St. Mary's Wilderness sign

It was a mostly wet couple of days with the trees, rhododendrons, and creatures of St. Mary’s Wilderness in the George Washington National Forest in western Virginia. But of course God, or Great Spirit as our native teachers in this land might say, is present no matter the weather. So I learned some important lessons–and I am grateful I went, despite, or  perhaps because of, some real challenges. Over the next few weeks, I will share some of the challenges and lessons, or medicine, as Native people might say, I received. Here is the first installment.

I drove from Maryland into Virginia on Tuesday, September 29–after talking to the good folks at REI (Recreation Equipment Inc.), my gurus about outdoor life, about how to put up my tent in a downpour–only to discover when I arrived that torrential rains, almost blinding sheets of moisture at times, made it impossible to hike in and get a camp set up that day. So I spent an uneventful first night at a motel in Waynesboro.

Lesson: Sometimes with nature it is best to lie low, recognizing that the forces of the universe are greater than me.

2015-09-30 09.08.01

author photo

Wednesday dawned dryer–meaning not raining–so I headed off to the wilderness, and found my way to the Bald Mountain Overlook at Mile 22 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There I parked my car, loaded the pack on my back (did it really weigh sixty pounds?), and walked up Forest Service Road 162 for about a mile until locating the Bald Mountain Trail. Down that trail for most of a mile–pretty steep at times, hard on my right knee, but still a usable trail–across a creek twice until I came to a lovely small clearing in the woods very near the creek. Due to the rain, the creek was running strong and I knew I could use it as a water source (with filtering, of course).

2015-09-30 09.08.57Setting up camp took several hours. I had not done this entirely on my own before, so it took awhile. Several hours later, however, I had a tent erected, sleeping bag unfolded, a tarp in an adjacent area as a place to sit near the creek, and a bag of food hanging in a tree.

St. Mary's Wilderness Pilgrimage 085

author photo

Lesson: in putting up the tarp and the food bag, I realized I needed to have asked more questions to the good folks at REI. Where to put the tarp would have been a good start!  As to the food bag, I realized I had just nodded to the nice man at REI when he told me to toss a rope line over the limb of a tree where the bag could hang. I knew why to do it–keep the black bears and racoons from ravaging your food–but I was not sure how.

After a little thought, I realized I needed something heavy on the end of the line to toss over the limb. And I needed to find enough of an opening in the dense forest growth where I could toss the line without becoming all tangled in the wrong place. Finding a good spot (and it did work, ultimately, very well), I tied my Swiss Army Knife to the end of the line. That went over the limb just fine but given the force of my toss it just kept wrapping around the limb! I could not reach the end now. Ouch. And what about my knife? I was going to need that again!

I don’t know the physics of this (I don’t know the physics of anything really), but I was able, standing on the ground, to loosen the looped line on the limb enough to get it to unwind and come down. I untied the knife and put it in my pocket, and realized, somehow with my limited capacity for things mechanical, I needed something bigger and heavier than the knife for the end of the line. I tied a small, zipped bag of useful items  (whistle, compass, lighter, etc.) to the line and did another toss. Perfect. Whew!


rhododendron, author photo

There is more about this line and the bag for a future post, but for now I will conclude by patting myself on the back for getting things set up. And I decided that since the rains had not yet returned (but they were coming, to be sure), it was time for a small hike sans pack.  How good it would feel to explore without that weight!

Lesson: Take a break and enjoy the beauty around you (rhododendron everywhere). .

More to come, as this pilgrim’s progress continues . . . . (maybe even a poem).

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A memory of my tent site in Yosemite last September–it will look very different this week in St. Mary’s Wildernness!

St. Mary’s Wilderness here I come!

It’s across the continent from Yosemite National Park, the vegetation and scenery are quite different, and the peaks are lower, but this 10,000 acres of eastern beauty in the George Washington National Forest is calling to me to repeat a little of the Vision Quest in that western gem I experienced one year ago.

This time, I will not have the onsite guiding hand of Tomas Pinkson, blessed shaman extraordinaire, but I remember much that he taught. And most of all, I remember his wisdom, and that of Gerald May and many others, about the power of wilderness to heal, empower, renew, and (re-)orient us. There is, as Tomas and the native peoples say, medicine here that Great Power has for me.

