My Prayers Are Enough (Sort Of)

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There is a disturbing phrase circulating in the aftermath of the most recent tragedy: (Y)our Prayers Are Not Enough. Arising from an (understandable) anger at seeing social evils and similar problems persist, it draws a false dichotomy between prayer and action, implying that you are either a person of prayer, or one of action. But the two are not now and never have been mutually exclusive. Prayer is an act of love for our fellow humans that is taken on the spiritual plane. And prayer is certainly indispensable to many people of action as they go throughout their lives. Of course I agree that it is not meant to replace interpersonal action. Christ commanded his disciples to pray AND act. Not to discard one for the other, more “real” or somehow more superior variety. Prayer is often misunderstood [only] as a means to change our circumstances, like some sort of wish-on-a-star to a Jiminy Cricket God. But it’s first and foremost meant to change us: to transform us and those we pray for with healing, peace, and strength. Is that really something we can do without?

To look at it another way: there are circumstances in my life and health in which the pain, difficulty, and frustration is ongoing. What if I blamed the  prayers of others for that? I still have cerebral palsy and some days it sucks: your prayers are not enough! My mental and emotional wellness are still a constant battle: your prayers are not enough! I am still looking for a job and have had more heartbreaking disappointments on that front than I can count: your prayers are not enough! That would be a ridiculous, smug response. And it would be false. I am able to keep going because my faith and joy and peace have not run out, and that can only be a result of my loved ones going to battle in prayer for my heart and soul. Prayer is an action. It is an act of love for our fellow humans. It is an act of faith. It is something we cannot do without in this world.

Of course, I am not saying that prayer is all we can do, or all we should do, or that only people who pray can do good and make a difference. If we feel our conscience calling us to civic action, we can meet with or write/call our local leaders. If we feel it calling from our community, there are numerous organizations for which we can volunteer that are healing and strengthening our social fabric. If we are very limited on time, we can work with our mentors and spiritual leaders to make sure we are taking action to love our family, friends, and coworkers, and live peaceably with them. There is always something we can do, and always something we should do, to love our fellow people.

Facebook and the share button make it so easy to either convince myself I am taking action, or that my neighbor is not (whichever makes me feel best at the time). If I wanted to, I could spend hours scrolling down and fuming about how little others are doing, or just how wrong they’re getting a social issue or problem. But what action would I be taking other than that of the Pharisee: thanking God that I am not like other men, especially not that one on my feed? Instead, what if I spent my energy actually talking to a friend that needs help, or volunteering, or figuring out how to budget for more giving?

I understand and respect that we will not all have the same gifts to help the world around us; we will feel different calls to action and respond in different ways. For my part, I will continue to pray and continue to pay attention to my conscience and follow its call to action. I will strive not to shame my friends and neighbors if I can’t tell what their acts of love are, or if their callings and gifts to help are different or “smaller” than mine. If I find an action to take, I will try not to despair if my neighbor’s action seems more sweeping and grandiose. I will do my best not to look at others in contempt and judgement, with suspicion and comparison. I cannot stop my efforts to pray and act just because others make different choices or have different priorities, and I cannot let my fear and insecurity that I am not enough immobilize me when I am surrounded by hurting people who need love, friendship and prayer.

**

If you are looking for ways to take action to honor the lives of the people who were lost in San Bernadino, there are many wonderful organizations supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that need volunteers, advocates, friends and allies. Here are a few, but there are many more.

The Arc (find a local chapter)

Sports 4 All Foundation

Best Buddies (look on the left sidebar to search by state)

Friends Life Community

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The Chief of Sinners: Sin, Judgement, and Responsibility

“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all long-suffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” 1 Timothy 1:12-16, NKJV (emphasis added)

“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”- Orthodox Christian prayer, recited before receiving Holy Communion (emphasis added) 

***

Who’s to blame?

Many assume when reading the oft-quoted verse from 1 Timothy (1:15) that the Apostle Paul was making a unique assertion that he is the chief of sinners, since he says so after describing his former life as a blasphemer, murderer and persecutor of Christians. Oh, look how humble he is. Isn’t it amazing? However, a closer look reveals it was already a trustworthy saying, likely being used in the liturgical life of the Church in light of our unworthiness to receive communion (as it still is now).

