What the NCAA Basketball Finals can Teach us About Acting, Fearlessness (and Life)

One of the things I found most inspiring about the recent NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship Finals was that the sports announcers kept using the word “fearless” to describe the Duke players – especially the freshmen players – who just drove the ball in amazingly aggressive, wild and yes, fearless ways.

Grayson Allen, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor.

Sometimes it didn’t work. But that’s also what was thrilling about their taking the risk.

And that’s why those freshmen showed us all, really, how to play ball in life.

We are all naturally fearless – especially when we’re young – because our memory bank hasn’t yet been fully loaded with the repercussions of what’s to come from risk taking; meaning the setbacks, rejections and challenges we will inevitably face.

I’m not saying there aren’t challenges in our youth – but because our brains are still developing and we’re still open to trying so many different things – we generally bounce back quicker and are less likely to personalize everything.

So we continue to participate in things regardless of the consequences. And we don’t yet ascribe personal meaning to our setbacks. In other words, when we fail at trying something, we don’t shame ourselves by calling ourselves, “Stupid,” or telling ourselves, “We’re never going to make it.”

At one level that’s inspiring because we’re creative risk takers and innocent and wild.

At another level it’s also scary because we’re creative risk takers and innocent and wild.

(This is why car rental companies won’t rent vehicles to people under the age of 25! Their reptilian brains are still developing. i.e., they’re risk takers, innocent and wild!)

As adults, we need to try to get back to that way of creating. Taking the risks. Going for stuff. Being fearless. Knowing that you’ll fail but taking the leap anyway. We need to stop ascribing meaning to every action we take that doesn’t work out the way we thought it would and stop punishing ourselves for attempting it in the first place.

We have to give up being risk-averse to being more like our freshmen selves.

We’ll make more errors driving to the basket, perhaps, and some of the risks won’t pan out. But with no attempt there is no success.

And that’s how you end up winning an NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

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The (Almost) Impossible 7-Day Challenge

For every problem the mind creates in our lives, there is also a simultaneous solution created by the mind. Good to know! (This is also an important distinction. The problems that we most often face on a daily basis exist nowhere but from the fertile breeding ground of the mind generating them.)

In other words, the problems “out there” already have myriad solutions. You get a flat tire, you can fix it. Your flight’s cancelled, you can book a new one. Problems in the world are different than problems in the mind. And one could also argue that it’s the mind in the first place that’s creating the problems in your world.

It’s not mind over matter. It’s mind into matter.

So when we create a problem in our mind and start freaking out, a light bulb also comes to you to show you how to fix the problem. Always. 

The No. 1 way to fix any problem is to act (not on stage, in your own life).

But generally we default back into the rumination of our mind that got us stuck in the first place. So unless we make the effort, we stay in the problem.

Why?

Andrew Newberg, a leading neuroscientist, has a new book on brain science that talks about why we resist change. From a neurological perspective, “After spending decades building a somewhat stable personality to handle life’s tribulations,” he says, “the brain is hesitant to alter its underlying beliefs. Even if the behavior is dysfunctional, it has helped you to survive.”

Ouch. So from a neurological perspective it’s as if we’d almost prefer to stay in our own suffering than make a change.

What? How can that be? Say it isn’t so!

To move from our problems into what we want forces us to confront our limited self-dialogues that have neurologically defined us for decades and we’ve spent a long time re-enforcing by the way we think, act, and engage with the world.

So you’ve been dumped by your agent, but haven’t done anything to get a new one, and you feel unhappy and stuck. Or, you want to leave your boyfriend but are too scared to take the leap even though you’re miserable.

The problems present the solution.

But to meet yourself at a new level of where an “a-ha” is coming from is a scary proposition because it’s going to ask you to work against your ingrained beliefs and then act on the clarity that comes to you.

So how? How do we step into what we want more of in our lives? More work, better relationships, more fulfillment, better roles, more exciting projects, representation, a movie role, the lead on a series?

You have to make a conscious commitment to make different choices.

