Friday, December 20, 2019

Looking Forward To A New Year 2019

I made a resolution many years ago to no longer make New Year’s resolutions, and I’m fairly certain that’s the only resolution I’ve ever managed to keep. I’m not really a resolutions kind of person. I prefer to just do things and, like so many people, when I do state in advance what I am going to do, I tend to bite off more than I can chew and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work out. This can end up making things worse rather than better, so I just opted out of the whole system.

If it works for you, use it. It can be a good tool, and some people work better when they have that plan laid out in front of them. There is no One Size Fits All solution. I don’t think I can ever say that often enough. I do not tell you what works for me so that you will do what works for me. I tell you what works for me so that you can see that things work, see ideas for how they work, and adapt those ideas to what will work for you. If what works for me does work for you, great! Use that. If not, though, just adapt to fit. Variety is part of what makes life magical, but it can also make functioning in life difficult.

What works for me is light planning and then jumping in. I do the same thing with most of my activities. When I am writing, I am often as surprised by the ending as anyone. Even when I have a grand plan for what is going to happen, that is rarely what ends up happening. As short as these articles are, there have been a couple times now when I had to change the title after I was done because what got written was not what I had sat down to write. It seems to work though.

I do need that light planning, though, or I might go off on a random tangent, and that doesn’t always have the best results. One of the tricks I use for that is simple notes. Rather than plan out or even outline what I am going to do, I will make a small list of, for example, five things I want to cover. I will put them in an order that seems to flow smoothly and then I will write a paragraph or two about the first one. Write a paragraph or two about the second one, and see if they flow as smoothly as I had thought. Adjust as needed, and keep going.

You should know by now that the last part there is pretty much the theme of my life. Adjust as needed, and keep going. No matter how well planned you make it, life is going to throw you surprises. If you can’t adjust, those surprises may break you, but if you can keep it light and make changes as you need them, you can then weave the changes into the tapestry that is your life and make something new come out of the process.

If you need a plan, plan. Use the tools you need when you have them available. Just make sure your tools aren’t using you. Don’t get so hung up on the plan that you can’t adjust to life’s surprises. Spending too much time looking ahead can be just as bad as spending too much time in the past. The point of living is to live, and to do that you must be in the present. You are living right now. What you did yesterday is gone, and what you may do tomorrow you also may not do. Right now is the only thing you have for certain, so make sure that you are making the most of it. Use the past and the future as the tools you need when you need those tools, but live now.

One of the best things about the New Year’s celebration, and the tradition of resolutions that goes with it, is the symbolism of ending something old and beginning something new. Have you had a difficult year? It’s over now, and here’s a new one that you can build to your liking. Have you had a good year? Use it as a foundation as you begin to build this new story. Everything gets to be new now, and that includes you. The new year is a great time to look at making a new you. Turn the page, close the last chapter, and start writing this new one knowing that you can do anything with it. You will be building from the past, because your past has led you to this point, but where you go from here is up to you. You can stay the course or change direction, as you need and as you choose.

Don’t be afraid to make a mess while you’re doing it. If you’ve had a difficult time and need to make some changes, you’re probably going to get dirty. Making life changes can be rough work, but the results can be amazing. I’ve been listing to “Cut the Cord” from Shinedown, and that is basically what it’s about. As vocalist Brent Smith explained in an interview with Billboard:

"'Cut The Cord' is a wake up call reminding us all that we can control our own destiny by finding the courage and tenacity to destroy whatever it is that's holding us back. The process may not be pretty or perfect or even easy, but absolutely necessary. The song is brutally honest and unapologetic, which is what Shinedown has always been."

Sometimes you have to be brutally honest and unapologetic, and that includes being so with yourself. When it comes time to change, the hardest person to convince can often be yourself. Don’t believe what’s holding you down. Cut the cord and fly.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I can acknowledge a few things that are going to happen. I will continue to work on being healthier, and that includes physical, mental, and emotional health. I will spend a little more time exercising and a little more time meditating, and a little less time worrying and stressing. It won’t be a perfect balance, but I’ll keep working toward making it better, and that is really all we can do. I’ll keep writing because I have remembered that’s what I do. I have definitely found that it helps, and I will continue to hope that it helps you as well. I will continue to be a father, a husband, and a friend, and hope that I can be the best of those that I am able to be. I will continue to be obsessed with music. When I die, eventually, it will be the loudest memorial service you’ve ever heard, with a wildly eclectic combination of musical farewells. I will continue to be me, and I will continue to invite you to join me on this journey of discovering exactly what that means.

