Tag Archives: mindfulness

If I Am Not My Body and I Am Not My Mind, Who Am I?

Sometimes I have difficulty with the more woo woo aspects of mindfulness practice. I tend to think about my meditation, for example, in pretty straight forward terms. I sit. I close my eyes. I breathe. I pay attention to the breath. If my mind wanders, I notice that, and then I try to bring my attention back to the breath. Sometimes, I notice the mind wandering and then I allow it to continue wandering. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the breath, I might instead meditate on a subject, a theme, a wish for the world or the day, a mantra, if you will. Generally, I find meditation restful, rejuvenating, leveling, grounding, motivating, a place for deep reflection, and I think for these reasons that it’s good for me. Certain philosophical or spiritual aspects of the work come to me with more difficulty. For example, this idea of consciousness somehow being not a part of or beyond my physical self. I kind of get the notion that we are not our thoughts, that thinking is a brain function that fluctuates from moment to moment, sometimes (often) without our control. While we may, from time to time, have an evil or a perverse thought, this does not make us evil or perverse. A healthy approach to the mind might be like a healthy approach to one’s art: that poem is NOT me; it is a moment moving through me. I am not attached to it. Similarly with the body. This meat and water sack I walk around in is NOT me; it’s only a vehicle, a vehicle on loan, one that is destined to break down. We try to take care of the vehicle and try not to wrap our identity too tightly around it. A difficult job, no doubt. But the body and the brain seem to me to be the responsible parties for all the stuff we feel and think, are inextricably connected to each other; when the mind is sick so will be the body. I guess, what I’m trying to put into words is the problem I have accepting mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, enlightenment as NOT the result of stuff that my body and brain are doing, as not a part of my biology. If I am not my body and I am not my mind, who am I? If I am not the one who thinks but the one that is aware of the thinking, who’s that guy? Is he really everywhere? Is he traveling in outer space? Is he connected to people all over the world, past, future and present, as part of something like Emerson’s Oversoul? Can he affect change by thinking thoughts and sending those thoughts out as waves across the planet? Is the top of my head really a glowing purple orb?

I don’t know about these things.

What I do know is that if I love myself I can love others. If I am happy or joyful I can spread happiness and joy. I think these things are part of the practice, but still, they are material, they have to do with the way my thinking effects my behavior and the way my behavior affects the people I encounter and the systems within which I operate. This stuff can spread, right, because if I make someone feel joy they might spread it around ad infinitum. I believe this, and I tell my students this stuff all of the time, that the way we think and what we believe determines the way we live our lives. What we put in, we get out. What we give, we get back. And I acknowledge that this is not a simple matter. Patterns form, some nearly impossible to break. Some of these patterns are not ours. And then there are chemicals and shit inside there that sometimes betray us. I don’t know that it would be helpful to tell a David Foster Wallace, a Phillip Seymore Hoffman, a Virginia Woolf to simply sit on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. I don’t believe that depression is a choice. I’ve had moments recently when I’ve experienced melancholy for no apparent reason, almost debilitatingly so, but it passes, and I am lucky. I have had the good fortune to be able to locate it, look at it, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh would advise, hold it, love it a little, whereby it might transform into something more life-giving and useful. So when we say, this body is not me, or these thoughts are not me, I get that. We are more  than our component parts and thoughts and emotions. We are not that guy cursing because he has to clean up after the puppy, AGAIN. And we share atoms with everybody and everything. I am the puppy. You are my other me. I get that, too. Mostly, though, what I get is presence. How am I present in the world? And it still seems to me that that presence comes out of some combination of body and brain, for better or worse.

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Mindfulness in 2017: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I made two years ago for 2016:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

This resolution was a resounding success. I found myself a community that still meets two years later (we met this morning, in fact), I established a regular practice of daily meditation, and I felt at the end of the year better than I had in a very long while about my secularly spiritual self. So here’s how I repurposed the same resolution for 2017:

. . . my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would add, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically.

