Sunday, November 7, 2010

THE ANSWER AT 3:00 A.M.

Small Room in Hermitage Near Assisi
Where St. Francis and His Followers Often Dined and Meditated


Here is a small confession from one who aspires to move through life with the calm equanimity of a Zen master.  In recent weeks, I have allowed events beyond my control to send me into a small tailspin of despair.  It began with the unexpected death of a childhood friend whom I loved dearly, and it picked up steam with a back injury, a troublesome vitreous detachment in my right eye, an insane political season, and a number of ensuing questions in the pathetically self-centered category of "what the hell is happening to this world and my life?"

I recognize, of course, that absolutely nothing is happening in my life that has not happened before or which will not continue to happen for as long a mankind has a foothold on this fragile earth.  Everything is constantly changing and the cycle of life and death continues in ways both large and small.  The changes are increasingly personal, however, and this is why I found myself awake at three o'clock this morning, pondering the question of what I can do, other than become frustrated, angry, depressed, or all of the above.

The practical answers from Buddhism are always wise and helpful — just let go of the craving to possess that which is transitory, which is to say anything and everything.  The answers of Zen provide similar guidance — just remain detached, suspend all judgment, and allow everything to pass like water flowing over a rock. This is all great advice, undoubtedly, but at three o'clock this morning, I needed something more, something that would allow me to take a more active role in the world without trying to control things beyond my control.  It was at that point that my mind shifted to a framed prayer that has remained on a wall above my desk for almost twenty years. It is the incomparably beautiful prayer that is well known and widely attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi.  

A Simple Prayer

                               Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
                               Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
                               Where there is injury, pardon;
                               Where there is discord, unity;
                               Where there is doubt, faith;
                               Where there is error, truth;
                               Where there is despair, hope;
                               Where there is sadness, joy;
                               Where there is darkness, light.

                               O Divine Master, grant that 
                                  I may not so much seek
                               To be consoled as  to console;
                               To be understood as to understand;
                               To be loved as to love.
                               
                               For it is in the giving that we receive;
                               It is in the pardoning that we are pardoned;
                               It is in the dying that we are born to eternal life.

I acquired my hand-lettered copy of this prayer on my first visit to Assisi many years ago. Since that time, I have been blessed to find great wisdom in various religious and spiritual  traditions.  At no point, however, have I found a better blueprint for life than is found in the words of St. Francis.  My life, of course,  continues to fall woefully short of the noble ideas set forth in the prayer.  It continues to inspire me, however,  and I am convinced that it provides a path that can lead anyone — Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or otherwise — beyond darkness and despair.






PEACE TO EVERYONE!


46 comments:

  1. The beautiful prayer of St. Francis has long been very meaningful to me. I wear a vintage gold St. Francis medal always to remind me to be a channel of peace. Thank you for this inspiring post, George. Peace to you, as well. xx

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  2. To Willow,

    Thanks, Willow, for your nice comments. Keeping St. Francis close at hand, as you do, is a great daily reminder of the need to be an instrument of peace with all people and all situations.

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  3. George, I am sorry to hear of your loss of a good friend from childhood, your body, and, of course, the world news can surely be depressing.

    I too, have taken some solace from the prayer of St. Francis which I've memorized and have sometimes recited to myself in bed, awake, at 3AM. A half-dozen similar prayers serve me well in such moments.

    I cannot take the "news" anymore--too depressing. Instead I go outdoors, like the Grizz, and listen for what the natural world has to report. The fresh air and exercise always make me feel better.

    My other anti-depressant is the ukulele. Man, it's getting a lot of use these days! It helps to keep me clear of the pharmacist's potions for depression.

    Anyhow, be well, and know you've probably got plenty of company each morning at 3!

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  4. To Dan,

    Thanks, Dan, for the kind comments. I agree that being outdoors with nature is the best antidote for a chaotic world. And thanks sharing the therapeutic value of ukuleles. I don't see a ukulele in my future, but who know? I will try almost anything once, just for the experience.