Happy New Year to each and everyone of you. I look forward to seeing what it brings, and I intend to bring all my best to it. I hope you will do the same. If we all make such a resolution, the new year can’t help but be great. Peace be with you, and let’s keep moving forward.

Check out the video for "Cut the Cord" below and, as always, all copyright belongs to the artists.

Originally published 2015

We will be on vacation for the next two weeks, so Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and we will see you next year. Be safe, be kind, and be merry.

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Clause 2019

One of my favorite Christmas stories of all time is not really a story. It's a letter, written in answer to a Letter to the Editor in the New York Sun in 1897. It was written by Francis Pharcellus Church, and has become the definitive answer for those who would doubt the spirit of Christmas. Most of us are familiar with it, in concept, but I believe that more people would benefit from being familiar with it, in truth. There is magic in the world because we believe, and because we believe the world can be magical. We could all use a little more magic.

***

(From the New York Sun 1897)

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

Dear Editor— I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus? Virginia O'Hanlon 115 West Ninety Fifth Street

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

***

From our family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a most joyful holiday season. However you celebrate, celebrate. Hug your loved ones, enjoy your friends and family, and thank you for being part of our family.

Originally published 2015

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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Holidays and Social Media 2019

Those who know me individually on social media know that I tend to post quite a few more pictures and status updates around holidays, with a big push around Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. To some people, this may seem like a bit much, maybe even oversharing. I want to spend a few minutes with today's Friday spotlight to address that, and maybe offer a different perspective. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to do another holiday post, and I rather enjoy holiday posts.

When I was a child, the whole family would gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My grandmother kept a stack of folding chairs in the spare bedroom, and we would bring those out, spread them around the house, and still not have nearly enough seating space. The house would be wall-to-wall children. Because I grew up in south Texas, this was handled fairly easily by tossing the children outside when their presence was not actually needed inside. That meant that we children got to file through the meal line first, so that we could get our food and get outside, out of the way. There are always benefits, if you know how to look for them.

As we got older, people moved away and the gatherings got smaller. My generation of cousins is rather large (I honestly couldn't give you a count - we collect cousins like some people collect coins), but my generation has also had far fewer children than our parents did. More of us also "left home" than was done by the previous generations, and both of these factors are generally true nationally. Family sizes have been steadily shrinking for generations now, more people live their adult lives some place far removed from where they lived their childhood than ever before. I think most of us know this, but it can lead to side effects that may go overlooked.

When I lived in south Texas and wanted to share something with my Mom, I just drove down the street. That street might be as much as thirty minutes or even an hour long - we didn't always live in the same town - but we could drive it without issue. When I wanted to share the decorations with the family, I just invited them over for barbecue, and vice versa. Obviously, things aren't so simple when you live more spread out.

If "what I want" were the only consideration, we would be back home in south Texas, and things would be easier. They still wouldn't be easy, though. Being closer to my family means being further from heather's family. Life is not always easy, and "what I want" is nowhere near the only consideration. All things taken together at the moment equals us continuing to live rather far removed from people we would rather have just down the street.

Enter social media. It isn't perfect, by any means, but social media has allowed us to share with distant people more easily than ever before. When I post those pictures of our decorations, I am sharing with the people I wish could see them in person. When they post their pictures, that is my way of staying in touch with family I can't see every day.

Try to keep this in mind when you see someone taking a picture or sharing on Facebook. It isn't always what you think. There has been a movement lately, judging people for their posts and reminding people to put down the camera and experience the moment but, for some people, that camera is part of the experience. If you have the people you want to share with right there so you can share, or perhaps if you are the type who doesn't like to share as much anyway, try to remember that not everyone has the same or is the same. Take a moment to step outside of yourself and try to be more understanding. The people around you may have experiences and needs you know nothing about. Go easy on the judgment if there isn't some kind of life-threatening need.

Originally published 2015

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Sun Returns 2019

We are quickly approaching the longest night of the year. For the northern hemisphere, the Winter Solstice this year will be on December 22*. There may be earlier sunsets or later sunrises as the Earth’s elliptical orbit marches the seasons through their patterns, but the time between the sunrise and sunset is the shortest on the Solstice, with the “day” lasting only single-digit hours in some places. It’s dark and it’s cold, and it could even be scary if you don’t understand what is happening. It is not terribly surprising that there are more overlapping cultural holidays during this time of year than at any other point on the calendar.

