Author Archive | Christine Mason Miller

Uncertain, Scary, Thrilling by Christine Mason Miller

In a last-ditch effort to ignite the spark of inspiration needed to compose a meaningful, thought-provoking piece of writing around the theme of light and shadow, I went on a two-hour hike today through Peninsula State Park. As excited as I was to explore this theme when I was invited to write about it, I’ve been stumped for days. With a looming deadline (that would be today), I put on my hiking shoes and headed to the trails I’ve been wandering and cycling on for years.

When my husband and I made our plans for this visit to Door County, Wisconsin—the third time we’ve come here for an extended stay—we chose to rent a cabin for the entire summer. Between the time we finalized those plans and the day our rental period started, we decided to move to Milwaukee, which means our drive back home won’t involve a cross-country return trip to Santa Barbara, but a mere three-hour drive south.

On that day, we will move into our new home.

If you know me, follow me on Instagram, or read my latest piece here, you might very well be sick of hearing me talk about this move. It has been the main topic of conversation in most areas of my life since last spring and still dominates my thoughts. Because we had our Door County plans in place before we decided to change zip codes, I’ve been in a state of in-between ever since we pulled out of our driveway, and I won’t really begin to come through on the other side until the moving van shows up at our storage unit to take everything we own to our new address at the end of September.

The good news is that in the meantime, I’ve been relishing these first experiences of living in a part of the world that doesn’t provide blue skies and sunshine 24/7. You read that right—I’ve been loving it—the rain, the morning chill (it was 54 degrees outside this morning), the way the clouds hover low above the horizon like a puffy ceiling of cotton. And when I look outside our windows, hike in the park, or ride my bike along trails in the woods, it is the shadows that make things interesting.

On my hike today, the shadows created a perfect halo of light above a tiny mushroom the color of a persimmon and they created small sparkles of sunlight that danced all over the ferns. All around me, I’m discovering some of the unique flora and fauna the shadows nurture and protect. I happened upon an Indian ghost pipe this week, growing along our street like a lone soldier, which is a plant—not a mushroom or fungi—that is entirely white. Lacking chlorophyll, it gathers all of its nutrients exclusively from the soil, and has been known to help alleviate both physical and emotional pain when utilized as a tincture. Who knew such a thing existed? (Apparently many people, as a quick post on Instagram with the question, “What the heck is this?” gave me an answer within minutes.)

Strange and exotic wonders are abundant in the shadows, a fact that is true not only in the woods outside our cabin windows, but also within my very self.  I have been thinking about that particular landscape quite a bit this summer, eager to clear out what doesn’t belong and what I no longer need as I become a new resident not only of the Midwest but also of midlife, as I’m turning fifty in less than three months.

As I ponder what lies beyond my summer of in-between (and my forties), there is much that feels uncertain and kind of scary, but also thrilling in its mystery.

Many of the roads in Door County are surrounded by wide open fields of corn, wildflowers and farmland, but some cut a smoothly-paved swath through thick forests of trees. I find those stretches especially fascinating. The density of the foliage means it is almost impossible to see what is beyond the tree line. There is much more shadow than light, which feels—can you guess?—uncertain and kind of scary, but also thrilling in its mystery. Beneath the canopy of happy, healthy trees, there is much to inspire wonderment and awe—a particular kind of beauty that only exists in the shadows, and only thrives beyond the light.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Transplant: A Podcast about Home, inspired by her recent move to the midwest, can be found at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

Falling Trees by Christine Mason Miller

I’ve just moved two time zones and more than twenty-three hundred miles away from the place I’ve called home since 1995. My husband and I pulled out of our driveway in Santa Barbara, California on June 21st and, after putting nearly everything we own into a storage unit not far from the house we bought in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (long story) we headed a bit farther north to spend the rest of the summer in Door County, a pinky finger of a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

After all the weeks of preparing for our cross-country move—the purging, organizing, and packing—we now have the extraordinary gift of a bona fide summer vacation. Which feels glorious (yes, glorious) not only because it has been one of our favorite getaway spots for years, but because it allows us to exist in a magical bubble of in-between where it is easy for me to stay clear of the sharp edges of our move.

I’m not necessarily heartbroken to leave southern California.

With each passing year, I’ve had an increasingly difficult time with the extremes of that particular part of the world. Between outrageous real estate prices, the years-long severe drought, and the threat of earthquakes and fires, something deep in my body has been longing for an environment that feels more in alignment with the steadier, more natural rhythms of life and nature. It seems crazy to most people that I would voluntarily leave a place with year-round sunshine and flip-flop weather in February in order to go somewhere with a fleet of snowplows at the ready as early as October, but it no longer makes sense to me to take in the scenery outside my kitchen window and, from that perspective, have no idea what time of year it is.

What is heartbreaking about this move is that we have left behind a community of loved ones that includes family, neighbors, friends we’ve had for decades, and even people like my dentist. That is the part that swooshes into my heart and almost knocks me over—the reality that we won’t be running into our neighbors across the street on our morning walks with Tilda like we used to and that we can’t call our best friends down the street to join us for dinner. The physical distance that now sits between us and so many of the people we love most in the world is an undeniable fact of our relocation, one I had to start absorbing the day we left Santa Barbara and turned our car away from the Pacific Ocean, knowing it was the last time we’d see it as residents of California.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve watched three trees die—two of them fully grown, mature oaks that loomed large in our yard in Santa Barbara and one a towering evergreen next to the house my husband and I have rented here in Door County. The first tree fell on a Christmas night when fierce winds pushed an already dying oak out of the ground and onto our roof late at night, hitting so hard the whole house shook. (Believing it was an earthquake, we didn’t get up to investigate and therefore didn’t realize what had actually happened until morning.) The second tree fell with a whisper a little over a year later. One night we went to bed, the next morning the tree was on its side. I had been thinking for many weeks I was imagining things when it seemed like its lowest branch kept getting lower, but after it fell I realized I had been watching it slowly fall—and slowly die—as if wanting to take in every last breath of air and push out as many new leaves as possible to ensure a gentle landing. We ended up moving just a few months later.

