Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats
The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!
W.B. Yeats, of course.
I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?
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Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?
I have been afraid of answering these questions.
When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?
And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.
Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?
As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?
Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.
What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.
What do we center around?
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It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.
This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.
In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …
She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.
When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.
The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.
“The centre cannot hold …”
Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.
And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!
I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.
As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away, falling down, falling apart. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
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Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.
So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.
Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
So we find a new one.
What’s in your center?
If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?
Leave a comment below! To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m a spinner, a speeder, a thought racer. (Yes, I know it doesn’t help. I know rocking chairs and hamster wheels go nowhere. I know worrying is pointless.) Under the right conditions, the inside of my brain is like a dusty attic filled with hysterical cats zooming in all directions, climbing the walls, knocking over piles of junk, filling the air with dust and yowls. Chaos. Destruction. I call it speeding. I call it anxiety. The world calls it racing thoughts.
Whatever we call it, it’s a miserable state of mind, and a common one.
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Herding cats, as any cat lover will tell you, never works. Sheep, maybe. Cows. But not cats.
However, at times familiar life goes off the rails in such varied, complex, and unforeseen ways I find myself once again herding cats, usually during the hours I need to be sleeping, though sometimes those hours bleed over into days when I’m supposed to be focusing. On something productive or something relaxing or something. But all I’ve got are catapulting (pun intended) thoughts and emotions racing around in my brain.
Not long ago, before the start of my current cat rodeo, I read somewhere (probably Substack) about The Rule of 9s. I’ve since gone back to look for it, but I can’t find the original source. Anyway, I didn’t come up with it myself. I wish I had.
The Rule of 9s is a tool used to identify what really matters. Or, if you like to look at things bass-ackwards, like me, what really doesn’t matter.
This morning, for example. I could garden, work on business at my desk, write, or make a Spotify playlist. I have just under two hours at my disposal before I head off to work.
I have a lot of desk business just now as my brother and I (mostly my brother) wind up my recently deceased mother’s estate and deal with our inheritance. By inheritance, I mean not just assets, but the inevitable emotional inheritance we all receive from our families of origin. What I’ve heard is true. When a parent dies, we cannot be prepared for the ways it changes us and how uncomfortable some of that change is.
My metaphorical cats – these mixed up thoughts and feelings — pull me in different directions at the same time. Everything feels overwhelming right now. It’s irritating. Two items on my grocery list and I’m overwhelmed. Now and then I have a few minutes free from the inundation, but I get a call, a text, another document to sign, and I’m overwhelmed again.
Fortunately, I just learned The Rule of 9s.
So, the option of gardening. It’s hot outside. Really, really hot and humid. Just when the weather should be getting crisper and cooler, a heat wave has arrived. It will ease in the next couple of days, but it’s brought a resurgence of mosquitoes and it’s not fun to be outside. So, no garden this morning. I’ll wait for cooler weather. Is that a crisis?
Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
Will gardening or not gardening matter in 9 seconds? In 9 minutes? In 9 hours? In 9 days? In 9 months? It might start to matter then, because I’ll be making spring plans and whatever progress I make this fall will affect those plans. But it’s clearly not urgent. I won’t remember choosing or not choosing gardening today.
Business at my desk. I’ve already done some of that this morning. Balanced the checkbook. Looked for a document I’m waiting on from my bank (not there yet). Made some notes. Did some planning. Considered options. I have money in my account. All the bills are paid. I don’t need to spend anything today. Will taking care of more business or not taking care of more business matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It might start to matter at that point, as one thing leads to another as we wade through this process. If I stay on top of tasks, step by step, I know I’ll eventually come out of the tunnel with effective systems in place that work for me and respect my goals and values. Tempting to start herding the cats quivering on my desk, but I only have two hours and nothing is urgent.
Make a Spotify playlist. I may shortly have an opportunity to bring a dance program to the community. I’ve tried several times in years past without success, but I haven’t given up hope. Now that I’m on Spotify (though I have misgivings about how platforms like this fail to support artists), I wanted to get a few of my dance playlists put together. I have them burned onto CDs and in iTunes, but not on Spotify. However, I don’t have any solid dates for dance now. It’s all in the planning stages. At some point it will matter, but not right now.
Writing. It’s my weekend to publish on Harvesting Stones. I don’t have to. It’s not required. But I’d like to, if for no other reason than it’s my usual routine, a stepping stone in the current chaos, and it comforts me to be doing something normal. Not to mention how much I enjoy it. Hard to think about focusing on it, though. All those cats whizzing around …
Will writing or not writing matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It won’t matter to the world, but it matters to me. It will matter to me in two days, when Saturday morning comes and I either do or do not have a rough draft I’m happy with.
So I’m writing. And while I’m doing that, miraculously, the other cats settle down. Tired, I guess. Maybe they’ll curl up in the chaos they’ve wrought and sleep a while. Sleep is good.
