The Power of Art to Stay Awake.

I’ve been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu with equal parts fascination, fear and fury.

For those who don’t know the premise, it is based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. The former United States is now The Republic of Gilead. After extreme environmental devastation has left many women barren and men sterile, the new order steps in, sorting women into categories: young fertile women become Handmaids, some become Martha’s or maids, some are Aunts who are in charge of grooming the Handmaids for their new duties, while the rest are sent to work in the toxic camps where death is imminent. Cheery, so far, yes?

Handmaids are placed with a commander and his barren wife. Most of the commanders are sterile but that fact is no longer allowed in this society. (Dismissing of facts, sound familiar?) Only women are blamed for not being able to procreate. Their duty is to produce a child for the couple through The Ceremony which I find myself cringing through as I watch it.

One of the most disturbing aspects are the flashbacks which also greatly disturbed my 23-year-old daughter. In our current climate, setting the flashbacks in our time just makes the scenario seem not only possible but, at times, chillingly inevitable. Through the flashbacks we learn how women’s right were methodically stripped: firing them for their jobs, freezing their bank accounts so that only a husband or father could manage their money.

These are extreme actions that may, on the surface, feel completely unrealistic. We like to tell ourselves that would never happen here. But it already is. It comes down to how we value women and as a society we aren’t valued as much as men. We literally make less money for the same job just because are women. We are at the crux of a constant fight for control over our own bodies. We may be heading back to a time where our gender is considered a pre-existing condition and be charged more for our health insurance.

Beyond the issues of gender, another chilling scene was a brief flashback where men dressed in black with guns were throwing books and art into a fire. Why go after art? It is straight out of the dictator’s handbook. Go after the artists who use their voices to speak truth to power. Artists hold up a mirror to society—the good, the bad and the ugly. Once we see ourselves, we can’t unseen it. Therefore, it behooves a regime to not allow it to be seen or heard in the first place.

I’ve been watching as many artists struggle to find their voice in this new era of government where rights are threatened on an almost daily basis. Before the election, writer Julianna Baggott started a site inviting people to dedicate their no-Trump vote, sharing their stories about why they were not voting for him.

More than 600 American writers, including Stephen King, Dave Eggers, and Cheryl Strayed, penned an open letter against Trump.

Michael Moore reveals that he has been on a “creative tear” since last summer when he saw the inevitable train wreck coming at us. He encourages the use of satire and humor because it has been shown to get under the President’s extremely thin skin. What is a weakness in him becomes a strength for the resistance.

Many visual artists are turning to their work in this era of Trump to motivate action and educate the public on issues they are passionate about. As always, art is in the eyes of the beholder and there are consequences of expressing your views in such a public forum. For example, Ilma Gore’s painting of a nude Trump sporting a micropenis is currently on display at the Maddox gallery in London. She has been threatened not only by his lawyers but has received thousands of death and rape threats after posting the image online where it was shared over 260,000 times.

I find myself turning more to my writing than ever before. It soothes my anxiety, it helps me make sense of the chaos and it helps me discern what I think and how I feel within the chaos. Working on my novel five days week is often the one time of the day when I can block out the news and lose myself in another world. But I also find myself writing more political content in my journal, on social media and on my blog. I considered whether that would offend potential readers of my work and chose to use my voice. It is a gift I have and to not use it seems wrong. My audience is not huge but I have had people tell me over and over again how much they appreciate my words so I will keep sending them out into the world.

Ultimately, this election has been about waking up. Waking up to reality, to political action, to making myself heard whether through marches, town halls, calling and faxing my representatives or writing. Artists are awake to reality and they wake the rest of us up which is critical in these times.

I will leave you with the most chilling words from “The Handmaid’s Tale” so far:

Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Consitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

~ Offred

Let’s stay awake.

 

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Books Read in February, March + April.

Feb-April Books

“The Exquisite Risk- Daring to Live an Authentic Life” by Mark Nepo

Before stories were recorded, what happened to the living was told and retold around fires, on cliffs, and in the shade of enormous trees. 

