Simple Seasonal Pleasures for November

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November.  We begin this month by setting our clocks back an hour.  The days are short and dusk falls early.  We bear witness to the final days of autumn in all of their fiery glory.  By the end of the month, a hush has fallen over the landscape.  The grass is brown and the trees are barren, skeletons against a gray sky.  We may even see a snowflake or two.  Winter is almost here.

  1. Create inner warmth.  As we lose heat from the sun outside at this time of year, it’s important to create an atmosphere of warmth in our homes and in our hearts and souls this month.  Light a fire in the fireplace, make sure your thermostat is set at a comfortable temperature, keep your favorite blanket nearby for snuggling up.  Set aside extra time for meditation, reading books, journaling or other introspective activities that comfort your soul.
  2. Embrace the darkness.  Just as we lose outer warmth in November, we also lose light.  There tends to be a lot of complaining about this, particularly right after we fall back to standard time on November 4.  This year, instead of wishing this time of darkness away, try making peace it, maybe even enjoying it a little.  November is a great time to practice slowing down, turning inward and spending a little more time being rather than doing.  Welcome the early evenings by lighting a candle or turning on a low lamp.  Cook something warm and nourishing for dinner while you sip a glass of wine.  Turn in early with a cup of tea and a good book.  Write in your gratitude journal (see 4 below).  Make a cozy ritual out of these early evenings at home.
  3. Visit a cozy café or coffee shop alone.  Find a warm, cheerful place you can go to fortify yourself with a warm beverage and soak in the presence of other souls without having to directly engage with them.  This can be especially healing if you work from home or in an office setting and need a change of scenery.  Bring some work, a creative project, your journal or a good book and bask in the warm glow of the company of strangers.
  4. Commit to writing in a gratitude journal.  Sarah Ban Breathnach famously introduced us to the concept of the gratitude journal in her 1995 classic, Simple Abundance:  A Daybook of Comfort and Joy (which I still read daily, by the way).  The idea is to write down five things you are grateful for each evening before bed.  “You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life, ” she says. “And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law:  the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you.”  Sarah suggests having a journal that is solely dedicated to the expression of gratitude, a written record of the blessings and abundance that are already yours:  “As the months pass and you fill your journal with blessings, an inner shift in your reality will occur…As you focus on the abundance rather than on the lack in your life, you will be designing a wonderful new blueprint for the future.”  Ready to give it a try?  Find a journal or notebook and take a few moments at the end of each day to review and appreciate the good in your life.  Commit to this simple practice for the month of November, and see if it shifts your way of being.
  5. Go for a walk just for the pleasure of returning home.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of crossing the threshold of your front door, rosy-cheeked after a brisk walk in chilly weather.  The contrast of outer cold and inner warmth heightens our awareness and enhances our feeling of sanctuary as we make our way home after braving the elements.  Set the scene for yourself by making sure your house is toasty warm before you leave.  Have the makings for a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate at the ready.
  6. One word…slippers.  I haven’t had a pair of slippers in years, and this year I decided to go ahead and treat myself to this pair of boiled wool slippers from Garnet Hill.  What a luxury for my always cold toes!  It is so nice to know that they are waiting patiently for me next to the front door when I arrive home.  And a bonus….my floors are cleaner because I’m not wearing my shoes in the house.
  7. Establish a fika ritual.  Fika (pronounced fee-ka) is essentially the Swedish term for coffee break.  It is meant to be a sacred pause in the day, an opportunity to rest, reconnect and nourish ourselves with a hot beverage and possibly a tasty baked good.  The Swedish fika at least twice a day…usually late morning and mid- afternoon.  You can fika alone or with company.  At home or out at a café.  What is important is that you are stopping what you are doing and taking a true respite from the day (we don’t fika in front of the computer while we finish up some work or while we check our social media feeds, for example).  Try setting aside a little time in your day for a hot cup of tea or coffee and maybe a little treat to go with it.  Sounds like an excellent time to write in your gratitude journal!
  8. Make porridge for breakfast.  Did you know that there is a restaurant in Denmark that is solely dedicated to serving porridge!?  Yes my friends, porridge is hot right now (ha!).  Prepare something warm and comforting to fortify you for the day ahead.  Steel-cut oats are one of my favorites, but there are so many different grains that work in a porridge situation.  Rice, quinoa, barley, farro….the options are endless.  If you are tight on time in the mornings, do your future self a favor and prepare your grains ahead and simply heat them up at breakfast time.  If you are a savory breakfast sort of person, give this oatmeal with egg on top a try.  It’s quick as can be and one of my favorites.

