Having completed 50 evolutions around the sun, I expected this year to be my shining moment – that perfect balance of life experiences which would in turn inform a wealth of new discoveries. I have indeed learned many valuable life lessons up to this point in my life but the new discoveries I am making in this 50th year aren’t the grand adventures I was hoping for – just more hard lessons. My parents decided against naming me Grace for a reason and I am finally seeing that there was more to that reasoning than my affinity for tripping on my shadow.
You see, balance is not my forte. You will not see me standing on one leg for any length of time – nor making it across a rushing creek by hopping rocks – without getting soaking wet. “Better, Stronger, Faster”, “No Pain, No Gain”, and “A Jane of all trades, is a master of none…” (my adaptation) were the mantras I followed for much of my life – believing that I could always be better – I was never enough; that pain was just a part of the deal, and once I found something I was good at I had to be the best at it and I went all in – all or nothing. Sure, these are all noble ideals when part of a well-rounded life-style buoyed by a healthy self-image or specific goals – but dangerous when they become coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges and travails of living. Everything in moderation is a nice concept but putting it into practice has never occurred to me.
Balance – in many facets of my life – has eluded me. I have always marveled at gymnasts who can twirl, leap and spin on a plank no wider than my hand; athletes who never seem to falter; dieters who manage to find the perfect combination of health and pleasure in their meals; professionals who have a successful career and an equally fulfilling personal life; climbers who can leap from ledge to ledge with full confidence in their footing; couples who can’t get enough of each other and yet celebrate their individuality… I could go on.
As the office administrator for a financial advisory firm – readers can take comfort that I have at least succeeded in mastering a balanced checkbook and have never once carried a balance on a credit card. But for most everything else in life I tend to go to extremes.
Take my running. I am a runner. Period. It is who I am. People who I’ve never met before greet me as an old friend in the grocery store saying “Oh, you’re the runner we see every morning.” For 35+ years I have started every day with a run. Nothing got in the way except for when I was physically incapable of doing so and even then – running injured became a badge of honor. Just like the Olympic gymnast who wins gold with her blown ankles wrapped to keep them stiff, I chased mile after mile through stress fractures, shin splints, migraines, and fevers. I was driven to log more miles than the day before – even in a blizzard. Don’t ask me why – it was simply ingrained in me to start every day that way – always going a little bit farther then the day before. I even ran 8 miles on the morning of my morning wedding. And God help me and those around me if I couldn’t run… it wasn’t pretty.
And this is where the hard lessons have finally come to light – to use an old adage – again adapted – the chicken running with her head cut off finally came home to roost – because this year I finally couldn’t. I couldn’t run any more.
It took a broken foot and the ensuing overcompensation injuries that followed to lead me down a path of discovery I never wanted to go on. And yet what a discovery it has been! I realized just how out of balance my life has been. Not that I didn’t already know it – I was just finally forced to come to terms with this tidbit of truth. More is not always better – and choosing balance is a lot harder than chasing the single-minded ease of excessiveness – of going to the extremes.
Extreme runners know they should cross-train but it is so much easier to fall in step with the farther-faster mindset and seek that addictive runner’s high rather than balance their daily training with strength and restorative work. This will inevitably come back to bite us somewhere down the road when an overtraining, overuse, or overcompensating injury sidelines us – as I learned the hard way this year. There I was, sidelined from my greatest coping mechanism of all time – running – during one of the most stressful, challenging times of my life. While I never ran from a challenge, running helped me through them. Now I was forced to not only come to terms with the challenges of life but I also had to shift my identity.
Letting go of running has been quite daunting and challenging – I literally built my life around it. What was I supposed to do with my Saturday mornings now that a 17-mile run was off the schedule let alone – how do I face each day? My well-meaning friends didn’t help matters when they also chimed in with “but what will you do?” What will I do? As if the only thing I was truly capable of was a good run!
I was filled with anxiety. I became depressed. My serotonin levels – naturally elevated by endorphins – plummeted. I had a hard time sleeping. Adjusting from a daily half marathon of exertion to virtually no activity at least at the time of my broken foot left me feeling like I was bouncing off the walls.
This would never do. And then I discovered chair cardio.
Friends, this is not the “Sit and Be Fit” your 90 yr. old grandmother enjoys before playing Bridge at the senior center. No, this was an intense set of core workouts I found through the wonders of YouTube led by a runner and trainer who had also broken her foot and needed an outlet during recovery. She was also an extremist when it came to fitness – the operative word being WAS.
