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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

Information and Inspiration

Our technology brings us a world of information—news, gossip, external demands, TV, radio, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more. But we need much more than information. As astrophysicists remind us, we are made of the very elements of the stars. The light of inspiration is essential to our nature. Without inspiration, that sense of meaning that lights our lives, something within us dies.

 

Great leaders have always communicated inspiration, bringing hope to the people around them. In the dark days of the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt affirmed that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." During the Battle of Britain, Churchill raised his people's spirits, affirming that this was Britain's "finest hour." In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy's inaugural challenged Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech touched the hearts of a nation.

 

A vital task for any leader is to communicate with heart, inspiring those around us. All of us have a sense of who we are and what we believe in, values often hidden beneath the surface. A wise leader can discern these unspoken beliefs and articulate them, holding up a beacon of hope to light our path to the future.

 

Now it's your turn--to discover the light of inspiration within and around you.

 

Take a moment to pause, close your eyes, and ask: "Where do I find inspiration? When do I feel vividly, vitally alive?"

  • Think of a time when you felt a deep sense of joy—centered, energized, most authentically yourself.
  • Now ask, "What can I do to tap into this well of inspiration today?"

As a citizen in a democracy that calls us all to be leaders—how can you communicate inspiration:

  • Listen more mindfully to the people around you?
  • Discover our essential common ground?

When you can listen for inspiration within and around you, and communicate with heart, you will bring the light of healing to our world.

 

 

 

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Healing the Hurry Sickness

Even in this Covid pandemic, many of us find ourselves rushing through our days, trying to work remotely, care for our families, and take care of all the household tasks. Juggling too many commitments, we find ourselves tired and frustrated at the end of the day.

 

Meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran called this frantic pace "the hurry sickness." And it's become a way of life for too many Americans. Constant hurry compromises our health, makes us less effective, and robs us of joy in our days.

 

All this constant rushing produces chronic stress. Our bodies tense up, preparing for fight or flight, producing tight, sore muscles and back pain. Our glands churn out adrenaline and corticosteroids, which shut down our digestive and immune systems, increase inflammation, undermine our ability to think clearly, and block our sense of compassion. And all this chronic rushing undermines our relationships, making us ignore the people around us.

 

The hurry sickness can even be fatal. At a street corner three blocks from my house I saw piles of flowers and hand-written notes, a memorial to one of my neighbors, a single father with a young daughter. One afternoon, he was standing on the sidewalk beside his bike, waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, in a few moments of careless hurry, a driver in a gray SUV came racing down the street, passed a line of cars on the right, and jumped the curb. Careening onto the sidewalk, the car killed our neighbor, leaving his little girl all alone.

 

Have you been caught up in "the hurry sickness" lately? If so, for your own good and the good of those around you, take a moment now to rediscover the place of peace deep within you.

 

  • Close your eyes
  • Take a deep breath and slowly release it.
  • Feel your feet on the ground, as you
  • Breathe in peace, and
  • Breathe out compassion
  • For yourself, your neighbors, and our world.
  • Then gently open your eyes.

 

I wish you peace on the path

 

Reference

 

For more information on curing "the hurry sickness" with meditation, see Easwaran, Eknath. Passage Meditation. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2008 or check out the website www.bmcm.org.

 

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The Empty Space

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Thirty spokes meet at the wheel's axis

The center space makes the wheel useful.

Form clay into a cup;

The center space gives it purpose.

Frame doors and windows for a house;

The openings make the house useful.

Therefore, purpose comes from what is there

Because of what is not there.

 

                              Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

 

In one of my favorite passages, the Tao Te Ching reminds us of the essential power of the empty space, what the Japanese call yohaku. In these days of Covid, stress, and confusion, connecting with the empty space can open our hearts to a deep source of peace.

 

In an old Buddhist legend, a young man came to a teacher seeking enlightenment. He introduced himself, reciting his list of accomplishments while the master poured tea. As the man talked on, the master continued to pour until the tea spilled over the sides of the cup.

 

"Stop!" said the young man. "Can't you see what you're doing?"

The old master smiled, eyes twinkling as he replied, "You cannot fill a cup that is already full."

 

The young man was full of himself, full of ego. To learn anything new, he would have to empty his cup.

