Archives for posts with tag: being present

I have been appreciating stillness lately. Here in Kenya, I spend a lot of time on my own, cherishing the calm and quiet. I don’t seem to be desperate for company and entertainment all the time like I used to be, instead enjoying moments where I can be with myself and dip in to my inner being. By having time on my own, I can also reconnect with other passions and interests, and avoid the common trap in this line of business of defining myself purely through the work I do.

Indeed, I spent most of my years of NGO work telling people, without much thought, ‘I’m an aid/human rights/development worker’. This was partly because I would have struggled to claim another identity for myself. My time outside work usually revolved around smoking, drinking, partying or sleeping. And none of these activities really form an identity. So I remain grateful for the months I had last year to rediscover my passions. They were there all along, but it took a concerted effort of slowing down and being still to realise them once again.

Such moments of stillness are crucial for NGO workers, faced so often with mounting pressures, expectations, negativity and disappointments in their daily work. It is also easy to live through our work when the job often continues beyond office hours – in discussions with friends or associates, in networking dinners and social occasions. Topics of conversation so often revolve around the difficult situations we’re working in, the communities we’re trying to help, the lack of resources there to support us, the deficiencies of the structures we have to work with….we forget to switch off and talk about something completely different. Particularly when working in the field and overseas, it becomes ‘normal’ to spend all our time outside work either reading or talking about the very human rights or humanitarian issues which we’re confronted with each day.

Of course there is nothing wrong with doing this; so long as there is also some time given over to stepping out of that space, that identity and seeing what else lies beneath in one’s soul. This means taking time out to admire the beauty which surrounds all of us, to remember that as well as the horrors of war, conflict, poverty and human rights violations there is also the abundance and power of nature, of creativity, of love. Whilst there may be many things for us to feel guilty about, there is also much to feel grateful for.

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A monkey and I admire the view of the River Nile in Uganda

The other day my Kenyan colleagues and I sat around a table in their office drinking coffee and eating samosas and mandazi (doughnuts). Two hours had been set aside specifically for the purpose of connecting with each other, and not talking about work. When I was confronted with this unusual exercise, my initial reaction was one of panic. What are we going to talk about? What can I say that’s interesting? But as we went round one by one, contributing something to the very light and candid conversation, I began to relax. I realised this was the first opportunity I’d had to actually get to know the people I’d been sharing an office with for the past few weeks. We laughed and joked, and were moved by stories about our families, or about how we spend our time at the weekend, or about what we value in life. This simple initiative to bring people together in a relaxed way, and to take them away from their all-consuming work and other pressures, was very important. I wondered how often this happens in an office in London, for a full two hours.

One of my colleagues said something which particularly resonated with me. He said that we must find time to admire the flowers. This was of course a metaphor for how we should approach our work. We have much to focus on that is distressing and unpleasant. But admist all that, we each have an amazing and powerful ability to create some stillness in which to marvel at what is pure, beautiful and magical; and to have gratitude for such small and simple pleasures.

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hibiscus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hidden or suppressed emotions manifest themselves in mysterious ways. When I got back to my hotel room after a relatively uneventful day in the office – which, rather than feeling grateful for I found dull and anti-climactic after the long and busy days of the last week – I didn’t know whether I wanted to scream with anger or burst into tears.

Was this the Monday blues? General exhaustion after spending last week rushing around, chasing the stories behind the Government’s closure of Uganda’s main independent newspaper and other media houses? Or the angst of not knowing what’s going to happen with this job or my future in general? The reasons behind my bad mood seemed hard to pin-point, but either way I’d had a short fuse throughout the day. Moments of irrational anger and irritation arose over the slow internet connection in the office, or because the people I’d hoped to meet in Kampala weren’t answering my calls or e-mails, or because I couldn’t go swimming in the hotel pool after work. This last inconvenience being due to today being a public holiday in Uganda – except, obviously, for my organisation who carried on its fight for human rights whilst the rest of the population enjoyed some time out. The swimming pool was therefore teeming with Ugandan families practising their splashing skills, which severely diminished my chances of having a relaxing evening swim.

