times such as these.

Resource of the Day: The body and breath can lead us back to the present moment. See the links above for good mindbody options, and also find Sanctuary Community Yoga here with many more offerings. My adored neighborhood studio, Irvington Wellness Center, has gone completely online, and you can find the full schedule here. The classes are free to all for the next 30 days and include t’ai chi, yoga, self-care, meditation and more. You can click the class name and then “More Details” in the lower left corner of the pop-up to find a Zoom link. More info on the studio here.

Steady on, beautiful people!

Getting and Spending

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

A long time ago, when I worked in a corporation, I kept this William Wordsworth quote on my cubicle wall to remind me of what I knew—that my life was about more than producing and consuming.

Now I see that this statement doesn’t go far enough. Not only does endless productivity and consumerism crush our personal power, it destroys our planet.

Witness the fires devastating the Amazon. Deliberately set, left to burn until God knows what point of no return. Why is Brazil’s rainforest burning? In part, to feed consumer demand for paper, lumber, soy, and beef. (That’s not even taking into account the impact of mining minerals like copper, tin, gold, iron ore.)

We could blame the people who set the fires, but the more we buy into capitalism, the more complicit we are. Not to say that we don’t need to hold companies and governments responsible for the greedy policies that encourage slash-and-burn deforestation. But when something “out there” disturbs me, I try to to look within to see what is being reflected back to me. 

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Photo by Katja Schulz, via Flickr Commons “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Curiously, I started this blog post wanting to talk about doing nothing. In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reframes doing nothing as a potent form of resistance.

I have yet to read the book, but a review of it in Yes magazine piqued my interest. It is not a call to passivity, but an invitation to true transformation.

Odell writes that our constant activity and stimulus-addiction keep us from imagining the bold action that would truly change the world.

If we keep trying to feed a bottomless hole with products or busyness or information, we just heat the globe more. But if we step back and get quiet, allow ourselves to feel, we might get in touch with radically different possibilities. Like undoing capitalism.

The master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, as Audre Lorde put it decades ago. We’ve got to make new tools, and to do that, we’ve got to dive deep.

What of the need for urgent action, to fight the powers that be? Charles Eisenstein has suggested that our urgent scurrying from problem to problem (along with our shame-and-blame culture) are symptomatic of a bigger cultural story driving the intertwined problems of our age. Not only symptomatic, but propping up that story, which is one of alienation, separateness.

We are part of this world. By getting quiet, concentrating ourselves, choosing to stop doing from time to time, we heal a little corner of it. We don’t always know the extent of that healing’s reverberation, but it’s real.

Now, if I stop there, I could use this truth as an excuse to never make a move that feels scary. Worse, as license to let injustices ride and exploitation continue unabated.

Without some measure of self-awareness—and a willingness to act when needed—“doing nothing” becomes self-indulgent. But sitting still, without input from screens or other media—isn’t that the cradle of self-awareness and compassion, a place that can spur inspired action?

A friend posted this quote yesterday along with her rainforest-inspired commitment to a vegan diet: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Where does it arise from, the deeply committed, maybe-small-but-world-changing action? From a spacious, quiet place, in touch with the deep pain of our time, and in touch with infinite possibility.

How to help the situation in Brazil: This Newsweek article lists some action items and organizations to support.

Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

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The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

Contracting

Recently I spent some blissful days by Crystal Lake in Michigan, thanks to a dear friend’s hospitality.

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This was the sunset that greeted me on arrival. Photo by Julie Stewart.

The reason for my trip was ostensibly research in nearby Traverse City’s 19th century mental institution. My original plan was to spend just a night or two in the haven of my friend’s company and then head out. (On the way home I wanted to tour a Michigan farm that specializes in teff, on assignment for Acres USA. And since the farm lies halfway between home and Crystal Lake, it made sense to find lodging midway.)

But it turned out that the teff farmers were unavailable during that time, so my grand plan fell through. And I’m so grateful.

I needed those restorative days and nights to rest, integrate, and incubate. After touring the asylum as planned, I turned to my project with a fresh eye. I wrote in stints between riding my friend’s bicycle, lying in the hammock, walking along the lakeside, floating in the crystalline water, and other general deliciousness.

In the mornings I sat at the end of the dock and faced into the wind. The wavelets on the lake and the constant breeze made it feel like I was on a boat, moving steadily forward.

I thought about how we can draw to us exactly what we need, even if it feels like we’re sitting still. If we’re aligned with what wants to be born, it’s less about effort than showing up and paying attention.

Driving home, I saw this truism played out again when an audiobook I was playing refused to work. I finally gave up and turned on the radio, just in time to find a program on NPR that spoke exactly to a dilemma I’d been working out in my story.

Now, this was in a semi-remote part of Michigan, where very few stations were coming through clearly. I marveled that I could hear this piece all the way through to the end as I drove along between the evergreens. The station faded just as the next story began and I came to a well-placed rest area.

When I got back in the car, I tried the audiobook again. You guessed it: This time it worked.

