Conscious Conversation: Life After Fire

For a few years now, Doni and I have been talking about doing something different on a news Café. One of the ideas that bounced between us was a Dear Abby column where readers would send in questions of a psychological nature that I would attempt to answer. Another idea had me writing a series of columns devoted to particular topics such as ADHD, insomnia, anger management, anxiety, depression, etc. I could never quite decide what to do or how to do it, but it seemed sensible to attempt some kind of hybrid of these two approaches. And while Doni has been extremely patient and always supportive and encouraging, I’ve been dragging my feet. I could never quite commit to plunging in and just doing it. Until now. I think I’m ready. I hope I’m ready. I guess we’ll find out.

We decided to call it Conscious Conversations because that is what I attempt to do all day long in my office. When people are suffering enough to seek out the services of a psychologist, they are usually open to change. They are done messing around. They are done faking it. They want to be real with someone. They want to be honest with someone who will accept them as they are and not judge them, who will listen carefully and seek to understand them.

For many of us, it is too easy to float through life unconsciously; thinking, feeling and doing the same things day after day. This works until it doesn’t, until something breaks, until the pain gets bad enough that we wake up. When we are conscious, we are present and when we are present, we are mindful and when we are mindful, we are ready to learn. And when this happens, our conversations change. We want to talk about things that matter, things that are real, things that relate directly to the heart of why we’re here.

So here is how this works. My plan is to write words that I hope you’ll read. And then, I hope you’ll write words that I will read. And then I hope to write words in response to your words, kind of like a conversation. And then it will be your turn. And so on like ping pong only slower and with ideas instead of little white balls. I will say things and ask questions and hopefully you will say things and ask questions, and together we will discover whether we have anything to say that is of value. If we get this right, my guess is we will all learn something, something useful, something we came here to learn or teach or both. And our conversations will be conscious, alive and real and provide us with tools that we can use as we seek healing and connection in our gentle journey through the marvelous madness of our common life. I hope you will join with me and see where it goes.

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Life After Fire

“Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence, is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self’s actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward.”

Viktor Frankl

“Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ and find that there is no death.”

Eckhart Tolle

When we are born and begin developing into a person, our parents behold us. They marvel at our existence and if we are lucky, they fall in love with and communicate a profound, unconditional acceptance of us. They see us and we see them seeing us. We realize that we are being seen. They mirror us. They validate and affirm us. They tell us verbally and more importantly, nonverbally, that we are special and important to them. We matter. We are significant. We are loved. And because of this, we trust. We relax into this understanding and test it, challenging our parents to love us, even when we are not very lovable. As time and experience repeatedly confirms this acceptance, we come to naturally savor, relish, appreciate and celebrate the fact that we are safe and secure in the loving embrace of these special others who attach and bond with us for life.

Of course, people are imperfect and so this process does not always happen perfectly. In some cases, it doesn’t happen at all like this. Some children are abused, exploited and violated. Those of us who were blessed with adequate parenting feel deep empathy for those who weren’t. For those adults who enjoy some level of psychological health and wellness, they can thank an adult who was there for them when they were small, defenseless, helpless and completely dependent on them.

Studies show that adults who are psychologically resilient cope with crisis more effectively than those who are not as resilient. And our resiliency comes from the fact that someone believed in, supported, and loved us and came through for us when we needed them.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful theory and helps us see how satisfying certain basic needs allows us to pursue more advanced, sophisticated or complex needs. For example, we first need to have our physiological needs met, to feel safe and secure and know on a deep level that we are loved and we belong to a person, a family, a tribe or cultural group. Once these needs are reasonably satisfied, we can build a positive sense of self, which Maslow calls esteem. The lower form of this depends on how others see and treat us. The higher form develops when our self-respect is not dependent on an external source.

Originally, Maslow described the final stage of human development as something he called self-actualization, which could be defined as fulfilling one’s potential or becoming what one feels called to become. When we feel that we have a purpose in life; when we come into awareness of the reason we exist; when we connect with our deepest values and feel and believe that we are acting on those values and fulfilling our purpose, we might say that we are self-actualizing.

