Sunday, September 19, 2010

KAZANTZAKIS ON FEAR, HOPE, AND FREEDOM


Grave of Nikos Kazantzakis, Heraklion, Crete
Photo by Christos Tsourmplekas (2009)


"I hope for nothing.  I fear nothing.  I am free."
Epitaph of Nikos Kazantzakis


Like many others of my generation, I was introduced to the works of Nikos Kazantzakis through Michael Cacoyannis's 1964 film version of the author's great novel, Zorba the Greek.  I saw the film for the first time in the early seventies at an old Washintgon movie house that featured foreign films.  Soon thereafter, I stuffed a duffel bag with several Kazantzakis books and headed off for a month in Greece, hoping to find Zorba's spirit — and perhaps my own — among ancient stones and the mysterious waters of the Aegean.

After more than two weeks of traveling from one island to another throughout the Greek archipelago, I reached Heraklion, Crete, where Kazantzakis was born in 1883 and buried in 1957.  On the first day after my arrival in Haraklion, I arose early and walked through half-deserted streets to the Kazantzakis grave site, just outside the city walls.  It was quiet place, and beautiful in its  simplicity — a plain, rough-hewn wooden cross, a few large stones covering the grave, and a topstone on which Kazantazkis' chosen epitaph was engraved:

Detail From Photo by Frente (2003)

The most common English translation of the epitaph is: "I hope for nothing.  I fear nothing.  I am free."  Other translators, however, have insisted that a more accurate translation is:  "I expect nothing.  I fear nothing.  I am free."

The first translation may be the most literal, but the second — at least in my view — is the one that best captures the true spirit of Kazantzakis' philosophy.  Influenced by Buddhist teachings, Kazantzakis was not opposed to that form of hope that is often coupled with faith and optimism.  He was opposed to hope that is based upon desire and  expectations of favorable outcomes, because he believed that desire and expectations, like fear, keep people focused on future events, rendering them incapable of living and experiencing life in the present moment.

The ten words of Katzantzakis' epitaph — so spare, so unambiguous, so courageous — were a bit of an epiphany for me.  For the first time in my life, I realized that freedom — my lodestar from an early age — was not a place, not a level of financial security, not some type of achievement;  it was, instead, the ability to abandon expectations and to live fearlessly in the ebb and flow of every moment. It was one of the most liberating messages I have ever received, and though I often fall short of the mark, I have never doubted the wisdom of what I learned on that morning thirty-eight years ago.




I still have the tattered paperback copy of Zorba that was in my rucksack on that sun-drenched morning that I stood before the grave site of Kazantzakis.  Looking now at the passages that I underlined when I first read the book, I find nothing that does not still resonate with me.  I offer some of these passages below in the hope that others may also find something of value.

That's what liberty is, I thought.  To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one's passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.
* * * * *

Everything in this world has a hidden meaning . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics; woe to anyone who begins to decipher them and guess what they mean . . . When you see them, you do not understand them. You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars.  It is only years later, too late, that you understand . . . 
* * * * * 
Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.

* * * * *

The house appears empty, but it contains everything, so few are the necessities of man.

* * * * *

The greatest prophet on earth can give men no more than a watchword, and the vaguer the watchword the greater the prophet.

* * * * *

While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize — sometimes with astonishment — how happy we had been.

* * * * *

Everything seems to have a soul — wood, stones, the wine we drink and the earth we tread on. Everything, boss, absolutely everything!

* * * * *

I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.  And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

* * * * *

What a voluptuous enjoyment of sorrow those hours of soft rain can produce in you!  All the bitter memories hidden in the depths of your mind come to the surface:  separations from friends, women's smiles which have faded, hopes which have lost their wings like moths . . . 

* * * * *

This was true happiness:  to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition.  To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realize all of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.

* * * * *

It is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature.  We should not be in a hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.

* * * * *

I looked at Zorba in the light of the moon and admired the jauntiness and simplicity with which he adapted himself to the world around him, the way his body and soul formed one harmonious whole, and all things — women, bread, water, meat, sleep — blended happily with his flesh and became Zorba.

* * * * *

Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all, in my view, is not to have one.

