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Post #2043: When we build trails.

One of the things that Brian and I did last weekend at the cabin was some trail building. Trail restoring, really – we are working with a long-disused ATV trail (and probably, logging road from the forties though it’s hard to tell that now) – and clearing it bit by bit up and around a moose pond on the crown land behind our place. It’s a short walk up, but pretty steep, and the way is littered with the deadfall of the pine-beetle forest that it winds through. On one hand, it feels like we are making a trail in a dying place – with all the pine infested and black from standing rot; on the other, there is all sorts of regeneration going on – spruce, fir, understory plants once choked by the poor pine replants that happened in the years after the original old growth was cut.  (This was once a healthy fir forest, as evidenced by the few big old guys that remain). As we make our way up the hill, we test each rotting pine to see if we can simply push it over, away from the trail – to ensure we won’t be removing it from the trail next season. It’s incredibly satisfying to push a twenty-foot tree to the ground, if a little unsettling to confront the dying cycle of the forest at the same time.

Because the forest is so rickety, and because our cabin is located in an area prone to heavy winds – things are falling down all the time. In fact, it’s a hazard to be in the woods when they start to sway and from the porch on our cabin we can hear all manner of things fall – large and small – on most afternoons when the thermals pick up. Mornings are pretty calm though, not to mention cool, so it’s a safe bet for getting out with our saw, machete, and trail tape. We are doing a significant marking job up there because I want to snowshoe the area, and once a few inches fall it starts to get pretty impossible to tell what’s going on otherwise.

Trail-building is an endless exercise – with the satisfaction of bringing order to a place, laid alongside the frustration of having to clear the same ground over and over. Just when you get one section done, a tree falls over, or a branch shatters across the clearing – and there is more sawing and lifting to bring it back to rights so as to proceed. We have no illusions about the permanence of this trail, it had almost disappeared in spots before we found it – the connection to the road where the ATVs used to come up is severed by trees which have fallen across it. (We hope no one bothers to come up with a chainsaw – but it seems to have been forgotten sometime ago.) We also want to expand on an old animal/hunter (?) trail around the moose pond so that it becomes possible to snowshoe up and around the pond without getting lost.

As we worked together and talked about our task last week, it occurred to me how much trail-building and maintenance is like meditation practice – the foundation is often laid before us in the form of an old road or animal track – but it is up to us to walk it repeatedly in order to wear it into place. Even as we do that work – walking the pathway over and over – things fall into our way all the time. We get tripped up by a bad emotional reaction, a death in the family, the loss of a job, our own ego struggles – like the dead trees that fall – we must clear them, set them to the side, even allow them to be guides along the way – so that we can progress to the next point in our walk where we are confronted by some more debris that needs tending.

But like meditation, there is no endpoint. There are some views along the way, perhaps a rest by a shaded pond in the deep of the forest, but the trail is never finished – which is both a source of inspiration and the overwhelm of the infinite nature of such ventures. It’s mostly quiet though, and so the very nature of the work is restorative to the soul and the surround, even as the path can be a bit of a slog sometimes.

This was a new thing for us together and I love that we have found this practice up above our land – Brian and I – moving forward along an overgrown trail and learning about our own capacities as we go.

 

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Post #2040: Into the cloud?

I am writing this blog post from the middle device you see in the picture above – my new Chome Book flip – a 10-inch mini-laptop that also doubles as a tablet. It’s a bit of an experiment in two things for me really

  1. Will I use a tablet and,
  2. Am I willing to move entirely into the cloud for my next laptop purchase a year or two down the road.

I have always been a diehard Apple user – and my last four computers have been some variety of Apple laptop. I am currently running a 15-inch MacAir which I love for it’s light weight and metal case. It’s both durable and portable and I’ve been running it for the last two years with no problems (and I expect it to last me quite awhile longer).

But over the same period of time I’ve started to put more and more of my material into cloud services for easy access. I no longer use native apps on my laptop, and have pretty much exclusively moved to Google Drive apps for creating documents and storing files. While I wouldn’t put anything sensitive into the cloud – most of what I do doesn’t fall into that category – web coding, paper writing, random bits of research of interest to no one but me. This habit means that no matter whether I am at work, on my phone, on the road in an airport, or anywhere else – using any device – I can always access the stuff I am currently working on. It also means that I am always 100% backed up without any effort on my part.

