Wednesday, August 26, 2015

saying yes

When I started parenting, there were so many things that I was never going to do. You know, arbitrary moral-ish type items. A lot of them are just my own standards - I don't pretend any type of holiness or extra morality over them...they were just things I do and don't like when it comes to parenting styles and children. Random things like (and don't judge me here. I know some of them sound stupid) not letting my kids go to dances, making my son have his shirt on outside even when it's hot, not painting my little girls' nails, putting a onesie on my babies at all times, not piercing the girls' ears, etc. Mostly appearance type things that really have no bearing on real life problems or solutions, but just existed in my head as standards for our family. I wouldn't say I have no reason for these standards - I do have valid reasons for all of them; it's just that those reasons aren't life or death, future threatening reasons.

One of those 'things' happened to be class trips. We don't really do overnights for safety reasons. There are a couple families that we know well and that have a specific familial make-up that we are comfortable with that I will allow my kids to go to their houses, but we're talking once or twice a year usually. The oldest has gone to church camp the past couple years, but understand - this was difficult for me. I did not love camp as a child, and beyond that, I have heard enough stories from the teenage boys in our former youth pastor days to be more than a little leery of the locker room behavior that occurs. We sent him off with prayers and a little gratefulness for the break from all the early teenage angst.

Then comes this 8th grade class trip. The expensive one to Washington, D.C. I have so many objections. So many. The separation of the haves from the have-nots. The dangers of having 100+ kids away from their parents for four days. The sheer expense of it all. The chaperone situation. On and on. I actually didn't even consider it. Sign-ups were last year, and they sailed by. This fall, the pressure to go came back with a vengeance. Let's put aside my irritation with the teachers pressuring kids to do an expensive extra-curricular in the classroom, and go forward to the point when our son presents us with a contract he had typed up himself, outlining a payment plan for him to pay us back for the trip and the pros and cons for him going, complete with fanciful calligraphy font and signature lines. He'll be irritated when I say this, but it was adorable.

Due to his commitment to his project, we decided we had to give it a more serious consideration. At which point, we surprisingly found ourselves coming up with our own negotiations to counter his contract with. My objections? Almost completely answered, down to hired hotel security guards that are stationed in each hallway for the night shift to assure that no one comes our of their rooms.

That's how I ended up in a crowded cafeteria to sign my son up for the White House tour and figure out room assignments, and that's when I re-discovered how crazy I am about my son. He already had three roommates eager for him to join their room as soon as they found out he was attending, but one of his other classmates came up at the meeting to ask him if he had a roommate. This kid didn't have a single person to share with. Of course, my mama heart was bleeding for this kid who is, from all I can see, completely sweet and kind, but I wasn't about to force my son away from the first group.

First thing he did the next morning was come and tell me that he texted his friend, and he still hadn't found any roommates. So he went to the school, on his own initiative, and told the teacher in charge of room assignments that he needed to switch. He talked to his other friends and explained the situation. If this had been just a case of our son switching from one group of friends to another, I'm not sure I would've cared. But I sat in that cafeteria and watched all the other kids match up in groups of three and four, watched this kid cross the cafeteria specifically for my son, and watched him leave after realizing he was already in another room.

I asked some questions later. You know, why this kid didn't have other friends. Why the other kids didn't like him. All the usual probing questions a mama wants to find out. According to my son, his friend just has mostly girl friends. He's interested in different kinds of things than most of the other middle school boys. They make fun of him. They call him gay. They do all those crappy middle school behavior things, and my son is still his friend. He told me just because someone's different doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them. He said being quiet isn't a reason to not like someone. He said even if he is gay, what difference would that make in how he should be treated? 

My son and I have been at odds lately. He is in the throes of teenage hormones, and I've been less than generous in my responses. In the middle of the yelling matches, I find it hard to remember that my son is kind and compassionate beyond measure. I forget how completely smitten I am by him and who he is becoming.

This week, I was reminded of how strong he is. How brave. How unafraid he is to be friends with a kid whom others make fun of or to room with a kid that others are calling gay. It clearly never even crossed his mind to consider what others would think of him, and I am so thankful for that. I'm so envious of that, actually. If I could've navigated my school years with half as much grace, I would've been much better off. It took me a lot of years to come to that kind of self-assuredness.