I underlined oh-so-many sentences and passages throughout this book. Many that just spoke to me, some that I want to use as themes in my yoga classes, some for the sheer beauty of the language.

I did find it hard to finish since I didn’t feel compelled to keep turning the page in spite of all the nuggets of wisdom I found there. Another reader said that is why she loved it—she could pick it up at any time and just dip into it and put it back down.

You can tell that poetry is his natural language. Such beautiful images and metaphors throughout. He weaves in his experience with cancer and other personal stories that helped him learn what he is now teaching in this book about living an authentic life.

It’s definitely not a step-by-step plan to lead that authentic life. It’s more a process of osmosis-—just sinking into the stories and wisdom he gifts us with and letting them percolate in your soul until they are ready to rise to the surface of your life.

A sentence I love:

That each time we take the exquisite risk toward being whole, toward living in the open, toward recognizing and affirming that we are, at heart, each other, we put the world back together.

“The Lifeboat” a novel by Charlotte Rogan

Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.

It is 1914 and Grace has married Henry Winter, unbeknownst to his parents. On their way back to America from London on an ocean liner, the ship suffers an explosion and passengers and crew are forced into lifeboats. Henry arranges for Grace to get in a lifeboat without him. We learn of Grace’s experience in that lifeboat with over thirty others as well as how she met Henry. Not only do they face the relentless sea, they must deal with dwindling resources, leaks and choices that people should never be forced to make.

It’s an unforgettable story of perseverance as well as the pettiness and strength of being human in extraordinary circumstances.

A sentence I love: 

Unable to restrain my laughter, which kept lapping at my insides and bursting out of me like gigantic waves, I was not allowed to accompany the lawyers into the dining room, but had to have my meal brought to me in the cloakroom, where a wary clerk perched vigilantly on a stool in the corner as I pecked at my sandwich. 

“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kauer

I basically inhaled these words in one sitting, letting the language and images and power of them just wash over and through me. I definitely need to read it again. Maybe many times. I love the structure of the book, how it is broken up into parts: the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing. I want to use each one as a jumping off point for my own writing. Then I love how each page is structured with so much white space so that the words and the story behind them have room to breathe. Words sometimes combined with simple line drawings. The words, the drawings and the white space all work together to give a certain urgency yet create an urge to pause and savor what we are reading, what we are seeing, what we are feeling.

A sentence I love: 

the first boy that kissed me

held my shoulders down

like the handlebars of

the first bicycle

he ever rode

i was five

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth”  a novel by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Cally Broderick lingered in the doorway of the resource office, waiting to be noticed.

“Waiting to be noticed” is basically the calling card of every human on earth, but particularly for high school students. Johnson takes us deep into the social strata of of a wealthy northern San Francisco high school, where a middle school tragedy haunts the students as they struggle to live up to expectations from teachers, parents, peers and themselves. The inside jacket says it is told in a “kaleidoscopic narrative” which describes it exactly. We see the story from different dizzying perspectives that join in various designs to reveal new slices of the story. It’s a brilliant structure that taught me a lot about structuring a novel and finding the right voice(s). I am impressed that she was able to take a teenage drama and create such a dynamic story that kept this adult turning the pages.

A sentence I love:

Maybe Calista’s mind—maybe Molly’s own—was like this. An immense space, at once apart from the world and embedded within it, a secret place that was strange and dark and vast enough to make its own weather. 

“Ill Will” novel by Dan Chaon

Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river.

I read everything Chaon writes from his stories to his novels. This latest one feels different. Not just the heft of the physical book (458 pages) but the psychological heft of it as well. Dustin Hillman is a psychologist in a Cleveland suburb. His wife died, older son is away at college and the younger one is home but drifting away from him. Or is he drifting away from his son? Dustin has a lot on his plate. Still processing his wife’s death, he gets the news that his adopted brother is being released from prison after serving 30 years for the massacre of Dustin’s parents. aunt and uncle. The case came to epitomize the  hysteria over Satanic cults that the the 1980’s spawned. On top of that, one of his patients has lured Dustin into a conspiracy theory involving the deaths of numerous drunk college boys in the area.