It is this tendency that has lead me to question whether I need the traditional laptop anymore at all – or whether Internet connectivity has finally reached the ubiquitous state in my life, that I can rely it entirely for access to my documents. So the mini Chrome Book was inexpensive (less than $300 Cdn) and gives me the ability to test that theory. It also gives me a portable e-reader and all-round device that is larger than my phone, but smaller than my laptop (which I rarely carry around due to its size). This Asus Chrome Book flip has the same metal case that I love on my Mac Air, and has a durable feel to it – meaning I’m not afraid to throw it in my purse without an extra case around it.

For storage purposes (the device comes with 16 G built in) I will purchase a mini-SD card that will allow a larger download of music and some file storage for when my connectivity isn’t great or I don’t feel like using my data plan hotspot off my phone.

So I am playing this morning, by writing this on the bus as I head into work – and then publishing it via my phone/data connection in a truly mobile fashion.

I definitely have some kinks to work out still – like photo storage options – but so far, so good. I plan to take only this device with me to the cabin this week and test its full range rather than relying on my laptop at all.

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Post #2038: The big lessons in life…..

I feel like I’m ready to give up on people in general. Not the people I love, not the people who support me and love me back for my intrinsic self. But I’m feeling exhausted by pretty much everyone else – and I have at least a couple of relationships in which I’ve started to feel pretty much used. I have to check this feeling because I have some social anxiety issues that pop up every once and awhile which can cause me to interpret things in unintended ways – but after months of a certain kind of treatment, I’m pretty sure I’ve detected a pattern that leaves me pretty sad and unable to keep reaching out with invitations to certain folks.

Fortunately, loss is something that comes up frequently in my meditation practice – something that comes up frequently in dharma teachings really, but my own losses are sharp sticks which I bump up against often and I’m working with them. Not exactly letting go, but living with – and I find that accepting my past deep losses more fully, instead of wishing they weren’t mine or had never happened, allows me to more quickly recognize and step away from the pain of the smaller slings and arrows that are a part of daily relations. Not only that, but the gratitude for those who have been with me on my life path for many years, my oldest friends and my current partner, grows each time I see clearly the relationships which are not characterized by a mutual trust and respect.

I don’t feel the need to be dramatic, to sever ties with words or actions which I cannot take back,  I am comfortable with the unfolding of things as they are. But it does help to realize when actions are fruitless so one doesn’t waste their energy in pursuit.

The photograph above was taken this morning on my way into work – I’ve never noticed the words on this hoarding before – but they seem appropriate to how I’m feeling right now. I’m not too afraid to let go of what isn’t working for me, not scared enough to accept poor treatment in ways that I used to just let it go. It’s these words that I’m sitting with today.

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Post #2037: On the hundred and first day

Today was day one-hundred-and-one for me – that is – days in a row that I have meditated. I have a timer on my phone that I use when I sit down to meditate, and that also keeps track of the number of days I meditate for thirty  minutes or longer. The time setting is my doing as thirty minutes feels like a minimum amount to me and something I can always fit into my schedule, though mostly these days I sit for forty-five minutes – and in retreat or at the zen-dō, much longer.

I’m not sure that there’s anything in my life that I have done unfailingly for a streak of a hundred days or more – not even flossing my teeth – so on one level it seems like a big deal to me. On another level, I know meditators who have sat every day for the last twenty years or more – and in that context, one hundred days is nothing. In a month I will be coming up on two years of practicing meditation – another milestone that is both large and small.

As usual, there was nothing particularly special about my meditation this morning – forty-five minutes of attempting to focus on my breath, and my breath alone. My mind played across all the things I am working on, delved into the problem of other people’s expectations, did some self-justifying routines about recent decisions I have made – and got pulled back in to become the breath over and over, for a few seconds at a time.

It’s not magic, this practice. And I don’t have the kind of mind that produces visions or revelatory voices – so mostly it doesn’t even feel insightful. And yet it provokes my curiosity endlessly  – glimpses of the mind in its settled state, seconds in which the mind and body integrate to create the relaxation of holism, the occasional glance over the precipice of no-self, and deep feelings of universal love that wash up at the most unexpected moments. This morning practice that I do tints every other aspect of my days as though through a filter which slows down time and reaction instead of refracting light and colour.

