Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

In both composing music and writing, we talk about the value of limits.

Shouldn’t the imagination be limitless, you might ask?

Well, yes and no. Without some sort of structure within which to organize the imagination, the end result tends to be disjointed, rambling, and/or incoherent. Structure tends to allow the impact of a work to be more easily conveyed and understood. Even experiments in looser structure or “no” structure are informed by their structure or lack thereof, and they are using that difference or lack to say something.

This is why in music we have different forms: the sonata, the concerto, the art song cycle, the rondo, the fugue. Each form has its rules, and the rules must be understood before some of them may perhaps be broken or subverted or played with. In a similar way, prose has different forms, common structures, and genres that form sandboxes within which we play. (And even if we leave the sandbox all together, it’s rare that our work isn’t somehow informed by that fact.)

Structure lends definition to our ideas, which in turn gives us more artistic freedom. If we literally have every single note of every single rhythmic value at every time at our disposal, there are so many possibilities it becomes difficult to think. We face decision paralysis, or at the very least spend huge amounts of time considering such a large number of alternatives, most of which wouldn’t be very effective at all in practice. Structure frees us to consider more possibilities by narrowing down the scope of our canvas.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

Sometimes life feels very similar to me. As nice as all that advice sounds to “live life without limits,” if you spend more than a few minutes thinking about it, it’s simply not practical. We are constantly placing limits on ourselves and our lives: where we decide to live (or if we decide to be nomadic, because that places different constraints); what careers/education we decide to pursue; what lifestyle choices we make; how we spend our time. Because each minute we decide to spend practicing piano is a minute we aren’t going to be spending writing or cooking dinner or hanging out with family or what-have-you. Ultimately we are limited by the number of hours in the day, by the number of hours we need to spend sleeping, and by our finite life spans, as well as by a host of other individual mental, emotional, and physical traits.

While some of these limits can be frustrating (why do I need eight hours of sleep per night? why?), they ultimately allow us to set our priorities and pursue our lives according to what we value and find important. Overall this is a positive thing.

Except when it isn’t. We become so used to living within limits and imposing more limits upon ourselves, at a certain point we might stop being conscious with our decisions. Not only that, we might not even recognize there is a choice in the first place. This is when limits move from being a force of good to being a force that holds people back.

Limits help us make decisions, be who we want to be, and accomplish what we want to accomplish. But limits also exist to be questioned. It is only through questioning that we can discover which limits are useful and which are unnecessary. It is only through questioning that we can determine which limits are real and which are unconscious beliefs we hold that might not actually be true.

It is only through questioning that we can realize our full potential, whether that be in a specific creative project or the creative project that is life.


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I had a conversation with a new acquaintance who told me that when he is in a romantic relationship, he pretty much falls off the face of the earth when it comes to his friends. And not just during the “honeymoon” phase of the relationship, either, but for the entire duration. And he seemed pretty content with this state of affairs.

But this conversation made me realize (yet again) how very important it is to ME to have my social ties.

I’ve been thinking about this too because I have a few close friends who have embarked on new relationships in recent months. They’ve made it a point to continue to spend time with me and not fall off the face of the planet. But I’ve been very aware of this as a choice we get to make.

I read an article recently about what makes people happy (because those articles are one form of my crack, along with sugar and chai and adorable little dogs), and the first secret mentioned was friends and the existence of social support:

“Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships.”

Notice the plural of that last word? I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet that one social relationship is not what we’re talking about here. Social relationships, whether they be friends or family or colleagues or communities, are so important to general well-being. And putting all of that into one relationship is like the old cliché of putting all your eggs into one basket. It puts an awful lot of strain on that one basket.

To be clear, I don’t think a person needs huge amounts of social ties in order to be happier. Some people do, and other people need a few close ties. I myself fall somewhere in the middle. In other words, this isn’t so much an issue about extroverts vs. introverts, but more, I think, a question of having any healthy system of social support.

Friends! Also, Innovation! Photo by Yvette Ono.

Friends! Also, Innovation! Photo by Yvette Ono.

Unfortunately we live in a culture that sometimes idealizes romantic relationships–the One True Love, the one who will complete us, our other half–to the detriment of other relationships. Add in a Puritan work ethic that teaches us to neglect social ties in favor of working ever more hours to get ahead, and we end up discouraging people from forming and maintaining the social networks that will make them happy. Even the rise of the nuclear family in American life contributes to this effect, as it is easier to maintain social ties while raising children within a more collective approach to child-rearing.

