Good King Wenceslas

Today is a National Holiday – Czech Statehood Day and the Feast of Saint Wenceslas (Svatý Václav). Most businesses and stores are closed as well as government offices. Wenceslas is the Patron Saint of Bohemia, the Spiritual Protector of the Czech Lands. He was actually “just” the Duke of Bohemia from 921 to 935, but he was elevated to Sainthood and posthumously declared King by the Catholic Church after his assassination in 935. Only 24, Wenceslas was murdered by his younger brother, aptly named, Boleslaus, the Cruel.

Although he lived such a short life, Wenceslas managed to gain a reputation as a heroic and virtuous leader, and he became revered not only in the Czech Republic but in England. He became symbolic of what a good and kind king can, and should be. If youŕe old enough, you may remember singing about him at Christmas time…..

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen. Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even…….

An ancient legend, (not unlike that of King Arthur), says that in the country’s darkest hour, in order to save it from ruin, this statue will come to life and lead an army of knights who now sleep beneath the Czech mountain, Blaník. As Protector of the Czech Lands, it is only fitting that it was in Wenceslas Square that the Czech people gathered and protested, and eventually drove out the occupying Soviets in 1989.

Vítejte v Praze!

Dear Readers, I have finally made it to Prague! Here is a view of the magnificent Charles Bridge (almost 700 years old) crossing the beautiful Vltava River. In the background you see Prague Castle and the Spires from St. Vitus Cathedral.

I have landed in the Karlín neighborhood of Prague 8. It is referred to as the “Brooklyn” of Prague with good reason. Tree lined streets, magnificently restored old buildings, cafes, coffee shops and wine bars on every corner, all with a real neighborhood feel.

This is the entrance to my building on Křižíkova Street. It is a fine example of Art Deco that abounds in Prague, built in 1905.

But things weren’t always this way…..

In August 2002, Prague suffered one of its worst floods in history.

One of the hardest areas was Karlín. This is a view looking down my street, Křižíkova. But the flood had its upside. It spawned a renaissance of this neighborhood and led to the revitalization of businesses and the preservation of its gorgeous buildings. The work continues and I see reconstruction and new construction all around me.

In the coming weeks, I will introduce you, dear readers, to the various parts of mz neighborhood, which is already beginning to feel like home.

Happy Independence Day Czech Republic!

One year ago today I was standing in Wenceslas Square in Prague celebrating with thousands of others, the 30th anniversary of The Velvet Revolution. On November 17, 1989 a non-violent revolution began in what was then Czechoslovakia. It lasted until December 29th and it brought about the end of Soviet controlled Authoritarian rule in that country. November 17th is now celebrated as Independence Day in the Czech Republic.

It was quite a thrill to watch this amazing video projection live last year! It was projected onto the National Museum which stands at the top of Wenceslas Square. Watch it full screen for best effect!
Here I am “jangling” my keys in solidarity with thousands of others just as they did on 11/17/1989

Dear Readers: Democracies, like Relationships, Do Not Run on Autopilot- they must be protected, cared for, and worked at to maintain. They can be chipped away and eroded over time unless we are vigilant and fight for their survival. Study your history and you will learn that no empire, no government, has lasted forever. None are guaranteed.

Chcete Mluvit Česky? Do You Want To Speak Czech? Or Another Language?

If you assume that learning to speak Czech is difficult- you would be right. I have been working at it for two years now and am finally getting the hang of it. In the introduction to one of my Czech textbooks, the author marvels at how the Czech people have managed to keep their language alive and well during so many occupations of their homeland. He comes to the conclusion that it is due to their “Secret National Defense System,”

….. their language! 

