Book writing: I revised my book!

In January, I had the happy task of writing a post about how I had finished my first solo book project, and sent it off to the series editor, and to two peers for critical feedback. This post is about the other side of that: the revisions.

That revisions suck is a relatively well-established truth of writing, I think. I have written about it, as have many others. They suck because, as Pat Thomson has written, they ask us for more: more energy, more time, more thinking, more reading, more writing. More. On a piece of writing that has already asked quite a lot of us, and should – really, now – be finished. I knew that the revisions were coming; the book draft was just that, a solid first full draft. And, actually, they were not huge revisions, like rewriting parts of chapters, or doing away with whole sections or anything terrifying like that. Mostly, the changes I needed to make were small: writing a new paragraph here, making a clearer explanation of a concept there, correcting an incorrect something, fixing typos, editing the omnipresent long sentences. Yet, what should have taken me a week took me more than a month. Why?

An idyllic writing scene/Photo by Peter Olexa from Pexels

Well, covid for one thing. Suddenly I am not working from home alone-with-the-cats anymore; now I am working from home with Everyone In My Space. So, there are many more distractions to catch the eye of my already gnat-like concentration span, and tempt it off course. Also, I got in my own way, and turned relatively manageable revisions into a Huge Thing. I wrote here about self-sabotage; this is a subject I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in. I am very, very good at getting in my own way.

As Hayley Williams sings in ‘Caught in the Middle’: “I don’t need no help/I can sabotage me by myself/Don’t need no-one else/I can sabotage me by myself”. My main form of self-sabotage is doing all the small things that don’t require much thought first in the day, so that by the time I get to the big things that do require thought, I am tired. So, I then put off the big things to the next day, and repeat this format. Then, the day before the deadline for the big thing that needed a good 4-5 days worth of thinking, working, revisions, and finalising, I am in a complete state trying to get it done and hoping it will be good enough. Then, I redo the whole project in my head for several days after submitting it, kicking myself for doing a rushed job when I could have just done it ‘properly’. Sound at all familiar?

My second form of self-sabotage is telling myself the things are too much and too big and too hard, and that I am not good enough to do them. Who am I to be writing a book? The arrogance of me. Who am I to be writing a report for government? Nobody, that’s who. I can’t write at all, actually – just look at all the critique I have been offered over the years. The people who like my writing are just being nice because they are married to me, or my friends, or clearly don’t know bad writing when they read it. I am just crap at everything, so why do I think I can do any of this? I don’t always fall for this stuff: often, I can shut this mean voice up long enough to get the work done. I have gotten better at this over the years. But, even if she doesn’t sabotage the doing of the project, this mean voice makes me rethink just about everything I write, even after I have sent it off. So, battling this meanness, and believing in myself and my work and my ability is part of getting out of my own way.

A realistic writing scene/Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Both of these forms of self-sabotage and self-doubt showed up during the revisions period for the book. I couldn’t even open the files for about 2 weeks, even though I told myself every day that I should. I told myself I had plenty of time (I did not; I had a deadline). I told myself it would all be fine if I just pushed the revisions down the list day after day (it was, in the end, but doing a week’s worth of thinking and revisions in 3 days is not recommended). I told myself I did not know enough to actually be writing a book, and I should leave it to the experts (here I ended up believing my critical friends and Lovely Husband and the series editor, who told me this was untrue. I hope they are right).

Eventually, I did get out of my own way, although quite late in the day. I have realised that getting in my own way and sabotaging myself is probably not going to be something I can completely stop doing. My goal is not actually to turn myself into a different person; my goal is to start getting out of my own way faster. I would like to stop doing the Big Things at the last minute, and give myself more time to think, write, revise, get feedback, think some more. I’d like to do justice to my ideas and my writing. I would like to have less panic and stress, and more calmness around work. I can hear you chuckling, and thinking: ‘Ah, how idealistic she is. What a lovely fantasy plan’. Perhaps. Maybe calm is not a completely realistic goal – not in present circumstances anyway. But, I reckon I can shoot for more time to finish projects and less last-minute panic and stress.

