A time to honor the darkness

Photo by Ben Breitenstein

It’s a frantic time of year...

Maybe you have a kid or three (or more?!). Maybe you have a demanding job or business that’s asking more out of you now than at any other time of year. Maybe you’ve been going non-stop since Thanksgiving (or before) running around getting trees, decorating the house, booking travel, preparing for guests, buying gifts, attending performances, going to holiday parties, and all the other hustle and bustle that this time of year brings.

If you’re reading this note, please use it as an excuse to just… take a moment.

The items on our holiday laundry list weave together to make up a giant blanket of distraction that we throw over a deeper discontent.

Take a moment to be with that stuff. Because there’s always stuff. Maybe it’s your own inner battles. Maybe it’s your relationships, finances, or health. Maybe it’s global happenings that you’ve been glazing over. Or just a sense of being overwhelmed by the tidal wave of life as it rolls over you.

But the thing about discontent is that it doesn’t stay under the covers for very long. It always tries to break into the light of your awareness so it can be released and healed.

No need to battle it (it’s like throwing punches at shadows, trust me). No need to brainstorm solutions or try to figure it all out. This isn’t about that.

It’s about honoring whatever ails you. Turn down the Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, or whatever other God-awful holiday music is playing on repeat and breathe through it. You might need a moment.

I’m big on the seasons. And as we approach the darkest day of the year, it’s a great opportunity to… be a little dark. Don’t let it overtake you. But grab it by the arm and walk with it for a few minutes.

Then grab another eggnog, throw down another sugar cookie, and get back in the game.


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Lay off my blue Christmas

Photo by Annie Spratt

I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for the epic commercial American Christmas. Red, green, tinsel, silver bells and — you guessed it — candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup (Elf fans, anyone?).

I start playing Christmas songs as soon as my wife lets me (she’s very strict) — usually right after Thanksgiving (though I always test my luck by trying to sneak them in after Halloween — it never works).

This year, however, I had a couple strong Charlie Brown moments.

I just don’t understand Christmas. I might be getting presents, sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

— Charlie Brown

Once, when I went to a Christmas concert downtown. And again when I went to a Christmas light show at the Chicago Zoo. Just a year or three ago, I would have loved it. But this year, it was too much sparkle. Too many people. Too commercial. Too much forced joy.

For the few years prior to this one, we’ve attended a certain branch of spiritual centers that have hosted big, epic Christmas celebrations with all the American Christmas trappings on stage (Mr. & Mrs. Claus, reindeer, big wrapped presents, elves, etc.). And they’ve been a lot of fun — really.

As some of you know, since my deconstruction of secular spirituality this year, we’ve found our spiritual home at a small Lutheran church near our apartment. And since advent started on the 2nd of December, I’ve not heard ONE mainstream American Christmas song. We even went to an Advent sing-along where I was expecting at least one or two familiar Christmas tunes, but nope… Not one mention of frosty, Rudolph, or old St. Nick.

It threw me off. But I gotta tell you, it’s been so refreshing.

Our sermons and hymns throughout this Advent season have addressed the ‘blueness’ of this time of year (literally, this branch of Lutheranism uses the color blue during Advent — the robes, altar cloth, etc. — unlike most churches who use purple, a much cheerier color). It’s a nod to the darkness, the somberness, and the place of hoping and waiting that many of us are in this time of year.

In short, it’s been real. 
And I love it.

It’s odd how soothing it feels to sit in a space where this sadness — this blueness — is honored without trying to whitewash it away with the jingle jangle of Christmas distractions.

I don’t care how great your life may look on the outside, I believe that emotions such as sadness, longing, loneliness, and angst (even — if we go further in this direction — emotions such as terror and grief) are a natural part of the human experience. Just a glance at the news, your neighbor, and your own inner movements are enough to bring us to this place (at least temporarily).

But in our modern American culture, we’ve deemed this kind of thing bad — clinical, even. It’s a PROBLEM and we must FIX it. We MUST be HAPPY ALL THE TIME!!! Here, buy this thing or distract yourself with the little red notifications that give you a temporary dopamine boost.