So in light of the prayers of the early church and the teachings of the saints who established and nurtured it, each Christian is the “chief of sinners”. He was not holding himself up as an exception, but an example of the outlook he expected his entire flock to have. If I am claiming to be a Christian, my apostolic instructions are to fully accept the truth of this in my life. Of course, this is not to suggest that it is godly or otherwise healthy to self-loathe [in the same passage, he also refers to God’s “exceedingly abundant” grace and mercy multiple times, and we should remember that same love and mercy is given to us].

To be the chief of sinners merely means that the only comparison I should be making to determine sinfulness is one: between myself and Christ. And finding the worst sinner between me and Jesus is kind of a no-brainer.

One of my recent posts was about influence vs. concern. The circle of influence is my own life and the things I can change, while the circle of concern is everything outside of what I can influence. To think of sin in those terms, the only thing I can really change is my own sin, so that is my primary responsibility. And its effects in my life are worse, more prominent, and more damaging than the sins of others.

But look what he’s doing- and we go to Church together!

Of course, if I am already comparing myself to Jesus, it will inform the way I see the sins of other Christians.  Jesus says in the Gospels that my focus should be on removing the plank from my own eye before helping my brother with the speck in his (Matt 7:1-5). Is he saying others in the Church don’t sin, or that I shouldn’t help my fellow Christians who are struggling? Of course not. But I should be making active efforts to repent and be healed of my own sins first. I shouldn’t proclaim disgust with sin only when I see it in someone else. If I do help someone I have to make sure I am mature enough to help, be careful of my motives and be willing to share in the burden of responsibility on my part (Gal 6:1-4). Long story short, no one is immune from the tendency to judge.

Okay. But really, whose fault is it? Theirs, right?

It only takes about 5 seconds logged into Facebook or in front of the TV to see the evil in the world. Every story seems to be worse than the last. It’s easy to blame the world for the condition it’s in; we chalk up the state of things to their violence, their hatred, their evil, their moral bankruptcy. If there is backlash for their choices it serves them right. If they are treated with lenience then there is no justice.

How I feel about the moral failings of others [and how I respond when sin is put on display for public comment] says a lot about the condition of my own heart and soul.

“The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”- CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

Does every article about the despicable dealings of the world make me happier not to be a participant? Am I eager to share the terrible story without bothering to fact-check it? If it turns out to be false, am I grateful, or angry?

If I am self-satisfied when I see the failings of someone whose values are opposed to mine, there is something wrong with my values. If I am first in line to shame their behavior, I cannot love them. Do I get a sick sense of pleasure from how right I am or how wrong they are? If so, I am just as devilish.

In the same way I am able to make the right choices, it is very easy for me to sin. And while I may sin in different ways from someone else, it is no less bad when I do it. Furthermore, although I can help others to change, I cannot truly judge them. Not because I can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, but because I cannot be sure that my judgement would be the same one Jesus would make. Thus as his follower who is meant to reflect him to the world, my goal should be love, prayer and repentance on behalf of all. Only when I have drawn others to him through love and prayer is it possible for change and healing to take place. Without focusing on my own sin first and foremost, I cannot love. And without love, I am nothing.

merry christmas, you little punk.

Last night, while waiting for some friends in a local coffee house, I struck up a conversation with a mother and son. They were popping in to grab something warm and toasty to drink, on their way to the Christmas parade.

This isn’t my first rodeo, people. I know there’s one reason- and one reason alone- why droves of people would freeze their tail off for hours, after navigating the labyrinthine street closures to do so. So, I turned to the boy, about age eight, and asked him the all-important question.

“So, are you excited to see Santa in the Christmas parade?”

At this, the kid and his mother smirked at me, as if to say to one another “Oh, that poor differently-abled girl is right off her rocker”. Instead of that, however, the little boy says something much more insidious.

“I don’t believe in Santa,” he said flatly, as if I should know better than to ask him such a ridiculous question.

I looked to his mom, disbelieving in my own right, only for her to answer, “He knows.”

“Knows what?” I said.

“He’s not real,” the little boy said, a bit exasperated, “Santa’s not real.”

“What?!” I was thunderstruck by this revalation, “That’s impossible. I just talked to him yesterday! He has to be real.” [I had just had my photo taken the night before with Santa and the Missus. They told me I had been good that year-thankyouverymuch- and said they would see what they could do about getting me a good job with a nonprofit, which is what I asked for as a Christmas gift.]