Like many theories, Maslow later revised his understanding of his hierarchy of needs and added one last stage that he called self-transcendence. This term refers to the awareness that develops when we are not content merely meeting our personal or individual needs and instead aspire to give ourselves to others. Their needs become as important and, in some cases, more important than our own.

Some of us have been fortunate enough to realize, and wake up to the fact that separation is an illusion. While our bodies are separate and we all function as independent beings, some of us have tasted and become intimate with the knowledge that this is not fundamentally real or true. That which is deepest in me is deepest in you. At my most fundamental level, I am pure awareness and so are you. Your ground of being and mine is the same. In fact, it doesn’t make much sense to call it “my” ground of being, because “I” don’t possess it. Rather it possesses me. It gives birth to me and you and all people and all physical reality. It is what we are. However, until we fully wake up to this reality, we identify with, cling to and attach ourselves to physical things and limitations that are not fundamentally real, permanent or spiritually sufficient.

Collectively, we are all living in a time of cultural, political, and environmental instability and transformation. The “new normal” is anything but normal and is unlikely to ever feel normal. Instead, everything seems to be changing rapidly. For some of us, we have been personally and directly impacted. For our family, losing our home to the remorseless rage of the Carr fire was not the end of something; it was the beginning.

The Craig home before the Carr Fire.

The Craig property after the Carr Fire and the removal of debris.

The idea of dying before you die is an old one and like any old idea, it is open to many interpretations. Before we can die, we must live, and to truly live, something in us or about us must die. Our attachment to illusions must die if we are to wake up to who we really are and why we’re here. I am grieving, not just for the loss of our home and the precious “stuff” we spent a lifetime accumulating. I am grieving for my community. I am grieving for nearly every person I know and care about who is grieving for our shared loss of innocence and the dawning realization that this is just the beginning of a new world we are creating together; a world that is harder and meaner and more cruel than anything we’ve known before. And it calls for resilience. It calls for transcendence. And it calls for spiritual awareness. It calls for community and unity. It calls for love.

You are meant to be here. You have a purpose. Our lives have meaning. You are important. You are significant. We are in this together and it is time that we accepted our role in creating whatever it is that comes next.

We can identify with separation and illusion or we can identify with wholeness, oneness and truth. We are here to learn from these trials and sorrows. What is it we are meant to learn? What happens when we lose, when people and things we’ve attached to disappear? What are we to make of our world when we no longer recognize it as our world?

And yet I ask you who is it that sees the world changing? Who is it that identifies with loss and pain? Behind and beyond our experience on this stage we call our life, there is a being – a self – looking out from your eyes and mine that is unchanging, that is unlost, that is perfect, complete and serene. When we sit in this awareness, when we awaken and transcend an old and limited idea of self that no longer works or serves a useful purpose, we can allow reality to be as it is, act with trust and purpose and remain solid in the knowledge that beyond all appearances, all is well and will be well.

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Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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19 Responses

  1. Doug, I am so grateful to you for embarking on this new adventure in writing on aNewsCafe.com; a place where you are facilitating sometimes difficult conversations. I can think of no other online media platform where this would work.

    You’ve asked many thought-provoking, conversation-provoking questions. Thank you!

    Dear readers, I invite you to participate in this unique opportunity to have one-on-one group conversations – as Doug calls them, Conscious Conversations – about subjects that call upon us to put kidding aside, and go deep.

    I feel so grateful for this opportunity. I’ll go first.

    This part: “And yet I ask you who is it that sees the world changing? Who is it that identifies with loss and pain? ”

    I absolutely see the world changing. Sometimes it scares me, and I can fall back into wishing things were the way they were. But then I think about the past, and life was not all perfect then, either. I Have long believed that saying about I can’t move forward if I’m only looking in the rear view mirror, but I falter.

    I can identify with loss and suffering and pain, and the trick for me, is identifying with it, without allowing it to identify me: I am the daughter of parents who were ill-equipped to be parents; a mother who took her own life and a father who had no interest in being a father. I have two failed marriages, and know the sting and shame of being the one not-chosen. I struggle with not blaming myself for my losses, while also accepting responsibility where I should.