The happiest of Novembers to you all!  I am so grateful to have this online space to write and share what I’m thinking and doing.  Thank you for stopping by!

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Pathways: A Journaling Exercise

 

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Like spokes in a wheel with your present day self in the center, there are many paths that you could potentially follow with this very moment being your starting point.  This could be with respect to your general life direction, or it could be related to a specific topic…your choice of career, what to have for dinner, where you choose live or what creative project you want to pursue, just to name a few.  The possibilities are endless.  Possibilities are a beautiful thing, but they can also overwhelm us, leaving us feeling paralyzed by the prospect of choosing which direction to go in next.

The next time you are evaluating the options that fan from this present moment, try this:  Take out your journal and a pen and write ME in the center of a clean page and draw a circle around it.  This represents your present self.  From there, draw lines like spokes on a wheel outward.  At the end of each line, write a few sentences that describe a potential pathway that you can imagine leading forward from this present moment.   Continue until you have touched on all of the pathways you can envision for yourself.  As I said, this can be with respect to a general life direction or it can relate to a specific topic.

Once you have finished, have a dialogue with the self that chose each path.  Ask him or her to describe the experience of taking that path for you.  What does he or she enjoy about having chosen this path?  What has been challenging about it?  Let each “future self” have a chance to offer you a glimpse of their experience along their particular pathway.

You may find, as some of my students did, that as soon as you start writing about a particular pathway it becomes a dead end.  Others will feel alive, juicy and full of promise.  Choose the one that feels the most appealing to you.  Go back to the self that chose that pathway and ask him or her for some words of advice or wisdom.  What kind of message does he or she have for you as you are just beginning the journey in that direction?  Let his or her voice flow through your pen onto the paper.

Now, guided by the wisdom offered to you by your inner voice, choose your pathway.  Start moving in that direction.  Let the other pathways fall away for now.  You can move as slowly as you need to, and you can always reevaluate as you move forward.  Come back to this exercise anytime you need help sorting through the possibilities that lead outward from here.

 

 

Honoring Our Ancestors

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We are in extricably woven with our ancestors.  My belief is that if we tap into that fertile unseen world much healing wisdom will surface.

-Gigi Stafne

The timing of Halloween coincides with several ancient holidays and festivals which not only marked the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, but also served as an opportunity for people to remember ancestors and departed loved ones (The Day of the Dead in Mexico, All Souls’ Day in the Christian tradition, the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Norse festival of Winternights).  It was believed that the veil between the world of the living and the ancestral realm was particularly thin at this point in the year.

In the modern western world, we don’t have many formalized rituals that help us honor our ancestors.  We might display photographs of them in our homes or own cherished heirlooms that they passed on to us.  Maybe we occasionally get into the kitchen and prepare old family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.  Or maybe we share fond memories and stories about our grandparents and great-great grandparents around the dinner table.  You might have been fortunate enough to grow up in a family that placed some importance on reaching back through time to connect with those that came before you through food, stories, heirlooms or genealogy research.  But what if you didn’t?  Maybe that information was never made available to you, or maybe, through complicated family dynamics, the connection with your ancestors was deliberately severed at some point along the line.  It is not uncommon to not particularly like or agree with those that came before you.

And yet, we sense that there is something about our ancestral connection that matters, regardless of the complex human relationships that come with it.  I recently heard a podcast interview with John Lockley, author of Leopard Warrior:  A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams.  Mr. Lockley is a South African healer and shaman who writes about the importance of our ancestral connections.  He writes:

“To forget one’s people represents a sadness beyond words.”