The house we’ve rented in Door County is surrounded by trees. We hear barred owls at night, see deer on our morning walks, and watched a raccoon scurry by one evening while sitting in our screened-in porch. For hours after a rainstorm stops, we continue to hear the pitter patter of raindrops on the leaves. This was the sound I woke up to three days ago, but it was interrupted by a loud, sudden crack. I looked out our bedroom window just in time to hear a second crack and see an eighty-foot tree come crashing down toward our house, landing next to the deck. No real damage was done, and I was overwhelmingly relieved I hadn’t yet taken Tilda outside for her morning romp, but I almost laughed out loud when it happened. Another tree? Here?

I thought this was all behind us! In Santa Barbara, the trees fell because they were diseased or old or dying of thirst. Now that we are situated in a thick forest of trees that enjoys regular rainfall, what could this possibly mean?

~

While we are in this territory of not living in California but not quite settled in Wisconsin either, I know I am living a little bit of a lie. I know that while our time in Door County is providing us with a much-needed opportunity for rest and recovery from the first phase of an emotionally intense move, it also allows me to swim in the shallow waters of denial. For the time being, I get to enjoy a vacation we planned many months before we even contemplated moving. It won’t be until we pack up our swimsuits and bicycles for the drive south to Milwaukee in September that I will have to face the reality of our new existence head on. Our drive home won’t take us back to the Pacific Coast Highway. Our journey home will only take three hours, and as soon as we arrive it will be time to start unpacking boxes.

Our time in the bubble of in-between will be over.

~

After the second oak tree fell right outside our bedroom window in Santa Barbara, my husband, an ardent lover of trees, wondered if it was a sign – that our time in California was finished, that we were being called to make a big change. In order to make the leap to a new life in Wisconsin—a leap primarily inspired by my husband’s longing to return to the place where he grew up—a profound sacrifice—a death, if you will—was going to have to take place. We weren’t just going to have to pack up our belongings and transport them to a new zip code, we were going to have to say goodbye to the life we’d spent decades building and nurturing.

When the third tree fell (just a few days ago), I didn’t make too much of a fuss about it, but the experience of seeing three trees fall in such dramatically different ways and such a relatively short period of time will stay with me for a long time. While the idea of our move wasn’t even a blip on our radar when the first one collapsed, it has since become a marker of a time when we had no idea where we were headed. If someone had told us that morning we would be putting our house on the market less than eighteen months later, we would have been incredulous. Yet here we are, sending out a change of address notice with a Wisconsin zip code.

It took a while to get used to the new views outside our windows after each of the two oak trees fell in Santa Barbara. We lost shade, but we saw more of the sky. We noticed things we hadn’t before, and we enjoyed new perspectives. We were also given stark reminders that no matter how strong or beautiful or seemingly integral something seems to the world we inhabit, a time will come when some form of transformation needs to take place—for reasons we might not even understand until long after it happens.

After endless discussions about whether or not we should move to Milwaukee, my husband and I reached an important conclusion, which was that time was going to continue marching forward all the while we hemmed and hawed and debated the merits of staying versus leaving. We realized our window of opportunity to do something this bold and daring was not endless. This year he turns sixty-five, and I turn fifty. We eventually looked at each other and said, “If not now, when?”

I can’t decide if all the falling trees are symbolic of the way we’ve uprooted our lives or of the way we’ve put to rest our life in California in order to plant new seeds in Wisconsin. I don’t know if they are supposed to be reminders of the way life can be suddenly, irrevocably altered or if they are meant to teach us how to be brave when the time comes for us to go through our own metamorphosis. It might take a gale force to push us in the direction where we need to go, or we might slip quietly toward our fate. Or we might, with a loud snap, break away from what was toward what might be, all the while trusting we will have a soft place to land.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Transplant: A Podcast about Home, inspired by her recent move to the midwest, can be found at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

Connections by Christine Mason Miller

The postmark on the first letter was August 14, 2000. The red rubber stamp on the left side of the envelope read “C.R.C. State Prison.” It was a letter from a woman named Nicole, who described herself as a “recovering addict serving a civil addict commitment at California Rehabilitation Center, Norco.” I was five years into my own greeting card business at the time, and she’d received one of my cards. When she found my address on the back, she wrote to ask if I would donate materials to her—cards, cardstock, envelopes, and paper. At the close of her letter she wrote, “Your trash is my treasure.”

I sent her a package the next day.

About two weeks later the next letter arrived, the same red “C.R.C. State Prison” stamp glaring on the front like neon. Packaged inside an envelope created from a brown paper bag, there was a handmade card on orange paper, a detailed illustration of a teddy bear wearing blue boots on the front. He was holding flowers and blowing on a dandelion, the little fluffy seedlings seeming to scatter off the edge of the card. There was color, shading, and depth created with glitter pens, magic marker, and pencil. It was Nicole again, saying the package I had sent her was denied. I’d included posters, which meant it exceeded the prison’s size limits on mail.

I sent her a second package, smaller this time, no posters.

One month later I received a note from Tracie, who explained that a “friend had let her have one of my cards,” and that if I sent a package it could not weigh more than three pounds. She said she was allowed to receive paper, cards, envelopes, and stamps. The prison would also accept pens, as long as they had clear, see-through barrels. She wrote her letter in ballpoint on a piece of stationery with five geese on the front, each adorned with blue and white polka dotted bows around their necks.

I sent her a package, under three pounds.

Six weeks later—another letter. It was from Stephanie, who wrote in purple ink in loose, large handwriting on the back side of the paper with the three binder holes on the right. She was succinct and direct, saying she had “seen a few of my cards around” and was wondering if I could send her a “variety pack or assorted pack” of my cards.

I sent her a package of assorted cards with envelopes.

The next two letters arrived within two weeks, a few days after Thanksgiving. One was from Gretchen, who wrote in ballpoint pen on loose-leaf paper. She detailed her love of cards, how she enjoyed sending them, and that she thought mine were “some very nice cards.” She went on to explain which card she received from another inmate, describing the image and colors in detail—it was blue with a moon and stars. I knew exactly which card she was talking about. She told me she mailed it to her husband the same day she received it.