The little kid and his mother, who continued to look at me with a mixture of pity and polite irritation, then proceeded to explain to me that Santa, as we know it, was  based on Saint Nicholas, who was from the Netherlands, and is now dead. I was also informed that he made wooden toys.

Saint Nick

The kid was part right. Western Santa is based on Sinterklass [who David Sedaris satirizes perfectly in his classic essay, “Six to Eight Black Men“].

But- unbeknownst to the pre-adolescent skeptic- before Sinterklass, there was Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nick was a Turkish bishop in the Orthodox Church, known for the far-reaching and secret nature of his generosity. He was also a miracle-worker, and was often known to use this spiritual gift to help people that were poor, or in otherwise great need.

The intellectual part of me understands that this man is not the same one in the mall, flanked with elves, listening to hordes of kids field their requests for X-Boxes and dirt bikes. But the rest of me wholeheartedly believes that Nicholas is with us in spirit, and that, even as he exists in the Western myth, he comes into prominence this time of year to remind us of something: the importance of true, unabashed childlike faith.

I read this great blog last night that I think hits the nail on the head. We hurry kids off to adulthood, and we get lost in it ourselves. There is nothing wrong with responsibility and maturity. But there is a problem when we encourage kids to dispense with faith, or when we rationalize it in our own lives.

Santa works for kids because kids have no problem with believing that something fantastic can be possible. The very faith that thrives in the heart of children and drives the magic of the Christmas holidays is the same one every Christian is called to (Matthew 18:3).

As much as I appreciate the dose of humility that comes with being condescended to by an eight-year-old, I found myself frustrated and disheartened, not so secretly hoping he would find enough coal to power a locomotive in his stocking. Not only was he being a bit of a punk. He was 0ff-base.

Look, kid. Just because you can’t see someone in body, does not mean they are not present with you in spirit. And just because it’s unable to be understood or explained, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Faith is greater than rationalism, it supersedes cynicism. It triumphs over doubt, intellect, and knowing best. For this reason, I will set out milk and cookies. I will pray with gratitude when I celebrate Nativity, and I will encourage wonder in the hearts of children and adults who cross my path.

Because faith is one of the hallmarks of Christmas Spirit. And though it is entrusted in a unique way to the children of each generation, I hope we all take time to guard and nurture the faith in our own hearts.

Life Reigns

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:5b-6a

In the Orthodox Church, Pascha (Easter) is kind of a big deal. Actually, it is a huge deal. It is the brightest and most beautiful day of the year. It is known as the Feast of Feasts and the end of the  fast (Lent + the week before Pascha), with the feasting period lasting a full forty days [and I am not kidding about the feasting part]. It all starts around 11:00 PM on Saturday night. Yes, you read that right. The church is completely dark, and after a few prayers, the priest lights his candle with the flame from the altar, and from that light, all of the faithful light their candles; all the while singing a hymn about the Light of Christ. Everywhere you look, people are grinning from ear to ear, the children are too excited to stand still. But we’re not there yet.

There is then a procession around the church singing hymns, everyone with candles lit. Then everyone gathers at the closed doors of the church, the Priest reads from the Gospel, and for the first time, sings the Paschal hymn:

“Christ is Risen from the dead
Trampling down Death by Death
And upon those in the tombs,
Bestowing Life!”

Then the congregation sings this hymn together, and we enter the sanctuary again. It is now brightly lit, with white adornments and lilies, to match the white robes worn by the clergy. There are various other hymns, all about the Ressurection and the victory it offers the world.

It is througbout this time the priests will walk quickly through the center of the aisle, swinging the censer (full of incense) and exclaiming”Christ is Risen” as loud as they can. The people shout out the response to the Paschal greeting: “He is Risen indeed!”. Often this is done in a variety of different languages. This is one of my favorite parts of the service, because it is the first time a true celebration breaks out: shouting, beaming smiles, and candles raised. We have arrived. Truly He is Risen.

After Communion, the central point of the service, it’s time to go to the fellowship hall for the feast.

All the families in the church have brought baskets full of food they’ve missed during Lent (think every imaginable thing you could make with meat or dairy involved and you begin to get some idea). By this time, it is around 2:00 AM. Even though we are all exhausted, the joy is palpable. We eat and drink our fill of everything-from fine wine to deviled eggs and Bacon Wrapped Anything- and we rejoice together. Later the same afternoon, we come back for prayers of thanksgiving, the reading of the Gospel, and another huge meal.

