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How Mystics are Born

May 5, 2018

At the Judy Chicago Exhibit, The Dinner Table, in the Brooklyn Museum

I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke free on the open sky.
—from the poem Poetry, by Pablo Neruda

I noticed her and her mother walking alongside the triangle table, talking. A pixie-sized girl with straight brown hair, she looked to be about four or five. Her mother was carefully explaining each name listed on the cloth at each place setting: “Kali, a Goddess; Sophia, a real person.” The daughter seemed entranced and was listening carefully, asking questions as they went. I was surprised she had such a sustained interest. By the time they got to the middle of the second side, I made up my mind to give them the little booklet that gave the details about each name. I stood silently by their side for a bit at first, listening, as the daughter gave her ideas about why all these women were being honored together.

“I think these are great lights,” she said, “and we’re trying to remember them.” She went on: “I remember them. I remember when they were stars next to me, before I was born.”

Her mother looked at me and said, “I didn’t tell her this. She started explaining this at 18 months old, that she was a light, a star, and that she came down from the stars through a hole in the top of my head and went into my belly.”

She filmed her, quietly, as her daughter went on to explain: “I’m younger than you two,” she said, “ so I remember. I’m four and a half.”

I said, “Yes, but maybe you’re an old soul.” The mother smiled.

“Everyone has light,” the little girl said. “Like rays of the sun. They come out from the middle of you, and I can see them. I can see their rays, too,” she said, nodding to the table featuring 39 women represented by the feminine place-settings and the 999 women honored on the platform underneath them, names hand-written in gold, in a feminine script.

“Maybe,” I said, “We’re old so we’ve forgotten about the light but you can help us remember.”

“Yes,” she said. “I think so.”

I left the book with them and went back to my own daughter, waiting for me in the next room. I hoped I’d be able to see her light, and that would still be able to see mine.

This is the good work that mothers and daughters and artists and mystics can do in the world.

Here.
In the garden.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

More on The Dinner Party, from the Brooklyn Museum Exhibit

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79) is an icon of 1970’s American feminist art, and one of the most important artworks of the 20th century. The installation celebrates the achievements and lives of 1038 historical and mythical women while paying tribute to all women whose stories have been lost to history to erasure or suppression.

The Dinner Party consists of a corridor of welcoming Entry Banners, a massive Heritage Floor, and a dazzling ceremonial banquet arranged in the shape of an open triangle, which here symbolizes equality. Each of the 39 “guests of honor” is individually commemorated through and intricately embroidered runner executed in historically specific techniques, as well as a unique 14-inch ceramic-painted plate with a central motif based on butterfly and vulvar forms. Gold ceramic chalices and utensils, and embroidered napkins accent each place setting. Painted on hand-cast tiles, the names of 999 additional women, correlating with the contributions, experiences, eras, or regions of the 39 place-settings, spread out across the heritage floor.

Chicago’s installation was the first monumental American artwork to survey the contributions of women to Western culture. In addition to sharing knowledge of forgotten historical figures, the artist was invested in a feminist reclamation of craft techniques traditionally associated with women: embroidery, needlework, ceramic painting, and ceramics. Chicago used “central core” or vulvar imagery as an unprecedented symbol for the struggles and achievements of women. The artist began work on The Dinner Party in 1974 and it took five years and the help of hundreds of volunteers to realize her vision.

The Brooklyn Museum was an early stop in The Dinner Party’s original tour, and nearly 100,000 visitors came to Brooklyn to see it in 1980. Chicago’s aspiration for the work was “to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” In 2002, Elizabeth A. Sackler generously donated The Dinner Party to the Museum, ensuring a permanent home for the artwork. In 2007, The Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art opened with The Dinner Party as its central installation, inspiring viewers to question history and carry the work’s feminist legacy into the future.

Women represented in the place settings 
The first wing of the triangular table has place settings for female figures from the goddesses of prehistory through to Hypatia at the time of the Roman Empire. This section covers the emergence and decline of the Classical world.

The second wing begins with Marcella and covers the rise of Christianity. It concludes with Anna van Schurman in the seventeenth century at the time of the Reformation.