One of her favorite mottos is: More is not better – better is better. Having a balanced approach to exercise is a lot more work and a lot harder to do than going to the extremes.
I came to realize the coping mechanism that had been so valuable to me through the ups and downs and the joys and the griefs of life had become a prominent roadblock to my growth. My rigid my-way- is-the-only-way-for-me thinking had not served me as well as I thought – in more ways than just running! I branched out to cross-training, high-intensity interval training, lifting weights, and doing a cross between Pilates and yoga. And I discovered that a fast walk works your legs more than an easy sprint – without the pain! Who knew?
I won’t say that I don’t long for those long Saturday morning runs and the exhilaration of a fast sprint to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” … Indeed, I am having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that my running days – that my life as a runner – may be behind me even as I realize that my running also brought me pain – pain that has kept me from enjoying the other parts of my life.
As I learned that running wasn’t the only thing I could do to stay fit and actually enjoy doing because it feels good, I began to grow stronger in mind AND body. I am finding a new place to anchor my identity – not in the extremes of my miles logged and my performance but in the wholeness of my being – created and loved by God
One of the primary difficulties of a lifestyle change – or any major change in thinking – revolves around our attachment to our identity. Although we can clearly see it is an obstacle to our growth, the loss of this part of our identity is daunting. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the loss of an old and tired or detrimental feature of our identity may provoke a deep sense of loss. The uncertainty of new terrain invokes discomfort – even disingenuity – as we encounter surprises and maybe feel a bit less confident as we learn new things. Embracing new ideas and new ways of living takes work and perseverance. But when we let go of our disserving coping mechanisms, rigid thinking, or extreme ideals and break free of old, worn-out encumbrances we give way to higher forms of ourselves. We are coping. We are thinking not just following the easy path because it affirms us. We are stronger and able to see anew.
I can’t help but think there may be a lesson in this for our politics and our times.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2
Let your light so shine!
August 1, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ,
What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?
You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off, sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.
It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.
In the context of our current communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.
What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone. What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?
Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy. The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.
What difference does God make in this wilderness?
While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.
Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.
These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.
That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.
St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread. Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.
The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be.
Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.
And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so.
It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.
They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)
Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.
Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security. In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.
Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.
If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God.
It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference.
As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.
God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.
If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.
Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.
And that makes all the difference.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
When did you let go of your great big dreams or put your once exuberant soul to slumber?
Then I took the next most likely leap of faith and filled my room with space – outer space – because I just had to know what heaven was all about. After Shaun Cassidy faded from the scene, posters of rockets and galaxies and even F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles graced my bedroom walls – because I knew you had to start somewhere and jet pilots were frequently chosen to be astronauts. I’m not quite sure when that dream faded from view – it was a focal point of my Tomboy days for sure, along with my wardrobe fixation of flannel shirts and waffle stompers. I’m sure my mother wondered where her little girl disappeared to.
Enter the late 70’s and early 80’s and the debut of the epic television series FAME. I was convinced I would be the next Coco played by Erica Gimpel (she even shared my name – though not the spelling of it, darn it all) flying across the stage with athletic rhythm along with singing and even acting! I played Scrooge in our 5th-grade play and nailed it! Then we moved to Virginia where I put in hours and hours of practice choreographing dance routines in the cool air of our basement during our stint in Washington DC for my father’s job. I practiced the piano religiously and played competitively – first under the tutelage of an old bat who rapped my knuckles with a ruler over any mistake and then under the angel of all piano teachers, Mrs. Pataro, who believed in me and encouraged me and saw me shine at every piano recital and guild competition. I was going to make it as a star somehow! I even lived in a metropolitan area where the dream really could come true (not some hick MT town from whence I came!) Anyone heard of the Kennedy Center?
Ah yes, those were the good days when anything was possible. By the time I reached high school we were living out west again (but far from Hollywood) and it was time to start settling down and setting real goals (according to my father.) By then I was writing – quite prolifically. Ronald Reagan was president and I hung on every single word of his speeches. They were brilliant in my mind, and so I determined I would become a presidential speechwriter and then the White House press secretary. Having been exposed to the world of government and politics when one could be proud of both, this seemed a worthy avenue to pursue. While it may not have been as concrete a goal in terms of landing a job post-graduation as becoming a nurse, a teacher, or astronaut, it was at least academic.