The other letter was written in large black script from a woman named Sasha, who got right down to business: “I’m writing requesting to know if there is anyway of receiving greeting cards from this company…to send to my boys and family.”

Two packages were mailed the same afternoon.

The month of December passed with exponentially more letters in my mailbox each week —two letters the first week, seven the week after, eleven before the new year. Thirteen more letters came in January, so I contacted the C.R.C. directly with an offer to send a large inventory of cards and envelopes to be distributed to the inmates. The arrivals from the C.R.C. in my mailbox dwindled quickly after that. The last letter I received was postmarked December 26, 2001.

Most letters were requests for cards written on loose-leaf paper, but I also received thank you notes on bright blue stationery, envelopes adorned with curlicue script, and letters mailed in envelopes I’d mailed not long before. Barbara told me she had three children and explained, “They need me more than a card, but until I can be there I would like to brighten their day.” A woman named Tanya began her letter with “I’m here in prison.” There were references to children, recovery, families, and addiction. There were misspelled words and notes written on pieces of paper torn in half. All letters were courteous, appreciative, and forthright. None of the women tried to tiptoe around the fact that she was in prison.

**   **   **

A greeting card business is a funny thing. By the time I started receiving these letters, I had been running one called Swirly for almost five years. I started it when I was twenty-seven years old with a grand vision of inspiring the world. I was not interested in merely designing and selling cards, I wanted to spread messages of encouragement and light the way for others to follow their dreams. One of my very first designs was an illustration of a tree with stars all over its branches. Its caption read “Plant Your Dreams and the Miracles will Grow”, which became the Swirly tag line—the phrase attached to the back of every card, whether birthday, sympathy, or thank you. Swirly cards were whimsical and bold, filled with stars, ladybugs, and sunflowers. Vibrant and graphic, they were paired with envelopes the color of gumballs—purple, lime green, and turquoise.

Through Swirly, I aimed to spread positive messages about creating a meaningful life to people from all walks of life, so when I started receiving letters from the C.R.C., it never occurred to me to not respond. Everyone who wrote received a package that included a short note in which I tried to manage the delicate balance between being uplifting without pretending they weren’t in prison. I did not write with any expectations of hearing from them again, and did not care if the main reason for their letters was boredom or the promise of something for nothing. If anything, the vision of prison gossip channels carrying news of a greeting card company willing to send free stationery gave me a peculiar kind of delight. Word obviously got around, and I kept imagining someone walking by another inmate’s room, noticing a card with a bright, smiling sunflower and being told, “All you have to do is write her and she’ll send you free cards!”

**   **   **

The women in the C.R.C. had made mistakes, but were in a program designed to steer them toward a healthier path. In a strange way, there was hope in their letters, even in the face of a few key details. When a stranger introduces herself by name and prison ID number, any ambiguity about the state of her life is wiped away. From all of the other letters I received (as I actually received a fair amount back in the day when social media didn’t exist), it was easy to imagine any number of domestic scenes, such as one-story bungalows with lace curtains, cozy apartments with floral dish towels, and red brick townhouses with sleeping cats in the windows. With the letters from the C.R.C., it was hard to imagine much beyond a bed in a bare room with a worn out blanket. Even when trying to lean on the more purposeful aspect of their being in a center focused on rehabilitation, my imaginings were stark, crowded, and bland. Perhaps these details came to mind from watching Shawshank Redemption too many times, but I kept seeing the same details—linoleum, gray metal, and glaring fluorescent lights.

During the six years I ran my greeting card company—designing, printing, and packaging cards, filling orders, managing reps across the country, and eventually staying on top of more than twelve hundred accounts—I experienced a comically consistent flurry of reactions to the news that this was my job. I still marvel at how often people’s eyes would light up when I told them I had a greeting card business. “Oh really?,” someone would say, “My sister has always created great cards”, or “I’ve always wanted to do that!”

Everyone seemed to know someone who was eager to crack into the greeting card business, and everyone thought it was a dreamy, rainbow-hued job that allowed me to spend all day everyday lost in drawings of cupcakes and flowers. So many people were asking for advice about the world of greeting cards I turned it into a consulting business, but stopped doing it after just a few clients. Seeing the look of disappointment on one face after another upon hearing the news that my vocation actually involved hard work became quickly dispiriting. Having spent so much time and energy figuring out how to do what I did on my own without a single business course to my name, I had no patience for people who wanted easy answers. I also sometimes wondered what they would think of being contacted by strangers from unsettling walks of life, such as prisons and state-run rehab centers.

Swirly evolved into a licensed brand with a product line that included everything from journals to watches. It came to life through a vision that extended far beyond its beginnings as a line of handmade greeting cards, and I wove this story as all of the women from Norco were in the midst of trying to unravel their sins. I was creating a company about following dreams while they were confined to routines, rules, and cells. Our worlds were so far apart, our experiences so wildly different, yet somehow our paths crossed. Through a strange confluence of greeting cards, mail, pens, and paper, our stories collided, and in that collision we each wrote a line in one another’s narrative.

**   **   **

Years after those letters had arrived in mailbox, I spent an afternoon reading and re-organizing all of them, feeling a bittersweet sense of gratitude for everything the women had shared with me as I stacked them chronologically and tied ribbons around the bundles. For all their mundane simplicity—ballpoint ink on loose leaf paper—they were stark reminders of all the ways life can turn on a dime and testaments to the truth that there is always more to a story than I’ll ever know. They made me aware of all the ways I, too, am capable of making monstrous, devastating mistakes that, whether intentional or not, could send my life down a path too dark and confining to imagine. They shined a light on the possibility that somehow, some way, I could have been the one sending letters from prison to a greeting card company asking for donations. To believe such a scenario could never happen, to believe I am somehow immune from life’s larger mishaps, mistakes, and mess-ups, is to deny my very humanity. My flaws, rages, and inclinations toward self-preservation exist alongside my strengths, ambitions, and good intentions. I am human, and therefore capable of the entire spectrum of human behavior, including those of a criminal nature.

By acknowledging and embracing this truth, I recognize how indelibly connected I am not just to my family, friends, and kindreds, but to the women in the C.R.C. No matter what—no matter how far apart my story might feel from someone else’s—there is always a thread connecting us, even through prison walls.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Signed copies of her memoir, Moving Water, are now available at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

* Note:  All names have been changed.

