Shape-throwing positivity

My mood spectrum is full of murky blues, greys and greens, misty skies and churning sea. This is my emotional terrain and I am happy there. Other people find happiness in primary-coloured landscapes, full of bright blue skies and fairground attractions. Not me. Those scenes glare and feel artificial to me. It's not that I never feel drawn to those sights and sounds, but when I do it quickly feels too heightened, something I can't quite trust and something that certainly won't prevail.

So, I gravitate towards people and objects that elicit those more muted emotions; poetry and music, literature that is tinged with mist and musing. I'm fully aware that this seems sad to some people, but it really makes me happy. I guess what I'm saying is that my brand of happiness is quieter and more subdued than the heady concoction we're often sold.

I get that some people prefer a skipping disposition to a gazing one. I mean, isn't it lovely that these varieties all exist and that we can explore them all? What I resent is the idea that anything that's not primary-coloured needs a cure; the idea that everybody has to be happy in a primary-coloured way all the time.

That primary-coloured brand of joy seems somehow connected to consumerism; an idea of unquestioning well-being invented by men on Madison Avenue. And their invention, while grand and appealing, looks increasingly plastic over time. I'm not sure I could be happy - I mean in the eudaimonic sense - without accommodating pensiveness, or acknowledging sadness or doubt.

I can't tell you how many times I've been accused of being depressed on my blog. Not in a sympathetic or supportive way. Rather, in a way that seeks to undermine what I've written or questioned. I usually react defensively to the idea, mentally arguing against it, wanting to point out that one post, even my entire blog, is not the whole of me, or of what occupies my mind. But the truth is I am often pensive and my writing tends to be introspective rather than gleefully jumping up and down on a trampoline. Still, I don't believe I'm always brooding, engaged in some orgy of self-flagellation.

But I don't really think this is just about me and my own emotional spectrum. When I write a reflective or pensive post and receive a "uh-oh, you're depressed" response, I think it betrays a larger tendency, and one that's not just about me personally: It's a bias against the expression of certain dispositions and emotional states. And it implies that being in those states renders a viewpoint invalid; that the veracity of certain ideas or reflections on life is somehow connected to the emotional state those ideas or reflections are born from.

Of course, in broad strokes, and especially in extremes, people have ideas that draw from their emotional state. But to undermine the veracity of their ideas because of an emotional state is a leap I'm unwilling to make. I mean, even if I am sad, blue, feeling depressed (and, yes, I sometimes am), that doesn't mean I'm completely unhinged in a way that prevents me from having insights that hit some truths or ideas at least worth considering. And, let's face it, the opposite doesn't happen; people don't dismiss a story of love or success or inspiration because the person is so clearly upbeat in their ebullient joy.

So what's really going on?

I often think this pat response is an "out" from examining ideas or reflections that are perhaps challenging or unsettling to consider. I notice people react to writers like Beckett, Pessoa and Plath in this way too (and, no, I'm not putting myself in that company of writers). When I hear the depressed / over-thinking response to those writers, I usually think it's an escape from examining ideas that require hard work. But I also think it's a way of avoiding ideas that make us confront our own doubt or anxiety, things that many of us find difficult to look at in the eye.

In the interview I linked to recently, Calder said about Beckett:
"Beckett was always looking for deeper meaning. Why are we born? Why do we die so early? What’s the world about? What’s life about? He was always asking those questions. Most people tend to try to avoid those questions, and that’s one of the problems people have with him. He was very contradictory that way. Although he abandoned the lifestyle and the outlook of his family, he never got it out of his system. He more or less gave up his religion, but he always had a sort of longing for it. There’s not a single non-believer in Beckett’s work. Not one."

It may seem bizarre, but that tension makes me happy. I mean really happy. It's hard and real and tragic, but also wry and funny and beautiful.

I've sometimes felt pressure to become a person who lives a primary-coloured emotional existence. Until I realized that I'm most drawn to knotted-up people who want to explore and articulate and press down on all their complexity. Beckett's my favourite writer because he really goes there. And he leaves so much space for silence and being lost-for-words, for unanswered questions, and ideas and feelings that aren't neatly packaged. I guess I love confronting these ideas because, personally, I find tremendous beauty and truth in these tensions. And these sorts of ideas make me feel the most sublime elation.