And so it was in this state of inner turmoil that I turned to yoga. An obvious solution for many perhaps; but I’ve been a little out of practice over the last few months, preferring to immerse myself in other forms of powerful energy healing. It was only when I returned to the practice the other day with my friend – in an idyllic setting overlooking the River Nile – that I remembered the value of yoga; the way it both invigorates and relaxes, moves you to break into a sweat but also calms you down to a state of stillness and clarity.

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The yoga I did today targeted the liver and gall bladder – organs which, in the Chinese meridian system, are where anger and anxiety are often held. And just allowing myself those 45 minutes to observe and accept whatever physical or emotional pain came and went as I held each posture was truly transformative. By the end of the practice my irritation had lifted and was replaced with a feeling of pure bliss.

And not only that. Giving myself that time out has opened up my creative channels, at a time when I felt I’d been suffering badly from writer’s block. My inability to write, and my anger and short temper, were all interlinked of course. Writing is another healing exercise for me, but one only made possible if I allow myself space to breathe and be still amidst the fast pace of human rights work. Which is why as well as returning to yoga, I have also returned to Julia Cameron’s morning pages; letting all the crabbiness I sometimes wake up with – this morning being a perfect example – spill out onto the page before I get up and get on with my day.

I am grateful to have these tools at my disposal. When times get tough and I start battling with my emotions, I know what I can do in order to calm down, rebalance and reconnect. And in doing so, creativity once again flourishes.

So, here I am on an early Sunday morning in Nairobi. Seated on my own at the hotel restaurant eating my second breakfast of the day; the first being the dissatisfying dried up morsels provided by Kenya Airways. There is a light, misty rain falling outside the window, but nevertheless a warmth in the air that is unquestionably African.

I feel calm, relaxed. Maybe the calm before the storm, as who knows how the next week will be as I navigate my way from meeting to meeting, most of the time on my own, with people I’ve never met and where we’ll be discussing the thorny issues of post-eleciton violence and extra-judicial killings. And then there’s the Nairobi traffic to deal with – the long queues of matatus (small mini-buses) and 4x4s and impatient drivers forever lurching forward and thereby adding to the bottleneck.

Nairobi Traffic Jam

Nairobi Traffic Jam (Photo credit: rogiro)

And the endless security regulations I have to remember the minute I step outside – don’t walk alone at night, make sure you know who your driver is, don’t carry too much money on you, call your manager each day to confirm you’re safe….

Whilst to some extent I do appreciate the strict security guidelines which assume human rights defenders such as myself to be a possible target of attack – whether by hostile authorities or a poverty-stricken opportunist whose perception of the wazungu (white people) is always clouded by dollar signs – I am overwhelmed by these rules and regulations. I have travelled to Uganda, Palestine and Sri Lanka on my own and never received such preparation. And I do wonder whether all the talk of security risks and the strict do’s and don’ts which accompany this type of work may at times instill fear rather than comfort in the traveller.

A walk around the grounds of the hotel and its neighbouring areas has reminded me of the real and immediate problem with crime in Nairobi. I have to let myself in and out of every entrance gate or doorway with my hotel swipe card, and the place is swarming with security guards. The crime levels now are no doubt as they were the last time I lived here seven years ago; so high that it’s almost certain that either you or another expat you know will be a victim of theft, robbery or car-jacking at some point. Which many would argue is the very reason why we need these seemingly melodramatic security guidelines when conducting business here.

But if certain external realities haven’t changed in seven years, there are a lot of inner realities that have. The last time I was in Kenya for an extended period, in 2006, I had become a tired, cynical and vulnerable person, who sought solace in cigarettes and several bottles of Tusker beer each night. Just a brief walk around the hotel grounds earlier brought back many memories, of emotions and attitudes I held at the time which were either destructive or misguided. I am now such a different person from the exhausted, disillusioned person who fled a disastrous relationship and unrewarding NGO work in East Africa seven years ago.

Nowadays my concern with finding the nearest drinking hole to process the day’s traumatising experiences or drown my sorrows has been replaced by a desire to find a quiet place to meditate. I noted this with a laugh to myself at Heathrow airport, as I wondered on arrival there whether I could find a prayer room to have a  few peaceful minutes with myself before flying. Gosh, how times have changed.