Luckily, I believe in the power of priorities and persistence. (And apparently also the power of alliteration.) If we choose to place a high priority on our social connections, and if we continue to pursue this goal even when it is hard–and making friends as an adult is not always an easy business–then it is very possible to have the social support that we crave. And this makes us happier to boot!

How important are your social ties to you? How do you maintain them even when you’re busy and/or distracted?

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It is April 1st, and I have officially moved. All my stuff was in one place, and now it is in a different place. It is mostly in boxes, which is admittedly sad for me. But it is here!

Meanwhile, I am completely exhausted. I want to lie around and do not much for the next several weeks at least. I am not going to do that, because I have a novel to write and stuff to remove from boxes and place in spots that look purposeful. But it sounds like a lovely idea.

Nala and I, collapsed on the floor.

Nala and I, collapsed on the floor.

I gave up the keys to my old place yesterday, and I did feel a pang. I tend towards the sentimental, and even more so when I’m tired. I was only living there for one year, but it was certainly an eventful year, not to mention a year surprisingly well documented with photos. I have many happy memories of time spent in that condo.

It’s strange how leaving a space feels like leaving something more intangible behind. I’ve heard people reference the memories that live in the walls, and I suppose that is some of it. But there’s also, I think, the more pervasive feeling of change. Now that this one major part of my life has changed, how are the ripples of that change going to spread? I’ve talked before about being in a liminal space, and moving certainly triggers that experience, of transition and being in between.

I think maybe that’s why I’m so tired. Okay, realistically, I’m so tired because moving is a huge amount of work and expense and stress. But I also feel slightly off balance, like things are in motion but I’m not quite sure what all they are or where they’re going.

It’s somewhat comforting to consider, then, that my priorities remain much the same. Nala, my novel, my friends. Settling into the new place and getting my body back to its normal state after all the moving strains. Thinking interesting and challenging and wonderful thoughts.

Things change and things stay the same, all in a strange concurrent muddle of life.

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I thought I’d write today about self care, since I’m in the middle of a move, and moving is on that list of highly stressful life stuff, which means self care is something that I’ve been making extra effort to pay attention to right now. And it’s actually working; my stress levels are on the high side but not crazy high, and I have been having cheerful and happy times in spite of the move, and without that weird frantic edge that signals the presence of overwhelm.

So here are some self care things I’ve been doing:

1. I talk about the move. Whenever I want (within reason). This is huge because it means I’m getting emotional support during a high stress time. I’m getting to vent, I’m getting feedback about what’s going on, I’m getting comfort when I need comfort and celebratory time to help me remain positive about all the good things this move is going to bring. And it’s such a relief to have people know what’s going on with me.

2. I ask for help. This past weekend, my friends came over and helped me pack my entire place. In mere hours they completed a job that would have taken me days and days and reduced me to an incoherent, exhausted, and injured person. One of my best friends came with me to see the place I ultimately decided to rent to give me a second opinion. Other friends have been giving me information about the neighborhood and reaching out to give me doses of moral support. Feeling so supported and cared for definitely reduces the stress I’m feeling.

3. I fight the impulse to be frugal. When I know something is going to be expensive (like, say, moving), my first impulse is to do whatever it takes to save as much money as possible. This attitude puts a lot of additional stress on me, to put it mildly. And it’s so much easier to be frugal when you’re not in the middle of a mini-crisis. So I’ve been allowing myself to hire the movers who are slightly pricier than I feel completely happy with, and to pay for extra body work so I don’t fall apart physically, and to spend money to make problems less huge.

4. I make sure I have time for classic self care. Did I have a Gilmore Girls marathon, complete with frozen pizza and strange pie, a few nights ago? You bet I did, and I appreciated the energizing alone time. I’ve also been prioritizing sleep, walks and snuggle time with Nala, and hot tub time.

One of the pillars of my self care routine.

One of the pillars of my self care routine.

5. I take advantage of focus but rein in bigger ambitions. Things are going so well, I think to myself, perhaps I could up my daily word count, or query more agents, or do some more semi-stressful social things. And then I realize that no, instead I can appreciate that things are going well and keep the pace I set myself, while resisting the temptation to push myself too hard. I don’t have to do all the things right now. I can focus on my five top priorities and let the rest go. (For those curious, those are moving, novel, Nala, personal growth/care, and friends.)

