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A Box Full of Darkness.

The website Psych Central allowed me to contribute another blog post, which they titled “A Box Full of Darkness: Growing Up in the Shadow of Borderline Personality Disorder.” Here it is.

Iste Est Magister Stultorum

Wheelock’s Latin, the textbook my students and I use, quotes a lot of Roman wisdom. Today a student and I were translating this sentence, which frequently gives students trouble:

Non solum eventus hoc docet—iste est magister stultorum—sed etiam ratio.

It translates:

Not only the outcome teaches this—that is the teacher of fools—but also reason.

Titus Livius

Titus Livius

You can see why this sentence is vexing, because even when translated correctly, it still may not sound right or make sense. This line from the historian Livy requires (to use an expression I dislike) some unpacking.

Livy means that hindsight is the teacher of fools. We should instead foresee the outcome of decisions before the event. Many people now, for example, will say that our wars in Vietnam or Iraq were foreign-policy mistakes. To which you might say, “Duh.” Anyone, or at least many people, looking back can see that now.

Greater credit is due to those who saw ahead of time what eventualities (there’s that root again, evenio, meaning to come forth) would ensue. Millions of ordinary people around the world protested the Iraq war before it happened, pleading to let the inspectors do their job and keep looking for those weapons of mass destruction. Remember those? Remember how there weren’t any? Now we have the eventus—hundreds of thousands dead and still dying in the tumult of the Middle East. More terrorism, more violence. We should have been able to reason our way to this outcome beforehand.

Livy’s wise line came to mind as I was talking recently to my Republican neighbors. Cleveland Heights is a liberal suburb, but we allow a small quota of conservatives to move in. We even let Donald Trump into town last week. He appeared with a very conservative Cleveland Heights black pastor, along with promoter and, oh yeah, killer Don King.

Back to the neighbors. I was canvassing the neighborhood for Hillary, and passed my neighbor and her husband sitting out on the porch. I joked to them that I wouldn’t even bother them, because I was not out to convert Republican voters but rather to encourage likely Hillary voters to vote early. My neighbors shook their heads sadly. They dislike Trump and don’t know what to do. Because they hate Hillary. “The problem is,” the woman said, “we don’t know what either of them is going to do. It’s a crapshoot. You have to just close your eyes and pick one.”

I argued, just a little. I said, no, we do know both candidates. They each have a history we can look at. They have pretty clearly defined personae. Then I could tell by their expressions that my neighbors were about to tell me that Hillary killed Vince Foster, so I said goodbye and moved on.

But I left thinking we know pretty much about both candidates. We know that Trump will try to get rid of Obamacare and Hillary will maintain and expand it. We know Trump will nominate conservative Supreme Court judges and Hillary liberal ones. We have learned that Trump uses words like this for people he doesn’t like:  pigs, murderers, ugly, rapists, fat, crazy, crooked, and so forth. Hillary does not. And now, after the debate last night, we know that one person studies the facts, learns, and prepares for important events, and the other one doesn’t.

Reason should teach us what the outcome of our vote will be. We have all the information we need.


BPDFamily invited me to write a post about how my thinking about my mom has changed since learning about borderline personality. The website is a gathering place for people with family members with BPD. Here’s the post:

How To Be Happy

I’ve written a fair number of words about my friend Father Dan Begin and have decided for various reasons to begin sharing them now and then. This is a transcription of a homily delivered on August 3, 2008, in which Dan explored the theme of choice, based on readings from Isaiah and from Matthew’s account of the loaves and fishes. I hope both believing and non-believing readers can find something to appreciate here.

I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.


loaves-fishesMost of us have never been really, really, really hungry. Most of us, even if we feel really hungry, have actually eaten very recently. Now here is an interesting thing. In the seminary we had a secret society. We would do subversive things, like read the Dutch catechism. We’d read Jean Paul Sartre.  We’d read terrible underground books. We were going to solve the problems of the world, though, as you can see, we haven’t quite accomplished that. To solve world hunger, we thought we had to feel what the people felt. So we went on a five-day fast.