Remembering What Matters Most by Christine Mason Miller

I have become a worrier. Within five minutes of leaving our house, whether it is to run a quick errand or go out of town for five days, I immediately start scrolling through a mental checklist. Did I leave any candles burning? Is the back door locked? Are there any stray objects on the floor that Tilda could choke on? One after another, I try to put myself back in the moment of handling these tasks. Oh right, I blew out the candle before I took a shower, I think. Oh yes, I remember locking the door this morning.

I’m not sure when or why this started, but it has become a bona fide part of my daily routine. It isn’t the kind of worry that creates stress, per se; it has more to do with not wanting to invite disaster or create chaos due to my inattention. I don’t want to lose something precious because of a minor oversight. I want to take good care of what I treasure most.

Being on the verge of fifty, and watching many of my closest friends care for their dying parents, I feel myself entering a new phase of life that isn’t about my early-twenties fearlessness and dare-to-dream-big bravado, but about a visceral awareness of the fragility of life. That sounds like a phrase that belongs on a postcard with a picture of a sunset or a babbling brook, right? Life is so precious. We only have to much time. How many times have we read or heard these phrases? In their repetitiveness, they feel trite.

But with every piece of news that has words like cancer, dementia, and hospice – with every request for a prayer for someone who is not long for this world – I pause, and I take a deep breath. It feels important to stop whatever I am doing and acknowledge that I, too, will face these experiences – with loved ones, for myself. I float upward, able to take in a wider perspective of my past, present, and future, and I see what’s coming on the horizon – possibilities that are now much closer to me than they were when I moved to the west coast at the age of 27, graduate degree in hand, ready to take on the world.

That spark in me is not gone – I still have grand ideas and imaginings related to creativity, travel and work – but I have become much more methodical in the decision-making process. I actually think I’ve become a bit too careful as of late, but this shift is something I’m still working out. I have allowed myself to lean toward the opposite extreme of my usual “Let’s do it!” attitude in order to see how far I need to go to find the right balance between my longings as an entrepreneurial, artistic being and as a woman with a husband, family, and home. For many years, it felt like these were in a battle for my time, attention, and energy. It is only in the last year that I have managed to settle down their quarrels, a mediation I’m still figuring out.

A while ago, someone asked for my advice on a work-related issue. There was a job offer on the horizon, one that would have taken her away from home five days a week – away from home as in an entirely different state. She was grappling with the feasibility of a long-distance commute and the impact that could have on her marriage, home, and family. My advice to her was simple: Get clear on what she treasured most in the world, and then decide whether or not taking the job would support and strengthen that or diminish it.

This is the question I ask myself constantly these days – any opportunity, idea, or endeavor is weighed against a very short list of personal priorities. Which, if I’m honest, doesn’t necessarily make things easier. It requires great compromise and sometimes saying no to things I would otherwise leap at. But I simply don’t want to wake up five or ten or twenty years down the road wishing I’d done a better job caring for what I loved most in the world.

Which brings me back to the worrying, which isn’t just about the doors being locked or the candles burning, but also about how long my husband has been out on a motorcycle ride with calling me or whether or not my mom is having a restful day. I want to make sure everything and everyone within this tiny realm of home and family is taken care of. I want to enjoy every bit of all these things I love most, and appreciate them while I can.

Beyond the worry, my treasured routines are very simple. I rub Tilda’s belly before I get out of bed, I make a frothy cafe au lait every morning. I almost always stop whatever I’m doing to assist my husband if he tells me he needs me. I talk to my best friend on the phone nearly every week. I wash my face every night, and always hang up my jacket when I come back home from a walk. In those routines, I am reminded that being alive is about the very small things, the very tiny experiences. And in those peaceful respites from the feeling that the world’s traumas are rapidly closing in on my tiny haven in Santa Barbara, California, I balance out those moments of fretfully reviewing my just-left-home checklist. I remember it is all OK. I recognize how fortunate I am.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Signed copies of her memoir, Moving Water, are now available at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

To Patience, From Your Biggest Fan

Dear Patience,

I have to be honest with you—I’ve never done anything like this before. Like, written an actual fan letter. Anytime I think about it, I immediately feel embarrassed, like I’m twelve years old and very small compared to whomever I’m contemplating writing.

I’ve come close a few times. I started a letter to Joy once, but something fun caught my eye and I never made my way back to it. I thought about reaching out to Anger, but it felt too scary (although I actually think Anger is quite misunderstood and would probably appreciate little love from time to time.) And I picked out a really pretty card that I thought would be perfect for Kindness, but then I found out a good friend of mine was having a hard week so I sent it to her instead.

There is so much I want to say to you Patience, but it really all boils down to this: I want to be just like you.

You seem so mystical, so serene. You have a way of creating calm no matter what the situation and you do such an extraordinary job of putting everyone around you at ease (or at least whoever is willing to pay attention to you.) I wish I was more like that. Too often I am so eager to finish—or start—something that I miss out on a lot of details and experiences. Anytime I get it into my head that I won’t be able to feel good or have fun or be OK until this happens or that takes place I always run into trouble. You know what I’m talking about, and you know how futile it always is. In all the times I’ve let myself get frustrated and grouchy because something isn’t happening exactly the way I think it should, never once has it made time move any faster (or encouraged slow drivers in front of me to magically change lanes so I can pass them!)

In situations that have me feeling hurried and harried, I look to you, Patience, and following your example always enables me to turn things around. I stop, take a deep breath, and ponder what you would do in that moment. After I sit with this thought for a while, I usually end up wanting to do the same thing every time—nothing!

If I feel overly anxious to speak up during an argument, you encourage me to remain silent. If I notice myself sloppily folding laundry in an effort to get it done fast, thinking of you enables me to immediately sink into the simple beauty of my soft, clean bath towels. If I’m running errands and wishing I wasn’t where I was but, instead, where I was headed, you inspire me to take a very small action that never fails to pull me out of my wholly unnecessary angst. With your nudging, I look outside my window. Once I spend a moment or two admiring the trees, the clouds, and the sky, I’m no longer concerned with being in such a mad rush.