This week, I was reminded of his diligence and commitment to hard work and responsibility. I don't know too many other kids that would plan a year-long contract to repay a debt for a trip they wanted to go on. Not to mention, his repayment schedule solely depends on his hugely underpaid newspaper delivery job that pulls in a regular salary of a whole five dollars per week. He said he didn't include tips or extras because that money is unreliable so he can't depend on it to repay the debt. I mean. My kid.

This week, I was reminded of last year's end of the year awards ceremony. Our oldest has always gotten a plethora of academic awards. I'm happy he is successful at school, but honestly, I'm not that proud of it. It's largely genetics that makes him think in a way that is well-suited for traditional schooling. But last year, he won a different award. A write-in ballot from all of his classmates for the Character Award. Now that's the kind of award I can be proud of. Proof that he is living his life with integrity. Proof that other people can see the light of Jesus in him daily.

This week, I was reminded that sometimes we make decisions for our children that look different than what we imagined our lives would entail. Other people might not approve or understand. Maybe we never expected to say yes to the things we find ourselves saying yes to, but then again, we didn't know the kids we were going to be parenting when we thought about all those things. Every kid is different, and every kid needs parented differently as a result.

I've spent way too much time lately concentrating on the negative, and I just forgot who my son really was. In my willingness to say yes was hidden the truth of all of that. Sometimes the joy and reward of my yes is for more than just my own kids. Sometimes it's for their friends too. And sometimes it's for me. I'm so thankful I said yes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

so loved

I've detailed our struggles with school some in the past. We made some mistakes, for sure. Last year brought us to a near breaking point with one of our kids, and I was worried that we wouldn't be able to find our way back out. His traumatic kindergarten year was beginning to visit itself again in a new classroom, with a new teacher, even in a different school building. Through some tough choices and some concerted effort on both our part and the teacher's part, we ended the year in a glorious wave of success. I have never been more grateful for a teacher in my life, but as summer began, the flush of victory faded, the urgency lessened. My dreams and prayers for my kids' teachers dwindled until it was time for school to begin again.

We got the all-call about posted class lists, but fresh in my mind was the knowledge that my son had to return to the school building he attended during kindergarten. Back to this building where he had such traumatic memories. Different teachers and a different administration, yes, but it also brings the real need for him to ride the bus again. I felt like all the stuff we sacrificed to do last year to help him succeed was impossible this year, and my fear that we would regress back to previous behaviors and intensified fears. I couldn't bring myself to drive the kids by the schools for several days.

When I finally succumbed to their pleadings to find out their teachers, we pulled up to the curb, walked up to those giant windows and nervously scanned the sheets looking for their names. Neither the children nor I were reassured by anything we saw on the papers. We had no personal knowledge of the teachers and no one we knew personally had the one to whom my second grader was anxiety and my guilt over my lack of real concern over the bulk of the summer was not really abated.

I went to open house with an apprehensive heart, armed with our 'introduction' letter for the teacher. We walked the opposite way from that classroom where the ill-fated kindergarten year had taken place and walked into a new classroom that I was earnestly praying would give him a fresh start. Within minutes, I had hope for our son's whole year. It was an easy introduction, the teacher was so responsive to our letter, and by the time we left, I knew she had been a foster parent for fifteen years while her children were smaller. I left the building with far more peace than when we arrived, yet still in prayer for my littles' first days.

Once they left for school that first morning, I spent the whole day in appointments without much time to think about what was going on. I was just resting in the hope from open house. By the time we slowed down at all that evening, I had an email waiting in my inbox from our son's teacher. Before I started reading, that familiar pit in my stomach from the previous years' teacher communications had arrived. 

It wasn't far into it before I knew this communication was different. She explained classroom protocols - and it's a truly positive behavior system! no color cards every day!! - and she outlined ways she had already made efforts to help our son feel safe and secure in her classroom. She explained her background as both a therapeutic foster care worker and parent, she expressed her commitment to working with us, our son, and his therapist if necessary to make this year successful for him.

