Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums

Would you say that Leonard's lyrics are influenced by Buddhist thought?

Yes, throughout his career
26
76%
Yes, since Mount Baldy
5
15%
No, not even after Mount Baldy
1
3%
I have no idea
2
6%
 
Total votes: 34
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remote1
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by remote1 » Tue Mar 30, 2010 11:40 pm

TipperaryAnn wrote:Your "experiment" sounds good to me, Remote1, It suits the lyrics very well. I like the idea of mindfulness for the "Then at home ..." verse, and the struggle between mare and rider. What about "Who snaps it asunder.. " though? Your version has a" happy ending", whereas the union is broken again "the very next night" : it seems to me to end with wistful longing rather than contentment, and he picks out a song to try to dispel his regrets with the power of music.
As you say, there are so many layers in Leonard's songs - that's why we love them, but it is fun trying to see them all ! :D
Thanks Ann, I'm glad you like it! :D

I see your point about "Who snaps it asunder.. " and I like your idea that he tries to "dispel his regrets with the power of music". This is certainly a particularly ambiguous part, although Holydove's latest post helps the overall interpretation greatly.

So we have:

"Now the clasp of this union
who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
the very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love's like the smoke
beyond all repair

But my darling says
"Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
on the great western sky"
So I pick out a tune
and they move right along
and they're gone like the smoke
and they're gone like this song"

I see a happy ending because in the last stanza, Leonard refers to his "darling", and she is talking to him. I originally understood "they" in the last stanza to refer to "some" in "Some say the rider / Some say the mare". And I saw the questioning about the rider and the mare as gossip from the others, the one's who do not get the unique relationship that they have. And so the mare encourages the rider to dismiss the others' worldly concerns as irrelevant, which he does with a song, "and they move right along /and they're gone like the smoke /and they're gone like this song".

However, I now wonder if this is too far-fetched (?). Perhaps the union is not such a peaceful one after all, but one which involves a daily struggle. And it seems towards the end that the whole episode is just a dream, a fantasy, something which can only last for the length of a song. Holydove speaks of Zen having stages of "taming the (wild) mind". Perhaps taming the mind, finding one's spiritual side, is something that needs to be worked on repeatedly. I understand that meditation is this practice, which must be sustained daily, presumably so that the mind does not wander back to old habits...

Or perhaps Leonard Cohen is just describing the experience of an epiphany.


I wonder what you and others think is the most likely interpretation, or if you understand the text in a totally different way. It would be cool if you could give your opinion. :)

@Holydove: So sorry to hear about the back injury. Could it be sympathetic pain, I wonder? Hope you get well soon! Looking forward to hearing more about the stages of taming the mind, and your thoughts about the song.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by rpan » Wed Mar 31, 2010 11:36 pm

Ballad of the Absent Mare as has been mentioned is a re-working of a famous 12th century set of poems/commentaries intended as guides to those on the Zen path to enlightenment I believe. If anyone wants to actually cross-compare, this set of poems is covered, as one would expect! - in wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls
and one set of translations is at
http://www.iloveulove.com/spirituality/ ... nbulls.htm
Some verses get a full treatment in the Ballad others are rather compressed, some phrases are very directly transferred over...high plateau for example


Love Itself
The other whole song I know of as a very direct Buddhist work is Love Itself on 10 new songs as a direct interpretation of Roshi's teaching which is all explained by Shinzen in 2 youtube videos starting at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSv5ELuujjs

You can skip part 2 if you are pushed for time at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3MgjpMbADA. Nothing whatever happens other than the song being played, with the only "action" in the final 9 seconds and that is only a bashing a gong and taking a bow.

As he says about the nature of this song - "unless somebody pointed it out you would not realise that"

Hearty apologies if all this has already been covered in the thread, I am only just glancing through. Very intense thread.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by remote1 » Thu Apr 01, 2010 11:44 am

Wow, thanks for that rpan! This is amazing! I really wasn't convinced that "Ballad of the Absent Mare" had a Buddhist basis, but figured that if Holydove said so, then it must be true! Now I see that my reading was not too too far off...

