Case of the Velvety Glove

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When I got home there was only one velvety, paisley-swirled black glove stuffed in my pocket. Surprise followed by consternation: how can this be? I took them off a brief time, perhaps five blocks out of three times as many during an hour’s walk. Although there was a cold drizzle developing, I immediately started out in search of a right-handed glove. The rain cooled my resolve after three blocks.

Earlier I had been taking photographs as often happens when walking in our historic neighborhood. There are wonders to capture and to use the camera at least one glove is removed. And I am digit-clad two-thirds of the year even in the temperate Pacific Northwest. I have Reynaud’s, a circulatory disorder that equates very cold and painful hands in temperatures below fifty-five degrees. It is a challenge to find the right gloves: comfortable, not cumbersome,  passably attractive. I’ve bought all sorts of gloves; leather insulated gloves are good but pricey. These latest gloves are a cut above.

Last fall I’d talked my husband into a getaway week-end at an oceanside town, Cannon Beach. Marc had been long overworked (we’re talking seventy hour work weeks) and needed more than two days to rejuvenate but was happy to get there. The condo was  replete with fireplace and located a block from the ocean and a short walk to unique shops and restaurants. As we walked the length of sandy beach, the wind was more wintry. Despite living in Oregon for over twenty years I had brought inadequate gloves. I decided to shop.

The merchandise can be expensive there. Browsing, I tried on a fluffy fake fur jacket that was cozy, chic, pricey. My husband raised his eyebrows and we laughed. I am more a Land’s End sort of gal since I love being outside. And dressing up went by the wayside when I stopped working.

Then I saw the gloves.

There were only four pairs: purple, black herringbone with red trim, brown and black with a silver paisley pattern. I picked up the paisley gloves. They were insulated and warm. They were soft and plush velour, the closest to velvet I had felt since I bought real velvet dress slacks over ten years ago. In short, they were a little fancy, very practical, costly for something synthetic but, all in all, perfect. We agreed: “A little pizzazz.”

Maybe we both needed a  lift. That week-end was a slow-as-molasses time, freed of the tentacles of stress. Hikes in the sun-illumined chill of autumn, dinners at a homey restaurant, late mornings sipping coffee as we read and chatted, and nights eased with firelight. It made a difference, and those unique, supremely useful gloves did their job during coastal explorations.

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So I had to find the lost one. I got my car and started back down the route I’d taken. Since it was comprised of quieter residential streets, I drove at tortoise pace, peering at wet sidewalks, grassy areas and the streets. It was getting darker. Frustration crimped my shoulders as I cruised one block after another, recollecting where I may have used my camera. How was it that I lost so many things? Some say pixies are to blame…I say it’s my carelessness or a true mystery.

Tears threatened to flow. I know, tears for a glove? I have written before about both my ordinary and beautiful possessions, lamenting how often they get broken or misplaced. The real kicker is that I am an excellent finder of things for others. But I have acknowledged that I may like my things a bit too much. I don’t own a lot of expensive objects. My home is comfortable but humble. So those I appreciate greatly, like most people, I value. Ultimately, though, I view possessions as a challenge spiritually and emotionally. I do work at rising above. But listen: since Thanksgiving I have lost one earring each of three pairs I loved (one pair, a Christmas gift) and two more hand crafted mugs have lost their handles. A plate my mother gave me was broken and tossed without my knowledge; a grandchild was worried I’d be mad and sad. Yes, just things.

I kept driving and more than half traversed the familiar streets. I saw a road crew worker at a corner and then it hit me.  This was a block I’d paused for a couple more photos. I glanced to my right and squinted at a dark little heap, did a U-turn. The worker watched me as I parked on the wrong side of the street. Jumping out, I crept up to what could have been a dead creature. Unbelieving, I gasped and grabbed it’s damp, tumbled form. Turned to the woman and waved my glove wildly at her.

“Found my lost glove! My favorite ones! Isn’t that great?”

She waved right back. “Good for you! Lucky day!”