And so I pursued mass communications and political science with a focus on public administration in college. I put in my time in a U.S. Senator’s field office (what an eye-opening experience THAT was into the true nature of politics and one’s constituents…a.k.a Your Constituents Hate You 101), the Public Relations office of the Bureau of Land Management (Bureaucracy and Politics 202), and interned at the CBS news affiliate in Billings (You Have a Face for Radio 402). Everything seemed to be falling into place, right? Except by the time I graduated from college life had gotten in the way of my dreams in a rather dire way. Rather than graduating into the field of my choice, I spent considerable time (and money) in the hospital and then recovery. By the time that ordeal was behind me, my dreams seemed out of reach and unrealistic so I took whatever job I could find that would help me emerge back into the land of the living and make a living. I have been working my way through the land of the living rather than the life of my dreams for some 25 years now. I have a great job and a vast array of experiences behind me, but my dreams are still just that – dreams.
I bring all this up now as we watch the launch into space of the 82- year old Wally Funk, who was on the first crewed flight into space by the rocket company Blue Origin. Funk is the oldest person ever to travel into space. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk is quoted as saying.
Years ago, Funk had dreams like I did. Then a 21-year-old pilot, she was the youngest of the 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts in NASA’s program that first sent Americans into space between 1961 and 1963 but were denied the chance to become astronauts themselves because of their gender. She went on to become the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base and the first woman to become an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. But she never went into space – until now. She did not live out her ultimate dream – to venture into outer space – at least on her schedule – but she made the best of her pursuit nonetheless. I doubt her life was one of ennui or regret. Quite the contrary it appears, for in various interviews she recounts a very full and vibrant life utilizing her gifts and skills to help many others, especially women, achieve their own dreams of flight.
Which begs the question that corresponds to one of my boss’s favorite lines: “I’m living the dream.” Just how does one live the dream? And furthermore, what defines a dream worth living for?
If you were to go back to your launching pad into life, what would you do differently, if anything, to achieve the dream(s) you once had? What stopped you from attaining them? Money, health, lack of education, family issues, or circumstances beyond your control? Maybe it was a more personal reason: doubt, fear, lack of vision, or a commitment to others above yourself.
Or, maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had a dream, chased it, and realized it. What now? Is living the dream any different than pursuing life as best possible?
As one who may have more years behind me than ahead – unless I somehow manage to defy my octogenarian heredity-fated lifespan – I wonder if it is worth taking time away from living my best life to pursue living the life I dreamed of? Is it worth asking the question “What could have been, if…?” Am I setting myself up for a nostalgic walk down “What-a-Failure Way”?
Or, maybe I am already realizing the dreams I once had but in my own unique and different way? I’m not an ordained Pastor with my own church but I am a Lay Pastoral Associate serving and preaching in the church and walking closely with God in His grand creation; I’m not a star of the stage and screen but I am singing – on a stage even – (when we can safely resume that art) – though no one would pay to hear me; I don’t dance much anymore but I would with a partner; I’m not a concert pianist but I have two pianos that I play with great abandon for an enrapt canine audience; I’m not flying into space but I can climb to what I now consider heaven on earth during less crowded times, and though I am not representing the President of the United States, I do write for a pretty swell boss and have my own blog!
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;”
How about you? Are you living your dream or living your best life possible? Is there a difference?
Whatever your answer, I think we can all raise a toast to Wally Funk in her flight to the heavens above. She has lived a life with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learning to labor, and to wait. I pray that when I come to the end of mine, I will be able to say the same.
A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
Let Your Light So Shine!!!
“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert.”
Never before have I considered drowning myself in a lake… yesterday, I came very close to doing just that.
After navigating the insanity of the 5am traffic on the west side of The Going to the Sun Road (ah, I remember way back when….) My two hiking companions for the first leg of the day – who were backpacking in for a two-night stay – and I were pleasantly surprised to find the Saint Mary Valley void of anything but expansive views, 2 bears, and a few respectful humans. Clouds hung o’er the valley from the previous night’s storm giving definition to the sky and the mountains below. I was a bit frustrated at first, having missed the early light of the day casting its glow on their eastern faces thanks to the d#$@ traffic, but the mountains still sang their morning story. I rethought my initial ire – giving thanks instead that so many people value something as beautiful and life-giving as God’s creation as I do.