So here’s the first way (others will come in the following weeks):

We all complain a lot. Complaining is just speaking over and over about that which you think you don’t have the power to change and you do. So we complain about something so we can stay stuck. Bam! Most things we complain about we can change at a causal level. (Think about it. The things we most often bitch about we have the power to actually change.)

And those circumstances we can’t physically alter, we can learn to accept and therefore stop complaining about them. What’s the serenity prayer? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

So either taking action or practicing acceptance actually leads to the same thing. You can change 100 percent of the things you bitch about. 

This week, take the 7-day challenge. Try not to complain about anything. Watch what it will do to your outlook on life, your mood, your energy. Every time you do complain, however, you have to go back to Day 1 and start over. So a 7-day challenge might turn into a 21-day challenge. It’s up to you.

But isn’t that better than no change at all?

*First published on Backstage

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We’re All the Same, Which is What Makes You Simultaneously Different

We’re all the same. And that’s what makes us simultaneously different.

Confused? Seems counterintuitive?

It’s not.

As artists, the raw material from which we pull to create (it doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or actor or musician) is your own life. All expressions (even if they are expressions of someone else’s writing or lyrics or words) are still being channeled through you.

So you’re getting up and telling someone’s story, per se, but that story is being told through your own life.

Your pain, your love, your terror, your desires, your revenge fantasies, your dreams, your anger, your hate, your heartbreaks; and on and on it goes with everything you’ve survived and overcome in life. Everything you’ve celebrated or achieved. Everything you’ve been disappointed by or victoriously vanquished.

Life indeed is the canvas. But you are the painter and your autobiography – your personal history – is the paint.

And that’s why we’re all the same. Everyone on this planet – everyone – has the same hope for their own lives. We all want love. Connection. We all desire joy and freedom. We all want to be heard and acknowledged. Yes, some people want to be actors. Other people want to be doctors or lawyers. Some people are artisans or professional athletes.

So the manifestation of our dream-stuff is different and specific for each of us. But the core molding clay from where it comes – our passions, pursuits, desires, our need to self-express through some form – is all the same. It’s the same stuff that’s been propelling humanity forward since time began. It’s the same core stuff that created the cosmos. And it’s the same for all of us. You could also call it spirit or energy or flow or ideas or the blueprint or the quantum. It’s in our DNA. We’re imbued with it.

Speaking of DNA, here’s a little science to prove how we’re all the same.

The Human Genome Project shows that we share the same DNA amongst all human beings. We’re 99.9% the same.

So we think we’re different when we judge people who feel so far removed from ourselves. Whether from a different country, or different religion; different sexual preference or different career choice. But everyone’s stuff we have judgments about are just projections of our own qualities we are grappling with.

So maybe the goal is to just keep letting everyone be. Allow yourself to be, working through your stuff as best you can. Giving people the benefit of the doubt. Forgiving more. Letting go. Seeing more clearly that we’re all in this together. Because truly (and scientifically), we are all together – 99.9 % of us.

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If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Done

If it’s not fun, why are we doing it?

The art of acting is based in play. And the science of play is quantifiable. When you start to play more, that which you want (in your life and your work) starts to show up. You get freed up to the moment. There is no attachment to end results. There is little self-criticism or self-sabotage. You are fully expressed. Science calls it “the flow.” You follow your instincts. Stop overthinking things and live more moment-to-moment.

I was babysitting my 6-year niece this weekend and I took her to Chipotle and watched (partly in terror) how much fun kids have. It was also demoralizing to see just how far we “adults” have migrated from our own centers of childlike enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder. What happened?

I need a drink!

There’s not a lot of editing going on in a child’s creative experience. In fact, it’s the parents who are constantly jumping in and curbing their behavior. There was a report on NPR recently about how helicopter parenting is unhealthy because kids need unstructured, un-parented play for their emotional and cognitive development.

Now of course I’m not advocating that you let your kids run rampant at Chipotle, but I’m using this as an example of, Why do we get so serious about…well, everything?

Dr. Seuss said, “Adults are obsolete children.” We simply lose our connection to our own childlike play. Just because we’ve become adults doesn’t mean that this creative childlike essence isn’t still alive within us. It’s just buried under years of doubt and cynicism and becoming practical.