The links that you provide are invaluable, and even though it's best to look at the actual pages, and to see the pictures, I can't resist copying and pasting the text down here, because I think that it makes it so obvious that "Ballad of the Absent Mare" is based on it. I am putting in bold bits that seem particularly relevant.

So this is taken from http://www.iloveulove.com/spirituality/ ... nbulls.htm:
1. The Search for the Bull

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Comment: The bull never has been lost. What need is there to search? Only because of separation from my true nature, I fail to find him. In the confusion of the senses I lose even his tracks. Far from home, I see many crossroads, but which way is the right one I know not. Greed and fear, good and bad, entangle me.

2. Discovering the Footprints

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.

Comment: Understanding the teaching, I see the footprints of the bull. Then I learn that, just as many utensils are made from one metal, so too are myriad entities made of the fabric of self. Unless I discriminate, how will I perceive the true from the untrue? Not yet having entered the gate, nevertheless I have discerned the path.

3. Perceiving the Bull

I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!

What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Comment: When one hears the voice, one can sense its source. As soon as the six senses merge, the gate is entered. Wherever one enters one sees the head of the bull! This unity is like salt in water, like color in dyestuff. The slightest thing is not apart from self.

4. Catching the Bull

I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Comment: He dwelt in the forest a long time, but I caught him today! Infatuation for scenery interferes with his direction. Longing for sweeter grass, he wanders away. His mind still is stubborn and unbridled. If I wish him to submit, I must raise my whip.

5. Taming the Bull

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Comment: When one thought arises, another thought follows. When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true. Through delusion, one makes everything untrue. Delusion is not caused by objectivity; it is the result of subjectivity. Hold the nose-ring tight and do not allow even a doubt.

6. Riding the Bull Home

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Comment: This struggle is over; gain and loss are assimilated. I sing the song of the village woodsman, and play the tunes of the children. Astride the bull, I observe the clouds above. Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.

7. The Bull Transcended

Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.


Comment: All is one law, not two. We only make the bull a temporary subject. It is as the relation of rabbit and trap, of fish and net. It is as gold and dross, or the moon emerging from a cloud. One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

Whip, rope, person, and bull -- all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Comment: Mediocrity is gone. Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. Since I linger in neither condition, eyes cannot see me. If hundreds of birds strew my path with flowers, such praise would be meaningless.

9. Reaching the Source

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one's true abode, unconcerned with that without --
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Comment: From the beginning, truth is clear. Poised in silence, I observe the forms of integration and disintegration. One who is not attached to "form" need not be "reformed." The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo, and I see that which is creating and that which is destroying.

10. In the World

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Comment: Inside my gate, a thousand sages do not know me. The beauty of my garden is invisible. Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs? I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff. I visit the wine shop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.
"Ballad of the Absent Mare" figures in Recent Songs (1979), so I believe the answer to the original question is now clear and I shall have to reconsider my original vote! 8)

Sorry for all the bold, but do you all agree that it is beyond doubt that "Ballad of the Absent Mare" is based on "Ten Bulls", the 12/13th century Zen Buddhist wood prints?
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by TipperaryAnn » Thu Apr 01, 2010 10:33 pm

Great work on the Absent Mare, thanks, rpan and remote1. :D Reading this there seems little doubt of the connection between the two, and those links are great! I intend to peruse them in more detail tomorrow when I have time - got side-tracked now into speculation about a possible Sligo LC concert on another thread ! But it is April 1st.
Holydove, I hope you are feeling better. I suppose the only consolation is that with back trouble you are in good company...
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There is a crack in everything...
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by rpan » Fri Apr 02, 2010 12:33 am

Glad links were useful to you. I think LC interest in Buddhism was very strong round about 1979 - Roshi was accompanying him on tour round about then I think or a bit later - there is some great video footage of Roshi and him and the band in a tour bus, cannot remember when I saw that, could have been in Harold Rasky film I will try to dig that out.