And so I am certain that these hundred days will be followed by another hundred, and another. I feel quite sure that this is a lifelong practice, no longer just an experiment to see what it is like. I could be wrong about that of course, but in my current thrall I can’t imagine not getting up and taking my place on the cushion each morning – never sure of what the next breath will bring.

 

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Post #2017: Taking refuge in sangha

My meditation tracker tells me that today marks fifty days in a row that I have sat in meditation – and I can attest that there was no cheating either: I sat in meditation for twenty to sixty minutes first thing in the morning on all of those days – which far surpasses my previous record of nineteen days in a row last summer. I’m not sure how much it matters except that it indicates to me that morning meditation has become such a central part of my daily routine that I do not even skip it on Saturdays anymore (which I frequently used to) – like coffee, it gets my day headed in the right direction. Which isn’t to say that it’s always glorious, or insightful, or restful – but it’s available to me to drop into like a comfortable seat, and who doesn’t want that in their life?

Yesterday I went to the Mountain Rain Zendo for the first time in about a week and a half. Sadly, I couldn’t be there for the half-day retreat, but showed up for the AGM in the afternoon. Being new to this community and practice center, it was important to me that I attend the meeting, if only to understand better the day-to-day operation of the society and its community. I have been a part of many organizations in my life, and have also sat on the boards of non-profits and unions – and far from that being enriching or enjoyable, all that experience has made me somewhat gun shy of joining anything, ever again. Here I am reminded of the time I was encouraged to run for the board of a local media co-operative, and once elected discovered that as a society Director I was at least partially responsible for finding $50,000 in operating funds that the organization was short. Had I known how dire the situation was beforehand, I would have never run for the board (and thus, I learned to pay attention to the financials of things).

But when I sat on the meditation bench at the zendo yesterday, joining a circle of others there to discuss the concrete matters of the organization, I felt myself brimming with strong and positive feelings. Partly I think it’s because I’ve missed going to the Sunday meditation and service, but also because I’ve gotten to know many of the people there over the past several months and it was nice to sit down with them in community discussion. Since the first (very rainy) day last December when I entered the storefront space on Wall Street – I have felt welcomed and encouraged by the people I have met there, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that during that same time, I have developed a much stronger daily practice.

Yesterday we broke into small groups for conversation about the current state of the organization and where we would like to see it go. During the first part of that, I gave my reflections on the zendo as a newcomer – how I had found it to be supportive of my practice and how impressed I was by its self-sustaining nature. One of the other group participants asked me why I thought that was so – and I was honest when I said that I thought that it is because we have so many people who come from various community and social justice background and are open in sharing their own personal stories, knowledge and time. Our teachers are the anchors, but over the months of attending I see how many people shoulder the organization together – with a much higher rate of people participating than I ever saw in my activist and non-profit work (most of which was characterized by a lot of people needing to speak at every meeting but not taking much actual responsibility for getting things done).

I have had a lot of things fall apart for me in communities and I am aware that things always look bright in the beginning – so I’m wary of my own first impressions here. But the material signs are so far good – financial solvency, a physical space that is well taken care of, competent people who take care of one thing or another as their skills permit, an ethics policy designed to deal with harassment and abuse. And the practice of careful listening that we work with each week in tea circle, most obviously carries through to other types of discussions and meetings – with much given for the work that people undertake. It’s because of this that I joined the community council yesterday – the body which takes care of some of the more practical aspects of community life (leases, donations, membership, registrations and more). This may be premature, but I feel drawn to giving my skills to this community so that in some way I can help it to continue being this bright spot in my life and the lives of others.

In Buddhist service we often chant the refuges (sometimes in Pali, sometimes in English) in which we affirm our home and safety in the Buddha (or symbol of enlightenment), the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). When I first began going to services, I would simply read from the text and follow along, but lately I’ve noticed that some of the vows, the chants, the offerings have started to resonate inside me, long after the service is over. The notion of taking refuge and the places in which we find them is one of those things that keeps rattling around inside me, and each time I drop into my meditation seat at the zendo I feel at home in the companionship of silence. That is a true refuge, each and every time I seek it and I am so incredibly grateful for it.

