Confession: I used to think practicing gratitude to become happier was ridiculous.

When I started to read research about the positive and long-term impact that gratitude has on our happiness and health, my first reaction was to dismiss it. Almost entirely.

I’d just worked my butt off for 15 years of one achievement and success after another and didn’t find happiness, so keeping a gratitude journal was going to do it?

Ridiculous.

But I was absolutely miserable — and exhausted from all the pushing, fighting, working harder, running faster, doing more, more, more, because on the other side of all these achievements there HAD to be happiness! (There wasn’t.)

So I decided to give gratitude a try. I set it up like an experiment that would probably fail and then I could feel like I was smart and right.

What happened was something completely and entirely different, and I share my experience in this article, which Time.com is featuring this week, in time for Thanksgiving, the grand puba of gratitude days.

I hope you give a read and I hope that if your inner skeptic doubts the power of gratitude like I did, you find a way to distract him or her long enough for you to try it.

(Spoiler alert: It can change your life.)

 

How Edward Snowden helped me with my meditation practice

I am writing this post a day after hearing an interview with Edward Snowden. He spoke from Moscow, where he is in exile, after making public top-secret NSA documents, which revealed the extensive nature of US surveillance on phone and internet communications of Americans.

I’d seen Citizenfour, the documentary about his story, and I remember being surprised by an apparent lack of doubt he felt about doing what he did. He knew what would likely happen after the documents went public — that he would have to leave everything and everyone he knew, that he could go to jail or into exile, and chance never seeing his family or his girlfriend again. And yet, he seemed almost calm about his decision.

Maybe he didn’t actually feel any doubt?

As I listened to the interview with him, this was my question. I got my answer:

He felt a ton of worry and doubt. He thought about what to do with the documents he encountered for a long time, consulting with others he worked with, going over scenarios in his mind. He worried about what would happen to his family and his girlfriend and he was sad at the prospect of never seeing them again.

And yet, his decision appears easy because amidst all the doubt and worry he had something else, something that was ultimately more powerful than anything else he felt:

Commitment.

More specifically, commitment to protect the Constitution of the United States, which he felt the government was violating by spying on its citizens without legal authority. His commitment was unwavering and had absolute clarity to him. As he talked about it in the interview I was struck by just how palpable and real it was. It wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t intellectual. It was in the if-then format: If I believe that it is the responsibility of the United States citizens to uphold the Constitution, then since I came across evidence that the government is violating it, I don’t have a choice but to expose it.

As I listened to this interview I was thinking about my meditation practice. It’s something I’ve been trying to make a regular part of my life because when I meditate regularly I am a much lighter, kinder, better human. But I keep falling off the wagon — I skip my night meditation because I am too tired or I don’t meditate while I am traveling for work and then it’s hard to come back to.

I have a lot of willpower, so my inability to get into a regular meditation rhythm and maintain it for more than a few months has been frustrating. I’d give myself regular pep-talks about how this is good for me and I should do it regularly or I’d resort to the uglier cousin of the pep-talk — the self-beating-up talk of the “how pathetic are you that you can’t stick to meditating!” variety.

But hearing Edward Snowden I realized it’s not more self-beating that I needed or even more nice pep-talks. I hadn’t made a serious commitment to meditation. This was the missing ingredient.

It feels a bit odd to be writing about meditation in the context of someone risking their life for their commitment, but not really. Most of us feel either slightly or tremendously overwhelmed by our busy, stressful lives and it’s almost too easy to forget that we have a choice about where to focus our attention and energy. It can feel like life is happening to us vs. we are choosing what to include in the days that fill our lives.

And the key ingredient to making that choice is making a serious commitment. There is incredible power to committing to something that is important to you — whether huge, protecting the Constitution of the United States, or small, like sticking to a daily meditation habit.

What I think is so powerful about making a strong commitment is that it makes decisions and choices super easy. If I’m just meh about my commitment to meditation, then when I am tired it’s easy to say “I’ll just chill out with some TV now, and meditate tomorrow when I’m not so tired.” But if I make a serious commitment to myself to stick to it, then I don’t have to worry about choosing between TV and meditation — there isn’t a choice.