St. Mary's Wilderness sign

On Tuesday, September 29, I will get in my car and drive into western Virginia, park my car in a designated parking area and hike a mile or two, I hope, or maybe more, seeing the sights, and finding a place to pitch my tent. I will be looking for a water source, too, although like any good wilderness hiker/camper, I will filter all water before using.

I am not on this adventure to hike as much as I am to find a spot in the wilderness for solitude, to sit and meditate, talk and listen to the trees and admire whatever may yet be blooming (probably not much) or beginning to show fall colors.

I go to reconnect with my siblings of the forest, wildlife yes (hopefully friendly) but mostly trees and other vegetation. I draw great strength and solace from the faithfulness of trees and shrubs and other plants who live without human aid.

St. Mary's Wilderness Liming_Sites_Map

Indeed, one of the complications about this is the need to be sure those of us who venture into these sacred grounds do not unduly disturb their living. The goal in the wilderness always is to leave no trace of our presence.

This brings to mind one essential spiritual practice, namely to listen and absorb without pressing our own agenda. When we walk and sit in the wild without having to make it ours we can learn that we are not the center of the universe. It is then we begin to receive the gifts that are there for us.

I discovered last year at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite that if I look with truly open eyes and listen with truly open ears I can learn much–about myself, yes, as well as about the world, and certainly about those whose space I was sharing. There is a richness, a depth to this learning that can only be grasped in the midst of wilderness; no book, nor even picture, can convey its integrity and power the way actual presence does.

It may seem strange to write about this seeking of solitude on a blog focused on building community. But for me, solitude is a re-charging of my batteries and a re-orientation to my soul, so that I have energy and clarity in community building work. It also is a reminder that community is more than human.

2014-09-11 14.56.57That reminds me of my “brother tree,” from Yosemite (pictured left), who said to me, “You do not need to see me, but you do need to remember me, to learn from me.” So I go into the national forest here to keep alive that memory and to learn from his siblings in the East (you can read about my brother here). I realize that this will most likely become an annual pilgrimage, not to Yosemite probably most years (expense and currently much fire damage) but to some part of wonderful wilderness to reconnect with my spiritual roots in God’s earth.

In the lush forest growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness I do not expect to see many specimens like my brother. He grew, like his neighbors, out of the hard mountain granite; some grew stronger and taller but many were stunted and twisted like him. That any survive let alone thrive still amazes me. The tenacity of spirit is a badge of honor and an example of courage for all of us.

St. Mary's Wilderness

An opening in the lush growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness

At the same time, not even this place of beauty is immune from the hardness, even harshness, of nature. Hurricane Isabel did much damage in St. Mary’s Wilderness in 2003, leaving reminders of how fragile the wholeness of nature is. And much of the area was the scene of heavy mining for iron ore and manganese into the 1960s. Fortunately, designation as a national wilderness area in 1984 is helping reverse, in nature’s own good time, these impacts. I hope my presence is healing, too, not just for me but for all who call this home.

I check my list of things to do before I leave and things to take with me, and try to fit everything neatly for a balanced pack. I remember that I am a pilgrim on journey on land where others move and have their being, and pray I will be open to all the gifts, all the wisdom, all the medicine that will bless me.

Black Lives Matter, Palestine/Israel, the U.S. Presidential race, Syria, refugees, Native American Lives Matter, health care, immigration reform–all these and more capture my attention, and are deserving of yours. There is so much bad, or at least difficult, news…..some might even say c–p, every day (Donald Trump’s latest, whatever it might be, is in a category all by itself). (not our Cocoa!) (not our Cocoa!)

But some of you, like me, have other more prosaic matters, other c–p, to deal with as well. Such as dog poop, AKA dog s–t (yes, I know, at times it seems like the label fits some of the big categories above, but that might be considered offensive by dogs).

A vital question is, what do we do with it?

Flush puppies doodie bagsJonathan and I have found what we think is simply the best solution for the dog . . . . er . . . version . . . . offered through an excellent product, “Flush Puppies Flushable & Certified Compostable Doodie Bags for Dogs.”

