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On The Verge

by Keith Bond on 12/28/2009 3:03:55 PM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Have you ever been ‘in the zone’ while creating your art?  You know, when things are just freely flowing.  You experience ecstasy in the creation of your work.  The artwork seems to be guiding you rather than the other way around.  It is almost effortless.  You are caught up in the moment of unbridled creation and time becomes irrelevant.  Some describe it as an out of body experience.  You are a spectator watching the artwork emerge.  It is addicting.  You crave these moments of pure creation.

We often hear of creative types who proclaim to do their best work while ‘in the zone’; visual artists, musicians, writers, etc.  I have certainly had these moments and I suspect that you have, too.  I also suspect that you are similar to me in that these moments are the exception rather than the norm. 

I am about to break down an art myth right now.  I may get a bit of backlash from it.  But I will say it anyway.  Being ‘in the zone’ does not guarantee great results and great art does not need to be created while ‘in the zone’.

First let me say that in the creation of artwork, there is nothing quite like being in that state of mind that we call ‘the zone’.  It is pure joy.  It is elation.  It is liberating and awakens emotions and expressions that were previously unimagined. 


Discipline is More Important

I know a lot of great artists; professional artists.  I know artists whose work is highly accomplished, collected, and sought after.  And there are many other artists who are in earlier stages of their career or are mid-career.  These artists are likewise very talented.  I have enjoyed conversations with many of them and I find a similar theme shared by those whose work continues to improve and amaze.  It is more a matter of habit and discipline than those fewer moments of free-flowing expression. 

I know it doesn’t sound as romantic.  But the truth is disciplined work will yield far greater results much quicker than free-flowing expression. 

I do believe it is important to have those moments in the zone.  But more important is to continue to work and push yourself even if you aren’t in the zone; let alone in the mood.  The artists I know who continue to work, even when they don’t want to, tend to be the ones who grow the most and excel the most.


I believe the reasons are numerous.  I am sure that I don’t fully understand why.  But here are what I consider the primary reasons.

Control and Decision Making

Great art is a complex marriage of accumulated knowledge (through experience), intuition, and experimentation.  While working in the zone, intuition flows freely.  Yes, you will unconsciously use that accumulated knowledge and may even unknowingly experiment while in the zone.  But they are not deliberate choices you are making. 

When working outside the zone, you are in control.  You make choices.  You know what you want to express.  You decide how to express it.  You decide, based upon your vast storehouse of knowledge and experience, how to develop your idea in visual form.

As I will explain below, you can still leave yourself open to intuition and experimentation by freeing yourself from rigid formulas.  But, you are in control and can veto anything that doesn’t support your idea.

When relying solely on intuition or experimentation, you leave the work to chance.  Yes, some will be wildly successful, but many will also fail.  Do you want sporadic results or consistent growth? 

Nurturing those Moments of Zone Work

Secondly, if you only create when you are in the zone, you will produce very few works of art.  From my experience, reaching the point of free-flow expression comes after significant, diligent work.  It is rare that it just happens the moment you pick up a brush.  If you are disciplined enough to begin working, you will open your mind and heart to the creation process.  As you work your way through the piece, ideas flow, decisions are made, and slowly but surely you are elevating yourself closer to that climax of ‘zone work’.  If you wait for the zone before you begin, you won’t begin.  The more disciplined you are, and the more you work, the more often you will reach this point.

On the Verge

I believe that the greatest work comes while on the verge of zone work.  You are still in control, but intuition and expression are flowing freely.  You can make informed decisions in your work and are still in control.  You are conscious enough to be methodical and deliberate.  But being almost in the zone, your work is intuitive and expressive.  This is the state at which the marriage between the seeming contradictions work together in beautiful harmony; deliberate decisions, intuition, learned technique, experimentation, construction, and expression.

And, while on the verge, you are aware enough to learn from the intuitive expression.  That experience now becomes part of your vast storehouse of knowledge.  You have grown.  You now have more tools at your disposal in the future. 