As a newbie, I often struggle with talking or writing about my new expressions of Faith. Because there are so many layers, and so many questions I still have, that I feel like I don’t do it justice. But I just wanted to share some of the unique and beautiful highlights of a day that is so very joyous and sacred to so many people. I hope all of you had an Easter full of blessings, peace and light.

I wanted to leave you all with the amazing Paschal homily, which we hear each year before Communion as part of the service right before the feast. I hope it encourages you. It’s springtime. It is a time of growth and starting over. It is a time when everything is made bright and new. For He is Risen indeed!

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
“O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.

gratitude adjustment

I haven’t written since Tuesday night- pretty unbelievable for someone who overwhelms you with Tweets and status updates every time she writes a word, I know. But I have been a busy bee, people! Because things are all out of order, I am going to start with the moral(s) of the story, and toss in some characters and a plot when you least expect it.

The moral(s) of the story is/are:

We should always be looking for the lessons life is trying to teach us because they will bring with them blessings; there will always be reminders of things to be grateful for.

For this helpful reminder, I would like to thank the following:

A Child: This morning, after a period of prayer, study, and inquiry, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church and were able to take our first communion there. This afternoon, we participated in a Forgiveness Vespers (prayer service). After the regular prayers are finished, the clergy and their wives begin asking one another for forgiveness and extending forgiveness to one another, in turn. Then the congregation does so with the clergy, and then with one another. The process goes on until everyone present has asked for, and received, forgiveness from everyone else. It is truly an experience! The most moving part of it is that the littlest children participate, embracing you and asking for, then extending, forgiveness! Not a dry eye in the house after that!

I realized that, great and small, we all need each other. And when we celebrate others with gratitude, our relationships are fortified.

As I cross this new threshold on my spiritual journey, I am rendered so grateful for the foundation laid at home, by other church leaders, and by spiritual and godly people I have met throughout life. Without all of those twists and turns, hills and valleys, I would not have ended up on this path. I have love and respect for all of you and remember you in my prayers.

A Stranger: To harken back to my previous post, last Wednesday evening was spent with the prettiest guy I’ve never met. Despite all my delusions of grandeur, that is precisely what John Mayer is to me: a complete stranger who hasn’t the slightest clue I live and breathe. However, his heartfelt apology for some especially unsavory remarks really resonated with me. Because he forced himself to become reacquainted with humility. In doing so, he discovered that where humility is, gratitude will be there, tagging along.

Since then, John’s example has given me an easy recipe for perspective. Step one: acknowledge that I can’t conquer demons, master reinvention, or do a single significant thing without vital love, input, and support from others. Step two: embrace and employ gratitude. Reinvention and conquest will follow accordingly. Repeat as necessary.

[You’ll be alright, John. Thanks for coming through for the people who have supported you. I still believe in you, and know that you will only emerge from this situation stronger, now that you’ve gained  some awareness. There will always be angry people, but- as you reminded us in Nashville, there will always be people in your corner.]

A Recession: I have been out of graduate school, unemployed, and living at home for around 14 months now. Time flies when you’re needing funds. At any rate, the job market shows no sign of giving me a break, for crying out loud. Not to mention that people with disabilities tend to face some unique challenges when it comes to finding employment. Aside from fear-based discrimination, many “means to an end” jobs [like working in a restaurant, in retail, or as a barista] are not options for people with physical disabilities, as they require significant mobility and dexterity. I’m pretty sure you know already those are not two of my strong suits.

All that to say that things seem a little bleak right now. But after thinking about a lot of other things the past few days (including aforementioned ones, of course), I have realized that without living at home, I would not have had as much time with my family, friends, and the new people I’ve met as I have. I would not have been likely to finish the children’s book, much less start to submit it to publishers and editors. I would not have spent so much time in cafes and been able to consider starting the coffee blog.

Being out of a job and out of school has forced me to forage for other opportunities. Though nothing has come to fruition yet, there are certainly things going on below the surface. Maybe life will finally blossom when the sun returns.

In the meantime, I wait. I grin. I bear it. I am thankful.

carry moonbeams home in a jar?