“I imagine that Czech was so difficult for the foreign invaders that they were unable to interact in a meaningful way with the Czechs”… and so they… “eventually tired of not being able to communicate much of anything, to anyone, they left, leaving the culture unaffected.”  (401 Czech Verbs  by Bruce Davies and Jana Hejduková)

The most difficult part of the language is its system of 7 different Cases in which nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and most numerals change their endings according to the Case used. The Cases define the relationship between words in a sentence, ie. who or what is the subject, direct object, or indirect object, etc. (Word order is not necessarily important in Czech but is crucial in English) For instance, here are some spelling changes for the word: doma which means home: “at home” is doma, “go home” jdi domů, “leave home” opustit domov, and “in the home” v domě.

On the flip side, Czech is a phonetic language, which makes it easy to pronounce and spell- unlike English with all its silent letters like: “k” in knee, “b” in climb, “h” in hour, “w” in answer, and “gh” in thought. But more about the history and structure of English in another Post…


Did You Know That Queen Elizabeth I Spoke 9 Languages Fluently?

“She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian extremely well.”

Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, Venetian Ambassador 1603


People often speculate as to which language is the most difficult to learn, usually assuming it’s the one that they speak. But difficulty is all relative. Relative to how similar the language is to your own (grammatically and phonetically), how well you learn in general, and of course, how motivated you are to learn it, among other things. 

That being said, I checked out the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) ranking of world languages based upon their level of difficulty for native English speakers. The FSI provides training for U.S. foreign diplomats, so I figured they would know. They have divided languages into 4 categories with Cat 1 being easiest and Cat 4 labelled as “exceptionally” difficult. No surprise that Spanish and French fall into Cat 1 and that Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are Cat 4. The bulk of the languages fall under Cat 3, which is where you will find Czech. (I won’t argue)

Of course, I am highly motivated to learn Czech as I plan to live and work in the country. But why should you learn to speak another language if you don’t plan to leave the U.S? Why should you be a polyglot (like Queen Elizabeth) and not a monoglot? Based upon my own experience, and with the help of Dr. Neel Burton, author of “ Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual” (article appears in “Psychology Today” online July 2018), I would sum it up this way….

  1. It enriches your life. As Dr. Burton points out, multilingualism is closely linked to multiculturalism. As we investigate and learn another language we naturally come to know and appreciate that culture. Your understanding, empathy, and compassion will expand.
  2. It connects you to the world which is increasingly interconnected through the Internet and other technologies. Now more than ever before we travel, trade, and work with people and businesses around the world.
  3. It’s good for your brain health. Learning a foreign language is a great brain exercise that increases gray matter. It works the part of your brain that handles executive functions like analysis, problem solving, working memory, multi-tasking and attention control.

But, I suppose, there is a fourth, and very simple reason to learn a foreign language- it’s fun! How cool is it to be able to talk with another person in a second language? In my next post I will talk about tips for language study that have helped me.


Dear Readers, do you speak a foreign language? What has been your experience with learning another language? I’d love to hear about your language journey.

Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’

“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’
For This Old World Is Almost Gone”

Traditional- Attributed to, and Recorded by: Blind Willie Johnson (1928), Reverend Gary Davis (1956), and Mississippi Fred McDowell (1959) Like all Traditional songs, the lyrics vary between performers and in written versions

Lately I find myself singing this old gospel/blues tune a lot. It is based on a parable from the book of Matthew (25: 1-13) often called “The Parable of the Ten Virgins.” 

The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh.

The story goes that there were 10 bridesmaids awaiting the coming of a groom to escort them to a marriage feast. After being delayed, the groom finally arrives at midnight to collect them. (They are all sleeping due to the late hour) Five of the women have their oil lamps well supplied with oil ( and wicks trimmed!) and are ready to go with him. But the other five have to go out to the store to purchase oil for their lamps and so aren’t ready to go when the groom appears. As their “punishment” they are shut out of the wedding feast.

The Wise and Foolish VirginsWilliam Blake, 1826 Tate Gallery

The parable is an admonition to “be ready” of course. It was a wildly popular religious theme during the Middle Ages as evidenced by its influence in Gothic art. Paintings and sculptures of the Ten Virgins decorate numerous churches and cathedrals all across Europe including Notre Dame in Paris and Reimes.