The blog world is sometimes pretty one-dimensional in its ideas of emotional health. Blogging and social media etiquette advice often advocates a sort of vacuous shiny-happiness, remaining aloof from complex emotional or thinking states. Ironically, these same people will, in one breath, lay it on thick about the importance of being "authentic" and "having integrity" (words they, marketers and media people have picked clean of their real meaning), and in another breath tell you to be positive and avoid airing anything challenging or controversial or, heaven forbid, negative, even if constructively so.

Frankly, I think, fuck that shit. This culture of shape-throwing positivity admits little that's sublime in its depth and complexity. I cannot imagine being happy or productive or interested in anything that does not occasionally, or often, wade in the deep end or get lost in the mist. And I don't think this makes me depressed. Nor do I don't find it depressing. And I definitely don't think it requires intervention or medication or a solution.

56 comments:

  1. Between "eudaimonic" and "Frankly, I think, fuck that shit." And everywhere in between you remain my hero Jane.

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  2. I think it's pretty obvious I agree with you on this. I'm not surprised, since we agree on most things - but we agree through mutual respect and considered thought, that's the thing for me.

    There is a huge brandishing of words such as 'authenticity' and 'integrity' online, without much understanding of what that actually requires out of you. Those words to me require a negotiation in life between difficult realities and my personal ethics - it's a hard negotiation, it requires thinking much about things that often make me unconformable, it's exhausting at times, and I often wish I was capable of existing in a state of ignorant bliss. But I know that's bullshit, and I know it wouldn't really make me 'happy'. My 'happy', like yours, in a three-dimensional thing, it's not a permanently happy shiny positivity that lacks nuance and uncomfortable emotions.

    If people actually take all the 'advice' out there to flatten themselves into something rigidly 'positive' all the time, I fear we will have a rather fascist idea of what it means to be 'happy'. There isn't a 'one size fits all' in life. Maybe we already have this fascist definition of happiness, and this accounts for the fact that I increasingly cannot bring myself to visit blogs I used to like. I know what authenticity is, I feel it in my bones, and I sure know it doesn't come packaged neatly with a sweet primary-coloured bow 100% of the time.

    Another thing you raised here which struck a chord is the constant invalidating of what some people call 'sad' or 'depressing' feelings online. I actually got told not to post about feelings of sadness once, as it might come across as 'unhinged'. Not kidding. There were so many things wrong with that statement, I didn't even know where to begin responding. What strikes me though is that we still have a rather immature and simplistic definition of 'mental health' floating around in our culture, and this is becoming strongly evident on blogs. I find it really disturbing.

    I'm grateful to people like you Jane. If it wasn't for 'meeting' you online, I probably would have closed my blog down by now. To hear you articulate the same thoughts and feelings I have about these issues is reassuring. And I'm also grateful that you are willing to think long and thoroughly about the difficult topics when others are happy to glide off into the sunset as if life is a permanent rainbow. I find it frightening to view life as this sterile or this rigid, because it makes me feel guilty for having a wide spectrum of valid emotions.

    Anyway, enough from me. Thank you for writing this.

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    1. Thanks Hila.

      Like I said, I mostly think this plastic idea of happiness comes from Madison Ave and I think most people recognize it's not what our lives look like. I think the challenge for bloggers and magazines is to represent more nuanced feelings, for bloggers not to fall into the same shiny-happy trap that seems to have been invented for 1950's housewives.

      I'm glad for "meeting" you online too!

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  3. I feel like you've really hit on something here. Personally, I find myself fluctuating through a wide range of emotions (over time, not within the space of a week, don't worry!), and with that, the art, literature, films, music, and online content that I'm drawn to fluctuates too. Sometimes I see the world in primary colours, bright yellows and pinks; sometimes it's much more muted - sometimes tinged with sadness, but sometimes simply enjoying the quiet that comes from a less "noisy" outlook. And I agree with you that the blogging world doesn't often allow for this. There seems to be an idea that those muted periods are to be kept offline, hidden away, which can make some blogs (and bloggers) appear vacuous and highly superficial.

    I'm glad you wrote this, and I for one will be returning to keep reading here for the more muted tones and reflective writing that you offer.

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    1. Hi Fiona - I'm a moody person and sometimes I really struggle with that mutability and what it means about who I (REALLY) am. I've come to accept (with varying degrees of success on certain days) that I'm ALL of it. I can be mostly slapstick and giddy and I can be extremely pensive. One is not any more the real me than the other and I wouldn't like to choose between them.

