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Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Last week I spent my writing energy on preparing my portfolio for an application to the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of New Mexico.  I had been shaken by my reawakened love for teaching.  After years of setting my sights on the writing life, I was distracted by the thought (again) that I need to be “practical.”  Practicality is a good thing.  How had I come back to the idea that pursuing my vision passion and were not practical?

I had gone through many iterations of the argument: I love being in the classroom, and feeling like I could just as well work on a Master’s Degree in Education.  That will undoubtedly require some writing!   Teaching 5th grade pays more than a teaching assistantship. Besides, if I need an MFA I can do it later.

But I felt so sad thinking that “practical” way.  It seemed sensible.  But I kept having dreams that disturbed me.  Romantic interests from my long lost past would appear, and I would give my life to return to them.  Night after night: the one I let go so we could become the good friends we are today; the crush I had at 14, who I thankfully never had so I didn’t need to let go.  I knew these dreams weren’t about romance.  I knew there was a message from my subconscious: Don’t give up your love.  When I connected it to my dream for an MFA everything fell into place.  I can apply.  I don’t know if I will be accepted.  I don’t know if I’ll be offered an assistantship.  And I haven’t even explored the option of continuing to teach 5th grade while I do my coursework.  So I put the application in.  I am not letting my love go.

And goodness knows I gaining a whole lot by learning from my students.  I already have volumes to write about from our time together.  I will share some of those experiences next time.  In the meantime, I’ll just bask in the glow of the knowledge that I haven’t given up on my dream.

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It’s been a long day.  I need a shower.  I’m exhausted and cranky with my children.  I don’t have much brain power, but I’ve committed to writing here.  So here I am.  And I am here because I have said for years that I am a writer.  Years, I’ve said it.  For many of them I actually wrote daily.  But it’s been months since I’ve written regularly, and I’ve felt the drought.  A big part of my recent employment drama had to do with that, I think.

In my last job, I had nothing to give to the page at the end of the day, no energy, no spirit, no love.  I was really concerned about that because I wanted to start my Masters in Fine Arts next fall, and couldn’t imagine working on it while I had that job.   I began to pray a most potent prayer (the Tablet of Ahmad, for those who are familiar), chanting it in the morning.  The third day I did that, my boss invited me into her office that afternoon and “released me from my employment during my probationary period.”  There had been very little warning, just some counseling to improve the accuracy of the 5% of my work that I did for her.  The rest of my 30 or so colleagues went ballistic because I had become a valuable member of the team.  Why it actually happened is fodder for the gossip mills of some other life.

After I left her office, I went into the bathroom, looked up to the heavens and said, “Really?  This is how You answer me?”

I was stunned.  Confused.  Later I was angry, and depressed.  And less than a week later, my friend asked me (after I told him I had lost my job), “Do you teach?”

It fell into my lap, this job.  Fell from where but the heavens?  And now I sit and write at nearly 10pm, when I have to leave the house before 7am tomorrow with a lesson plan in my hand.  I really need a shower, but I am writing because finally I have a life that demands that I write about it.  I want to say that I had a pretty good day in the classroom today.  I’m teaching my students about fractions and about blogging.  And they are going to blog about learning fractions in the disguise of writing about their experience in a “Spend a $1 Million” exercise which had them converting dollars to decimals to percent and to fractions.  I cannot tell you how amazing it was to see these 5th graders so engaged in learning, so excited about it.  And I cannot NOT write.  David Truss, if you’re out there listening, I want to know that I’m teaching math.  I want you to know I’m writing about it.  And to all of you who have ever encouraged me, either in my writing or my teaching, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Because I love it.

I’m going to go take a shower now.  Good night!

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I have been faced with addiction of late, a serious, almost debilitating addiction.  It could ruin my health, my family’s health, and even shorten my life significantly.  The thing is, you might have the same problem, and not even know it.  My poison of choice: carbohydrates.