I’ve also learned that anytime I choose to ignore your example, I’ll likely pay a price. This usually involves a stubbed toe or some other such mishap. When I become fixated on getting something done as fast as possible, I literally become oblivious to my surroundings. How many bruises and nicks and scrapes do I have because there was an imaginary ticking time bomb I believed would explode if I didn’t get something started or finished or somehow resolved as soon as humanly possible?

A lot of people say you’re all about letting time unfold organically.

While I get this, and know it’s part of your charm, I’ve come to believe your most unique and potent genius is in all the ways you teach the world how to focus its attention on what truly matters. Is it important I get my dishes cleaned quickly or that I spend the time it takes to wash them being grateful for the meal I just enjoyed? Does it serve me to feel annoyed if someone doesn’t return my call right away or might it be a better idea to allow for circumstances beyond my knowledge or control? Will the situation be elevated by my saying, “What a jerk for not calling back!” or “Maybe he or she is dealing with a person crisis; I hope everything is OK.”?

You don’t teach me to just sit back and do nothing. You instill a practice of gentle, mindful immersion into the beauty of every moment.

The world is so enamored with speed these days. Immediacy seems to be the goal, no matter what the situation. I bet you feel like your work is never done around here. I wonder if you sometimes feel tired and overwhelmed. Perhaps you doubt whether or not anyone is even interested in what you have to say anymore.

I think this is why I decided it was time to take a leap and write my first fan letter—because it is important you know how desperately so many of us want and need your example, your teachings, and your wisdom.

I know you’re busy, Patience—more busy than ever—so I don’t expect a response. The only hope I send with this letter is that you find some small solace to know what a difference you’ve made in my life. You have helped me appreciate the detours and the delays, the uncertainties and the lulls. You’ve shown me how to gently slip out of tense situations, most especially the ones that became unnecessarily wound up because of my own untamed thoughts. Thank you for all of your hard work. Thank you for all the ways you show up for me.

Happy New Year, Patience. You’re the best.

With admiration, Christine

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Signed copies of her memoir, Moving Water, are now available for pre-order at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

There Was a Lot of Blood by Christine Mason Miller

glassshowerandtile

I was in a good mood the day I had an interview scheduled with Kimberly Wilson. I’d had the pleasure of being interviewed by her twice before, had hosted her in my home for an event celebrating the release of one of her books, and I knew we were going to have a great conversation. After running some errands in the morning, I came home and set things up in my studio for our early afternoon Skype session in happy anticipation of the interview.

As I flitted about the house, my brain was all abuzz. Why, I don’t remember. About what, I don’t recall. All I know is that less than an hour before our call, my mind was distracted enough that I got my middle right finger caught between a heavy glass shower door and a tiled bathroom wall at the precise moment I was swinging the door toward me to open it.

I could explain the physics of this mishap, but then I’d just be distracting from the good stuff – the part about the blood. Because the result of this seemingly small bit of inattention was one of harrowing pain and a howl that made my dog run for cover under our bed. It was so shocking and painful I wasn’t even able to cry. All I could do was walk around in circles moaning and hyperventilating. The only thing that jolted me out of my stupor was realizing I needed a paper towel. Immediately.

The cut on my finger wasn’t terribly deep, but there was a lot of blood. Despite being a little woozy, I was still fascinated at how quickly one paper towel after another was transformed from a pristine white landscape to a bright red mess within seconds. When the bleeding finally settled down, I wrapped two more paper towels around my finger, put an ice pack on top and then sat down at my computer to type a one-handed text message to Kimberly. Explaining I’d just smashed my finger with a heavy glass door and was debating a visit to the ER, I told her I might need to postpone our interview. Ever the gracious host, she responded with a, “No problem,” and encouraged me to take care of myself. So I took a deep breath, put down my phone, and sat still for a few minutes.

After watching the birds outside my window cavort in our garden for a bit, I unwrapped my finger and saw that it wasn’t terribly swollen. I could still bend it and move it back and forth, and decided I probably did not require Emergency Room attention. So I sent another text to Kimberly letting her know I was still game for the interview. Within fifteen minutes, I was upstairs in my studio and we were connected on Skype.

Kimberly had suggested this interview because she wanted to discuss Moving Water, my new memoir. The book tells the story of my journey from believing I didn’t belong in a family to the realization that breaking through and dismantling that belief was my soul’s most important work. I finished the book in early 2016, and over the summer had published and given away about a hundred advance copies. Kimberly was one of those readers, which meant the questions she prepared for our interview were related to specific passages of the book.

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One of Kimberly’s first questions had to do with the parts of my family history that led to my belief that I wasn’t meant to have a family. On a “normal” day – as in, a day when I didn’t almost break a finger in half – I probably would have talked a little bit about my parent’s divorce, the breakdown of another blended family, and other family estrangements. But on that day I did almost break a finger in half, so even though I had regained enough composure to go through with the interview, my finger was all bandaged up and my insides were still a little wobbly. To put it another way – I was vulnerable, exposed, and raw.

Which is why, I think, I answered Kimberly’s question the way I did – a response that took me completely by surprise and required me to quickly articulate a thought that was being formed in my psyche in that moment. My answer – and I’m paraphrasing here because I haven’t yet heard the final interview – didn’t mention divorce or loss or broken families. Instead, I started talking about the way so many of my stories and memories had been transformed – how, through the act of writing, I’d ended up releasing the versions of them that had inspired me to write about them in the first place.

Are you with me?

I knew writing the book had healed many of my deepest emotional wounds, but it wasn’t until my conversation with Kimberly that I realized writing the book actually altered my cellular memory of them. The pain I experienced during my parent’s divorce was real, but it was pain I didn’t need to carry anymore. It was painful then, but this was now. More to the point – I believed, until I wrote Moving Water, that certain memories and experiences maintained a certain potency throughout my life only because they held my deepest sadness and most significant losses. What I discovered is that they’ve also, all along, contained the mechanism I needed to remove their charge, and to heal.