      Because my blog is a personal one (and not professional), I try and let it represent all of that; the full gamut of Jane haha! It's upsetting, then, when other people try to tell me I should be mostly the one or the other when I work hard to accept and be all of it with integrity.

      I'm glad this post spoke to you. It means a lot that there are people who get it. xx

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  4. Amen. And that is why we are drawn to you. Don't cop to that attitude, it's what makes most other blogs pretty but synonymous and yours unique. You're also one of the most intellectual blogs out there, and I simply think you have to be more reflective and less primary colored (love that concept!) if you're going to talk about something more than the latest design trends. Don't get me wrong, I love (and have missed) your outfit posts, but here they correlate to something greater than just consumerism, trends, or style.

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    1. Thanks Amy - I'm really glad you enjoy my blog and get what I'm up to here. Don't worry - the outfit posts will never go fully away. I love clothes too much!!

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  5. YES! Thank you for saying all this. I've struggled to explain this to friends, as well.

    I'm a long-time reader, first-time commenter. Your blog always seems to say exactly how I'm feeling or how I've felt.

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    1. Thanks so much Meagan - for reading and leaving your first comment. I'm so glad this hit home for you!

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  6. I think the commercial aspect of many blogs really shifts the tone of writing. The desire becomes less about self expression (or intrinsic motivation) and more about building a particular mood or story. The story may be false, or it may be only partly true.

    I'm not knocking it, because I've struggled with it myself. My only blog these days is the one associated with my small business, and I do feel it needs to stay fairly upbeat. Even though I include a lot of personal context and stories there, it just doesn't seem like the right forum for subtle shadings of emotion. And maybe I don't trust myself to express a full range of emotions without coming across as whiny or silly.

    But there's also an element of laziness that I recognize in myself. It is much easier to focus on the superficial. This has been bothering me a lot lately, both in my own writing and what I read. I've had to make changes so that I could write about things that matter more, and I've stopped reading most blogs.

    Hila brought up the eroding definition of happiness. One thing I've realized in the last couple years is that many people seem to confuse pleasure with happiness. Glossy, pretty, material things can provide pleasure and that's great. But when you start substituting that for true happiness, a happiness that encompasses joy but also sadness, confusion, and frustration, I think that's when emptiness sets in.


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    1. I completely agree, Sarai. Professional blogs and professional conduct for social networking is an entirely different strategy. I think people can be personal, but it's in a much more controlled way.

      I would never swear or be as much as a jackass as I sometimes am if I was blogging or tweeting etc to support a business. And, as a customer I usually want a pretty straight-up level of professionalism.

      I guess this all gets hazy because we're increasingly told to tie our businesses to our personal voice and deciding where to draw lines must be exhausting in that regard.

      I've always been glad that this blog and my sites are sponsor-free because it really buys me a lot of freedom to say whatever I want.

      I also think you're bang-on about pleasure versus happiness. That's why I always reach for the idea of eudaimonia (unfortunately the only word I know for it), which is a much more enduring kind of happiness than titillating pleasures and prettiness.

      Thanks again!

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  7. It's so true - despite the endless variety of people in the world, there's this pressure for us all to feel the same way, when how could we possibly? I infer this in my own life when society appears to skew toward extroversion and discredit introversion, favor cheeriness over any darker pensiveness, irony over earnestness, flippancy over intelligent passion. It's taken a lifetime to learn I can reject these pressures and I hope I am able to someday.

    I also agree with Sarai above - happiness is sold to our culture almost like it's a physical product we could obtain one day, to keep for our very own. It's so much more complex than that, of course. It can coexist with sadness, or, you know - maybe there is no such thing as some all-encompassing joy to be found, and happiness truly exists in individual moments and memories, however fleeting. Those are the conclusions I struggle with, anyway.

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    1. Absolutely Sally - there is definitely an introversion / extroversion parallel here. I too struggle to overcome the "shoulding" pressure out there, which is why - I guess - I react defensively when people imply I ought to be upbeat more of the time.

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  8. I so relate to this, Jane. A few months ago a friend asked me why I write so often about grief and wrestling with my faith. I do - rather miraculously - still count him as a friend. We were able to talk through some of our differences and arrive at mutual respect for each other's paths and way of expressing ourselves, but nevertheless his question took me aback. Isn't it my prerogative to write about my life, the things that are happening to me, in a way that is true to what I feel? If that's not authenticity, then what is? If I can't be honest about my thoughts and feelings, then what is the point of being a writer/blogger? Or is blogging just for the design-savvy, with no emotional or mental substance behind the glossy photos?