And so, for you, this Christmas — may you honor whatever sadness or somberness or loneliness or various other types of darkness that are hanging around your headspace or heartspace right now.

May you know that you’re not the only one feeling blue this time of year. It’s just that a lot of people are really good at faking that they’re not.

As well-meaning as these cheery people are, they can have the opposite effect on those of us who are blue. Instead of lifting us up to their level of cheer, all they do is provide a contrast that makes us feel worse.

And so, I say to them, lay off my blue Christmas. Your reds and greens and golds are making my blues bluer. Right now, I’m enfolded by blue. It feels good to feel.

I also know that the brightest light can only show up in the midst of the most intense darkness. No need to rush it. I just know it’s always there, ready to shine through.

May you feel okay in your blueness this blue, blue Christmas.


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Christmas is for the heavy-hearted

Photo by Barna Kovács

We’re approaching the middle of December. For as much joy that’s in the air, this time of the year also carries a heavy sadness and angst for many.

If you’re in this boat, it can feel like the holidays aren’t for you, but rather for those happy, jolly people over there singing their carols and taking those perfect selfies with shopping bags stuffed to the brim.

And you may be right. ‘The holidays’ might be for ‘them’. But Christmas — at least, in the tradition I follow — is for you.

Not the secular, consumerist Western brand of Christmas (not to hate on it — there’s a big place in my heart for the good ole’ commercialized American Christmas), but the one that emerges from the life of a king who was born in a rickety old barn and who died a failure as far as Western (or even Near Eastern) measurables go. He wasn’t big on SMART goals. His success rate was sorely lacking. He didn’t ‘crush it’ in the success department.

This was a God who slipped into skin and entered the experience of the lowly, not to shame or even change the sorrowful, but to live and love in solidarity with them.

I’ve spent many Christmas seasons on the heavy-hearted boat. Even today, as I’ve somehow ended up with a nice spot in life, good health, a few bucks in the bank, a loving family, great friends and family, etc., I jump on and off of this boat all season long.

But now I see, as I deepen in my faith, that Christmas is for the heavy-hearted.

Because it’s in these low moments that our hearts can truly be expanded and our vision restored. When we’re down in it, we yearn to feel — really feel — loved and secure in the midst of our sorrow. In short, we demand something from God because we sure as hell aren’t finding it in the earthly realm.

When you have it all, I can’t help but think you might have a hard time connecting with the depth and density that the bleakness of this Christmas season carries with it.

When you’ve built up enough material wealth and security (whatever that exact dollar amount is, I’m not sure) you’ve ‘made it’ as far as our culture is concerned. You’re a fully self-sufficient individual. How can you remain receptive and open to the divine mystery behind all of life when everything has fallen into place for you?

Some do, but it takes a humbleness that many in such a high stature lack (or may have abandoned when their ship came in).

I’d imagine — and maybe I’m wrong — that you might see yourself as God. Because who needs God when you’re financially set living in the US? You’re it! You’ve won the game!

But what does life look like when you become God? When the dominion of God stops at the boundaries of your vulnerable flesh, how does this feel?

I’d imagine it’d be a shaky place to live. Perhaps like sitting atop a very tall ladder with emptiness above you and the possibility of a very long fall below you.

And so this note goes out as a hopeful message to the sorrowful and heavy-hearted this Christmas.

Christmas, my friend, is for you. May God meet you and embrace you where you are and may you know, if even from a whisper within, that you are loved.

Amen.

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The grace-driven Santa

Photo by rawpixel

He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and…

Ugh… It’s such a weird way to manipulate the behavior of our kids, isn’t it?

Now, before I start, let me say that I’m a big fan of Santa Claus. When I see Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I get an instant hit of the warm and fuzzies. I grew up with the Santa tradition and to this day, I carry the fondest memories awaiting Santa and his sleigh on Christmas Eve.

But when Santa remained real (in a literal sense) to me, I definitely lived with a healthy fear of ending up on the naughty list. And, truth be told, I equated the Santa story with the God story. I wanted to stay on that ‘good’ list. And it helped calm my insecurities when I’d spot kids who I deemed to be on the ‘bad’ one.