A meditation room - every public building needs one!

A meditation room – every public building needs one!

Admittedly, the old habits have seeped back into my life since resuming human rights work. My coffee intake has tripled (I’ve had three so far this morning, which is particularly excessive for someone who’d reduced to about one a week in recent months), my sleeping patterns are unpredictable and I find myself craving a drink or three after a stressful day. But these habits and addictions are matched by another powerful force which, more than anything else, helps me meet the new challenges I’m facing. And that is a degree of inner peace. I say this cautiously, as inner peace is not an end game but a continuous and fluid process; there one second and gone the next. But since ‘waking up’ – connecting with my soul and becoming the consious observer of what I do, say and think and how it reflects on the deeper truth inside me – I’ve found some peace. Of course there are still times when I muddle through life unconsciously, careering from one problem to another, ignoring my see-sawing emotions, too engrossed in getting somewhere else. When this happens it’s usually a bad day, where I feel disjointed, unbalanced, insecure and irritable. And I know what I need to do to resolve it.

A conscious pause every now and again lifts this negative energy. It may be for 20 minutes in the morning before work, meditating by candlelight.Or  it may be writing Julia Cameron’s cathartic morning pages – letting my first thoughts and emotions of the day spill out onto the page. Or it may be connecting with my heart, and the heart of those I come across each day so that I can communicate better, even in the face of tension or hostility. Or, most powerful of all, I will do some chanting and gentle Qi energy movements which both ground me and fill me with nourishing, positive energy.

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These are all quiet, personal moments which help me to let go of the day’s or week’s troubles and anxieties, and truly touch base with myself; connect with my soul and remind myself of who I really am beneath whatever image I may have portrayed that day. And because of these new, essential habits in my life, I know this time in Kenya will be different. I do not yet know how it will be or what challenges I will face, but aside from the security protocols and institional procedures, I have my inner guide to give me real strength and resilience.

Life is full of surprises. Just when you think you’ve worked it all out – mapped out the right path for you, cultivated and manifested your heart’s true desires, a gust of wind blows you in a different direction. The question is, how to interpret the gust of wind? Why does it come at that moment?

At the beginning of this year I was chanting every day with a wish in my heart; that all the months of effort I had put in to achieving my goals would pay off, and I would be offered a scholarship to study a Phd at one of my chosen universities. In the end, I didn’t get a scholarship, and instead I got a job back in the sector I’ve spent the last year gently extricating myself from. So now I’m faced with the offer to study a subject I already feel very familiar with – stress and burnout among NGO workers – at a range of Universities with admirable expertise on the topic, but no funding. And a job which takes me back to the heart of that world of stress and burnout, as an insider and participant, rather than an academic observer.

What should I make of this? I’ve been struggling with this question all week, since I received the bad news from the last University scholarship holder on my list. The job I’m doing now, likely to last only a few months and working in a region of Africa I’ve been involved with for years, just happens to be exactly what I wanted and wished for last year. I came to the conclusion that such a job – short-term and working on issues that have always been close to my heart – would be ideal after enduring months of unsuccessful job applications in long-term roles that would have further entrenched me in the NGO sector, at a time when what I really needed was a break from it. At the time I was cultivating greater goals – to write, and to study. But the greater goals have not entirely manifested the way I had expected or hoped for. I spent a year preparing to study a Phd, convinced that this path spoke to my soul, and was the perfect way for me to use my ten years of experience of working in conflict zones in a new, exciting and constructive way. But I did not get the funding I needed to proceed with these studies, and so now I’m faced with having to approach my desires from a different angle. Indeed, in the last few days I’ve questioned whether my desires are indeed true or heartfelt. Was all that effort, all that hard work in writing research proposals and applications a waste of time, or will they one day serve an entirely different purpose, yet to be discovered?

These uncertainties – what we may at times interpret as disappointments or setbacks – are all part of the game of life. We cannot resist the challenges that are thrown at us; with each challenge we have to decide whether to view it as a disaster, or an obstacle, or a new lesson in understanding who we are and where we’re going.

This is what I’ve been trying to tell myself these last couple of weeks. I have been acknowledging that sometimes we can cling on to one dream whilst not letting others arise. And we can try too hard to define our purpose in life, and fail to enjoy the uncertainty that is at the heart of our existence.

