Why do we Travel?

Why do we travel? Why do we need to travel, why is the yearning in our hearts?

Where can we go to hide from the Self? It cannot be done.

Traveling is best done to confront, not hide.

In this way travel becomes a double-edged sword: you confront not only what is ahead of you, but what you left behind.

What, of the world you left behind, do you miss? And what still angers you?

In what ways did your friends, your family, or your society betray you?

What aspects of your society, your family, and your friends, utterly irreplaceable, and cannot but be longed for, deeply missed?

These are the things you find out when you move away to another part of the world. The answer to both questions is eerily similar.

The thing that society, and even sometimes your family and friends tends to reject, is your uniqueness. They want you to be things you are not. Society regulates for orderliness and safety. Your family and friends have hopes for you that don’t speak to who you really are. Out of love, you are rejected. Strange, no?

And the things you miss are always unique details. The smell of your mom’s hair, your best friend’s smile, which lovely strangers on the street can approximate but never duplicate. The way the smell of rain lingers in your hometown. The way the vines fall from the trees in the woods. The way the old buildings feel haunted. Or the glitter of the new buildings in the afternoon sky. The glimpses of sunset you can catch on your commute and the feeling you will soon be home, to see your parents, or your roommates, or your cat, again soon. These cannot be found anywhere else. And it’s these details that ground us and give us the rhythm of our lives.

Love can be found very particularly. The details are what ignite the heart.

But let us say these details are mired or lost in the intense stress and murkiness of daily life. You cannot run away from your problems, for they will surely follow you. So if you can’t travel to run away, what do we travel for?

We travel to find the uniqueness in ourselves. To find again the parts of us that we buried because they were rejected by loved ones or society. Many of these are small things, little details- that got stuffed in a closet and forgotten about when we were young, and have thus grown big and ugly and overwhelming in the shadows. Others were huge to begin with, and always set us apart. These are the parts of us that need parenting, loving and accepting.

Some things I’ve had to learn how to tell myself, big and small:

You don’t need to wear make-up, even if everyone around you does, and by wearing no make-up you’re considered ugly and you get mistaken regularly for a guy.

You don’t need a practical job. You don’t need a career, you are not built for just one thing.

You don’t need to save for retirement. You don’t thrive when there’s too much safety, and you don’t want to retire, anyway. And yes, you can know that about yourself at 34.

You don’t need to wear dress shoes. You need shoes you can run, jump and kick in.

Same goes for dress clothes. You’d better be able to do a high kick in that outfit.

You can love a city and still move away from it. You can love a boyfriend and still break up with him. You can love everything and still leave it all behind- not because you’re looking for something better, but because you know that nothing is for keeps, anyway.

 

You can do this without traveling, you can go through this process of finally giving yourself permission to be different from society, different from how your parents and loved ones want you to be. But traveling and living abroad can certainly help. And more importantly, when you travel, if you travel, keep this search in mind, this endless internal search for the yet unaccepted and unloved details of the self. I am convinced that when we travel, when we go on a quest of any kind, this is what we’re looking for.

When You Don’t Believe in Yourself Anymore

When you're afraid, just train! When something doesn't feel right, just train! When you don't believe in yourself anymore, just train! The only thing that will never betray you is your training.
When you’re afraid, just train! When something doesn’t feel right, just train! When you don’t believe in yourself anymore, just train! The only thing that will never betray you is your training.

I probably lose belief in myself at least twice a day.

Why am I doing this. This is crazy.

This is absurd. Impractical. I’m losing money. I should be saving money.

I’m going to run out of money and be poor and get into credit card debt buying a ticket back to the US and I’ll be stuck bagging groceries or cleaning houses again and I’ll be sucked back into the vortex of poverty, unable to get out.

Or, at least, I’ll take quite a hit before I’m on my feet again financially.

I’m an adult– and not some sprightly young twenty-something. I’m 34 years old. I should be pursuing my career, not chasing dreams I had as a twelve-year old.

Worse- it’s dangerous. I could get injured. Seriously injured.

I’m moving to China for a year to study Shaolin.

I’ll be training for six hours a day, starting at dawn. I’ll learn self-defense and acrobatics. I’ll be fighting my fellow students regularly.