All the best.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by TineDoes » Fri Apr 02, 2010 8:20 pm

rpan wrote:could have been in Harold Rasky film I will try to dig that out.
Yes it is in the Rasky film.
Great thread.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by rpan » Fri Apr 02, 2010 9:54 pm

A fleeting glimpse in this youtube clip of Roshi on the bus is here, plus generally interesting stuff.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFOjTVCPBjY
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by remote1 » Sat Apr 03, 2010 5:36 pm

Thanks for the clip rpan, very nice indeed! I think the whole discourse on "dissolving the distinctions" can also be useful to B4real's thread "Something Positive - Something Negative" (viewtopic.php?f=9&t=21288)! :D
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by holydove » Sat Apr 03, 2010 10:37 pm

remote1 & tipperraryann, thank you for your good wishes - feeling somewhat better now. And rpan, thank you for giving links to the Zen ox-herding pictures. I think everyone can now make their own connections between LC's song & the zen analogy, so I won't torture everyone with detailed analysis.

I will only add that the Zen illustrations of the allegory have equivalents: in Tibetan Buddhism there is an equivalent series of elephant training pictures, & in Taoism there is an equivalent series of horse training pictures; I think it's interesting that LC chooses the horse image, which also fits in with American country-western tradition. The ox/bull metaphor of the two Zen schools (Rinzai & Soto) was already well developed back in the seventh century, & the pictures with their commentaries were added 3 - 4 centuries later. I don't have info about when exactly the Tibetan & Taoist versions were developed - whether they came before or after the Zen versions, I don't know. I do know that the bodies of Taoist & Tibetan Buddhist teachings themselves, are older than the Zen teachings. Zen was originally a kind of rebellion against traditional Chinese Buddhism. Anyway, that doesn't really matter for our purposes in this discussion - it's just kind of interesting.

The only other things I would add is that there are 10 Zen pictures in the series, & LC's song has 11 verses. I don't think there is always a direct correlation between each picture & each verse of the song, per say, as some verses of the song seem to refer to previous or subsequent pictures. But I think LC's last 2 verses are both statements regarding the impermanence of everything, even ultimate realization/enlightenment itself.

And the part: "who fastens it tight? who snaps it asunder the very next night". . . reminds me of "and who shall I say is calling?" from Who By Fire; that same ongoing beautiful question: Who or What is behind the goings-on of this "veil of tears"? Leonard has said that although Who By Fire is based on an old Jewish prayer, THAT question (which, of course, is his inimitable addition, among other unique LC additions) is what makes the song a prayer -
the question regarding "who" or "what" is behind life & death, unity & duality, samsara & nirvana, etc. - how beautiful, the idea that questioning the nature of the Source is what makes it a prayer?!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by remote1 » Sun Apr 04, 2010 11:46 pm

Thanks Holydove for the additional information. I'm glad you are feeling better!

So is that it then, are we done, or are there other songs or lines that we have not yet explored?

I really hope that there are more, as I have thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Buddhism through the songs of Leonard Cohen.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by holydove » Tue Apr 06, 2010 10:28 pm

Remote1, if you ask me, there is more; I think The Miracle has a couple of possible allusions to Buddhist thought. For instance, these lines: ". . . Nothing left to do/ when you know that you've been taken/ nothing left to do/ when you're begging for a crumb. . . "

First of all, I think "the miracle" he is waiting for is spiritual salvation, known in Buddhist terms as "enlightenment" or "liberation". The spiritual salvation part, by itself, could refer to any religious/spiritual body of thought. But it's the "when you know that you've been taken" part that indicates to me that the reference could be to Buddhism, because the Buddhist teaching is that "samsara" (the endless cycle of birth, old age, sickness & death, rebirth, etc.) is a "trickster" - it fools us from morning until evening, even as we sleep. We think we are making progress, that the "illusions" of samsara can bring us happiness; we are "taken in" by the illusion, we think it is real, we don't know that we are dreaming, & that at the end of all this effort, unless we "wake ourselves up" the only result is disillusionment, death, & rebirth into the same cycle. So the narrator (like all of us) has been "taken" by the illusions of samsara (the realm in which we exist). And the "nothing left to do" could refer to the teaching that continuing to perform actions only creates more karma, & it is the karma we create that perpetuates the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, etc. It is only by "doing nothing" (which is actually the highest meditative practice - very difficult, of course! - because doing nothing refers not only to physical action, but also to thought - mental/emotional action); so only by practicing "doing nothing" can we stop creating more karma, & thereby free ourselves from that cycle & the suffering that it brings. (Again, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't attempt to make positive changes, but that the energy behind our efforts should be driven by compassion & welcoming of all & everything, as opposed to vengeance/hatred/anger/etc. - I know it seems kind of paradoxical, & it's hard to understand, but there it is. . .)