Here’s what the manufacturer says on their website:

Flush Puppies™ doodie bags are Certified Compostable in industrial compost facilities that accept pet waste, where they will disintegrate and biodegrade swiftly.*  (Sorry, home composters, they’re not suitable for backyard composting!)

Flush Puppies™ are flushable, too.  Yes, really…flushable.  Made from Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA) – a water-soluble alternative to regular plastic – Flush Puppies™ are specifically made to be flushed down the toilet along with your pet’s waste.  (It’s science – not voodoo!)  Unlike regular plastic bags or other so-called “biodegradable” poop bags, Flush Puppies™ actually break down in water.

What you do with the bags is completely up to you — compost ‘em, flush ‘em or trash ‘em.   But we call them FlushPuppies™ because we think there’s enough crap going on in the environment without adding more to landfills, where your dog’s “business” (and the bag it’s wrapped in) will likely mummify and not biodegrade for thousands of years, if ever.  (click here for more)

For us, it’s simple. No more filling the trash can with poop bags (either ones you buy or the newspaper delivery bag), knowing the bags and their contents will not decompose any time soon and will actually contaminate the ground. Now, we bring the bag home (meaning you have to carry it with you) and flush it down the toilet (you do have to leave the bag untied or untie before flushing). The wastewater treatment facility in our town takes it from there.

Pet Smart corporate logo

You can buy them online, and at Pet Smart, and other local stores (click here to find one near you).

When a product comes along that seems just about perfect, friends share the good news. No need to thank me. Just thank the folks at Pawsome Pet Products LLC.

Help question markI am thinking about writing them a letter–asking them to design a product so we can take some of the other c–p we face each day (e.g., pronouncements from some Presidential candidates) and flush it, too.

That would take c–p and its disposal to a whole new level!

Jonathan acting head shot

My husband, Dr. Jonathan Lebolt

God has blessed me with the love of a Jewish man, and through him to connect in ways with Judaism that otherwise might never have happened (although the priest most influential in my adolescence and young adulthood was clearly most in love with the Hebrew Bible).

I worshiped in temple last week on both days of Rosh Hashanah and am doing so this week for Yom Kippur. These are very meaningful times of reflection and prayer for me, a declaration of the new year and an opportunity to let go of habits and attitudes and behaviors that get in the way of living the full life God has for me in this new year.

L'Shanah Tovah

Good New Year, sometimes with u’metuka (and Sweet).

This sequence is so much more satisfying than the one I am used to as a U.S. Christian–beginning with Advent that portends (and even offers) great spiritual depth but is then overcome by secular Christmas and the hoopla of New Year’s Day and the well-meaning (but for me often ineffective) efforts of resolutions. Three years ago, at the first night of Rosh Hashanah, in a very crowded Jewish Community Center in Richmond, I received a holy message to change the focus of my life’s work. I have not been the same since.

Perhaps I find the Jewish practice more spiritually satisfying because it is not about marketing products and holding parties but rather about introspection, fasting, and self-change.

Self-change . . . the element missing from most of our public life, and probably private life, too.

Certainly, we don’t often hear national political candidates talk about self-change–either for themselves or for our nation. Instead, we hear them promising to make America great again. I just know that means someone else outside our nation is going to have to change. For us to stride the world, as in the time of Reagan for example, means someone else is going to have to stand down. We are the good guys, and you better get out of the way.

Many are critical, even dismissive, of President Obama, because to them he seems weak. He, in some modest but important ways, wants to run things in the rest of the world less and work more with others. I am grateful for that. It is certainly unusual in a U.S. leader.

Indeed, nations and their leaders are notoriously lacking in self-reflection and the desire to change themselves. First, they have to admit errors (but I don’t think President Obama is very good at this either).

As a nation, we have yet to really make amends to African people who were dragged here against their will and forced to do all sorts of things, or to Native Americans who were already here and were routinely pushed aside and even butchered so we could have our land. Both peoples still bear the scars and pay the price, as, of course, do the rest of us in other ways. This Yom Kippur, we could atone, but I doubt we will.

The United States is not alone in this. Europe still acts as if what various nations did in Africa, South America, and Asia was just fine.  Israel doesn’t seem to understand why Palestinians might be angry for being forced from their homes and land, in 1948, and now, too. Russia certainly is not over bullying behavior with neighbors, and Lebanon’s Arab neighbors do not hide their desire to maintain that nation as their fiefdom.