A life in the arts isn’t “practical.” (One could argue that life itself isn’t either.)

Acting isn’t serious (nor is it really that hard). Kids do it every day and they don’t seem to strain themselves in the attempt to play.

Creating isn’t doom and gloom unless you’ve been taught to believe it is.

All feeling of expression comes from the baseline feeling of the joy of actually being alive. Even working on material that’s scary or intense,  the spirit of how it needs to be offered to optimally create is in joy.

Nothing is keeping us from being happy but our stubborn refusal to choose happiness and stop focusing on what isn’t working in our lives. It’s a choice. Always. We can choose to look at life through the lens of lack, scarcity, and what hasn’t happened yet, or we can choose to see things from the truth of how they actually are.

And that is, the mere fact that we’re alive here right now is a blessing.

We get stuck because we are influenced—and brainwashed—by the should’s. We compare ourselves to these mythical pictures perpetuated by the media of what we’re told our lives will look life when we get all the things that our society tells us we need in order to be happy. So we compare ourselves to illusions and standards of success that actually are not only unreal, but not happiness-sustainable. Sure, they can make us feel good or gratified, but long-term happiness comes not from things but from a state of being that involves choice.

You can’t negotiate around the should’s. They will always win—and also keep you unhappy.

“I should be further along in my career.”
“I should have booked a pilot.”
“I should have an agent.”
“I should be married by now.”

If you should have, you would have. Let go of those constructs that rob us of playing with what we have now and instead simply just try to have more fun with where you are now.

The reward? More fun itself.

*First published on Backstage*

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5 New Ways to Think About Creating

I think the most important thing to remember about creating—and life itself—is that you have to be out in the world. Creating occurs with people, through people; sharing and being of service. If you’re constantly in your head thinking creativity looks a certain way or you have to get to some magical “place” before you can create, you’ll keep missing the mark. Life is constantly giving us opportunities. The question is: Do we shut down to them or participate?

1. You can’t go it alone. We need each other. Sometimes creativity occurs not the way you think it will. What seems, at first, to be a total disaster can reveal wonderful insights about moving beyond our egos and staying connected. Remember that the things we make a big drama of, often have a way of working themselves out. And if you stay open, you’ll see that other people want to help you in ways you generally assume they don’t.

2. Be nice. Seems obvious, but why is it we often aren’t? I think sometimes this business rewards bad behavior and people get a free pass even when they’re acting like 2-year-olds. But science has proven that we’re our most creative when we work from a place of generosity, open-heartedness, fun and joy. You get more done. You’re more hard-wired to insights and “Ah-ha’s”. And you’re just simply creating more optimally. So exchange the fear for forgiveness and freedom and get playing.

3. You’re not at your most creative constantly thinking you have “something” to work on. This is an old acting-class narrative from the 1980s we have to change. It’s a myth. Sure, we have things we need to improve. Sure, we have to develop parts of ourselves and learn. But the simple process of showing up to life is enough. We don’t have to add to that by constantly beating ourselves up with self-defeating dialogues that perpetuate this myth that we’re lacking or flawed or messed up to such a degree that our work isn’t perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, and that’s the real disease that needs to be eradicated. The assumption that if we’re not picking apart our work at the minutest detail, then we aren’t working hard is not only a lie, it fosters neurosis. Life will give you plenty of stuff to look at. Don’t worry. That’s the nature of living. But if it’s not broken why do we assume it must be fixed? It doesn’t. So stop doing that.

4. Do. The. Work. Why is auditioning constantly processed through this blender of nerves and inadequacy and fear and dread? Why can’t we just change the paradigm? Isn’t it actually, in fact, just you coming into a room and showing someone how you choose to create? It’s not right or wrong. It’s just you showing us you. There’s nothing to fear, because there’s nothing wrong with you. They may like it or they may not. But if you just focus on your work, the experience changes from “What do I need to show them?” to “What can I experience?” That’s a paradigm shift right there.

5. The real work happens right now. In this moment, what’s one thing you can change that’s holding you back? If you don’t want to fess up to what you know you could be doing differently, call your best friend and ask him/her the same question. You won’t like what they tell you, but if you listen to them they’ll show you how you keep getting in your own way. But roadblocks can be removed. So thank your friend and now do it.