Part of what makes our lives feel so overwhelming is the increasing amount of choices about what to do at any given moment. There is just a lot more of everything. Making choices and decisions is draining; there is research that shows how our capacity to make decisions is limited and weakens throughout the day. If we’re not clear about our priorities, our commitments, then it’s easy to make decisions based on our feelings at the moment — “I’m tired so I’ll just watch TV” or “I’m tired and I’ll just eat these cookies that I know aren’t good for me but I’ll just eat healthy tomorrow.”

But do we really want to live in this reactive way? No. Letting our ever-changing emotions guide our actions won’t help us live in a way that feels meaningful and fulfilling. Or frankly, good. Making a commitment to something — and I mean a real, strong, specific commitment — is like creating a checks-and-balances system for our emotions.

Commitments aren’t wire fences that restrict us.  They are safety guardrails that prevent us from wavering off course and ending up in the pit of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

The conference was super busy and I felt exhausted when I got to my room the night after the Edward Snowden interview. After brushing my teeth I’d climbed into bed and was about to turn the lights off when I realized I hadn’t done my evening meditation. The voice in my head started to come up with a series of seemingly valid reasons for why I should get some sleep and worry about it tomorrow.

But it didn’t stand a chance. I actually smiled as I got out of bed and sat down cross-legged on the floor, getting ready for my meditation. “Commitment, baby,” I thought as I closed my eyes and started to breathe deeply.

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How to stop fighting the universe, have less fear, and feel freaking liberated (oh, and also not stress so much)

This weekend I went to one of my favorite places in this whole entire universe: Kripalu.

I’ll spare you what would surely become a super long blog post about how Kripalu is magical and why, even if you never do yoga or are allergic to the idea of doing yoga — which I was for most of my life — you should go there right this second.

Let’s just leave it at the fact that after a dear friend brought me there in the most incredible act of kindness when I was in a tough spot, I’ve made a pilgrimage to Kripalu once a year. I savor every ounce of the experience when I go and it’s something I not only look forward to every year, but a beacon to which I hold on when life inside my heart gets overwhelming or just, you know, windy.

So here I was, driving up for my 48 hours of bliss this past Friday. Silent breakfasts, stunning views, great yoga classes, the most nourishing food, long walks to the lake through the morning fog, putting away my phone for two days… I was replaying these experiences in my mind as I drove to the beautiful Berkshires. I could taste them.

In all this leaning forward I was doing, I was also trying to ignore something: I was not feeling great, at all.

I caught a really nasty cold earlier in the week and while it was getting better, I was still feeling absolutely crap. My body was achy, I was exhausted, and my headache was only getting worse.

My first reaction to becoming more aware that I still felt like total crap was to launch into this endless loop of anxiety:

How could I be sick on this weekend, when I’m going to my favorite place?!??? The whole weekend would now be totally ruined, my whole amazing experience I wait for all year is going to suck, I’m going to regret even coming! Why did I have to be such an idiot and get sick now?!

If any of this is familiar, just nod. We’ve all been there. Something is not going the way we imagine it should — a dream vacation is plagued by hurricanes, a dream date is at a restaurant that has the worst service, a dream day you’d planned to catch up on all your to-dos brings a kid who is sick and needs to stay home from school — and it’s the most maddening horrible thing. Ever. Because how could the world dare not flow the way we envision it should and the way we need, at this very moment!

My usual schedule at Kripalu includes two yoga classes a day and while they offer gentle, intermediate, and vigorous flow classes, I usually opt for the vigorous ones. But by the time I checked into my room on Friday afternoon, I knew there was no way in the universe my body could handle a strong yoga class. I spent some time being angry and frustrated, and then did the only other thing to do:

I went to gentle yoga. For the first time ever.

And it was wonderful. Easy, introspective, slow. It even helped my achy body feel a little better.

I kinda loved it, a lot.

Afterwards, I couldn’t fathom taking one of my super long walks, so instead I went on a shorter, slower one, and discovered a little trail I’d never seen before. It led me to one of the most peaceful spots on the grounds of Kripalu I’ve ever seen and my entire walk was accompanied by this beautiful sound of a little brook, flowing right along the trail path.

There was a lesson in all of this but trust me, I was completely blind to it.