But what about us, you and me? Am I ready to change? Are you?

I will speak for myself (I hope you feel free to write and share your own thoughts for yourself, if that would help you).

My big change this year, now and over the next twelve months, needs to be in focusing–as in, I need to focus. I am accustomed to hard work but usually on agendas set by someone else or by society. Now, I need to take my own agenda, my own call and vocation, seriously enough to focus on it and move forward.

I am nowhere I am now here

This means learning to be organized, to set goals, to write regular hours, to listen and be alert to the prompts I receive from God (often through others), to invest in my vocation as a writer and teacher/workshop leader/ minister.

Pretty prosaic, huh? But life-changing nonetheless.

I repent of all the times I did not do this, when I was sloppy, disorganized, unfocused, distracted, not trusting God’s desire for me but living to get by without too much strain. And I ask God’s help to move forward in new ways, to learn new daily practices, to discern priorities better, to not say “yes” to every request, to be prepared to speak up with my truth and even gracefully to take some heat for it sometimes.

Of course, there is much else for me to repent–being rude to people, not caring enough about my loved ones, not always eating well, not getting enough exercise . . . oh my, the list goes on too long to bore you. One thing I really appreciate about Yom Kippur is its focus on ethical lapses, not about doing ritual things right in the synagogue but living right–and how it is about both the individual and the community).

Yom Kippur empty plate starting a good cleanse

The good news is that for Jews the ending of the ten Days of Awe, teshuvah (reflection, repentance, return), on Yom Kippur, while the holiest of days, is also a day of celebration–commemorating God’s forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf.

I repent of it all, and will celebrate at the end of the fast this evening a new, lighter (from carrying less remorse and guilt), more focused me. I also pray for repentance for our country (and how I have not always helped make us a better nation), and a true celebration of independence from all that holds us down as a people.

May you repent as is right for you, and also celebrate! Blessing to all! L’Shanah Tovah!

Eighteen years ago today, Jonathan Lebolt and I sat in the living room of his Chelsea (New York City) studio apartment, with his parents, Gladys and Marvin. We four had been out to dinner together, and then we came back so he could show them his new apartment.

I knew what was on my mind, but I did not know it was so obvious to others.

Marvin Lebolt

Jonathan’s father, Marvin, holding his first grandchild, Anna (daughter of Amy, Jonathan’s sister, and her husband, Michael)

Marvin knew, though, and he said, “Gladdy, we have to go now.” She said, “But Jonathan is making us some tea. We just got here.”

“Yes, I know, dear,” he said, “I’m just saying we will drink our tea quickly. They, Robin for sure, have things other than entertaining us on the agenda tonight.” With that, he looked at me, and winked.

So he knew, too! And after winking again, and making sure Gladys saw it, too, she understood as well. “Oh, okay,” she said, with her big smile.

Robin & Jonathan Sept 2015It was unlike my father-in-law (now dead 14 years) to be so assertive, but this time he played his part to the hilt. For once, he ran the show.

So, although I dedicate this day, September 21, to the great love of my life, I also give special thanks to a wonderful man, Marvin Lebolt, who knew love when he saw it. Thanks, Dad!

And most of all, thank you, Jonathan, for 18 wonderful years . . . here’s to many more!

Jerusalem YMCA

YMCA, headquarters for the IAPSP Conference (author photo)

[Note: In October, 2014, I accompanied Jonathan on a trip to Jerusalem. He was going to the annual meeting of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology (IAPSP). He spent much time in meetings while I was free to travel, visiting sites within Jerusalem and beyond. I have posted two times already about this trip; you can see those postings by clicking on these dates: October 31, 2014 and January 5, 2015. I also posted on a related topic, namely an important book, The Lemon Tree. Click on the title to see that post.]

I had intended to write much more about my impressions from last October’s trip to Jerusalem, as well as to continue reflecting on this bedeviled conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Partly, preparations for moving, and the move, from Richmond, VA to Greenbelt, MD got in the way.