Was it luck? Some things vanish, never to be found again. Were those dratted pixies playing games? More likely, my determination to not lose one thing more (for now) guided me to that spot. And after all, I’d only been gone about twenty-five minutes; it couldn’t have crawled off by itself. Still. Those finger warming, heartwarming gloves meant something –that excellent beach trip, the efficient way they ease my suffering hands. That silly silver paisley, so soft. It just had to be one happy ending.

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Decorating with Books

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(Photograph from Public Domain)

I had reason to survey my bedroom this summer, to take stock of what makes it liveable. There are aspects that could benefit from better design; it is a big square room. At the least some items might be put in smart boxes or on hidden shelves. For example, I have perhaps thirty scarves, the overflow of which currently dangles from a broad, ugly hook on a closet door. (I finally shopped at World Market for an attractive pewter owl hook; it is waiting to go up.) There are pictures and postcards stuck around the frame of my dresser mirror. I can glimpse a partial view of myself if I need to determine my presentability. It is mirror enough; I would enjoy more pictures, visual art glutton that I am.

Atop the massive, old desk which fits between bed and closet are stacked folders categorized by writing, ripped out magazine items, medical information, drawings by grandchildren, tax documents, and special interest topics like the Roma. A photo of spouse and myself taken along a riverside walkway ten years ago has taken center stage. I like how we look: alert, breezy, young. Next to this is an aged photo of two aunts and my mother showing off their smiles and their ironed print shirtwaists. Above the desk is a poor quality but beloved print of a multi-generational line of female dancers. They are more than a chorus line to me, a testament to longer life maintained by joi de vivre. I have a good print and original art on the walls as well as a poster of Crete on the door. Or it might be Santorini. The point is, it is beautiful. There is a tulip design woven through a wool area rug from my sister. It frankly outclasses many other objects.

The reality is, this is a room shaped by things that make me a contented woman, not a chic style icon. Well, shabby chic might be appropriate to describe the space.

There is one dominating element not yet mentioned. Upon entering, I am surrounded, almost inundated by books. I don’t mean just two decent-sized bookshelves that are stuffed full two-book deep, with books wedged on top of others. There are books stacked against the floor by open wall space. They are lined up like sentinels by the door, and there are stacks of a half dozen each camping by an electric heating board. In winter when the heat threatens to singe paper, I push them back a couple inches, leaving just enough room to get into bed. Once in, I plump the pillows and settle in with the current intriguing story taken form the bedside table. In that way I am no different than others who lean toward sleep with a fresh hardback or well-used paperback in hand.

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But I have to admit it may be a bit out of control, at least to some. In defense, I am not a collector. I don’t have a china cabinet boasting rows of Lladro figurines or a room transformed by model trains, tiny trees and people. I am not so nostalgic that I want to search out matchbooks from the sixties or tinted glass from the Depression. I find things I appreciate when my sister and I go to estate sales from time to time. But what I head for, always, are the books in subterranean corners or sad, stuffy attics. Most of my books have been bought at bookstores but also have been gifts, not to mention books traded with others.

I evaluated the room before two of my daughters arrived for a family reunion. I needed to tidy it up a bit more, put on a more presentable face, or so I thought. I had been meaning to do something about all those volumes, namely, take a good number to Powell’s Bookstore and trade them in or, maybe for once, just get a nice check. I blew off the dust from the higher volumes and took some down. Here was Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and whose novels reflect her love of a certain place and time. There was Pearl Buck’s adventurous life revealed in story and John Steinbeck’s truth-telling. Wallace Stegner. Madeline L’Engle. Charles Dickens. John LeCarre: more current novelists have lured me, as well. There are mystery and thriller shelves, and general non-fiction and poetry sections. A section about writing and about religion and spirituality. Nature and a few about flamenco. There are travel writers’ tales that can take me away from chill January rains to come.

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When did I last read Denise Levertov or Neruda? I stepped back, a Mary Oliver collection held close. There were so many of them, writers who experienced history unfolding, imagined worlds within worlds, shared heartbreaks and epiphanies. The dust jackets were brash, beautiful or somber as they leaned together like old cohorts.