After about the first hour on the first day, we were already hungry.  By three hours, we were starving, and by seven hours, our hunger was beyond imaginable. By the second day, we just felt blah. Then you develop a headache that you just cannot make go away. On the third day, you still have the headache, and you feel all-over dreadful. By the fourth day, the headache goes away, and you feel kind of high. You hardly think about food, and meal times pass by, and you don’t pay attention. And by the fifth day, it becomes really, really hard to eat, and so when it was time to start eating again, I couldn’t eat a whole piece of toast. It’s hard to get your system to eat again.

Now, this experiment was exciting, because the whole group of us was bound and determined to do this together. We were going to have an experience. Of course, the true reality of hunger is something much different, something we didn’t even get close to.

Around the same time I read an article. I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it, but the author was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. He described real, true hunger much better that I ever could. He wrote that the prisoners got only two handfuls of rice every day. After awhile, he said, you lose all motivation. You are totally drained physically, and it’s probably worse to eat a little bit than nothing at all. Eating that little bit is just enough to keep you surviving. You lose all concern for anybody else. You lose the ability to believe in a God or anybody else. Day by day, you just wait for those handfuls of rice.

One day, this man did something that made the prison guard angry, and the guard dumped all his food on the ground. The prisoner just lay on the ground crying, as he describes it, thinking that handful of rice was everything for him, and now it was gone.

Then another man approached and gave him half of the rice he had, half a handful. In that half of a handful, all of a sudden everything came back. The man’s belief in God, his belief in love, his belief in life—everything came back with that gift of only half as much as he was getting regularly. Because of a moment of love, half a handful of rice was worth a whole life. What an amazing thing. Hunger calls us: the only way to survive and make sense out of life, the only way to survive and make sense out of God, is through that sharing of food.

In the Gospel today we hear the story of the feeding of the 20,000. That’s 5000 men plus women and children. You figure it had to be at least twenty thousand, maybe thirty. And notice that the evangelist makes sure to say there are significantly more people besides men in the world. Though the world counts only men, the evangelist says, look at all the women and children—they’re people, too. That was a very profound statement.

Here’s the situation. Jesus’s idol, the person who brought him to the beginning of his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, the one who got the whole ball rolling, the one who Jesus said is “greater than an angel,” not only was dead, but brutally murdered. He had his head cut off at a banquet. What a horrible, horrible thing.

And Jesus was so horrified, and he was so frustrated. He said to his disciples, “I have to get away. I can’t do this any more.” He needed to just be alone. He found his way to a deserted place, but by the time he got there, the crowds had already heard where he was going. Somebody leaked it. And there they were: 25,000 people. He said, “Oh, well. I guess it’s not time to mourn.” His heart was moved with pity. He was hungry for time alone with his God, but he gave up what little he had to share with others, with 25,000 others.

The apostles said, “Send them away. You’re in control. Tell them you’ve cured their sick. Tell them to go away.”

Jesus said, “There’s no need for them to go.” He didn’t want them to go. Though he didn’t want to see them at first, now he didn’t want them to go. He told the disciples to feed them. And the apostles got testy. Understandably so. They said, “What do you expect us to do? We have only five loaves and two fish and thousands of people.”

He said, “Give me what you have.” Now, this story is recorded in every Gospel. The multiplication of loaves is actually recorded six times, because there are other records of feeding the 2000 or 3000. Six times in four gospels, it’s recorded over and over. It was so significant  to the early Christians in the time of the Gospel writing that they made sure it was put in over and over and over again. No other story has six versions.

Jesus was telling them, “You with your very little bit can do anything if you believe. You with your very little bit can change the whole world if you choose. But if you choose to keep that little bit, you tie my hands.”

It was a little boy, as it’s recorded in Matthew, who gave his five loaves and two fish. He came forward, not the apostles. The apostles probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. A lot of people probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. Some commentators think maybe that’s what the real miracle was. People took out their stashes. First, they thought, “I’m not showing this to anybody,” and then some little boy embarrassed them and said, “Here’s what I have,” and all of a sudden people started pouring out what was in their pockets, and they had more than enough

But in that moment, something more significant than the food happened, just like with that half a handful of rice. Something happened that said to people, “Once again we can believe that our God takes care of our needs. Once again, we believe that together we can make things happen. Once again, we can believe that life is a banquet, even when we’re hungry. Once again, we can choose the life that’s set before us, knowing that our life is the banquet and the gift and the food. And knowing that even in the hunger we may find something so significant, something so much more powerful than anything we can find when we’re full.”