“Brother Don’t you Get Worried
Brother Don’t You Get Worried
Brother Don’t You Get Worried
For This Old World Is Almost Gone”

In my last blog post I wrote about adapting to the darkness when we can’t see the Light at the End of the Tunnel– specifically my personal journey of trying to get to Prague to teach. So, while waiting for the “all clear” to travel freely again, I’ve been asking myself, how can I keep my lamp trimmed and burnin’? What can I do to be ready? The only thing worse than being grounded by the global Pandemic, would be to not have used this down time wisely to prepare in every way possible for my trip.

“Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’
Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’
Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’
For This Old world Is Almost Gone”

Friedrich Wilhelm SchadowThe Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1838–1842 (detail), Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

The most practical thing I’ve been doing is to continue learning the Czech language so that when I finally do arrive in Prague, I won’t be a total beginner. I’m also sorting through my best teaching materials and digitizing them (since I can’t travel with reams of paper), as well as creating new lessons from ideas I’ve had for a long time but have never had free time to develop. As any teacher knows, putting all this together is extremely time consuming and virtually impossible to do when you are actually teaching!

But let me be quick to add that while these activities are my ideal, I often fall short. My self-expectations turn into merely good intentions and I feel a lot like the woman in the picture above…….too tired to care where I last left my lamp.

Dear Readers, what have you been busy doing? How have you, and how are you keeping your lamp trimmed and burnin’? I’d love to hear from you.

I leave you with a recent recording of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin” performed by Piedmont Blues guitar virtuoso, and my good friend, Mr. Jon Shain. Accompanying Jon on bass is another stellar musician, and equally good friend, Mr. FJ Ventre. Enjoy!

You Are Worth More Than Your Wage

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The writer has made an attempt to draw the hammer and sickle, the symbol of solidarity between the peasant farmers and the industrial working-class- first adopted during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Every day as I tromp up the stairs of the parking garage returning to my car after teaching, my foot falls on this message written on one of the step landings. I often wonder about the stranger who wrote it and why? Was he or she in need of an encouraging word at the end of every day in order to come back to work the next? A reminder that their paycheck wasn’t the whole story?

After recently receiving my first pay check from my new teaching job, this message has been on my mind a lot. As most of you know, I am in the midst of pursuing a new career in teaching ESL.  In case any of my readers are considering the same, I should make it abundantly clear that ESL is not a lucrative career. It is difficult to find anything more than part-time work here in the U.S. I teach a four hour class five days a week. I spend long hours of preparation for which I am not compensated. Class attendance is sporadic and within the same class I must adjust to students who are at multi-levels of English ability.

But still, the work is rewarding! Most of my students are appreciative and motivated, thanking me at the end of every class. Watching them with heads bent tackling a worksheet, I feel so proud of the effort they are making. It is the combination of our efforts that creates the payoff. The school doesn’t half compensate me for what I’m worth, so I have to seek the intangible wage. And I’m grateful to the mysterious encourager who scribbled these words on the step knowing that someone else needed a reminder of their true value at the end of every day as well. 

 

John of Nepomuk- Patron Saint of…. Love Locks?

Jan_Nepomucky_na_Karlove_moste_detailUnless you’ve been to Prague, you’ve probably never heard of Saint John of Nepomuk (Jan Nepomucký in Czech), a Bohemian saint, who was drowned in the Vltava River in 1393 by order of the King of Bohemia. His offense you ask? According to legend, he defied the King on two occasions. Once by refusing to divulge the secret confessions of the Queen, (as a priest he was her confessor), and then again by refusing to make an ecclesiastical appointment favored by the King. Historians now believe that these were once two separate stories involving two different Johns, but once a story becomes legend, people aren’t too concerned about historical accuracy.