But I couldn’t believe I would read them all before my own life was done, before, one day surely my eyes would lose their already corrected vision. What was I doing with all these books? How much money had gone to my inordinate passion for books and reading? It seemed a grave disservice to them, waiting for someone to pull one down. A wave of irritation prickled me. I took a breath and dug in; sorted, rearranged. Re-shelved.

I could not seem to let them go, not yet. I needed these tomes, even–or especially–the orphan books with bent and slightly dirty pages. After more dusting I thought about their place in my life.

It was when sitting on the balcony one evening, enjoying a waft of summer fragrance, imagining moving to a house that had suddenly become available. Wondering how there would be room enough for all those books–I didn’t even mention my husband’s separate beloved library–in those narrow, truncated spaces. My mind ran over titles and authors that populated shelves, tables, desks and floor space throughout our apartment. Magazines are cousins to books so they had their own spots. These were all part of our way of life, the wide-ranging seeking and learning, reading aloud to one another a humorous insight, a poetic turn of phrase making the moment better. As a writer, I read with an innermost ear that longs to hear more. My best mentors have been other authors. Books meliorate the quality of my living.

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And then it occurred to me: I keep buying, reading and stacking books out of interest, it’s true, but there was something more. Since I could not possibly read everything I wanted to read, maybe it was also a stay against the shortening of time, the awareness of mortality that arises as years pass. Each book said: take me home, give me room to unfold my story, offer me time and attention in your busy life and I will keep yours moving forward another quiet night, another daybreak.

Maybe books have been part of my hope of living well past any reasonable time, the desire to keep throwing myself into the thick of life with open arms. I want to still awaken with a rapturous hunger to see, do, become more. I need to stay alive long enough to read every single book I own. So the more books bought, the longer I get to stay. No, it is a pact: I cannot be discharged of my duties here until the last book is investigated.

It may seem odd to use the idea of books as an analogy for a talisman, an epiphany about life. After all, I started this essay wondering over my lack of good taste in decorative style. What to do about those scarves (and jewelry that overflows wooden boxes and handmade ceramic containers)? What about the stacks of folders that contain some of what matters to my daily living or the pictures jammed along edges of the mirror?

Nothing, nothing at all. I am keeping it like it is. It makes sense to me. The room with its random textures and colors delights every time I scan its configuration. I would rather stumble over books in the middle of a sleepless night than have a wide berth to nowhere of note. This way I can still reach the window, crane my neck to see the moon, return to comfort with a choice book propped up on my knees and sail away. I will awaken armed for a new day, the languages of heart, mind and soul at the ready as I carry on with it all. My daughters’ visit? They get it; they have their own books and more.

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Grace So Well Becomes Us

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Before turning in each night, I used to spend time selecting and preparing my clothes for work the next day. The pants or skirt, shoes, shirts and jewelry didn’t need to match but they had to make sense in an attractive but calming manner. They needed a touch of verve–scarf, eye-catching necklace, pewter-metallic shoes. I could have dressed in jeans if I really wanted to. My “casual business” attired mental health agency serves everyone from white collar adults mandated to treatment for DUII to addicted younger adults who violated probation to homeless men and women trying to hang on, to change tough times into better ones. I didn’t want to dress too well or lackadaisically, as how I presented myself could be a boon or a barrier. But once I got to work, I forgot the external presentation. My work is from the inside out and my demeanor or facial expression is far more critical. So it was as much a habit to prepare my clothes carefully for thirty years as anything. But jeans didn’t seem best for work–it was stretch-cotton, ankle-length black slacks that suited me.

I started working in my thirties after my five children were ensconced in school. My first good job was assisting older adults who were disabled by such medical conditions as stroke and Parkinson’s’ disease. Soon I became manager of a large home care services department. I wore high heels and dresses or skirts and tops daily. Our budget was tight so I often shopped at Goodwill to supplement my newer clothes. It was not fashionable to buy second hand clothing but it worked out well. Dressing up for work was a joy after years of wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were both needed uniforms. I had a household to manage; my husband often travelled and I had my hands full.