By the end of the email, I could not hold back my tears. Not only of gratitude for this teacher and her commitment, but just in absolute wonder for how loved my son is. Oh, not by me; I already knew how much I loved him. Not even by his teacher, although that was something I had definitely prayed for. But by the One who created Him and knows Him by name.

We sent our kids to school this week with a verse of promise from Isaiah 43 - a promise that God created them. He formed them. They do not need to fear because God is with them. He has freed them from that. He has called them by name. They belong to Him. Even when the teachers might not remember their names right away, even when the kids might not know who they are, God knows. He knows them so intimately. The very Creator that formed the universe formed my son's heart. He loved him before he was even born, and He loves Him still. He knew the teachers my child needed to counteract what happened to him his first year of school. He knew and He cared even when I forgot to think about it. I can't control all these things that may or may not happen to my son, but there is One who loves my son more than I ever could. He loved him when he was born. He loves him still with such tender care and mercy. 

I know that our son doesn't quite yet get this. He doesn't see how our Jesus is loving him so beautifully. He doesn't see how he's being drawn in with arms of love. But I see it, and it just makes me love Jesus more. I am not the rescuer. I am not the healer. I am not the controller of all circumstances and happenings in my children's life. But I know the One who is. He is my friend, and I love to see how He is patiently waiting and working to become the friend of my children too. This week, there's this song ringing in my heart, and that's how I want to leave you today...with these words that I can sing about myself but have become even more powerful when I can sing the truth of them over my children:

I'm no longer a slave to fear.
I am a child of God

Friday, August 14, 2015

summertime gratitude

In the early summer, I found myself standing in the middle of a weedy, tick-infested Christmas tree field, weeping with gratitude that I had the capacity and opportunity to spend hours with those trimming shears with sweat pouring down my back. 

I've written here before about Grave's Disease and the permanent hypothyroid condition caused by the treatment. Last year, I wrote about anxiety and some of the physical reasons behind that. This summer brought me a new recognition of my previous fragility and a new thankfulness for a well-functioning body. After I was diagnosed with a new chronic illness last year and treated for those symptoms, I felt better than I have in years. I could accomplish things, even manual labor things, without the effort that it took before. I could spend time outdoors, OUTDOORS, in the heat of summer without negative consequences. It really felt magical.

The diagnosis I received last summer is for an autonomic disorder called POTS. The autonomic nervous system, according to Wikipedia, influences the function of internal organs. It's a control system that works unconsciously and regulates bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination, and more. POTS is a syndrome that, at its most basic level, means that my heart and my brain don't communicate as they should. There are a multitude of symptoms associated with POTS, including extreme fatigue, low blood pressure, high heart rates, fainting, digestive issues, heart palpitations, heat intolerance, exercise intolerance, and on and on. I'm on a low dose of a steroid which, combined with a high salt and high fluid diet, has been managing my symptoms swimmingly for the past year.

Until the past few weeks. When I started having several near-fainting episodes, overwhelming fatigue, extreme heart palpitations, and more. But time stops for no man, or syndrome as it may be, so I continued to plow my way through the most stressful month we've had in a very long time, compounded by multiple broken bones in the family, a huge family reunion, and some complicating personal and familial issues. Stress brings an increase in symptoms in this particular disorder anyway, so this became a really, really hard month. 

So it's back to basics until we figure out if it's transient or if I need to switch meds or something else. Yoga every day. Walks, even when I get short of breath just climbing the stairs. Hot tea. Hot tea. Hot tea. And so many naps. When my children speak of the end of this summer, I'm confident they'll talk only about the hours I spent in bed in the afternoon. Or maybe they'll just think about how many hours of video games and movies they consumed while I was resting. Guilt stacks on shame (because there's very little more humiliating than nearly passing out in the eye dr office during a routine test), and I'm once again brought to my knees in humility and dependence.

Even though it's a different kind of gratitude, I am as grateful at the end of this summer as I was at the beginning. I am grateful that I have access to medicine to make my life bearable. I am grateful that I have a health care practitioner that doesn't resort to dulling symptoms with psychiatric drugs but looks for the underlying causes. I am grateful that my children are mostly old enough to care for themselves while I take a necessary nap. I wish that the medicine was working well, and I could work out in the heat like I did at the beginning of the summer, but that's how where I am today. Today, I'm just grateful to sit down when I get too lightheaded. I'm grateful for salty tortilla chips, for tall glasses of cold water, for my essential oil diffuser, and for school starting soon. Practicing gratitude might not come easily when things get rough, but from my perspective, it's a deep inhale in a world where, quite literally, my breath too often comes shallow. It's life.