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  5. I am especially moved by the second paragraph-stanza, perhaps because it is there where I see the greatest distance between what I am and what I would like to be:

    O Divine Master, grant that
    I may not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love.

    In addition, of course, to sending out a warm embrace of a message to a friend in "tailspin of despair", I also want to say that your cross-faith approach to spirituality strikes me as a great strength for you, and one you generously share with others. That type of cross-pollination between different creeds and traditions is a way of achieiving inner unity in oneself, while perhaps helping us contribute to furthering unity in the world about us. Believing in everything and in nothing are actually pretty similar, the readiness to find what is valuable in all religions, without holding and trumpeting any single one as as the only path.

    Thank you, amigo, for sharing this meditation with us. What could be more intimate than sharing the questions and answers that come to us at 3:00 am?

    The word verification prompt today is excrazi. Hmmmm ...

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  6. George, As someone who needs simplicity this prayer makes me want to know more of a person who can express the elusive escence of life in such simple words. Simplicity is often misinterpreted as shallowness.
    ...Tramp

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  7. George: How beautifully apt that in your despair, you offer inspiration and consolation to us all.

    I was thinking about you and the difficulties you have been facing as I read those unequalled words of St. Francis - I wondered if even though St. Francis was encouraging us to direct our efforts and understanding to others - what it would be like if in moments of despair we applied his words in the first stanza to self. Then we would be truly fortified to minister to others.

    I hope you find your way to sow seeds of hope, joy, light and consolation within, as you so loyally do without.

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  8. Peace to you George. Your words..."Everything is constantly changing" has been a guidance for me, since 1980, when I experienced the first despair of my life...with my father's death. He came to me in a dream dressed in a robe, much like St. Francis. Behind him was an undulating wall of sand with objects coming in and out of view, that represented different things to me. He whispered "Everything Changes" and Smiled...The dream left me with a sense of acceptance and peace. Thank you for your post this morning, it helped me...my husband has an appointment with his Oncologist today.

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  9. Dear George, it pains me so much to know you've been suffering these things. Besides you being my friend and not wanting any such turmoil to come your way, there is that assumption in me that you are my representative Zen master, and though I know you aren't perfect and would never claim to be, I rely on you somehow to be strong and calm through life's shudderings. That you also find yourself shaken is both reassuring because of my own passings through those waters at times, and also painful to me that one as strong as you feels it as you do.

    I had a trauma Thursday when something happened that could have been tragic, and I went into a small post traumatic stress episode about it. I confess I was in no shape to console anyone, but I did have to go on with my advising appointments. I found great comfort letting that water pass over my like a rock though, just letting what was happening be in me, even if it felt awful. What else can we do, George, but to be whatever it is we are in this moment, and flow with it?

    I trust that you have what you need, George, to get through this time. That you posted about it here is important, I think, and shows that you feel surrounded by good friends who care about you very much.

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  10. George, thank you for so many things in this post! Not the least of which is hearing from someone else at 3am!! I'm so often awake at that hour, pondering worrying etc! Suddenly it feels less lonely, more like shared time, silent time, with all those others out there, at home in their own houses...pondering mulling wondering!

    My deepest sympathies on the loss of your friend, and also you vision difficulty. I've got a good friend who has had similar problems and have seen how tough it can be.

    You are/will be thought of and prayed for...and from this string of comments...all over the place!

    Peace Karin

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  11. To Lorenzo,

    Thanks for your wonderful and thoughtful comments, my friend. My spirits are already on the rise again and you have boosted them higher.

    I, too, am quite moved by the second paragraph-stanza of the St. Francis prayer. To be able to console, understand, and love, without being attached to some notion of reciprocity, is one of the great spiritual challenges. I'm working on it, but the ego wants to do battle with me every step of the way.