I know.  What’s the big deal, right? We need carbohydrates for energy.  What could be wrong with carbs?  And honestly, it’s not carbs that are the problem.  It’s our society’s addiction that is the problem, and the way we keep creating new and delicious ways to make them more addictive.  I wrote in my last post about the need for consciousness.  I have striven to cultivate more of it in many ways.  I pay much closer attention to sensation.  I take time to see details, to breathe in the smells that surround me, to listen and to seek silence, and to really feel what I am feeling.  Another important aspect of consciousness is tasting the food I’m eating.  I’ve changed my diet a lot, in seeking to wean myself from this nasty habit of high-glycemic foods.  (Food that are high on the glycemic index are the ones that increase the glucose in your blood more quickly than those that are low. To read more about how I’m doing that visit Dr. Wayne Andersen’s website on developing habits of health.)  I’ve gained a lot of energy and lost 12 pounds since I made this switch a month ago.  But my goal isn’t weight loss, it’s optimal health.  And ridding myself of addiction is a pretty important part of that.

Fear Addiction

In that last post, I talked about my ability to see since I’ve returned to America. And what I see is so sad.  People are addicted to fear.  And they are addicted to things that numb them from the fear.  The media pumps fear into our bodies with both real and imagined drama and trauma.

While living in China, I restricted my news media intake to scanning headlines to see if there was anything new or important happening.  In six years of living there, I think I opened less than a dozen news stories a year to learn more.   That doesn’t mean I was uninformed of what was happening, it means that I was more deeply informed of only those things that I felt really had an important impact in the world.  But America has multiple cable channels devoted to news, plus newscasts at every hour, for both local and national news.  Sadly, international news is generally covered very poorly with a very ethnocentric bias.  Compare any national news cast with coverage from BBC or Univision, and you’ll begin to see what I mean.  But what that means is that the “non-fiction” that we feed on daily is intended to feed an addiction to fear.  Broadcasters and publishers know that if they want to sell it, then “if it bleeds it leads.”  That’s what people want.  Is it their fault?  Who knows where the cycle begins…in the consumer that just wants to know “what’s going on” and “how to protect themselves” or in the media that gives the public what it wants. Add to that reality TV (which fosters a fear of humiliation) and most television drama, serving up a steady stream of violence and trauma, and you have a constant source to feed our addiction.

Regardless of where it begins, there is a common biological response to stress: we eat.  And we don’t choose lean chicken, fish or spinach, we choose chips and donuts and cookies.  We choose the highest glycemic index foods around.  And that makes a lot of sense, instinctively.  When you’re afraid, you need a good rush of sugar to make sure you can get to safety.  Much of our eating patterns are very biologically based.  It makes a lot of sense biologically to eat as much as you can and seek to rest as much as you can.  It makes sense if you have to chase down your food and gather roots and nuts and berries all day.

We are Cavemen

Well, my friends, I know it’s hard to believe with all the technology and industry surrounding us, but we are still cavemen.  Our bodies have changed very little over the last ten thousand years.  And they are just asking that we continue to treat them they way they are accustomed to being treated.  The problem is, our activity levels have changed…well, a bit…since we were required to spend energy in equal amounts to our consumption.  Man, if you could eat a thousand calories a day while lying around doing nothin’ back then, you were the king or queen of the cave.  Today, we don’t bat an eyelash to eating 1000 calories in one sitting, and then we keep on sitting and sitting and sitting.  So it’s not wonder there is an epidemic of obesity.  We feed our need for adrenaline by watching scary stuff, instead of living it.

But it is scary out there…

Everywhere we look we see the evidences of addiction:  addiction to sex, to alcohol, to any kind of drug you can ingest, to video games and social networking sites and entertainment.  We see families falling apart, or just struggling to stay afloat.  We see crimes that horrify and wars that make no sense.  We see an economy oriented towards protecting against our fears instead of educating to prevent our fears from becoming reality.  We see political, social and economic polarization so intense that it is without a doubt shattering our unity.

Ahhh…Unity

What I’ve noticed while I’ve been striving to stay conscious is that unity is really the only cure for our addictions.  When we see that we are one, not one family, not one people, but really one with everything (I know, takes you to that old Buddhist joke about the monk that goes to the hot dog stand and asks for one with everything, right?)…anyway, when we start paying attention, we see our connectedness, not just within our families and neighbors, but within the world.  What we eat affects the air we breathe, the water, the land.  And what happens to those things affects what we eat.  Where there is war, there is famine.  Where there is peace, there is excess.  And because there is such an imbalance in the world, we don’t even notice when a child starves to death.