    When the Carr Fire hit, and I was evacuated, I could only manage to cram a fraction of my belongings in my car. When I left my home that Thursday night, I remember turning and looking at what remained; everything else, and realizing I may not see it again. Since then, I’ve found I have a different relationship with my stuff. I’ve gotten rid of a lot. I feel a sort of detachment. That prompts me to ask myself what other areas of my life am I clinging to, that I I should let go of to free me up for other chapters.

    OK. Your turn. 🙂

  2. Avatar Denise Ohm says:

    I love this conversation in consciousness. Thank you! Lately I have been part of a book study called A Course Of Love (ACOL) and you have described the very principles that I practice. Most notably, that separation is an illusion.

    Just knowing that when we feel isolated and empty for example, that neither of those things are true helps me choose what thoughts come next. But when they are happening, observation of those emotions is where the treasure lies.

    The Carr Fire sort of called my bluff. I had felt rather “evolved” in all this ACOL stuff. I had lost a beloved husband nine years ago and spent some time looking at all my stuff as just that: stuff.

    Along my grief path, I took a typical Baby Boomer trip to Peru and felt like I could become as minimal as the shamans.

    I retired this summer from years of stressful (but joy-filled) work, thinking, I have shed this skin now too: I’m ready to be a whole new me. Found a man worth my time to date, after kissing lots of toads. Found and dibs’d a downsized house too. In fact, I’d have to get rid of stuff to fit in that downsizer.

    Then the fire happened.

    As with so many of us, we all hung on Facebook, KRCR, cellphones to see the horror unfold. My place was a haven for people who did lose all their stuff. I took one for the team and moved in with brand new boyfriend so these folks could get their bearings. All of us were like, cool, this is good. The boyfriend part went luckily, amazingly well but that’s another story for a different day.

    There at first, I felt personally SO good, helping people and living out of a suitcase myself pretty much. Again, so EVOLVED, so detached from stuff. More than I want to admit, I had the rug pulled out from under me in so many areas and battled raging anxiety, especially at night, which is my MO.

    Not only did I miss my STUFF, but I missed my job, my work friends, being outside. That last one was a great big loss as I realized that exercise, especially being outside while doing it, was a way I coped with life in general.

    Did I drink too much this summer? Yep. But there were moments I allowed myself to be steeped in anxiety, rolling it around like silly putty on comic strips until it was grey muck.

    What a weird summer it has been, now the Camp Fire is extending the party. If there’s been a comfort, it’s that it’s a collective anxiety, it really doesn’t belong to any one of us. This is what BIG Change feels like, I’m convinced. For now, I am striving to stay under the ball of confusion, observing it, and keeping faith alive that the right things are happening, even if it feels like this.

    • Denise, I love what you’ve shared. You are such an evolved person, and yet you showed your fear and frailty. The Silly Putty description is awesome.

      I’m sorry for the loss of your sweetie 9 years ago.

      Congrats on finding a guy worthy of wonderful you. (Does he have a brother? 😉 )

      The part where you asked if you drank too much this summer made me laugh. I can relate.

      Thanks for the courage it took to step out into this conscious conversation. Kind of cool, don’t you think?

      xo d

  3. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Anyone who makes reference to Victor Frankl, Eckhart Tolle, and Abraham Maslow in one article has me paying attention. Thank you for the reminders, and thank you posters for sharing.

    To get this out of the way: my husband and I “lost” our home, contents and memories in Shasta during the Carr Fire. We lived there for twenty-nine years. Deciding not to re-build, we purchased a house (it’s not a home yet) in Chico. A decision we made in three hours with a real estate agent showing us five houses. I’m a nester for sure. We came very close to being evacuated in this new location. So yes, Denise, the Camp Fire “extended the party.” We recognize the expressions on the faces of these new evacuees. At lunch yesterday, I saw a woman crying softly into her cell phone. The server said the woman was looking at photos confirming the loss of her house for the first time.