So let’s see how we did! Call up the meditation stats, Bob! So funny, this idea of a kind of meditation score! Three sentences in a row ending in exclamation points.

I spent 83 hours and 11 minutes this year in meditation.

My daily average is 18 minutes, but some of my sessions, especially the ones I spend with my group, clock in at about 2 hours–and that happens on an almost bi-weekly occasion.

My best run of consecutive days with a single session: 121, up from 83 the previous year.

And check out this lovely and enormous graph of my overall improvement in a meditative practice since 2014:

Cool, huh? Nearly epic.

So, I don’t have a graphic for this, or statistics of any kind, but I want to reflect a little bit about the 2017 addendum to the 2016 new year’s resolution. Was I able this last year to find more specific transformations, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically? Let’s be honest, shall we?

Personally: For all intents and purposes, I am the same dude in essentials I was at the beginning of the year. I’ve got some demons that I’ve been unable to shake. Some bad habit energy. Some anger issues. I allow things under my skin. I find myself especially frustrated by shit I can’t control. As both of my parents are gone now, I find I have become them in some of these ways. I have failed this year repeatedly as a teacher, a parent, and a husband. These failures are punctuation marks, mind you, and not the entire sentence–so I’m thankful for that. But the ways I have of failing tend to be habitual, patterns of which I am fully aware but seem sometimes powerless to change. So, I guess I would say that personally, whatever that means, I have not transformed in any specific way.

However, just today, at our lovely group meditation session, our guy Scott Duvall led us through a cleansing of the year. We smudged up 2017 good and proper with some sage burning. We walked backwards through the year collecting all of our regrets, mistakes, hurts, transgressions, obstacles, and we put all that stuff imaginatively into buckets. We forgave all that bullshit perpetrated by others towards us and by us towards others. In my head I could envision how, at work with my students and with colleagues, at home with the fam, I could create new and better ways of being. I could see it. If you can see it, I understand, the possibility of a like manifestation in the world increases a thousandfold. It could be argued, then, my personal transformation started peaking its way through in the last hours of this crazy year. A big thank you to Scott Duvall and this incredible community he has nurtured.

Creatively: I wrote a book of poems! I continue to blog! I feel that each time I write something new, something new happens within–tiny little transformations in the intellect and in the heart. I’m still sitting on and procrastinating a revision on a short novel–but I have a good feeling I’ll be able to wrap that up in the new year.

Professionally: Serendipitously, but also intentionally, my professional life and spiritual life have come together at the beginning of a new journey. After October’s Gateway Retreat from The Center for Courage and Renewal, I applied and then was accepted into a facilitator training program for Courage Work–a description of which can be found in earlier blog entries. If I retire in 2019, this could be my new vocation. If I don’t retire in 2019, somehow this will become part of my work with my school and my district. This is about as specific as a transformation can be. Transformation into Formation. That’s a private little in-joke that I think I’ll just go ahead and leave there.

Politically: I cannot and will not hide my antipathy toward the new administration. It’s abominable, embarrassing, dangerous, potentially disastrous. I have never been a political activist. My activism tends to be quiet, subtle, but infused in everything I do. My poetry, my teaching–in the way I work and the material I choose, my musical endeavors, my meditative practice, and this blog–even when those things are not overtly political–are all in direct opposition to our current political climate and leadership. I like to think that in some ways the small work that I do in these arenas is sending out little sneaker waves that will in turn combine forces with all the other sneaker waves and will eventually make 2018 the year we all figure out our collective political shit. I have faith, and faith is not a word I use very often, that somehow the universe will course correct.

So the resolution for 2018 is just more of the above, only better. Do more of that, but better. Even if it’s failure. Fail again. Fail better.

Tonight, for the first time in a long, dark time it seems, I will ring in the new year with my very best, most beloved friends. Do likewise. Happy New Year. With gratitude and love, cheers.