    The cross-faith approach is the only one that has ever made any sense to me. Every spiritual tradition has something to offer and many of the offerings are the same; they just appear different because they are wrapped in different words, rituals, creeds, and cultures. In my own spiritual search, I try to adhere to Meister Eckhart's counsel: "If you seek the kernel, then you must break the shell."

    I love your statement that "believing in everything and in nothing are actually pretty similar." These words could have come directly from that old master of paradox, Lao Tzu. The words also remind me of another statement by Meister Eckhart: "Only the hand that erases can write the true thing."

    Thanks again. I found your comments very thought-provoking.

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  12. To Tramp,

    Thanks so much for your comments, Tramp. St Francis remains a spiritual hero for me because of his utter simplicity and his steadfast commitment to the ideals expressed in his simple prayer. There are a number of good biographies on his life and each is rewarding.

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  13. To Bonnie,

    Thanks, as always, for your thought-provoking comments, Bonnie. I think that St. Francis understood that we are the ultimate recipients of what we give unconditionally to others. It's all about karma, isn't it? In the greater scheme of things, what we send out into the universe is returned to us ten-fold.

    Incidentally, my spirits are fine at this point. I wrote about his because I think it is important to be honest about the challenges that are brought about by change. It is one thing to have a well-grounded philosophy, but quite another to apply that philosophy on a consistent basis through each and every storm of life.

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  14. To Wanda,

    Thanks for your lovely and thoughtful comments, Wanda. What an amazing dream about your father, and what a gift that has left you with a sense of gratitude and acceptance! Good luck on your husband's trip to the oncologist today. May you continue to find peace as you and your husband walk through this journey together.

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  15. To Ruth,

    Thanks for your kind thoughts, my friend. Rest assured that I am fine.

    While I aspire to the calm equanimity of a Zen master, I am under no illusion that I have achieved that goal. Holding a philosophy in one's heart and mind is one thing; remaining consistently unperturbed by life's travails is quite another. I am working on it, and I am prepared to admit that I often have setbacks. On the whole, however, I believe that I have made considerable progress.

    I trust that your own recent trauma has now passed and that your spirits are running high. May your coming week be filled with blessings.

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  16. To Karin,

    Thank you, Karin, for your heartfelt comments. Rest assured that I am fine. My recent challenges are small in comparison to those of many others, and I am blessed to have such a good life. From time to time, however, we face headwinds that cause us to stop and reconsider our position in the larger scheme of things. I suppose that this is what I was doing in this post. By pointing to the prayer of St. Francis, I was simply directing myself to get out of my "self" and focus on the world of others. Have a great week!

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  17. George, my friend, I wish I could offer the perfect words of wisdom and consolation to immediately pluck you from this dark valley of despair and set you atop a mountain bathed in golden light. Alas, I can only say that life goes on, and no one with a caring heart can ever be immune to pain. Pain reflects our humanity, it teaches us perspective, and provides a means to reach out or reach in. That opportunity is, in part, what St. Francis asks in the words of his prayer—that he might use the trials and tribulations encountered along life's pathway to minister to others…and as Bonnie suggested, to himself.

    You miss your friend so profoundly because you loved him dearly. His passing doesn't diminish that love; on the contrary, it makes it achingly clear because the season when you could share that love has now ended. But, never forget that the love endures. You can no longer share it with him, but you can share it with others. When my friend Frank passed away a couple of years back, I lost the very best friend I've ever had. So I know precisely how you feel—and I won't tell you to mourn, get over the pain, and move on. It doesn't work that way. But I promise you that time will reveal ways to use what you're now going through and feeling in a positive way.

    Don't be afraid to open up, to reach out, to share your thoughts and feelings with others. That old saying that "pain shared is pain halved, while joy shared is joy doubled" is absolutely true. Let those who care about you inside. A true friend won't be able to make everything alright—but he will gladly put his arm around your shoulders, give you a hug, and take up a share of the burden. Don't deprive him of this opportunity to serve.