Chaon does an amazing job of weaving all of these threads together into a suspenseful thriller that kept me turning the pages. It is a master class in the power of using an unreliable narrator that explores all the ways memory fails us and we fail it, those around us and, most of all, ourselves. Brilliant.

A sentence I love:

But now,with my eyes opened in the dark, the clicks and hums of the house settling, the radiators stirring, the appliances doing their secret nighttime work, with my heart beating in an uncomfortable noticeable way, I couldn’t help but think: What if the dots are connected?

“Hourglass—Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro

From my office window I see my husband on the driveway below.

This is a beautiful, thoughtful and honest meditation on a marriage filtered through time and memory. Shapiro plays with time in a way that feels completely organic to the story, never manipulative or confusing. She explores the depths of her marriage, unafraid of exposing the cracks that inevitably arise out of a long term commitment. She is honest and the writing is beautiful. It feels like she is guiding you by hand as you both walk into the woods, unsure of what you will find but knowing what is there is better than not knowing. The trust she puts in the reader is only equaled by the trust I had in her to tell her story with a clarity that can only come from a commitment to seeing her marriage, her husband and herself as they really are. It is just stunning and I can’t wait to read it again in one glorious sitting so I can savor the entire arc of the story at one time.

A passage I love:

We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have imagined. Our shared vocabulary—our own language—will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.

“The Middlepause- On Life After Youth” by Marina Benjamin

I had always assumed that when the time came I would meet menopause with a certain dignity.

It used to be that menopause was never spoken about much less written about. But there is a whole new conversation being had between women and within an array of books on what it is like to age as a woman. What does it mean universally and specifically to this particular body. I, for one, am grateful that it is no longer talked about in hushed shame. With my yoga community I’ve spoken with women about hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia. We support each other, swap tips on how to deal with the changes. Mostly, it just feels good to know that we are not alone.

Middlepause is a perfect balm to the possible isolation a woman may feel as she enters middle age. Benjamin weaves her own story and experiences together with science, literature and philosophy to give us a new vision of what it means to age as women. I love the way the book is structured: Organs, Hormones, Skin, Muscle, Heart, Guts, Teeth, Head, Spine. Each chapter dissects with fresh candor her own sudden plunge into menopause and the myriad changes and losses and gains that middle age brings from aging parents to her teenage daughter mirroring her own cascade of hormones, from nostalgia to a brutal clarity about the present.

This is not a self-help book. She does not prescribe dietary changes or herbs or exercise. No, this an eloquent, intelligent, informed reflection of what it means to enter your 50s as a woman today. I found it much more valuable than any possible diet tips and tricks.

A sentence I love: 

And fifty feels heavy at some elemental level, as if dense with neurons.

And 1 more:

When you are young, a mirror is not so much a tool for self-inspection as it is a window onto a series of potential yous.

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott became my writing bible for a while. Her simple advice, her passion, her authentic, messy real self appealed to me on a deep level. She wasn’t afraid to admit to the hard parts of writing. She didn’t pretend that she sat down easily everyday as the words just flowed from her fingertips from some muse on high. In fact, the only muse she endorsed was the work. Showing up was the muse. To this day, I still use her advice: one-inch picture frame to write the next scene, shitty first drafts to write the thing at all and taking it all one word at a time.

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

Where love leaves us

This week’s book is another story collection. This one by Renée Manfredi called, “Where Love Leaves Us.”

One story in particular haunted me for years. I remember certain details to this day and I remember dissecting each scene, trying to figure out how she had created this story that just mesmerized me. In “Bocci” ten-year-old Elena is herself mesmerized by her Catholic religion. The story starts with her declaring to her mother, “Jesus Christ is a blood clot in my leg.” Her mother is less then enthralled by her daughter’s obsession. Her father makes up for that by his sheer devotion to his daughter. But that devotion and her devotion to her religion cannot save her from the violent ugliness in the world.