The third wing represents the Age of Revolution. It begins with Anne Hutchinson and moves through the twentieth century to the final places paying tribute to Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The 39 women with places at the table are:

Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire
1. Primordial Goddess
2. Fertile Goddess
3. Ishtar
4. Kali
5. Snake Goddess
6. Sophia
7. Amazon
8. Hatshepsut
9. Judith
10. Sappho
11. Aspasia
12. Boadicea
13. Hypatia

Wing II: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation
14. Marcella
15. Saint Bridget
16. Theodora
17. Hrosvitha
18. Trota of Salerno
19. Eleanor of Aquitaine
20. Hildegarde of Bingen
21. Petronilla de Meath
22. Christine de Pisan
23. Isabella d’Este
24. Elizabeth I
25. Artemisia Gentileschi
26. Anna van Schurman

Wing III: From the American to the Women’s Revolution
27. Anne Hutchinson
28. Sacajawea
29. Caroline Herschel
30. Mary Wollstonecraft
31. Sojourner Truth
32. Susan B. Anthony
33. Elizabeth Blackwell
34. Emily Dickinson
35. Ethel Smyth
36. Margaret Sanger
37. Natalie Barney
38. Virginia Woolf
39. Georgia O’Keeffe

Women represented in the Heritage Floor
The Heritage Floor, which sits underneath the table, features the names of 999 women inscribed on white handmade porcelain floor tilings. The tilings cover the full extent of the triangular table area, from the footings at each place setting, continues under the tables themselves and fills the full enclosed area within the three tables. There are 2304 tiles with names spread across more than one tile. The names are written in the Palmer cursive script, a twentieth-century American form. Chicago states that the criteria for a woman’s name being included in the floor were one or more of the following:

  • She had made a worthwhile contribution to society
  • She had tried to improve the lot of other women
  • Her life and work had illuminated significant aspects of women’s history
  • She had provided a role model for a more egalitarian future.

    Accompanying the installation is a series of wall panels which explain the role of each woman on the floor and associate her with one of the place settings.

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Buster

DSC_1868-1024x683I’ve been watching Buster slowly leave me this year.

He moves gingerly these days. Our walks together are shorter and he’s more hesitant. He’s skin and bones, and his spine curves in a hump when he walks. His back legs bend at odd angles. He looks more like a scurrying armadillo than the fierce little fighter he once was, barking ferociously at any dog that crossed our path.

His kidneys are failing, so he gets up often in the night; his little bladder can’t hold much. I put him outside, and get back into bed, waiting for his bark so I can let him back in.  He usually needs a long drink of water, so I place him by his water bowl, then wait, shivering a little while he laps up an ungodly amount of water. When he’s finally finished, I scoop him up and put him back on the bed near my pillow, making sure he knows where he is, next to me.

Not that long ago, for the first time ever in the nearly the 15 years that I’ve had him, he fell off my bed in the middle of the night. I was horrified and jumped out of bed wide awake to rescue him, feeling his heart beating quickly as I held him close. He was OK, but now I block the edge with pillows, just in case.

The truth is, I never wanted to a dog.

It was my former husband who thought we should get one, for the kids. We did have two parakeets and two hamsters already, but he thought a dog was important. I was reluctant, concerned about shedding and messiness in our spic-and-span life—not to mention all the responsibility, especially the emotional kind. I’d faced a lot of losses from animals dying during my time on the farm as a kid, and I wasn’t sure, frankly, that I wanted to set myself up for another loss.

I was cautiously researching dogs when a friend from the kids’ school told us about a 10-month-old Yorkie that needed a new home.

The day we picked him up, the kids could hardly contain their excitement, especially Camille. When we walked in, Buster raced joyously across the living room to meet us, shivering with excitement. It was as if he KNEW we were his new family. A handsome guy in his warm brown-and-black coat, we loved each other immediately.

As we prepared to drive away, Camille said eagerly, from the back seat, “Mom, now that we have nine animals in our house, including us … can we get one more, so we have an even 10?” We weren’t even out of the driveway yet.

What I didn’t know then was just how important this dog would be to me. How he would heal me. Comfort me. Strengthen me. Connect me.