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100 Consecutive Days of Meditation Practice; 31 Days Without Sugar, Dairy, Grains, Legumes, Alcohol, and Soy; It’s Spring!

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And no sugar that is not a natural byproduct of any of those items on the left.

Today my Insight Timer, an iphone app that keeps track of how many consecutive days and how many minutes and hours one spends in meditation practice, confirmed for me the 100th consecutive day of sitting for at least 10 minutes, every other Sunday as much as an hour, on a cushion. Today I have set two personal records. 100 days of mindfulness practice is the first. The second record is that I am on day 31 without alcohol, sugar, dairy products, grains, beans, and soy. I have successfully completed the Whole 30 project. So I thought I would check in today to do a little bit of reflection about the results, and about what I think this all means for me.

Result #1: I have lost weight. I’m not a big boy by any means, but things were protruding somewhat conspicuously in the middle. That protrusion has subsided somewhat and I think, depending on the accuracy of the scale or my memory, I’ve lost almost 10 pounds.

Result #2: I sleep better. I find myself going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. I find myself dreaming more vividly. I have not heard in 30 days any complaints from my sleeping companion about snoring. There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep, kept awake by what I have come to call “hamsters.” But this is an entirely different kind of problem from the fitful sleeping fueled by alcohol that might have been an almost weekly problem for me heretofore. And napping in the afternoon after work has all but disappeared–except on maybe one or two occasions during the month when I was suffering from a minor cold or recovering from a night with the hamsters.

Result #3: I have experienced a boost in energy. It seems I have more fuel and there’s a certainty that this new fuel reserve is a direct byproduct of the foodstuff I am consuming, and more importantly, the foodstuff I am NOT consuming. No sugar, breads, pastas, dairy, or alcohol (I see these intuitively as the main culprits) to put a drag on the day. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #4: Concerning alcohol, I know now that if I choose to, I can stop drinking. This was actually a question for me before this whole project got underway. I worried about it. And I meditated on it. And I am happy to report that I am not an alcoholic. As I look ahead, what I hope is that I have given myself permission and an opportunity to rethink my relationship with the stuff. I can’t see myself as a teetotaller, but I can see myself as a person who drinks less habitually and more mindfully, cautiously, moderately. That’s the kind of drinker I’d like to be. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #5: I have felt happy more often, sometimes unaccountably so. Maybe only once this entire month have I felt what one might call “blue.” I wept today over the end of Death of a Salesman, but that’s different. That’s an appropriate response to emotional stimuli, rather than a sense of gloom or boredom or discontentedness that would sometimes overwhelm me out of nowhere. So, there’s been less of that. And the happiness I’m describing is not some kind of feeling of fulfillment, ultimate satisfaction, a sense that I’ve arrived, but rather a kind of joyful bug, an invasion of mirth or wonder. Glee for no good reason. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Final Result: I believe somewhat without any evidence whatsoever that my meditation practice made it possible for me to successfully complete my Whole 30 project. I can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but here are two activities occurring simultaneously in my life. Did the meditation practice influence the success of the Food Project or did the Food Project facilitate the successful conclusion of 100 days of meditation practice or do the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other? Don’t spoil it for me. I think meditation helped. But perhaps, more so than what it is I was doing, it’s possible that ANY discipline religiously observed might pave the way for another discipline religiously observed. And I don’t mean religious religiously (but I suppose if I was a praying man and I was praying for 100 days straight I would be convinced that these prayers were answered), I mean religiously in the sense of its definition, three definitions down: scrupulously faithful; conscientious I could have been praying, sure, or exercising, or writing a poem, or maintaining a zen rock and sand garden, or drinking a magic potion; the devoted practice done repeatedly might just pave the way for other life goals or projects. You know what they say: success breeds success. So this is all I can claim: I think the meditation helped, primarily in the way that it disciplined me and perhaps made possible the discipline I would need for The Food Project, not to mention the other things I think meditation achieves for me: it centers, it mellows, it cools, it calms, it evens out, it stabilizes, it connects, it reflects, it resonates, it quiets. I have faith in the science that says it’s beneficial in part because I feel its benefits. And it’s spring. There’s that too, after all.