It struck me that this synchronicity was a symptom of alignment, proceeding straight from my placement at the end of that dock, where I had given myself the gift of sitting still.

I forget this all the time. Part of me still believes that I have to make things happen. I was taught to keep on pushing, no matter what. Never mind that time and time again—say in a client session or on a writing jag—I find a larger truth. The “I” that I so cherish steps aside for a bit and lets something bigger take over.

When I came back from Michigan, I longed to sequester myself with my writing. I took over the guest room with its sweet view of the garden out back.

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I have been spending some time each day there immersed in my work, it’s true. But I still long for more. As the magic of my little Michigan expedition wore off, the usual obligations and distractions started to intrude. I have found myself overbooked and overstimulated.

Earlier this week I dreamt of coaching a pregnant woman through labor. When I woke, I realized that I am in the midst of a contraction. I have thought of “contraction” as a negative, as in “contracted state” opposite “expanded state”—but I understand now that I need to honor my need to contract. I see that turning inward is critical to the process of labor, which is really about so much more than active pushing. I need to allow a natural rhythm to flow.

And I need to pay attention, so I can be ready for those helpful tidbits that come my way as I appear to be sitting still.

In order to cultivate more quiet in my mind and spirit, I plan to sign off social media for the better part of August. This contraction requires that I evaluate every invitation and activity carefully before saying yes. I might not blog much. But I’ll be back.

Rising

On International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about what it means to be human.

We are in the midst of a rebalancing. The old patriarchal systems are groaning under the weight of their own corruption and perversion.

So we rise. “We are the leaven of this land, and we are on the rise,” says the marvelous artist/activist Jan Phillips.

And this is what it means to be human: to rise, to integrate. The feminine principle is ascendant not just in women, but in all genders. I know this is true because more and more hearts are awakening to our interconnectedness all the time.

We know intuitively, as women have from the beginning of time, that we are all connected. This is why we feel pain in our own bodies when we encounter the pain of the world.

When we hear of record numbers of immigrants crossing our northern border into Quebec seeking asylum, it hurts. When we read of a white rhino killed by poachers in a Paris zoo, our hearts break. Photos of clearcut forests, news of oil pipelines spilling into waterways, awareness of “mother nature on the run” as Neil Young put it—painful.

Our hearts break, over and over. We mend them as best we can—through touch, conversation, nature, meditation, prayer. Only to break again.

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Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, female Buddha, photographed at a temple in China

We can move swiftly from pain to outrage, which distances us a little, gives us back the upper hand in a way. (If I can find someone to blame, then I don’t have to dwell in heartbreak as long.)

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has this to say about that painful place:

When we don’t close off, when we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.

Our challenge is to not close our hearts even to those who would do us harm, or do harm to the people and places we love.

I heard a story of an Afghan woman who works to educate girls in Afghanistan. Fundamentalists dislike that, and she’s subject to death threats. One day at a checkpoint she was recognized and pulled out of a car by a group of bearded, turbaned men with guns. The people in the car worried for her life. But she walked back after a half hour of talking with the men, saying, “We can go.”

She stayed open, and refused to see the fundamentalist men as her enemy. It turned out that they wanted an education, just like the young girls she worked with. They had made arrangements to meet outside the mosque for lessons.

The feminine principle is strength and love, strength IN love.

We’ve been schooled to think that the only way to make change is through force, whether physical or psychological or financial. But as the feminine principle shows, change happens in more mysterious ways. Ways that can’t always be predicted or explained.

And if we know that there is truly no separation, then our small human lives have meaning beyond all measure. Nothing we offer in love is ever wasted, no matter how small, because we nourish the new world with our deeds, thoughts, and hearts. What we do (are)—strengthens the good in ways we may never know.

I’ll Meet You There

“It’s been a long time since I felt that sense of wholeness,” she told me. “Just to reconnect to something spiritual feels incredible.” I’d just talked her through a grounding and expanding meditation, one that I use myself to connect to Source.

Sunlight. Revisited.

Photo by Rishi Bandopadhay, via Flickr Creative Commons

This young woman was one of about 30 I worked with Tuesday night at a collaborative “Art and Insight” event. Other participants, upon opening their eyes, said they felt themselves floating, or they gained perspective over their petty concerns, or they felt as refreshed as if they’d had a nice long sleep.

Guiding people to spaciousness was a gift to my own energy. I thought I might feel drained afterward, doing so many consecutive mini-interventions—but instead, I was on a high. (The only thing that would have increased my high? If I’d had time to enjoy my beautiful collaborators’ offerings—spirit animal readings by Elizabeth Camp of Zen Within and reiki from Amy Barr of The Healing Room. Not to mention henna by Carrie of Eastside Gypsies. Next time!)

This work makes me so happy. I never expected to find a vocation that felt as natural as writing. But I love sharing ways that people can regain their footing in a rocky world.

So many of us are walking around in trauma these days as we face up to our collective shadow. Nothing seems certain anymore; institutions that once appeared solid are crumbling one by one. It can feel, as intuitive Lee Harris once put it, like we have lost our handrail.