Most of the time I’m not worried about it- but at least once a day, my heart sinks.

I’m unequal to the task. I’m not worthy.

But that’s why we do anything, right? Not because we are worthy- but to become worthy.

When we confront overwhelming challenges, we change who we are. To the very level of our DNA, we re-write ourselves- “you turn on new genes in your nervous system and body that code for new proteins and you build new structures inside of you.”

If our present actions become our future selves, what am I coding for? In this action, am I coding courage, bravery, persistence in the face of challenges? Or am I coding irresponsibility, negligence of my family and society, and future poverty?

The thing is, I can’t really know, can I? I’m probably coding for both.

Maybe the level of discipline I achieve during my time in China will translate into the focus and consistency needed to build wealth. Maybe instead of neglecting society, I’ll connect to like-minded people and find my tribe, in a way that I never have before.

The thing about studying martial arts is, it’s what I put into it- can I bring to it the full force of my being? Can I be fully present with the pain, the grit, the challenge?

Four times a week, after working a nine or ten hour day, I hop on a bus and commute an hour and fifteen minutes one way, to study taekwondo under a brilliant Grandmaster. Then I get back on the bus, exhausted, and get home at 11pm. Throughout my workday leading up to the minute I’m off, when I have to rush to the bus stop and eat snacks for dinner, I think to myself at least once: this is insane. I’m not going today. Today is too stressful. My kids are crazy. I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep well. I’m starving, how/when will I eat? I have no energy for taekwondo. I need to just go home and relax.

It’s amazing, however, the utter consistency with which my body, my brain, by the time I need to leave for class, is ready and willing to get on that bus, and hungry to train. I never miss a day (those four times a week when I don’t have to work late).

When we turn toward what we want, something changes inside of us- we attune ourselves to that thing, and we become more. Taekwondo is literally in my unconscious now.

On days when it’s really hard, these words come to mind-

“I made a promise to myself.”

What promises have you made to yourself, that you cannot bear to leave unfulfilled?

When you’re afraid, just train! When something doesn’t feel right, just train! When you don’t believe in yourself anymore, just train! The only thing that will never betray you is your training.                                                                                        -Sakaki

 

With Love,

Laurie

How to Really Save Money Teaching in Korea

There are many reasons why people want to teach in Korea, but one of the main ones, that makes Korea stand out from other places in the world, is money. The potential to save money teaching in Korea is among the highest in the world.

But Korea has sooooo much to offer, besides money, it’s too easy to fall in love with the culture, the food, the nightlife…

In one way, this makes the decision to drop everything and live away from your home and family for a year that much easier. You’ll have amazing life and cultural experiences, you’ll be able to travel to much of Asia for relatively cheap, and especially if you’re in a larger city, you will never, ever, ever be bored.

This, however, is where the problem lies. With all of these amazing once-in-a-lifetime possibilities, there arises a conflict of interests.

Here is the Hard Truth- if you want to save money, you have to make a decision.

What is your life going to be about, while you are in Korea?

LivinginKoreaGoals

There is no magic bullet to solve all the problems of life. But Korea looks deceptively like one.

Those of us who come to Korea often realize our lives aren’t just lacking funds- we are starving for experience. We want to meet people, eat amazing food, go out, see the city, see the country, meet more people, fall in love, get drunk, go dancing, travel to other countries, experience other cultures. It feels like we can do that here, because everything is pretty cheap… but how can we do that, and save money?

The Hard Truth- You Can’t. 

You have to make a decision- how much money do you want to save? How much culture do you want to experience? How much travel? You can’t have all three- you can’t even have two. Here are the two steps you must take to accomplish your goals in Korea:

  1. PICK YOUR PRIORITY
    • Be very clear about the amount of money you want to save, and for at least the first few months, write down everything you spend so you know where your money is going, whether you want to save a little or a lot.
  2. MAKE PEACE WITH YOUR CHOICE
    • You must let go of something- if you decide culture and travel are more important than saving money, DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF! The same is true of the opposite- don’t let others with FOMO make you feel bad about prioritizing your savings over going out all the time.

 

The one thing you must avoid is falling asleep to your goals and then waking up at the end of the year realizing you didn’t save anything, or you missed out on amazing cultural opportunities because you were too worried about money. You must do the hard work of soul-searching, and make a choice. 