* * * * *

[Zorba] is dominated by the basic problems of mankind.  He lives them as if they were immediate and urgent necessities.  Like the child, he sees everything for the first time.  He is forever astonished and wonders why and wherefore.  Everything seems miraculous to him, and each morning when he opens his eyes he sees trees, sea, stones and birds, and is amazed.

* * * * *

"The idea's everything, he (Zorba) said.  "Have you faith?  Then a splinter from an old door becomes a sacred relic.  Have you no faith?  Then the whole Holy Cross itself becomes an old doorpost to you."

* * * * *

That is what a real man is like, I thought, envying Zorba's sorrow.  A man with warm blood and solid bones, who lets real tears run down his cheeks when he is suffering; and when he is happy he does not spoil the freshness of his joy by running it through the fine sieve of metaphysics.

* * * * *

Each time that within ourselves we are the conquerors, although externally utterly defeated, we human beings feel an indescribable pride and joy.  Outward calamity is transformed into a supreme and unshakable felicity.



Nikos Kazantzakis
1883 - 1957
It has been said that Kazantzakis was the most important and most translated Greek writer of the 20th century.  He didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was nominated in in 1957 — having lost by one vote to the French novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus — but he is clearly worth reading for those who strive daily to make sense of man's struggle in what often appears to be a chaotic world.
They think of me as a scholar, and intellectual, a pen-pusher.
And I am none of them.
When I write, my fingers
get covered not in ink, but in blood.
I think I am nothing more than this:
an undaunted soul.


Words Nikos Kazantzakis
used to 
describe himself in 1950. 
  

37 comments:

  1. How do you do it George? You surpass your previous unsurpassable posts with the next one!
    So much delicious content here. I wanted to acknowledge the post now, but will come back later after I re-read and absorb it to comment on specifics.

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  2. You've given me a gift again, George. I still haven't read that Henry Miller reader, what's wrong with me? (Oh dear, that was not a zen thing to say, I know.) I remember in 1976 one of my 22 fellow students in a converted logging camp in Ashland, Oregon presenting a report on Kazantzakis with so much passion, that he clearly had transformed his life. From that point through the rest of the semester, the student was known as Niko. I don't even remember his real name.

    Happiness is a frugal thing, and all that is required to feel it is a frugal heart. This, my friend, and all that you've posted on Zorba, speaks to me.

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  3. To Robert,

    Thanks for the comments, Robert. I trust that you liked the posting and that I did not just catch you at an inopportune moment.

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  4. To Bonnie,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Bonnie. I look forward to hearing your take on Kazantzakis after you've had a chance to re-read the post.

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  5. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Ruth, and I'm happy that some of the posting has lodged itself in your frugal heart. "Niko," you say? I think I might just consider a name change, at least for the blog. I don't know though; somehow, "Niko the Irishman" just doesn't have the ring I'm looking for.

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  6. Sorry, George - I loved the posting, and my brief (brief may come across ambiguously when it's not meant to be!) comments really did mean YES! It all chimed with me. Can't go into things in more depth... still don't feel my normal self...

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  7. To Robert,

    No need to apologize, my friend. I was not the least bit offended by the brevity of your comments. It doesn't get better than "Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. Yes." I was just being facetious in my response. Get well soon!

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  8. So much to digest - can you see me nodding in affirmation? This among others resonates with me: "While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize — sometimes with astonishment — how happy we had been."
    My son recently finished an outdoor wilderness survival course. One of the paramount lessons was, "You have all you need for this moment." Emphasis was placed on the present - on focusing on what was happening NOW. Not worrying about the future or fixating on what was missing. He told me that he is calmer now that he is back - less stressed by problems. Somehow, these quotes reminded me of the stories he told of his experience.

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  9. To Barb,

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments, Barb. I love that lesson your son learned, "You have all you need for this moment." That is the great wisdom that weaves its way though most spiritual traditions. The challenge, of course, is to remember it — and most importantly, to allow it to govern one's life. Thanks for sharing that story, and i'm glad you found something of value in this posting.

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  10. I was going to come back and comment about the quote Barb commented on, and I like what she wrote about having what we need for this moment.