On the days my husband took the kids to school in the morning, the loneliness could be crushing. Buster solved that problem for me. I could always pick him up for a cuddle, then head out for our first walk of the day.

But it wasn’t just the loneliness that changed. My emotional and even physical health changed, one walk at a time.

Working from home, I had a tendency to stay stuck to my computer, getting more detached from my body and inside my head, with all the resulting ill-health. But Buster insisted on those walks, and gradually, I began to need them as much as he did.

We usually walked three times a day. As we walked, I gradually became more aware of the larger world around me—the tall mature pines in our golf community, the swoop of cedar waxwings in the sky come spring, the mix of palmetto, beautyberry, and Cherokee bean flowers in the wild patches between the houses. I began to talk with my neighbors, who in turn stopped and asked me about the dog. I began to feel more connected.

And later, because I could walk, I started to run, going one light pole at a time until the fat started to melt off and my heart strengthened.

I needed that heart strength later, in more ways than one.  When our family went through our own divorce, Buster walked for miles with me around our gated community while I talked on the phone, out of earshot of the kids doing homework at night.  Buster literally walked me back from heartbreak. I grew stronger, and he put on more miles.

The ever-observant Camille came home from college one day, eyed Buster and said, “He’s getting old.”  “No, he’s not!” I said. My capacity for denial is great.

But one day, trying to jump up into the reading chair where he usually snuggles with me, he missed. His back legs, having walked so many hundreds of miles with me, were weaker,  and his muscles failed him. He fell back to the ground. I started watching him just in case he needed assistance, and more and more often, have to pick him up and place him in my chair, or on the couch, or on the bed.

Our walks are shorter now. The pace is slow. The dog that used to outrace me on a bike now moves at a very deliberate pace, sniffing everything, pausing at the corner and refusing to budge if he senses I’m going too far. His little legs are still strong and his will is unbending! He still barks ferociously at any other dogs walking by, but only if he can see them, which is not very often.

He’s been such a comfort to me these past two years as I’ve transitioned to being an empty-nester. The alone-ness can cause my heart to ache just as it did when the kids were little.  I can fight it off with Buster as we sit in my writing chair together, walk the new neighborhood together, and sleep together, his soft body curled up next to me, asking absolutely nothing from me but love.

My Dad thinks I’m a little crazy. He suggests I get a boyfriend instead.  I tell him they’re a lot more trouble than dogs! The kids think I over-indulge him, and maybe I do. I took him with me to NYC at Christmas, not willing to leave him alone for too long. I bought a sling and carried him everywhere as my dad and I toured the city. I slept on the basement floor of my sister’s house so I could more easily put him outside in the frozen dead of night, his little feet making tiny prints in the white snow.  Finally, I bought tiny dog diapers so I could avoid tiny accidents—even if it affronted his dignity.

I really don’t mind the extra effort. It’s a very, very small price to pay for many years of devotion, of love, of increased health and happiness.  How could I know that a dog that I had rescued would somehow rescue me?

I know I will have to say goodbye to him soon. The kids will be heartbroken, and so will I.  In the meantime, I will try to enjoy these last days, being grateful for a love that outlasted my husband’s, and for a husband’s wisdom that outlasted his love.

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Dr. Amenta, The Family Doctor

22894523_1337213129741227_2031388151702215172_nHe was a pathologist by training but a family doctor by practice—at least with us, the Wolfe Family. In that case, he was our trusted advisor, the one we went to first with all our questions, concerns, and mysteries.

Dr. Amenta the male, my father called him.
Joe, my mother said, simply.
She, who trusted no one, trusted him, and we followed suit.

When I developed a mysterious rash on the soft, white underside of my arms, I took this mystery to him. Other doctors had looked at the cracked bleeding fingers, the vivid red bumps, the spreading despair, with no good answers. Dr. Amenta calmly assessed the situation, as always, holding my arms outstretched to him, gently tuning them to and fro. Then, in his calm, easy, explaining voice, he proclaimed a bit of hydrocortisone cream would fix it, and promised to get some from work for me.

How did he do that?

The solution came in a white, screw top plastic jar with white cream inside, and I smoothed it on immediately, relieved at once. And though it couldn’t wipe away the nervous energy and anxious thoughts mixed with farm dirt and family pain, the clean white mixture soothed my child’s soul and stopped the pain.