~

It was only recently that I made the connection between the bloody mess I had on my hands (literally) just a few minutes before my interview with Kimberly and the fact that this revelation hit me when it did. But now that I’ve connected those two experiences it makes perfect sense. Perhaps in my off-balance, vulnerable state, everything in me softened enough to let a door swing open (maybe even a heavy glass shower door) that would have otherwise remained closed. Maybe the decision to show up for the interview despite feeling messy and clumsy and slightly fragile made it possible for my attachments to certain versions of my own story loosen more than ever before. Maybe when I agreed to show up despite having an ice pack on my finger, I extended an invitation to something deep inside of myself that hadn’t yet found a way to be expressed. Maybe being less “on my game” enabled me to tap into something real, something exquisite, even if it wasn’t possible to formulate what was happening into a tidy soundbite while I was being recorded.

It took more than two years to write Moving Water and it is taking nearly a year to prepare it for its release into the big, wild world. Despite all the work I’ve already done for the book, and all the transformations that have taken place along this journey, its gifts and lessons are still being revealed to me. I am still learning, still healing, still figuring things out. The stories I am being called to tell as I share Moving Water with the world aren’t necessarily the ones I thought I’d be offering, but boy are they good. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

To hear Christine’s interview with Kimberly Wilson, click here.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

christinemasonmillerChristine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Signed copies of her memoir, Moving Water, are now available for pre-order at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

Living Out Loud with Lawrence Davanzo

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
–Rabindranath Tagore

When my husband retired four years ago, he heard the same chorus: “You’re going to be so bored!” I suppose I could see their point (sort of) – my husband was stepping away from a forty-year career, during which he’d built his own company, served as President of another, and was so respected in his industry that when he returned to work after a larry1three-year hiatus in 2004, he hired nearly a dozen former employees within two months. My husband’s identity is fueled first and foremost by his role as a father, but as far as making his mark on the world, it was his career that steered the ship.

So for those who knew him primarily in that universe, it shouldn’t have been terribly surprising that their reaction to the news of his retirement was an assumption that he would turn the corner away from his work life only to find a barren stretch of land where nothing more than a few lone tumbleweeds bounced by from time to time. My husband was driven, ambitious, and successful, so how on earth was he going to find fulfillment once he had all the time in the world?

Here’s the thing about my husband that might have surprised those who couldn’t imagine him living a happy life without his suit, tie, and title – work was never his number one thing. It was never all-consuming. It wasn’t even a part of him I knew much about during the first two years of our relationship because he was on a sabbatical when we met. I heard stories and saw glimpses, but it wasn’t something I experienced firsthand until he returned to work.

Even then, and over the course of the ensuing eight years before he retired for good, I never saw my husband as a workaholic. larry2Aside from travel and the occasional business dinner, when he came home at the end of the day, he was home. When we went on vacation, we were on vacation. He never brought his laptop to bed and he never spent a Saturday on a golf course with clients. So when someone proclaimed he would end up being bored without his work, we both laughed, knowing these comments were more likely a reflection of what the prospect of a life beyond work and career would mean for them rather than what was true for my husband.

Four years later, we’re still laughing – and slightly gobsmacked – to find he is not only not bored, but more active than ever. He has continued to do the things he could only do on the weekends while he was working – bike riding, playing violin, reading – and now has the time and space to dive deeper into other passions and interests that he’s had for most of his life. He isn’t merely taking more photographs – an interest that first took hold when he was given a camera as a ten-year old – he attended a photography workshop in Berlin, had a solo show in Los Angeles, and goes on photo shoots with Santi Visalli – one of the most renowned photographers of celebrities and public figures of the last four decades.

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My husband is also on the phone a lot. Friends and former colleagues call him frequently for advice, guidance, and encouragement. He coaches and advises his son and son-in-law – both entrepreneurs with their own businesses – on everything from cash flow to employee relations. It also isn’t unusual to hear him perusing the pages of his favorite larry3cookbook while chatting with his best friend – a chef who helped ignite my husband’s passion for cooking.

Here’s another thing my husband (well, most of us, really) hears a lot: life is short. My husband happens to think the opposite is true. In his opinion, life is long. At first, I thought he had it backwards. Life isn’t long, I’d think, Life whizzes by faster than I can keep track of. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate his way of thinking. It might seem like the entirety of my life up to this moment has traveled along at warp speed, but when I stop and take a closer look at all the adventures I’ve had, I see how much is there. How could I have experienced as much as I have unless life were, in fact, long?

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Boredom is simply not in my husband’s vocabulary, and because his approach to life is that there is plenty of time to do the things he loves, he has been able to find that elusive balance between exuberant creativity and much-needed, well-deserved downtime. In between his bike rides and photo shoots and music gatherings, he writes letters to his granddaughter and reads at least one book a week. He takes naps. He plays with our dog. He loves washing our cars. He is the same man he’s always been – curious, engaged, and eager to live out loud.

Learn more at www.lawrencedavanzo.com.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

christinemasonmillerChristine Mason Miller is an author and artist who just completed Moving Water, a memoir about the spiritual journey she’s taken with her family.

You can follow her adventures at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

Seeking the Wise Woman Within by Christine Mason Miller

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I’ve long considered myself a spiritual seeker, but sometimes the thought of trying to attain lasting wisdom feels, well, unattainable. I imagine what it might look and feel like to be a wise woman and I envision myself sitting in the folds of a shiny, oversized pink lotus blossom. Radiating perfect calm and serenity, I observe all of humanity’s dramas and shenanigans – most especially my own – with a detached, bemused expression that is rooted in compassion. I do not react. My ego has no power. Every once in awhile, I let my imagination run a little wild and I see a unicorn stroll by. This feels appropriate because the image I’ve constructed is a fantasy. The vision I’m conjuring is a mirage.

Simply put: I’m not Buddha. I’m a messy human – subject to mood swings, grouchy days and the occasional door-slamming freak out.

My soul’s march through early adulthood and into my early thirties was fueled mainly by ambition. I wanted to inspire the world, and believed my most important work needed to be expressed outwardly – toward an audience I aimed to build with my artwork and words. After my spiritual journey took an unexpected, sharp turn to the left the year I turned thirty-four, I realized I had it backwards. Wisdom and contentment weren’t going to come to me because I was working hard to be a good person in the wide open world, trying to inspire as many people as possible. In order to be in alignment with my (potentially) wisest self, I had to hone in on something much closer to home, closer to my very skin.