Triumph/giphy.com

In the end, I have revised my book. I am very proud of it. It represents about 10 years of research, thinking, reading, writing, feedback and revisions. It’s a significant chapter of my life, personal and professional, that this book is, to some extent, bringing to a close. It’s a pretty triumphant moment. So, I am revelling in it, and I’m not rewriting this one. There’ll be time for that, after all, when the proofs arrive…

Drowning, or In Need of a Flotation Device

I have a serious case of the Mehs, or what I am thinking of as Lockdown Ennui. I mean, we’re not technically in full-on lockdown anymore because we can get haircuts and buy all the shoes, if we so desire and feel a bit reckless with our health in being out and about. But, we still are living small lives, with no visits to friends and family, none of the usual work-related travel, and way, way too much time in front of computer screens trying to create engaging learning experiences for our students, and ourselves. It’s freaking exhausting. And strange, oddly lonely, unsettling. Perhaps the worst thing, for all of us, is the uncertainty. There is this new ‘normal’ now, and we don’t know when, or if, that will end. What will our lives look like when the coronavirus has finally been brought under control? We’re not built to not know – humans need answers, and plans, and dates and deadlines. We need to know. And we do not. Not right now, anyway.

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This uncertainty – for me, anyway – seems to be creating a listlessness. I have SO much to do – I feel I am drowning in supervision, and marking, and feedback-needed-please, and consulting work, and my own research (which is pretty much permanently on hold right now), and admin, and online teaching. But, instead of being industrious and focused and knocking off the to-dos every day, I do a few things and then tell myself I am too tired to do more, even though it’s barely past lunchtime. I work from about 9.30 until about 2, and then I knit, and scroll through my Twitter feed, and indulge a mild panic about all the work I should be doing but can’t seem to actually make myself do. And then when I do the Big Things, the things that require Thinking, I feel like I have done nothing of any consequence. I don’t quite recognise, or understand, my work self right now.

I feel at a loss as to how to help myself out of this. I find myself longing for some kind of legitimate reason for being so flaky about work, like a mild illness (but not corona, or anything serious). The bronchitis I wrote about the last time I had the energy to blog turned out to be asthma that was out of control and on the wrong meds. I’m on the right meds now, and apart from the odd bad day where my chest is tight and the stairs seem like a mountain, I’m better. So, I can’t actually lie around in my PJs and cough pathetically and have everyone fuss over me. I have to Adult, and work, and be Responsible for All The Things.

I see all over Twitter that I am so not alone. So many people are tired, Zoomed-out, frustrated. My lovely colleagues respond to my apologies for late email replies and requests for extensions with kind emails and Whatsapp notes telling me to be kind to myself, that we are all in the same boat, that this is hard on everyone and it’s okay. But it doesn’t feel okay. It feels like a slippery slope, to me. The more I stop work at 2pm and cite tiredness to myself as a reason, and then follow that with: ‘It’s okay, we can try again tomorrow’ (in a kind voice), the longer my list of work gets, and the greater the likelihood of more emails to students and peers, apologising and asking for more time, and feeling (and looking) like a flake. This is not a feeling I like, and letting people down – even if they are kind about it – is not something I like to do.

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I’ve written posts in the past about how to get yourself out of a funk and get writing, and reading, and thinking again. I know cognitively what I need to do. Take all the tasks and create a realistic daily list. Break it down into small chunks, smaller tasks. Not all the assignments, just 2 at a time. Not all the reading, just a paper at a time. I know all of this. But knowing a thing and being able to do the thing are not always the same thing. External deadlines from people I cannot let down really help, but they skew my list because I end up pushing down other things that have been languishing for too long and need to be finished. I end up feeling a bit flat before I have even started. But start I must, and finish I must.

There’s no moral or magical learning here. Just, solidarity, I suppose. If you, like me, have ennui, and the Mehs, and feel like everyone around you is Adulting like a pro and there you are longing for your PJs at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or harbouring fantasies of spraining a wrist so you legitimately cannot type anything. I don’t think we are all in the same boat. Our boats are very differently filled with kids and families and pets and care work and loneliness and everyone in your space and no one in your space and good wifi and bad wifi and no wifi, and so on. But, we are all in our boats in the same sea, paddling against this strange new tide that is moving us into a really uncertain and unknown future, an uncertain university and learning space, an uncertain job and career space.

Socially distanced boats heading into the unknown; Photo by Humphrey Muleba from Pexels

Take care, be safe, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, be kind to others, and hang in there. Perhaps, for now, that’s all we can do; that and get some freaking work done!

Life, me and the PhD: learning to ask for, and accept, help

I have bronchitis, and for the last 2 weeks climbing out of bed to have a shower and change my pyjamas has left me breathless, heart pounding, and just exhausted. I’m getting better, but as this morning’s trial showed, hanging out one load of laundry is very tiring and I’m not at all back at normal speed yet. I have to let people help me do all the things I usually do, like laundry and tidying and managing the kids’ homework. I even have to ask for help with work stuff, or at least for extensions and extra consideration. This is really hard for me. I do not like asking for help, and I quite like doing things a certain way. Letting go of this ‘stuff’ is not easy. So, I have been prompted to reflect a bit on why I find this so hard, and how I could make this easier on myself going forward. Even when I am all better and stronger again, it would probably be good for me to ask for, and accept, help at home and at work.