The trailhead was deserted! A bit daunting when one has never hiked this way before, but even for me it was a straightforward route (Though my Alltrails app kept saying otherwise.) We soon realized those clouds were our friends but unlike true friends, they deserted us when we needed them most.
The morning light was soft as I made my way to Red Eagle Lake – thank God for the neverending views of my destination – though the water would only come into view the last 1/4 mile. Fire has decimated any earthly source of shade in this valley and by 9am I was becoming increasingly aware that this day would be a long hot one. The eight + miles to the lake passed fairly quickly. The wind shrieked through the stands of petrified trees at times, hauntingly so – even on a HOT and bright day. I felt as though the spirits of my past were walking with me – and soon I was working things out with them. Amazing how 8 miles can disappear when one is lost in thought.
Nestled at the base of a few of East Glacier’s impressive red peaks, Red Eagle Lake is a beautiful destination – the journey to and from less so – at least on a 90-degree day. The wind off the water was invigorating though – and I actually got a bit chilled. I would need that distant memory later in the afternoon. The lapping of the water, a lullaby that almost made me forget I still had a long journey back.
Cognizant that sun and heat were not on my side and would only grow more intense as the afternoon wore on, I departed the cool waters and headed east. The expanse of which did not thrill my eyes as my destination’s alluring views had. I had a long, hot, and dry solo journey ahead of me.
It’s funny what you think about when you realized you weren’t thinking when you packed your pack. I did not bring enough water for one thing – a very bad one thing to do… I started playing a game with myself – when I crossed a footbridge or suspension bridge I could take a sip of water. While the river that rushed next to me could be a source of water, it was only a tease as accessing that rapid refreshment wasn’t as easy or safe as needed. I felt my skin dehydrating and crinkling. Small patches of shade created by the brush were like desert oases to my eyes. And then I discovered the biting flies – I had sweated away all the bug repellant I had previously applied and now the flies were hungry. If I stopped to open my pack they attacked so I just kept walking – as fast as I could – which created a slight breeze – so there was a small blessing realized.
I love challenges like this. No, it is not the same as climbing a peak, but the will to keep going always kicks in whether you are summiting a peak, or enduring a hot, desolate trail. The body can withstand a lot if you train it properly. The mind can too. I can handle days like this long, hard, sweaty – it’s the other ones when I can’t prove myself through physical means that get me.
Needless to say, in 17 miles I learned what a precious commodity water is and reaffirmed how very much I need this natural escape from reality on a regular basis. (It seems lots of people do). That I pretty much had this trail all to myself aside from two backpackers hiking out from a night’s stay and a group of Hutterites in full-garb I met at the end who inquired if they had much farther to go (!!!) was good and bad. Though I detest the masses of people clamoring for selfies on the prime trails, I enjoy meeting the random kindred hiker in the middle of nowhere.
The water of Saint Mary Lake was an incredible reprieve after 6 hours (was that all it was??) in the scorching sun. I wanted to drink the entire lake and let her waves wash me away. The fact that I left my car window wide open and nothing had been disturbed – was a sign that there is still lots of good in this world.
A long hot day is once again in the books. Another page in the adventures of Erika Morck written. I am grateful for it.
Everything is as good or as bad as our opinion makes it. -C. S. Lewis
“How was COVID for you?” Mamie asked, her smile warm, her inquiry genuine.
We were seated next to each other in chair groupings according to our ticket purchase, Mamie with her husband and daughter and I with myself, awaiting the start of our first live, in-person concert in well over 16 months.
The question gave me pause. So ready was I to respond with the usual masked response. But having realized over the time of COVID how much masking we do throughout our lives, I heard myself saying – challenging. COVID was challenging for me. And then I immediately felt ashamed of my answer. How could I even begin to call my sheltered, relatively healthy (I did break my foot!), overwhelmingly quiet, pretty-much-the-same-as-before- existence COVID-experience challenging? Aside from not being able to sing, let alone perform with the 3 choirs I sing in or go to church in person for much of the time, or working by myself in the office for 6 weeks, or wearing a mask in public and confined places – my personal tangible life really wasn’t all that affected by COVID. I still took my morning runs and evening walks with my dog in the great outdoors without a mask, I still went hiking, I still had a job, I put the same food on my table and still had a roof over my head. I need not list the challenges this past year (and then some) has presented the world with to make my personal plight sound positivity absurd. We have all witnessed the havoc of the pandemic with the addition of sudden, unexpected storms, wildfires, economic, political, and social upheaval and loss, so much loss.