Lao Tzu says if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. That year, I didn’t merely adjust my course from north to south. I started digging into the ground beneath my feet and kept going – building tunnels, discovering hidden caverns and swimming through underground pools of water. By the time I burst back through the ground, I was committed to a practice of mindful observation. With that established, I proceeded to move through the world in an entirely different way.

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Mindful observation is simply this: stepping outside of myself to observe my own behavior, reactions, attitudes and thoughts.

Oh look, there I am freaking out because the box I shipped wasn’t delivered.

How fascinating to see I just burst into tears because the doctor appointment I thought would happen this week can’t actually happen until next week.

Take a look at this – I still haven’t returned that phone call even though it has been on my to do list eight days in a row now.

After years of honing this practice, here’s what I have to say about wisdom: it provides me with opportunities to recognize and acknowledge what a monumental bonehead I can be. I yell at my dog. I complain. I shake my fist at slow drivers ahead of me.

But on the other side, I see this: That all my human follies and foibles are actually quite precious. They are invitations to pull out my spade, do a little digging and pull out the detritus and weeds that might otherwise tangle up my spirit.

Tilda starts barking at a squirrel, startling me in a moment of quiet.
I immediately lose my s***, and I yell at her.
I observe myself yelling.
I look beyond the surface of things to explore where my reaction came from.
I recognize it’s because I have a dentist appointment tomorrow and I’m nervous.
I am on edge, and I am feeling vulnerable.
Deep exhale. Soften.
Give Tilda a hug. Make myself a cup of tea.

There is no judgment or labeling. I don’t declare that my yelling at Tilda because I’m worried about my dentist appointment makes me a bad person. There is only observation and open-hearted curiosity. And with that, understanding. It is envisioning whatever is happening in the moment as something taking place on a stage, whereby I have the ability to pull back the curtain and see what’s really going on.

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I don’t always know what to do with things I observe myself doing, and I don’t always immediately change my behavior in order to shift things in a different direction. Sometimes I say, Oh look at me gossiping, and I keep gossiping, practically daring the divine to come down to earth in a bolt of lightning and write me a ticket for violating my own moral code. There are days when I observe myself acting like a complete spoiled brat, irritated by every interruption and distraction, and say There I am acting like a total jerk – what of it?

Mindful observation is not a practice that prevents me from being human. I have yet to find that giant pink lotus blossom for me to nestle into, secure in my practice of detached curiosity and kind consideration of my misdeeds. What mindful observation provides is an immediate entry to compassionate inquiry, should I dare to take that opportunity. Sometimes I’m able to do it in the moment, other times it takes days or weeks or years. The nice thing about it is that there aren’t any expiration dates, so the ability to take a closer look at anything I’ve ever done, said or thought is always at my disposal. It is always possible to see things from another perspective, and to consider the different facets of each experience without judgment.

I still do a lot of work that is expressed and shared outwardly – across miles, continents and the world wide web. It is important work, and it is meaningful to me. But my real work – my life’s work – has been an inward journey. It is the moments of mindful observation, of giving myself a break, of holding myself accountable. It is the moments when I recognize the situation in front of me as an opportunity to make a choice, and to carefully consider whether the choice I am inclined to make will support what I value most in my life or diminish it.

I’m not sure that makes me a bona fide wise woman, but it certainly makes me feel more in tune with what it means to be human, and in sync with greater flow of life.

Oh look, there’s a parking space that I trusted would be waiting for me.

What do you know – my doctor can see me this week, because she just had a cancellation.

How fascinating to see so much beauty all around me, and all I have to do to enjoy it is look up, stay still, and take it all in.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

christinemasonmillerChristine Mason Miller is an author and artist who just completed Moving Water, a memoir about the spiritual journey she’s taken with her family.

Buy her book on Amazon. Go on Retreat . Join Christine at her upcoming retreat in Ojai with Wild Roots, Sacred Wings.

You can follow her adventures at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

Be the Light, Everywhere You Go by Christine Mason Miller

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“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
-Edith Wharton

It is hard to know what to do sometimes isn’t it? Especially on days like the one we recently had – oh wait, it wasn’t just one. It has been one after another after another. I’m talking about days when we’re jolted by the lightning flash of a news bulletin relaying the death toll from the world’s most recent terror attack. We hear the news, absorb the CMM_Light2first shocking numbers and then despair as they rise over the next few hours like floodwaters in a basement.

It is easy to feel helpless. How to make a difference in the face of such hatred? How to soften the blow of these particular strains of violence? We aren’t watching news reports from warring nations; we are seeing innocent people attacked while celebrating a holiday, walking to work, shopping at a market, marching for their beliefs and dancing with their friends. What can we, as individuals, possibly do to heal our collective wounds?

I think it comes down to very small things – very tiny acts of compassion, kindness and sincerity. It comes down to the way we move through the world, day in and day out. It is about how we treat our partners, our families and everyone we come into contact with as we go about our days. It is about those details.

At the Brave Girl Symposium last week, one of the many lovely souls I was meeting for the first time  commented on the way I made eye contact with her. She appreciated it in the moment we first met and continued to comment on it over the next couple of days. It is not the first time someone has acknowledged this, and I doubt it will be the last. The intensity of my eye contact is something that has, quite frankly, kind of freaked people out (in a really sweet way) in a variety of situations.

I don’t exactly wake up every morning saying, “I’m going to stare intently into the eyes of everyone I encounter today,” but making eye contact is an intentional practice. I do it with my friends, I do it at retreats I facilitate and I do it in line at the bank. And I find the most consistent reaction I receive in return incredibly fascinating: it startles CMM_Light4people, as if being seen is something they weren’t expecting and aren’t accustomed to. I get double-takes, I get sheepish smiles, I see an immediate softening, I see tears well up.