    There's a fundamental difference between happiness and joy. Right now, happiness is in short supply in your life—and with good reason. But I've read enough from you to know you are a man of fundamental joy. Cling to that inner joy. Valleys don't go on forever. Faith and hope will carry you through. St. Francis understood the value of perspective. This, too, will pass.

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  18. To Grizz,

    Thank you so much, Grizz. I am overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of your comments.

    Thanks especially for recognizing that, essentially, I am a man of fundamental joy. I would also like to think that I am pretty well grounded philosophically and spiritually — at least I try to be. No one has a perfect track record, however, and sometimes a series of disappointments can gain momentum and rock the best of foundations. That's what happened to me recently, but I am now in ascent once more, thanks in part to people like you with whom I can open up and lay it on the line.

    None of this was intended to be an exercise in self pity. The blessings of my life, for which I am eternally grateful, far outweigh the adversity that falls my way from time to time. By the same token, adversity is not to be underestimated. It can fire up the self-protective ego and challenge one's spiritual resolve. Ultimately, we never know the depth of our faith until our faith is challenged.

    Your observations on the pain of losing a beloved friend are especially meaningful to me. One aspect of this problem is that the losses continue to mount as one grows older. In time, we all find ourselves in the situation of the poet Stanley Kunitz, who, in "The Layers," asks: "How shall the heart be reconciled with its feast of losses." The answer, I suspect, is that we are never completely reconciled to the losses; we just store them in our heart and keep moving forward with faith and hope.

    Thanks again for your heartfelt comments. May the week ahead bring you many blessings.

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  19. Really little to add to all of the above, but maybe St.Julian of Norwich's healing prayer, "all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well".

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  20. To Gerry,

    Thanks so much for your contribution, Gerry. I love that quote and I believe in my heart that "all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well."

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  21. Dear George,

    Those three o'clock in the morning thoughts, I know them well. So well, in fact, that I almost welcome them now. They are a time uniquely my own, free from all outside disturbance and I gladly put up with minor discomforts compared to the luxury of true solitude.

    I am sorry that you are in a bit of a tailspin; you know, of course, that soon the madly spinning top will come to slow down and rest again.
    My best wishes are with you.

    This prayer attributed to St. Francis originally, but surely much added to and altered by wise men over the centuries is indeed a perfect blueprint
    to follow throughout one's life.

    Very few manage it; one would have to be a hermit, wise beyond the possibilities of a mere, commonplace, mortal. Forgive yourself, if that is not you.

    Perhaps at three in the morning one could achieve one or the other maxim?

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  22. To Friko,

    Thanks for the lovely comments, Friko. Happily, my tailspin has stopped and I am on the ascent once more. I suppose I just needed to vent a bit about the challenges we face with the passage of the years.

    I smiled in comfort when I read your advice to forgive myself for not being equal to St. Francis. I needed that! Indeed, part of the dilemma is that we mortals can seldom live up to the ideals we establish for ourselves.

    Have a nice week!

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  23. Yes, George, I think we all need a good dose of peace these days. We all go through periods like this, but thankfully we come out of the other side better and often wiser for it. Do hope you can rise above it all and look to a brighter future.

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  24. To Pat,

    Thanks, Pat. I am happy to report that my moment of despair has already passed and the future does, if fact, look bright. Have a nice week. Glad that your dog has returned safely home.

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  25. And here I am wirting this at 3.40am. We all have our 3am moments. I for one love this time of the night. It has a quietness, and a stillness which encourges lurking thoughts and ideas to surface.

    When in despair, 3am(s) allow me to sink deep into my despondency, which I embrace gladly as I know, for me, only in truly feeling the depths of despair will I be able to start to rise above it.

    3am(s) often give me a peace no other hour can.

    That you have writen about it tells me your hour of despair has begun to pass. Thank you for sharing.