 

Likewise, in this challenging time, to remain centered and aware, to learn, grow, and flourish, we must empty ourselves of preconceptions and expectations, suspend judgement, rumination, and resentments, clearing away the clutter of our minds. This is the vital lesson of yohaku, the Japanese term for the "white space," the background in an ink painting, which adds balance to the whole.

 

An expression of yin, the "empty space" so much a part of the Tao, yohaku is the space of contemplation, insight, and creativity.

 

What about you?

 

Take a mindful moment now

To close your eyes,

Take a slow, deep breath and slowly release it.

Then ask yourself,

"Do I have enough space in my days?"

 

Looking beyond all the surface clutter, anxiety, and confusion, ask yourself:

 

"Where do I find my yohaku?"

 

I wish you joy in this process of discovery

 

 

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Keeping the Flame Alive

Deep within each of us is the flame of our own uniqueness.  Renaissance philosophers saw this as a spark of the eternal flame, the divine light of inspiration. It leads us to make our own creative contribution to the world—from writing poetry, composing music, creating visual art, and making scientific discoveries to coming up with new insights, new solutions to life's challenges. We all have that source of inspiration.

 

Yet as many of us have experienced in this dark season of the Covid pandemic, divisive politics, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty, difficult external conditions can snuff out the flame. We can feel like victims of circumstance, with no control of our lives. This combination of external threats can not only destroy our creative vision but make us doubt our sanity.

 

Yet as the Buddha realized, when painful conditions arise, suffering is optional. The power of mindful awareness can reignite the flame, transforming oppressive circumstances with the light of inner liberation. With this inner light, this power of choice, we can create new possibilities for ourselves and our world. Viktor Frankl discovered the power of choice in a Nazi concentration camp, surviving to inspire millions with his book, Man's Search for Meaning. Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison with a vision of the new South Africa. And today, I'm grateful for the millions of brave men and women--doctors, scientists, concerned citizens, and essential workers--who are healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, and feeding our nation in these challenging times.  

 

Like these and centuries of other creative men and women, we are each keepers of the flame, the sacred source of our inspiration. Who knows the power and possibilities that lie within you?

 

 

Take a moment now to connect with this source. Focusing on your heart, ask yourself:

 

  • What in my life snuffs out the flame? These are situations to avoid, transform, or transcend.
  • What ignites and strengthens the flame? For many people it is contemplation, beauty, play, time spent in nature.
  • Focus on your heart, feeling the flame burn brightly as you visualize what nurtures you.
  • Feel this creative energy warm your heart, healing, nurturing, inspiring, flowing through your body and out your fingertips, preparing you to make your own creative contribution to the world.

 

I wish you joy in the process.

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Breaking Through the Clouds

One dark, cloudy day, I was flying with my father, an Air Force pilot and flight instructor, in his single engine Cessna.  I wondered to myself why he would fly in this weather. Then he climbed the plane through the cloud layer to a space where the air was clear and bright. He smiled over at me. The clouds were far below us. We had found a source of light.

 

This vision has stayed with me—the feeling of amazement flying through the dark gray clouds, emerging into a world of light.

 

My father also taught me that weather moves in dynamic patterns—with fog layers and cloud cover close to the ground, clarity and light above. The weather patterns are constantly changing with hot and cold fronts moving in and out, carried by winds aloft. You can observe this movement for yourself by watching the clouds drift overhead.

 

Like the weather around us, the weather within us is constantly changing. Sometimes we feel hemmed in by clouds--disappointment, frustration, fear, and anxiety. Yet above and beyond these clouds, there is still a source of light.

 

The next time you feel the clouds closing in on you:

  • Take a deep breath and slowly release it.
  • Close your eyes,
  • Continue to breathe slowly and deeply, focusing on the area of your heart.
  • Then ask yourself, "What is this?"
  • Label your feeling, then release it with a slow outbreath.
  • Feel the clouds recede
  • As you realize that the weather around us, the weather within us is constantly changing

Remember that you can always look beyond the clouds to discover the source of light.

 

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You CAN Make a Difference

When we create with words, images, and ideas, we participate in powerful patterns of transformation. When we release our creations to the world, we never know how far they will travel, how many souls they will reach.

 

In 1848, a young man spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, protesting against slavery and the Mexican-American War. The next morning, a friend paid his tax and he was released. A small action, unremarkable, perhaps. Yet this action inspired Henry David Thoreau to write Civil Disobedience, which later inspired Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence, liberating India from colonial rule; Martin Luther King's campaign of nonviolence that began liberating African Americans from oppression and segregation; and countless other acts of nonviolence, large and small, that continue to liberate the human spirit.