    What I was going to say about the quote "While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize — sometimes with astonishment — how happy we had been" . . . is that I think one of the outcomes of the Eastern spiritual path (maybe it's a goal, but that sounds too future-thinking) is that bliss can be felt in the present moment. I had such an experience at the grocery store after work Friday, when I felt so connected with every person I saw, in love with them even, that when I left I knew that what Nikos said is right, that it is unusual to feel it in the present moment. I don't know that it's something a person can conjure, probably not. But maybe if we keep practicing the path of retraining our minds and hearts to live presently, and love, love, love, these moments of bliss, experienced and felt while they're happening, will be more frequent.

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  11. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the additional comments. They were a blissfully nice way to begin the morning.

    Bliss, I think, is different from happiness. From my perspective, bliss is a state of pure contentment in which one is not reaching for anything like happiness. One remembers, however, how happy one was in that state of bliss — and this, I think, is what Kazantzakis is getting at. As always, however, the key is to keep that grocery store state of mind all the time, which is oh so difficult. Have a good week!

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  12. A wise man quoted by another wise man. I loved all the quotes cited, but the last two lines, "...I am nothing more than this: an undaunted soul.", stirred something deep within. I think I am, perhaps, an undaunted soul, in spite of myself.

    Kazantzakis emits such enthusiasm and passion for life, while in the same breath encouraging no attachment to it (and the things it offers).
    His passion is pure delight and wonderfully contagious.

    The second quote above reminds me of Emerson's words:

    "Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries which he would make; he lives it as life before he perceives it as truth."

    Every thing, it seems, has something to teach us. I spend my life trying to decipher hieroglyphics ... my own and others'.

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  13. To Bonnie,

    Thanks for the comments, and I especially loved the Emerson quote. You are spot-on in your description of Kazantazks as one having passion and enthusiasm for life, without being attached to it. What a tight-rope walk that is! It is, however, the best of all walks, at least in my view.

    And, yes, Bonnie, you are an undaunted soul, to your credit. It comes across in all of your postings and comments. May we all be so undaunted. I hope you have a lovely week.

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  14. I have to return to that idea of only being conscious of happiness in retrospect - an idea that has clearly engaged several of your readers. There's a lot of truth in this. But, actually, I think this act of retrospection by the mind can distort the truth - in the way that memories are often distorted, fallacious, or even downright duplicitous. I think this sort of retrospective belief in periods of happiness 'back then' is just that - a belief. The mind has a tendency to smooth everything out, to forget the bad and only remember the good times, to forget the flints underfoot but remember the springy turf.

    On my walks (and by analogy in life), particularly now I try to practice Zen consciousness while walking (when I remember!), I find that happiness can not be 'pursued', 'tracked down', 'discovered' etc. It isn't a reward; it isn't something to be lamented if you think you lack it; it isn't something you can expect by right, something just to be granted to you; it's certainly nothing to do with money, acquisition, material things.

    It's there all the time, immediately and ever-present in the now, and, strangely enough I've discovered, in wonder and with relief, it doesn't require that much awareness, or hard work, or diligence to attain. There are lots of little 'tricks' (if I may prosaically call them that - Bonnie's sky-gazing is one, my rotation-of-the-senses described somewhere on my blog is another - there are thousands more) which one can employ to become instantly 'happier'.

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  15. To Robert,

    I agree, Robert, that retrospective thinking can distort the truth of the past. Perhaps that is part of the survival mechanism. I'm thinking here of Eliot's line from The Four Quartets that "human kind cannot bear very much reality." By the same token, I must confess that there have been a few rare moments I can remember that seemed blissful in the sense that I was totally content. These were not big event moments; they were moments in time when I found myself in harmony with everything, mystical moments, and in retrospect, I am inclined to say, "yes, that felt like happiness."

    I totally agree that people are too obsessed with the notion of happiness, believing it is something that can be achieved or acquired. When one stops and thinks about it, the very concept of happiness implies a judgment. It's so much better, I think, to just get in the flow of things, which may lead to a kind of bliss or contentment.

    The thing that we "seek" does not require seeking, for, as you point out, it's already here — right at this moment, in this here and now.

    Thanks for the additional, thought-provoking comments.

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  16. Well, yes, George, those magical mystical moments of bliss! How I too remember them and treasure them! More than mere happiness, more than... anything... indescribable...

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  17. (Guess what, I had emailed myself my comment. I've made a minor adjustment.)