So, once again, I’m advocating consciousness.  Try it for 30 days, or your money back.  Pay attention to what your body is telling you it needs to be healthy.  Pay attention to your community because it will also tell you the same thing.  And in doing so, maybe we can cure ourselves of our fear addiction and come closer to what we all want…a sense of nearness…to God, to our Source (or whatever you call that which centers you), to each other and to lasting security and peace.

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For years, I haven’t felt the need to deal with my weight.  I’m tall, and that gave me a sense of, well, not thin, but certainly not obese, though my BMI would have told me otherwise if I had just paid attention.  Plus, my diet wasn’t so bad in China.  Lots of vegetables, rice and meat.  Frequent vegetarian meals. Not much junk.  China has very few desserts that appeal to me, plus I  walked a lot, and even started to run.  But being back in America, away from my loving and appreciative husband who ignores my big belly, and being suddenly surrounded  by people bigger than me, people who remind me of the passengers on the space cruiser in Disney’s WALL-E, has given me a wake-up call.

 The United Suck-holes of All-You-Can-Eat

Did ya’ll know you are constantly surrounded by junk?  It’s absolutely everywhere.  I know you hear this all the time.  But pay attention the next time you go to the grocery store.  I mean REALLY pay attention.  One corner of the store is devoted to fresh foods.  The rest is processed crap, with the exception of a few small sections grains and dairy products.  I’m sure it’s not that different in China, but when the potato chip aisle only has banana, blueberry  and barbecue chicken-flavored options, you tend to ignore them more.  I am currently blessed with eyes that see.  I see stuff that I used to just grab because I felt like it: Doritos, Pop-tarts, frozen pizza and pastas.  Cookies, crackers, soda and every kind of meal you could want just waiting for you to pop into your microwave, complete with high-glycemic, high fat, high salt and lots o’ chemicals.  And the messages on TV are constant:  “You should be hungry right now.  You should eat something.  Why not try our brand of crap?  Please ignore that craving for a good, long drink of water.  And please, don’t get up for anything other than getting a snack.  Don’t take a walk.  Don’t go to the gym or for a run.  And please, don’t turn off the TV!”

If the TV isn’t on, don’t worry.  There are billboards, radio ads, and built-in bad habits to keep you going for more.

Really.  This is the trap of this country.  And now, for a possibly a narrow window of time, I can see it for what it is.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been sucked in.  I have had Doritos.  And pop-tarts.  And, oh my gosh, America knows desserts!  It has to STOP!  Before I go completely blind, get even fatter, and start on this self-hatred loop of dieting and “falling off the wagon”.

So. “Amalia on Purpose” means I am building a more purposeful life-style, one that chooses optimum health over instant gratification.  God, that’s hard!  Getting exactly what you want when you want it such habit, and so completely encouraged everywhere here.  But there is a space between when my body says, “Oooh, yes! Dunkin Donuts!  It’s been too long, my darling!” and actually making the car turn in that direction.  In that space I have a choice to make.  What do I want more?  Spiritual and physical health and strength, or that coffee roll?  Right now, and hopefully for the rest of my life, the answer is the former.  If I am conscious, I make the right choice.

The Clincher: Consciousness

Yesterday, because of poor planning, I had no food with me after my daughter’s oral surgery.  I was starved, and I was an hour away from home.  She couldn’t go in a store with me in her state, so my “only” option was a drive-through.   She needed her pain meds as soon as we got home, and eating a salad while driving is not an option, so…you know the rest of the story.  Fat, fat and more fat.  Plus some sugar, because, oh my gosh, I can get Dr. Pepper in this country!  Woo hoo!  Consciousness was lacking in the morning before I left, the night before when I could have packed a more healthy lunch and snack, and in that moment, when I could have chosen a more healthy option than the “Son of the Baconator”.