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(Painting, “Venetian Clothesline”, by Mindy Newman)

I don’t work for a paycheck, as I quit my job in November. (I write,  which most people would say isn’t work, though it feels like it despite no monetary reward yet.) My counseling (or just employee) days may not be entirely over. Thus, work clothing still takes up the bulk of closet space. To be honest, two closets, large ones. I have accumulated a lot of variations of the themes of colors, styles, needs. There are shoes in stacked boxes and sweaters folded nicely in boxes. Off season clothing is in another room. I have more clothes than I know what to do with, yet I hold on.

I wear jeans daily now, with fleece when it is colder or knit tops when the breezes tease us with springy scents. No one see me for days except my husband or a family member who stops over.  So I dress easy. My daughters have told me I have so many t-shirts (with long and short sleeves) I could dedicate a whole closet to them. On my feet, sippers, though I hate to admit it, shoe snob that I’ve been in the past. They do feel great schlepping around my place, writing for hours at the computer.

Today I spotted a pair of white flats at Macy’s as I was lugging a bag of sale towels. I tried to get to the exit–what did I need shoes for?–but they beckoned me. They were on sale. Up close, they appeared comfortable yet stylish, the perfect combination. They had a cut-out motif that made them look feminine without being girly. I tried them on. They looked lovely in the mirror; I could walk without wincing. In warm weather, when extravagant flowers decorated emerald lawns and I could walk to church or stores without needing hiking boots to stay dry and warm, they would look…enchanting. They were be pretty and sturdy at once, my thinking insisted. And if I worked again, they would accent my professional duds.

So I bought them and took them home, put them on the closet shelf for a spring day. Maybe Easter.

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I mused further. I had gotten a new pair of white shoes each Easter as a child. With white gloves, shiny Mary Janes and a pretty dress my mother made, I was all set for church, followed by the family playing music and a  roast beef dinner. Memories of that Sunday table came alive, from the crystal water goblets to the lilac tablecloth. I could nearly smell the steaming biscuits and taste the fruit salad with poppy seed dressing.

Had that been what stopped me as I had made my way out of the store earlier? With spring not far off, a longing for another time and place? My mother dressed beautifully, mostly due to her own creative skills. It was she who taught me appreciation of fine fabrics and elegant lines, how a good seam looked and held, how shorter or longer hems made a difference per eye and each occasion. She would have loved ogling the shoe racks with me; her high-heeled feet looked beautiful into her eighties.

I thought more about the sale shoes. I don’t need them, as I have a pair of white ones. Unless I get another job I will likely be barefoot when the buds unfurl and sunshine makes me want to dance. Or I will be wearing my Teva sandals when I hike in earnest. What makes me want to adorn myself with something I do not need besides our insistent culture of acquisition? When has the way I dressed made such a crucial difference? There are times I have needed to be “appropriate” or even “impressive”, but only in the eyes of this world. I love color and design, yes, but I can make art if that is so necessary to my peace of mind. Clothes are a very small part of everything.

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In fact, who I am is not very present in what I put on my body. It is a simple truth, but hits me soundly. I may be missing my work a bit– the camaraderie of working with others toward a common goal–or fancying the past. But who I am and will be is right here within me. The whole me, who does not have daily, professional support or even criticism. I long ago discovered I am not dependent on others for a secure sense of self, my “identity”. Who I have been, as a seven year old excited for Easter, a young adult struggling with challenges or a counselor who leans toward my client as his suffering is laid bare in exchange for a little peace–it all has origins here, within the invisible. My soul. We all have one, and no clothes or other accoutrements are needed to alter, hide or even adorn it.

I had a dream last night, a strange one wherein I was surrounded by people who were more like beings of another sort, without recognizable feature or form, yet full of vibrant, clear energy. No one spoke or said they loved me but I knew it by the way I felt as I floated among them. It was so powerfully magnetic that it pervaded every inch of me. One of them communicated without spoken words: “You are very pretty”, and I put my hands to my face and loudly protested. I  knew better. But they smiled at me, and the realization came that they might see me differently. And if here, in this dream place, I looked even a little as they did to me, I truly lived in beauty. How did these beings see me? I thought to educate them, and explained that my life wasn’t like theirs, it had been hard and not without significant failures. No one cared much. The love actually felt stronger; everyone shared it. When I finally heard “We have to leave you now”, I was terribly sad. I wanted that love to never end. But I awakened, deeply rested and at ease, and the awareness of whoever/whatever they were is with me still. We all need reminding of Divine Love. Everlasting love.