*First published on Backstage*

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What a 3-Time U.S. Figure Skating Champion Can Teach Us About Acting

Just before the start of her performance at the 2015 United States Figure Skating Championships, the leader going into the short program, Ashley Wagner, said to her coach, “I’m terrified!”

Watershed moment. (I actually screamed at the TV!)

Here’s a world-class athlete at the top of her game, admitting to a nationally televised audience (and a sports arena of thousands of fans), that she too feels things that we often think (erroneously) that we singularly feel. And then we often shame ourselves for feeling them.

Our self-dialogue goes something like this, “There’s something wrong with me if I don’t have it all together. The ‘greats’ don’t have the same fears I do. I’m a failure if I can’t show the world how strong I am. Why is it that it’s only me who gets scared? I’m a loser.”

I loved Wagner’s confession because it was so liberatingly honest. On national television no less. And the commentators had a field day: “This is a two-time U.S. champion, this is an Olympian, this is a skater who’s been on this scene at this level for many years and you hear her say, ‘I’m terrified.’ What do you make of that?”

I’ll tell you what you make of it. Every experience is new. Every moment is fraught with the possibility of experiencing abject terror and failure. Things can fall apart. Everything is unknown at some level. Even those things we do all the time. Pretending that it isn’t doesn’t mean it isn’t so.

As fate would have it, I met Wagner at a party recently and of course I made a beeline to her. “Oh my God. Are you Ashley Wagner?” And then I proceeded to fanboy her, telling her she was the inspiration for my upcoming v-log. I asked her about that defining (televised) moment and she said, “Acknowledging the feeling is a way of diffusing the feeling.”

Eureka.

Once we become aware of something, we actually have the power to turn that thing into an expression that can really benefit us. To deny something we’re feeling distorts truth and fuels the energy into something that may work against us. Destructively. We block our access to other energy resources because so much of our energy is being served up to resistance or denial or avoidance. We feel that we shouldn’t feel something unwanted so then we do everything we can to not feel it. But to say, “Yes, I’m scared,” gives us the permission to move through what we’re feeling. Energy transforms. Feelings becomes fluid. We get un-stuck. Breakthroughs occur.

As Gestalt Therapy founder, Fritz Perls said, “Fear is excitement without the breath.”

So you acknowledge. You breathe. You accept yourself for where you are. You stop making yourself less human because you actually feel real feelings that are normal to feel. And you move through them by transforming them.

And just like Wagner, you too might end up winning a national championship.

*First published on Backstage

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What ‘AHS: Freak Show’ Can Teach You About ‘Type’

Recently, I was flying back to L.A. from London and had the good fortune of talking to Mat Fraser, a star of “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” 

He’s sort of become the breakout sensation of this season’s show and it’s all the more wonderful because he suffers from the genetic condition called phocomelia, in which he was born with malformed arms.

He talked about the irony that for 20 years he knew he was going to break through in his career based on who he was—that being himself was the only way in.

And that’s the truth for each of us.

We’re all types. Humanity in general (and the business specifically) is going to reduce you and type you. That’s what it does. People feel so much more comfortable putting others into categories—labeling them, marginalizing them. So the business is going to say you’re too big, or you’re not big enough; you’re Asian, you’re not Asian enough; you’re too pretty, you’re too ethnic, you’re too green, you’re too old, etc., and on it goes.

Your job is to quickly figure out your type, not so that you can limit yourself or be defined by it, but so that you can find your way into a career that is going to do that to you regardless.

Accept yourself fully with who you are right now and then own it. That’s your way in. You don’t have to be someone else, but you have to be OK with being who you are. If you’re not, it’s very difficult to get work.

So here’s Frazer, who was born with a handicap and yet I doubt he ever saw himself as limited. His challenges are what have made him uniquely who he is. That paradigm shift has allowed him to transcend the “type” that the business is going to generate for each of us. You get in the door by owning your type and then transcending it to have a career.