 

We are all connected in the intricate pattern of life. Never doubt that your call to create is part of a process of transformation in which our individual actions can ripple out to change the world.

 

A few years ago, I was inspired by people in the Occupy Movement, raising their voices against corporate greed, injustice, and economic inequality. Maxina Ventura of Occupy Berkeley created a way many of us could connect in support and solidarity. She founded a "knit-in for the sit-in," inviting people to knit at the Berkeley farmers' market and send hand-knit hats, mittens, and scarves to help Occupy members keep warm during their social justice work.  For months, I knitted over thirty hats which were sent to Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square, Newfoundland, Fukushima, Japan, and to workers in Seattle and other cities throughout the country who've been campaigning for a living wage. Knitting these hats became a spiritual exercise, affirming my personal connection with this courageous campaign for change.

 

Because we are all connected, everything we do makes a difference, continuously creating the world we know.

 

Take a moment now to center down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself:

 

How can I make a difference in my own creative life?

 

The answer will come—either now or in the days ahead. Following your heart will show you how.

 

Together, we CAN make a difference, creating new possibilities for our world.

 

 

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Give Yourself a Mindfulness Break

Wherever You Go, There You Are, the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn's (2009) book on mindfulness, offers a powerful reminder: wherever you go, your energies and awareness inform everything you do. Today, when so many of us are dealing with the stress of COVID-19, we can benefit from taking short mindfulness breaks.

 

In these uncertain times, millions of us have been feeling distressed, fearful, and anxious. Yet research has shown that chronic stress not only weakens our immune system (Cresswell & Lindsey, 2014), but undermines our ability to respond to the people and situations around us. It prevents us from seeing the larger patterns, engaging in long-range planning, and coming up with new solutions to the problems in our lives. It triggers defensive reactions when other people disagree with us, sabotaging our relationships at home and at work (Dreher, 2015; Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar,  & Heim, 2009). Does any of this sound familiar?

 

Studying how our attitudes and energies affect those around us, researchers in Singapore measured the mindfulness of 96 supervisors along with their employees' health, well-being, and job performance. They found that the employees with leaders who practiced mindfulness were not only significantly healthier and more balanced, but also demonstrated better job performance—a win-win on all counts (Reb, Narayan, & Chaturvedi, 2012). Like the ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond, the mindfulness of these leaders rippled out to touch everything and everyone around them.

 

Beginning a daily mindfulness practice can make a positive difference in your life. Whenever you feel stressed, you can take this brief mindfulness break:

 

  • Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath and, if possible, close your eyes.
  • Ask "What am I feeling right now?" Name the feeling—stress, anger, fear, disappointment. Whatever it is, naming it makes it manageable.
  • Then return your attention to your breathing, noticing the awareness that lies beneath the feeling, beyond the feeling.
  • Now expand your attention to your body as a whole. How are you feeling—your shoulders, your neck, your muscles, your breath? Just notice this and let it go.
  • Take another long, deep breath and release it, feeling your body gradually release the tension you've been holding, as you experience a new sense of presence and wholeness.

 

With greater mindfulness, you can transform the atmosphere around you, bringing greater clarity, compassion, and cooperation to our world. The answer is as close as your next breath.

 

References

 

Cresswell, J. D., & Lindsay, E.K. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 401-407.

 

Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hachette Books.

 

Lupien, S. McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour, and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 434-445.

 

Reb, J., Narayanan, J., & Chaturvedi, S. (2012). Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance. Mindfulness, September 4, 1-10.

 

 

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Cultivating Inner Strength

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Analyzing others is knowledge,
Knowing yourself is wisdom.
Managing others requires skill.
Mastering yourself takes inner strength.

 

                       (Tao, chapter 33)

 

Descriptions of leadership usually refer to the leader as manager, strategist, commander-in-chief, emphasizing instrumental skills of communication, planning and problem solving.

 

But beyond these skills, beyond externals, there is the one essential strength we need to cultivate: knowing ourselves. "Know thyself," Socrates taught in ancient Greece. The Tao Te Ching reminds us that effective leadership requires us to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, and strive to become more balanced, more centered more whole.