6. I give myself a reward. When the move is completely over, I get to go to Seattle for a week. Thanks to frequent flyer miles and wonderful friends, I have an amazing trip to look forward to. So whenever I think, “Ugh, I hate moving,” I can then counter with, “But then I’m going to Seattle!” And then I can add on, “Plus my friends are fabulous! And I love the novel I’m writing!” Which makes it really hard to spiral into serious negativity. So maybe this one isn’t so much about giving myself a reward and more about feeling gratitude.

Of course, none of this would be as effective without this last one:

7. I clean up my life in the hopes that one crisis/setback won’t set off a chain reaction. I spend time with people who are good to me. I set and hold boundaries. I cultivate good things so it is easy to find gratitude.

Here’s to leveling up with my self care.


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I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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“You can’t ever know in advance. Big decisions require faith.”

- from S., by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Today I decided where I’m going to live for the next year.

I’ve had to move many times in my life, and as I look for a place, what I’m always waiting for is a certain feeling. It’s a sense of rightness, a sense of “Yes, this is my home.”

There’s nothing mystical about this feeling. I think it happens when enough aspects of a place line up with what I want. I think carefully about I want ahead of time too: how much I’m willing to spend, what features are absolutely non-negotiable (pet-friendly, space for my piano), what features are exciting bonuses (walk-in closets, lots of light).

When I see enough of what I’m looking for, when all the little details filter through my brain, the feeling begins to wash over me. It’s a vision of a future where I can imagine myself being happy and safe, where I can imagine Nala being her usual happy doggie self, where I can see myself writing and making music and being surrounded by friends.

The most important part of home.

The most important part of home.

The build-up to this decision takes forever. Not only do I have to seriously think about what I want, I have to do lots of research, go see a bunch of places, and adjust my expectations according to what’s available. But the decision itself is easy. I just know. I’d decided to take my next home by the end of my tour. All that was left to figure out was the details.

Big decisions can be so overwhelming, because we can’t know. We can’t know how it’s going to work out. We can’t know for sure if we have all the information we need to make the best decision. We can simply try our best to learn the relevant facts and then take the leap.

When I look back, it’s amazing how many of the decisions I’m most happy with in retrospect are ones about which I just knew.

I just knew Nala was my dog.

I just knew I wanted to be a writer.

I just knew I wanted to go to school at UC Santa Cruz.

I’ve just known when I’ve met several of my friends that they were people I wanted to be in my life.

I just knew which writing project to work on right now.

That’s not to say these decisions didn’t also involve dithering. That’s not to say I had no doubts. I dither; it’s part of my process.

But when it came time to commit one way or another, I just knew. And that knowledge gave me the courage to take the necessary leap.

Looking back on your life, when have you just known?

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I’ve been noticing lately how often anticipated regret plays a role in the decision-making process.

Regret can be a helpful emotion, however unpleasant it might be. After all, it is when we feel regret that we might take a closer look at ourselves and our priorities and decide if there are any changes we want to make. Regret can potentially push us to improve ourselves and our situations.

But making decisions to try to avoid regret in the future is a recipe for self-limitation, as is discussed by Jeremy Dean in his post The Power of Regret to Shape Our Future:

“Anticipated regret is such a powerful emotion that it can cause us to avoid risk, lower our expectations, steer us towards the familiar and away from new, interesting experiences.”

I’m in the middle of making a major decision myself, and I notice my fear of regret coming into play big time. I have three basic choices, and whenever I think of any of the three, my first thought is about the potential regret I’ll feel in the future. Unfortunately, this is more a recipe for paralysis than it is a viable decision-making strategy. Not surprisingly, the decision I perceive as the least risky in the long term is also the one that is the most boring and playing-it-safe.

Photo Credit: YanivG via Compfight cc

What’s particularly interesting to me is that I’ve made a lot of decisions in the past, and I actively regret very few of them. Even the ones I do wish I’d made differently aren’t black and white: they usually did give me some benefit, even if only that of more knowledge. But when considering feeling regret in the future, I don’t have the gift of hindsight to see both sides, so I’m much more likely to be caught in the trap of only considering the negatives of regret while forgetting the potential positives that haven’t had a chance to happen yet.