Consciousness is essentially about the choices we make: what do we choose to do, and how do we choose to respond to the consequences of those actions.  What do I really want?  If I take time to become conscious, it becomes much more clear to me.  Why, then, do I wait, or hesitate, or ignore the choice to move towards what I want? Do I need permission?  Do I need to feel I deserve what I want?  Do I have to be perfectly ready, or in exactly the right time and place?  Or is it just bad habits? In other words, being on automatic pilot…being unconscious.

How do we cultivate consciousness over automatic habit?

What do you do to cultivate consciousness?  How do you think cultivating more consciousness would affect your life?  Your community?  The country and the world?

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Back home in New Mexico

Back home in New Mexico

I fell off the face of the planet a few months ago.  Not long after writing my last post, my husband and I made a radical, life-changing decision that left me reeling.  We decided to leave China.  Not only that, we decided that, because I was the more flexible of the two of us (read “unemployed”), I would return with our two children to live with my parents for half a year while he finishes his contract.  The reasons were many and important.  But most important was an educational opportunity for my son – a family school that is half-time public and half-time home-schooling, ideal for this kiddo and for us.

I climbed in bed for two days after making that decision.  I stayed under the covers and wept.  I would be leaving my home, my friends, my life, and worst of all, my husband, whose presence in my life has always been a blessing.  It was tortuous packing, planning and then saying good-bye.  But I did it, and I did it because we were looking forward, and sometimes to move forward we have to make difficult decisions.

So moving forward is my theme of late.  I am trying to focus on what I want for myself and what we want for our family.  When I started this blog, my intention was to live purposefully and to write about it here.  In a way, that started the gears moving towards this decision.  It lead to me to write about why I am not dead yet, which was about changing my life to live a more balanced and healthy life.  That led to learning about forgiveness, which is apparently a life-long lesson, but I am learning!  The soul-crushing grief that weighed me down for years has lifted.  I had dammed up a reservoir of resentment and anger that I quietly ignored and denied, and that reservoir is drying up now that I know how to hook up the pump and let the feelings flow out safely, without destroying any of the villages down-stream.  So now it’s time to lighten up the ol’ body.  So I’ll be writing about that over the next couple of posts.  Stay tuned if you’re interested in how that’s going.  Also, share what you’re doing to live on purpose.  This path is way too important to travel it alone.

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A place of peace lying below the crusties in the desert of the soul

It’s a season of gratitude, and I am feelin’ the need.  Being buried under a pile of stress (in the form of graduate school applications and a job hunt) has given me a crusty feeling of general irritation and impatience.  I want to know what the future holds, already!  I could wallow in these feelings, letting my heart rate stay elevated and my children cringing at my entrance to a room.  I have been grumpy, to say the least.  From experience, I know that gratitude is often the solvent that wears away even the toughest crusties of the soul.  So I now turn to those people, experiences and circumstances that have ultimately lead to greater understanding, compassion and insight, or have just plain made me feel good.

To my husband: I am grateful for your patience.  You calmly take the children by the hand and lead them away from me when you see that we all need some space.  Your honesty and openness about your own fears and failings lends me more support that your achievements and success ever could.  Your smile, sincere and sparking with light from beyond your eyes, lifts me up when I need it most.  Many a man could learn from your example of husband- and fatherhood.

To my family: Without hesitation, you offer the roofs over your heads, the bread in your pantries and the encouragement of your hearts.  Your love is a hammock on a lazy summer afternoon – I am embraced and supported.

To my children: You teach me to be a better human, whether or not I am willing to study the lessons.  Thank you for every moment of your lives, shared or not.  I glory in your becoming…you.

There are people I could name that deserve humanitarian awards for the friendship and support they offer.  The list is long, and if I were to begin to write it, I would invariably miss obvious, extremely important people simply because my brain is fried.  So if you’re reading this, just add yourself to the list, and give yourself some kind of treat on my behalf…a latte from Starbucks, a Hershey’s kiss, a self-hug, or and extra 30 minutes of glorious reading time.  You deserve so much more.  Even if we’ve never met, maybe you can relate to what I’m saying here; maybe you’ve felt that aching pull of fear in your gut, or have been the friend that soothed it with the balm of loving words.  If so, you have my gratitude, because it means we’re compatriots in the common struggle of becoming more human, more refined, more Divine.