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Mindfulness in 2016: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I settled into last year:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

I wonder how I did. Let’s look, shall we? Two years ago I bought an application for my stupid smart phone called The Insight Timer. It’s a meditation bell app that also keeps track of your meditation statistics, your mindfulness “stats,” if you will. Hey, I took some screen shots. Look:

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Wow, that’s a big screen shot. What’s most useful about this lovely little graph (besides the notification that the phone is only 36% charged) is that it demonstrates quite nicely a gigantic mindfulness upswing over the last two years. 2016 simply dwarfs the previous two years in mindfulness. And, during the year, my best run was 87 days in a row of mindfulness meditation. 87 days in a row! It looks like, currently, I’ve done poorly, but that’s just because I took a break three days ago, and the counter starts fresh each time that happens. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes. Let’s look at another gigantic screen shot:

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Almost 59 hours of meditation in single year with an average meditation time of 16 minutes. You might be curious (or you might not be curious) about my longest session. 2 hours seems like a long time to sit with oneself, doesn’t it? Well, the answer to this question brings me to the second part of the resolution I made for 2016, and that was to seek out a community. Call it kismet or serendipity or synchronicity or whatever you like, almost immediately after writing that resolution a friend of mine, Scott Duvall, posted an invitation for like-minded individuals to start a group meditation practice. I have been doing this all year every other Sunday. I missed a few here and there, but typically, if I’m there, the group spends about an hour and a half to two hours together, not meditating the entire time, mind you, but several times over the duration of the session interspersed with some guided work and teaching from our ringleader Scott, all meditative. So there you have it. I have fulfilled my 2016 New Year’s resolution.

But I have not achieved total mindfulness; I do not yet feel enlightened. That wasn’t the resolution in the first place, but ultimately one has to ask oneself what it all means, what the effect has been, what has been the benefit of this focused attention on meditating 16 minutes almost every day over the course of a year. One thing I think we can safely say is that the phrase “mindfulness statistics” is a nonsensical oxymoron. I could have spent every single one of those 58 hours and 52 minutes thinking about sex, or thinking about things I want, or revisiting the past, or fantasizing about the future, or planning an evil plot to take over the world. To set your mind at ease, I was NOT thinking about all of those things, only some of them. It’s just really hard not to think of some of those things while I’m meditating. So let me just list, if I may, the benefits I believe I achieved through my dogged but imperfect efforts to make good on last year’s resolution, mainly, to develop a regular discipline of meditation practice:

  • Moving into my work as a high school English teacher, I have felt more relaxed through the course of each frenetic day.
  • I have come to really look forward to sitting on my cushion each morning; it is a comfortable, restful, peaceful oasis before all the noise of the day; it feels replenishing, nourishing.
  • I have learned, though, too, that the meditation cushion is not the only place to meditate.
  • I have been able to pay close attention to my mind, in essence, to know myself better.
  • I have become conscious of issues in my life and have been able to do some work around them–not to solve them, but to be more aware of them, to understand them, essentially to answer the question: what is the cause or causes of my suffering?
  • I have become, I think, more even-keeled in my response to difficulties in work and in relationship. I have not killed a single one of my high school freshmen.
  • I have been helped through the general grieving process of living through 2016 and have even discovered some strength and some hope to help me forward.
  • I have been reminded of the powerful paradox that good inner work requires both solitude and community.

There may be some things I’ve forgotten. For now, this covers it pretty well. These are the gifts of the work of the last year toward a mindful, meditation practice. I know that it’s been moving me slowly toward something greater, the specifics of which I do not yet understand and cannot visualize. So, it must be that my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would ad, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically. The inner transformation resonates outward and comes back again. It’s a feedback loop of meditative goodness, baby. So happy new year.