In any event, what remains well documented is that John of Nepomuk was tortured, bound in chains, and thrown over the famous Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava River in the heart of  Old Town. If you have been to Prague, you will most certainly have walked this bridge and discovered a statue honoring St. John high above you. Erected in 1683, it is easy to spot his statue among the 29 others lining the bridge due to the throngs of tourists around it, and because of the trademark five star halo which he wears. It is said that five stars appeared and hovered over the water the night he was drowned.Czechowicz_St._John_Nepomuk

John of Nepomuk was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1729, and not surprisingly, he became the Patron Saint of confessors, bridges, and waterways. His feast day is May 16th, and during the Baroque era he was quite the celebrity. Pilgrims travelled to Prague from all across Europe for one of the biggest church celebrations of the year, honoring him with music and a fire show.

In subsequent years, his popularity waned, but it now enjoys a resurgence with a modern makeover. On May 15th, the eve of Saint John’s feast day, the city hosts a no holds barred extravaganza. A mass at St. Vitus’s Cathedral is followed by a procession down the Royal Route and then onto the Charles Bridge, stopping at his famous statue. The celebration continues out on the water with a boat regatta, parachutists, swimmers, and a concert performed on a barge. The final spectacle is of course, fireworks over the river illuminating the ancient city.IMG_0135

The event is now so popular with locals and tourists alike that their throngs make the bridge impassable. Perhaps you have experienced a similar phenomena somewhere in your own travels, or maybe even close to home? Destinations clogged with tourists, and public events that have grown in attendance to the point that they are no longer enjoyable. Like a beautiful river until it swells and floods its banks.IMG_0134

Certainly, the world’s population is growing, and the internet, along with modern conveniences, have made travel more accessible. But there also seem to be a lot of hungry people afoot in the world searching for experiences that “mean something.” Experiences that are rooted in history and are rich in tradition. 

Pondering all the hoopla surrounding this little known “martyr of the confessional” reminded me of another legend that has people flocking to bridges these days, eager to make a public confession of their own. In November of 2015, I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City when I noticed an odd assortment of padlocks, in every color, size, and shape hanging from the bridge’s cabling. IMG_2412I learned that these were “love locks,” put there by paramours to symbolize their unbreakable love and as a kind of talisman against the dissolution of their relationships. I later learned that the Brooklyn Bridge locks were part of a love lock epidemic spread across the globe.

According to Wikipedia, the love lock tradition dates back about 100 years to a Serbian love story. A young woman named Nada falls in love with, and becomes engaged to a young man named Relja. But Relja proves unfaithful when he goes off to war, falling in love with another woman. Upon hearing the news, Nada dies of a broken heart. As a protection against a similar fate, young women of the town began writing down their names and those of their lovers’ on padlocks, and then attaching the locks to the bridge where Nada and Relja used to meet. 

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The Original Bridge of Love By AcaSrbin, Panoramio, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

As a final safe guard, they tossed the key into the river where it could not be retrieved.

What began as a quaint and romantic custom, has now become a public nuisance in many major European cities. Just like coping with hordes of tourists, the proliferation of these locks are creating headaches for city leaders. The local citizenry complain that the locks are eyesores that destroy the architectural heritage and beauty of bridges.

Pont_des_Arts_Love_locks

Pont des Arts Bridge covered in love locks By Berlinuno – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

Besides the aesthetics issue, there is a threat to the structural integrity of a bridge from the added weight. On May 9, 2014, the weight of padlocks on the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris caused the collapse of part of the parapet. When officials took down all the locks on the bridge, they weighed in at 45 tons.

Some people blame the current craze on a 2006 Italian book turned popular movie called “I Want You” in which a couple put a love lock on a lamppost on Rome’s 2100 year old Ponte Milvio Bridge. Harmless enough when on person does it, but of course not so harmless when thousands do. The poor lamppost finally gave way from the weight of all this love, prompting officials to start imposing a fine of 50 Euros on anyone caught attaching a love lock to any part of the bridge. Indeed, in more and more cities, the locks are considered vandalism and are regularly removed with bolt cutters and hacksaws.

It will come as no surprise to you that love locks have made their way onto the Charles Bridge in Prague. A large majority of these have been attached to the fence like grille work on the parapet that marks the spot where John of Nepomuk was thrown into the water.