 

Only then can we meet our challenges without being reactive, without falling into excesses of ego—fear, anger, and defensiveness. Only then can we see more clearly, act more wisely, responding to the energies around us from a center of balance within us.

 

How do we develop the knowledge that will provide our center of balance? The answers come from sources as old as the Tao Te Ching, as new as research in neuroscience: from a commitment to contemplative practice.

 

Contemplative practice is now more vital than ever. Chronic stress from the COVID-19 pandemic to racial injustice and economic insecurity can put us on constant alert, blocking our vision and our compassion for ourselves and others. Unable to focus or be fully present, we can become frantic and defensive, making hasty decisions that only increase the suffering within and around us.

 

Neuroscience research has shown how contemplative practice cultivates mindfulness, enhancing our cognitive function, strengthening those areas of the brain that regulate emotion, bringing us greater clarity and compassion for ourselves and those around us (Condon et al, 2013; Hölzel et al, 2011; see also Goleman,  & Davidson, 2017).

 

Do you have a contemplative practice? Whether you do or not, you can join me for a few moments to center down:

 

  • Sit down in a comfortable place where you won't be disturbed.
  • Take a deep breath,
  • Then slowly release it.
  • Continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Close your eyes and feel your body relax
  • As you focus on your breathing,
  • Saying silently to yourself, "Breathing in, I smile,"
  • "Breathing out I am at peace."
  • Feel your body relax more with each breath.
  • When your mind wanders, note the thought--"worry," "anxious," "planning."
  • Then go back to focus on your breathing.
  • After a few minutes, gently open your eyes.

 

 

Take this practice with you for a few moments each day and notice the difference it makes in your life. 

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

References:

 

Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24, 2125-2127.

 

Goleman, D. & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered Traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York, NY: Avery.

 

Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago., D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.

 

Some information in this post appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins and  Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A Moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

 

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What Does Peace Look Like?

The Peace rose

What does peace look like?

 

How can we find peace in the midst of a global pandemic while dealing with centuries of racial injustice? Our problems seem overwhelming. At times, there is so much darkness that it's hard to see the light.

 

Focusing on our problems, we can become obsessed by the drama on the daily news, which makes us even more stressed, anxious, and despondent. In a democracy, journalists perform a vital public service, pointing out problems we need to address. Yet, if we remain fixated on our problems, it's hard to find solutions. To create a more just and peaceful world, we need not only to acknowledge the darkness but to look towards the light, creating a vision of hope and aspiration.  What does peace look like? Sometimes we need a symbol to remind us.

 

In the late 1930s, a French botanist developed a new hybrid tea rose with petals of golden ivory tinged with pink. As World War II began, samples of this rose were sent to growers in Europe and America. Robert Pyle, a Quaker in Philadelphia, grew the American sample. Under his care, the rose bloomed and flourished. He named it "Peace" and introduced it at the Pacific Rose Society Exhibition in Pasadena, California on April 29th, 1945.  That same day, the war in Europe ended and Peace became one of the best-loved roses of all time.

 

Peace. Like my friend Judy Nadler, I've been growing peace roses in my garden as symbols of hope. These beautiful roses appeared at the end of a war that had brought Nazi death camps, devastation, pain, and suffering to millions. Their radiant blossoms are a daily reminder for me to pause and look for peace within and around me.  

 

If you've been saddened, anxious, and distressed by all the pain and suffering from Covid-19, racist oppression, and economic deprivation, you're not alone. These problems are real. And yet, by summoning up a vision of hope, we can look toward the light, asking ourselves: What would peace look like in this situation? What do I want to see in its place? What kind of world can we create with greater compassion and understanding? What small step can I take to create more peace in our world today?

 

Your vision of peace can become a guiding star to light your way. Taking one step at a time, you can follow the light, sharing your vision with others, cultivating greater peace in our time, creating new hope and possibilities for our world.

 

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How Hope Can Blossom in Troubled Times

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

The Earth is everlasting

Because it does not live for self alone

But exists as one with life.

The people of Tao transcend self

Through loving compassion

And find themselves

In a higher sense.

                            Tao, Chapter 7

 

 

The Tao reminds us to look for the lessons in the natural world around us. This week, wild roses are blooming in my back yard. Unlike hybrid tea roses, these roses bloom only once a year. And this year, their bright blossoms are all the more precious.