And the message just shouts out loud and clear. Jesus didn’t take a poll and say, “Who’s a sinner here? You need to get forgiven before you can get any food.” He didn’t take a poll to see who’s good and who’s bad. He just said these are people. It’s just like New Yorkers rushing to help at the World Trade Center. There were people in need. Run and meet those needs.

The first reading from Isaiah is also such a beautiful passage. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. It still flows. Whether you think you see it or not, the water still flows. All you who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, come without pain. Come without cost. Drink wine, and drink fresh milk. But don’t spend your money on what is not bread. Don’t spend your wages on what fails to satisfy.”

Institutions, no matter which institutions they are, over and over and over, want to take control of the meal. Institutions say, “You can eat because you’re one of us. You can’t eat because you’re not one of us. We’ll offer what we have to you over here, but not to you over there. Some people are the kind we want. You others are not.” But unlike institutions, families do not choose who is part of their life. Isaiah—and this is before Jesus—says that God has a family. God is this Mother who has our name written on the palm of her hand, and She will not stop being Mother.

Isaiah speaks of a God who says, “Come, come eat of my food, drink of my wine. Come, share the banquet of life.” This God does not make exceptions. This God does not say it’s only for this one and not for that one. Even if your mother should forget you, this God says, “I shall not forget you, because I am the perfect Parent. I am the one who knows you always and forever, who knows you inside and out.” In the last part of this chapter, Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found. There’s still time. You can find God. Let the scoundrel turn away from those wicked ways. Let the wicked one repent from his sins and come back. Come back, and eat of the food that God presents to us.” And that banquet is laid out before us right here, right now.

Most of us wake up in the morning, and we look to our Parent who has presented us with a banquet, and we say, “I don’t like that. Get it away. That’s nasty. That’s bitter. That doesn’t appeal to me. It might be all right some other day, but today I want something else.”  And we want to give the Parent of the Universe the directions on what my banquet should be. And, of course, my banquet is all about me. My banquet is healthful. I have my medical covered.  I have my house in order. I have my banquet, and that banquet is the one I choose.

But what about the reality banquet? What about the real banquet? Whether I choose to accept it or not, I woke up today knowing that I’m going to have an eternal life. I woke up today knowing that I have a God who loves me. I woke up today knowing that I have people who love me. I can’t tell you how things are going to work out in my life, and I can’t tell you how things are going to work out today. I can’t tell you if I’m going to be breathing half an hour from now. It doesn’t matter. I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.

But there are those in the institutions who would try to take all that away from me.  In my mind, I can choose to believe them. Terrorists may make me afraid all the time. And if I choose to walk around being afraid all the time, well, that’s my problem, because they can only kill the body. They can’t kill the soul.

Churches would have me believe that unless I follow particular magic formulas or particular sets of laws, they can exclude me from the love of God.  But St. Paul says, “Who, who can separate me from the love of Christ? Who will separate us? Anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or the sword? No, no, none of these. In all things we are conquerors, if we know whose hand we hold. We are conquerors if we know who we are. We are conquerors if we know what we inherit. We are conquerors if we know that we are sisters and brothers and heir to the same thing as Jesus Christ. We are more than conquerors.”

Instead of believing what others tell us, we need to go to the Somebody who knows, and that’s our Parent. We need to say that beautiful prayer that Jesus taught us: “Father, Abba, Daddy.” We need to recognize that nobody, but nobody, can take this away from us. Shame on us if we believe that they can.

We don’t need all of the things that our country provides for us. We don’t need all the things this church provides. We don’t need all the things that the world insists that we need. We don’t need a ten-year plan. We don’t need to go through our medical benefits. We don’t need to have insurance for this that and the other thing.

I was talking to someone the other day who works full-time and then 36 hours more. He said. “I just crave a day off.”

I said, “Quit one of your jobs.”