This seems a logical place considering love locks would most certainly fall under his jurisdiction as patron saint of both confessors and bridges. Considering the intersection of these two stories made me wonder what secret confessions he took to his watery grave and what he might think about all of these public confessions of love without repercussion. How times change.

Authorities Remove Love Padlocks From Charles Bridge

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – 

Of course, city workers regularly come and remove the Charles Bridge love locks, and for all I know, they probably end up in a landfill.  I wonder what that might mean for the durability of the relationships these locks symbolized. Did someone somewhere in the world feel a twinge of misgiving when the bolt cutter callously snapped their lock’s bond?

Authorities Remove Love Padlocks From Charles Bridge

Perhaps it is time for a new tradition that might satisfy everyone: lovers, locals, city governments, and the environment. I propose that sweethearts take a lock of each others hair and intertwine them, offer up a prayer of safekeeping to St. John, and then let their locks float down into the water. Hair is weightless, biodegradable, and requires a sacrifice from both parties. Padlocks are here today, gone tomorrow, but John of Nepomuk has staying power. He is still going strong after 500 years. It might just work.laurent-gence-N46GvUbUhrI-unsplash

Remembering Jan Palach

jan_palach_foto_z_průkazu50 years ago today, on January 16, 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old university student in Prague, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. His suicide by self-immolation was not only a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous summer, but more immediately at the time, it was a cry to awaken the Czech people from their apathy, post invasion. (The Soviet invasion of 1/2 million troops in 1968 was to squelch the “Prague Spring,” a movement that had been growing to secure some freedoms of speech, travel and the media.) Palach believed that the people had become complacent with the occupation and no longer had the will to resist.

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Site in Wenceslas Square that is a memorial

Although Palac was hailed as a hero (some 200,000 people attended his funeral), and his death sparked further protests, the occupation was quite effective at silencing the people. But he was not forgotten, nor was his death in vain. 20 years later, on January 15, 1989, a new protest movement brought demonstrators to Wenceslas Square to commemorate Palach’s sacrifice to the cause of freedom. They came every day for a week, which later became known as “Palach Week.”

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Palach’s funeral march: photo courtesy of Praha T.V. archive

 

If you know your history, you will recall that by the end of that same year, in November 1989, all of the resistance energy that had been building across the country, culminated in a massive occupation of Wenceslas Square, this time by the Czech people themselves. Their Velvet Revolution brought down a Soviet controlled government and ushered in their first democratically elected post-war president.

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Photo courtesy of Prague Daily Monitor

I wish I had been there. I can only imagine the electric thrill of people realizing their freedom for the first time. Oh, if only Jan Palach could have been there to see it!  His sacrifice to sting the conscience of his people, reminded me that our freedoms are not a guarantee. We must be vigilant to protect them. They can be taken away, and they can disappear in the most insidious way possible, chipped away at little by little while we are “asleep.” Usurping of our freedoms cannot be checked or changed if we are apathetic.

Honestly, I cannot begin to imagine doing what Jan Palach did for the sake of my beliefs but history has proven that his actions were instrumental to a greater good than his own. Today all across the Czech Republic he is being honored and remembered through exhibitions, programs and ceremonies and by a candlelight march at 6:00 p.m. from Wenceslas Square to Old Town Square. As Americans who say we value our freedom, we would be good to pause and remember him too.

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Palach’s memorial Wenceslas Square: photo courtesy Praha T.V.