Happy Creating,

Keith Bond


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Topics: Creativity and Inspiration | Keith Bond | Productivity 

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Donald Smith

I remember one painting where I was "IN THE ZONE." It was an awsome experience to have the painting just paint itself, and it was one of my better paintings. It was one of those rare days where I could paint for 3 or 4 hours in a row with out inturruption. Those days are very rare for me. Most of my painting is done in 30 to 60 minute stretches. I just get going good, and it's time to quit and go to my full time job. I can't paint in the evenings because my darling wife and daughter need and want my attention. Not being a full time, professional artist, I can and gladly put my family before my art.

I learn, I grow, I paint on a regular basis, 5 times per week, I practice, and experiment, and I hope I improve as an artist. I don't have to be in the zone to paint a beautiful painting, it's just icing on the cake when I am in the zone.

Donald Smith

Charlotte Herczfeld
Keith, very good points, thank you!

Let me share with you "ze zecret way" (for some of us) to kick-start the feeling of flow: get thee into the studio and start to work. Very soon, usually within 15 minutes or so, the world around will, if not cease to exist, at least fade out of conscious thought. Now, I'm hungry, I'm driven, I'm called to paint, and I've started late, so there is no time to waste. This means I'm in the studio as much as I can, often more.

Another 'trick' is to plan a painting (or other works of art) rather carefully. You can plan the structure, the 'bones' of it. The placement and design, the values, what to include and what to simplify. When the logical brain has done its work, then it is good to let it go and get into the zone, the flow, and paint. The subconscious will be aware of the prep work, but also be open to new discoveries and experiments.

What's produced under influence of the flow has to be evaluated, and made better or changed if needed.

And, the zone/flow state isn't really the best for dealing with the final check. Then clear reasoning is often necessary, and some ruthless questions need to be asked of the painting/artwork.

Oh, and then there are those days when painting just doesn't work, and anything one does just messes things up. Then is a perfect time to prepare for when painting flows again by cleaning the studio, preparing boards/papers etc, for ordering supplies, or for framing. All is made ready, so when you're in or near the zone, you do not need to interrupt it with drudgery that must be done anyhow. And you can create freely.

Hi Keith,

Don't you just hate it when artists make up those myths? :)
"In the zone" and "just naturally talented, I guess" and "interested in drawing at the early age of four" etc.
It is soooo comforting to know that I am not the only artist without a constant silver spoon!
Thanks for a good article, and putting it straight!


Gayle Faucette Wisbon
via with facebook
I experience that "in the zone" feeling whenever I begin a new painting and again when I am completing a painting. All the time in between is work - making decisions, making changes, etc.

I'm not one of those artists who can just visualize the end results. Sometimes what I set out to paint ends up very different than what I originally envisioned. I love that feeling when all the decisions are made and all the problems worked out, then the rest just flows.

Kathy Chin
Hi Keith,

Charlotte said it well when she said "...i've started late, so there's no time to waste." I feel the same way, and just wishing that i would improve won't help. I'm trying to bypass Life's little distractions and concentrate on my art, but as you know, sometimes it's tough. At my stage, it's lovely to be "in the zone," and i appreciate it when it happens. I also agree that hard work and discipline will yield the most growth.
But, and here i admit my shortcomings, I too often let a day or two or even three go by without working. For you disciplined artists out there, what's the internal dialogue you use to kick yourself into gear?

Linda Jones
I have indeed worked both in and out of the zone. Being in the zone is wonderful -- things seem to just flow. But for some time I've had the suspicion that being in the zone is a result of having a clear vision of what I want to achieve. In other words, it's not quite as impulsive as it would seem, but rather that I know my goal and have completely focused my attention on reaching that goal.

Keith Bond

Yes, it is icing on the cake. It is great that you are able to balance the important things in your life and find time to paint. Good luck.


Keith Bond

Yes, beginning will get the juices flowing! I also agree that work while done in the zone needs to be evaluated and edited if necessary. Sometimes what I thought to be a great painting turned out to need a lot of help. Painting in the zone leads to growth, but it sometimes needs to be checked.


Diane Tasselmyer
Keith..I am so glad I am not alone in this talk and thought about "being in the zone". My high school art teacher was the first to tell we students about this....about the myth.
I think artists really need to educate those who are not artists about the true nature of the work behind our paintings. In the past few years I have been explaining more and more to others about the decision making process involved in design elements, color selection atc. atc.
People seem to be ENCHANTED by the myth of "Being in the zone". They think ALL your work comes from there. The downside of that was when I discovered they also didn't consider painting as REAL WORK. It was subtle, but it was there. I now make a point of discussing the creation process more with people who are interested in art. They genuinely listen and it opens a door of communication with them.