The Yule celebrations are among the oldest recorded holiday traditions in European history. While it is nearly impossible to put anything like exact dates to such things, we have Germanic month names going back at least to the 4th Century, and Nordic deity names going back into antiquity. Though the Prose Edda, which includes names like “Yule Father” and Yule Beings” for Odin and the gods in general, is believed to have been compiled in the 13th Century, it references tales and traditions that predate the arrival of Christianity to that part of the world, and the Midwinter celebration is common to those tales. The exact origins and traditions are lost in time - and attempting to research the subject will lead you to dozens of conflicting experts, but we know that many of our modern customs originated with these older activities, and we can surmise some of the meaning from other festivals and from contest.

Among the items that we know were carried over are the decorated Christmas trees. While it is unlikely that the earlier celebrants actually chopped down a tree and carried it indoors for decorating - the actual cutting tradition is believed to have begun in 16th Century Germany - streamers and other decorations may have been hung from living trees, and the limbs of firs and other evergreens were used as decorations for good luck and as reminders of the renewal that would soon be more evident as the days began to grow longer and the sun returned to its glory. In places where evergreens would be less common, other “magical trees” like the hawthorne or cherry tree may have been used instead. These trees symbolized renewal and rebirth, and it was a time to recognize that what was ending would begin again.

The Yule Log was an ancient tradition that probably centered around the same ideas. Again, we have to rely on commentary written in the Middle Ages discussing older customs, so the details are fuzzy, but there seems to have been communal bonfires that were part of the seasonal celebrations. Logs from these fires would be taken into the homes and burned on the hearth as a continuation of the communal event. These logs would have provided much needed light and warmth on these darkest days, and were likely the central focus of the family celebrations. It is unclear whether the bonfires were intended as an inducement for the returning sun or a celebration of its victory (or, as seems even more likely, some combination of the two), but they were almost certainly connected with the sun and its cyclical journey in some fashion.

A third custom that has fallen out of favor somewhat in modern households but still holds sway among traditionalists is the Christmas or Yule Candle. The exact origins of the connection between winter celebrations (and this includes just about all of them) and candles is unknown, but we are familiar with two specific candle traditions. The first and most well-known is the tradition of using candles to light up the trees. This custom is, of course, still in wide use, though the candles have been replaced in most cases with safer electric lighting. The other tradition involves lighting a single large candle on the eve of the solstice (or on Christmas Eve, depending on your tradition) and allowing it to burn through the night. Sometimes this candle is placed in a window to act as a beacon, and it is thought to represent faith or hope in the returning sun. It is considered to be bad luck to blow out this candle, and a piece of the candle stub is often kept to be used for lighting the candle the following year. Again, this is tied the idea of renewal, and especially of new life arising from the old.

It is significant that one of the happiest holidays on the modern calendar is anchored around the shortest day and takes place during the season that is most commonly thought of as dead. The chill winds of winter bury everything in a cold embrace and yet, in our earliest cultural memories, we looked upon this time of year as the time to celebrate the renewal of life. The human spirit is amazingly resilient, and hope is the defining element of our species. Take away the sun, and we will light the very sky on fire to bring it back.

This can be a difficult time for some people. Sunlight and physical activity are very important to good health, both physical and mental, but sunlight and physical activity can both be difficult to come by during this time of year. The days are getting shorter and colder so that, even when the sun is out, we are often huddled inside trying to stay out of the weather. We get less sunlight and physical activity, so our health tends to respond accordingly. This can be even worse if you are someone who is prone to such ailments, so it is an important time to remember that the sun does return.

Traditions serve as reminders, of history, of meaning, of what’s important. Often the things we see as just fun and games began with very serious reasons. Many modern sports were originally war or work exercises, and most holidays were established to commemorate specific events. We sing songs and celebrate, but the original cause was probably to remind us why we needed to sing songs and celebrate. That was probably easy to forget if you were huddled around a dying fire on the shortest day of the year.

This is a good time to remember that we can experience short days of the spirit as well. There may be times when you can’t feel the sun no matter how brightly it shines. You may experience an emotional solstice, so to speak, but remember, this too shall pass. The sun will return. Celebrating life under the summer sun may be easier, but celebrating life during the dead of winter is more important. That is when we need the reminder, and when it will do the most good.

Whatever your traditions, celebrate the season, and celebrate life. It may seem dark sometimes, but you know what they say about the dark and the dawn. Light a candle and see how fragile the darkness really is. The darkest night is just a reminder that tomorrow is a new day. Celebrate it. Enjoy it. Live it.