But more, I think, was my growing realization at how I despair over two things that must happen: that Israel will shift its mindset and strategy and the Palestinians will respond productively. Someone has to change, significantly, if this perpetual, and seemingly self-perpetuating, crisis is to shift from a deadening into a life-giving mode. I believe it is incumbent on Israel to engage in a major shift. I say that because it is my belief that it is usually, if not always, the more powerful party in any dispute–certainly one in which both parties have legitimate concerns and interests, as is true here–that has to move the most.

Just as disempowering as my despair was my fear that many of my Jewish friends in the United States–not to mention those Israeli (and other) Jews I met at the conference whom I admire greatly–would become angry at me, perhaps even cutting off our friendship, if they understood that and other points I feel compelled to make (I will reflect another time on my continuing struggle to stop being governed by my fears of what others will, or do, think).


But let me be clear. This is not a one-sided conflict. Both parties, all parties (certainly including the government of my country, and thus me), bear responsibility for the mess that now exists. There is more than enough blame to go around. Somehow, we have to get beyond the blame game.

This was brought home to me with great power during one part of the international conference. Prior to the formal sessions, I joined Jonathan and other conferees and spouses on a trip to Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, situated 15 Kilometers southeast of Tel-Aviv, near Ben-Gurion International Airport. According to the conference organizers, Lud, “despite the enormous potential of this ancient-contemporary city . . . has been plagued by a poor image for decades: its population of 75,000 people is constantly struggling with social, economical, multi-cultural and ethnic problems that make the city an example of the painful term – ‘social periphery.'” 

NY Times

NY Times

Indeed, the session was billed as “Self Psychology and Weakened Populations: A Tour of Lod.”  Weakened populations, as I understand the organizers, are places where all of us, not just the subject peoples, bear responsibility for deterioration. They are communities where empathy is required, but empathy that helps create concrete action for change. This action involves more than just the weakened group; it must include those who have been party to the weakening. To my way of thinking, this is the situation in the United States among white people, as we need to make concrete changes to lift our social boot off the backs of the still-weakened African American, and Native American, populations.

It is appropriate that IAPSP is involved in this new understanding, because at the heart of self psychology is empathy. The IAPSP tour organizers wanted us to see what will become the new headquarters of the Israel Association for self Psychology and the Study of Subjectivity (the Israeli affiliate organization which hosted the conference), and they also wanted us to hear from a diverse group of local people about the efforts to build a new society in Lod.

Included in the local people were the leader of a local program to teach agriculture to students, both Palestinian and Israeli, and a teacher in the program. Part of the goal is to teach the students how to share the land, how to treasure it together for the benefit of all.

Both educators were amazing in their ability to convey, despite language difficulties, a deep desire to create a truly multi-cultural community in Lod, and to help this ancient area recover from serious decline over the past several decades. The teacher, a woman, was the most articulate. During question time, I asked her, a Palestinian whose family lived for generations in that area, how she felt about the participation of Jewish people in this work, given that her family had been displaced by the Israelis more than once. She said, “We will never move forward until we choose to let go of who did what to whom and who did it first.”

I cry right now as I write about that moment–empathy at work in her, breathtaking in its simplicity and power.

seeing with the eyes of another

So often, people who speak in or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pronounce from one box or the other, talking past the people in the other box. Wisdom comes in refusing to be put in one box and learning what to believe and say from your own space (which contains parts of many boxes), and at the same time hear the other, with empathy and a desire to understand.

But it is not enough to speak and listen with care, vital though that is. That we must act on what we know seems clear, even as our actions must be laced with empathy and a desire to understand others.

My training, and engagement, in Christian liberation theologies, feminism, and political theory, as well as my understanding of Judaism, lead me to act based not only on ethical perspectives but also to engage in power analysis to aid in promoting productive action. In future posts, I shall explore more of this trip, as well as reflect on new learnings, with the goal of contributing to a dialogue for peaceful, life-enhancing change in the haunted land of Israel and Palestine.

For now, let us remember empathy, indeed, let us be empathic.

