A reader commented on my last post, asking me what I thought about obedience. What a great question!
According to Online Oxford Dictionary, obedience is “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”
Before we continue, let me make clear this is not a religious discussion. I know obedience is an important idea in a religious context, and I respect many people of faith have specific expectations about obedience as it pertains to their belief system, whatever that may be. I’m not a religious scholar, nor do I follow any formal religious framework, so I don’t feel capable of exploring that aspect of obedience.
However, the concept of obedience is everywhere because we are social creatures and naturally form ourselves into groups. Where there are groups there are power dynamics, and, for me, obedience is about power.
Power, by the way, is not love. It’s important to be clear about that.
Obedience is a timely topic, because the coronavirus crisis has changed and limited our lives in many ways, whether we agree with the necessity for masks, social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines or not.
The choice to be obedient hinges on our willingness to recognize authority. Authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” I freely admit to being wary of authority, because it’s often about power-over, and that kind of dynamic takes away or limits choice.
How do we determine the legitimacy of authority, and how do we agree on whose authority we will follow?
These are vital questions, because if we don’t trust or respect the authority giving orders and making decisions, we are less likely to be obedient.
People claim authority for all sorts of reasons, including their biological sex, the color of their skin, their age, their social position, their wealth, their education and experience, their size and strength, their religious beliefs, and their personal sense of entitlement. Some pathetically impotent people believe their willingness to intimidate or hurt another gives them authority.
Psychologically speaking, some people are better wired for obedience than others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I view the willingness to be disobedient as necessarily negative or positive. It seems to me we need the ability to practice both in order to reclaim a vital, resilient culture.
Obedience, like faith, tolerance, respect and so many other intangible ideas, needs limits and boundaries, which means we must stay in our own personal power when we deal with authority. Mindless, blind obedience (or disobedience) is a slippery slope. An authority that cannot tolerate questions, controls information, and accepts no limits is a problem.
Some people feel most comfortable with someone else in power, making decisions, mandating behavior, and keeping everything cut and dried. They keep the trains running on time and don’t worry about what’s loaded in them or where the trains are going. They do well in schools, big businesses and the military, any context with clear operating procedures and chains of command. They look to their peers and popular culture, like memes, movies and social media, to shape their opinions, tastes and in-groups. They are content to be led and influenced and often welcome authority with open arms. As long as the authority they bow to is competent and benign, all goes well.
However, authority is power, and power attracts corruption and the corruptible. Cluster B personalities are everywhere: in family systems, in religious organizations, in businesses and schools, in the military and in politics. They think they’re more important than anyone else. They think they can do whatever they want whenever they want because they’re special. They operate strictly out of self-interest and are without empathy or interest in anyone else’s well-being. They reject expert advice and collaboration, data, and education. They always have to win and be right, and must maintain their sense of superiority and control.
Such people are catastrophic authorities and don’t deserve to be in power or command obedience, but in order to discern between benign and malign authority, we must be willing to see clearly; educate ourselves about social power dynamics; research, explore and think for ourselves; and have the courage to rebel and resist. We must learn to manage our power of consent, which includes being able to freely and firmly say no or yes, and be willing to shoulder full responsibility for our actions. If we don’t do these things, we can’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we’ll be deselected.
Obedience is a dance with choice and consequences. I am frequently disobedient in one way or another, and I accept responsibility for the consequences of my choices. Make no mistake, consequences for social disobedience can be extremely harsh. Tribal shaming, scapegoating, silencing and chronic long-term shaming and blaming are devastating to deal with and leave permanent scars.
Institutional disobedience can be punished by things like jail time, fines, getting fired or getting kicked out of businesses and venues.
Refusing to follow CDC and expert medical guidelines right now puts everyone at higher risk for illness and death, and will further destabilize the economy, the food supply, the medical system, our country, and our world.
Many methods of enforcing obedience are possible only in a power-over dynamic. The person claiming authority is in a position to withhold benefits like money, position, power or even love. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world are masters at this kind of exploitation, and it works well as long as the victim believes the authority has something they needand will make a deal.