* The above photo was taken in 2007 at Storm Bay, BC in a little meditation spot at the top of a hill overlooking the water. I discovered it while reorganizing some photo files and thought it appropriate for this post…..

 

 

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Post #2016: Twenty-five years between one grad and another.

My step-daughter M. graduated from high school yesterday, which coincidentally was also the day that I was supposed to graduate from my Master’s program (scheduling conflicts mean that I will convocate in the fall instead). I surprised myself by feeling both overwhelming proud of M. and also a little bit sad for myself because although I am a grown up and can delay the satisfaction of graduating, I’m afraid that I will be doing it on my own because my friends all went up yesterday. And then I wonder, at this stage of the game how much the cap and gown thing matters anyway. When you leave high school, that graduation is such a big deal – it signifies a whole shift in life and expectations, the beginnings of adulthood, a move away from what is familiar towards unknown (exciting and terrifying) things. An undergrad degree denotes a similar shift – to the world of work, away from the supporting pillars of school life and financial aid, to being taken more seriously (or not). These are big life things, and so we mark them with pomp and circumstance (literally, they played that at M’s grad ceremony yesterday), awards and speeches.

But twenty years into this adult thing, completing a degree is just one more thing you do – for fun or work reasons – and you don’t really expect anyone to get all that excited about it (except my partner, he gets plenty excited and I love him for it).

All that aside, I find myself with a lot of emotions this week – triggered by this whole grad from high school that we marked yesterday. I am so interested to see what M. does next, curious about her way in the world, anticipating her discoveries as she moves into residence at the university in the fall and starts her own academic path. On the other hand, I can’t help but reflect on how different she and I are, how much easier a person she is in the world than I was at her age, how challenged I was upon graduation – how unhappy my life was for many years after that. Yesterday when we drove to the ceremony I told my partner that whatever she does, I don’t really care, but that I hope she can find her way to a happy life. And by that I meant, find her way to a happy life a lot sooner than I did.

Because for some reason I felt like the struggle against myself and everyone else was essential to who I was – anger, sadness, distance were all too familiar in my life to that point. I believed that I was marked for distress and depression and that those things were the *real* whereas any focus on joy or beauty was somehow artificial. And as one does, I reinforced those feelings with drugs and alcohol and sex and low-paying work – until they were all that was true about who I was going to be.

Fortunately, I have a strong life wish – it turns out – so strong that even this delusional state couldn’t keep me from finding things to be interested in. Mostly that interest turned around how I could get a job that paid more than minimum wage – which seems shallow – but it’s what propelled me into college, and then to the city and university. The beaten-down character of my own experiences made me rage for social justice and so I found actual things to focus my anger on (rather than myself). And so rather than fizzling out young, I spent my twenties and much of my thirties fighting the world and healing myself – though it was mostly fighting and not enough healing – growing my capacity for life bit by bit as I advanced along my path. I got the degree and a good job, I played fiddle in a band, and got into long-distance hiking, I bought my first house on my own and learned how to drive, I fought with the police and I got a good therapist, and sometimes I even felt like I was starting to “get it” – which was a long way from where I started on my path to adulthood.

And now I am 42, having learned that it is possible to turn towards joy rather than away from it. Which sounds crazy right? Because who would turn away from joy when it appeared? But we do it when we don’t know any better – and it took me a long time to know better about my worth in the world and my capacity for love. Which doesn’t mean that I have no sorrows, but that I am learning to accept each feeling as transitory – the good and the bad – which makes the world a much easier place for me.

It’s all this which I reflect on as I watch M. grow up, seventeen years old now, thirty in the blink of an eye. She has none of the edges that I did at her age, for which I am glad, but I wonder what *is* programmed in her (by her parents, by society, by media) that will impede her road to a happier life. I wonder if she will (mercifully) figure it out earlier than I did, than her father did. And I hope so much that she *can* get to it sooner rather than later so she can enjoy more of a life with grace rather than resistance. What she does in terms of work, love, children – doesn’t matter so much to me as how she *is* in the world.