Gayle Faucette Wisbon
via with facebook
I recently made myself a work schedule for the new year, because I sometimes have a problem with the discipline part, also. I work a part-time day job, so I'm home by 2pm each day. To keep myself focused on painting everyday, I made a work schedule that includes my day job, my painting time and my internet time. Hopefully, this will help me stay on track and work consistently.

Dian McCray
I totally agree with you! I do find however, the more I work the more "zone" experiences I have. This is a great time for me to read this. I have backed away from the easel for too many days for the holidays. Now I'm ready to get back to work!

Keith Bond

The best way to kick myself into gear is to pay the bills! I have a Non-Sequiter comic clipping that shows an artist in front of a large canvas and the landlord is at the door saying, "Rent is due, Art-boy". The caption reads: "The reality of Muse".

Truth is, it's my job and I treat it as such. I have a set schedule. Yes, there are times when it is more difficult, but when I get myself to begin, I usually get into the groove. When not, I usually have plenty of other tasks to do.

Good luck.

Paul Bachem
I have a musician friend who describes "the zone" in his own particular vernacular. When the creator is no longer thinking about technique and is just letting his hand do the creating then, my friend feels and I think we all agree, there is no longer a conscious "brain effort". It's as if the brain has ceased to be a part of the creative equation. My friend describes this as "going out to lunch upstairs"...upstairs being anything above the shoulders!

Ann Bell
I love what each of you has said!

Being in the zone is indeed magical. On the days when I reach it, I have trouble stopping. But it can take hours to get there. And arrival isn't guaranteed.

The best and probably the ONLY way of getting into the zone is by doing our work. If we only created while IN the zone, most of us would accomplish nothing because we would never get there.

I do notice that the more time I spend working in my studio, the more zone time I am privileged to enjoy. It's like my right brain is prepared, waiting and ready to come out and play.

Ann Bell

anne watson
I don't think that "being in the zone" means not being in control. Rather, it's that blissful moment where everything just comes together--a perfect culmination of intuition,knowledge,experience, practice and all the rest of it. If only it was a permanent state of being...!!

Joanne Benson
Hi Keith,
I love being "in the zone" and I think I am "in the zone" most of the time when I am painting. I don't veiw it as a state that you get to eventually but more of a "focused time" when all you are dealing with is the painting you are working on and the rest of the world seems to be non existant. To me "the zone" had nothing to do with a higher creativity. It is just a shutting out of the surrounding world. I would describe it as going into your own time zone....where there is no time...the hours just seem to melt away.....and if I'm not interrupted I usually don't come out until eye strain or back aches prevail....unfortunately I don't paint every day and sometimes not even every week. I definitely miss it when I'm not painting and fortunately I don't have to make a living at it....But bottom line, I love being "In the Zone"! Joanne

tom martino
I enjoyed Keith Bond's article. Yes, I agree that a steady pace -- a disciplined pace--gets more accomplished than waiting to be "in the zone". Is't this what separates the working habits of the professional from the amateur? The professional is more likely to be holding his brush when inspiration hits!

Nancy Park

I've spent most of my life encouraging that inspired "zone" by simply starting my work and waiting for it to happen. I would say maybe 10 percent of my work is lucky enough to have that delightful visit from the muse -- therefore, I court the muse with dogged determination!

Laziness is one of my more cursed traits, so it's lucky I spent my career in commercial art, when you cannot wait for inspiration.

So the more I work, the more I am apt to reach the "zone." Ten percent is nothing to sneeze at!

Judith Monroe
Keith, you're echoing other great artists I have read, including Madeline L'Engle who wrote "Walking on Water." She talked about showing for the work every day; the best artwork comes from the self discipline of attending to the work, day in and day out, and then when everything clicks, we can find ourselves "in the zone" where the work flows through us and is a magnificent thing to experience.

Thanks for reminding us to keep our noses to the grindstone (oh poor us!) and that we can be rewarded for all the hard work later.

michele tisdale
Pushing through and working seems the most important aspect of creating. Sometimes the zone arrives after three hours and lasts a moment sometimes it is a single stroke the best of the day. Perhaps most important, without the fourty hours of drawing hands and additional time in figure drawing group the painting done in the zone would not be a good painting at all. Michele

Karen Norris
Making a success of any artistic business requires determination, research, practice, self control, marketing, and LOTS of hard work. Thanks for the good advice.