Again, this harks back to personal power. If we are healthy enough to be self-sufficient, independent and confident of our abilities, if we love and respect ourselves and refuse to negotiate our integrity, we’re less dependent on the power of others. If we recognize malign, incompetent authorities for what they are, we’re less likely to become their victims.
I frequently choose to obey or comply with authority. It just depends on the context and the nature of the authority handing out the orders.
When I do a Google search on obedience, I find memes that imply obedience equals safety. I don’t believe that for a single second. Obedience, in my life, has never meant safety. Self-reliance has been far safer. Equating safety with obedience is an authoritarian tactic meant to keep people in line. I wear a mask in public right now, per CDC guidelines, because I believe it to be a sensible choice for myself and others. It may help me avoid COVID-19, and it may help prevent me passing it to others. It does not guarantee anyone’s safety. It’s no one’s responsibility but my own to keep myself safe.
In the end, my greatest obedience is to myself and my own integrity. I trust my common sense, empathy, and wisdom. I don’t put myself in a position of dependence on others. I’m rigorous in evaluating sources of news, information and guidance, and I’m happy to submit to such authorities, not because they demand or expect it, but because I choose to.
In the Neopagan Wheel of the Year, Halloween is the modern secular version of Samhain (SOW-in), the last harvest festival, a time when the veil between the spirit and corporeal world is thin and we prepare for the peace and rest of winter. It’s a time to let go of that which no longer serves us.
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This year Samhain was ushered in by the remains of Hurricane Phillippe, which battered Maine and other parts of the Northeast with high wind and heavy rain.
Wind is an old familiar of mine, as the place I came from in Colorado was extremely windy. There, the wind blows relentlessly for days and nights on end sometimes, a steady roar from one direction that fills the air with sand, grit, trash and other debris, frequently exceeding 60 mph and occasionally 70 mph. It’s the kind of wind nobody wants to go out in and it ground away at our nerves, making us feel housebound and irritable enough to climb the walls. It sucked all the moisture out of the ground, the plants and our skin. It tore roofs off sheds, blew down fences and trees, closed vulnerable highways and sent trampolines into the air.
The gale we had here this week was a different kind of wind. It came from all directions in gusts. It made the house groan and the trees thrash. It tore shingles off the roof and downed hundreds of trees. More than five inches of rain fell in billowing curtains. As a result, many thousands of people lost power, roads are blocked and it may be the end of the week before all the repair work is finished.
The storm hit us in the wee hours. We were awakened by an exploding power transformer somewhere close by, probably because of a fallen tree.
When I went out for my morning walk, I found change.
Several large trees have snapped off and lay or lean, the exposed raw wood pale and jagged. One less tree in a patch of thick forest is a subtle change to my eyes, but to the life surrounding it for several feet in every direction it’s a dramatic turn of events. It changes the light. It changes the nutrient demand underground. It feeds the mycelium and other organisms that will break down the wood. It gives new opportunity to young trees and other plants.
All the trees that came down on our land looked unhealthy, and several were rotting in place and collapsed rather than sheared off. Lots of dead branches tore away, too, and cones were flung far and wide.
As I walked, I reflected on change. Millions of people are experiencing unprecedented storms now. In just a few hours, whole lives are swept away by powers we cannot control. But the wind of change can also be a breeze, a zephyr we hardly notice, even if we practice daily presence with ourselves and our surroundings. Change is always with us, as inevitable as death.
More often than not, I fight with change. I don’t mind the idea of change, per se, but I want it to be on my terms. I want to control it. In my own life, though, change has often come unexpectedly and catastrophically, sometimes in the form of a seemingly insignificant moment in which I suddenly see. I suddenly assimilate a vital piece of information. A veil tears and I discern what lies behind it. In an instant, everything changes, and at the same time it doesn’t, at least not more than usual.
Yet I am changed, and I can never go back.
In a few days, things will normalize in Maine, but the landscape is altered now. It will never quite be the same again, although our experience was trivial compared to Texas, Puerto Rico and many other places.