He said, “Oh, I can’t.”

“You’re working, and your wife’s… “

“No, to pay all the bills, we have to do this,” he insisted.

Well, I thought, if in your mind, you have to do this, you have to do it. It’s what you choose to control you. You choose what separates you from the love of Christ, from the love of life, from the experience that lies right before us.

And so, we’re challenged today by these readings. We’re challenged to ask, “What did I wake up with this morning? This is the food that God has presented to me. This is what God has given me.” I may seek other things and better ways, and that’s not a bad thing, but I can never say I don’t have enough unless I choose to say it. If I give away moments of joy, moments of peace, if I waste my time in moments of anguish and pain and suffering because things are not exactly the way I want them to be, well, then, that four-letter word “want” needs to get out of my vocabulary. “Want” will just destroy me. I need to choose: This is what I have, and this is what I can do with it.

And then I need to dream. Dream! What can I do with this marvelous gift I have? Perhaps I’m ninety-six years old and can’t do much. Maybe I can talk to some child and give her a little story from the past. I can use what I have.

How can I use who I am, what I have, the banquet that’s laid before me, and recognize that it’s a new banquet every day, that there is always enough, and that in God’s plenty I will never go wanting? In choosing that gift, we find that the kingdom is right here and right now.



“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish—but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.” —Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, catching butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov, catching butterflies

A weird concatenation of circumstances. Coincidence. Or, as we sometimes say in our family, when we want to annoy each other, “coinkydink.”

I was in Nashville on Saturday getting my hair done for my daughter’s wedding. I had considered not getting my hair and makeup done, because of the expense and the risk of looking funny. But in order to hang out with the girls, I opted for the full monty. When the young woman doing my hair politely asked what I do for a living, I mentioned teaching, and then I thought, Go for it, and mentioned that I wrote a book. I was describing the book’s topic, alluding to my mother and using the general term “mental illness,” when the stylist asked me what the mental illness was, and I told her borderline personality disorder. Her hands in my hair suddenly got very still.

“My mother has borderline personality disorder,” she said.

There ensued a meeting of minds, a sharing of experiences, and some rueful laughter. Suffice it to say, the stylist and I hugged when my coif was complete, and she gave me her email address.

Then today, my daughter’s wedding announcement appeared in the (wait for it) New York Times. A couple of weeks ago, Margaret was asking for the appropriate titles for her parents’ jobs in order to submit her courtship story for the paper. I dutifully said that John programs films for the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque and the Cleveland Museum of Art and that I teach Latin at Cleveland State. And then I thought, Go for it, and Margaret dutifully added the title of my book, Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother

As of tonight, my website has had about five times its usual number of hits. Who knows what else will ensue?

No one understands more deeply and poignantly than I that this past weekend was about Margaret and Tim and their friends. I’m not saying it wasn’t. But it has other ripples of meaning, too, for everyone who attended.

Some people say there are no coincidences. I think there are. If they have meaning, we don’t know it. If they don’t have meaning, we can ascribe it. I like what that cheeky Vladimir Nabokov wrote about coincidences, but I also like how frequent, mysterious, and meaningful they can sometimes seem.


Another Gift

Kimberlee Roth’s book Surviving a Borderline Parent: How to Heal Your Childhood Wounds & Build Trust, Boundaries, and Self-Esteem helped me a lot when I began exploring the possibility that my my mom had suffered from borderline personality disorder.  Everything about it was calming. When I would stress about getting things “right,” I’d go back to this passage.

The bottom line is, you don’t have to be a credentialed clinician to recognize troublesome and unhealthy behaviors. The label or diagnosis isn’t the issue. If what you read resonates with your experience, and the exercises get you thinking about new ways to handle vexing belief systems and behaviors, we think you’ll benefit, regardless of a formal diagnosis (or lack of one).

Maybe my clinical diagnosis was off, I would think, but troublesome and unhealthy behaviors? Hand me a pen! We’ve got ’em! Kim’s book is filled with compassionate, big-hearted advice, and comfort.

I was so pleased that Kim provided a blurb for my book. Then even more pleased when she invited me to do a guest interview on her blog. Kim provided insightful, challenging questions for me to address.