*Originally published 2019

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Monday, December 16, 2019

The Spirit of Giving 2019

For the Germanic peoples (which description covers most of northern and western Europe, parts of what is now the United Kingdom, and the Scandinavian countries), the midwinter season around the Winter Solstice was marked by the Yule celebration. Aside from a few traditions that almost everyone knows (the tree, the log, etc.) very little direct knowledge of that celebration has made it down to us today, but one thing that we do know is that part of the celebration included a belief that Odin (or his local variation), known during this season as Giftbringer or the Yule Father was believed to travel around and deliver gifts to his people. He was generally seen as wearing heavy fur-lined robes and with a long, flowing white beard. Sound familiar?

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a Greek Christian bishop in 4th Century Turkey, who was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. His Saint's Day was celebrated on December 6, and traditionally included giving small gifts to children in his honor. After Pope Julius I established the date for Christmas as December 25, the two celebrations quickly overlapped, and St. Nick's tradition of gift giving was soon an integral part of the holiday season. During the Reformation, the veneration of saints fell out of favor with the Protestant churches, and the idea of the Christkind (literally, "Christ child") was introduced to take the place of St. Nicholas as the gift bringer for the Christmas season. The Christkind would later become re-integrated with the idea of St. Nick, and would become the name Kris Kringle.

One of the reasons that the removal of St. Nicholas from the Christmas season did not fully take even among Protestants was because the Dutch would not let him go. Though I haven't been able to find any reliable information on why the Dutch were so stubborn (if anyone knows, I would be fascinated - I love good history stories), St. Nick remained a part of their traditions and was brought to the Americas with the waves of Dutch immigrants, where Sinterklaas (his Dutch name) would evolve to the now more familiar Santa Claus.

At around this same time, the English were importing Father Christmas, and the French were importing Papa Noel, two very similar figures who were usually portrayed as bearded men in red robes trimmed with white fur who traveled around delivering presents to children who had been good throughout the previous year. These presents were usually left in shoes or stocking that had been left out for that purpose, which is the origin of our modern custom of the Christmas stocking. Both figures were seen as great jovial men known for good cheer, whose arrival was anxiously awaited each year by expectant children.

St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Papa Noel, and even Odin Giftbringer all figure together to form the modern idea of Santa Claus, the jolly bearded man who slides down chimneys to bring presents to good boys and girls around the world. All of these and so many more make up our cultural idea of the Christmas season. There are various differences and similarities, but they all share the idea of gift giving. There is even a list of “Christmas gift-bringers by country” on Wikipedia, which is rather long and still listed as “incomplete”. There are people who will argue endlessly over the meaning of Christmas, but one thing that is almost universally agreed upon is the idea that you cannot have Christmas without giving.

I don’t claim to have The Answers, ever - I believe a large part of the point of life is to ask the questions, one leading to another, revising the answers as new answers are discovered, which makes having any one right Answer somewhat difficult, to say the least - but this, to me, has always been the “reason for the season,” so to speak. The point is not why we give, or even necessarily what we give, but that we give. Through giving, we make the world better for someone, which usually has the net result of making the world better for all. If it’s done right, that is. If giving is truly giving, and not the false ideas that often go around disguised as giving but really have more to do with taking, then the giver and receiver both benefit, and the world improves.

It is possible that I have a perspective which offers some unique insight into this season. Though raised in a Christian church, I was raised in a church that did not recognize religious holidays, but did not go so far as to prohibit holidays. It was a culture that split the difference in a way I have not seen among most others where such holidays are usually either all religious or entirely banned. We celebrated things like Halloween and Christmas, but without the slightest hint of theology, so we always and only focused on the secular elements of family, giving, and universal goodwill. As such, I don’t share the modern confusion when I see families celebrating Christmas in different manners. I just see families celebrating together, and I believe this is a good thing. If more families celebrated together, more children might grow up learning the value of family and, though that, the value of love and the value of life. To me, that sounds like just about the greatest gift we could offer to the modern world.

We live in difficult times, but we live in amazing times. We have so many options available to us today, it is discouraging that so many people so often choose the negative options. Still, if more of us keep choosing the positive, we can continue to push the world toward the better, and it isn’t really a choice if the alternative isn’t available.

The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving, and the spirit of giving is always at odds with the spirit of taking. We have no shortage of such open conflict in the world right now, but this is a good time to take stock, a good time to re-evaluate whether one is giving or taking. Are we lifting the world up, so that we all can see from a higher perspective, or are we driving the world down so that we can only see over the heads of the oppressed? It makes a difference. One improves the whole, and helps everyone to see further. The other might let the individual see further, but not as far, only over the heads and backs of the whole, and only temporarily. When you stamp down on one surface so that you can see past it, that ledge tends to collapse over time. Then everything falls, and we certainly don’t get to see further.