Walking our boggy fields alongside the river, my old boots leaking at a split seam, it seemed to me the greatest gift of Samhain is the opportunity to allow wind and storm, to revel in them, to join power and energy with them, come what may in the aftermath. I stood watching the river, filled right to its brim, running muscular and turbid, crowded with tree debris and occasional trash. Several tree skeletons that had leaned on its banks were gone.
There can be a glorious sort of power in letting go, in spite of fear and resistance. I discovered that in Colorado. As I walked, it was still quite windy and wet, the landscape waterlogged and disheveled. Halfway through my walk I discovered a tick crawling on my hand, and a quick inspection of my head-to-toe canvas army supply rain cape revealed several more. I scraped off those I could see with a stick while I paused at my second river overlook to watch the water and then navigated a large old white spruce that had fallen across the mowed path and went home to do a lengthy and soggy tick check. The final count was 13, by the way.
Collaborating with a storm like this is good work for Samhain. I’m content. The forest has been culled and renewal will follow. New life will come into every space that was emptied. Our streets and roads, blocked with fallen trees and sagging power lines, look devastated rather than graceful and elegant. Thousands of people are managing without power. Yet the wind cleansed us of dead and dying life, whether or not we were ready or consented.
Now there’s no choice but to go on, to step into the diminishing light of winter, to face whatever the future brings, to replace what no longer serves with something more powerful. I want to leave you this week with a poem I wrote in October, 2012.
Come, wild wind, sweep across the sky and loosen the world!
Rise, wind, blow! I summon you with breath and breath again!
Blow, wind, roar! I command you from the center of loss!
Roar, wind, howl! Fling me open. Tear all the pretty things away.
Peel my lips from my teeth and flay me to pieces.
Lend your voice to mine and scream me into clean bones.
Let us sever and rend together!
Strew the tatters of my dreams across stubbled fields and in dusty streets!
Rage, wind, exult!
You think you bend me to your will?
You take nothing I do not surrender.
You weaken and end before I do.
And when tumult has passed I will call myself home from wherever I am scattered.
I shall gather the rags of what has been and shape them into a sail and you shall fill it and take me onward.
I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”
“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.
I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.
As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.
When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.
I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small. I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to write about.
What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?
Intelligence is defined on an Internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.
The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s post on work. Here again we have a simple definition for a word which is positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.
Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?
Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.
Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.
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Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.
Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.
For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.
I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.
I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be my readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.
I’m getting ready to turn over the manuscript of my first book to a developmental editor. Getting ready means I’m doing one final read through and combing out overused words and phrases using the search (and destroy) feature in my word processor. Over the months and years I’ve been working with my book and mastering the mechanics of writing, I’ve learned a lot about language and my own personal tics and patterns. The biggest problem I’ve found in my writing is unconsciously using passive voice.
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On the face of it, the process of cleaning up a manuscript is straightforward and occasionally mind-numbingly tedious. Looking at 4000 plus occurrences of the word ‘was’ throughout 1000 plus pages is not filled with giggles and takes a long time. I entertain myself with battleship noises every time I eliminate ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘had’, or ‘have’. I also come up with amusing similes for the process. My favorite is that editing is like combing nits out of a child’s hair.
On the plus side, this practice opens up a lot of time in which to notice my unconscious language patterns and think about how word choice reflects my choices in every other aspect of life. Editing word by word in this way is also a great habit breaker. When I write ‘had’ or ‘have’ now I notice it.
In the past, I’ve also overused ‘gently’, ‘lightly’, ‘quietly’, ‘a little’, ‘went’ (that’s a common one), and ‘softly’. As these patterns become visible to me, I ask myself with some annoyance, why not ‘fiercely’, ‘loudly’, ‘a LOT’ or ‘strode, galloped or dashed’?
I’ll tell you why not. Because I’m female and my culture has successfully taught me to make myself small. That lesson is so central and ubiquitous I’ve only recently been able to identify it and organize resistance. The message is impossible to see until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it.