Existence is uncertain, insecure, dangerous. It is flux — things moving, changing. It is a strange world; get acquainted with it. Have a little courage and don’t look backwards, look forward; and soon the uncertainty itself will become beautiful, the insecurity itself will become beautiful.

Osho

So what next? I truly do not know. But then, I have had the same response to that question for over a year; I have grown used to not having the answer. All I can do is keep watching and listening; allowing a bit of time and space outside the busy-ness that so often renders us unconscious, to check in with myself. To keep asking, is this what you really want right now? And remain confident that whatever arises is helping me on my true path.

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Living with Uncertainty

Week One of my new job is complete. What a big change this has been to my routine. Being the new girl in school has required some patience and trust in myself, as I get to grips with new systems, new people, new discussions.

I can see that the biggest casualty is likely to be my creative writing, as I turn my attention to the more structured form of human rights reporting and documentation.

And yet, as I write these words I realise that I needn’t think that just because I’ve got a job all my spiritual and creative practices are lost – I’m writing now, aren’t I? And I’m also realising that meditation, chanting and all those spiritual exercises I’ve been doing the last few months may be more essential now than ever.

Because now is all about integration. It is time to take all that self-reflection and soul discovery into the outside world and use it to connect with those around me. There is no point in meditation, yoga or other spiritual practices if we don’t use it in the real world. So I’ve been looking at ways to manage my anxiety and angst as I navigate my way through all the uncertainties and self-doubts that come with a new job. There is one exercise recommended to me by a dear friend of mine, who always has nuggets of spiritual wisdom when I need them. It is great when you want to connect with those around you – complete strangers, people you feel threatened by, those who you believe you will get on with and those you think you may not. You close your eyes and picture your heart, and within that heart stands a small image of your perfect self. It is an image of unconditional love, one that is free of judgement or any negative habits or attitudes developed through our life experiences. You then picture that perfect being that exists in the heart of all others – see through the outer veneer, the ego or the facades – and connect.

Heart cartoon

There is something so simple and rewarding about this exercise. I did it before my job interview, and I did it before going into work yesterday; and in doing so, I was able to live the rest of the day without that ego voice getting in the way, telling me I’m not interesting enough, or that people won’t like me, or that they’ll be horrible to me. Instead, I felt myself connecting with those around me without fear or judgement.

The first days of a new job are never easy. And the change in pace and environment for me has been rapid and overwhelming. Where I spend my days now – in a bustling office, where discussions about human rights and democracy in Africa, about civil unrest or injustice or slum-dwelling or police brutality circulate around me continuously – is a world away from the quiet life of self-reflection and solitude I’ve had for the last year. The last time I did this kind of work, my emotions were highly reactive – I was easily drawn into and made miserable by the internal politics of the office, or the external politics of the harsh world we live in. This time I feel things will be different. My intentions for this job go beyond doing it well and fulfilling whatever commitments or objectives are required (within reason, remembering that human rights work is necessarily idealistic, at times over-ambitious and also highly demanding).  I also want to be proactive in expressing my inner truth; to let go of negative emotions and habits which have held me back previously, and to not be afraid to open my heart and manifest its desires. In doing so, there will be an inner strength that can carry me through whatever challenges may lie ahead.

This blog post comes from a fellow blogger who I admire very much, and who shared these words from Charlie Chaplin on a day when I was letting the ego’s voice get the better of me. I read this and felt so much better!

Lagniappe: Charlie Chaplin: As I Began to Love Myself | Streams of Consciousness.

In the last week I have surrendered to the power of prayer. I am not a Christian, and I do not consider myself religious. But I have been on a spiritual journey the last few months, which has taken me from feeling complete darkness and a loss of identity to a process of gentle healing and letting go, to a connection with soul; to understanding my inner truth, my purpose and the real route to my happiness.

In order to let my soul speak, I have had to endure long periods without work, without  busy-ness, without all the distractions which over the years have contributed to me never really confronting or listening to the voice inside me. If I had listened, I would have heard it say, ‘Enough…you don’t need to please everybody, you don’t need to act out other people’s perceptions of who you are or who you should be, you don’t need to be perfect – no one is’. Letting that voice be heard required me to give up old habits and the life of intense work and endless partying I was so familiar with, and allow space for stillness.