    Blessings

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  26. To Rebecca,

    Thanks, Rebecca, for your interesting perspective on those three o'clock a.m. moments. I think you are right about this; to confront one's despair is to begin the process of healing. Fortunately, my little episode was relatively light and has now moved out to sea, where it belongs.

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  27. Why is that middle-of-the-night hour the time we pick to worry and fret? I do it, too, though I know it's rarely productive. There are always too many questions at 3AM and not enough answers. I have no advise, George, just the hope that you will find some solace for your spirit and relief for your physical burdens. Sit in the sun and meditate - that's what I would try to do. And definitely shed some tears to help wash away the pain.

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  28. To Barb,

    Thanks, as always, for the comments, Barb. I am happy to report that my little episode with frustration and despair has completely dissipated. Perhaps I just needed to vent about some of the challenges that come with the passing of the years. Onward and upward, physically and spiritually!

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  29. I can't add to what everyone has already said so eloquently. Except to say your post, and the mantra of 'A Simple Prayer', was a source of great comfort and consolation to me this trying week. Namaste!

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  30. To Robert,

    Great to hear from you, Robert, and thanks for the comments. I'm happy, of course, that this post, and, more important, "A Simple Prayer," provided some solace to you in this challenging week. It seems that many of us are being challenged as we walk across the fallen leaves into winter.

    As you can see from the lovely comments that were filed in response to this post, we have great friends in the blogging world and they are amazingly kind and supportive. Rest assured that all of us wish you well on this leg of your journey, whatever it might be. Namaste to you as well, and may the coming days bring you peace and joy.

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  31. Thank you for this post. You've offered us something beautiful out of your personal sorrows and misfortunes. What grace.

    By the way, I've just finished reading the Wabi Sabi book by Leonard Koren that you recommended and wrote about, so thanks again, for helping me find my way to another fascinating and inspiring book.

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  32. To Fireweed,

    Thanks for your kind comments. I am on the mend now, spiritually and physically. Sometimes we just need to vent, I suppose. In any event, I am delighted that you have found inspiration in the Wabi-Sabi book.

    Have a nice day.

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  33. Dear George,

    I've been savoring your blog for nearly two months now and want to thank you for sharing your insights and excerpts from so many of my favorite poets and authors as well as introducing me to some treasures I wasn't aware of. The Prayer of St. Francis has become such an integral part of my life. I use the first line as my mantram and the entire prayer in passage meditation daily. This technique was taught by Eknath Easwaran. If you haven't read him yet I think you would enjoy his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita (easwaran.com).

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  34. To Clare,

    Thanks for the lovely and thoughtful comments, Clare. You are wise to keep The Prayer of St. Francis as part of your daily spiritual discipline. As I said in the posting, I can't think of a better blueprint for life. Thanks also for the referral to Eknath Easwaran and the commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. I will definitely check it out. Peace and happiness to you.

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  35. I am so sorry that life is dealing you rough hand right now. I know how hard it is to loose a long-time friend. I went into a one-year tailspin at age 24 when I lost my best friend and roommate. I was so unprepared for the grief that came over me. Grizz's words are very wise and I hope that you have places where you feel comfortable in sharing your grief. Look for your friend in your dreams - it is the best!

    I will copy your idea and hang a copy of St. Francis' poem above my work space. I will strive to live by these simple words.

    Assissi is one of the most inspiring locations I have ever visited in my life. I did not visit Hermitage, but your beautiful photo tells me that St. Francis' spirit can be felt here as well. My mother hopes to make a quilt of St. Francis one of these days and I will add prints of both images in this post for her inspiration board.

    I hope that your health issues are back in check, but I'm afraid that the political climate is not getting any better.

    I admire your resilience of spirit in dealing with adversity.

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  36. To Dutchbaby,

    What a delight to return to my computer and find your lovely comments, Dutchbaby. Thanks for your support and kindness.