With so much of our attention gobbled up by mental to do lists, the frightening state of the world and all of our devices, it is easy to walk right by one another without any real acknowledgment that there is a living, breathing human being in our midst. I feel this most acutely in places like drug stores and grocery stores, where I see too many people hand over their debit card and pay for their items without ever looking up at the person who is assisting them. I know we’re all busy and have a lot on our minds, but this is what I mean about small details. We are all busy and have a lot on our minds, so let’s all take a wee moment, even if it is just the space of a single breath, to look one another in the eye and create a real connection.

I talk a lot about ripples of inspiration – about how a single act of kindness or a single step taken toward realizing a dream travels farther than we ever realize. Every single action taken in love, kindness, respect and joy matters. When one person has the ability to wreak havoc on a hundred lives in a single instance, it is the one thousand tiny expressions of light we can shine throughout our days and weeks that will help combat these dark forces.

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Imagine this: Someone you don’t know and might never know has woken up this morning in despair over his or her life and the world. Perhaps this person looked up to the sky and said, “Please give me a sign all hope is not lost.” Later that day, you end up looking this person in the eye, and there is kindness in your face. You might even say hello.

That could be enough. That could be the sign this person was seeking, assurance that not all of humanity has lost the ability to, well, be human. You might think this is an unlikely extreme, but I’m not so sure. We are all looking for signs. We are all searching for comfort. We are all desperate for evidence that the world is still OK. And we all have the ability to provide such assurances for one another.

What to do in the face of unfathomable horrors? Imagine you are standing in a dark room with no windows. You can’t even see your own hand in front of your face. Now light a match. See how that one small flame lights up the space? Be that light, everywhere you go.

Be that light, and heal the world.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

christinemasonmillerChristine Mason Miller is an author, artist and guide who lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Buy her book on Amazon. Go on Retreat .  Join Christine at her upcoming retreat in Ojai with Wild Roots, Sacred Wings.

You can follow her adventures at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

Time to Declare My Word for the Year by Christine Mason Miller

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“The first step shall be to lose the way.” -Galway Kinnell

When 2016 arrived, I didn’t ring it in with champagne and party hats. I wanted to sleep more than anything, so I celebrated by going to bed about 9:00pm. 2015 wasn’t a bad year, but it was an intense year, and even though I got a decent night’s sleep as the world said farewell to 2015, I was ready for a nap within an hour of waking up. I’d been CMM_HappyNewYearfeeling that way for weeks, and the first day of 2016 was no exception.

I got sick within a few days, and it was a bug that made itself comfortable in my sinus passages for a solid three weeks. It wasn’t until the end of the month, when I got in my car for the four-hour drive north to Big Sur for a long weekend with seven soul sisters that the exhaustion finally began to lift. I made sure of that by turning the volume up on my sappiest playlist and letting myself cry as hard as I could for the first hour of the drive. (Thanks, Adele!) I was tired of being sick. I was tired of feeling so tired. I was tired of feeling like I was in a constant race against time.

During those weeks of feeling like I was moving underwater, I felt like I was missing out on all the fun everyone was having sharing their word for the year. All that excitement! All that energy! Everyone fired up and eager to make 2016 the best year ever! I was still recovering from 2015 and wasn’t ready to decide what I most wanted to manifest in the wide open space of the new year. What’s my word of the year? I’d ask myself. Nothing. The cursor in my brain just kept blinking idly, a reminder that in this particular endeavor—making a declaration for my life—I was a failure.

Now that we’re almost five months in, I’ve got my word—not because I decided on it once I started to get my mojo back, but because it keeps showing up on days like today, when I wrap up a big project and I automatically ask myself OK, what’s next?

I used to thrive in situations when someone would ask that question, or any variation of it—When is your next show? CMM_PursuitofMagicWhere is your next retreat? What will you write about next? I prided myself on always having an answer. I’d have my next show lined up. My next retreat would already be on the calendar. A book proposal would be waiting in the wings. Being able to confidently, immediately answer the question “What’s next?” meant I was a mover, a shaker, a woman who made things happen. But over time, it also meant I was a woman who was tired, and frequently left wondering why I felt like my time to rest was always just beyond whatever my answer to the question happened to be that day. Right after regaling my listener with all the impressive feats I was about to accomplish, I would—without fail—follow it up with, “And after I finish that I’ll finally have some down time!”

The word that keeps hovering in my periphery is discernment. Defined as the ability to judge well, I see this word drift through my awareness every time the question of what’s next pops up. If “What’s next?” is in neon, “discernment” is like a fog, trying to reduce its harsh glare. It is a reminder to choose carefully, and that the best answer might actually be “Nothing.”

I’ve been having a conversation with someone this week about recognizing that although we are artistic, creative beings we are not, at our core, defined solely by this. We actually do ourselves a disservice by trying to make our sense of well-being and contentment contingent upon this. I can make artwork, organize retreats, and write books and connect to my core or I can do none of those things and still honor my soul and spirit. If my answer to the CMM_bytheshorequestion, “What’s next?” is “Nothing”, I am still me. I am still whole and worthy and enough.

This is where discernment comes in, as a quiet whisper that doesn’t just tell me it’s OK to loosen the reins on my Very Important Things To Do list. It is also letting me in on a secret I am only beginning to understand, which is that by spending so much time and effort keeping my bag of answers to the question of what’s next full, I might actually be missing out on the most potent opportunities to tap into my core, my soul, my deepest sense of creativity, presence, and joy.

I talked about writing the book I just finished for many years before finally sitting down to write it. What was it that compelled me to finally do it? The sound of my own voice saying, “I just have to write this book!” too many times. I decided it was time to either write the book or stop talking about it. That was more than two years ago, and yesterday I sent my book to the printer.

I feel the same way about the proclamation that always punctuates my answer to the question of what’s next, the part about having some quiet time once this is wrapped up or that is finished. I’ve heard myself say it enough times to know it is time for a change. It isn’t about literally doing nothing, but about creating time for myself to explore and see where the wind takes me. If I’m always deciding ahead of time exactly what I want to work on, I’m missing out on all the discoveries that await me on the detours. I’m eager for some aimless wandering. I’m ready to let myself get lost.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

christinemasonmillerChristine Mason Miller is an author, artist and guide who lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Buy her book on Amazon. Go on Retreat . Hire her as your Mentor.

You can follow her adventures at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

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