Do you know the old French fairy tale of Bluebeard? A serial wife killer instructs his latest victim to refrain from opening a door in his castle, the door a particular little key opens. Then he leaves her alone with his keys (of course). In his absence, Bluebeard’s young wife and her sisters explore the castle, opening every door, and (naturally) the wife is persuaded there’s no harm in just peeking behind that last forbidden locked door. In the room they discover a row of headless bodies and a pile of heads belonging to Bluebeard’s previous wives. They exit the room (as you might imagine) and conspire to pretend they never unlocked the door. The only problem is the little key that unlocked the door begins weeping drops of blood and nothing they can do makes it stop. Bluebeard returns, discovers the infraction, and … I won’t tell you what happens, because different versions of the story end differently. This fairy tale is embedded in my own book. The point is, once some things are understood and seen, they can’t be unseen. There is no going back.
So, consider this commandment with me: Make Yourself Small.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
Adhere to the arbitrary cultural ideal of acceptable attractiveness. If you can’t, hate your body, torture it, starve it, distort it, color it, shave it and beat it into compliance. Make yourself conform.
Let media, social media, experts, professionals, your favorite news channel or radio host, your religious leader, your parents, or the men in your life tell you what to believe and what to think. Don’t you bother your pretty little head trying to understand anything.
Make your sexuality, passion and lust small. In fact, make them invisible (you slut).
Make your intelligence nonthreatening.
Tame your creativity.
Don’t ask questions. Don’t search for clarity and truth. Don’t do your own research. Restrain your curiosity.
If you must have needs, make them as infinitesimal as possible. Your needs are dust in the wind compared to the convenience, habits and preferences of others.
Be silent! You are disqualified from having an opinion. Don’t tell your truth. Others are speaking. Censor your voice. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable.
Capture, restrain, cage, shackle, chain and abandon your dreams. Who do you think you are?
Deny, belittle, smother and minimize your feelings. Control yourself!
Shame on you! Cringe, cower, hide your head! You’re bad and wrong!
Be self-contained. Be self-sufficient. Don’t take up too much space. Move lightly. Don’t spend too much money. Don’t be too dramatic. Don’t be too sensitive. Don’t order dessert. Don’t attract attention. Don’t breathe too much air. MAKE YOURSELF SMALL!
You get the idea, I’m sure. This list goes on and on. The message is everywhere, and we’re all affected. It cuts across social, racial, economic, political and gender divides. Failure to toe the line, whatever that line is, results in harsh social and professional consequences, up to and including death. Show me a headline and I’ll pick out this theme. I trip over it a dozen times a day in my own life. Spend five minutes on Facebook reading any thread on any subject and you’ll find this underlying message.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
The surrounding cultural mandate to make ourselves small is toxic, but it’s not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is our internalization of the mandate before we’re even aware of it, and then it becomes so woven into the fabric of our experience we no longer discern it.
Ironically, stubbornly pursuing my passion for writing and my determination to be bigger is what reveals to me the outlines of my own self-sabotage. My habit of making myself small has trickled all the way down to the words I choose. Editing my manuscript has become editing my thoughts and choices, and noticing the words I write and think in helps me notice my feelings.
My feelings contain a lot of fury and a lot of rebellion, far more than I was aware of when I created this blog last summer. Minor friction with my partner about planning a day or how we utilize counter space taps into a deep vein of lifelong rage and pain about allowing and participating in my own repression and oppression. I have systematically colluded in my own erasure. I’ve agreed to make myself small. I’ve agreed to abdicate my power.
No more. I opened Bluebeard’s chamber, and saw what it contained. The key that unlocked the door was writing, and I’m deleting all the blood-stained words that make my art small. If I fail as a writer, I’m not going to do it softly, gently, lightly or a little. I’m going to do it thunderously, monumentally and profoundly.
I read a post on resistance lately from one of my favorite writers, Sharon Blackie, and was deeply comforted. She reminded me we all have something to offer the world. Ever since reading it, I’ve been thinking about what resistance means to me, and the different forms it takes in my life.
Then, last week, Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor (but not elsewhere!), and Mitch McConnell made history with his justification. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
A violated rule. Heaven help us. Disobedience. Failure to comply.