This year  has been pivotal. I started it by chanting every day for 21 days, to bring joy and luck for the year ahead. Chanting is a new exercise for me, one I’ve wholeheartedly embraced after feeling the considerable benefits of its sounds resonating and vibrating through my body. No matter how bad my day is, if I sit and chant for half an hour the weight lifts – I am no longer dwelling on the past, or fretting about the future, I am totally present and as a result all my worries slip away.

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I spent February applying to study a Phd, and for a scholarship to fund those studies. I still wait to hear whether I’ve been successful, but I’ve already been offered a place at two Universities so I take that – along with the encouragement I’ve received from the academics who want to supervise my research – as positive indicators that the funding will also follow.

And this week I received the glorious news that my job application to work at Amnesty International – for three months on their Kenya programme – was successful. This has followed an intense period of emotional upheavals, as I waited, lost confidence, had doubt upon doubt, and dreaded the possibility of another job rejection. I went through enough of them last year. All the while I was busy manifesting – chanting for my cause, raising the vibration within me to be at the same pitch as my dreams and desires. This was my prayer – the simple spiritual exercise of chanting, which doesn’t require a Bible, or a church, or a deity. Chanting and meditation helped clear those negative emotions – the doubts and fears – and replace them with calm and clarity. It helped me maintain an open mind and heart – allowing space for positive energy to flow freely.

This job speaks to my soul as it allows me to use my skills in a setting I’m familiar with, on a short-term basis whilst I move through my transition and embark on the next chapter in my life. This was the sort of job I yearned for last year but couldn’t attain. But the time was not right last year – I was going through the in-between time or ‘neutral zone’ of my transition. It’s a place of uncertainty, of resistance, of dark nights of the soul – when you are no longer sure of what you want or who you are, when you strive to hang on to old habits and beliefs, when your inner voice that says ‘Enough!’ is trying to make itself heard.

Live your own destiny

Letting go is a long process, and I’m sure for me as for anyone else the job is never done. But I do feel that a new energy is pulsating through me. This year, as I’ve put something out into the ether – job or Phd applications – and received positive or encouraging responses, I’ve felt I’m actually hurtling, free-falling, towards my destiny. There may be more tough times ahead, but I’ve already come out of my darkest moment and am now heading towards the light of my soul’s desires, with greater confidence and courage.

It was nice to wake up this morning and realise for the first time in well over a year that I will soon have a job to go to. But with that realisation also came another – that in the past few months I had really learned to accept not having a job. After months of resistance, I had managed to appreciate the time for what it was – an essential period of reflection, growth and creativity. Without it, I would not be what I am today – content.

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Mindful Next – Change and Transition

I woke up this morning at war with the snow. It had managed to highjack my weekend, causing me to cancel much anticipated arrangements as I feared a slippery accident if I was to venture too far afield. In addition to which, the wintery season seemed to have penetrated deep into my soul as well as my body; I spent much of last week feeling enclosed, sombre and a little tearful. At the start of this year I thought I had entered my spring, even if it was winter around me – I felt light and confident and ready to explore new challenges; but in the last week a darkness seems to have descended over me, much like the darkness I see outside for most of the day. I have to remind myself that we appreciate happiness so much more when we feel a little pain every now and again – this is the yin and yang, the light and darkness, of our existence.

And instead of moping around indoors, feeling trapped by the snow, I decided to go out and appreciate it. The snow is beautiful after all – its soft silence, the way it gives a chrystalline finish to even the most mundane surroundings. I may not be able to enjoy the weekend quite as I had planned, but I can at least go down the road and see the natural beauty of this most inhospitable of seasons.

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And by doing so – by feeling the crunch of snow underneath my feet and enjoying the footprints left by the birds and the icy images on the lake – I enabled that darkness to lift a little.

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I can see we have to move through this season, both outside and within – accept it, appreciate it, and look for the fresh and clear beauty that lies beneath it.