As I live my life and listen to the inside of my head, especially the anxiety, the fear, the resistance, the catastrophizing, I pull out The Rule of 9s and apply it. Will this matter in 9 seconds? In other words, will I die in 9 seconds if I don’t do whatever-it-is or figure it out, completely and perfectly? How about in 9 hours? (Have you ever noticed how crazy your nighttime I-can’t-sleep thoughts are in the light of day?) In 9 days will I even remember whatever feels stressful this minute? Will the fearful thing I can imagine happening be important in 9 weeks? In 9 months? In 9 years?
The Rule of 9s requires I slow down and think. The questions give me perspective, help me with a reality check. I stop reacting and remember my power to choose. I decide what’s more important than my peace of mind (not much). Hysteria is contagious; so is calm.
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Applying The Rule of 9s settles the cats right down. One or two may still zoom, because cats are contrary like that, but the chaos diminishes as I become intentional and mindful. I can find some focus, at least for a few minutes. I know what to do next, in the next 9 seconds, anyway. The next 9 years can take care of themselves.
What are your strategies for pulling yourself out of racing thoughts and anxiety loops?
How do you choose priorities?
Is your experience one of choice in life, or one of reaction and compulsion?
Share something ridiculous that’s kept you up at night.
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
As I lingered on the threshold between waking and sleep this morning, thinking about loss, the subject of my last post; thinking about my distressing inability to publish my usual essay on Substack last week, and thinking about the ways in which I’m reshaping my beliefs about my family and therefore myself, I recognized the chaos part of the dance.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
To dance in chaos involves letting everything go except the beat. Chaos is about strength, not beauty. It’s about grounding and staying grounded even as the music flings us through space.
Chaos is the part where you dance till you drool.
The edge of chaos is fertile, regenerative, thick with possibility. It’s also powerfully disorganized and unpredictable. It’s exhausting, overwhelming. Too much is happening too fast. When dancing chaos, we give ourselves entirely to the music and follow it through the tumult however we can. As Margaret Shepherd said, “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” Add music to that idea and you have the chaos part of the dance. The car has broken down. The planes are grounded. The train has derailed. The illusion we’re in control has shattered. Our routines and schedules fall apart around us. Our internal and external worlds begin to reshape in ways we can’t understand.
I’ve been troubled in the last couple of weeks by the violence of my rebellion against doing anything except work and play in the garden. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to think or reason. I don’t care about the damn housework. Beltane, May 1st, came and went without my usual ritual and practices. I don’t want to be brave, strong, organized, compassionate, tolerant, empathetic, or responsible.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve shut down like this. I/m unable to guilt or lash myself into being “productive.” I feel ashamed and scared. I don’t recognize myself.
It occurs to me this is my Beltane ritual this year. After all, Beltane is about fertility. Physical fertility, the cyclical fertility of the growing season, creative fertility. My ritual this year is being in the garden. There, with my knees in the dirt, the smell and feel of the soil, the texture of new weeds and old leaves and matted grass (we didn’t have a mower last year), I am peaceful. I know where I am. I am, literally, grounded. I don’t have my phone. Nobody needs anything from me. I bend, kneel, stoop, dig, rake and shovel compost mindlessly. I dream vaguely about new garden beds, rewilding with native shrubs and trees. Black flies come for their drop of blood. The sun shines down on me.
Right now I need to be in the garden. I don’t understand it entirely, but perhaps there’s no need to. What I do know is something in me refuses to engage with anything else. As the lilies and iris emerge, as the tulips bloom and the daffodils fade, as the lilacs bud and the magnolia blossoms fall and cover the ground, I mulch and prune and feel seismic forces beyond my control reshape me internally.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
So much of what I’ve learned and believed about my family and my place in it has crumbled into dust. Old family myths have exploded with fragments of evidence from Mom’s life, unearthed in the process of selling her estate. I didn’t entirely believe in some of those myths, but they were stable. They provided a family background I was familiar with. I built an identity from the identities family members who came before me created. If I am not the despised one, the broken one, the one who doesn’t belong, the cuckoo in the nest, who am I? Has all that been yet another family myth? Has any of it ever been about who I really am or my personal value, or have I been nothing but a faceless, nameless piece in a dysfunctional family pattern?
I long for freedom. Is this the beginning of freedom?
My recent inability to force myself to take care of business, to be responsible, consistent, and productive, is terrifying. I’ve always pushed myself through any resistance or fatigue. I’ve always known I must justify my existence with constant production, pleasing, and caregiving.
Am I free of that now? If I don’t have to justify my existence because that belief is a lie based on family mythology that’s at least part lies, is that freedom? Am I brave enough to take my freedom, walk away from all the burdens (too heavy for me, but I’ve carried them anyway), and simply choose what makes me happy? I have stood at this crossroad before.
Two weeks ago I wrote about loss. Now I’m watching glimmers of new beginnings, nebulous glints of what might come into the disturbed ground of my being. I pick up trash and find rich soil beneath it. I dig up dandelions and burdocks and discover little patches of old garden. The sun touches me without asking for anything in return. I rake away last year’s debris and mix it with compost to build new garden beds. This morning, the crab apple is in bloom. The tight buds on the white lilac by the porch door gather perfume.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado, strangers live in my mother’s house. Hospice tells me Mom can no longer ambulate independently, even with her walker. A call in the middle of last night reported yet another fall, as she doesn’t realize (or won’t admit) her own weakness. Appraisal revealed my wealthy and powerful grandmother’s gold, pearls, and gemstones were mostly costume, not real. A ladylike façade. A denial of her impoverished roots. A glimpse of shame and fear that rival my own, though I never knew they were there.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
It’s Mother’s Day weekend. A friend asked me yesterday how I felt about that, and I had no words.