    I chose the house with a small pool. Because the water reminded me of our seasonal creek in Shasta. We now live in the burbs, with some lovely neighbors. There is a man who comes weekly to clean the pool until we are more aware to maintain it ourselves. Yet, I want this individual to stay on, because he is a secret philosopher. In the disguise of a pool maintenance person. He’s also African-American, a color I didn’t see much in Shasta, and is the sole owner of his business. His name is Joey, and he asks me how I am doing, and tells stories while cleaning the pool, as I sit and listen. This week, Joey mentioned he has lost twenty-five percent of his business due to the Camp Fire. He didn’t seem concerned.

    Joey shared with me that he had moved to Hawaii with his wife, and later traveled the U.S. with their young son. On both occasions they sold everything. Poof, but not by fire. He explained that when they started acquiring clothes, furniture, etc. again, that he was starting to replicate what they previously wore, and sat on. And he realized he didn’t want to “go there.” He was sending me a message, that there’s opportunity in renewal. I thought about the $40 desk I bought off of Craig’s List that was old, and later the antique chair we purchased two weeks ago in Paradise. To some extent a replication of what we had in Shasta. After listening to Joey, we bought a cheap, huge, crazy wall clock that is definitely a deviation from our familiar style. And that feels really good. I smile at that clock every day.

    We aren’t purchasing much furniture now, until we hear about the final insurance settlement. We might even have to “flip” the house. After reassuring us every inch of the way, that the price of the Chico home was just fine, the insurance adjuster told us he made a mistake. The house was just closing escrow. Whoops.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      The adjuster’s “mistake” was that you paid too much for the house?

      • Avatar Linda Cooper says:

        Beverly, ha, ha. My husband is sitting next to me helping me to explain. Next he said, wait, when I try to explain it, it gets confusing. The adjuster said that he had not accounted for the price of the land in Chico. That it was higher than in Shasta. Must be some kind of mystical insurance formula. We had to use personal property settlement money to buy the house, at the adjuster’s “suggestion.” There’s a final $ settlement offer coming, that we are still waiting for. We have an idea what that should look like.

    • Linda, I’m so sorry for your loss, and I can understand why your new place doesn’t feel like home yet.

      I love your clock story.

  4. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Okay, here’s my confession: I have a strange envy of many of those who’ve lost everything they own in the fires. Not all…I understand that there were many poor and older people who lost everything that gave them comfort.

    I don’t have a single possession that I would miss for long if it were gone. I’ve driven the same pickup truck for 15 years because it works. I’m not sentimental—I don’t care one way or the other if I’m driving that truck or something else next week. But I feel bound by my circumstances and responsibilities. The thought of the etch-a-sketch of my life being shaken vigorously and erasing most everything—except the people—doesn’t horrify me at all.

    Goddamnit…….I don’t want the arc of my life’s story to end here in Shasta County. And time is running out.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HDOrzDvNkU

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Well stated, Steve. A few fire seasons back, we had to evacuate, and I realized that besides my husband and dog – and maybe my backup flash drive with all my documents on it – the rest is just stuff. If all my tax returns go up in flames, the IRS has them; Frontier has already lost all my e-mails and e-mail addresses – although they denied it was their fault – so I know that loss is surmountable (a pain in the neck, however), we’ve donated tons of books to the library and now I have tons more on my tablet. I have very few photos. I’d miss them, but can survive without them. Cars? One is 13 years old, and the other is two years old. Since there are two drivers, we’d probably be able to make a run for it with both cars. Of course, all this is easy to say since the fire was held at bay, that time at least. I was, however, somewhat dismayed when my neighbor told me that her doctor shared with her that his wife was sorry that the Carr Fire didn’t burn their home so that they could start over. Sounds like the sort of callous thing Trump would say.

    • Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

      Steve, it is a challenge to replace a lot of necessities quickly when you lose everything. You might not think you’d miss having a comb, soap, clothes, a jacket and a toothbrush, but in time you would seek to replace them. Along with q-tips, a towel, underwear, a hat and maybe a fork and plate. One friend said “the message is that we can’t take it with us so we shouldn’t get attached to it.” My thought was that I would at least like a warm blanket to keep me comfortable before I leave it all behind. Which might be several years from now.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that I’d like to spend the rest of my life naked, huddled in a cave, trying to make fire by rubbing sticks together. Just that I feel tied down by the need to maintain my career, property, and lifestyle. Years ago in Mexico I met a Gringo and his wife who lived in a modest thatched-roof casa below the villa we were renting for the week. From our treehouse-like open-space living area overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay we could see down into their rather open living quarters, so we got a good sense of how it is to retire early and live cheap and easy in the sub-tropics.

        If I lost it all tomorrow, purchasing a new toothbrush would be a top-ten priority. A comb hasn’t been essential for quite some years.

  5. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Maybe . . . butI understand the sentiment stated at the end of the comment above. I’ve had similar thoughts on occasion, but then, I realize, when I begin to REALLY think about it, the conversation goes something like this. “Yes, please take everything . . . . ummm . . ..well, except . . .” and then I start adding things back in and end up with all the stuff I thought I could live without.

    Maybe I’m just too lazy to deal with the reality of cleaning my garage . . . which, I’ve come to believe, is a metaphor for my life!!

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I guess, A.J., what I find so odd about that statement is not that we haven’t all thought it but that a doctor would say it to a patient, someone who isn’t an intimate. Sitting around with a glass of wine with friends and saying what you wrote above is one thing, but to voice it to a stranger in the midst of so much loss seems, well, odd.

  6. Douglas Craig Douglas Craig says:

    Thank you Doni for letting me share myself with you and others on ANC, which I agree is the only place this could happen in this way at this time in our community. And it IS about community. We are not meant to live as separate, isolated and disconnected fragments of life. Instead some of us are awake enough to see that we are here for one another. We are here to serve, to learn, to grow and to help others to learn and grow. And thank you to all of you who have read this post and to those who have joined the conversation. We have so much in common. Our differences are few and insignificant.

    The fires are a reminder of life’s impermanence. Nothing lasts. I was emotionally attached to so many “things” like the videotape of our wedding and me afterward, wearing a white sports coat in the parking lot of the Monterey Methodist Church doing a happy dance. A few friends and family throwing rice at us while we stood there laughing. And then me sliding the garter belt onto Nancy’s leg instead of taking it off. The video and white coat are gone forever. And the video of me holding our first baby and doing a different dance, a soothing, rocking, rhythmic one that quieted her crying, a moment of magic; gazing into her sleepy eyes, looking up at me in trust and wonder and there I was helplessly, stupidly falling in love with her over and over. Gone. And at least 50 other videotapes of special moments of my daughter’s lives as they grew into the amazing, dynamic young women they are today. The four large ceramic elephants — each one weighed about 60 pounds — that my Dad brought back home after his year in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. Two of the elephants my Mom and her boyfriend brought in their car from Dayton, Ohio to Denver the weekend Jerry Garcia died in 1995 nearly a year after my Dad died. We met them in Denver where my brother lived and ceremoniously celebrated the transfer of the elephants from their car to our Previa. The other two elephants had just joined us a few months before the fire, brought to us in my sister and brother-in-law’s car again from Dayton, this time after my mother died. Two of them were still intact after the fire but crumbled into pieces when I attempted to move them. And all the poems I had written Nancy in our 33 years together. Burned. And thousands of books collected over a lifetime, filling dozens of bookcases in nearly every room. Several shelves of spiritual books: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity. An entire bookcase devoted to political, economic and social justice. A first edition Hemingway in perfect condition. For Whom the Bell Tolls. And one room entirely devoted to global climate change. Science journals and magazines and over 200 books. And hundreds of record albums from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and hundreds of cassette tapes I had carefully recorded and hundreds of CDs. I could go on and on. The memories of lost treasures float lazily into my mind at odd times and sting me for a moment. I have had to let them all go. And I have. Grieve them and leave them. Let them die so I can live. I know none of this is ultimately real. We are like ocean waves, rising from the sea, majestic and proud. But our moment in the sun is a brief eye blink, one bright smile, the shine in a lover’s eyes, a child’s laugh, a stunning sunrise and a glorious sunset. To become too deeply attached to things and people who change and die only brings us pain. We all end up as ripples on the beach, retreating back into the deep where we disappear and blend with all that is. The fires remind us. They are here to shock us into remembering what is true, real and important. Like today, this moment, who needs you to tell them you love them right now? Who doesn’t need to be told they matter? Who needs a phone call or a text or an email or a letter to say you are grateful their spirit and your spirit are sharing this grand adventure on this fragile earth-stage while so many confused, lost souls rage around us? We are the solid ones, even when we don’t feel solid, the imperfect ones who have glimpsed something true and changeless in the madness of death and destruction. And we commit ourselves to being true to that which never dies, the love that brought us here and carries us forward into this day and the next until our purpose here is complete. Cherish your life. Beyond your uncomprehending mind, your pure awareness glows. Savor this. Savor this and shine.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I so admire your depth and understanding. I once read that if we scrape the surface of ourselves, we would find a much deeper person. I figure if my surface were scraped, I’d find merely a deeper form of shallow.