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I had hoped to write something myself about this period otherwise known as the Winter Solstice, the shift to the 5th dimension, ascension etc. But flu got the better of me. I didn’t factor that into my personal shift! But the following words seemed to resonate with me – this period is, like any other, about living in the now. We should be embracing this moment by turning towards our inner truth. Forget what the Mayans say – what is your soul saying to you right now?

Today I want to write about singing. After avoiding such bold use of my vocal chords for pushing 20 years – except in karaoke where it’s never really taken very seriously – it has now become a major feature of my life. Now I spend 20 minutes, twice a week, chanting what are called ‘cosmic sounds’ in the centre I attend for Qi classes and treatments. The words don’t make any sense in any language, but they’re meant to be the sounds that are closest to the universe’s natural vibration. We sing the words to calm any fluttering within us and tune in to a more natural state of clarity and peacefulness.

When I first attended one of these chanting sessions, which form part of a one hour class dedicated to sound, gentle movement and stretches and meditation, it was pretty daunting – especially since as a beginner I’m expected to continue chanting for an extra 10 minutes or so after the more advanced trainees have stopped. It also seems harder to be chanting words that I don’t even recognise, each requiring a specific pronunciation, pitch, and length of time for holding the note.

But now, several sessions in, I quite enjoy this part of the class. By the end of the chanting, I feel noticeably calmer, and my mind is clearer. I’ve even started going to the classes which are solely dedicated to 45 minutes of chanting. Again, the words coming out of my mouth make no sense, but somehow they manage to have a balancing effect; dissipating all the background noise we carry around with us in our day to day lives and replacing it with a stillness and inner tranquility.

An image of the goddess Gayatri, whose mantra is sung to encourage wisdom and enlightenment

It is the same when I come out of my monthy rehearsal with the Shakti Choir I’ve joined. The fact I’ve even joined a  choir has come as a surprise to my friends, most of whom have never seen me sing, let alone one that is dedicated to the world’s sacred goddesses. In the three hour rehearsal we take time to breathe deeply, to be present and to listen, tuning ourselves into our own group frequency. And then we sing our hearts out – men and women, of all ages and talents – in a capella harmonies. The sound is quite magical. At the end I come out feeling alive and alert. And amazed – I’ve just sung in harmony, and in tune (most of the time), and yet I haven’t sung for years.

I used to sing quite a lot – didn’t we all when we were children? From the age of seven or eight I was singing the numbers from musicals such as

Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story or the Sound of Music. And I had an obsession with Judy Garland – I would record each and every film of hers when it was broadcast on television, and I had particular favourites which I would play over and over again, losing myself in the hope and glory depicted in Meet Me in St. Louis or A Star is Born.To this day, I cannot help but be totally entranced and captivated when I watch Judy belting out ‘The Man that Got Away’ or ‘Over the Rainbow’, particularly in her later years when her passion and her pain can be seen and felt with every word.

I wanted to be like Judy when I was a child – to sing, and dance, and act. And then what happened? As children, we so often get put off by our peers, or our parents, or our teachers. We might also be just plain shy and lack the confidence to step up onto that stage. I tried for a while, attending drama groups where we would put on shows that our parents and the locals in the area would come and see. Yet by the age of 18 other interests had taken over, and I’d decided I didn’t really want to be an actress after all…I wanted to save the world instead!I had equated my artistic talents with my chosen career, and so when my career interests changed, the singing, dancing and acting died.

Yet in the last few months the singing has been unexpectedly resurrected. When I’m not at the Qi classes or at choir practice, I find myself singing – even the ‘cosmic sounds’ which make no sense. The sounds from those sessions spent in the Qi centre or in the rehearsals stay with me for the rest of the day, or week, like soothing and reassuring mantras. The experience of singing again has become more than just some new hobby to fill the time; it is a healing exercise – one that nurtures me, connects me with my inner core and lights up each part of my body.

I don’t pretend I’m particularly good at it. We forget that we don’t sing purely to show our talent; we sing for joy, because a song is in our hearts or minds and it needs to be expressed. We all have singing voices – as our choir leader likes to remind us – we just need the inner strength to let our voices fly and flow over each note and chord. And as we listen, to ourselves and to those singing around us, we learn how to connect with the peace and clarity we always wish for.

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