Good luck, and safe journey <3 <3 <3

-Laurie

 

Life-Changing Words in Liminal Spaces

When I want to feel summer, when I want to hear the voice of nature whispering,  and feel the edge of my soul, I go to the Han.

There’s a spot at this river, under a bridge where two blues- water and sky- mingle with gold of city lights in the evening. Sometimes the sunsets are spectacular; and riding a bus crossing one of those bridges, I can stare out at a cityscape dominated not by city but by water- by this river, disproportionate: too wide for such a short journey from headwaters to sea. The river dwarfs the city- the skyscrapers, underwhelming. Great state buildings, humble.

At the river’s edge, the voice I come to hear is the water, lapping gently against the concrete slope, the bridge pillars.

But I also can’t help bringing friends here, when I want heartfelt discussion. Something about the water, perhaps, brings forth our depths.

A few weeks ago, I brought a friend to the river, and he mentioned an opportunity I have dreamed about my whole life but never thought possible. Not only is it possible, I can pursue it in a matter of months. I won’t say much for now but I will say- suddenly, my whole life is at the river’s edge, about to sail out upon unknown waters.

Everyone has a dream that they keep so deep they hide it from themselves. Because it’s so terrifying, so haunting, so incredibly big and impossible, bigger and greater and more wonderful than one mere person can ever be.

If we are vigilant, if we make a practice of staring through the hidden terror that comes with being alive- if we strive to maintain a dialogue with our innermost souls, through everything that happens in life- but most importantly, if we are lucky, if we are so so so so so so very lucky- sometimes we learn that the dream isn’t quite so impossible after all.

In the end, our dreams are humble- make art, raise a child, travel, dance, whatever the dream is, once the veil of terror is taken away, the dream is seen for what it is- a beautiful consequence of being human, the inevitability of each of us having a unique soul.

Mine is no different- it’s humble, it’s beautiful.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Year of the Moon

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Living again among the mountains, there are times I walk at night, or in the dusty hues of evening, and see the moon, hanging perfectly over the summit of a mountain, as though it were the bright ghost of a volcanic eruption or some other cone of energy bursting forth. Like a symbol, like the eye over a pyramid it watches me back, a staring contest loaded with suspicion.

Over water, however- over the lakes and oceans of my childhood- the moon is different. Soft, gaze averted in rippling reflection- forgiving.

Two faces, two personalities: one looking tirelessly into you, through you; the other, the thorough, boundless accepting of you.

Two tasks, two processes. The first: gaze unflinchingly into your unconscious. See so deeply that no part of your ego can trick you. The second: pour yourself out until oceans are filled with you.

The Metrics of the Matrix

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Let’s start with some figures to tally the substance of January:

I worked roughly 45 hours a week.  I was alone for probably six to seven hours a day: 2 hours in the morning, 4-5 in the evening, minus about 3 hours a week in language exchange and, let’s say, 10-15 hours total for the month otherwise socializing. I read over a thousand pages of books and memorized about 600 words in Korean (so my Memrise app tells me). I wrote 90 pages in my journal. I drank 40 cups of coffee, 80 or 90 cups of tea, and no alcohol, juice, or anything else besides water. I managed to stay within my weekly budget two weeks this month and the other two weeks broke it by 9$ and 32$. I went to bed by 11pm every night and woke up between 6am and 7:20am, and have only woken up with the alarm (as opposed to before it) twice this month. I’ve watched no TV and didn’t watch any movies: the one exception being that I’ve watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty five times (I have this thing where I will watch the same fluffy/romantic movie over and over again- I’ve probably watched Casablanca a hundred times).

Being in a foreign country, not yet integrated into society here, and away from all my American loved ones, has taken away the delightful chaos of being part of a community, but has given me something I’ve never had in my life: regularity. I have a job with regular hours every week. I have a regular sleep schedule. My free time is completely without plans and boring. Being sick so often this winter also means I can’t spend much of my free time exploring the city- but all this quiet and solitude give me time to contemplate life- and, it seems, measure it. I stare off a lot (Mitty-esque, perhaps?), I waste time, I putter around, and I write down every won spent (and therefore every coffee bought), every workout, every new word learned- with a consistency of record-keeping that my accountant father would have been proud of.