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So maybe that is what the shoes are about, odd as it sounds. I remembered my childhood at the store, and Easter coming. I love shoes, it is true. But at the center of all this is the knowledge that I inhabit not just flesh and bones, but a soul. In fact, I am certain I was first and will last be that, alone. Everything in between is just filler. Tasks and travels. A chance to make good on the love we are given. Grace makes the difference. The grace of God, and also the grace we can cultivate in our daily lives with others: fluency in our conversations, finesse in our diplomacy, benevolence in interactions with those we do not understand, forgiveness of those who mean harm. We can train ourselves in discernment and decorum. We can live in graciousness, which becomes us all. The perfect raiment for this world, as well.

Still…I know you may be wondering about those sale shoes, which is where this piece began. One thing has led to another, and I’m thinking it over. There is a decent chance I’ll keep them for Easter and beyond. They look fun to wear, which matters, too, as long as I live in this body.

(Photo of the gorgeous iris–“A Graceful Dancer”–is attributed to Dorothy Mae.)

Everything in This Life Can Be Lost, Broken and Freed

I took a sip of water after brushing my teeth and was surprised when my lip was grazed by a rough spot. I held the ceramic glass close and examined it. There was a minute crack less than a quarter-inch long; it lay along the edge, marring the smooth, shiny glaze. Now it threatened to crumble under the force of my gaze. As I examined the lush blues and greens that graced the form and vibrant golden circles that marked one side, disappointment rose up. My fingers touched the crack where the loosened chip was and it fell to the floor. Thoughts of repairing it were silenced by thoughts ranging from: “I can find another pretty one at the ceramics art fair this spring” to “It’s just a ceramic glass, not an heirloom–it isn’t that important” to “Why does everything I love break?”

This has become a common refrain. It seems as though many possessions have met fates I had not foreseen.

Less than a month before another handmade glass had cracked. It was a pale water-green—celadon– porcelain beauty that I had found at another art fair. It had been one of a matched set; my husband was given the other one and still sat upon the bathroom vanity, unscathed and appreciated. I wondered about the longevity of the latest ceramic vessel that was on my bedside table. Imprinted on the white and blue side is one word in pale red: cup. I treasure it; my artist daughter gave it to me.

I could list a couple dozen other items that have cracked, ripped, crumbled and unraveled. There have been several earrings that have disassembled when I wasn’t looking and just disappeared. A prized blue topaz ring I enjoyed for years was only a band with an empty mount when I got out of my car one day. It had been intact when I got in, or so I believed; the stone was never recovered. A crystal bell once belonging to my mother smashed after falling for no discernible reason. And a favorite hand-blown glass candle holder snapped in half when grandchildren strayed too close in their exuberant play. There was my cello, which was crushed almost beyond recognition when a moving company failed to secure it well. Then there were the dozen paintings. The canvasses had been removed from their stretchers and rolled up for safe keeping, then stored in the lower level of a carriage house in which I lived. A massive thunderstorm swept in during the night, the room flooded and the paintings were ruined. They were my paintings; each one was a kind of awakening and no longer preserved.

The earliest objects lost or broken always brought me to tears. They were lean years when, as a young mother of five, the few beautiful objects I had were either gifts or treasures passed on by family, like gold filigree earrings (one lost) from Spain that my parents gave me after their trip. Each loss felt like a small blow as I surveyed the humble life I lived; I felt a little shame as I longed for mere things. I had not been raised to lust after material things. My own parents’ home was modest but held lovely things imbued with memories. I understood even as a child that the most important things are those that were rich with meaning. Most often those were books, music, something handmade or unique, things that felt like blessings.

When the last ceramic glass broke and I groaned, “Why does everything I love get broken?”, my husband asked, “What do you think this is really about?” I didn’t like his response but I thought about it.