It’s also easy to overestimate how unpleasant and lasting the worst case will be. We think we are shielding ourselves from the harm of having something so negative come to pass, when in reality we are exaggerating in our eagerness to avoid a regretful result. This too can distort our decision-making process and dissuade us from taking risks.

I don’t know what decision I’m going to make for myself, but I hope I can keep fears of future regret on the back burner while I’m making it. When I shove those fears aside, I realize how lucky I am to have more than one option, all of which have a decent chance of making me happy.

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On Tuesday, Robert Jackson Bennett and I started following each other on Twitter, and we chatted a bit, the way two writers on Twitter are wont to do. He mentioned that he wanted to write a blog post about his anxieties about death at some point, and I encouraged him to do so in spite of his reluctance. In fact, I said if he wrote the post, I would write about it too.

I kind of didn’t think he would do it. But he wrote this beautiful post, which is very much worth your time.

So. Here we are. And I have to keep a promise to write about death.

I’ve been afraid of death since I was eleven years old. At that time, my mom was clinically depressed, and she was suicidal. Death, I understood, could come at any time, and it was very, very real. All of my questions about death, all of my uncertainties, came with the very high stakes of immediate relevancy.

I hear that teenagers have this period of time in their development when they think they’re invincible. I never had that. I knew I could die. I knew life was an appallingly fragile thing, and I knew tomorrow might devastate me, leaving a hollow scream where my heart had once been. I knew tomorrow might never come.

I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I tried anyway, of course. I watched for signs of imminent doom. I learned to read people. I was inconveniently present. I sang “Candle on the Water” over and over. I never let my mom leave the house or go to sleep without telling her I loved her. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. But it was all I could do.

When you live like that for long enough, it changes you. By the time my mom died of cancer eight years later, I had formed an intimate relationship with death and uncertainty. And one way this anxiety about death manifests itself is in my relationship with time.

You see, I never feel like I have enough time. Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t resulted in me being a workaholic or dashing around an overscheduled life. What it does mean is that I’m very aware of the passing of time, and I care about doing what’s important to me right now, or as soon as possible to right now.

It also means I hate wasting time doing things I don’t think are important. I don’t like running errands. I am the worst carpool participant I know because I calculate exactly how much longer I’ll be driving instead of already being at an event or doing the next thing I want to do. I don’t like how long it takes to clean my house or brush my teeth or cook my food. I get very restless when I’m waiting. Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy spending hours talking to a friend or walking around with my dog or practicing singing or writing or teaching a student or sitting on a plane so I can see or experience something amazing. I am either approaching infinite levels of patience or else I’m struggling to find any patience at all.

Amy and Nala

I know in my gut there will never be enough time. I love the world so much, how could there be? I will never have enough time snuggling with Nala, and I will never have enough time to write all the books I want to write, and I will never have enough time to learn all the things I’d like to learn. I won’t have enough time to meet all the people I’d love to meet, and I won’t have enough time to see all the places I’d love to see.

And most painfully, I won’t have enough time with the people I love. They will all die too soon for me, no matter the circumstances. And I will die too soon to love them as much as I want to love them. And all of us will be wiped away, our lives and loves and stories forgotten.

What, then, is left? How do I deal with this anxiety around death?

I love with everything inside of myself, even if my heart breaks repeatedly. I notice what is precious to me, and I hold it close. I celebrate being alive right now, and I celebrate that you’re alive too. I grieve when you leave because I refuse to downplay your significance in my heart. I laugh and I play and I work and I do things that scare me. It all matters to me, and when it doesn’t matter to me, I ask myself what I need to change so my life will become more in line with what I care about.

Robert Jackson Bennett said: “Maybe this is what I think the human condition is: shrieking and raging at the universe to pay attention, begging it to understand that this matters, and hearing silence.”

I’ve been hearing that silence since I was eleven years old. Bad things happen, and they change how you see the world, and you know it’s happening and you don’t want it to happen and then it happens anyway. And you can never return to that place of innocence that you never appreciated until you lost it.

But we still have choices. We can choose to be ruled by our fears, or we can cultivate bravery. We can give up, or we can work for what we care about. We can be silent, or we can tell our stories. We can close down, or we can open up.

If the universe answers with silence, so be it. We don’t need the universe to tell us what matters. We already know.