Then there are the lines: "I dreamed about you baby/ it was just the other night/ most of you was naked/ but some of you was light/ the sands of time were falling/ from your fingers and your thumb. . ." It's said in Buddhism that a person who has attained a very high state of consciousness can manifest the "rainbow body" or "body of light". Usually that happens at death, but it can happen at other times too. They say that when that happens, there is nothing left of the physical body except nails & hair. There are people who actually claim to have observed this; the 16th Karmapa (a very high level Tibetan teacher) is said to have been observed by many people as he temporarily dissolved into this kind of light during a "Black Crown" ritual. Also, Sogyal Rinpoche (another Tibetan teacher), wrote that in 1952, in Tibet, a very simple & humble man, who nobody knew had been a practitioner, died, and as tradition instructs, his family wrapped his body in some kind of cloth, while Lamas & monks came & practiced for him (recitng texts, mantras, doing rituals, etc.), so that he would have a good journey to whatever realm he would go to. On the 8th day after his death, when the funeral is supposed to take place, the undertakers came & unwrapped his body, & found nothing inside except nails & hair. Also, when they had first put his body in the room where the practices & rituals would be performed, rainbow-colored light was seen all around the house. Sogyal Rinpoche wrote a wonderful book called The Tibetan Book of Living And Dying, if you want to check it out. Also, you can read about what I have summarized at this link: www.khandro.net/nature-rainbows.htm

Also, the line: "the sands of time were falling/from your fingers and your thumb. . . " could indicate that the person being addressed by the narrator is either approaching death, and/or approaching that very high state of consciousness, & that's why his/her body is dissolving into light.

Anyway, I see this as a possible interpretation of the lines I mentioned (I'm totally open to other interpretations). I have been focusing on lyrics from LC's works before Mt. Baldy, but if you want to get into Ten New Songs & Dear Heather, there are even more (& maybe more obvious) Buddhist references. I will leave it here for now. . . Cheers!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by remote1 » Wed Apr 07, 2010 4:27 pm

That's fabulous news Holydove! I'm really looking forward to exploring other examples of Buddhist influence with you and other forum members. I think the pace is pretty good too... We're taking our time so it's enjoyable and not too demanding.

"Waiting for the Miracle" happens to be one of my very favourite Cohen songs. It touches me very very deeply for some reason. I am very grateful for your illuminating interpretation of some of the most difficult lines. For example, I have wondered many times what "Most of you was naked/ But some of you was light" could mean, and I now have a much better grasp of this through the Buddhist context. Thanks again for your insights!

I am wondering why you think Leonard chose the word "miracle" to be so prominent in this song; it seems to me this is more of a Jewish/Muslim/Christian concept than a Buddhist one. But I could be wrong, of course... Are there miracles in the Buddhist religion?

PS: While I'm at it, any ideas as to what the narrator means here: "If you're squeezed for information / That's when you've got to play it dumb"? Thanks!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by Lilifyre » Wed Apr 07, 2010 4:57 pm

Remote1 wrote: "I am wondering why you think Leonard chose the word "miracle" to be so prominent in this song; it seems to me this is more of a Jewish/Muslim/Christian concept than a Buddhist one. But I could be wrong, of course... Are there miracles in the Buddhist religion?"

I have no idea of the Buddhist interpretation of the word "miracle", but in general, within this song, I would consider it as "the impossible" or "the unattainable" I see this as a warning against waiting for perfection, for the unattainable, instead of acting on what is here and now, instead of living life. Does that differ from what you are trying to say, Holydove? I don't know. This is just my opinion.