Where can you find gratitude today? Look for the small things, whether it's triscuit spread with cream cheese or the smile from your littlest. Counting gifts reminds us of who we are and whose we are. It's a direct connection to the things and the One that matters. You won't regret it.

photo credit: Route 91 nr Hatfield via photopin (license)

Friday, July 31, 2015

soapbox friday: in which I am pro-life

My facebook feed is overtaken with Planned Parenthood haters. Truth be told, that recent video makes me feel ill. It's callous, and it breaks my heart that human beings can speak so callously of other humans. I want to hate that woman and all she stands for.


Personally, I'm not a Planned Parenthood hater. I have mixed feelings about this agency. They provide services to women that literally no one else is doing in many, many areas. (Fact Check: Abortions are only 3% of their total services, and by law, no federal funding is permitted to be allocated for abortive services.) They provide contraception, STD testing, ultrasounds, prenatal care, counseling, and so many other necessary services. I have three different friends who were helped in a very specific way by this agency. After rape. After an abortion. After an unplanned pregnancy. They went to Planned Parenthood because their own churches and Christian schools would give them no assistance. You tell me who the callous, hate-filled agency is in those instances. 

That said, it's really all this call for this to be our "moment", for this to be a galvanizing incident for the pro-life movement that's getting me at this particular moment. It's often coupled with ideas of ways to help, most of which do not even begin to address the real problems that lead to abortion. Frequently, it's accompanied by graphic descriptions of what happens to babies when they are aborted. It's awful and makes the stomach churn.

Are you horrified by the description of what happens to babies during an abortion? Me too. But let me tell you about what happens to many of those same babies that aren't aborted. 

Let me tell you about a child who was duct-taped naked to a child's potty so tightly and for so long (more than a full day, actually) that her legs lost circulation and turned blue.

About a child who, as a preschooler, was forced to scrounge for food in the trash to feed herself and her siblings while they were alone, without food or diapers, for hours and hours on end.

What about a child who was walking barefoot through dog and human feces in a home that was so bad that the social worker, who has seen many a dirty home, literally vomited upon entering?

Let me tell you about a child who was not only forced to watch her mother engage in sexual acts with her boyfriends while she was four and five years old, but was also forced to engage in sexual acts herself with those boyfriends.

Or a kid who was locked in a bathroom with only bread crusts to eat.

Or a baby who had a gun pulled on him with threats of murder.

Or a kid who entered foster care with bruises still on their back from abuse that had occurred SIX WEEKS earlier.

What about the baby who had an open sore on the back of her head from sitting in her carseat 24 hours a day? Never picked up. Never cared for.

Let me tell you about what it feels like for a child to know that their mother doesn't want them. Or to know that their parents have chosen drugs again and again and again.

Does that horrify you? Does it? My experience is that most people are more horrified by the thought of abortion than the reality of what these children live through. These are some of the kids that we've met. That we've parented. That's the reality of what it looks like when women choose "life" instead of abortion. This should horrify you. You should want to throw up when you read this, same as when you read the descriptions of what abortion entails.

Are you pro-life? Really?
Because it's about more than calling your congressman. Or funneling money towards that one pro-life women's center in the area. It's about more than sharing articles on facebook.

It's about supporting policies that help women at risk. Expanding government services to those most vulnerable. It's about all of those policies that people love to get angry about: legally mandating that contraceptives are provided free of charge, not requiring drug tests for women to receive food and medical services, paying for mental health care, expanding early childhood education services, providing bus passes, parenting classes, in-home parent aides, and drug rehab. It's about opening more domestic violence shelters, more detox centers, dumping minimum sentencing, allowing felons more rights, and more. 