The first fact I considered is that much of what I like is breakable. I am drawn to pottery, objects made of glass, carefully crafted jewelry, fabrics that may be likely to fray, pull or stain easily when water dashes it. Hanging in the window is a delicate crystal bird. There are photos and lively cards from children that festoon the frame of a large mirror in one room; sometimes they fall out, get ripped or marred. But visual intrigue, that is a variety of color, texture and design, attracts me. And the few things I own, I have come to value. Either I should better protect them or accept they are perishable. Or purchase items that are guaranteed to not break, corrode, tear, shrink, or otherwise malfunction. Which is not my preference.

The second thought is simply that although I have gathered some possessions, the simple odds are that many of them will simply not make it until I am old enough to while away the days in an easy chair. Even when the lifespan of an object is long, it can have a proclivity for vanishing when you least expect it. But there aren’t many that are crucial to my happiness. In fact, although some might determine I have few possession of worth, I often feel there is a surfeit of things that clutter my life. Most of what I can see in my home can be done away with, and I have spells when I go on a rampage and clear out the clothes closets for donation, remove miscellaneous things from high shelves and trash them, load up bags of well-used or unsatisfactory books for resale. A surprising peace settles in the cleaner, emptier spaces. I feel light again. As things leave my home one way or another, I am ultimately not very distressed.

So I consider what I always have left. Books royally command this home and CDs and the stereo enjoy up a prominent space. And many areas are devoted to photographs of up to five generations of our families. Which reminds me, my camera is one of my prized possessions. I keep it close at hand and take care with it. My cello, with me since age twelve, sleeps in its hard black case in a corner. It was rescued by my father’s gifted hands after the devastation. The turquoise afghan my mother made long ago graces a chair. My husband’s resonant guitars await his touch. Pictures my grandchildren have made are kept a long while. There are the recordings of one daughter singing and works of art my son and another daughter have made. Cards from all five kids over the years are secreted away in the middle drawer of my ponderous desk. And my own writing is organized in files and boxes; current works are in haphazard stacks near the desk. I would rather not see any of these disposed of any time soon. Yet if all was swept away, I think I would be alright with it in the end. Having had little many years and then finally a bit more, it is evident to me that things don’t have a high place on my list of priorities. I can let those go, have even left them behind as I have moved place to place over the years. Needs would get met again.

It occurs to me that it’s my life I don’t want lost or broken anymore, yet as soon as the words land on this page I know the frail hope of such a desire. I know what has come before this day; the future will bring challenges again. For I have experienced cracks and chips and brokeness in every way over the years. I have endured health problems that have brought me to a grinding halt. I have experienced near death more than once and lived to tell the tales. There have been marriages and friendships that have failed due to faulty expectations, mistaken identities, poor timing, excess baggage, waning interest. Failure of faith has visited me more than I imagined, although since childhood I have lived and breathed a core-deep belief in God. Fear has nevertheless rendered me helpless to my profound consternation. Despair has at times whittled away self-worth, and in its place came the long, lonely descent into the bitter heart of self-abnegation. The price for staying alive has seemed very high at times when I had not yet learned how to hold on to what matters most and let go of what matters least. Before I learned to live free of whatever was keeping me from peace.

If I know what damage is, I know also the power of reprieve and renewal. It can happen when least expected, a phone call from a dear friend, the sight of a trillium blooming in the muck, a sweet song from years ago coming forward and escaping from my lips. Freedom for me is discovering that loss is temporary despite tenacious pain, woundedness can fully heal, and familiar people will leave while new people with their stories will arrive. What is resisted is often the lesson most needed. It is about forgiveness. It is about joy despite the grief we hate to feel but which can become holy. I have many times lost my liberty to people, to circumstance, to forgetfulness of Spirit. But the way back has been lit with beacons held out by many hands, some unseen or unknown at the time.

The truth is, whatever I can hold close, whatever I care about may become broken. It can be lost. But it may also lead to freedom and discovery despite mad random events or my expectations. Even love of surprising incarnations.

All this gratitude came from a broken cup. Do you see what I mean?