This year, gather your family close to you and celebrate the spirit of giving. Give the gifts of love, togetherness, and universal goodwill. There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Can you imagine what we could do if we were all giving, what that combined effort could accomplish? Isn’t it about time we find out? Merry Christmas to all, and to all, Good Night.

Originally published 2015.

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Friday, December 13, 2019

We Travel

As we come into the holiday season, many people are preparing to travel. We go home to see family. We go abroad to see the world. We go down the street to help build a community. Wherever you travel, remember to take the time to see what is around you. There is something you have not seen before wherever you may go, so take the time to see it. There is much to see in this world, and much to experience. Let your travels teach you and broaden your mind. Learn more so that you can be more, and you will find more ways to get the most out of life.

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Three Ways

In everything you do, you may face the choice: to be kind or to not be kind. It may be easier to not be kind, there are often quite valid-seeming excuses to not be kind, but there will never be a more right answer than to be kind. What you achieve through kindness will be more lasting, more true, and more real. Through kindness we come together, and through kindness we can be more together. That is the way we succeed, by being more together. That is why kindness will always be the more successful solution.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Two Gifts

Everything we do for our children is an act of balance. If we do not teach them enough grounding, they may be blown away by the struggles and misfortunes of life. If we cling too tightly, they may never learn to live on their own and do for themselves. We have to walk that tightrope and stay somewhere in the middle. Give them the ability to leave and the reason to come home. If we accomplish that, we have done well.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Two Ways

Chesterton was making a good point, but he missed in one small detail: you will never get enough through accumulation. No one in history who focused on accumulation has ever been known to reach a point where enough was enough. There is always more, and there is always an excuse for needing to accumulate more. If you want to ever get enough, there is really only one way, and that is to desire less. Step off of the path of accumulation and learn to be content. In most cases, almost like magic, you will learn right away that you already have enough.

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Monday, December 9, 2019

Sees The Light

Don't let the troubles of the world take away your ability to see the light. Things will go wrong. There will be bad things in life, but there will also be good. What a crime it would be if you could only see the former. Cynicism is not armor against the bad; it is a wall against the good. If you let what is bad take away what is good, you will be making things worse, not better, and it will only be to your own loss. Keep your light, and make certain that you keep seeing the light.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Advice Is Like Snow

Be careful in how you teach and advise. When done well, when done lightly, you may leave behind lessons that will last and give thought far into the future. When done poorly, when done harshly, you may drive away everything you had hoped to accomplish. When teaching is done poorly, it can be worse than no teaching at all. Think well on how you would present your lessons, and touch lightly those hearts and minds you wish to enlighten. Be a guide, not a driver, and you will often find less resistance to new ideas.

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Thursday, December 5, 2019

No Winter Lasts Forever

Dawn follows every night. Every ocean has a shore. Every storm plays itself out. There is no winter that lasts forever, and you can always begin again in a new spring. Do not let the snows weigh you down. Take the precautions you need against the fury of the storm and the dark of the night, but have faith that a new day will come. Plan for that as well. Keep going forward and know that you will have new reasons to keep going forward.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Fruit Tree In Winter

Have you ever looked at a stand of fruit trees during the winter? I mean really looked. They often seem dead. Their leaves are gone, there is no fruit, everything is dark and barren. If you only saw the tree in that one moment, you might believe that it had no past and no future, that it had never provided and would never provide again. Come back and visit that same tree during the spring, though, and see how it has come back to life. See that it has new gifts to give and new life to live, then remember, you are no different from that tree, really. A moment is only a moment, and there will be other moments to come, just as there were other moments in the past. Don't let one bad moment rob you of all of the other possibilities.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

If We Had No Winter

It is one of the oldest aphorisms in our common lexicon, but it is no less true for all of that: you can't really appreciate the good times if you don't get any bad times with which to compare them. Aside from the simple act of comparison, I believe that we would not continue to have good times if we didn't also have the bad. It is during the bad that we learn. It is from the hard times that we draw experience. It is not that we can't learn during the good, but that learning is more necessary and more driven during the bad times. Take the lessons you gain from the bad times and use them to safeguard the good.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

In Seed Time

There is a time and a place for everything. The old gives way to the new, and all life changes and grows even as some that we can see goes back into the earth. All life is a cycle, and it cannot work properly without all elements of the cycle. Do not fight against the part of the cycle in which you stand but, instead, seek to learn its reason and purpose. Align yourself with the cycle, and grow in the way of life.

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