It's about stepping up and caring for the children whose mamas chose life instead of going through with the abortion. That means exposing yourself and your children to the ugliness of life, yes. It means bringing traumatized, terrified, abused, and neglected children into your safe cozy home. It makes your home less safe, less pretty, more chaotic, but it's what it takes to love and heal a child.

It's about continuing to live in your neighborhood where the neighbors use too much bad language, where the house across the street deals drugs out of their bedroom window, where children come to your door and into your yard at all hours, where your stuff gets stolen out of your cars and garages instead of moving to the country where it's quiet and safe and you don't have to worry about those things. It's putting yourself in the midst of it so you have a chance to make a difference.

It's not about adoption usually. It's about being willing to put your own savior feelings of rescue on the line to commit to help a family do what it takes to remain together and become a safe place for one another. It's about allowing a single mama to live in your extra bedroom. It's about driving her to appointments. It's about providing a dad with a job and very likely, the transportation to get there. It's about loving a child like they came from your very own body, yet still being willing to say goodbye forever when they are ready to move back home to the family they are intended to be a part of.

If you're not willing to be horrified by what these children go through, if you're not willing to step up and put your lives on the line for these women and children, then I would challenge you that you might not be truly pro-life at all. Don't mistake me. I hate that abortion exists at all. Hate it with every part of my being. Life is sacred. ALL of life is sacred. But until we wake up to what's really going on here, until we stand up for what matters most with our hands out in service and surrender to help those who need it the most, saying we're pro-life is just lip service.

Make it real.

Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James 2:17

Thursday, July 23, 2015

learning in solitude

I've been in such a long season (at least it feels long) of holding things tight to my chest, of feeling like I have no safe and secure place to lay it all out there. Every time I speak, I hear the hesitation. The carefully masked words. The vague answers. It's not really who I want to be. It's not really who I am deep inside, but for some reason, there is still something there holding me back. For what? For comfort? For safety? For pride? 

Simultaneously, I feel myself living in greater vulnerability in my alone times. My conversations with God have never been deeper and more fulfilling. Never more honest. Never more demonstrative. It's a weird dichotomy. Perhaps it's the ebb and flow of life - greater vulnerability in one place while drawing back in another. I find myself weeping alone much more often than I cry in public nowadays.

This season of solitude is drawing me deeper, for sure. I've been learning in some very precious ways throughout the past six months that God loves me. Intimately. Deeply. Passionately. It's hard for me to rest in that. I'm a helper, by nature, and sometimes, ok, often, I take my internal value from that instead of from who God made me to be. To BE, not to DO. I search for value outside myself which sets me up for catastrophic failures. Like cake throwing

Then, in my quietness, I read these words, and my soul resonates with the truth of them:
"In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusion of our possessiveness and discover in the center of our own self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us.  In solitude we can listen to the voice of Him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It's there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received. In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness..."
Henri Nouwen

My worth. My life. It's a gift I have received. It's a gift to be shared with others, and when I rest in the love of the One who knows me best, that's when the words flow freely. That's when the love inside of me wells up to those around me. No more throwing cake. I am set free.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

food fights

This past weekend has been extremely full of emotion for all of us. Our Very Big Thing is looking just as impossible as ever, and we have no idea how to feel about it. We have a child who has been in a funk for quite awhile, and things continue to digress between us. As if the continued propensity for running away isn't enough (go ahead and ask me about how I felt when I found said child walking down the busiest major road in our area), things really just came to a head yesterday when I threw a piece of cake at this particular offspring.

You read that right.

I       threw        a            piece         of         cake.

Someday, I'm sure my children will look back at their time at home with their mother and talk about my gentleness and self-control. How long-suffering I was. How I was the calm and steady center of the family. I'm pretty sure that's what they're going to say.

The thing is, this parenting thing is just so very hard, and parenting kids from hard places is even harder. It's hard to explain to parents of kids who have not been through quite as much trauma, because behaviors sometimes look very much like "normal" child behaviors. I wish I could remember exactly where I read it, but someone once described parenting children from hard places as parenting with a highlighter. The words (behaviors) might look the same, but everything is highlighted in neon yellow. There's just something intensifying all these normal looking behaviors. That's our lives right now.