Resistance and persistence. What an unholy pair.
This morning I sat down to write this post, as is my habit on Wednesday morning before I go swimming, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it. All I could think about was this quote, and how it makes me feel, and how absolutely persistent resistance is! After a few minutes the words stopped making any sense at all.
Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash
So, I went swimming. In the pool, I began the rhythm of stroke and breath, felt myself held by the water as though it loved me, and entered into the ebb and flow of my thoughts and feelings, not struggling for wisdom, focus or creativity, not trying to problem solve, just being.
“She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
I thought about how hard I’ve tried to earn love all my life with my silence, and how it hasn’t worked, and how now, in my fifties, I feel overwhelmed with grief because I wanted my family to be proud of me. I wanted to be allowed to love them and feel loved and supported in return. I wanted to get held and reassured. I never wanted to be the boat-rocker, the problem child, the difficult one, the dramatic one, the disappointment. I never wanted to drain any resource, need anything, be any kind of burden or cause any harm. I wanted to be a joyful thing, not an embarrassment and a failure.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
I thought of the persistence of things. Life, women, children, longing, desire, dreams, cycles and seasons, death, black flies, weeds. The persistence of grief. The persistence of loss. The persistence of love, in spite of everything, even if never returned or expressed.
I cried in the pool, as I swam one lap after another. For all you non swimmers out there, having a good cry while wearing swim goggles makes the goggles fog up, in addition to filling with salt water. On the plus side, you can make as much noise as you like underwater, and no one will ever hear you. Also, having a wet face and red eyes at the swimming pool isn’t remarkable.
I needed to cry. I needed to swim. I paused every two laps and cleaned out my goggles.
It came to me then that this is my resistance.
Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash
This. My tearful swim and fogged-up goggles. My blog. This messy, painful, not-pulled-together, nonheroic experience I call my life is my resistance, and I persist in it. I cannot beat, starve or mutilate myself into someone else, not even to get loved. Believe me, I’ve tried. In the end, though, the half-wild thing I am still looks out of my eyes and lurks in my heart. Perhaps not attractive or worthy of love, but there. Wanting. Alive. Persistent.
Some people think power is the ability to shut someone up, but power and force aren’t the same thing at all. The ability to throw acid on someone, to fire someone from his/her job, to rape, to behead, to kill someone’s family, to detain someone, to torture, to murder — that’s not strength. That’s not real power. Silencing others doesn’t mean we’ve won, or that anything has changed. All it means is, for the moment, we’re not forced to hear something we’re afraid of, but the words and resistance are still there. They’ll be spoken again, in music, in writing, in action, on YouTube. Someone else will pick them up and say them, and someone after that, and someone after that.
“Nevertheless, she persisted.”
At the end of the day, the only power we have in life is to do what we can with what we have, and the one thing we all have is ourselves. The self is a persistent thing.
So much is needed in the world. So much love, so much healing, so much courage and forgiveness. We need heroes and leaders, activists and rebels. We need organizers and people to march, hold placards, make phone calls and show up in front of the cameras with hard questions.
My gifts and abilities are not these.
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But we also need people who nourish roots. We need people who whisper to trees. We need people who gather bones and seeds. We need storytellers and lovers, dancers and shamans, intuitives and creatives. We need people who can collaborate, share power and shape self-sustaining community that’s not based on capitalism. We need people who can include, connect, learn and grow. We need people who can hold another human being in their arms while they weep.
We need persistent people who know how to resist a diseased overculture and endure tribal shaming, abuse, tyranny, injustice, poverty and loss. We need people who think for themselves, who are persistently curious, who aren’t afraid to break someone else’s rules. We need passionate people who know how to feel deeply.
These are things I do.
These are things I am.
So, today, my resistance consists of tears and laps, this week’s post, and being persistently present in my quiet, unimportant, ordinary life. My resistance is my persistent longings and desires, my refusal to give up and be silent. I don’t resist because anybody cares or notices, or because I think I can make a damn bit of difference.
I do it because that’s what I do and this is how it looks.