But then, it’s our struggles for and against these tendencies which make us whole – and it’s the work of our lives to become fully human. I want an easier time for her of course, but too easy and she might miss the lessons of the journey altogether. I look at her and wish that at seventeen I was as possessed and confident as she is, but I also know that my hardships have brought me into a brighter life than I ever expected possible.

It’s remarkable, these milestones, and what they uncover in us – one by one.

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Post #2014: Finding my seat

I don’t want to be one to fetishize where I meditate because it feels like one more excuse that gets in the way of practice. My friend, D., for example will only meditate in beautiful (outdoor) spaces. Because we live and work in a city, and getting to a park where one feels safe and private everyday is challenging, my friend only meditates once or twice a month. In the wintertime, it’s probably much less. When I first started sitting, I was determined to fit it in every day, often at home in the morning – but at other times in ugly little rooms at the university or work, facing a corner of my office, trying to find my zen on a pillow in a hotel room, sitting on the edge of a bathtub with the door locked because it was the only place separate from other people. And that really is the point, I think, to bring ourselves into present moment awareness wherever we happen to be – in transit, at home, in cities, or in nature – without waiting for the perfect circumstances that might never arise.

Having said all of that, this weekend I spent part of my time at the cabin building a special meditation place – pictured above! Just off the back of our property line (the property behind us is lightly forested on the property line and then logged the rest of the way up) – I built this little piece of flat ground out of a pallet and some scrap wood left on the site by our work crew, and rocks collected around the deer trail that it’s situated on.

As mentioned, it’s up in the trees, far off the road and out of sight from our cabin/outhouse/tent platforms – in a location that I am pretty confident no one ever walks – and it provides a level place to set up my bench or cushion in solitude. It’s a bit of a steep trek up, but once there I am free to practice open awareness to the sounds of birds, insects, and trees moving in the breeze – aware that enlightenment is easy on such mountaintops, but still grateful to carve out a dedicated practice place in the forest.

 

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Post #2008: What I did on the long weekend…..

I guess I just dropped out there for the last ten days or so didn’t I? It’s not like I didn’t know I was going to disappear for a few minutes, because I had big plans that came to fruition over the last ten days, but I didn’t give any warning either. I just stopped posting again – which sometimes happens just because, but this time happened *because*.

Over the last ten days I pulled together a fabulous cocktail party for Brian’s birthday, drove up to our cabin at Link Lake for three days, and then left on Thursday for a four-day meditation retreat on Denman Island. It’s this last item I’m going to write about now, the other two adventures will be the subject of blog posts later this week (though the photo above was taken at Link Lake, I was not taking any photos while on retreat!)

Originally, my friend K. stated a desire and intention that we do a silent meditation retreat together – this was about a year ago, when I was pretty new to meditation and didn’t have any particular practice/tradition/sangha except an interest in breath-focused, sitting meditation – so I did what we all do in such circumstances: Google. In my searches I had discovered The Hermitage on Denman Island, and was caught in particular by the teaching description of Dr. Cheryl Fraser, a professional therapist and a Dharma teacher who was offering a meditation workshop suitable for beginners in May 2014. Without enough notice, my friend and I could not attend, but I kept my eye out for the 2015 spring program and when it arrived online early this year (or late in 2014), I noticed the same teacher and a similar sounding workshop and let my friend know to which she replied a definite yes! to going.

So I signed up and around the same time (at my friend Carmen’s suggestion) I got involved with Mountain Rain Zen Community which is close to my home and has some great teachers (the local teachers are fantastic and the head teacher Norman Fischer is full-stop amazing). After a fashion I learned that there was a non-residential retreat with Norman Fischer scheduled for the first weekend in May, and my friend K. was showing signs of not having signed up for the retreat on Denman (as in, she never confirmed that she had signed up – I had a feeling it wasn’t happening for her). So I was thinking I would cancel because it was out of the way for me, because I was getting a different retreat opportunity and so on and so on.

But then! My friend C. signed herself up at least partly at my encouragement, and so I didn’t cancel. Instead what ended up happening is in the month of May I had my first two significant meditation retreat experiences – and I regret neither.