This is not unlike what my life was like when I was working on my doctorate, or, more recently, my book. It was just not possible to work all day, and then be home and do all the ‘stuff’ – tidying, cooking, kids’ homework and baths and bedtime routines, and then have enough space in my head and energy left over to work on my research and writing, and be effective at all of it and happy. Trying to do it all made me feel so cross and resentful and over it all. Why couldn’t these people just see that I was struggling and HELP ME (preferably without being told to, please and thank you)? Why did I have to tell them I needed help? Wasn’t it obvious?

At the time, I didn’t stop to think much about all of this. I just revelled a bit in my long-suffering crossness and soldiered on. But I got very sick for a long time when I finally submitted my PhD thesis – it was months before I really felt like myself again. And, given my current health situation, I can’t help but wonder at the link between not actually asking for, and accepting, help during the PhD – at work and at home – and the severity and duration of my illness in early 2014. Was there a causal link, and not just a correlation, between trying to be and do everything myself and my resultant health crisis? I think there was, in hindsight. And, I think now that I could have helped myself enormously by not being so bloody-minded about being Wonder Woman.

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There’s a lot I could say here, with help from feminist scholars, about the gendered nature of academic and domestic labour. About how many women academics carry a significant portion of the care burden with students, and spend more time actively worrying about their students’ wellbeing and trying to do something about this; about how many women academics carry a double burden, with a heavy workload at work and at home, filled with expectations about what they ‘should’ be doing and caring about; about how many women academics burn out trying to prove that they are just as worthy of titles and accolades as their male counterparts, in some fields having to work twice as hard to win the same grants and publish in the same journals as men in their labs and departments. I could say so much more, really. The point is that as a woman academic I experienced this odd mix of wanting (needing) help but not wanting to accept it because accepting it meant I couldn’t do it all – especially at work – and doing it all was what I felt I was expected to do to be taken seriously, by myself as much as by my peers. So, I just pushed on, and I burned out.

So, sitting here in bed, trying just to take normal breaths without pain, I am asking myself: how do I not go there again? How do I figure this out a bit better, and actually give myself a freaking break? I think some of this is personal – how I was raised and who I am – but some of this is definitely systemic. A lot of what I expect of myself and what others seem to expect of me is gendered (at least). As a woman and a mother I ‘should’ be doing the cleaning and cooking and caring. At work, I should be focused on teaching and publishing and committee work and engagement. And I should not be complaining about it because that is my job, all of it. And I chose to be a working mother-scholar-teacher-wife, right? I should be able to have it all and do it all, and if I can’t, what’s wrong with me?

I have bought into this in various ways over the years, especially around the mothering stuff. I don’t really cook – Lovely Husband has that covered thank g*d – but I have taken on a lot of the parenting and household stuff I could just as easily have shared, or given over. Silly things, like being the one who had to pack the school lunches and sort out the homework and wash all the laundry, etc. as well as bigger things to do with actually raising our boys. I didn’t share because I worried far too much that things wouldn’t be done exactly the way I wanted them to be done, or the way I would have done them. Now, unable to clean or do laundry without feeling faint, I am having to teach my boys how to sweep a floor or run the washing machine without getting up to correct them or do it ‘properly’. Very little, if any of it, is being done ‘properly’ (i.e. my way), but you know what? We have clothes that are clean, even if they are folded weirdly. And the floors are not super dusty, even if they were swept differently. And the boys are keeping up with their schooling, even though Lovely Husband’s idea of homeschooling is not mine. Things are getting done, even though I am not doing them.

As Lovely Husband said recently, when we were talking about this, the things will get done differently, and sometimes differently is probably worse rather than just different, but you have to think of the trade-off. Have ‘stuff’ done, however it is done, or run yourself ragged trying to do everything ‘properly’ including your research, only to be left feeling invisible, resentful, tired, unhappy? I have to think, now, that I would rather work on letting go of (some of) the ‘stuff’ rather than end up feeling like this both at work and at home. I would rather keep trying to just let people help me, and say thank you instead of correcting their help, than end up feeling alone and put-upon. This is hard work, I think, for many of us. It might mean that your kids leave the house in non-colour coordinated clothes, or with a skew ponytail or weirdly brushed hair; it might mean that the clothes are folded differently or the pillows on the bed are skew, or the chicken dinner tastes different. But, your kids will be fine. Your pillows and clothes will be fine, and your tummy will be full.