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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by remote1 » Wed Apr 07, 2010 7:52 pm

That's an interesting take on the song, Lili. I like it, but I wonder how it all fits...
Also I am curious, like you, as to whether it can work with Holydove's own thoughts on the Buddhist imagery.
I was also wondering about the crumb in "when you're begging for a crumb". Why is he begging for a crumb?

Ah, I do wish I could make sense of this song...
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Post by holydove » Wed Apr 07, 2010 11:42 pm

Thank you for your posts, Lili & Remote1.

Miracles/miraculous powers are referred to in Buddhism - also sometimes called supernatural or psychic powers. There is a language issue because the Buddhist texts were originally written in Sanskrit & Tibetan, but there are phenomena in the texts that have been translated as "miracles" or "miraculous powers", & they are clearly events that, in our culture, would be called miracles. However, in Buddhism, the events would not be caused by God, but by Mind. The Buddha himself (the original one) performed many such "miracles", as described in the texts. He did things like walking on water through the power of levitation (an interesting Jesus analogy, to boot!), multiplying his body (appearing in multiple locations at the same time), causing a golden bridge to appear in the air & walking back & forth across it, commandng the waters of a flood to back off, etc., etc. Other miraculous powers mentioned in Buddhist scriptures include flying through the air, walking through walls, hearing things over a long distance, reading people's minds, remembering past lives, knowing how to destroy "defilements" (I think this is what is also called the 3 poisons or obscurations - passion, aggression, & ignorance) of the mind, & being able to guide people to enlightenment according to their level of development. It's said that such powers can arise in people who have done very intense meditation practices, but the Buddha (& present day teachers) caution against getting caught up in such abilities, or seeing them as the goal, or displaying such powers in public. They are not equated with true spiritual accomplishment, & they can become a dangerous distraction. The Buddha only used (& instructed others to use) such powers when they served the purpose of benefiting others, such as by increasing their devotion to the spiritual path & bringing them closer to enlightenment. The only miraculous powers considered important in Buddhism are the ability to guide others toward enlightenment, & to destroy the defilements/obscurations of the mind; sometimes reading the minds of others & remembering past lives are considered important - it depends on which text, or which interpretation of the texts, is being read.

The "begging for a crumb": I think the narrator is begging for a crumb of salvation/enlightenment/joy. I think he is in a very deep, dark abyss of desperation - every moment is agony - & he is begging for a crumb, a fraction of a moment of relief from the pain. It reminds me of the line from Light As a Breeze: "and the blessings come from heaven/and for something like a second/I was cured/and my heart was at ease". He is begging for his heart to be at ease for even a fraction of a second - a crumb of relief from the suffering - and that would be the "miracle". Destroying the "defilements" of the mind (not really destroying, but transmuting their energies is more accurate) is what leads to enlightenment & relief from suffering. So the narrator would be referring to the one miracle that is (in every text) considered important in Buddhism. (The other one that is always important is the ability to end the suffering of others - but you have to be able to end your own suffering first). I don't think the implication is that the miracle is unattainable, but that it is very, very difficult to attain, & the waiting, & longing for it, & feeling so far away from it, can be very painful. He could also be implying that he has been waiting "half his life" for something that is already here, in every moment, as Buddhism teaches that the "ordinary" events of everyday existence are truly miracles, if we could only wake up to how truly extraordinary ordinary reality really is.

"If you're squeezed for information/that's when you've got to play it dumb": that's a mysterious one for me too; given the preceding lines - "when you've fallen on the highway/and you're lying in the rain/and they ask you how you're feeling/of course you say you can't complain. . .": I think this verse could refer to the narrator's desperate, depressed state of mind; he is perhaps being questioned about "how he is doing", maybe by doctors (e.g. psychologists), or even friends or aquaintances, & he is reluctant to give those inquirers much (or any) information about the true state of his mind, either out of kindness & sensitivity - not wanting to impose his agony on others - or out of fear of being locked up!

Gotta go now - I never quite know how to end these posts - it feels like we're having these intimate conversations, & it always seems so abrupt to just say, "bye, now!" - so I'll just say "good night, friends". . .and may the blessings find you wherever you are. . .
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