Thank goodness I wasn’t one of THEM (or was I?!).

In all honesty, with our daughter these last couple of years, we’ve perpetuated this good/bad Santa. Why? Because it works! Want your kid to stop being a little sh*t? Tell them Santa Claus is going to find out. The behavior changes — immediately.

But here I am this season with another go-around. And I have that feeling in the pit of my stomach that just doesn’t sit well. From what I’m seeing now, there are three problems with the traditional Santa story…

  1. There comes a time when kids catch on to this tactic. And with my daughter — at five years old and already browsing the internet — this time is quickly approaching (damn you, Google, and your highfalutin information!).
  2. Unlike my childhood growing up in a conservative rural town, my daughter lives in a giant city. Kids who are less fortunate and don’t get presents for Christmas are a very real thing to her.
  3. (The biggie, for me — as I alluded to earlier:) Thinking back, as harmless as it seemed, the legend of the good/bad Santa definitely added to the binary polarization of my world. There were the ‘good’ kids. And there were the ‘bad’ kids. Hopefully, they enjoy the coal in their stocking (and even maybe an afterlife of eternal torment and damnation).

My daughter doesn’t get off so easy. Living in a big city with WiFi and having a dad who thinks deeply (too deeply?) about these things — the traditional Santa just won’t cut it.

And so, what to do with the Santa story?

How can we keep the magic of Santa alive while tying in the unconditional grace of the divine?

(She’s already equating Santa to God — she told me.)

This year, we’re going with the grace-driven Santa...

Here’s the narrative we’ve pieced together (roughly). Remember, I’m just stumbling my way through parenthood — by no means am I an expert. But maybe you can institute some elements from it in your home:

No matter what people tell you (or what Mom and I have told you in the past), Santa doesn’t discriminate based on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (since everyone is a little good and a little bad). There is no ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ list.

Mr. and Mrs. Santa ask their elves to make gifts for every kid. It’s just that Santa has a hard time getting to some of them on Christmas Eve. And there are some who have gates too high that are locked too tightly for even Santa to get through.

It’s an imperfect system.

But really, the gifts are the most boring part about it. The best things are (1) the anticipation of Santa on Christmas Eve and (2) helping Santa out by holding his jolly spirit in your heart when giving gifts and lending a hand to those who he might not be able to get to. We can carry that Santa spirit with us all year.

I have no idea if it’ll stick. I’m well aware that no kid gets out of childhood unscathed, but if we can keep the damage to a minimum, we’ll be happy. And if I can help her dance with the ambiguities of life while getting a sense of God’s grace through the symbolic grace-driven Santa, well, maybe that’s a story worth telling.

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Now is the season, turn

See you next year (or maybe a little before then)…

Photo by Spencer Backman on Unsplash

Here it is. I’m calling it. I’m setting down my glass of Bailey’s on the rocks (my holiday libation of choice) for a minute to inform you that I’m going to force myself to take the end of the year off.

I’m going to use this time as a perfect excuse to relax my white-knuckle grip on life and work and surrender into the season.

Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year. Winter Solstice. The darkest day of the year.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? 
Don’t look so down...
It’s all about how you frame it.

See, the darkest day of the year is the PERFECT day to withdraw from the grind, the yearning for control, and the manipulation of your life. Retreat into the soft blanket of quietude that surrounds you and rest there.

Most of us are trying too hard. We’re pushing, straining, and reaching too hard. And it’s doing us more harm than good (thanks, Hassan S. Ali, for the inspiration here).

Please use this excuse to do some of the same yourself. If you’re a parcel delivery driver, I’m sorry. Probably a little tough for you to do much of this. But at least, while you’re jamming door to door, lighten up a little. Wear a Santa hat (if you can). Deliver boxes with a ho, ho, ho. Smile at the kids. Wink a little (but not creepily — I’m looking for more of a friendly wink, either you have it or you don’t).

Whatever you can do to take the seriousness and intensity out of life this time of year, the better.