 

Like the wild rose, life brings us surprises, some welcome, some not. For the past few weeks, people all over the world have been suffering from fear and uncertainty, experiencing the challenge of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The virus has brought much suffering and loss, as well as mental health challenges since lockdowns and closures have narrowed our lives. Schools, workplaces, restaurants, theatres, and local shops have closed, familiar routines have been disrupted by lockdowns and social distancing, and each day's news brings frightening statistics as we worry about how to stay safe.

 

Cut off from our normal routines, family and friends, there is so much we cannot do. Yet although we cannot go out as we used to, what we can do is go within. In this period of enforced monasticism, we can take the time to read, reflect, and get to know ourselves on a deeper level. Here are four simple but powerful practices to support your inner journey.

 

Nonviolent Communication. We can find greater peace of mind by applying psychologist Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication (2005) to ourselves.  My friend Juan Velasco and I have been showing people how to do this in our retreats and workshops, now offered online. To begin this practice, Pause and take a slow mindful breath, then slowly exhale as you ask yourself these three questions:

  1. "How do I feel?""Am I calm, relaxed, anxious, confused, worried, tired, hurt, disappointed, sad, lonely, excited, happy"—or something else? Whatever you feel, just recognize and label the feeling without judging yourself.
  2. "What do I need?"  Our needs can range from food, rest, and security to emotional needs for love, acceptance, understanding, joy, play, creativity, inspiration, and meaning. What do you need right now?
  3. "What are my options?"  As you become more mindful, instead of merely reacting, you will notice more options, more possibilities. Consider your options and choose the one that feels right for you now.

 

Self-Compassion. The next time you're feeling stressed or anxious, instead of spiraling into incessant worry and self-criticism, you can find greater peace of mind with this simple practice:

  • Put your hand on your heart.
  • Recognize how you're feeling and label the feeling.
  • Then treat yourself with compassion as you would a dear friend.
  • Reassure yourself with words like "Poor dear, I know you're scared and worried (or whatever you're feeling). I love you. I'm here for you. You're not alone." (Neff, 2003; 2004; Shapiro, 2020)

 

Gratitude. Spend a little time at the end of each day to count your blessings, to focus on what you're grateful for. Research has shown that this practice can improve your physical and emotional health (Emmons, 2008; Hill et al, 2013; Petrocchi & Couyoumdjian, 2016).

  • At the end of each day, think of three things you're thankful for. You may choose to record these reflections in a gratitude journal.
  • Pause for a moment in the midst of the day to focus on something you're grateful for. For example, you might smile at someone you love, enjoy the playful antics of a puppy, or appreciate nature's artistry in  the songs of birds, the beauty of a Spring sunset, or the fragrance of roses in your garden (Emmons, 2008; Carroll, 2017).


Sharing Compassion. Even with social distancing, there are still ways to reach out to friends, family, and the larger community in your heart and your actions. You might:

  • Connect by phone with a friend, neighbor, or family member. Ask how they're feeling and what they need. Even if you cannot give them what they need, knowing that you care will make a positive difference to them.
  • Express compassion and gratitude for frontline health care workers and essential employees. You might send them gratitude by making a sign, sending a card, or joining your neighbors in collecting masks for essential workers.
  • Instead of thinking of all you cannot do, focus on what you can. Each time you wash your hands, you could practice the Loving Kindness Meditation, saying: "May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be safe, May I be well, May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy" and then "May you—thinking of someone you know—be filled with loving kindness. May you be safe. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy."

 

In this time of challenge and change, may new hope blossom in your heart like the wild rose.

 

 

References

 

Carroll, K. (2017). A moment's pause for gratitude. Carlsbad, CA: Balboa Press.

 

Emmons, R. A. (2008). Thanks: How practicing gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin;

 

Hill, P. L., Allemand, M., & Roberts, B. W. (2013). Examining the pathways between gratitude and self-rated physical health across adulthood. Personality and individual differences, 54(1), 92-96.

 

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-10.

 

Neff, K. D. (2004). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9(2), 27-37. For more about Dr. Neff's research and self-compassion exercises, see https://self-compassion.org/about/.

 

Petrocchi, N., & Couyoumdjian, A. (2016). The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self. Self and Identity, 15(2), 191-205.

 

Rosenberg, M. B. (2005). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.

 

Shapiro. S. (2020). Good morning, I love you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

 

 

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