New Memoir About Being Raised by a Borderline Parent: Author Q&A



At Long Last

It’s been years of writing, reading, revising, waiting, feeling hopeful, not feeling hopeful, and waiting somemom on book more. Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother is now available, published by Red Giant Books this week.

Try always to patronize your local independent bookstore. That applies here. Even though stores will not have my book in stock, they will look it up and find it on their distributor’s website and order it for you. You’ll get it just as quickly as you would from that giant online retailer, where it’s also, of course, available. If you get a chance after reading, reviews on that website (Amazon, if you’re not following) are supposed to be very helpful, so please consider submitting one.

Thanks to everyone who’s been so encouraging and inspiring. Thanks for reading today as always. I’ll try to write something more interesting when I get my thoughts together and can figure out what I’m actually feeling.

Seeing The Sand Pebbles

Once upon a time, directly after Latin class, a certain John asked a certain Kathy to see a movie called The Sand Pebbles. Sadly, Kathy, a member of the marching band, was unavailable because of a football game on the night in question. John did not ask Kathy out again for about seven years, during which they both graduated from college and lived in different places and got jobs and Kathy took a lot more Latin classes. Finally, about ten years after that first invitation, John and Kathy got married.

When we began dating for real, I reminded John of that long-ago request for a date. He didn’t remember it, but he remembered (being John) the movie and remembered taking another girl at our high school instead of me. Now, after almost fifty years of not seeing The Sand Pebbles, I borrowed the movie from the library.


Steve McQueen

It’s a long movie. I watched all of its three hours through my high-school eyes at the same time as my present-day, married-to-a-film-buff eyes. It had that epic look of certain prestige movies of the time—vistas of sea and Chinese landscapes, Panavision, long takes. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the script tackles issues like imperialism, racism, and religion. Steve McQueen plays a sailor in the 1920s on an American gunboat in China. He’s a rebel and iconoclast. Love interest Candice Bergen, nineteen years old to McQueen’s thirty-six, is an idealistic missionary.

I kept thinking that though the movie’s trying hard to be liberal, trying hard to say the right things, it’s racist and sexist in spite of itself, in today’s terms. Both the Chinese characters and women are subsidiary and one-dimensional. It’s a world created and dominated by white men. They’re pretty well-intentioned white men—i.e., the writers and directors and producers—but after fifty years, history and diversity have passed them by.

I tried to imagine how it would have felt to see this movie on a date. Sitting next to a boy! My high-school sensibility was shocked! An appealing young Chinese woman is auctioned off to the highest American bidder in a bar, until a very young, lovesick Richard Attenborough snatches her away to protect her. A few scenes later, after some months have passed, we learn she is pregnant. I was a pretty sheltered adolescent, and I would have felt squirmy during these adult-themed scenes, tame as they are today.

In a twist, though, the movie is more violent than I usually see now. I think I was more inured to violence back then, getting my weekly ration on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and the rest.

What would have happened if I had skipped that football game, aside from being thrown out of the band? Would John and I have enjoyed each other’s company and become a high-school item? Would we have dated for awhile and then broken up, bitter and broken-hearted? Or would I have “bored” him, like some of the girls he dated in high school?

At the time, I felt sad, because boys (let’s just say) were not falling over themselves asking me out on dates when I was in high school. I liked John Ewing and would have gone out with him if he had asked again. In fact, I asked him to a dance the following year, and he turned me down. Years had to pass for the Fates to bring us together. And here we are now in 2016, and what are we doing? We’re going to movies together.



Operant Conditioning

dog beggingYou most often train dogs with treats to reinforce their behavior. My husband has a habit of “dropping” bits of food for our dog Roxie when he’s eating. Then he acts disappointed when she begs. “John,” I say. “She was trained. You literally trained her.” She thinks if she gazes at John, looking adorable (and she can hardly help that), she’ll get a treat, and she’s usually right.

Last week, a student reminded me of this training. This young man missed a lot of classes at the beginning of the semester and turned in all of his papers late. He made only a comment or two in class, a seminar focused on discussion. There’s also a class website, where the students post comments and questions on our readings in order to prompt reactions in class. He contributed nothing to those. I computed a generous B for this guy, recognizing that his attendance had improved and that though his papers weren’t great, he had revised and improved them willingly.