Lee McVey
While reading Keith's article, I decided my "zone" isn't necessarily where the zone is in those artist's myths. I don't go into the studio thinking about wanting to get in the zone. I just want to get to work. I don't think about being in the zone until after the painting session is done. In retrospect, I think some of the time was spent in "zone's no-time," but they are short moments, not of long duration. And I think of times when afterwards I feel the painting painted itself as times of being very clear of what needed to be done, what decisions of values, temperature etc. needed to be made without hemming and hawing about whether these decisions are the best ones. My preferred zone is more like what Keith describes as the verge of being in the zone.

Esther J. Williams
Keith, way back when gas was 50 cents a gallon, I can remember having to discipline myself to go to work designing leather products. I was an artist too but the leather business made the money back then. I would rather take a drive out into the back country in upstate New York where I lived then go to my basement and draw new designs. But I told myself that I needed to just show up at the table and place the pencil in hand everyday. It took ten minutes and I was in my world of creativity without a sense of time. I didn't know it was called the 'zone' back then. Once I got going, there was no stopping me. When I look back at some of my sketches of products, I could see that I had some wild ideas. I laugh at some of them, I ask myself, "What was I thinking?" So I can get carried away while in the zone even though the discipline brought me there. When I paint and get into the zone, I get a natural high and won't quit until something stops me. If it is a piece I am doing for a juried exhibition, I allow the free flow of creative juices to carry me into the zone for several hours and then I step back, go get a mirror and it seems to snap me out of it as I analyze my painting in reverse from the mirror. Maybe it's because I just switched from right brained to left brained, but it works to start the critical faculties of my brain. I also get a list that I made up from a well known artist's book to check the process of the painting. It's like sobering up and the results are good when I can correct the painting. Many times, I stayed in the zone, got delirious and waited until it was too late to make corrections. I call those work studies or just keepers for my personal collection. The checklist is my best defense against getting pulled away into the oblivion of the zone now. It has questions like: Is there an entry into the painting? Does it have a center of focus? Will it look good in black and white for the values? Does the design lead you through the painting and not out of it? There's more but I think people get a hint of what important questions to ask of oneself. You are right, being in the zone is fun, but it's definitely not a state of mind to wait for to be inspired. Artists are not just creative souls but highly intelligent creatures that have learned to combine many traits, like instinct, knowledge and experience into a fine tuned piece of art. We can't let our passion carry us away and think that the passion alone will create magnificent art.

Carole Rodrigue
I agree that the verge is the place to be, where control still exists. Yes, great art is created partly through inspiration and being in the zone, but the truly great results happen through consistent hard work and application. That's where, I feel, that most is learned and where growth happens. If I always relied on "the zone", then I could look back at a lot of early "zone" pieces and shudder. Being on the verge of the zone is where I'd rather be. This is where the real magical transpires, the learning, the growth, the realizations, the awakenings. Amen for the verge!
P.S. I've experienced the "zone" a lot less since I began painting with acrylics. I wonder if vapours had anything to do with the zone . . .

Peggy Guichu
I was asked by a collector how often I paint. He was surprised to hear that I paint every day. At 8:00 a.m. I'm doing computer work related to my art and by 11:00 a.m. I'm at my easel.

Of course there are days when I'm not in the mood. There are days that all I can do is sit and stare at my painting or blank canvas, but eventually I'll get my brushes busy.

Painting isn't a hobby to me. If I'm going to call myself a serious artist then I need to go to work on my craft every day. And I'm pretty sure most of you out there in art land will agree with me.

The fact that I love it makes it that much sweeter.

Nancy Park
Poor us? Oh, yeah. Our poor noses!

Lorraine Skala
In a nutshell -- very liberating article! Thank you.

Lorraine Skala
Write another comment . . .

Charlotte Herczfeld
I paint in pastel, and still get 'high'... :-)

So many great points made! I'd say the 'zone' isn't where were're 'zoned out', but rather we're zoned *in*. Meaning, the focus on painting/creating is so great that it all just flows. It can't flow without training and skills, though, and it doesn't start to flow unless we're already there, working on creating.