Death is always there, lurking in its otherwise deserted corner. Every moment it stays there is a victory. Every achievement I make, every milestone I reach, every hug I give and every connection I strengthen. Every breath I draw, every story I tell, every place I visit, every song I sing, every day I make the smallest bit brighter for another person. Every time I look into your eyes and we have a moment of truly seeing the other person standing there. They are all victories, and they all matter.

I am afraid to die, but I am so lucky to have this chance to live.

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Now that I’m back home from ConFusion, and after talking a bit about impostor syndrome, a few of you might be wondering how my panels went.

Short answer: I had a great time!

Longer answer: Once I was at the convention, any nerves I had melted magically away. I had been afraid I’d be that panelist who sits there silently while everyone else talks, but that didn’t happen. I always had a lot to say, and most of the panels went by very quickly. Plus I had the great fortune to share the panels with a lot of intelligent and well-spoken people, talking about subjects that I am very interested in.

My favorite panel was “What Does Rejection Mean?” Not surprisingly, I can talk about the psychology of being a writer (or more generally, being an artist) all day long, and I also really liked what my fellow panelists had to say. I moderated three of the five panels, having only prepped to moderate one of them. I’m a planner so the idea of moderating on the fly is one that filled me with a certain horror, but as it turned out, I was able to improvise without too much difficulty.

Getting ready for battle

Getting ready for battle

I decided a couple of months ago to set myself a few goals that I could have confidence in my ability to complete while definitely still stretching myself. So many of my goals are long in duration, very challenging, and involve a lot of me stumbling around and making mistakes. This is necessary; I am ambitious. But sometimes it’s good to balance all the striving with achievement I know I can reach quickly if I commit myself to it. Participating on these panels at ConFusion was one of those short-term achievable goals, and it was a welcome change to try something that made me nervous but that I knew I had the skills to do. (I have another of these goals coming up in a few weeks, so more about that soon!)

More generally, I always have a great time at ConFusion, and this year was no exception. I was struck by how much value I receive when I have the opportunity to spend time with my fellow writers, whether they’re just starting out, have been around a few years like I have, or are at more advanced stages of their careers.

I’d been feeling a bit bummed out ever since my last novel fell apart, operating under a cloud of discouragement. I didn’t let this feeling stop me from planning my next novel project or continuing to query agents, but it’s been there, and it hasn’t been pleasant. For lack of a better way to describe it, I haven’t been feeling writerly. ConFusion reminded me of who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, and talking to other writers about our projects and our processes has given me a renewed sense of focus.

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan, 2014

More generally, I’ve been thinking of how important my writer community is to me. As a consequence, I’m bumping a Seattle visit up the priority list this year and considering the possibility of scheduling some Skype writer dates. Too much creative isolation does not a happy Amy make.

All in all, it was a very successful and productive weekend.

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I saw a quotation some time ago on Facebook, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d decided to blog about it for my first post of 2014. Then a week or two ago, it popped up again, shared by someone different, a sign of the resonance of the idea.

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” -Carl Jung

I don’t believe that we can unilaterally leave our pasts behind us. We carry them with us, whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we want to or not, no matter how far we travel. The past happened, and we can either deny that fact and muddle along in blindness, or we can work towards knowledge and acceptance. What happens to us does change us.


We still have choices. We get to choose who we’re going to strive to become. We get to choose how we’re going to move forward. We can choose to let our pasts define us OR we can choose to define ourselves on our own terms.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

I used to be afraid that my experiences would cause me to close myself off, that I would become bitter and jaded. But because I was aware of that possibility and decided I didn’t want it for myself, I worked hard to ensure it didn’t happen. I got to choose which way to send myself. And now, more than a decade later, I might occasionally experience a touch of cynicism, but that’s it. No overwhelming bitterness, no hatred of the world, and in some ways I’m more open than I’ve ever been.

We can’t always control what happens in our lives. We can’t control the decisions of others. But we can make choices about how we’re going to act and what we’re going to try to focus on. We can’t always prevent unproductive thoughts, but we can notice that we’re having the unproductive thoughts, recognize them for what they are, and deliberately replace them with more helpful thoughts.

The past has given us wounds and wisdom. It has given us strength and scars. And now every moment is an opportunity to use that wisdom and honor those scars and take control of our personal stories.

I’ll leave you with another quotation that feels right for this year:

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” – G.K. Chesterton

May you all have beauty around your next corner, as well as the mindfulness to enjoy the radiance before you reach it.

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