He goes on to explain that it’s not about liking or agreeing with your ancestors.  It’s simply about having an appreciation for the life that they have passed on to you.  I love this idea of stripping down the honoring of our ancestors to a very basic practice of gratitude for the gift of life that we received from them.  Maybe your grandfather was a real jerk and you would rather forget that you were related to him altogether.  But by simply honoring the life that he passed on to you, one can set aside his imperfect humanness for a moment and see that he is just one in a line of many that made you being here possible.  When we can find this basic gratitude for the life force that flows through our body, we can see that this ancestral connection runs deep.  Everyone descends from someone else.  This realization brings with it a sense of peace, humility and interconnectedness that runs through all of life, not just the direct line of people we came from.  Suddenly it’s easier to sense our connection to the ground beneath our feet and the humans, animals and plants with whom we share this Earth.

As this season of remembrance begins, honor your ancestors in any way that speaks to you.  Make your grandmother’s cookie recipe or tell your children the story of your great-great grandmother fighting to save her home from a raging grass fire on the desolate windswept plains of the upper midwest.  If you are sketchy on what your roots are, ask your living relatives for help or join http://www.ancestry.com and do a little research.  They offer a free two week trial which is plenty of time to get a basic idea of your family history.  If you really have no idea about your lineage, take an online DNA test (also available through http://www.ancestry.com)  and find out where you come from.  Do some research on those cultures and see what resonates with you.  But most importantly, be willing to take a moment to offer gratitude for the roots of your being, regardless of what they look like.  See if that simple act of appreciation opens you up to a greater sense of connection with all of life.

The Details Matter: A Journaling Exercise

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Paying attention to and honoring the details of our life is a way of enhancing our everyday existence.  In the modern world, we often value the quick and easy route.  Breakfast on the go, throwing on the first thing we grab out of the closet, pita chips and hummus for lunch (again), chauffeuring kids to activities during the evening hours and then realizing you haven’t even thought about dinner, a quick run through the drive-thru, some screen time and so to bed.  This can leave us feeling as if we are just floating from one lackluster, non-memorable experience to another.  It’s no wonder we often feel empty, exhausted and unfulfilled.

But what if the way we choose to express ourselves in the everyday details of our lives mattered?  What if it is our attention to those details that helps us feel connected and alive?  What if they are an opportunity to express our authentic perspective of beauty and creativity?

Find your journal and a pen and write for 20 minutes or so using the following questions as prompts for your writing:

What areas of my life could use a little more love and attention?

How could I bring more creativity and beauty into my day?

What areas of my life could use a little more intention?

How can I express my authenticity through my daily activities?

What daily/ weekly routines need tweaking in order to better support me?

Once you are finished, go back through your writing.  Identify one or two specific opportunities to bring a little more authentic detail to your day.  Write about each one, clarifying what it looks like and how you are can make space for it in your life.  In class, students wrote about everything from changing the details of their morning routine so that it was more supportive of their day to dressing with more care and attention; from packing a nourishing lunch for themselves to enjoy at work to rethinking how they want to spend their evening leisure time.  This week, seize one of these opportunities to bring a little more YOU to your day.  See how it feels.

Finding Your True North: A Journaling Exercise

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The only map of your right life is written on your soul at its most peaceful, and the only sure compass is your heart at its most open.

-Martha Beck

Humans are tribal beings.  Throughout our lives, each of us “belongs” to many different groups, each with its own set of values, beliefs and expectations.  These tribes include society at large, the country you live in, a company that you work for, your place of worship, your family of origin, your chosen family and your friend group, just to name a few.  There often comes a time, particularly when we are committed to following our own authentic path, that we must make choices that conflict with the values, beliefs and expectations of a particular tribe that we’ve been a part of, possibly for a very long time.  For example, maybe your family is insisting that you go to college, but you know that’s not the right choice for you right now.  Or maybe you work for an employer that pays well but expects 80 hour work weeks in exchange for that high salary, and you’ve decided that you value your time and well-being more than a large paycheck.  Whatever the circumstance, sometimes we must set out on our own and go our own way if we want to remain true to ourselves.