We spent each weekend at the Amentas after Mom and Dad were divorced, their kitchen providing a safe harbor, a happy landing place for three girls and a single father.  We came bearing gifts: Corned beef from Iz Cohen’s (1/4 pound, thinly sliced, well-trimmed), and bagels from Bageland on Murray Avenue. We gathered with Dr. Amenta the male and Dr. Amenta the female and their three kids: Nina, Tom, and Davi. The older two were not around a lot but Davi, who was my age, was still at home. We ate lunch at the kitchen table under the Italian poster they brought home after their year in Italy on his sabbatical. Dr. Amenta the female would occasionally read it to us in Italian, her voice and fist raised, her wide smile, white teeth, and red lipstick drawing us in. She was the heartbeat of every lunch hour.

But Dr. Amenta the male held forth in his way, quieter, but still laughing, teasing, calling me Little Aunt Edith. He sometimes listened to me practice the piano on the baby grand in the music room, sitting next to me on the bench. “I don’t see what he thinks is so great,” Davi mumbled to me later. I didn’t either, but I felt complimented.

When Ruth Anne started throwing up violently as we left the Squirrel Hill Library one weekend, we took our concerns to him; he was just a few blocks away. He listened carefully, calm as always, then diagnosed it: “Appendicitis. Get her to the emergency room, right away.”

The surgery was done before Mom even knew about it. Dad called her from the hospital. She was upset we had not called sooner, but the family doctor, Dr. Amenta, had been Dad’s first thought.

When Mom was diagnosed with cancer later, she called Dr. Amenta the male to explain this disease to her. He spoke in terms she could understand and she believed: She, who trusted no one, trusted him.

When she died, he sent us a note. It was a plain white card, addressed to “The Luminiello Girls,” closing a chapter in our lives with sincere words of comfort and mutual loss that only a doctor who was also an intimate friend could provide.

Then it was Dad who got sick. Again, the phone rang; it was Dr. Amenta, calling to check on him sooner after we got to the hospital. He asked about the symptoms, then explained patiently in words we could understand, reassuring us:

Yes, it’s excruciating pain.
Yes, it takes time for the pancreas to repair.
Yes, he’s in good hands and they are doing what they need to do.

We were in the very hospital system that Dr. Amenta once worked in, in the research labs. This was his territory, and he was confident in their services. We, who trusted no one just then, trusted him.

The last time I saw him he came to visit Dad in the rehabilitation facility, with Gisela, his second wife.  We’d been talking to him over the past two weeks, and Dad was out of danger now, but we still had questions: How long? What next? He gently answered: Awhile. Wait. It will get better.

At 86, Dr. Amenta was more fragile now: a meaty man but a damaged heart and a bout with prostate cancer that weakened him, making it difficult for him to walk, to stand. He used a walker, but when I greeted heard Gisela just outside Dad’s rehab door, I saw him throw back his shoulders, push the walker away, and practically march into the room. He wanted to be a picture of health so encourage Dad, who sat in an easy chair, covered in blankets and in pain, but glad to see him.

Dad, who trusted no one in that moment, trusted him.

The last time Dr. Amenta and I spoke on the phone, I was standing on Dad’s deck, watching the green leaves of deep summer moving around me. We’d planned to visit him and Gisela later in the day for dinner. But he was calling to say he didn’t think he could do it. By then his prostate cancer had returned, and he was much weaker, spending most of his time in bed. I was aware of time slowing down for a moment, feeling the phone in my hand, hearing his voice explaining calmly, as always, the right thing to do. I accepted his answer.

Me, who trusted no one, trusted him.

“You should call him in the mornings,” Davi said a few weeks later.  “He’s pretty alert then.” She’d just been by for a visit to Pittsburgh all the way from Wisconsin. I put that on my list but when I did call, perhaps a week or two later, I spoke to Gisela instead. He could not come to the phone. “You know how it is,” she said.

I was shocked when he died the next day.

He, the trusted one, trusted himself with his own final answers, and so must we.

Thank you, Dr. Amenta, for your good care all these years. I know I am not the only one who is grateful for it.