Moments earlier, I had entered the performance hall with butterflies in my stomach. A combination of excitement, dread, joy, and sorrow danced or perhaps more honestly – churned inside of me, and I wasn’t even performing! Excitement for what I knew was going to be an amazing night of music, dread because I was emerging from the comforts of my solitude completely solo and self-conscious, joy over seeing smiles again and feeling the warmth of people close by, and sorrow for the loss of 16 plus months of the life I knew and the lives lost during this pandemic time. It felt so good to be on a stage again. But the other part of me wondered at just how much has changed over this period of disrupted lives and livelihoods.
As Mamie awaited the details of my answer, she provided a different take. As an introvert she offered honestly, that she “relished every COVID moment.” Later comments from the audience highlighting their accomplishments in response to their “COVID-time experience” made me wonder if I hadn’t wasted the pandemic. The comparison trap had pulled me right in. Had I failed at this too?
How was COVID for you?
I spoke to my more-seasoned cousins who live in San Francisco in a “cozy” abode overlooking the Bay Bridge a few days ago. We talked frequently during the more turbulent and downright scary times of the pandemic and I often wondered at just how different our experiences were. They were, for a time, confined to their home. When they did venture out, they wore masks everywhere. Her husband turned into a master bread baker and baked bread for the entire neighborhood, delivering loaves to doorsteps on a weekly basis. Now, they were fully vaccinated and enjoying the new freedom of breathing fresh air after most of California’s restrictions were dropped (much, much later than the relatively few we had here in MT). BUT- she laughed – they were completely exhausted! Now their grown children and grandchildren wanted to come visit – ALL THE TIME! They had grown accustomed to their quiet sanctuary and now felt overrun by what was once the “occasional” visit. It’s funny how our perspectives can change.
Two dear friends of mine lost their fathers to COVID. One of them just recently laid her father to rest – after 9 months of waiting until it was “safe” to do so. Another friend’s husband passed away from pancreatitis – a complete shock to everyone – their children were unable to be with their father in his last days and my friend only allowed to sit with him in his last hours – fully masked of course. Another was diagnosed with cancer and had to navigate this difficult diagnosis on her own – no hugs for comfort, no groups for support. How will they be now, living into their very real “new normal?”
My challenges were of a far more personal sort – I was forced to spend time with me – grappling with who I am after a failed marriage one month prior to the pandemic setting in. The monotony of just getting through life became my safe place and default. I truly felt like I was on the outside looking longingly in on the lives of others – while placing my own on the burn pile. This pandemic time for me has been a time of waiting and discerning and waiting some more. I am not a patient person when it comes to what tomorrow will bring – I like to be in the know, you know? Wondering throughout, just what God is up to – if anything – was and is challenging!
I am certain that alongside all the accomplishments achieved by my fellow audience members as well as those whose lives seemed so much better than mine, they too had times of darkness, woe, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. I am sure some of them feel they too failed the pandemic. Some of us are just much better at showing our brilliant sides than say, me.
It is remarkable just how differently we all experienced this time of pandemic, complicated even more by the social and political upheaval that clung to the virus’s coattails. Despite the initial “we are all in this together” mantra, we quickly siloed ourselves off into what I call our own individual Twilight Zones of Stranger Things. As we begin to emerge from our respective COVID-worlds, how will you be?
Many will be carrying the burdens of lingering illness, loss, regret, and unfinished changes taking place in their lives. How will they be?
We have lived physically, philosophically, and politically polarized from each other for some 15 months. Learning how to show ourselves again and how to interact with one another will be an interesting time in our societal evolution. How will we be?
If the post-concert atmosphere is any indication, I have hope it will be a time of heavy hearts mixed with joy, tears brightened by laughter, fear assuaged by warm conversation, anxiety dampened by anticipation, and genuine smiles that light the way to a more gracious way of living with one another, again.
Let your light so shine!!!
Last night I enjoyed my first live concert in 16 months! By. Myself.