And if you’re NOT a parcel delivery driver (or hold some other position as intensely involved with the Christmas Industrial Complex), see if you can step away, at least a bit. Even if you have to show up and clock in these next couple weeks, at least try to mentally and emotionally kick back some. No one will blame you. They’ll probably welcome it. It’ll encourage them to do the same.

I’ll be taking this time to take a step back and enter into 2018 with intention. No, not control… But intention (subtly different).

My time away won’t be long. Probably just before new year’s day. Or just after. However the Christmas spirit directs me.

Have a wonderful rest of the season. May the darkest day in the world bring an intensified light that shines through your eyes. And may you stay warm — inside and out — wherever this note finds you.

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Mayhem or magic?

Photo by Stuart Guest-Smith on Unsplash

This time of year, it’s easy to get cynical and jaded about commercialism and consumerism and all the ism’s that have to do with what our culture has made of the holidays.

I’m guilty of throwing gasoline on this fire too. Just last night, in fact, I got my licks in.

But I was watching a Christmas movie today with my daughter and it involved a father walking down a street in old town America window shopping for his family. The movie was set in the 40’s, snow was falling, and the window decor was classic Americana Main St. Christmas.

Suddenly, I got nostalgic.

I realized, yes… Today’s marketing/advertising machine of the holidays is insane. Yes, the obligations this time of the year brings is enough to make one partake in an extra ladle of egg nog or four at every chance.

But it’s also pretty amazing how most anything I want (within reason) can be found within seconds right here on my sofa, purchased for a fairly low cost, and left at my doorstep within a day or two.

This marketplace we’ve designed as humans is a magical thing if we step outside the frenzy.

It’s magical walking around downtown and seeing the decorations and window displays and carolers on the streets. Yes, you can say it’s all designed to pry digital numbers from our online bank accounts.

But we must keep something in mind…

No one is forcing us to overindulge. This whole thing must be seen as it truly is. Something we made up.

I’m not even close to an economics expert, but crony capitalism strikes me as the scourge of humanity. However, the marketplace — the ability to create something and bring it to market in exchange for money (which can then be exchanged for things of value) — seems very human to me. I see the marketplace as this living, breathing organism.

Yes, it’s true, we Americans have gone a bit overboard this time of year (we tend to do that).

But behind it all, we have a lot to be grateful for. 
And isn’t that usually the case?

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Pssst: Have you grabbed a copy of the Higher Thoughts: Season Two hardcover coffee table book yet? It contains 58 essays and beautiful imagery from the second season of the publication. Makes for a fantastic holiday gift. Learn more below…

Silent Night

Image: Les Anderson

It’s Christmas Eve. A special night. I’ve always taken to it more than Christmas morning. There’s just something about the night. When it’s quiet and cold outside, but yet warm — in both Spirit and in temperature — inside.

I hope this post finds you in a warm place — however that may look for you.

I don’t know if you call yourself a Christian or not. I don’t even really know if I do. There’s just something about the label that I think Jesus would have cringed at. However, in lack of a better one, I’ll take it for now. Either way, let us enjoy this night for what it can represent, no matter how you label your faith.

Tonight is the silent night (following the darkest night by only a few days) before a significant figure in our human history was born. Was his message bastardized and westernized? Yeah, I’d say so. But his teachings were a light in the darkness of the time period he lived in.

It was a message of peace, joy, and sacrificial love when fear and compulsion ruled the day.

Is tomorrow truly Jesus’ birthday? I have no idea. But it’s as good as any.

May this night represent the end of the darkness and beginning of light in your life. May it throw to the wolves any sense of fear, longing, lack, or hopelessness in your world. And may you live to a higher truth upon morning while stoking that fire in your soul that says love is real.

Merry Christmas.


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Jonas writes short daily stories, microsermons and preachments on the daily here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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Santa Lives

Image: Erwan Hesry

Tonight, I want to share with you a piece that I’m particularly proud of.

Yes, as you may know, I’m a huge fan of Christmas. As you also know, a big part of this holiday in America is Macy’s. From The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to Miracle on 34th Street and more, I, personally, have so many fond memories around Macy’s that are tied to this magical time of year. Yes, they’re commercial giants, but they’re undeniably a brand that’s woven deep into the fabric of this culture — and for that, I tip my hat to them.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be approached to be a part of their Santa Project.