Here.
In the grief garden.

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Interruption

IMG_5339About a month ago, I left my journal at a friend’s house, so I had to start a new one.  When I got the old one back, I started writing again where I’d left off.  I noticed a lot had happened in a month’s time.  So I wrote about it.  (Note: Journal technique: time capsule)

IMG_6135May 29, 2016

A lot has happened since I lost my journal.

  • I planned my first street protest.
  • I went to Santa Rosa, Florida, for a reunion with three dear friends, where I photographed purple flowers.
  • Despite our protest, the Zoning Committee of City Council voted to approve the zoning change to my neighborhood
  • I took the Journal to the Self series for the fourth time, this time facilitated by my friend and newly certified JTTS facilitator, Meg Rohal, so we can work together to expand the expressive writing community here in Jacksonville.IMG_5745.jpg
  • City Council also voted to approve the zoning change, with the exception of five key votes.
  • We began filing an appeal.
  • I went to Kanuga, North Carolina, for the 2016 Journal Conference and heard Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet laureate Natasha Trethewey.
  • My kids came home from college for the summer.
  • Camille got a job and is writing an article for Edible Northeast Florida!
  • Matt survived his freshman year at LSU!
  • I joined City Beautiful Jax as a board member.
  • I held a writing circle in the woods for a Write + Hike + Eat at Down to Earth Farm.
  • I wrote a table of contents for my new book idea.
  • I learned three new bird calls:  yellow-throated warbler, Eastern phoebe, song sparrow.
  • IMG_5836The downy woodpeckers in the back yard fledged the nest.
  • I decided I’m ready to finish setting up my bedroom, the last room in the house to get my attention since my move.
  • I’m helping to start a non-profit to help give citizens a stronger voice is our City’s zoning decisions.
  • I got closer on the redesign of my business brands (I’ve got four of them).
  • I planned my trip to Belgium (and Luxembourg, and Ireland, and Paris), for this summer, kicked off by Camille’s study abroad program in Paris.
  • Camille’s passport finally arrived in the mail!
  • I began planning ANOTHER street protest.

Now I’m headed to brunch at Community Loaves with Camille, where we will eat homemade bread and walk in the garden.

Life is good.
Here.
In the Riverside Garden.

IMG_5870.jpg

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Death Comes Quickly

He was a tall man; somewhat morose, it seemed to me. His smile did not break out easily, but when it did, it changed his face from dark to light, like the snow crystals suddenly bathed in morning sunlight on Sheep’s Pasture at the Cataloochie Ranch.

View of the Horse Barn and Sheep's Pasture from the Cataloochie Ranch living room.I remember glancing out the window of the Bluebird one summer and seeing him at the picnic tables with the ranch hands, a sardonic, wide grin on his face, at ease, enjoying himself.  His sunglasses wrapped around his head, and I thought, here is the man that his wife fell in love with, his daughter admires, his Cataloochie co-workers appreciate, for his quiet, unassuming way.

He was the ranch historian, running through the slide show dutifully every Monday night.  Not a showman, but, telling it truthfully, animating now and then over a salacious detail, like the gun just visible in the photo, or the moonshine hidden in the background.

His passion seemed to be the Chestnut orchard. He explained how they had found a mature, disease-free tree on the ranch not long ago, then developed a mini-forest of cross-bred saplings, combining an Asian species with the original tree, an ongoing experiment of regeneration, restoration, and rebirth.

And he was the caller every year at the square dance.  I wish I’d have been there for one of those.

Was he lonely, I wondered? I knew he was recently divorced. One time, the ranch ladies sat him next to me and my friend Melissa, single at the time.  Were they hoping for a match, we wondered?  We giggled a bit about it, later.

But that trip, he gave me a big hug before I left, his arms opened as wide as the fireplace mantle behind him, as broad as his  frame was tall. Still bruised by my own loss, I only watched us from a distance.

“He’s terminally ill,” his mother told me this morning, when I asked where he’d been. “He’s not expected to last ’til Christmas.” Her eyes filled as my face registered the shock, and my eyes filled, also. “That’s where I’m going right now, to see him.  Mary’s been with him all night.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“You have to deal with what you’re dealt,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Sunset at the Ranch.We both looked away, at the bare Christmas tree, standing in the place where he normally projects his slide show, in the large, comfortable ranch living room, a former barn.