The problem is that this means leaving our tribe behind.  We no longer fit within the particular set of values, beliefs and expectations of this group and simply cannot be a part of it any longer.  Sometimes we can maintain relationships with people as we choose to move on and they stay firmly rooted in the tribal culture.  But sometimes we can’t.  This may be our choice, or it may be that the members of our former tribe choose to sever ties with us as we no longer fit a mold that they consider acceptable.  In any event, this loss of “membership” can leave us feeling directionless.  We left this tribe because we don’t subscribe to certain values, beliefs and expectations anymore.

But what do we believe in?

This is the question we must answer for ourselves.  For this week’s journaling exercise we will create our own unique list of values, beliefs and expectations to use as a guide to living and being in the world.  This is the process or creating your own personal manifesto or mission statement.  More of a compass than a map, a personal manifesto is a document that is designed to be a big picture declaration of what you value and believe in.  For example, one of the statements included in my manifesto is:

I commit to uncovering and expressing my unique authenticity and to helping others do the same.  I honor authenticity in others.

With this kind of overall view in place, it is easier to make day-to-day decisions that are in alignment with who we are on the inside.  With that, take out your journal and a pen and start on a clean page.  In the center, write “My True North” and draw a circle around it.  I like using this term because it encompasses all of the following questions:

What do I believe in?

What am I committed to?

What do I know to be true?

What do I value?

What basic principles guide me?

What do I stand for?

What is important to me?

We are going to do a clustering exercise with “My True North” as the starting point.  A cluster is simply a mind map in which we choose a word or phrase for the center bubble and free associate out from there.  Let your thoughts generate other thoughts in the form of a single words or short phrases.  Circle each one and connect it with a line to the thought before it.  If you think of something entirely new that doesn’t relate back to the previous thought, go back to the center bubble and connect the new idea up with where you originally started.  Continue to build outward from there, using the above list of questions as a guide.  Keep going for 10 minutes or so, exploring what your values, beliefs and expectations are.  Keep in mind that the key word here is YOUR.  Not society’s values, beliefs and expectations.  Not your parents’.  Not your employer’s.  YOURS.  Let this be an exercise in uncovering what truly matters to you.

Once you have completed your cluster, take a look at the words and phrases you wrote down.  Begin putting them into categories and crafting a list of statements that reflect your unique set of values, beliefs and expectations.  Often our journaling exercises are premised on writing quickly and not censoring or editing as we go.  But because we did the information gathering piece through the cluster exercise, we are now going to write our personal manifesto in a way that is clear, thoughtful and empowering.  Keep your phrases in the present tense and avoid words like “will” or “try”.  A few other examples from my manifesto:

I value simplicity.  Living a simple life gives me the freedom to make choices and follow my authentic path.

I am an artist and am committed to expressing myself creatively in all aspects of my life.

I commit to living in harmony with the earth and her seasons.  I celebrate the turning of the year.

Once you have written your manifesto, maybe tuck it away for a couple of days before coming back to it to revise and edit as you deem necessary.  Once you have your manifesto in its final form, write it out neatly and put a copy of it somewhere where you will see it on a daily basis….the front of the refrigerator, the inside cover of your journal, the inside door of your closet.  Let it serve as a reminder of what matters to you.  Let it guide your decisions, actions and way of being in the world.  Keep in mind that as you grow and change, your manifesto may also need to change.  Let this document be as alive and adaptable as you are.

Creating a Sense of Sanctuary

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There are no intrinsically sacred objects or experiences; they are made sacred by the special context that we give them.

-Louise Thomsen Brits, The Book of Hygge

Now more than ever we all need a sanctuary, a refuge from the world, a safe place to reflect and restore.  But the word sanctuary implies more than just a safe space or refuge.  It suggests reverence.  Holiness.  A sense of the sacred.  When we think about our homes in the context of creating sanctuary, we see the value of a living space that is simple, comfortable and cared for, a space that is ready to calm and nurture those who enter.  When we bring this sense of sanctuary to the seemingly mundane details of our daily lives, the ordinary has the potential to take on new meaning.  A morning cup of coffee in our favorite mug suddenly becomes a quiet, restorative ritual to start the day.  Our favorite corner of the sofa is transformed into a cozy writing nest to contemplate and dream.  Preparing dinner becomes a sensory meditation.  As we infuse our lives with a new awareness and appreciation for the everyday moments, we create sanctuary for ourselves and those we love by elevating the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The creation of sanctuary is an intentional practice, a willingness to make room for and find the sacred in the everyday.  Here are a few ideas for how to begin creating a sense of sanctuary in your own life:

  1. Make Space.  It can be difficult to cultivate the sacred in the everyday when we are buried in clutter or an over-scheduled calendar.  Clear out and simplify.  Make room in your home and your planner for a more intentional, well-lived life, for what nourishes and sustains you.
  2. Own a few small, well-chosen items that comfort and delight. A warm blanket, a favorite mug, a pen that flows effortlessly across the pages of your journal…sometimes it’s the small luxuries that become talismans of comfort, familiarity and meaning in our daily round.
  3. Slow down. Our lives move at the speed of light.  How many times have you thought to yourself on a Thursday evening, “I can’t believe it’s Friday already tomorrow!  Where did the week go!?”  We can live our whole lives this way if we aren’t paying attention, racing unconsciously through our days, just managing to get by.  This kind of living is simply skimming the surface. We are not immersing ourselves in the richness that is right in front of us.  As a way to counter this pace, practice doing things SLOWLY on purpose.  Take a stroll through the neighborhood.  Not a power walk, but an easy stroll.  Prepare dinner at a leisurely pace.  Linger over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  Luxuriate in a hot bath rather than take a quick shower.  Take up an activity in which success depends on time and patience, sourdough bread baking, for example.
  4. Unplug. We don’t cultivate the depth and richness of life by staring at a screen.  We need to be wholly available to participate with our environment and the people in it in order to notice and appreciate our everyday experience, at least for a little while each day.  Be gentle with yourself on this one…unplugging from a virtual world and plugging into our real one with all of its messiness and the possibility of boredom isn’t easy.  Start small if you need to by setting aside designated times where you don’t check your phone.  Having a no device time before, during and after dinner is a great place to start.
  5. Engage with your senses. We can come back to the wholeness of the moment, to the beauty of the here and now just by really seeing, smelling, touching, hearing and tasting what is right in front of us.  This is why cooking is such an extraordinary activity for discovering the sacred in the seemingly mundane tasks of daily life.  The smell of garlic sautéing in olive oil, the bright orange flesh of the squash we are cutting into cubes, the softness of a plush Colorado peach in late summer.  Cooking offers so many wonderful opportunities to stop and take in a moment of sensory wonder and appreciation for the everyday gifts that are right in front of us.
  6. Don’t just eat dinner…dine. Find a bit of ceremony in your day where you can.  Light candles at the dinner table, lay down some placemats and cloth napkins and open a bottle of wine.  Not only will you invite a sense of the sacred to your meal, research suggests that gathering around the table at the end of the day is a source of social connection and an important aspect of our physical health.  In his book, How to Make Disease Disappear, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee talks about what life was like when humans existed in hunter-gatherer tribes.  After the sun went down, these early humans shifted their activities and conversation from the work of finding food to telling one another stories around the campfire.  “The researches call this ‘firelight talk.’  It’s a time of calmness, reflection and-perhaps most importantly-connection.”  We are wired to reflect, connect and find meaning in our existence by sharing our stories, the happenings of our day, with those around us.  “In the modern West, the table rather than the campfire is where our connection, or our ‘firelight talk,’ happens.”  Elevate mealtime to a higher plane by realizing that this is where we strengthen our sacred connection to one other….especiallyon an ordinary Wednesday night over meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
  7. Bookend Your Day with Rituals for Reflection. For me this means meditation and journaling.  But it could just be a simple quiet moment with your cup of coffee in the morning before your day begins.  Taking even a few moments before the day gets away from you to quietly center yourself is invaluable.  You will enter the morning in a more intentional, peaceful frame of mind.  In Circle of Stones, author Judith Duerk tells the story of a woman who lights a candle when she first wakes up for a brief ritual of quiet presence:

    “as long as I take time every morning to light a candle to my life, it remains my life.  But if I hurry into work without that small moment of quiet, then I’ve already lost myself, and the day.  The task, for me, is to care, daily, for myself and my life….to love and to nurture, within myself, moment by moment, the quality of quiet presence, quietly being present to my life, which sanctifies it…to live as if the candle is lighted.