    • Thank you, Doug, for this, for sharing, once again, so much of yourself.

      This got to me: “Grieve them and leave them. Let them die so I can live.”

      Powerful and solid, like you. Bless you, Doug.

      • Avatar Linda Cooper says:

        Yeah, this phrase got to me as well. Reminded me of when my husband once said, “you’ve got to claim it, name it, and then let it go.”

        I have a question, that perhaps has already been answered. It appears, and I have attempted, that this article, and the posts can be shared via email. Do I have that right? Seems like a delicious deviation, because it feels like so many can be helped by this material. I’m seeing a (gasp) counselor in Chico, and she is vitally interested in reading this aspect of ANC. I think I was able to share. I wasn’t able to print, however.

        My many thanks to both you and Douglas for opening up some mental doors. I also think I’m understanding the format of this Dear Abby better. Douglas isn’t necessarily going to reply to individual posts. And the rest of the gang are going to share and scramble with each other. Works for me!

  7. Douglas Craig Douglas Craig says:

    Thank you to Doni, Denise, Linda, Beverly, Steven, Joanne and Adrienne for your comments! In response to Linda’s question about sharing posts via email, I am fine with this as long as Doni and Joe approve. Regarding your “understanding” of the format of this column, I think you are giving me too much credit for knowing what I am doing here. All I know is that Doni has allowed me to run this experiment with you and the rest of the ANC readership and I guess we will figure this out as we go. What is primarily motivating me is my frustration with the one-on-one model of psychotherapy. At best, I can only see about 11 clients a day. My hope with my previous Free Therapy columns and now with these Conscious Conversations is to bring the benefits of therapy to a much wider audience. I believe our culture is not healthy and there are elements within it that benefit from maintaining the dysfunction. We can change that but only if we come together and “create a community” that is based on our best, deepest and most meaningful core values. On the other hand, my life-long hope that science, psychotherapy and spirituality can share the same stage in a kind of unified model is no longer theoretical. It is here and like a well of pure water, any of us can draw from it to quench our deepest thirst for truth and meaning. Also, I am convinced that people don’t need years of therapy to possess genuine well-being in the here and now. We just need to wake up to who we truly are, not who we “think” are or who we have been taught we are. And the steps to do so are not far away. In fact, they are inside each of us. We already possess all we need. Sometimes we just need someone to come along and point that out before we see. And regarding questions, I welcome them. In my experience, that is when therapy truly becomes interesting for both the client and the therapist. An honest question can open things in me that I did not know I knew until the question appeared. I may not respond to every comment but if a question appears, I hope to respond with respect and as much wisdom as I can muster. No doubt my plan is both naive and grandiose but I trust I will be forgiven for at least having sincere motives. I think we can create a better world. I really do and why not use this incredible, little stage that Joe and Doni have built to do so? Bless you all.