    I confess, George, that I do not understand the difference, between happiness and bliss. This is when I wish we could sit over a cup of coffee or tea . . .

    If bliss comes of its own, I can understand that.

    The bliss I felt Friday far surpassed what I'd call happiness. Maybe ecstasy is a better term for it. I would appreciate further help on this differentiation. My analytical brain loves it. My bliss-brain/self just sits and listens. :)

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  18. Good Morning, Ruth,

    The meanings we attach to words like "bliss," "happiness." and "ecstasy" often vary, depending on our individual conditioning and philosophy, and I would not argue with anyone who suggests that bliss is happiness and happiness is bliss. From my perspective, however, "happiness" is a tricky word in our culture because it is so invested with the notion of getting what one desires. If one gets those things, one is happy; if one does not get those things, one is unhappy.

    Bliss, on the other hand, seems more detached from outcomes in the material world. It is more mystical in nature. One might even say that bliss is the mystical level of happiness. When I see I statue or image of the smiling Buddha, the word that always comes to mind is "bliss," not "happiness," though I know that happiness is contained in bliss.

    Words are fun to play with, but we should never forget that they are just symbols and sounds. The most significant experiences we have in life are beyond accurate description by words. These are mystical experiences in which boundaries fall, judgments dissolve, and we know what is means to love and be loved. From what you have told me, it seems that your experience in the grocery store was mystical in nature, which would mean that it is futile to search for words that adequately describe it. Perhaps it is best to just be with it, relish it, and resist the temptation to understand it analytically. In the rag and bone shop of the heart, you already understand what you need to understand.

    Robert (The Solitary Walker) and I had a discussion about these issues yesterday. You might want to take a look at our little colloquy, which is posted above.

    Have a good day and watch out for the mystical! It could happen again and probably will.

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  19. Thanks. I've read Robert's comment and your response. These, and your response to me, very much echo what I feel and have felt in the last couple of weeks. As you noticed, I was posting like a madwoman, just couldn't keep it from spilling out. Then there came a day (maybe the day before the grocery store bliss) when I was at the gas station pumping gas, and I was frustrated! There was too much inside, and it wanted to come out. From there I drove to work, and somewhere on the drive, I suddenly realized: I don't have to express the bliss. It just is. All that matters is connecting with it, feeling it. If sometimes it spills out into words (or into a photograph, or painting as you express), and someone else sees a glimmer of what was experienced, how wonderful that is. Once I realized that it didn't have to be expressed, the frustration and stress disappeared.

    Now that I write this out, I can't help but think that the release of this pressure to express it resulted in that Friday night grocery store in-love-with-everyone feeling I had. Maybe?

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  20. To Ruth,

    I think you've answered your own questions, Ruth. In a nutshell, don't let something as rare and wonderful as bliss be undermined by frustration over the ability to adequately understand and express it.

    Hopefully, the tech problems we were experiencing yesterday have been resolved.

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  21. What an inspiring post and the follow-up in the comments section is keeping it so alive! I shall go back and re-read, but have to say that the epitaph is so dense and rich and really says *everything* that in spite of the zen-flash of it, I still feel that it's worth chewing on, digesting it so it can be absorbed completely.

    I've been on jury duty for a little over a week - and see that somewhere between my last visit and now you've changed your layout. The text is bigger, which is nice, and it doesn't feel crowded at all - rather spacious in fact. Nice!

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  22. To Neighbor,

    Thanks, Neighbor. The comment dialogue on this posting has been quite interesting. I'm delighted that you like the larger format. It gives me a little more creative space to play with, especially with the photos.

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  23. Thanks for these quotes, especially this one: "It is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not be in a hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm."

    I strongly dislike rushing. It seems like a terrible waste of time.

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  24. Fingers covered in blood! Yes, yes, yes!!

    George, I don't know if I have told you this already, but your posts inspire many poems in me. They're not ready to show yet, but they will be eventually. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

    Kazantzakis is amazing. I love the quotes you chose, and the epitaph is simply brilliant. It is true!

    I come from a low income background, and I used to get a lot of pressure from my family to "succeed." It was hard for them to understand why somebody with so much education would still live a low income life. I understand their feelings completely (and I'm not opposed to having money or comfort). But I'm not a cubicle dweller and never will be. That kind of life would be a slow and miserable death for me.