A sentence I underlined: She is ten, an ordinary little girl whose imagination sometimes intersects inconveniently with truth; all of her imaginary friends die tragic deaths and she grieves them as though they were real.

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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I love short stories. I love reading them, I love writing them. Doing both is how I taught myself to write. When I first saw this week’s title seven years ago I knew I had to buy it.

It is “If I loved you, I would tell you this” by Robin Black. The title alone grabbed me but then the writing. Oh, the writing and the characters and their stories. Well, I knew immediately that it would be placed on my Permanent Bookshelf. They are exactly the kinds of stores I long to write—honest explorations of what it means to be human.

Ron Carlson once said that literary fiction is about the complications of the human heart. That’s what these stores explore with such grace and depth.

Today happens to be the 7-year anniversary of this book’s publication. I’ve read everything she’s written since including the novel “Life Drawing” and a collection of essays on writing and life, “Crash Course.” Honestly, I’d read her grocery list. And once I learned that she was 48 when her first story collection was published, my writer crush was solidified. As a writer approaching 52, I yearn for role models of women who didn’t give up, who started late, who set their voice loose into the world. Robin Black is absolutely that role model for me. My writing bucket list includes taking a writing workshop with her.

(As a bonus, there’s a great conversation between Black and Karen Russell at the end of the book.)

A sentence I underlined: Every once in a while. though, that softening patina an extra glass of Chianti can give, that velvet cloth it lays over every jagged edge, evokes a kind of humble gratitude in me.

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature  book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

Anywhere But Here

“Anywhere But Here”  a novel by Mona Simpson

I remember not being able to put this down. I am fascinated by mother/daughter stories—reading them and writing them. This one mesmerized me and made me want to write my own novel. Up to then I had been dabbling in short stories. When a teacher once commented that my writing reminded her of Mona Simpson, I almost swooned with joy.

The first two sentences hooked me: We fought. When my mother and I crossed state lines in the stolen car, I’d sit against the window and wouldn’t talk.

The tension was set up from the first two simple words.The whole novel explored this tension, this parting and coming back together between Ann (daughter) and Adele (mother). They were both such complex characters that I alternately loved and loathed and it made me realize how important that is to a story. No character (or real life person) is all good or all bad.

The story pulled me along but the sentences themselves left me dazzled. I’d set the book down, pausing, telling myself that this was the kind of book I wanted to write. It still is.

The Practice of Tapas.

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“Life without tapas is like a heart without love.” ~ BKS Iyengar

One of the stories I’ve told myself over the years is that I am lazy. I’ve lugged that word around throughout high school, college all the way up to the present. Nothing I did was enough (according to me).

Then I discovered tapas. Not the delicious appetizers but the third niyama that calls on me to stoke my inner fire. Literally it comes from the root sanskrit word “tap” which means “to burn.” I take it to mean to burn away everything that holds me back from achieving what I want and being who I want to be. That means burning away the story that I am lazy.

As a writer, I’ve struggled with procrastination on an almost daily basis. My shelves are lined with books promising the secret to being a productive writer. I’ve tried many different tips from waking up early to writing late at night, from focusing on word counts to time spent writing, writing at home to writing in coffee shops.They all worked, for a while. Then I’d drift back into this wishy-washy limbo of wanting to write but never quite committing to it.

Last year I embarked on a year-long writing challenge based on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” advice. The theory is that you set up a system of marking an x for each day you  show up to write, the goal being to not break the chain. I sat up a dry erase board with 365 boxes for each day of the year. Dutifully, I showed up each day to write something, anything, no word count, no minimum time required and once I did that I could make my x. I did it. Every single day .