Stop making what’s “different” about you a liability. It’s your asset. We’re all “freaks.” We’re all misfits, outcasts, abnormal, weird, different. We all are part of the same tribe while simultaneously feeling that we’re outside of it.

So if a self-prescribed freak can do it, so can you.

And when you do, you’ll realize your type is simply human.

*First published on Backstage

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The #1 Thing to Do When You’re Having a Panic Attack

I went through a very stressful phase in my early 20s when I suffered from panic attacks. At the time, I thought I was the only one who had this problem. Working with so many actors over the years, I’ve now come to discover that it’s a pretty common phenomenon for young adults navigating their worlds of new independence, figuring out who they are, and what it is they want to do with their lives.

So don’t panic! It’s normal.

But at a deeper level, panic attacks can actually show us who we are. And how much we aren’t allowing ourselves to simply be.

The prototype: Control freaks who aren’t gentle with themselves and who put their own needs and health on a back burner in order to achieve externally. In their minds, success or perfection equals love.

Sadly, that equation never adds up. The energy being given to perfection—having it all together, not making mistakes, not allowing yourself to be human—actually becomes repressed energy that ends up finding its way out.

It’s almost like our feeling self is saying, “You continue to choose to ignore me so I’m going to now let it all out so you’ll have to deal with what I’m feeling.”

Eek. Not fun in life, not manageable on stage, and not easy to deal with in the audition room.

It’s counterintuitive, but progressive approaches that deal with panic and stress disorders are about actually allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed with the feelings we most want to keep at bay. That’s what creates the panic in the first place.

You don’t want to feel things you can’t control, manage, or intellectualize your way through. The irony is that feelings can’t be intellectualized anyway. That’s the challenge about acting right there: We try to “analyze” something that instead wants to be experienced and felt.

So the perceived fear of actually feeling our feelings is what makes us guard against them, only increasing them to the point that they overwhelm us with panic.

Life lesson: We get through life not by thinking our way through it, but by feeling our way instead.

Like most things in life, the way to deal with them is two-fold. Acknowledge what you don’t want to feel. Breathe.

Like anything, it’s not about denying something. It’s about changing your relationship to it. Feeling isn’t meant to be controlled; it’s supposed to be felt, shared, experienced.

Cut yourself some slack. Acknowledge how well you’re actually doing. Don’t get caught up in the “should’s.” Change your self-dialogue to something more supportive and loving. Don’t beat yourself up when you get nervous or anxious or feel like you should be able to go into audition rooms and not get nervous.

As the founder of Gestalt Therapy Fritz Perls said, “Fear is excitement without breath.”

So change the paradigm. It’s OK to be excited. It’s OK to not have all the answers to your life’s questions. It’s OK to just coast for a bit and see what unfolds. It’s OK to feel like you need to take a breather. It’s OK to fail, fall apart, release.

It’s called being human. Let’s all just try to be a little more that every day.

*First published on Backstage

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5 Ways to Change the Way You Think About Acting

The spirit of us is indestructible.

Science says that life is not only about possibility, but it’s actually born out of possibility. The fact that the universe conspired to come together with the exact carbon-hydrogen-oxygen ratio to sustain life some 3.5 billion years ago in the form of prokaryotic sludge that through millennia transformed into life—and we’re sitting here right now talking about it—is possibility.

So why, oh why, do we let the business get us down?

You’re bigger than the business. The business doesn’t define you. It doesn’t dictate your happiness. It doesn’t set your self-esteem or self-worth value.

Or maybe it does, and you need to change that.

Here are five other paradigm shifts to consider:

1. Everyone gets frustrated by the business. Everyone hears their share of no’s. Agents don’t get calls returned; casting directors get denied seeing an actor they want to see; producers can’t get the money for their projects or the money falls apart; and famous actors (you thought they had no problems!) are stereotyped based on their breakthrough roles.

2. Remember the 10-year rule. Give or take. Our trusted social researcher, Malcolm Gladwell, says that it takes around 10,000 hours to become a master at something. That means you can’t chuck it all and move back to Ohio just because you haven’t booked an acting job in the first three months of moving to L.A. or NYC. It’s going to take a few years, so relax, enjoy the journey, learn, and grow.