“I wish they hadn’t put the Christmas tree up yet,” she said.  “Let Thanksgiving weekend be Thanksgiving weekend, and then let it be Christmas.”

I saw her driving away later, into the cold morning, and my eyes and heart filled again, for a mother’s love, for a lost son.

Here.
In the garden.

 

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Divine Order

I must admit, growing up in the somewhat chaotic world of the farm, I crave order.  I require it.  It’s definitely necessary for my inner peace.

As Gretchen Rubin quotes in her book, Happier At Home, “outer order creates inner order.” Or, as a friend’s father used to say, “The state of your room is the state of your mind.” Or, as Oprah has pointed out, “The state of your wallet reflects the state of your finances.”

Therefore, it is a real discipline for me to allow my son’s clothes to lie where they are dropped, all over his room, day after day. I cannot let myself IMG_2488pick them up, even if I think that would be “good for him.”

As my brother-in-law once tongue-in-cheek pointed out, after I’d spent a week with my family, “Why should I put the glass away if Jennifer will just come along later and put it away for me?”

Now, like all things, it’s a matter of balance for me.  Can I handle a little disorder and still be OK?

I was annoyed this morning when I realized my son had not taken out the trash cans last night, nor removed the recyclables from the kitchen. Therefore, I’d have to do it myself, in the rain.

Hmmm.  Do you see a pattern here?  (“Why should I take it out if Mom’s going to take it out for me?”)

The truth for me is actually yet another paradox: inner peace creates outer calm.  As I have learned to cultivate inner calm, I’m better able to stay serene in the face of disorder.

But it does feel good to have that “outer clean” boost, as Gretchen points out.  This week, my painter buddy, Anthony, is back in town.  He has patiently and painstakingly painted this house, inside and out, for the past eight years: the garage, my daughter’s room (3 times), furniture, air vents, the laundry room. And the white fence that surrounds my garden.

After he moved away a couple years ago, mildew took over, so this week I asked him to power wash and touch up everything.  Including the place on the pergola where my son scratched his initials (a brief knife-ownership phase).

IMG_2422

Ahhh.  Lovely. “Looks just as good as when I first painted it,” Anthony said, grinning and surveying his work.

Yes.  It is good to restore order, to create order, to maintain order — in a garden and in life. Just not to the edge of military precision.  I’ve got to let my son (and daughter, for that matter) grow a little wild — to move outside the edges and then back in.  I’ve got to have  a little tolerance for disorder in his world, so that he can feel, on his own, the difference between the two states, and decide what feels comfortable for HIM.  Not me.

After all, he hung up his towel four days in a row last week! It’s a miracle!

Oh, these wildflowers.  They will grow and bloom, just not in a straight line.  Free. Tumbling. Wild. Finding their own particular and lovely beauty, in the divine order of all things.

Here.
In the garden.

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Digging In The Dirt

Just for fun, here’s an interview with me that my colleague and friend, Jean Rowe, wrote for The Center for Journal Therapy last fall.  Some good dirt on me!  (Jean is the Program Manager and Oncology Certified Social Worker at Young Survival Coalition in Atlanta, and leads journaling workshops for young survivors.)

What is your relationship between actual gardening and journaling?

My garden is both a metaphor for my life and a literal experience, where I can connect with myself and the earth. In my journal, I write about both experiences. In the process, I learn a lot, about myself and about the world. Plus, I often write IN the garden. I have a bench in my front yard, tucked under a tree and near my bluebird nest box, and it is a delightful spot to journal in the early morning, among the birds and flowers.

What have your harvested from the garden that is your journal?

Stability. It’s an anchor, a root system, one that keeps me grounded. I write in my journal every morning, without fail, and often throughout the day. It’s how I find out what’s going on with me, how I process the events of my life, and connect with my spiritual self. These are all activities I did not do very well until recently.

Here’s the link for the rest of the article: http://twinstitute.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/C4JT-E-Zine-Autumn-2012-smaller.pdf

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