Here’s the problem they’re trying to solve: The internet has placed so much information at our fingertips. This is a great thing. However, when you Google ‘Is Santa Claus real?’ you get back a huge negative from most every search result. This has prematurely killed the epic story of Santa Claus for a lot of tech-savvy kids.

Macy’s is trying to infuse the magic of Santa back into the internet .They’re trying to bring Santa back from the dead, if you will.

I thought this was a fantastic idea.

I have a very personal story about Santa. It involves me as a doubting kid and a poignant conversation I had with my late mother, who passed on when I was a teenager.

Anyhow, I’ll let you read the whole piece. I hope you find it sparks a bit of the magic around Santa for you and your family this Christmas. Enjoy…

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Jonas writes short daily spiritual explosives and preachments of whimsy on the daily here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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The Divine Santa Dichotomy

How faith and uncertainty can merrily coexist

Illustration by Celine Loup

It was Christmas morning. I was ten, and I’d awoken to quite a scene. On the floor were pieces of computer printer paper (you know, the wide sheets with perforated holes along the sides from back in the day). They were strewn in the pattern of steps and on each piece was a big boot print of soot.

At first, in my drowsy state, I was thrilled to be faced with this huge display of Santa’s arrival right when I walked into the living room. Everything I’d dreamed of the night before was right in front of me. But then, I began to wonder…

Hang on a sec. Why would Santa take out my dad’s computer paper to walk on? Wouldn’t that be tedious? What was the point? Besides, wouldn’t that take up precious time? I mean, he has to visit every house in the world. Seconds count for Santa.

I was already having my reservations about Santa. My friends were too. Even my little cousin was questioning it.

And so this stream of inquiry filled my mind. I hated the questions I was asking myself. This was horrible.

Stop it, Jonas, I told myself. Enjoy the morning.

So I did. I got my head back in the game and tore into my presents. The ceremonial opening of gifts continued for some time. Decimated wrapping paper covered the floor. It’s A Wonderful Life played on the television.

Christmas was such a magical day. Being an only child, we usually had my aunt, uncle, and cousins over to liven things up for Christmas eve, but on Christmas morning, it was just the three of us. It was small. Intimate. My parents were in their sweats for longer than usual and we watched the same rotation of Christmas movies we’d watched each year prior.

But as soon as the morning slowed down, those questions came boomeranging back.

So I looked for a window of opportunity to talk to my mom — alone. She was always the easiest one to have tough conversations with. My dad was direct. Very direct. My mom was much softer.

While my dad was distracted putting batteries in my electric toys, I cajoled her to the kitchen, out of earshot from my dad, and asked her the question: “What’s up with the footprint thing? Why’d Santa — you know — do all that?”

My mom was a wise woman. Like, sage-wise. As I asked the question, I saw in the gleam in her eye that she knew exactly where I was going with this.

I’d forced her into a corner and was expecting some push-back. This was the moment of reckoning. My Santa Claus days hung in the balance. What she was about to say would determine the survival or death of the Christmas spirit in our house forevermore.

After the question left my lips, there was a short moment of silence. I thought I knew what would happen next, but instead of taking a combative stance with hands on hips and firing back with an argument, my mom knelt down and leaned in closer to me. Connection established.

I don’t remember the exact words in the conversation that followed. It’s been awhile. But the essence of it — the poignancy of her words — has stuck in my soul like an arrow to the heart.

She asked me if I liked Santa Claus. Right out of the gate, she had me on my heels.

“Of course I do,” I told her. “I LOVE Santa Claus.”

She went on to ask me if I enjoyed the build-up to the big day, like making a list and putting out cookies (and carrots for the reindeer, of course).

I answered affirmatively. Heck yes. Loved it.

She asked if I felt that warm feeling in my heart when we’d go out on the porch and try to look for Santa’s sleigh through my dad’s binoculars (I swear we actually saw it one time) and the giddiness of going to bed early to make way for the big guy to squeeze down the chimney and deliver gifts.