    I found out, though, that once I stopped worrying about what other people thought, they also stopped worrying about it. They accept me, because I accepted myself and the happiness that comes from every new day.

    The epitaph makes me think of that letting go of fear.

    Please excuse me for going on and on about myself! I always end up doing that here. Again, you inspire me, George! This post is a beautiful gift.

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  25. To Julie,

    Thank you so much, Julie, for these lovely and generous comments. If you are being inspired by what you read on this site, rest assured that the cross-fertilization is mutual. I am quite inspired by your poetry.

    Feel free to go on and on about yourself at any time. What you have to say is important and always makes a contribution to the conversation. Think of this venue as a nice little coffee shop where you can sit with friends and talk about what's on your mind.

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  26. First of all, I chuckled at your first comment to George the Solitary Walker.

    About this post however, I am so impressed at how introspective you were as a young man and feel privileged to see a peek of your coming of age.

    I enjoyed reading the exchange about bliss, happiness, and ecstasy. I have a set of mental bookmarks of the times when I knew I felt unbridled joy at that very moment. Some examples: when I was home alone holding my first baby cradled in my arms, when I was on vacation with fourteen family members and we all spontaneously started dancing with each other to the music of the violinists in Piazza San Marco in Venice, late last year when my husband and I walked together in Yosemite valley for our twentieth anniversary... Somehow, when I take the time to notice my joy in the moment, it is crystallized forever.

    When I read Kazantzakis' first quote, I realized why I find blogging so liberating. To be able to cast my passions to the four winds comes with great reward.

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  27. To Dutchbaby,

    Thanks for the lovely comments, Dutchbaby. It sounds as if you have had great moments of happiness in your life, and I'm delighted that the words of Kazantzakis have rekindled the memories of those moments. By the way, my own twentieth anniversary is coming up early next month.

    I agree with you that blogging is very liberating. I suppose that's the reason we keep doing it. In closing, I should note that the Solitary Walker is my friend, Robert, not George, though I am always happy to have my name associated with his excellent blog.

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  28. George, I have seen your comments lately iin Ruth's space, most notably. Today when I read your comment at Friko's blog, I thought I'd come and have a look.
    Your photographs are wonderful. Raally lovely. And your part of the world is uncommonly attractive - I knew the name but had no image of it whatsoever before this.

    Then I went to the 'Zorba' post. I will only say that I found it most interesting, and that your reaction to the words of the epitaph is absolutely understandable. I'm having a similar moment right here, right now. You wrote of your experience very well, and I learned quite a lot about someone I knew nothing about. Very intriguing and a lot to mull over. the comments section was every bit as interesting, and Ruth's comment about expressing bliss went Zing!!! right to the heart of the matter.

    Thank you for this. You've taught me someething.

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  29. To Deborah,

    Thanks so much for the lovely comments and welcome to my site. I'm delighted you liked the photos and especially happy that you found something meaningful in the piece on Kazantazkis.

    I took a quick look at your own blog and found many things that make me want to return. Your current photos of the trip through Greece, especially those photos of Meteora, really brough back memories for me. I was also intrigued by the fact that you live in both Alberta and the South of France. During my legal career, some of my major clients were companies that were located in Calgary, and, as a result, I have spent a great deal of time in that region of Canada. I also love the South of France and have spent a great deal of time traveling there over the past forty years.

    Thanks again and I hope you will return and participate in the conversations we are having on this site about a variety of things. During the meantime, I plan to spend a little time getting to know more about you on your blog. Have a nice day.

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  30. Excellent post, George. I've long adored the film version of Zorba the Greek, and now I must read the book. I'm adding it to my list right now. Thanks for the encouragement.

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  31. To Willow,

    Thanks, Willow. I love the movie as well. The book, however, gives one time to meditate on the deeper philosophy of Zorba and the ongoing conflict between the head and the heart that most of us experience.

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  32. To Fireweed Meadow,

    Thanks for your comment. So sorry I am just posting it. I just discovered my omission. Your thoughtful comments are always welcomed and treasured.

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  33. Thank you for sharing your quest, truths, and the men and women who have influenced you. Kazantzakis is one of my favorite. Linda Joyce

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  34. Thanks, Joyce. Glad you liked this post.

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