Finally, I am grateful to Life.  I use the capital ‘L’ because I am learning something about that Force that fires us, inspires us, and guides us from within.  Life is teaching me about forgiveness, and about a Love that holds the planets in their place, keeps the cells inside my bones inside my skin surrounded by the air…a Love the permeate us all.  Life is teaching me to stop and notice that behind the crusties of the stress, and the tightness of the chest, and the choking of the sobs, beneath the aching in the throat and clenching in the belly, there is a quiet flow of peace.  It may take chisels of gratitude to break through.  It could take shovel loads of service to others to dig down to it.  It might take singing with my children and dancing with my man, maybe even running through the grass with bare feet.  But what I am most grateful for is the lesson that I have the power to get there, and for the pure lightness of being when I arrive.

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This summer, I took the first real vacation I’ve had since I was 17.  No work, no school, no children for three weeks.  More than three weeks.  26 DAYS!  So I had some time for reflection.  I don’t think I actually did any.  I just had fun.  And it’s all because of Zen.

My first night away from home was not so far away.  My airline, ANA, put me up in the Narita EXCEL Tokyu for a 24-hour layover.  I decided to find real sushi.  I took the shuttle from the hotel to downtown Narita, got off and wandered down the streets and alleyways until I found a place that sold sushi.  It wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.  First of all, the variety of sushi was amazing.  I had queen crab and anemone and scallops and tuna and eel, and stuff I can’t name.  I also got a lesson in how to eat it.  It’s the original Japanese fast food, my sushi man, Daisuke, told me.  You eat it with your hands.  In the old days, the dock workers would have a roll in their pouch for lunch, and just pluck it out with their hands to eat it.  Shashimi is eaten with “hashi,” or “chopsticks” for those with no real sushi experience.  The queen crab took two hands.  I had to pull the claw shell away from my mouth as I bit into it, to pull the meat off the ligaments.  Yummy!

You don’t know what you’re missing `till you’ve had the real thing!

While I was sitting at the sushi bar two flight attendants from Singapore Airlines came in.  They saw I was taking notes and asked me what I was writing.

“I don’t know,” I told them, and explained why I was there – no kids, first vacation, etc.

“You know what you should do?” the man said to me.  “You should turn off the role of being a mom, and just be a real woman.”

I over-looked the implication that moms aren’t real women, and took the advice for what it was intended to be: encouragement to be myself and have my kind of fun.  At the moment, the alarm on my iTouch went off.  It was 8:30.  Bedtime for my kids.  The cricket alarm lets them know it’s pajama-time.  I pulled it out of my purse, stopped the alarm, and turned it off completely.

“There,” I said to the pair.  “Mom-mode is switched off.”  I took a breath and felt it.  It really was gone.  There was no guilt.  My children were safe and happy, though of course we missed each other.  I felt freer than I have in decades.

When I asked the pair their names, I nearly spit my green tea out through my nose.  “Josephine,” said the woman.  And the man?  Yes.  His name was really Zen.  Incidentally, I spent the next day wandering around the nearby Buddhist Temple.

Next stop was New Mexico, where I hung out mostly with my mom, as my dad went to Puerto Rico for his older brother’s wedding.  We looked at old photo albums of my mothers, and I was amazed by her adventurous road trips to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.  We watched a very cool detective show called Murdoch Mysteries , from Canada. (I know!  How could it be? But it’s true.  It’s very cool. Check it out on Netflix.) And then my mom shocked me and said she wished she could come with me on my camping trip to the Grand Canyon.  “Alright,” I said.  And it was the best idea in the world!  I got to spend time alone on the South Rim, hiking, painting, writing, zoning out and chumming with the Chinese tourists in Mandarin, while she hung out in the easy places to get to.  We slept (well, I slept, and she fretted about bothering me) in a tent in Mather Camp Ground for two nights.  The third night, she sprung for a hotel room, and convinced me, after some arm-twisting, that I should join her.  (The arm-twisting worked when she said the word, “Shower.”)  We ate fantastic camp food like pancakes and bacon, hot dogs and s’mores, and other stuff we avoid all year.  We enjoyed our handsome Dutch pianist neighbor and his family.  His wife didn’t want him hurting his hands, so his teenaged sons split the campfire wood for us.  My mom was great company, and I’m so glad she came along.