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Learning to let go is not just about making more time in your head and your life for your PhD or whatever research you are working on. It’s about learning to make space and time for yourself, and to put your own mental and physical health higher on your list of priorities. Not asking for help and flogging yourself to the point of exhaustion is not actually a sign of strength. It just hurts you, and for many women, perpetuates a very gendered division of labour, both at home and at work, that I think we all need to be conscious and critical of so that we can challenge and change this. This is perhaps especially vital now as this pandemic has thrown so many imbalances and injustices into sharp relief, and so many women are battling to get space, and support, and time for themselves and their work.

So, this is my current learning: how to just let Lovely Husband and our boys help in whatever way they are able to, appreciate that help, and let go of the ‘stuff’ that, at the end of the day, is not as important as I am, and as my health is. This frees me up to expend what energy I do have on things that I think are important right now, like student feedback, revising my book, writing a report that is due soon, and cuddling the boys when they’ll let me. I hope that when I am stronger I will not revert to being this Wonder Woman-person, trying to do and be and have it all. The search for that balance is ongoing though, so who knows? But, I’m optimistic :-).

Scholarly writing is a craft

I am working on a lot of revisions at the moment – of my own and also with students on a writing course I am teaching online. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of scholarly writing, especially in relation to why a piece of writing is not working, and what the writer needs to change or add or remove to make it work. This has led me to reflect a bit more on how scholarly writing is a craft an exercise in deliberate, thoughtful, planned thinking, more than anything, and how this manifests in writing that is clear, focused, sensible and accessible to the reader you are writing for.

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Perhaps a good place to start this reflection is on the idea of writing that is not working, and what this usually means. I am focused on the social sciences as this is my field, broadly speaking, but I work with writers across the social and natural sciences and also in the Humanities, and these points apply to the writing they do as well. The first point is the sense that the argument or the main claim is rushed. This is a feeling when I am reading, more than a specific list of qualities in a paper that one can see and tick off as being present or absent. It’s a sense that I am being hurried through the writer’s reasoning process. Common here is claims that are made or stated, but without any or enough explanation in relation to the overall focus or argument of the paper. What I read is a series of statements, perhaps with supporting evidence, but without the writer stepping in clearly enough to comment on, position, or critique these statements from their own position (the argument that paper is advancing). This is, for me as a reader, a paper that is not working to ground and clarify the position the writer is coming from, and what informs that position.

Related to this point is that papers feel rushed when the writer is trying to do too much with one paper – too much theory for one problem, or too many data for one argument, or too many lines of research in the selected literature. If you are working to a word limit, like the usual 6000-7000 words for a journal article or book chapter, this means you tend to gloss over explanations, and rely too much on stating what the theory or data or lines of argument are, rather than thinking carefully about what they mean in relation to the argument you are trying to make. So, as a reader, I feel like I am reading a lot of potentially interesting or useful information, but I am not completely sure why, or what it means, or what you want me to make of it. This is an ultimately frustrating or confusing experience for a reader, because they have to work too hard to try and figure out what they are supposed to be learning from the paper. The guideline, regardless of field, is one main argument/contribution to research per paper, and to carefully select literature, data, methods, and so on in relation to establishing and defending or supporting the development of that contribution.

Another common issue as regards a paper not working is a paper that lacks signposting, or markers for the reader that connect the different parts of the paper’s argument together into a coherent whole. There is no one ‘formula’ for writing a publishable paper in any field. There are commonalities, such as the IMRaD structure for many of the natural sciences, but even with that, a writer cannot simply rely on sub-headings to create coherence for them or communicate the logic of the argument in their head to the reader clearly. So, one way of crafting a paper that works for readers is paying attention to the connections you are making between parts of the argument, and how you are making these apparent. There are various ways of doing this, through the use of descriptive sub-headings (so a heading that indicates what the literature is about, rather than just Literature Review, if you are ‘allowed’ to do this); through careful repetition of key ideas and phrases (introducing the idea in the last sentence of section one, and then repeating the term or phrase in the opening of the next section); and through using connecting word and phrases to signal transitions and relationships between ideas and sections.

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These words are key in writing as a craft: in relation to. Everything you choose to bring in to your paper to situate your contribution within the field, and make a case for why your argument is useful or relevant to readers and fellow researchers in this field need to be carefully chosen. This notion of choice means that you need to be thinking all the time of what that reading, or piece of data, or aspect of methodology or theory, means to your argument, and how it will help you to explain your meanings to your reader. It also means that some things will have to be left out – you cannot use your whole thesis literature review in one paper, or all the data you have generated, or your whole theoretical framework. You will need to select, rewrite, rework and relate chosen parts together into a new whole that connects to the larger research project you are working on, but does not try to cram this into one paper in miniature form. You also need to think very carefully, all throughout the writing process, of how the pieces you have selected in connect or link to one another within the logic of this argument you are making right now.