I started blogging in 2009, wanting to share with the church community I was serving as well as any others in the wider public who might be interested in the musings of a pastor, theologian, and social activist in Richmond, Virginia.

faithAt the time, I used my longtime signature closing, “In faith and hope,” as the name of the blog. Six years later, no longer pastoring but still theologizing and engaging in activism, and now claiming my vocation as a writer, I want to put a different label on these reflections.

hope sproutI have come to see the great problem in the United States, and throughout the world, as the failure of community. We are, the human race, a much-ravaged people in most every corner of the world. There are bright spots, of course, places and communities where people work and live together for the greater good, but I see a quickening, widening, and deepening trend of being torn apart.

don't shoot I want to grow up

The signs are everywhere: increasing violence in the Middle East as well as on our streets; wars in the name (often falsely labeled) of religion on the rise; the failure to overcome historic oppression to constructively engage and build the power of Africa as well as African Americans; the widening gap between rich and poor people as well as among first, second, and third world nations; the failure of the justice system to really deal with problems it probably cannot solve even as we keep tasking it with that work; the weakness of international structures to make any real difference; the continuing resurgence of totalitarianisms all over the globe; public officials in our nation self-righteously defying the law to deny rights to others and politicians vying to be the most insulting to groups of voters. This is by far only a partial list; one more, though: the failure of our national political system to address serious issues at home and abroad.

Palestinian boys dressed in uniforms of Palestinian security forces and holding plastic toy guns

The failure of community is directly traceable to our failure to grasp and use the power of love. I share the view of Teilhard deChardin that the physical structure of the universe is love, indeed it is the entire structure, meaning that there is an underlying desire for union among all beings. But with a terrifying perversity, we are laying waste to that promise. Just as we are despoiling the ecology we call nature, we are destroying the deeper ecology of love. These two movements are inextricably intertwined, both cause and effect.

IDF soldier and Palestinian woman and children

Ironically, it is love that will save us. The very thing we misuse, under use and abuse is the solution.

Thus, I have decided to rename this blog to more directly embrace the great task before us. We have to make more love in order to build more and better community.

Making love is usually a polite way of saying we are “having sex,” or being sexual, with another person. Sadly, this way of speaking limits love to the encounter between two (or occasionally more) people, usually in private behind closed doors involving intimate touch and genitals.

Image only for on-line viewing. Please do not copy, download, or print image. Please contact for reproduction, usage permission, and/or print purchases.

But the love we desperately need more of is out in the open, in groups, in whole nations, between and among communities. We as individuals have to be committed to making love everywhere we can–sharing our deepest humanity and care and nurture and compassion and kindness not only with partners but with siblings and parents and children, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, opponents, even enemies, perhaps most with those with whom we disagree. And we have to include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick in our definition of making love.

There already is more than enough love in the world. The problem is that we are not using it. We have locked most of it away, for safe-keeping I guess, or maybe because we are afraid to really let it loose in the world. Too much might change if love really guided us.

Make-Love-Give_Design_final_fullcolor_04We might have to share some of what we have so that everyone, including ourselves, could have more. That is really how love works. The more you share the more you have. But it confounds our limited human understanding; we think about love the way we think about money. If we give too much away, we won’t have enough.

I am choosing to challenge this stingy view of love. I want to make lots of love, and I want to do it with you, my readers. I am a witness for love. But more than that, I am a lover. I want to be your lover, and for you to be mine.

Make love to Uncle SamOh, I am not divorcing my wonderful husband of 18 years. And I am a monogamous kind of guy when it comes to sex. But I am an advocate for free love.

It is not that love is free exactly. It does come with a price. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that in order for love to grow we have to spend it, and trust that more comes.

But it is free in that it is available to all, for the asking, for the taking you might say. But that implies that you have to be aggressive and grab it. The reality is that it comes to you. But you have to be open, you have to want love. You have to, as the ancient mystic Julian of Norwich said of God, “allow” it into yourself.

How to build communityBut even this is not quite right–because our entire being, each one of us, all of us, has more than enough love inside. So in some ways, we have to allow it out, we have to open ourselves not only to receive the love “out there,” but also to share the love “in here.”

This is more introduction than I planned. So I had best stop. There are many blog posts ahead in which to say more.

For now, let me say this: I am here, writing regularly, to help us to Make Love. And to Build Community.

Make Love. Build Community. The life you save may be your own, and surely if we do it together we can save each other, and the whole world.

Make Love. Build Community. Say it a few times.

Then go do it. Wherever, and whenever, and with whomever, and however, you can.