In troubled times, it’s so helpful to reach out to each other, reach down to the earth, reach beyond to the cosmos, and experience ourselves as intertwined with All That Is.

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That sense of interconnectedness is what helps me return to a space of possibility and openness instead of shutting down.

I used to consider this kind of thing “self-care,” which seems to relegate it to the “optional, somewhat privileged” category of activities, on a par with green drinks and Pilates. Certainly not mission-critical, like the shovel-in-dirt projects that remake the world.

However, I see now that the world is made up of people on a path, and that clearing out and opening up on an individual level is absolutely critical if we want to thrive here. Before the remaking of the world comes the reimagining, which can’t happen with eyes that see the same old way.

So how do we build a new world—safer, saner, more compassionate, more just, peaceful, resilient? There are so many problems, so many slippery arguments. There’s so much shouting, so much pain.

We can start by opening our hearts and looking into each other’s eyes.

Or in preparation for that, we can look at a flower, or a beetle, or a cat, or a tree.

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Or in preparation for that, we can feel the marvel of our lungs filling with air as we draw breath.

We can start anywhere. Sweep our little corner.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

—Rumi

Note: Please sign up for my e-newsletter if you want to receive notices of upcoming similar events. And consider joining me at Empath 101, where I will share energetic tools to manage sensitivity.

This is Humanity

Charles Eisenstein, in this interview, challenges me to something more radical than empathy. What if we believe everything we read and hear? Not in the sense of “That’s Absolute Truth,” but in the sense of: This is what’s real for this person.

It’s a difficult assignment, because it requires giving up being right. But practicing it would open up the potential for new learning.

What life circumstances could I imagine that would give rise to the various stories I hear? What enculturation/emotions/experiences underlie people’s opinions? Or the scenarios being played out, which are expressions of the stories people know to be true?

What stories must be firmly in place for so many African-Americans to be brutalized and killed at the hands of authorities, so often with impunity?

As this writer posits, “America has conditioned society to regard us (African-Americans) as beasts, superhuman, faster, and stronger. So when we are killed, it’s easy to rationalize and accept.”

That’s one possible story. A painful one. Giving rise to the need for all of us to say, unequivocally, Black Lives Matter.

This morning in meditation I saw a flower with countless small petals. One bloom, many petals: This is humanity. A flower doesn’t have to be told that it’s insanity to pluck out some petals. It is all one whole, one body.

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From my journal after one such shooting:

Is it possible that I carry all the permutations of humanity in my cells, in a more literal way than I ever imagined?

What if: I am the police officer who killed the black teenager. And I am the teenager who died. I am the crowd that formed. I am the mother. I am the judge, the jury, the media, the Facebook storm, the Twittersphere.

All of these are within me and I must must must love them now. The young woman wanting to smash up stores in anger. The older folks grieving. The Fox News people spinning. The truckers in the truck stop, the teens at the mall, the babies in wombs ready to be born into a quaking world. The deflection. The pain. The heartache. The horror.

The fear. Everywhere fear. I am that. And I must love that.

I am the return, too. The opening.

Can we imagine a story that would solidify our shared humanity, and our mutuality, and our need for everyone to feel safe and respected as they walk through the world?

To Radiate

Sometimes it feels like so many words are written and said, so much bandwidth devoted to opinions and theories and arguments, that adding more verbiage to the hubbub is a worthless activity.

The word “radiate” came to me this morning. As a writer, I’m prone to writing, of course, but sometimes it seems more important to just…radiate.

Consider the migrant crisis. It hurts to look at it. I don’t know what to do. I feel guilty for the comparative triviality of my day-to-day concerns. In the wee hours, at my worst, I sometimes wonder if it’s shameful to feel happy and carefree when so many are suffering. I sometimes feel ashamed of the worries that plague me, because my life is as easy and free as anyone could imagine.

When this happens, as soon I remember to, at 3 or 4am, I take up a spiritual practice based on a Hawaiian system for healing. It involves holding suffering people in my heart while mentally repeating the phrases: “I take full responsibility. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” I learned about this process first from my friend and mentor Dawn Ryan, then from a book called Zero Limits, by Joe Vitale

The idea is to take responsibility for everything in our lives, because everyone is connected. Some say “I’m sorry” instead of the first phrase, but I prefer “I take full responsibility,” and it’s how Dawn originally taught me.

This mantra gives me somewhere to channel my concern, at the very least. At the most, it clears the way for new insights and promptings to action. Or perhaps just for a few more hours’ sleep, which puts me in a clearer space to do my work in the world. (Which I so question in those dark hours, wondering about its value.)

Saying these words and sending light? It’s not nothing. Though it’s impossible to quantify, I suspect that the shift from guilt/shame to love/light has a real impact, and not just on me. IMG_20150717_110506238In any case, these last few days, riding my bike or walking my dog in the sunshine, I can’t hold back a sense of exhilaration, pure happiness. I don’t want to. A friend told me that my happiness lifts her when she’s hit a rough spot in her own life.

So here’s to radiating.