 

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#223: A Course in Silence

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My sophomores and I are studying the poetry of William Stafford and, as is inevitable in a study of poetry, at least from my perspective,  we are also writing poems. An exercise slightly more open-ended than the corruption assignment, is to simply take inspiration from our man Stafford, either by attempting, as he did for 50 some years, to write a little bit every day, or by borrowing subject matter or certain moves and approaches. For example, after reading “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” we might write our own ritual poem: “A Ritual to ________.” Or, from “Why I Am Happy,” we start with that title or fill in something more individually appropriate: Why I Am Sad, Angry, Hungry, Frustrated, Confused, or in Love. And, finding myself in a grading lull, I take full advantage of the opportunities I’m giving to my students to do some writing of my own. Here’s a thing inspired by Stafford’s “A Course in Creative Writing.” As I put up the prompt, “A Course in ________,” I couldn’t help but think about the kind of course I think children and young people, and adults, too, for that matter, need most.

A Course in Silence

How about a class
in which students
learn to be quiet,
in which they learn
how to sit and do
nothing, how to
breathe, how to be
without noise,
without screens,
without entertainment,
without distraction
of any kind?
The final exam:
sit here.
You can close
your eyes but
you don’t have to.
Be aware of the
spinning wheels
of your own mind
and try to slow
them down,
or not. It’s enough
to be aware of them
spinning.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Extra credit option:
do that again,
only better.

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Mindfulness in 2016: A Silver Bullet Resolution?

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On this New Year’s Eve morning I spent some time reading the blog entry I wrote exactly one year ago today, “Mindfulness in 2015: A Silver Bullet Resolution.”  I liked what I read.  That’s a nice blog post, I said to myself.  I was proud of it, proud of the writing and of the sentiment expressed but very disappointed in myself. In the assessment of the previous year in light of this particular resolution, I had clearly failed. You can follow the link above, if you like, to read the entry in full, but for now, let me just quote the passage here where the actual resolution is made:

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful and to find opportunities daily for meditation practice.  And to conclude, I want to make a short list of areas in my life where mindfulness may become particularly handy.

Simple enough, yes. And the short list of areas wherein mindfulness may come in handy? Last year I listed these: mindful drinking, mindful working, mindful parenting, and mindful creativity. Now, I’ve said that in the year 2015 I failed in my resolve.  That’s how I felt at first–on a gut level. Perhaps, that is not the best approach to take here.  Perhaps, it would be safe to say that I was more mindful in 2015 than I was in 2014. Let’s say it’s true, and that, by itself, is something, isn’t it? But I did not meditate daily or even find opportunities to meditate daily. My drinking was not nearly as mindful as I hoped it would be. My school year was as stressful if not more so than the previous year, and this school year is shaping up to be a stressful one as well. Take a look at “Against the Wall: A Teacher’s Manifesto” for an assessment of how things are going in this particular arena. It is possible, but not verifiable, that I had fewer struggles with my son this year than I have had in previous years. So there may be some gains in that area, and maybe mindful parenting resulted in fewer gaskets blown overall. As for creativity, my fiction writing has stalled and sputtered quite a bit, which is really the writing I want to be doing most, while my poetry and my blogging was quite successful in terms of words written and posts published.  Musically, it’s been a bad year.  The monthly songwriting has suffered. As part of a songwriting circle we’ve been writing six songs a month since 2004; this year, we were successful less than half the time at producing anything at all. But I guess that part of the practice of mindfulness around creativity would be about accepting what comes as a gift and not beating oneself up when nothing comes at all. It’s not a personal failure. It is what it is. Right?