The only thing is, amid all this solitude, on the odd weekend when I do get to spend the afternoon with a friend, wandering around the city, making conversation, I’m pretty lonely the next day.

I had just such a day on Saturday with a friend who, as we were talking about spiritual matters, was trying to explain a theory about three levels of existence. His English, though excellent, was falling short of the task (to his standards), so he said, to simplify, it’s like metrics. The idea was curious- we had just been talking about God as a visceral experience arising from one’s innermost being, and spirituality as the direct experience rather than belief, and religion as a life lived with each decision informed by that experience rather than as a doctrine. But metrics-  evidence, perhaps, by which one can judge whether their life is in or out of alignment with their connection with God?

(I was pretty sure that, by metrics, he meant performance metrics and not the study of poetic meter :P)

Normally I would be averse to the idea (especially with today’s happiness measurements hype and the obnoxious habit, which I just above indulged in, of statisticizing one’s life to show off how disciplined you are) but the mere fact that I *can* measure my life is so novel, so endearing- 90 cups of tea! How cute! -that of course I wanted to know more.

In the pause of conversation, thinking now of course about poetic meter, I was reminded of the poem I re-read the night before (incidentally, over a cup of tea):

“I am living just as the century ends. A great leaf, that God and you and I have filled with writing, turns over now, in strange hands… unmoved by us, the Fates take its measure and look at one another, saying nothing.” -Rilke

The Fates take its measure.

And another, by a poet influenced by Rilke:*

“In the evening I came home- my skeleton came with me and lay at my side. The dark room opens to the universe- a wind blows like a voice from- is it heaven? Gazing at the skeleton gently weather-bleaching in the darkness- who is it that weeps?” -Yun Dong-ju

If spirituality is a visceral experience, coming forth from our innermost being like a dark room opening to the universe, manifesting in phenomena that is felt so profoundly it can only be likened to the brilliant landscapes of nature- peace so still and pristine that glitters like a lake clear as glass; warm, golden love that feels like honey pouring out of the heart; the soul’s individuation as a crisp, cold star shining in the deep blackness of space, whose velvety perfect darkness is the essence of the Absolute- what, then, is the use of measurements taken at the dim level of ego activity?

My new friend interrupted my thoughts:

“I can’t believe you haven’t seen the metrics.”

Three seconds and it dawned on me.

“Oh, the Matrix!! Oh my god!!”

***

I think there can be power in metrics. Each thing we measure is a clue to what we value, and each thing we do is evidence of what we are informed by: are we informed by the inner spaciousness of a peaceful life, by the honey pouring out of our hearts? Or are we informed by ego-activity, by the matrix?

The next day, to abate the loneliness that followed such heartfelt conversation, I wrote my first poem in Korean- “poem” because it’s too short to be anything else and also my understanding of Korean grammar is so completely absent that I’m limited to a handful of sentence structures (whose repetition lends itself well to bad poems :P). I’ll share the English translation below:

“Now, it is snowing. I drink hot coffee. I am happy to be alive. Whose life is this? I am grateful. The scenery is beautiful. I see umbrellas. I see boots. I see white roses. I see a church. The roses are near the church. The sky is white and spacious. Worries are far.

To live is to borrow from God. The heart is a lonely hunter.

These days, I wander around a beautiful empty city.”

 

With Love,

Laurie

 


*There is so much more to Yun Dong-ju than being “influenced by Rilke”: he was a resistance poet during the Japanese occupation… but I’ll save adorations of him for another essay.

Linguistics and Starlight

It seems like a waste to stay in bed when it’s 50 degrees out, the eerie winter light of a low sun at its most captivating- through a thick fog. A day to go out and take pictures of dewy dead leaves on park benches.

But, being sick again, what I did instead was stay in at Starbucks and read a book called the Point of Existence (more on that in a moment) and try to stay as still as possible so as not to inspire a coughing fit. All the staff at Starbucks know me by now. They’re impressed with my ability to comprehend their questions but, as I explained to one of them who speaks English, I pick up meaning entirely from non-verbal cues, context, and corporate conditioning. I did manage to successfully tell one of the girls her glasses are cute- a big linguistic victory! Especially considering I can’t phonetically distinguish for them when I want a mug vs. a mocha, even though Starbucks does use the English words (it’s my American accent).