Until I got into bed that night and started to read a book by Ram Dass, whom I consider one of my teachers without having ever met him. In it, he talks about this idea of working with what we’ve got, whatever it is, good, bad, difficult, awesome, anything.

What if we changed our attitude from “Oh, this is bad, this is good, I like this, I don’t like this, I wish it were like this, I wish that…” to “OK, this is what’s coming at me right now, I’m going to work with it…”?

(If this sounds like a similar message to what I wrote about in my post about surrendering to the moment, it is. Hard to not listen when the universe is essentially screaming it at me at this point.)

So I made a decision. I literally said aloud (which of course was just kinda weird, since I was alone in my room): I’m just going to accept that I feel like crap and I’m going to work with it. This is what’s coming at me right now, yes, while I am in my dream Kripalu refuge, so I’m going to work with it.

For the next two days I skipped every vigorous yoga class, taking gentle flow ones instead. I went to two meditation workshops that I’d usually skip because I’d be on one of my long walks. I learned so much to help my own meditation practice, that’s still a baby and needs all the support it can get.

I skipped the Saturday night concert and instead got into bed at 7pm to read a really great book, cover to cover. I lingered longer in bed in the morning, taking a much shorter walk than I usually do — but because I was out later than usual I got to watch the fog rise from the lake. It was stunning.

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I moved slower, I took more time at meals, I read more books, I wrote more in my journal.

My visit was so different from the ones I’d had previously. But I enjoyed every minute of it and I feel it was richer with learning and experience than before — from the different workshops I attended and from just allowing more time for thinking and writing than I would normally. I didn’t fully conquer the sicks but I was on my way. And my heart was as full as after ever visit to this magical place.

It’s not an easy lesson to learn — to work with what is coming at us without investing energy into wishing it were different, without getting annoyed or angry or frustrated. And I’ll tell you, I was in this mind space this weekend of “I don’t want to learn any lessons right now, let me just have a great weekend because I need a break!”

But if you can do it, it’s freaking liberating.

It takes away our fear of how we will deal if stuff doesn’t go our way because we stop labeling stuff as going our way or not — it’s all going our way, just in different ways. It builds this internal trust, this resilience that yeah, whatever comes, I’ll figure it out. It takes the fight out of “me vs. the universe”. And while it doesn’t remove feelings of frustration or annoyance – I was annoyed to be sick this weekend, for sure — it helps us waste less energy on them, and move the rest to a way more productive place.

Try it.

No, I’m serious, actually try doing this the next time something is not the way you wish it were. Don’t throw up your arms and hide under the covers, but take that, whatever way it is coming at you, don’t fight it inside, and just work with it the best way you can.

It might not lead to bliss, but it will bring a ton less anxiety, stress, and yes, fear.

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Does the practice of surrender make you a lazy unambitious sloth?

A reader asked an awesome question after reading my post about my adventures in surrendering: What happens to our ambition when we surrender?

Instead of replying to the comment, I promised a blog post instead — because that question has been on my mind quite a bit as well. I’m grateful that I was reminded to dive in a bit deeper on this topic and decided to use it for my first video blog in a new series called Pursuit of Happier.

I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear what you think. Do you find conflict between ambition and surrender? Or do you feel they live in harmony? How have you explored the idea of going with the flow of life while going after what you want to achieve?

Surrender to the call and ignore perfection

Last week in my morning yoga class I could tell we were moving towards a handstand.

I can’t do a handstand. In fact, I’ve never done a handstand in my life. I have tried, many times, to get my legs to go above my arms and land on the wall, and failed. Even a two-hour upside-down workshop didn’t get me over my fear of gaining enough momentum to get into a handstand.

So as soon as I realized where the flow sequence was heading, I felt uneasy.

About ten minutes before the end of class our teacher asked us to sit down so she could explain the next pose. She is seven months pregnant so wasn’t about to demo anything fancy, and suddenly I heard her say: “Nat, will you demo for me?”

Here’s the weird thing: I said yes before I realized I said yes.

After inhaling Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment (yes, it seeped so deep into my veins that this is my second blog post referencing it), I became fascinated with the idea of surrendering. Most of my life, I’ve subscribed to exactly the opposite philosophy — the idea that good things come when you run after them, work tirelessly to get them, overcome crazy obstacles and climb huge mountains to make them yours. If I didn’t dig a tunnel through the toughest rock towards something awesome, nothing awesome was ever going to come my way.