    Likewise, take time to assess the day and find gratitude for the moments that touched your soul in some way, especially the small ones.  This is an excellent way to thoughtfully and intentionally shift into the evening hours.

Rest and restore in the sanctuary of everyday moments. Our lives are abundant in the ordinary, and it can be a profound gateway to something greater if we simply shift our perception a little.  The depth and meaning we seek in life is often not found in the big things….the parties, weddings, promotions and extravagant vacations.  Instead, we can find richness in our lives right where we are as we practice taking pleasure in the everyday stuff of life.

Simple Seasonal Pleasures for October

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Welcome October!  My favorite month of the year.  It’s been cold and rainy here in Nebraska, and no one seems to be complaining.  The sky hangs heavy with low gray clouds, and the leaves are just beginning to turn.  I’ve put away the summer clothes and unpacked the sweaters and scarves.  I just made the first batch of chili of the year.  Finally, the time for coziness and inner warmth is here.

  1.  Visit an apple orchard.  Here in Omaha we are fortunate to live near Nebraska City (it’s where Arbor Day originated, if you weren’t aware), which is home to several apple orchards.  In addition to stocking up on apples, we will stuff ourselves with warm apple cider doughnuts and buy a gallon of cider to take home and make this apple cider cocktail.  One of my favorites!
  2. Pack a fall picnic.  There is something about having a picnic on a crisp fall day that is utterly charming.  A plaid blanket and a thermos full of a hearty, soul-warming soup are essential!
  3. Read a scary or witchy novel.  I love snuggling up with a good scary story this time of year.  Some of my past October reads have been DraculaSalem’s Lot, and the Dark Witch trilogy by Nora Roberts.  This year it is Beneath a Blood Red Moon by Shannon Drake.
  4. Bake pumpkin bread.  Such a delicious quick breakfast or afternoon snack with a cup of coffee or tea.  This recipe from Smitten Kitchen is my favorite.
  5. Take walks in the crisp leaves.  I love the sound of fallen leaves crunching under my feet!
  6. The smell of woodsmoke.  As the evenings get chillier and people begin using their fireplaces and wood stoves again, the woodsy scent of smoke rising from the chimneys around the neighborhood evokes such a sense of warmth and coziness.
  7. Honor my ancestors.  The timing of Halloween coincides with several ancient holidays and festivals which not only marked the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, but also served as an opportunity for people to remember ancestors and departed loved ones (The Day of the Dead in Mexico, All Souls’ Day in the Christian tradition, the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Norse festival of Winternights).  It was believed that the veil between the world of the living and the ancestral realm was particularly thin at this point in the year.  Whether or not you believe there are thin places in the year in which we are closer to the spiritual realm, it is lovely to have a time set aside for honoring and remembering our ancestors.  A great place to do this is in the kitchen, of course!  This month I will make my dad’s famous pasta dish (simply known as “The Dish” at our house…it was that good) and my great-grandmother’s Pepparkakor (Swedish ginger snaps).  Cooking and baking are tangible, delicious ways to connect with our ancestors.
  8. Let go of what no longer serves.  I’m taking a cue from the falling leaves this month and letting go.  Letting go of clutter, jewelry, clothes, shoes, books, ideas, beliefs, habits, relationships, commitments….ANYTHING that isn’t serving me.  My very wise friend, Siobhan, who happens to be a very talented life coach, has proclaimed October the month of letting go.  Why?  In Siobhan’s words, “to create the space I need to be more ME.”  YES.  It’s amazing how both mental and physical clutter can stand in the way of our authenticity.  And so I will clear out the closets and the garage.  I will go through the kitchen cupboards and drawers.  I will journal my way past beliefs and ideas that are no longer helpful.  I feel lighter and more spacious just thinking about it!
  9. Watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”  Whether you have kids or not, you are never too old for this sweet little Halloween special.

A very happy October to you!  I hope you find your own simple ways to make it special.