I’ve been focusing my energy and free time on memorizing vocabulary and basic sentences for daily functioning, and to begin the chunking process which will hopefully get me to toddler level speaking in the next six months or so. The process of memorizing is long and laborious and I’m not a natural at rote. It involves getting the words to go from short-term memory to long-term memory through constant repetition over a long period of time. I do, however, have the benefit of checking my pronunciation and aural recognition with my native-speaking friends on the fly- which is invaluable.

But this process doesn’t even begin to touch the level of being able to recall, in the moment of speaking, the words I know and wish to use. So in terms of actual conversation, uh, I’ll get back to you in six months to a year 😉

Yesterday I decided to take a break from the language (repeating words while bronchially inflamed is no fun anyway) and picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. It’s called The Point of Existence, by A.H. Almaas. The title is a play on the quote from Meister Eckhart: “God has left a little point where the soul turns back on itself and finds itself.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the archetype of the Star and some of its variants: the Morning Star, the Behenian Fixed Stars, etc. Those who know me very well know I’ve held a lifelong identification with the Moon archetype. The moon symbolizes the unconscious, emotions, the state of longing- cycles, the cyclical nature of time and life, the cycles of life and death. I’ve always been highly sensitized to the moon, seemed to live and die by her waxing and waning, suffered intense insomnia for years every month at her third quarter, when she would rise late and drag me up with her, and I would watch her disturbing bisected form mocking me through the window as the hours crawled by.

The Moon is ever close to her beloved, though, and I have yet again stepped away from the people I am in love with to disappear into the world. A star in the firmament, of sorts- that “tangible heaven,” in this case, being this city of eleven million people. The Star is unique but not special. It is different only in the way that every leaf or every flower is different. Powerful in individuality, irreplicable, but not special. It is alone in the vastness of space yet part of a glittering, silent collective. I feel the silence in particular depth as I function each day with a language barrier all around me.

The Star in and of itself represents a “point of existence,” and if people are like stars, then perhaps we, too, can access those qualities in ourselves- of being brilliant, radiant, of existing in vastness and depth, of constancy; the feeling of being truly long-lived, which comes not from our number of years but from how deeply we can stretch into each moment; of feeling an intimacy with the eternal- which we reserve in our minds for only the oldest of beings.

There is a state of being deeper than our normal experience of self- “that which renders the very question of self irrelevant,” as Almaas puts it. For the time being, I am grateful to be able to get up at dawn every day, no longer haunted by a sleepless moon.

Unexpected Commonalities

Just up the road from my apartment, there is a Buddhist temple leaning into the side of the mountain. Up the trail are dozens of what I imagine are altars: cone-shaped piles of stones, found around every turn of each tightly wound path. If it weren’t for the temple, I’d have guessed witches were living in these woods. The monks ring bells every morning at 4:45am.

The day after the election I had a friend teach me how to say “I didn’t vote for Trump” in Korean. A few weeks ago at the Pharmacy, after I apologized for not being able to speak Korean, the pharmacist said, “Aniyo, aniyo (no, no, it’s OK)…. where do you come from?” I said “U.S.” with a sad shrug, then remembered the phrase. I said it to him and he and his assistant laughed so hard. I’m glad they got the humor of a girl who can barely say anything but took the time to learn that sentence.

The Koreans I’ve spoken to are forgiving of me being an American, despite a few reasons they could cite not to be (I’ll post a primer on American-Korean relations at some point, I promise). The pharmacist, after the laughter died down, asked if I knew about Park  Geun-Hye. There is an enormous amount of national shame felt over here about the corruption scandal that the president is involved in. Though I would never presume to know exactly how they feel, I and millions of other Americans are going through our own version of national shame. The mention, here, of my country of origin admits me a kind-of free depressed solidarity and moment of shared baffled silence.

Two days ago, Korean Parliament voted to impeach the president. With a nervous hope, I wait to see what will unfold on the other side of the planet.

Missing Chemistry

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I’ve been having difficulty writing in this blog.

I miss chemistry. I miss writing lab reports.