In The Surrender Experiment, the author describes surrendering as accepting things, people, and situations that come our way without judgement, without liking them or disliking them. Simply accepting that it’s what is meant to be in our path at this particular moment and doing our part to serve this moment. If we consider the fact that events unfolding in our lives were set in motion 3.9 billion years ago, when the world was created (you pick whatever method of creation you like to believe), then it’s silly to think that we can control these events to our liking. A more fulfilling and aware approach is to surrender to what comes and to consider things that are asked of us a call of something greater that’s been set in motion long before this very moment we’re in.

I found this idea so powerful that I’ve been trying to consciously practice it as often as I can. And thinking back, it’s likely why I agreed to demo a yoga pose in a class headed towards a pose I don’t know how to do. I didn’t judge being asked, I didn’t form an opinion about it, I simply surrendered to the call.

Want to know what the pose was? Here it is:

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(Yes, there are people who can do this in the middle of the room. Whoa.)

When our teacher described to me what she wanted me to demo, I started to laugh inside: There was no way in the world I could do this. This was worse than a handstand!

But I answered the call, what was I going to do now, run out of class? So I tried. Once, twice, three times, with zero success. She was standing next to me and said she was going to catch my leg on the next try, which she did. Here I was, in this upside down half stick pose, with my teacher holding up one of my legs in the air, when I heard the class clap.

People demo poses all the time. Usually they are brilliant at them. I’ve never heard anyone clap, until now. And I’m certain it had nothing to do with my finally getting into the pose with my teacher holding me up. It had everything to do with my classmates knowing that I just tried something I had no idea how to do.

But my personal surrender experiment didn’t end there.

Ten minutes later, it was time for the handstand. Surprisingly, my teacher asked me to demo again. I don’t know if she knew I couldn’t do it or she thought I could — it didn’t matter. I was too far down the path of surrendering to the call so I went to the wall, put my hands down, and tried to get my legs to swing above my head.

Once.

Twice.

Three times.

I felt my legs gently tap the wall, straightened my arms, and I was in a handstand. Just like that. For the first time in my life.

After class many people came up to thank me for demoing. I felt this warm kingship from them, this shared experience of going for something without any idea about how it will turn out. I took on a bit of their own fear in putting mine aside and it didn’t go unnoticed.

This experience has stayed with me for days since the class. It was the first time that I felt the power of simply surrendering to the call, putting aside my like or dislike of what was being asked of me, and going for it, ignoring perfection or any type of desired outcome. I tell anyone who will listen the story I just recounted here. It shifted something big inside me, in the simplest way, but one that I feel is revolutionary.

What else can happen if I surrender to the calls that come my way more often, putting aside my like or dislike of them, and not worrying about how exactly it will all turn out? How will my life change if I re-focus on serving the moment that is presented in the best way I can instead of trying to make every moment into something that fits my vision of what it should be?

I’ve lived most of my life in the fake safety of making lots of plans and to-do lists — can I achieve more, experience deeper, live fuller if instead, I chill the heck out and stop trying to control what’s in my path?

My newly acquired handstand practice is quietly but firmly saying yes.

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The practice of acceptance (or how I am trying to end my fight with the weather)

Every morning my daughter plays meteorologist by checking the weather and announcing it to the family. When we’re in for a warm and sunny day, I feel joy. If it’s cold or snowy — or worse, both — I feel a mix of dread, sadness, and anger. But the common ingredient is the strength of emotions I feel about the weather: INTENSE. My like or dislike of the weather is anything but subtle.

In the summer, when most of my weather feelings are joyful, this is less of an issue. But when the first fall chill arrives, I start to live with dreadful anticipation of THE WINTER. I prepare for the dread of the winter way before it arrives, thereby not really enjoying the beauty of fall other than in rare moments. I constantly catch myself thinking about how it will feel when my walk in the morning is a lot colder come December, even as I walk on a beautiful October morning when the temperature is perfectly comfortable, the sun is shining, and the leaves color my world in incredible hues.