This year I decided to require a little more from myself. I still must write every single day but Monday -Friday I need to write at least 500 words on my current WIP. Saturday and Sunday can be for the WIP or Morning Pages or blog posts. I am using the same dry erase board as last year only I am coloring in the top triangle blue for the days I write at least 500 words, red for the weekends.

It’s working. I am up to almost 50,00 words on my novel. I wrote on days when I was crazy busy, when I wasn’t feeling well, even when we had a 72-hour power outage.The story is finding its way, the characters are finding their way and I am finding mine.

What I’m discovering is that practicing tapas in one area of my life is spilling into other areas. I’ve meditated every day since November 9. Some days it’s just been two minutes. Others it’s been thirty. I find myself with more confidence as I continually meet these goals I set for myself that nobody but me cares if I meet. If I can do this, what else can I do?

With this fire ignited, anything is possible.

#TBT: A Book I Love

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature  book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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In honor of his reading that I am attending tonight, today’s book is “Fitting Ends and Other Stories” by Dan Chaon.

When I was first teaching myself to write short stories, I turned to this book over and over, poring over each story to discover what made it tick for me. Each one hooked me from the first sentence and kept me hooked to the last. I was mesmerized by his ability  to meticulously dissect the emotional fallout from tragedy: a father and son attend AA together, an accident befalls a fraternity, a father is having chemotherapy, a boy sees his older brother wearing women’s clothes. I remember being haunted by the lingering residue of the stories much like the character in the title story is haunted by the death of his brother. Reading this collection felt like my own master class in short story writing.

A sentence I underlined back then: I remember being surprised by the sound that came from my throat, a high scream like a rabbit’s that seemed to ricochet downward, a stone rattling though a long drainpipe.

Observations on Being Without Power.

 

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Image found via Pinterest.

Our state recently experienced an historic power outage due to winds of up to 60 miles per hour. My house was without power for over 72 hours. Here are a few things I observed.

Of course there is the initial annoyance. No power (and no generator) meant no lights, no heat, no water, no refrigerator. At first, it wasn’t that bad. It almost felt like a reprieve from normal life. But soon, it got old. I went to the bookstore for the afternoon to get warm and charge my phone and laptop. That night, my husband and I drank some wine and played a few games of Cribbage by candlelight. Sweet, fun and a little romantic. But waking up to a really cold house the next morning, the reprieve glow had worn off. I went to the gym to work out and take a shower. My daughter and I tried to find a place to get warm and charge our phones but every place was full. So, we got food to go and went to the yoga studio where I teach. No classes in the middle of the day so we had it to ourselves: warmth, wifi, outlets to charge. All in all, a pretty nice afternoon especially since I wrote over 2000 words on my current WIP.

That night we stayed in hotel where my husband had a business meeting. Perfect timing. Enjoyed a warm bed and a hot tub. Woke up to news that the power was back. Yay! On my way home, my daughter called to say the power was NOT back on. Boo!

I began to notice how easily swayed my mood was by things completely out of my control. I found myself getting incredibly irritated when the DTE app hadn’t updated the repair status and that irritation began to spill out all over the place. It made me wonder how often I let my mood be influenced by things out of my control. How often did I let irritations pile up and feed off each other until I was just miserable to be around for myself and others?

Each time I walked into a room, I hit the light switch. Every. Single. time. It made me realize how ingrained our habits are. It made me wonder what else I do just out of habit, basically on auto-pilot?

As the irritation began to build I realized that I was just waiting to get the power back. Just waiting. Filling time until everything was back to normal That’s what drinking the wine was about the first night. Let’s make this a little less uncomfortable and make the time pass a little easier. I wonder how often I did that, bypassing what was uncomfortable, waiting for things to happen that I want to happen.

As offers to use friends’ refrigerators or freezers to save our food, or their house for warmth or an invitation to sleep in their spare room came in, I found how awkward I felt when offered such gifts. I have no problem at all offering such gifts to others, but receiving is not easy for me. Even when it was my best friend in the whole world. She had me come down to her home for the day where she made me a fresh salad, had bought my favorite tea and crackers. I said, “My gosh you are spoiling me.” She said with a lot of passion that somebody should spoil me, that I deserve it. That I take care of everyone else all the time and the sometimes I needed to be taken care of myself. I heard the words, and I tried to receive them with an open heart but I could feel myself closing up against them. How often do I refuse to ask for help or feel guilty when accepting it?