I know I started this blog to connect with my loved ones while I’m far away, but I don’t know how to write about Korea and my experiences here. I’m too sensitive. I subject every sentence I write, every observation, to its potential to be misinterpreted or to offend someone. I’m too critical.

But there’s another aspect to this: writing about my experiences here is too… subjective.

Pursuing chemistry, I wrote a lab report roughly every week and I miss that discipline. I had to labor over every word, every phrase, to articulate exactly everything that happened in the experiment and the laws and concepts behind the results. As a test-taker, I struggled, but as an elaborator I was consistently a top scorer. There is a lot that is satisfying about chemistry: working the math, the kinesthetic aspect of being in the lab itself, the power of being able to make predictions for chemical outcomes based on intricate concepts- but for me, the most important work was that of articulation.

Writing in science is unlike anything I’ve ever done. It’s quite possibly the most extroverted thing I’ve done. Never have I had to strive so hard for objective truth. (I could diverge here and compare to the laborious search for objective truth in philosophy and spirituality, to which I have been a lifelong dedicant, but I’ll save that for another post :P) I was constantly- word by word- testing my ideas and understanding against the critical feedback of my experimental results.

In contrast, writing about personal experience…

Jung observed four main aspects of human functioning: the Thinking function, the Feeling function, the Sensate function and the Intuitive function. Unlike the more familiar Myers-Briggs system which is based on Jung’s findings, each function is understood to have either an introverted or extroverted tendency, not the person as a whole. The Thinking function and the Feeling function are considered the Rational functions (I know many initially protest at this, thinking that feelings are irrational, but hear me- and Jung!- out), and the Sensate and Intuitive functions irrational. The rational functions have to do with our, well, rationalizing of reality. The Thinking function strives to interpret experience. Scientists typically embody this function well. The Feeling function places value judgments on experience. I like to analogize this to the archetypal Judge, who had to determine the value of each aspect of every case set before them and therefore act as a moral barometer.

(For those who are curious, I’ll also mention that the Sensate and Intuitive functions are considered the Irrational functions, meaning they are concerned with the experience of reality itself. The Sensate function experiences reality more directly, whereas the Intuitive function “blurs the focus” of reality, as Jung puts it, in favor of its possibilities. Hand a cup to two children: the Sensate child will say it’s a cup. The Intuitive child will say it’s a home for fish, a magic hat, a cave, etc.)

Writing about personal experience feels like an exasperating of my already worn-out Feeling function. It’s the spewing-out of value judgment after value judgment, which, by the way, I already want to avoid, being immersed in an entirely new culture where I’m unwittingly set up as a comparator of sorts.

Value-judgment isn’t just the act of being judgmental, it’s the sorting we do every day of everything we come across: This is good! This is bad! This is pretty! This is ugly! Kids should learn this in school! The government should do this! Guns are bad! Guns are good! It’s the incessant organizing of reality by way of a thousand tiny judgments a day.

Value-judgment fuels our passions, gives us the ability to emote and connect with one another, to sympathize, to punish, to stabilize society and cooperate. But in the end it’s not objective (Note: I am in no way talking about morality when I talk about value-judgment in this essay, however the two are arguably related. Again, a post for another day).

I am hyper-aware of the value-judgments I make when writing about personal experience. The subtext of every sentence is so apparent to me: This is beautiful. This is not. This makes me elated. This makes me lonely. Also, with every sentence, I am sending messages about an entire culture, a lifestyle (living abroad), a privilege/fantasy (travel abroad), all through an essentially arbitrary set of values (mine, and arbitrary because I’m a human). I am taking people on a tour of things I am completely unqualified to speak about (most harmfully, a culture). Talking about things over which I can have no authority, I wallow in the mire of relativism.

In writing about personal experience, all I ever need to say to anyone is: I am lonely. I am joyous. Life is beautiful. Life is ugly. Life is absurd. Life is meaningful. Things that have been true my whole life, no matter where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing.

I know lots of people find value in personal narrative, but I, who journaled for twenty years, am perhaps worn out.

I miss chemistry, I miss the excruciating reach for objectivity in the reality of consequences based on physical and chemical laws.

Perhaps, until I figure out my fate as a budding chemist, I should write about philosophy? What else more closely approximates the pursuit of objective truth?

With love,

Laurie