There are so many myths around artists, but most of them started around the turn of the previous century, when great efforts were made to mystify creativity, and to elevate 'talent' to something unattainable, and the cult around art was created. Before that, painting/sculpting/etc was a job, a craft. And you ate your breakfast and went to the shop and started working. And your name might have been Michelangelo, or Rembrandt.

Joanne Benson
After reading all the additional comments I still cannot distinguish between the verge and the zone and I feel that when I get inspired I still make controlled decisions. They just don't always work out the way I would like them to. I never feel out of control just a sense of experimentation which can come about at the onset of a painting or part way through a painting. Perhaps I'm just "zoned out" all of the time! LOL I think making great art is about dedication, practice, vision, experimentation and more.....and agree discipline is key....I only wish I had more of it.

Monte Wilson
Hi Keith,

Excellent article as usual. You make wonderful points...none more so than being on the "verge". I agree with you that the best work more times than not are executed when you on the edge of "the zone" but are still fully in control. Of course, practice, practice, practice and work, work, work eventually lead to top quality...

Fay Terry
Hi Keith,

Great article! I agree most heartily with the idea of working even when you are not in the mood. After awhile it actually becomes a habit, and I am always glad that I picked up a brush and painted, no matter what my state of mind was.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Keith,

Interesting piece as always. As a fairly new artist I'm always learning something new and it's amazing when things just seem to come together but more importantly I really love it when things I've learned come more easily as I repeat the process in a new painting and feel more in control.


Sharon Weaver
After painting in the zone, I will try to duplicate a method and find that I can't. How did I do that? That is when I realize that I am in the process of taking my art to a new level. I will then push myself to work out the "how" and incorporate it into my available techniques so I look at my zone experiences as lessons to learn.

Michael Cardosa
Actually, after giving this some more thought, I hope I never get into the "zone" when painting. That would put anything painted at that point in the "happy accident" category and I'd rather understand how I did something so I can duplicate it when I need or want to...

Roderik Mayne
Robert Genn (Painters' Keys) periodically expresses a similar philosophy. He also believes that work, regular habits and discipline are the key to not only a successful art career but also to one's development and growth as an artist.

Laura den Hertog
The verge is exactly right! It certainly has been my experience and I liken it to the squint, without the crow's feet. Squinting allows you to change your perspective but still see the work you've done. Consciousness squinting lets you be in the flow but with both feet still on the ground.
Great article, Thank you!

liza myers
Being "in the zone" is a more than a little like the rush of being in love. There's a certain oblivion and euphoria that can be very exhilarating. But without constant, on-going dedication it's just a childish crush.

Sonya Conti
Many of the commentators agree with you Keith. Find reading through the various comments we all seem to be directed with the same instincts. The verge is where find the "discovery" part of the work. May have a direction that work towards "while in the zone" yet as the work develops it is at that "cliff's edge" that find new life; excitement of possibilities that are not yet down in stroke.

Linda Wilder
I love being 'In The Zone' but I don't know what I do to get there or what I'm doing when I am there. Time flys by. I never get there at the begining of a painting. Most of my work is done in one sitting and usually 'the zone' happens on and off throughout the process. If it doesn't come at all...I quit painting...I'm not going to push and laybor just to fustrate myself.

Bruce Ulrich
Nice distinction that showing up regularly to do the "work" is more important or as important as any work that is done while "in the zone". i find that regular practice increases the odds of getting in the zone.

Michael Cardosa
good point Bruce! I think there are just no getting away from certain basics in life whether you apply them to art of business. The more work you do, the luckier ( or better ) you get at it...

Happy New Year All!

Bobette Bird
I relate to all the elements mentioned in the "Zone" message. I would add that I have found that I do my best work, when I am free of other concerns, ie: family problems, adjustments to new or changing surroundings, upcoming agendas, interruptions by phone, etc, As a woman artist with many demands on my attention it has often been difficult to give my undivided attention to painting. Bobette Bird

Carole Rodrigue
Bobette, I agree with you wholeheartedly! Not that I want to pull out the violins, but as women, we do have more demands placed on us just to get through day to day life, making it harder to live more within our studios creating. So I suppose if someone wants to call this rare time when other concerns don't creep in the zone, then the zone might be a good place. I guess the zone is many things to many people.