It wears on me. Not only does it take a tremendous amount of emotional and physical energy, not only does it take way more time than anything else in my life, but it also brings me face to face with the ugliest parts of myself. The parts where the child who struggles to believes themselves worthy brings me face to face with my own struggles with worthiness. I'm supposed to be the one teaching them, reassuring them that they are special, that they are  loved, that they are intrinsically worthy, and I can't even believe it about myself. I lose my cool. I yell. I throw cake at my kid.

Let me not delude myself - these moments are not my finest moments,
but instead of thinking all the things that I tell my child over and over,
things like...
our behaviors are not our identities
everyone messes up. we say we're sorry, and we move on.
we can always start again
you are special
you are loved no matter what....

Instead of that, my inner dialogue much more resembles this:
you are the worst mother in the world
no wonder they hate you
their first moms would be horrified to know you're treating them this way
maybe the powers that be made the wrong decision when they decided you could parent this child

and most often:
you are not worthy of love

It's a humbling thing to have your worst behaviors on display for your children to see. It's terrible to realize just how close I am to the most hateful of behaviors on any given day. Coming face to face with all the ugliness in my heart that I thought I had dealt with, but instead is now spewing out at the ones I love the most is awful. I'm scared to think about how my behavior can further harm my child and break their little hearts wide open. Beyond that, I don't like to think of myself as internally fragile, and yet, here I am struggling with the same things as my littles.

Am I good enough?
Will you love me even when I treat you like crap?
Do you still find me precious and beautiful even my behavior is ugly beyond belief?
Am I worthy?

I guess I'm not writing this tonight to just let you see the vulnerable questions of my soul. Or to just give you the assurance that you are a better parent than me. (Did you see the part about the cake? You are a better parent than me.) Really, what I want you to know is that this stuff is hard, and it's ok to admit it. It might not be as visibly hard as someone else's hard, but the minute we start comparing, everybody loses. If you think your stuff is hard, guess what? IT IS. Your stuff is hard. Your feelings are complicated. Some days you are winning, and some days it is utter failure. But you're not alone. I'm right there with you, and my guess is that we're not the only two. So let's do this together.

photo credit: Rainbow Cupcake via photopin (license)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

very big things

You know how when you're on the edge of a Very Big Thing, and it consumes all of your time and emotions and energy? That's me for the past three weeks. Nothing official to be said about this Very Big Thing, but it still is just overwhelming my inner life right now. So much so that I have not spent enough time dealing with the Very Big Things that my children are struggling with.

Today changed that significantly. We got to the bottom of some specific struggles with one of our children and made good progress towards helping another one of our children through their issues. I'm battling a bit of guilt tonight for not being able to push through to the root causes behind some of the most difficult behaviors, but mostly I'm just angry. Angry because it's not fair that children should hurt. It's not cool that I have to hold my children while they cry because another adult in their lives hurt them. It's not ok that little minds and hearts have to bear the weight of grown men and women's stupid decisions.

I don't have answers for my children. I know it's common for American families to have the parents be the ones to keep their kids "safe" and "protect" their children from all the crap that's out there, and to some extent, that's true, but in real life? In the messy everyday of broken lives? It's not like that. It's not all safe. I can't protect them from everything. I can, however, sit beside them and hold them while they cry. I can tell them I hate what's happened to them. I can tell them that it's not right and it's not fair and they deserve better. I can tell them they are loved, no matter what.

I wish today had been different. Sometimes I wish we were a 'regular' family with a white picket fence and Sunday School behavior and no outside weirdness. But then I would miss the beauty that happens when I get to see healing in front of my own eyes. I wouldn't get that bittersweet elation that comes when my kids share something really, really hard with me for the first time. I wouldn't get to appreciate just how far they've come, just how much redemption we're witnessing. And honestly, I wouldn't be who I am today.

Do I regret the stuff that's happened to my kids? For sure.
Do I regret that we did this? That we exposed our oldest two children to hard things? That we welcomed hurt souls into our lives? That we are now a family through the miracle of choosing to love one another rather than just through biology? Not for a minute.

So, in my weeks of Very Big Things, both for us and our kids, I am reminded anew of how appreciative I am of my family. How blessed I am that they call me their mama. How I would do this all again and again, and how I can't wait for the opportunity to do more Very Big Things together.