    I do think about my audience as I write and there is a lot of personal information I will never divulge, but this is never with the intention to spare them of the truth. In fact, the more personal I get, the better my interaction with my readers.

    Sometimes my writing is sad, but sometimes even in that sadness, I feel myself more whole for having admitted it and confronted the way that my experiences, particularly my mom's death, have changed the way I see life. I think that it speaks to a deeper, wider issue in our society and culture, that we have to constantly find the bright side and leap quickly past our doubt and grief lest we fall into its depths. But, as you have so aptly explained, this primary-colouring, this "bright side" can be blinding.

    And I also agree with Sally's comment above, that it so often correlates with society's favoritism toward extroversion above introversion. We have to be peppy, instead of reflective; affirming instead of critical; cheery instead of honest. What usually results is shallow instead of deep. I'm thankful you're willing to dive in, Jane.

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    1. I agree so much Bethany. I always feel better for the digging deeper, especially when it's into difficult ideas, the kinds that make me cry as I write them.

      For me, that reflective self-awareness and drive to give voice to complex feelings is one of the things I actually pride myself for. I mean, I don't think I'm this amazing writer or anything, but I do think I have decent access and ability to articulate my own inner world and it's something I definitely enjoy doing and sharing.

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  9. No need to justify who you are. The life of the mind isn't for everyone, but those who choose it (like Beckett) and perhaps yourself, create something from ideas and find their joy there.

    The Blogosphere is filled with commerce driven drivel AND nice people just sharing their own version of what matters.

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  10. "And it implies that being in those states renders a viewpoint invalid..." Great point. (Great post.) Why must we be perfectly 'balanced', as judged by those who don't even know us, frankly, to render a valid point.

    And again I say, great post.

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    1. Thanks so much, Alice! I think sometimes this is thrown at women too, but that's a whole other post... xxx

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  11. My goodness, this is amazing. Thank you, thank you. "I cannot imagine being happy or productive or interested in anything that does not occasionally, or often, wade in the deep end or get lost in the mist." I cannot imagine that things like this exist, what is life if we can't get caught up in it, in all of it once in a while. and this.. "I'm most drawn to knotted up people who want to explore and articulate and press down on all their complexity." Such a beautiful expression, and you certainly are of the knotted up kind, was there ever a better kind to exist? I think not!

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  12. I can't tell you how much I love this post.

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  13. I'm now 1/8th of the way through the multitude of Wikipedian (?) insight re Eudaimonia, enjoying myself thoroughly; agree with Aristotle, applaud Socrates as he chides the Athenians (take heed, greedy bastards!) and a new fan of Zeno with minor exceptions. Will check back later with updates.

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  14. Thank you Jane for this thoughtful post. Life isn't black or white and neither is happiness pink or grey and I love that you continue to express this in your blog.
    I find it dangerous nowadays that people throw around the expression depression too easily. As the daughter of a psychotherapist and someone who has faced depression myself I find the word gets used to easily and I think that is disrespectful to people who actually have a depression.

    I have days when I feel the weight of the world and while others might call me depressed because of that it is who I am and how I experience the world. I imagine that what you are talking about here goes in the same direction.

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    1. I deliberately didn't use the word on myself because of this and only referenced people using it to characterize the way I express myself here and jump to conclusions about my mental health.

      I have felt depression enough at times to seek help and saw a therapist for over two years. I think therapy is a process that was very useful to me for very many reasons. But I've never been medicated for it and never felt like I was a danger to myself, so I suppose what I felt was "low" on the spectrum of pain.

      There's definitely a spectrum and I respect the legitimate feelings of people at EVERY point in that spectrum (and the legitimacy of all feelings), whether they are diagnosed or not and however they manifest.

      I agree that the word is used very readily. But I also am wary of undermining a person's real sadness or difficulty by implying that what they are suffering isn't "REAL" depression.

      I think we probably agree here. I try to see both sides.

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  15. I applaud you, Jane. Thank you for putting this into words for all of us.

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  16. You have written so very well what I believe most of us think. I've linked this post to everyone I know....very validating.

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    1. Thank you, someone in Ireland (your profile name made me smile and smile!)

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  17. I have always enjoyed your blog so much because you are so honest and true to yourself. You are constantly trying to better yourself and look at who you are. Sometimes I read different blogs and I feel like a 15 year old reading a fashion magazine. Comparing myself to them and wondering how their life is so perfect when mine is often chaotic. Then I read yours and it is a breath of fresh air because you are real and true.