What is real? What can I bear? The dirt on my knees, under my fingernails. The spectacularly itchy, burning welts of black fly bites. The egg shells, banana peels, and soggy segments of lemon in the compost pile. The lovely cupped double tulips I planted last fall, white, pink and purple. The thumb-sized bumble bee tumbling ecstatically among the pink blossoms of the crabapple. My own breath, heartbeat, sweat. The sun on my skin.
Gardens are made and remade. They die and are reborn. They go wild and survive until rediscovered. They adjust, adapt, take advantage of the edge of chaos according to their own wisdom and purpose.
For now, I’m in the garden, dancing with chaos, nurturing new life, hanging on.
What is your experience of Mother’s Day?
In the times during which you struggle to manage your life, are you fearful or do you allow yourself to follow your needs?
Do you find chaos joyful and exhilarating or frightening?
What opportunities have you had to reframe your family?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.
I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.
Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.
Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.
My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.
As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.
I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.
Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.
When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?
Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.
Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?
This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.
When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.
The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.
Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.
Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.
I recently came across a Dutch word, ‘voorpret‘, in one of the minimalist blogs I follow. It means “joy or pleasure ahead or in anticipation of” an event.
I was charmed with it. I love language and the feeling described by this word has long been an important part of my life, a part I’ve been ashamed of, largely hidden, and never had a term for.
Anticipating pleasure is fraught with the danger of disappointment. We learn that as children, and we keep on learning it. Our fantasies are often much cleaner, simpler, and more beautiful than real life, when it rains, people fight, someone gets sick or hurt, or events and dates get cancelled.
Many people eventually make an unconscious decision not to look forward to anything out of the bitterness of disappointed expectations and anticipation.
I’ve worked a great deal on releasing outcomes. The practice of ‘however it needs to be, it’s okay with me’, has served me well. I enjoy life more, I stay in my power and build resilience, and I’m able to navigate disappointment more comfortably and effectively.
Still, releasing outcomes doesn’t mean giving up on the pleasure I get out of looking forward to something. In fact, most of my pleasure is in the anticipation rather than in the event itself, or the memory of it. According to this article about voorpret, I’m not alone.
Some people, and I’ve lived with a couple of these, don’t plan. They don’t make dates. They talk about being spontaneous. They say they’ll “forget.” They don’t want to be pinned down or commit to something they might not feel like doing when the time comes. They don’t follow through with plans and they break dates. This hurts, as it conveys to me I’m much more eager to spend time with them than they are with me.
I’ve frequently felt I want too much when I’ve asked others to make dates with me. The idea of making dates and commitments is a boundary problem for people who want no limitations on their access to me. Other folks resent being “pinned down.” During my dating years I felt ashamed of the pleasure I took in looking forward to having a meal and seeing a movie, as though I was being ridiculous and childish.
My response to my shame (long before I knew about minimalism), has been to conceal and simplify my pleasure in anticipation.
When I began dancing, I learned to dance small. It’s easy to get carried away in the music, in the wordless, entirely physical expression of feelings, especially if our feelings are strong and pent up. Before we know it, we’re clumsy, out of breath, and have a stitch in our side. At that point, in order to stay with the dance and take care of ourselves, we must dance small , come back to our center, return to our breath, re-inhabit our body and reclaim our balance and movement.
The practice of voorpret, for me, is dancing small. It’s not about big, complicated, infrequent occasions in which the outcome is extremely important to me. It’s about life’s small, daily pleasures, the ones we can give to ourselves without anyone else’s permission or participation. We don’t need a lot of money. We don’t need time off work. We don’t need a suitcase, a new wardrobe, or a plane ticket.
Voorpret, for me, is looking forward to a cup of tea and a good book on the front porch in the morning sun.
It’s a ten-hour, noisy, stimulating, busy day at work and looking forward to my feather bed, cotton sheets, and cool, quiet attic where the night air and moonlight mingle on the slanting floor under the open windows.
It’s making a date with myself on my calendar for an early morning walk when the world is still half asleep, watching the night sky pale into dawn.
It’s a plan to take myself out to lunch after a haircut or dentist appointment.
Small pleasures are everywhere in our lives, if we only look and give ourselves permission to experience them. We can offer ourselves these moments or hours every day like gifts. We can write them on our calendars or put them in our phones and look forward to them, fully enjoying and relishing our anticipation and lingering over them when they arrive. Spontaneous joyful moments arise, too, of course, unexpected moments of delight in which we can relax and rest for a moment.
Now more than ever we need to give ourselves stepping stones through and periods of respite inside the chaos and tension of the world. Many of us are suffering from ongoing stress and uncertainty about every aspect of our lives. Many of us feel overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. Voorpret can balance that out. We don’t need to wait. We can schedule a small, simple pleasure for ourselves today, write it down, and start looking forward to it.