On the last day of class, he asked me if he could bring up his B to an A by posting comments on the discussion board for all the readings we had done since January. Those things whose purpose, as I said, is to inspire class discussion. I responded, “No. That would be stupid and meaningless.” He grinned sheepishly, pushed it a little further, and then gave up.

I felt furious about this question, no doubt just a shot in the dark for the student. He must have figured it was worth a try, but to me it manifested a lack of respect for the class and our subject matter. As I continued to fume, my thoughts slowly moved away from this particular student to the underlying issue. Grades.

Our system is designed to create my student. Every little action and assignment in the classroom gets a response, a gold star, a treat. That’s how students are trained—to aim for those things. Forget the purpose of attendance, the writing assignments, and those online postings. They’re just different means to one end, the grade.

My student is Roxie. Like her, he behaves the way he’s been trained.

Circle Dance

Many years ago, my good friend Barb said something I never forgot. “People shouldn’t say they did the best they could. Nobody ever does the best they can,” she remarked with the wise authority of a person in her early twenties. Struck by the comment’s harshness, I was also impressed with Barb’s bracing insight. I decided she was right. Ever since then, whenever someone said, “Oh, well. I did my best,” I’d think to myself, “Oh, yeah? I bet you could have done better.” I didn’t excuse myself either. When I messed up, I’d internally count the ways I cut corners and failed to live up to my own expectations.

Barb’s judgment always came to mind in respect to my mother as well. Over the years, after telling a story about my mom’s impatience or pessimism, I’ve heard, over and over again, that she probably did the best she could. Usually I’d keep silent to avoid sounding petty and unforgiving. But inside, I’d be saying, “I think she could have done better. I think she wasn’t really trying.”

And it may actually be true that few people do their very best most of the time. Barb and I are probably right. Everyone who gossips knows it’s wrong to gossip. Everyone binging on chocolate chip cookies knows it’s not healthful. It’s within most people’s control not to hit their kids, or drive drunk, or cheat on a test, but they do it anyway. As I was writing the end of my book about my mother, however, I realized that this attitude wasn’t doing me any favors.

I realized it didn’t matter whether a harsh judgment was true, because its result was resentment and criticism. In contrast, a best-they-could attitude makes for a kinder, gentler life. If we assume this about others and ourselves, we allow for another chance, when we might actually get closer to being our best selves. It’s better, at least after a respectable period of fuming and/or self-flagellation, to just let it go. “How futile to hold a grudge,” I say near the end of Missing, “against someone so sad.”

bonnie-raitt-profileI came upon these reflections after listening to the song “Circle Dance” by Bonnie Raitt, which she reportedly wrote about her dad, the singer John Raitt. I should point out that, unlike the parent in Raitt’s song, my mother never left. She put dinner on the table seven nights a week, washed and ironed our clothes, and drove us to school when we missed the bus, which was, for me, quite often. Getting up in the morning was an area where I didn’t always do my best.

I give my mom credit for what she did and assume now that she just wasn’t able to do the rest. Whether it’s true or not, I’m saying she did the best she could. Here are the lyrics to Bonnie Raitt’s song, but you’d do much better to listen to it here.

Circle Dance

I don’t know why it should be so hard giving up this circle dance.

Worn out steps from long ago don’t give love a chance.

It’s a bitter heirloom handed down, these twisted parts we play.

I’m not her, and you’re not him; it just comes out that way.

Can’t go back to make things right, though I wish I’d understood.

Time has made things clearer now; we did the best we could.

“I’ll be home soon.” That’s what you’d say, and a little kid believes.

After a while I learned that love must be a thing that leaves.

I tried so hard just to hold you near, was as good as I could be.

Even when I had you here, you stayed so far from me.

Can’t go back to make things right, though I wish I’d understood.

Time has made things clearer now: You did the best you could.

Now that this has occurred to me, I just wanted you to know.

I’ve been too faithful all my life. It’s time to let you go.

It’s time to let you go.