New Beginnings- Taking Chances

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“For our country- we endure to the end”

OCTOBER 18, 1918- OCTOBER 28, 2018

Today marks the 100th birthday of Czechoslovakia. On October 28, 1918, after centuries of oppression under Austro-Hungarian rule, the Czech people realized their dream of freedom and self-governance.  Although other dictatorial rulers tried to squash their independence, (Nazis from 1939-1945 and the Soviets from 1945-1992), the Czech people and their spirit have risen above every obstacle. Centennial celebrations have been occurring throughout the year, culminating in this weekend’s events which include parades, fireworks, and an open air concert by the Czech Philharmonic. IMG_0091

This seems an appropriate moment to share with you, faithful readers, that I too am embarking on a new beginning. The Bohemian Freethinker is making preparations with the hope of moving to Prague, where I will teach English for a year. My anticipated departure is in the summer of 2019, to begin their school term in September.IMG_0089

It is not too common for someone 59 years old to uproot and move to a foreign country, and it will certainly not be a “walk in the park” to do so. But I am going to give it my best shot and I will be journaling my experiences along the route over the next year. My hope is that if there is anyone out there reading this who thinks it is too late to try to make a dream a reality- please, think again. It is never too late to become the person you were meant to be. 

p.s. Dear Readers, what new beginnings have you embarked upon lately? Please share in the comments!

 

Beware The Assassin

Beware the Assassination of Your Dreams!
“Beware the Ides of March” was good advice once, though it fell on the deaf ears of the unsuspecting Julius Caesar that fateful March day in 44 BC. Of course we all know, (either from history books or movies,) what those words were to portend; the assassination of Caesar by members of the Roman Senate. In Caesar’s defense however, the warning he received was from an unreliable source, and was rather vague in detail, and therefore, difficult to act upon.512px-Vincenzo_Camuccini_-_La_morte_di_Cesare

Consider first of all that there was nothing inherently sinister about the Ides of March. The ancient Romans followed a lunar calendar. Like the Nones and the Kalends, the Ides were simply markers in the month that corresponded to phases of the moon. The Ides marked the full moon which fell in the middle of the month, specifically the 15th during the months of March, May, July, and October. The Nones marked the 5th or 7th, and the Kalends the 1st of the following month.

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Photo by Gianni Zanato on Unsplash

Now consider what we know of the source. According to the Greek biographer, Plutarch, (who later became a Roman citizen,) these cryptic words of warning were spoken by a soothsayer whom Caesar passed on his way to the Forum on the Ides of March. The account is recorded in Plutarch’s “Life of Caesar” from his Parallel Lives anthology written sometime in the early 2nd century AD. It must be remembered that in ancient times, factual history was often altered and embellished to suit a writer’s purpose of moralizing, or creating a more engaging story.Brutus_Eid_Mar

Accurate or no, Parallel Lives influenced and informed the writing of numerous authors for centuries to come, perhaps most notably, the writings of William Shakespeare. It is his play, “Julius Caesar,” that immortalized the expression “Beware the Ides of March” and so put it on the lips of people everywhere ever since. It soon fell into the vernacular as a kind of nonspecific ominous warning about an equally nonspecific threat that people still speak today whether they know of its origin or not.

This got me thinking. Is Caesar’s warning good advice today? Might we benefit from the advantage of hindsight that Caesar did not have? Do we have cause to “Beware the Assassin?”

When I think about my own life as a writer and musician, I realize that I sometimes play the role of assassin to my creative ambition. I do this primarily by listening to various lies about my abilities and by comparing myself to others. Nothing kills motivation faster than pondering the mind-boggling number of talented writers and musicians who already exist, and then imagining that I have anything worthwhile to contribute to this cacophony of voices already over-taxing the ears of the world. I mean, honestly, what could I possibly add?

Luckily, before I stab my creativity to death, I usually remember the truth that this kind of thinking is a lie. As a unique individual I have something original to say that only I can say. My job is to be busy about doing the work knowing that with every word written, every note explored, I am strengthening and validating my voice. I am compelled to create regardless of any reward or notoriety for doing so.green-chameleon-21532-unsplash

While it is highly unlikely that anyone reading this will be a target of assassination, it is possible that you yourself are playing the role of assassin to your own dreams.  Listening to lies that you aren’t talented enough or that you are too old to follow your dreams will surely wield the mortal blow to that creative part of your soul. Instead, why not heed the warning that circulates on this day and unlike the hapless Caesar be on the lookout for anyone or anything that is conspiring to destroy what is uniquely you, and go another way.