A few words about the Canyon.  That’s all I can write, because after four days of being at its edge, and dipping myself into it a few meters, I realize the impossibility of saying anything at all that could capture it.  I could write reams about its geology, the history and diversity of its inhabitants, the variety of its visitors and the funny things they say, (One girl said, “Everybody’s trying to get some place.  We’re already there.”)  I could spend years trying to master the painting technique that would match the colors of the sky,  the layers of rock,  the green that dusts and clumps and clings to its walls, the shadows cast by clouds, or the dizzyingly spectacular sunsets.  But none of it would suffice.  One day, I will be an artist-in-residence there just so I can exercise some of that futility for five weeks.

No words or image will suffice.

After a few more days visiting family, I was off to San Francisco to help my step-daughter with her wedding.  She had planned it from Munich, where she lived, together with her fiance, who lived in Manchester.  They met in San Francisco, and bringing people together from all over the world for a wedding was easiest there.  We had four days to pull everything together for two weddings (both a Catholic and a Baha’i ceremony) plus a reception, in what I am convinced is one of the most beautiful places in the United States.  I had never been to Northern California before.  I had no idea the bragging I’d heard wasn’t an exaggeration.  And I was still on “Get out of Mommy-hood free” card.  I had so much fun looping tulle, baking cupcakes (the bride wanted six varieties for the wedding cake she was baking, so who was I to complain?), and running around trying to keep the girl sane.  On Friday, those of us present conspired to kick her out of the house, and sack her from her wedding planner position to remind her that she was the bride.

The next day was perfect.  The Catholic ceremony was held at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, where we ate fabulous almond croissants from La Boulange in the bride’s room 10 minutes before the ceremony started.  All I can say is, “Yum.”  Wow, those were good!  Plus, the wedding was beautiful, and sweet and funny. (I’ll go to my grave with the bride’s slip-of-tongue during the vows!)

Then we all trekked out to Alamo, across the Bay Bridge, up through the tunnel above the fog, and into the paradise venue that is Oak Hill Farm.    The owner, Roberta Morris, doesn’t have a website, so I can’t share a link. But I have to show some pictures.

This place had beautiful rooms for guests to stay overnight, a large pool house and pool, plenty of everything a large party needs (linens, utensils, a kitchen, a pool table and Foosball table, a bar, extra chairs and tables, etc.), and the fantastic warmth and genuine hospitality that Roberta offers.   I have to give her a plug because I don’t think people in the Bay Area know they have such a treasure of a venue available, and Roberta deserves all the recognition she can get.

The site for the Baha’i ceremony was the lawn next to pool. The deck overlooks this area as well.

Beautiful deck for dancing

Though the groom was admirable in his attempt at the couple’s first dance, my favorite was the Daddy-Daughter dance.  My honey twirled his girl around the dance floor with grace and flair.  They both look great, and the deck was perfect for dancing.

The Pool House patio had enough area for seating  about 50.  Another 20 guests were seated at the pool-side tables.

The pool. For swimming. And looking pretty next to.

The pool was gorgeous.  Some folks swam in the late afternoon.

And just because I can’t help but show off, I’ll show the Italian cream cake the bride made two days before the wedding, plus the carrot, red velvet, lemon, chocolate, and chocolate-hazelnut cupcakes we baked, and friends frosted the day before the wedding.  The Italian cream was beautifully decorated by the groom’s mother, who carted the makings all the way from Britain, and almost had them confiscated twice by airport security.

Soooo yummy!

I’m happy to report that the Mommy-switch works just fine.  I was able to be in full mommy-mode each morning when I Skyped with my little doodle-bugs, and slid right into place when I returned to China, with my kids no worse for the wear.

Ok.  So that’s  what I did on my summer vacation. It’s no match for Olivia the Piglet‘s report, but mine is wholly and completely true, with photographic evidence to prove it. There were no earth-shaking revelations or insights.  There was no explicit deep wisdom in my wanderings.  Or maybe there was.  Because what I found was pure, blissful joy in just having fun.  What a revelation.  I think I need to go and ponder that for a while.  But first, I’m going to go dance with my husband!

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