Totally. I LOVED the magic of Christmas.

Being an only child, my best friend was my imagination and Santa was like racing fuel for mine.

“Yeah, Mom, of course I do,” I told her, nodding excessively.

“Exactly,” she said. She went on to explain to me that this is what Santa Claus is all about: the excitement, the stories, the preparation, and the fun things we did together as a family to get ready for his arrival that chilly night.

“Christmas,” she said, “is that warm place in your heart and Santa is a big part of that.”

I was tracking — this was good. Then came my mother’s closing note. The crescendo to our transformative dialogue.

“I can tell you whatever I want to tell you. But I’ll just say this… I’m a grown-up and I still believe in Santa. So does your dad. Santa is what makes mornings like this possible. Not only does Santa bring presents. Santa brings magic. The magic of you and me and Dad sitting in front of a fireplace wondering what just happened — these are all the gifts Santa brings that are real. Very real.”

There was a pause before she continued. She was searching for the words to close the discussion on the very best note.

“You’re at the age where people might try to convince you otherwise. You might even try to convince yourself otherwise. But I hope you’ll realize that Santa is real and can stay real even in the face of all of that. Keeping the magic alive is worth believing, Jonas. It’ll make your future Christmases much brighter.”

Mind...blown.

Standing there in the face of my questioning was a thing called faith. And it felt amazing.

I realized that seeing and believing were very fuzzy, gray, complicated terms. Two different sides of me were seeing two different things. My doubt had honed in on the suspicion of those soot-covered pieces of old-school computer paper. I could have left it at that. But something higher in me — the part that my mom was speaking to — saw beyond that to a warm family tradition and the fascination that Santa Claus had brought to it. My faith was restored. Moreover, this faith felt better amidst my uncertainty than it did during my certainty — because it meant Santa could live forever.

My mom passed away six years later, when I was 16. But that moment on Christmas morning 27 years ago has stuck with me to this day. It was one of our most precious moments together.

Looking back, what strikes me is my mother’s lucidity in the way she handled that discussion. She was fully present and took it to heart. As a parent myself today, I now understand why. She was preserving my most valuable tool to this day — my imagination.

That morning, I got from my mom that this life has many unexplained, weird, beautiful mysteries. But at the end of the day, we’re going to tell ourselves a story. Which story we end up believing creates the context of our lives.

Is life going to be entirely a practical, linear, commonsensical place with insurance bills and time clocks and new movies and food on the table?

Or are we going to make room for a magical, deeply human, weird, fun, enchanting, beautifully unexplainable place?

Because this, I learned, is Santa Claus. This is the magic of belief.

The #SantaProject is a movement to keep the story of Santa Claus alive on the Internet. Join by responding with your own story about the magic of belief. To learn more about the #SantaProject, visit macys.com/believe.

Celebrating the spark

Photo: Kelley Bozarth

Whatever you’re celebrating today (or not celebrating) — doesn’t matter. You have your thing, and that’s awesome. Just try one thing at some point this beautiful winter day…

Feel that spark within you and celebrate it.

I know… Sounds like hippy-dippy nonsense. But really, there is this Presence in the center of all of us — this spark that ignites us.

I hope we can all celebrate this today, at some level, in some way.

The spark unifies all of us and animates our world through our humanity. It’s what makes us do the crazy stuff we do — from the profane to the beautiful.

All of it is driven by a spark.

Sometimes our contact with the spark gets gummed up. We crank the ignition of life only to hear it turn and turn and turn. We lay our head on the proverbial steering wheel in disappointment knowing we’re stuck again.

If you’re on the side of the road today — figuratively or literally — know that the spark is still there. Take this opportunity to close your eyes (when you’re done reading this, of course), take some deep breaths, and clear that connection so that bad boy fires up again. It just takes one miraculous moment to reignite your spark and get back on the road again.

Know that you always have conscious contact with this spark. When it dies, all you have to do is notice it again. That’s all. Just recognizing it’s there and acknowledging it brings it back alive every time.

It’s never out. But sometimes we are.

Here’s to your spark.


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