This was huge for me. Not only is music an intrinsic part of my being, but doing this on my own was life-giving! You see 18 months ago, my brief marriage ended. Up until my marriage, I was just fine being independent, doing things on my own for my own enjoyment. It is what I had known for most of my adult life. Sure, at times I longed for a companion, but I did not let that stop me from enjoying life. But then my marriage ended and COVID hit and I found myself navigating this all too strange world by myself and something happened to me. My singleness suddenly became something that was to be ashamed of, I was alone and had no one to “pod” with and God forbid I reach out to anyone for fear of burdening their already COVID-stressed lives with my neediness. And so, for the last 16 or so months I have been trying to pick up the pieces of my life by myself – and growing more and more inward and self-conscious of my singleness. The monotony of just getting through became my safe place and default. I started to think that I didn’t deserve to enjoy things on my own – that I had too much work to do – both real tangible work – and cleaning up the broken pieces of my life.
Well last night, the COVID-cancelled concert season I had bought my single season-tickets for long before COVID hit resumed and I had to make a decision – did I dare go, alone?
I almost didn’t. I had spent 4.5 hours mowing the lawn (push mower) and was tired. I could easily have taken a hot shower and spent the evening on the patio with a book. BUT I didn’t.
I am friends with Mike, the creator of this concert series and one of the main performers. This was a special night for him, his first live concert in 16 months. He needed an audience!! Because I am a sponsor, I get reserved seats. When I arrived at the performance center for this “concert in the round” where we sit right on stage with the performers, there it was – a single seat saved for me in the front row. Mike greeted me heartily when he saw me come in and the rest was history. The couple sitting in the next seat grouping told me to move my seat over and join them! I had never met them before and they have no idea what a gift from God that small act of compassion did for my soul!
Coincidentally, the opening song, a Larry Gatlin oldie I had never heard before almost made my already emotional state of joy of just being on a stage again, spill over my cheeks:
She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
A broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place
Her love is like a fortress around a man she would have died for
Taking care to take of all he needed
But the ladies fortress slowly turned into a prison
And the warning signs he gave, she never heeded
She vowed every morning that what God joined together
No one else in the world could pull apart
Then the walls came tumbling to the ground
And her world came crashing down around her heart
Now she’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
A broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place
She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mendedBroken Lady – From the album High Time, written by Larry Gatlin
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place
It was a magical night and I left floating – by. myself. I am not putting my life on hold waiting for my pieces to be put back together any longer. I finally accepted and believed that my worth is not measured by my relationship status! I am not a failure – my marriage failed. I deserve to enjoy life – as much if not more than I did before. Blessings to all of you who may be on a journey to put your broken pieces back together! I feel just a little more whole today!
We talk about it, think about it, hear about it, accuse it, and deny it – but trust me – if you are enjoying any moment of this weekend – you are privileged. A profound thank you to those who died in service to our country – whose sacrifice I most certainly have not lived up to – but am eternally grateful for.
As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal? Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?
The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested. And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land – the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high! Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself!
The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send? What would I do?
The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid. Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display. And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.
This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?
What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me? How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time? What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?
The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust. McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).
McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.
How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them. If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.
Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.? Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.
Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.
As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.
And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment. Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.
“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message
LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!
I have come to dread the second weekend in May, for the sadness it brings, the shame I feel for the envy I harbor, and the stark truths it reveals about me and my place in this world beginning from my first exuberant breath to this moment as I write of yet another Mother’s Day – survived.
Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deeply as any mother could love a headstrong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Of course, there were wonderful memories – or I wouldn’t feel so conflicted about our relationship still today. She was a wonderful Brownie leader, tender of tummy aches, and mom to the wayward kids on the block. We became best buds when it was just the two of us for a cold Virginia winter when my dad was away on an extended trip and schooling and my brother was away at college. But my best and fondest memories of my mother and me together all occurred before I was 13. And then things began to change. I was growing up and those changes meant the world would also have an influence on me. I can count on one hand the times my mother and I had a joyful, in-depth conversation about life. Those we did have quickly deteriorated into expressions of her fears for what would happen to me “if” or judgment-tinged commentaries beginning and ending with “you are so much better than that.” I knew much more about how difficult her life was than whether or not she ever believed in me.