As I write this now it sounds a bit ridiculous. And I am fully aware that the degree of my emotional involvement with the weather is at best, silly, and at worst, a huge drag on my life. But I’ve recently developed a different perspective on it, and perhaps one that can help me learn to let it go.

For the past several months I’ve tried to live by a simple mantra from Ram Dass, whom I consider one of my spiritual teachers: Be. Here. Now. It’s incredibly simple and yet profound — not to lean forward into the future, not to get stuck in the past, and instead, be fully awake in the present moment, whatever the moment is. It’s a practice that seems easy and yet is one of the most challenging and emotionally difficult ones I’ve undertaken. (And I imagine one that it will always remain a practice without a perfect outcome.)

My dread of the winter is the definition of not being here now, it’s all about leaning emotionally into the future. And in that, it’s not just an annoying habit but an obstacle on my spiritual journey to become more awake to the life I am living at this very moment.

Last week I was in Florida for a speaking gig and picked up a book to take with me on the flight: The Surrender Experiment. It’s beautifully written and if you’re at all curious about living with less struggle and constant pushing, fighting, forcing, you’ll enjoy it. In one of the chapters, the author, Michael Singer, talks about practicing acceptance of whatever came his way. He describes it as surrendering to what life puts in your path and not judging it — not expressing your like or dislike of it, not wishing it were different or that you might have more of it, just accepting it as something that is exactly how it should be. 

I was reading this chapter while sitting on the balcony outside my hotel room, in the middle of a sunny and hot Florida day. It got me thinking about my attachment to weather and the degree to which I allow it to affect how I feel. Could I practice acceptance and surrender to whatever weather greets me every day, without experiencing feelings of joy or dread about it? Can I simply accept it as it is?

I don’t know the answer but I excitedly decided to give it a try. I see this practice of acceptance as a close soulmate to the practice of gratitude. We can’t be grateful for something unless we are fully awake to it and we accept it exactly how it is, without judging it or wishing it were different. Can I be grateful for snow and freezing rain? How about wind and rain on a morning walk? Can I learn to live every day of this beautiful fall without the constant “This is nice but soon it’s going to get really nasty outside and then I am going to be really unhappy…” soundtrack running through my mind?

Surrendering and accepting aren’t exactly words that have had a lot of use in my vocabulary for most of my life, nor do we live in a culture where they are celebrated. I know I made the mistake for a long time of thinking that accepting something meant being complacent about it.

But it’s not at all, actually. Being awake to things as they are in our lives, accepting them without judging with our likes or dislikes, allows us to see them clearly and from that point of clarity make better decisions about what we want to do at that moment — with “nothing” being a viable option. (Like put on an extra warm jacket and huge scarf when the weather gets freezing in Boston.)

Is there something in your life which is draining your emotional energy? Can you find a way to practice acceptance and surrender to that reality, to tame your dislike of it, your judgement of how you wish it were? From my early experiments with practicing acceptance of the weather, I can say it’s worth a serious try.

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Why I paint (aka finding your flow)

I’ve always loved art — seeing it, learning about it, experiencing it, and creating it. My most serious art pursuit took place in Japan, where I studied during my junior year of college. I went to focus on economics and Japanese language, but took an elective in Sumi-e painting and it was love at first sight. In retrospect, it both makes sense that this meditative, slow art form was so appealing to the type-A me that ran through the rest of my life while juggling, and is equally puzzling.

I’ve dabbled with a tiny bit of abstract painting over the years, but when I say tiny I really mean it, maybe 10 paintings in two decades. Kiddo and I have been doing art projects together since almost the day she was born – everything from calling upon our inner Andy Goldsworthy and creating ephemeral art out of leaves and branches in our backyard, to collages, vision boards, and other fun stuff.

But I’ve always wanted to paint. Really paint, with oil, or watercolor, or acrylic, or anything else. I love color and I’ve been curious about figuring out how to express myself using color on canvas. At the top of my bucket list has lived the same item for a few years now: Go painting in Tuscany. I have no explanation for putting it there other than I’d heard that the light in Tuscany is magical and the idea of going to Italy to paint sounded magical.