    I'm doing much better now, spiritually and physically. Things just reached a boiling point, I suppose, and I needed to vent, not so much because of what was happening, but because, uncharacteristically, I was allowing events beyond my control to get the best of me. Refocusing on the prayer of St. Francis helped me to get out of myself.

    Assisi is, indeed, a very inspirational place. My wife and I have been there several times, and a couple of years ago, we rented a house there for two weeks. It was a great and memorable experience!

    May the spirit of St. Francis bring you both peace and happiness, today and every day.

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  37. Oh, George. I am so sorry about your friend. That is a horror. And I am so sorry about your physical problems and everything else that has been piled on you lately. I think it is okay and even normal to feel despair. As I can see from your comments here, you are not one to remain in that place of despair. That is good.

    The prayer is beautiful and is one of my favorites. I fall short on a daily basis, but I can't imagine you falling short. You are so loving and peaceful. Then again, we are humans.

    In talking about your life, you brought me a great deal of comfort and strength today. Thank you. I have a feeling there are many more readers who feel the same way. Your revelations at 3 a.m. teach us a lot. Thinking of you.

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  38. To Julie,

    Thanks for the kind thoughts and words, Julie. I'm fine at this point and, to be quite honest, full of gratitude. Everything just seemed to converge in the middle of one night, and I thought I might as well write about it, if for no other reason than to banish the poor spirits.

    I think you're right is your observation that it is normal to feel despair from time to time. The key, I think, is to treat it for what it is and then let it pass. There has always been more light than darkness in my life, and, Pollyanna that I am, I expect that to continue.

    Have a wonderful weekend and be a peace. Thanks again.

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  39. Thank you for the offering of Peace, George.

    I have thoughts every day, wondering what is going to happen to this world.. sometimes it seems very bleak.. we demand so much of ourselves most of the time and we try to rise to the challenge... we can each only do our best.. we are only imperfect humans...

    I read the Desiderata.. a simple writing but it calms me ...

    The Hermitage room you have highlighted at the top of your post.. perfectly beautiful in its simplicity.

    Take care and Peace to you.

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  40. To Gwen,

    Thanks, Gwen, for the lovely comments. Just keep creating the wonderful things that you and your husband create and you will do more for peace than almost anything I can imagine. Have a nice weekend.

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  41. I am thankful for this blog because of i learn so much all the script of the blog .....
    George Bernard Shaw says-

    The longer I live the more I see that I am never wrong about anything, and that all the pains that I have so humbly taken to verify my notions have only wasted my time.
    lead answer

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  42. To Jessica,

    Thanks for the lovely comment, Jessica. Hope you will stop by again.

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  43. To Tony,

    Thanks, Tony, and thanks for the Shaw comment. Very interesting.

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  44. George,
    Congratulations on walking the Wainwright Coast to Coast. As AW himself said: It's not so long as the Pennine Way but it's much more beautiful. (Or some words to that effect).
    I was on St. Bees Head recently and I even jogged and walked some short sections of the first day of the walk just to get the feel of it. I plan to do the walk in early 2011 if I can get fit enough.
    In 2010 I walked a short section of Hadrian's Wall walk (it's the shortest distance across England - those Romans knew where to build!).
    I
    I glimpsed on your self-description that one of your favourite writers is Krishnamurti. Now that's the second time this very day that I've noticed that name. The first time I was at a charity flea-mmarket and had to quickly pick a book, almost without looking, due to pressure of time. It was a book called The Flame of Attention and it was by Krishnamurti. I've never read him before but now I'm doubly looking forward to doing so.
    Best bardic wishes
    Gwilym

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  45. To Gwilym,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Gwilym, and, by all means, please do the Coast to Coast walk. It was one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime. I'm now planning to walk the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path next year. Glad you bought the Krishnamurti book. I think you will find his thinking to be of value because few other people have thought about things the way he did. Thanks for stopping by.

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