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    1. Thanks Emily! I know those feelings of reading fashion magazines too. I'm glad I offer a small alternative here xx

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  18. I can't help but be wary of uniform happiness and positivity; to me it seems fake, forced, unnatural. I'm drawn to books and movies that expose the cruelties of the world and of human beings in general, since they move me far more deeply than light-hearted and cheerful stories.

    Sometimes it's only with a little darkness that you can see where light is coming from.

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  19. Thank you so much for writing this! It offered me, and many others, I am sure, some much-needed validation. We are not broken for being who we are. Thank you :)

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  20. I started my blog seven years ago in the midst of a deep life crisis. It grew from there as my family and marriage grew along with it. Lately, I have censored myself so much from writing the sadness and turmoil in my heart that my blog lays silent most weeks. I have been accused of the same thing and I have deliberately tried to readjust my blog and my writing to be less personal and more joyful. It helps on some level, but leaves me still with the questions of what this stage of life is about. I want to be the artistic persona people believe me to be, but often I am depleted and empty and in need of expression. It's a difficult balance and I often am lost in that deep mist.

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    1. I don't know what to tell you that wouldn't come off like I'm telling you what to do / how to blog, and I would never do that. But I would say I don't think people need to decide top-down what a personal blog ought to be. You can just let yourself express what you need / want to say on any particular day and it doesn't mean you have to follow it with the same kind of post the next. I find tremendous freedom in that idea so hopefully it helps!! xx

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  21. I was sent here from Hila's blog and I'm so grateful. I was talking to a friend the other day about a book I enjoyed and they asked me why I always liked the most depressing things. I tried to explain to them just this, but did so far less eloquently. Just because something isn't painted lime green or doesn't end with an answer doesn't mean it's depressing, often I find such great happiness and truth in honest reflections about the haziness of life. And sometimes I'm introspective and sometimes I am sad, and that's OK too. The different shades of life are what makes it beautiful.

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  22. Thank you so much for this. Your words came at the perfect time for me (I found you through Hila's blog) and gave me courage in a scary situation. It is so good to be ourselves in our pursuits, our loves, the things that delight us. Thank you for that oh-so-timely reminder. :-)

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    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad the timing was right!!

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  23. "Balance" is experiencing all of what you describe, I think, rather than just the steady-state positivity many bloggers put forth. Thanks for once again writing with depth and clarity!

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    1. I don't try to balance the emotional scales as much as I do to allow myself to authentically feel what I feel and acknowledge those feelings, if that makes sense.

      But I agree too that in a blog environment some might seek to portray a more balanced variety, rather than emphasizing one set of feelings over another and skewing perspectives in that way.

      Thanks!!

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  24. I really relate to this, particularly the part about emotional 'colours'. I too live in a realm of muted tones - I am attracted to earth tones, sky tones, sea tones, pastels, quiet colours. It's a lovely way to describe the emotional 'filter' through which we see the world. I actually wrote a journal entry a couple of years ago about the colours of memories - I have memories which are distinctly gold, others a dusty sort of pink, and others a grey-blue. I may in fact write a blog post about this, and if I do I will credit this post as the source of my inspiration. Let me know if you mind me linking this post on my blog!

    I also really identify with your mention of Beckett, and the fact that the 'tension' between light and dark is attractive and ultimately enriching. I have been accused of revelling in sadness, but I strangely I find a lot of happiness in sadness and crying and, like you said, tension. 'Sublime elation' is a beautiful way to describe that feeling.

    Thanks for this! x

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    1. Hey there. Of course, feel free to link to my post from your blog - I'm very flattered!

      The colour talk feels very natural to me. It is a synaesethtic metaphor, but I'm not sure if that metaphor isn't also grounded in some reality. Your account of "gold memories" is intriguing... (Full disclosure: My MA was on synaesthesia and expression in abstract art, so this speaks to my area of interest).

      Thanks for your comment!

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  25. I miss the beginnings of the internet where online journal's were more about writing (not images) and strong writing at that.

    where journal awards were given each year which helped others discover new writers. I wrote a little bit about it here:

    http://kifness.blogspot.ca/2009/10/before.html

    I'm happy to have found you and your blog and appreciate your effort to share with us your musings and deeply felt thoughts.

    keep writing and sharing for as long as you feel up to it.

    it is appreciated.

    K.

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