“Would you like to swing on a star,
Carry moonbeams home in a jar,
And be better off than you are?
Or would you rather be a fish?”-

from “Swingin’ on a Star” (written by Burke/VanHuesen, made popular by Frank Sinatra)

I am very much a night owl. I find it easier to work at night, easier to focus – and I am generally more open to creative thinking as it gets later. It takes my insides much longer to wake up than my outsides.

One of the things I love best about night time is the stars. They have been a muse for us people-beings as long as they’ve been perched in the heavens. G*d numbers them and knows their names. They shine like a lover’s eyes. They mark the passage of centuries and the birth of kings. And they’re dang good for wishin’.

Wishing on stars is very romantic. Well, any kind of wishing is romantic. The idea that you can send a thought straight up to the cosmos just by thinking it- the ability to be freed from the constraints of rationalism when the clock strikes 11:11- there is something beautiful and bewitching about that.

I was talking to someone once about wishing, and she said the wishes we make are kind of like little prayers. Well, what if they weren’t kind of like that, but exactly like that? What if- when you wished for the phone to ring and it be someone special, or for the sky to rain jellybeans- you were actually petitioning the Divine?

I understand that many people find wishing superstitious- and not everyone who will read this is the praying kind. And that’s okay!  But everyone has wished. Every single person has hoped against hope for something that seems impossible to happen at some exact moment of his or her choosing.

Wishing connects us.

I love thinking about that- connectedness – how somewhere out there is another person thinking the same thing, wondering the same wonders, asking the same questions that I am. And I love being reminded that the world is bigger than just me and life is bigger than just this moment.

Wishing came up in conversation again last night- and I realized when I made my wish that wishes allow us to consider the impossible- to hope for the unimaginable- and with great enthusiasm. . . “Please. please, please!” we whisper. For one moment, in one tick of the clock, we have unreasonable, exuberant faith.

Children are very good at wishing- because they have that sort of faith all the time. When you are a child, nothing is impossible, whatever you are wishing for just hasn’t happened yet. Children don’t feel the need to explain, justify, or rationalize anything.

Last night, I got to thinking- there is no reason why I shouldn’t allow myself to think like that: on a clear night, when I see identical numbers on the clock face, or anytime. And that’s good news for a girl with a head full of aspirations and a hankering to own a tiny Hawaiian stringed instrument.

So clear your head, blow out some candles, synchronize your watches- and  take a moment to consider the impossible.

Think like a child. Close your eyes.  Make a wish.

Or would you rather be a fish?

the home stretch

School is almost over. I mean, really over. Like I will be done with school for all eternity in about 6 weeks. I cannot believe it. I still have so much to do. Too much to even contain in the vast void of the Internet. Piles and piles of stuff to be read and written and done and sent and not enough time or motivation or smarties inside of me to get it all done. At least that’s how it feels. The closest thing I can compare it to is the breaks going out at the top of a hill {bear with me even though I don’t drive}. You keep going faster and faster and it seems like there’s nothing to be done until you crash into a bazillion pieces at the bottom. So you hold your breath and hang on for dear life and hope you live through your epic collision with reality without having a steering wheel as a permanent appendage.

The thing about me is that I seem to perpetually get myself into academic rough spots. Not just because I procrastinate, which I do, but because I get overwhelmed. Yet, and here’s the interesting part, not only do I seem to work well, if not better, under pressure, but I have never been in a situation where I haven’t gotten everything done. So why do I worry so much? I’ve been here before, right? The Lord has gotten me through every other imaginable academic hurdle. There’s a great gospel song that says something like “I know He didn’t bring me this far to leave me”…and He didn’t. I’ve got to remember that.

In case I needed more evidence that the (near) impossible can happen, a more unified America than I have seen in a while elected a president of color in the same lifetime of millions of people who grew up victims of racism, prejudice, and segregation. Our president-elect represents hope and optimism, to be sure. But he has also proven to be forthright and proactive when faced with some pretty intense economic hurdles, not to mention international conflict and a high unemployment rate. He isn’t perfect (and isn’t claiming to be), but he is so much of what we seem to need right now. Just days after the election, he has already laid out an economic plan and has begun assembling a Cabinet, while meeting with the current administration to strategize for his transition. 

I was thrilled Tuesday night, and my excitement has continued as I think about the things that I’m hoping will happen for our country. Big things. And they’re getting closer, at least for the “whole”. I’m hoping that they’re around the corner for me, too.