Finally, being powerless felt like a huge, neon metaphor for how I’ve felt since the election. Certain things are just out of my control no matter how many calls I make, marches I attend, petitions I sign, meetings I go to, postcards I send.

So, with so many things out of my control, what is within my control? Always my response. Always. I chose to get irritated by the power being out. I chose to check the app twenty-five times a days, hoping to see an update. I chose to drink several large glasses of wine to escape the situation in front of me. But I also chose to seek out warmth. To continue my meditation practice even if just for two minutes. I chose to continue showing up to my current WIP, making progress despite what was going around me. Chose to notice when it felt uncomfortable accepting offers of help. I chose to accept the help anyway, learning to get comfortable with it.

Now that the lights are back on, I hope to stay aware of what is in my power, and what is not. To stay awake to my habits instead of sleepwalking through my days. To be grateful for help when it is offered and brave enough to ask when I need it, believing that I am deserving of it. To be grateful for all that I have that I blindly take for granted as I easily flip on a light switch to light up a room or turn on the faucet to receive water or open the refrigerator full of fresh food.

Just like Dorothy, the power is always within us.

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Image found via Pinterest.

 

The Practice of Contentment.

I saw the documentary “Embrace” recently. To say that it changed my life is not an exaggeration.

It’s about female body image.

It started when Taryn Brumfitt posted before and after pix on Facebook and they went viral, not because of how stunning her transformation was (though it was) but because of how real it was.

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Image found via Pinterest.

It went viral because she went against the norm. The before pic “should’ve” been the after and the after the before. She received thousands of responses. Some hateful and nasty because some people are just hateful and nasty. But most were beautiful and vulnerable and most were grateful to see somebody embracing their real body rather than shunning it and they wanted to know how they could do the same.

So, Taryn embarked on a journey and documented it to see how women around the world view their bodies. It was illuminating and heartbreaking. A word often uttered when asked to describe their body was “disgusting.” Not one woman liked one thing about her body.

Not one thing.

I don’t remember the first time I realized my body wasn’t good enough. I do remember a friend telling me to stop doing the locomotion in her basement because each time I hopped it felt like an elephant shaking the floor. I was twelve.

I remember a boy in the stands at a high school basketball game where I was a cheerleader calling me “thunder thighs.”

I remember pouring over issues of “Seventeen” yearning for the long, straight blonde hair that I saw. The thin thighs, slender calves and ankles.

I remember never feeling quite comfortable in my skin. Not only because of being bombarded constantly by media telling me that I needed to change my body but also because I think a part of me believed that it would be “conceited” to think I was enough just as I am. That I would be full of myself.

Since I’ve been practicing yoga, I’ve become much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown to accept the way my body and energy fluctuate day to day, month to month, year to year. Because I try to practice yoga as a way of life, I’ve learned to practice santosha or contentment. It’s not about being happy all the time but being content in each moment as it arises, not needing to change it or fix it or resist it.

When it comes to my 51-year-old body, santosha is a blessing. It helps me to not merely accept my body (which I think implies that it is less than and I am just settling) but to embrace my body exactly as it is day to day, moment to moment.

Some days I feel strong and confident and head off my mat after a sweaty vinyasa ready to kick ass. Other days I curl up on the couch  and that’s it. Santosha allows me to ride the waves of hormones as my body shifts, my mood meanders and my ability to sleep suddenly falls off a cliff.

Santosha allows me to feel content no matter what is happening in my body, to my body and around my body. It allows me to recognize that, contrary to decades of false beliefs and advertising saturation, I am not essentially lacking. It allows me to embrace and rejoice in all that I do, all that I am.

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