Louise B. Hafesh
YES, painting in "the zone" is mystical! Everything just flows naturally from the core, and what artist doesn't want to paint from that place?

I agree, though, that while we should nurture such moments, our best work is done when we are "on the verge." Inspired, yet tuned in, that's when, relying on experience, we can work through problems, experiment and make creative choices.

Diane Tasselmyer
I went back to Clint's blog post "Start Working When You're Inspired . . . but Finish Later" and THIS seems to hit a happy balance with "being in the zone".
Sometimes it's easier to work on another piece of art than losing your momentum or enthusiasm over a difficult piece. (falling out of the zone)
I don't want to waste good painting time fretting over it. It will be there later when my mind is more fresh for it.

Carole Rodrigue
That's an excellent point Diane. I would get lost on a piece and linger over it, wasting time,and often, paint by not being inspired at a certain point. Being on the verge allows me to work on another piece, and this is rather new to me since I used to be a stickler for once piece at a time and would at times get boggged down, out of the zone.

Susan Ziots
via with facebook
Hummm, I think that I was born "in the Zone". My mother was frequently upset with me that I was always busy sketching or at least looking at things...cataloging it into my memory for a sketch as soon as I had the chance (after my chores and school were out of the way.)

I never grew out of that.
I have had up o 12 wet paintings at once so If one isn't doing it for me today I put back on the shelf and work on the one that is calling out to me.

I can get "there" even when I peek into the open door of my studio on my way to the kitchen to take care of family buisness And then get back to my paintings.
For me it starts the second something catches my eye and I start seeing the composition of a painting that I will rough in as soon as I get my hand on a pencil or paint brush.
I have a part time job Drafting and doing renderings and it usually happens there too.
I have to FORCE myself to stop when it is time to cook etc.

Justin Dancing Hawk
I have also worked both in and "on the Verge",as well as well outside the zone. I love all for their different blessings. Occasionally , these conditions will emerge at various stages during the creation a single painting - which is especially enjoyable. Primarily, I consider my Art , be it my pastel painting or Stone Sculpture - to be very much likened to a
" pregnancy" ! Yup! You heard me right! Think of it! . . . we get the idea! AH!. . . CONCEPTION! The idea develops in our mind - GESTATION! At some point, we can no longer contain it within us and we begin to put our materials together - NESTING in preparation of the BIRTH! We begin to sketch things out and define our "Child" as we've conceived it and it begins to take on physical form. As we add color , we see it to take on dimension and it develops a *character* all it's own! In the words of Albert Handell - "The Baby is Born!" - it can exist on it's own! Now, we nurture and guide it - familiar parental skills! This is often the easiest phase and when we are most likely to be "in the zone" . Alas, we've done a fine job in rearing our infant and it grows into a fine adolescent! "Danger Will Robinson!DANGER!" LOL! Things turn a corner of no return and the work develops a mind of it's own and we are no longer in control of it's destiny! If we get stubborn and fight it, we're in for a very rough ride and the quality is greatly diminished! Hey parents - does this sound familiar? LOL! Allow this child to be what it will, and it will bless you beyond your wildest dreams! At some point, it will reach maturity and you dress it up in it's best finery - the Frame - and send it out into the world glowing with the pride of your heart, to bless the world as it will ! All who experience it will perceive it in their own manner and be blessed by it like wise! We have no control of that, our control is past and we must simply let go and allow it to "BE" ! That's MY process , anyway! Who says a MAN can't experience being "pregnant!? LOL! I've birthed dozens of very wonderful children and they continue to bless me and the world! . . . . What was that about "I'm 'JUST' 1 person! I 'CAN'T change the world!" ! I have a news flash for you FOLKS! You DO change and effect the world with every action! The DIFFERENCE is whether it's by DEFAULT or by DESIGN! Native American Elders teach that we effect the nest 7 generations! That's quite a responsibility and not to be taken lightly! Thanks! . . . .. I think I just changed YOUR world, to some degree at least! Thank you for that honor!. . . Having this opportunity to say this also changes MY world, which I also consider an honor and I'm very grateful for THAT as well! Namaste' ! Mitakuye Oyasin - All My Relations!


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