This past weekend marked a bunch of firsts for me including: first residential retreat, first retreat more than two days in length, first meditation sitting of up to two hours, first time not absolutely hating yoga (but I still don’t like it very much). And even though I was entering something pretty new to me on one level (all meditation all the time, no phone, no reading, no writing) – the fact that I have a daily practice, belong to a meditation community, attend my zendo weekly, am used to sitting in small and large groups, and have spent lots of time in alternative communities – meant that I felt pretty much at ease from the very first sit to the last. Not that I was comfortable most of the time – I am not someone who finds meditation physically easy, and there are certainly lots of emotional ups and downs in any practice – but the setting and discipline didn’t freak me out at all.

That was not true for everyone, and I realized (for the billionth time) that even though I have only been at this for two years, I am not longer a *beginner* meditator. I’m not super experienced, mind you, but I’ve stopped asking myself why meditate (I know the benefits first hand), and I’m not worried about my ability to sit through discomfort the way I used to be. That’s a start anyhow.

And it’s where I started from this past weekend, which doesn’t mean there weren’t internal struggles (I had the happy fun times experience of working with judgement for at least two solid days), or that it was easy (I felt fucking heroic at the end of two hours of sitting, let me tell you). But I did realize after sitting for four days that somewhere along the past two years of practice, I have “leveled up” and I am not only able to sit, but also to accept the teachings that go along with meditation. Which is to say that I am at a point in my life where I don’t simply listen to the dharma talks in order to get the meditation instruction, but I go to meditation practice in order to hear the dharma. Or to put it another way, it has become increasingly apparent that meditation is just the gateway drug and it’s got me hooked into something much more potent (which is not magic, which allows me to continue in my atheism,  and which has psychology and neuroscience as its basis – so don’t worry, I haven’t gone crazy).

I don’t want to detail about all the many things that passed through my mind as I was sitting, walking, or lying down in my cabin – they probably aren’t much interesting to anyone but me – but the most revealing aspect of the depth of my experience on retreat came as we left the grounds towards home. It turned out that after four days of meditation, C. and I were so relaxed that we made a two-ferry, long-weekend, six-hour journey with a one-sailing wait trip home to Vancouver without a word of complaint, a feeling of frustration, or a whisper of disappointment. For real. Mind blown.

I’m back at work today and still feeling a little of the afterglow (I increased my daily sitting time by 15 minutes this morning and was startled when the timer went off because it seemed like no time at all) but also a bit fragile, a bit afraid of the demands on my attention, the requests I must fulfill. To compensate and to boost my spirits, this afternoon I booked the time off for two weeks of vacation and two more retreats in the next few months (July and November) – things I had planned before this last weekend, and which allowed me to leave retreat a bit more easily. Which means I’m going back, as soon as I can pretty much make it happen, it really was that good – but not in any way I can really describe.

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Post #2007: The after conversation (what I should have said).

Yesterday I was waiting for the bus on Nanaimo Street when a car pulled up alongside me and a woman got out. She approached (I was the only one there) and said, “Excuse me, we’re going around the neighbourhood asking a question of our neighbours – do you have a minute?” To which I said yes, thinking perhaps it was about the increase in break-ins or some new development that was making people unhappy. I did not notice that her hands clasped a small bible, but even if I had, I would have said yes anyway.

“Do you believe that all the suffering in the world is caused by God?” she asked. To which my unconsidered response was “No, I do not believe that. I’m a non-believer,” and as the pained look spread across her face I said, “I hope you have a good day.” Then she got back into the car her friend was waiting in, and they drove away.

The exchange took perhaps only one or two minutes, and as they left I realized how inadequate my response was – for it is not true that I am a non-believer. I do believe in the miracle of science, the capacity for humans to change themselves, the wonder of natural beauty, and the tenacity of life struggling to survive this time and place. And more to the point I have faith – faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, that mostly we will continue to do our best to fix things, that I will find the strength to exist even in times of great suffering, that my love – though physically finite – reverberates through the people with whom I connect.

I sold myself short by saying “I don’t believe,” when really I meant, “I don’t believe in God”. I don’t believe in a world controlled by an entity. I don’t believe in the limitations set forth in the books of any religion. But that’s such a small part of what there is – I would rather be understood as turning toward instead of turning away from.