To me, mindfulness has to do with being right with the world and being right inside the head, to simply be conscious and intentional about what it is we do, why we do it, and how we respond to the world, to our experiences, and in our relationships . It has to do with our relationship with and understanding of The Four Noble Truths: life is suffering; suffering has causes, those causes can be discovered, and through practice of the eightfold path there is a way to minimize suffering or at best transcend it. That’s the key, isn’t it, to understand what causes us to suffer and to take steps to minimize such suffering.  This is, at least, the way I understand it, and I envision a meditative practice as being helpful toward feeling more balanced, feeling unhinged less often, reducing stress, finding clarity about issues that bug me, and ultimately, suffering less.

So I just stole this blog post title from last year’s, changed 2015 to 2016, and then I added a question mark at the end. Mindfulness was not a silver bullet for me in 2015.  Perhaps, my expectations were too high. Maybe I was not thoroughly committed. When I was most successful, during a single week in July, I had companions, a sangha, if you will. And this might be a key element in finding more success with this resolution, which, I think, is worth trying again–even if I fail again.  I need to take a class. Go to a temple. Find a community.  Try yoga. It’s too hard, nearly impossible, I think, to go it completely alone. Let’s try a new and improved resolution for 2016:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

That can’t be so hard.  Happy New Year friends, readers, and strangers.

 

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Mindfulness in 2015: Day #17

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After just now almost putting a pot of hot coffee into the refrigerator, I decide to spend a few minutes reflecting on how my Mindfulness Project for 2015 is coming along. To begin with, I just tried to put a hot pot of coffee into the refrigerator. That did not strike me as being especially mindful.  But on second thought, I didn’t follow through.  I said to myself, I am putting a hot pot of coffee into the refrigerator–and then, lo and behold, I stopped myself from doing it.

Mindful drinking, where alcohol is concerned, did not go as planned in the first few days of the new year, but did result in a dry seven days afterwards, just to see if it could be done.  The good news: it can be done.

I have taken to a morning ritual of vitamin meditation.  I sit at the dining room table, most often on weekdays about 10 or 15 minutes before my son and my wife emerge from the bedrooms to get ready for the day.  I’m alone, in soft light, with my juice, my cup of coffee, my bowl of cereal, and an assortment of gummy vitamins.  I close my eyes, take my vitamins one at a time, and concentrate on my chewing. I say to myself, this vitamin C is preventing scurvy; this calcium is good for my bones; this vitamin D is making up for the heavy rain in Portland; this B12 is working to make me more energetic;  this multi-vitamin is multi-tasking on behalf of my general well-being.  Chewing and breathing, I know I will have a good day.

I’ve been mindful about driving to work: every day I drive to work I am mindful about the fact that I am not biking or walking.

I’ve been mindful about how behind I am with the grading of student work: I breathe and calm myself, knowing that one way or another here at the end of the semester, it will get done (or it won’t get done), but ultimately, no one will get hurt.  I will not work a 70 hour week and my students will forgive me for that. In the same realm, I am mindful about how absolutely lucky I am to be working this year with IB Seniors, and what a joy they have been, and how incredibly impressive they were on their oral exams, and what a great gift it is to have the luxury of sitting down with each of them for 20 solid minutes while they speak their minds about literature.  As much as I wax and wax about the difficulties I face in public education, these experiences–no, not just these–most all experiences I have with kids inside the classroom are rich and infinitely interesting. I am mindful that it’s not them and it’s not me.  It’s something else–mostly having to do with numbers, numbers of students, numbers of minutes, numbers of factors outside my control influencing my charges, numbers of new assessments and responsibilities, the never-ending and ever increasing number of expectations that we will do more with less.

I have been mindful about my creative work: every day that I don’t do anything creative I recognize this fact, try not to beat myself up, and think ahead about how to carve out the appropriate time for writing and music.

And finally, I have been mindful that too much of my time I am looking at a screen.  Between email, huffington post, face plant, and videos of cute kittens, my attention is constantly tugged at and pulled in various directions.  So now, I’m going to sit in the dark with a glass of something and listen to some music as my wife and son sit upstairs watching episode after episode of Once Upon A Time.

 

 

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