Given that in a few months I turn 40 (going to just glide right over this one), this year I decided to give myself the gift of taking “painting in Tuscany” off my bucket list. The experience that ensued was so life-changing, that I won’t go into it here — it deserves its own blog post or a book. But while spending two weeks in Tuscany was a dream, the gift I got there was the one I didn’t quite expect: A passion for painting that burst out of me with a force I had not experienced in a long time.

My Tuscan painting adventure was in watercolor, simply because that is what our instructor taught the week I was there. I found it fascinating and difficult, and came back intending to keep working on it, while also trying oils. Once more I was reminded about the power of intention in my life because shortly after I came back I started in a small 3-person art class with a new friend, artist, and teacher, with whom we organized our little workshop. I had met her only recently but we were kindred spirits — with love of art and much more in common between us — and I’d asked if she would consider teaching a few of us. She agreed and as soon as I was back from Tuscany, we were off to the art races.

Reminder to self and anyone reading:

If you love something, if you want to find a way to do it, don’t forget to do the simplest thing: Tell people you love it and you want to find the way to do it. The universe turns out to be incredibly generous but not a mind-reader.

Every Monday night, after work is done and kids are fed, we gather in Irina’s beautiful art studio. She sets up a simple composition and we spend a few hours doing our own interpretation of it. I chose to try oils and wow, what an adventure it is into color and texture and learning to manipulate this beautiful medium in ways that express what I feel.

After the first session where I accomplished not much more than playing with oil on my canvas, Irina set up a mandolin composition. At first look I found it boring, which I shared with her. “Find your voice in it,” she told me, “just start putting colors on your canvas and listen to what you hear.” I’d never painted this way but I went with it. She would come over, turn my canvas upside down, ask me to use a different brush or knife, suggest that I do something really drastic in one part of it and then see what it leads me to.

Before I knew it, two hours had gone by and this vibrant mandolin was looking back at me from my canvas. I didn’t remember thinking about anything, I was just trying to feel each color, not judge what I was seeing emerge, and allow myself to experiment without being attached to something on the other end.

IMG_5171I was reminded that night about this beautiful state of flow — when you find yourself so immersed in something, so focused, so completely separated from any distracting thoughts, being completely in the moment of what you are doing. It’s an incredible feeling and no wonder science tells us experiencing this state of flow is one of the components of our overall well-being. I could hardly sleep the night after I painted this canvas, and I can only describe how I felt while driving back from my friend’s studio in one word: Full in my soul.

The next week I ran to the studio right from the train I took back from NYC, where I’d spent a whirlwind 36 hours and felt pretty beat up for it. When I walked in and saw that Irina had set up a guitar composition, I hesitated for about a second before I knew that my guitar would take on an nontraditional shape. In NYC I went to see a Picasso sculpture exhibit, and his art seeped into my veins. When this emerged on my canvas, I was not surprised:

IMG_5278I called this “Picasso came to tea.”

I’ve been trying to paint any free second I get between work, family, and the reality of our busy life. At home I cleaned out a small storage room and turned it into my art studio, where I play with acrylics, often too late into the night after the to-dos of the day are done. (I have to think about the trade offs between sleep, something incredibly important for our health and souls, and doing something I love so passionately and being in the flow.) When I paint, I don’t think about anything else. In fact, I don’t think, I feel. I’ve only started to meditate recently and the closest to true meditation I’ve come is while I paint, rather than while I sit on my meditation cushion. The object of meditation is not to feel a certain way, but to feel how you feel — and this is what I feel when I paint.

I think there was a part of my life when would consider my painting an extra. I’d think of it as something outside of “real life”, a fun experience but not one that I felt was integrated into the rest of my life. My perspective would be narrow: Since I am not going to make a profession out of this, I should not invest so much time and energy into it.

I could not feel more differently now. Doing something that I love, something that allows me to express myself, to explore my feelings, to be in the moment, to experience the world in a fundamentally different way than I do most of my time — I consider this a gift. There’s zero doubt in me that making art a more core part of my life benefits not just my own well-being (I can’t think of a better stress reliever) but my family, friends, colleagues, clients, yoga class friends, people I run into at the store, all of whom get a more vibrant, happy, and inspired me to have around.

I paint because I feel alive when I do it.

I paint because it feeds my soul.

I paint because it makes my body sing.

I paint because I can’t not.

IMG_5292“Sunflowers”