Ironically, it was in the throes of my 7-year dance with death a.k.a. Anorexia, that she began to encourage me, to tell me that those who were “judging” me simply didn’t understand, that she was thin too and was the envy of her friends and sisters. Even as I laid in ICU with less than a 30% chance of survival if a miracle didn’t happen, she “fought” against the “system” that was “failing at every step” to save me. Defending me when psychiatrists suggested a problem, denying that there was something wrong with her daughter. When I finally hit rock bottom, faced down death, and accepted the journey to wellness outside of my mother’s realm she refused to accompany me. As I boarded the plane to travel to my saving place – Remuda Ranch – all 78 pounds of me and still in critical condition, my mother was at home refusing to see me off. I remember looking back down the ramp – and seeing my father and godfather standing together with their utmost love veiled by a dread that they might not see me again shadowing their faces. The same two men whose frustration with me often led to bursts of anger because they couldn’t understand – now stood behind me in love.
After 4 rides in an ambulance and 7 years in and out of the hospital with my final stay lasting from New Year’s Eve until Memorial Day, my mother still insisted there was nothing wrong with me. I so wanted to believe that. For once we had something we could share! But that very thing joining us would prove fatal to me if it was allowed to continue. I was gone for 4 months. During that time Mom sent me care packages of piano music for me to play on the ranch’s grand piano, new dresses as I “outgrew” the ridiculously small ones she had sewn for me because nothing in any store any where would fit my skeletal body, and she wrote me notes that reminded me of the lunch box notes she would write me when I was a child – before her depressive anxiety began to take over her life.
When I returned home from treatment, I didn’t have a cent to my name. Having worked and paid my way through college what money I did have was depleted by astronomical medical bills. Insurance companies didn’t cover treatment for mental illness back then. So, I returned to the family home to begin life anew. I had changed. I had grown. I had a new story and a new perspective of myself. My mother had not. This would be a point of contention between us for the rest of our life together.
I have been in recovery now for 26 years. I am 64 pounds heavier today than I was at my lowest point. Though it was a pivotal point in our relationship, I do not blame my mother for what I went through. Psychiatrists coaxed me to believe that it was my mother at the root of my problems but I never once placed that onus on her. My eating disorder was a manifestation of my desperate need to have some sort of control in my life and be good at something. I mastered both. According to the plethora of doctors and specialists who worked on “my case” and the numerous studies asserting Anorexia (especially as extreme as my situation was) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, I am a walking miracle but not one without scars. My eating disorder ravaged my body. 7 years of starvation will do that. I would learn that I could never have children, that my bones would forever be susceptible to breaks, that I must always, always treat food as a medium for life and not something that could bring me pleasure or cause me distress, and that well-meaning inquisitive people would always find my weight to be an acceptable conversation topic. Exercise had always been and remains my means of escape, my coping mechanism, and my Achilles heel. Told by doctors that the fact I was a runner with a strong heart was the only reason I survived the starvation-induced cardiac arrests (plural) – I remained certain that I could never do too much of a good thing. This too has been a hard-learned lesson as I continue down the never-ending road of recovery – and one I am still learning – 26 years in!
Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries on my relationship with my mother but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. No matter the strife between us, I always loved my Mom as much as I felt beholden to her.
Finally putting a physical boundary of 400+ miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our long-distance phone conversations, rather than constantly butting heads with me, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life and she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. How comically ironic that I would end up where she once lived “some of her happiest days” as a young woman right here where I am now. Sadly, by that point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.
As I reflect on 50 years as my mother’s daughter my heart aches for the young woman I was and for the woman she was too. To think we are solely responsible for who we are is naivete at its worst. As I struggle with my own place in life right now, I have wondered just what brought her to be who she became to be.
Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.
King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:
“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”
Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.
Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our lives as we walked through her final winter together.
I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home – but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.
For all these reasons, Mother’s Day haunts me. This day of celebrating the gift of life that mothers give reminds me of all that I lost and all I will never be. There are times I see my mother’s nature of sadness in me – and it strikes a paralyzing fear in me that I might be following in her steps towards darkness. But I take comfort too, in that I am my mother’s daughter just as much as I am my father’s and my father loved her to the very end. As my Daddy’s girl, I know I will be okay. God has blessed me with tools of His light and my own life experiences to fight the darkness that robbed me of my mother’s best days.
One of Mom’s favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.
It has become one of my favorites, too.
Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.
And when I do, I will sing because I know you are happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. I’ll smile at the sight of every sparrow because I’ll know you are right here, with me.