3. Stop waiting for permission. This is hard. We need people to support us. We want to be working with people who inspire us and believe in us, but you can’t wait for someone to give you permission…because they won’t. They can’t. It has to come from self. You have to decide. Just decide. Whatever it is—“I’m losing this weight.” “I’m getting new headshots.” “I’m getting an agent no matter what.” “I’m finishing that script.” “I’m booking a commercial.” You give yourself the green light. Then others will follow your lead.

4. Stop hesitating. We do this a lot. We wait until we have more credits to re-approach that agent who met us at a party. We don’t feel we’ve done anything major in a year and a half, so to reach out to someone would be embarrassing, we think. So we don’t. You qualify yourself. “Let me get a job first or change managers or book a film before I reconnect.” The problem with that is we keep coming up with different reasons to hesitate—sometimes for years. So your career moves laterally rather than vertically. Everyone knows the business is very competitive. You have nothing to be ashamed of, ever, no matter where you are in your career. Up, down, on pause, not booking, getting older, haven’t had a hit, agent-less, brand new, or otherwise—be proud of the work you’ve done just to get to wherever you are. That means something.

5. Go vertical. Instead of moving laterally (which is really just a stall), take the vertical leap. Easy to do. Make the call. Reach out to someone you’ve been meaning to but keep coming up with excuses not to. Ask for help. Check in. Take them to lunch. Talk about your vision and what you need help with to get there. Be human. Express your needs. Don’t shame yourself for being who you are. That sludge didn’t 3.5 billion years ago. If it had, it wouldn’t have gone vertical to become…well…you.

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How Actors Can Thrive During Mercury’s Retrograde

I originally wrote this piece when Mercury was in retrograde last year, but guess what? It’s in retrograde again! And the lessons seem just as timely as they did last fall.

Now some of you may think it’s all astrological hogwash, and that’s fine, but as a metaphor for challenges in creating and communication, I think it helps us understand how we get in our own way.

From a visual standpoint, Earth rotates around the sun much faster than Mars and Jupiter, and so even as all the planets are going the same direction around the sun, the outer planets seem to move backwards. Hence the name “retrograde,” and thus, a lot of people use the solar system as a scapegoat for all the things going wrong in their lives during these periods.

But the original Vedic meaning of “Mercury,” however, was called Buddha, which epitomizes the meaning of presence and the awakening of our discriminatory intellect. Our modern-day association with that word is miscommunication, but the Vedic sciences called Mercury a time for getting mindful—using our intellect, communicating clearly.

Oh, how time plus humans seems to mess things up.

I was walking down the street the other day in the chaos of Mercury’s retrograde…You know what that’s like: You accidentally send an email to your co-worker calling your boss a douche and somehow it goes to your boss instead. Your car breaks down for the third time this month. Your computer somehow deletes all of your saved emails. You find a text on your boyfriend’s phone…to his ex-girlfriend! With an emoji attached!

The obvious response: chaos, turmoil, upset, missed communication, iPhone being thrown down toilet. Or maybe these moments can help us to awaken instead.

So as I was saying, I was walking down the street, and as I passed this frazzled mom looking deeply into her teenage son’s eyes, I heard her scream to him, “Present. Moment!”

Snap! I thought it was genius in so many ways, if not mostly because it reminds us (and her freaked out son) that that’s all there is—the moment. What we choose to do with it is up to us. We can be here or we can be somewhere else in our heads, which isn’t here at all.

But also it was an unbelievable reminder from the universe to myself to get present—to stop being distracted by my thoughts. (What are the odds that I happened to be right there at that moment to hear what I most needed to hear?)

As soon as you realize you’re out of the moment you get present. That’s grace. You check out, and yet, your own tendency to check out can remind you to come back and be in the moment, to breathe, to stop fast-forwarding.

Get present. Be mindful. Play. Get out of your head. Give up worrying. It’s either going to work out or not. But worrying isn’t going to improve your situation. (Another way of saying it is, “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.”)

So maybe next time Mercury is in retrograde—and all other times of the year—we can use it to our advantage to just be a little more here.

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