Writing as a craft is, at its core, an act of meaning making, and these meanings have to be carefully established, explained and connected together into a whole paper that makes sense to readers. A great deal of the initial acts of writing anything – a thesis chapter, a paper, a book – is planning: working out what to select in and what to leave out, and what the line of argument is that you are trying to establish and support. Later, after feedback, revisions are focused on honing your craftsmanship: editing your ideas, focusing on the connections between parts of the whole – within and between paragraphs, and within and between sections of the paper or chapter. When the first basic draft of pre-writing is down – the writing you have done to tell yourself the story of your paper or chapter – it is important to pay attention to every sentence you write. What are you trying to say here? What is the value of this information – claim, evidence, explanation, connection – to your paper? What are you communicating here, and does it connect with or move away from the core meaning your paper or chapter has to convey? Answering these kinds of questions as you write, think, read your work over, get feedback, and revise and rewrite will all move you towards more deliberate writing, more thoughtful writing, more readerly writing that shows your craftsmanship as a writer.

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Writing in a time of crisis

This COVID-19 or novel coronavirus pandemic has been kind of unbelievable on so many levels – the speed at which it has spread, the closing of borders, the cancellation of conferences, seminars, and the closure of schools and universities. I have seen many, many tweets about online teaching (and the many issues related to that of access, success, engagement and so on), and also about writing. The writing discussions are interesting, as they seem to be split-ish between encouraging massive bursts of productivity because we’re all home (and apparently the rest of our lives have vanished), and encouraging gentle, realistic bursts of what you can manage. Of course, there is a a fair bit of middle ground here, but what I am wondering is what that is, for me specifically but also for writers I need to start working with online in April. So, I am grappling with two related questions: 1, how do I keep writing in a time of crisis? and 2, how do I help others do the same?

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There are so many people I am connected with through Twitter are struggling to write and feel productive and focused and calm enough to think, not least because they are home with cats and dogs and kids and partners and noise (so much noise). But, even those without all of the noise and people and distractions are struggling, because being alone is not easy either. This begs the question, again, of what we need to make the work of writing possible? What makes us feel like we can be ‘productive’ in terms of creating finished pieces of writing, in whatever shape those take?

I have written many different kinds of posts over the last five or so years about affective and also intellectual or mental blocks to writing, and how to work through or past these. One of the posts I come back to often in my writing courses is on making time to write: about how we don’t find time to write, we have to make it. And we don’t just have to make physical time – hours and minutes in a day – but, more importantly, mental time – space in your head that can be focused just on writing and not on everything else. This is often hard to do, but perhaps no more so than when your head is full of quite unexpected and largely unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. We have no idea how long our schools and universities will have to be closed, or what kind of ‘normal’ we will return to when they re-open. How long will we be trying to work and teach online?

We have no idea when we will be allowed to travel again, for meetings, and teaching. Many of us work on a contract basis, and if we don’t work we don’t get paid. This is true for me. Am I going to be able to actually do the contract teaching I have budgeted for and signed on for, or will that fall away? I cannot do it all online. Am I going to be able to pay all my bills after June? This is a big part of the anxiety filling up my headspace right now, along with unplanned-for work in trying to plan to actually teach a face-to-face writing course, with feedback and peer engagement, online. And, in the midst of trying to keep my supervision feedback, journal administration, and materials development work going – thankfully all things I can do online – I also need to keep writing and being ‘productive’ around publishing.

But, I am listless, figuratively and literally. My kids are home all day. My husband is home all day. The dog is going mad because we are not allowed to take him for walks at the park and our garden is not very big. The cats are confused – why are we always here? We are at on school holidays now, but these end on Tuesday next week and then we have to add cajoling the boys into doing their schoolwork in the mornings every day to a long list of things we don’t usually have to do. It feels like holidays all the time, but it is not. The emotional toll of all of this should not be under-estimated. It has a significant effect on our ability to focus our minds on tasks that have a cognitive load, and that require concentration and cleverness.

I think, for me as a writer and as a facilitator of others’ writing, this is point 1 in answer to my second question: I need to acknowledge the extra-ordinary emotional strain that people are under. The uncertainty is perhaps the worst of it – how long is this all going to last, and what will the world (and my job) be like when this pandemic is past? We need to not just quietly acknowledge this, but perhaps make a small space in our online engagements with peers, colleagues and students, to voice some of the anxieties we feel. We are not at all alone in this, but we often feel we are, and what we feel is what creates both emotional and mental static* that can be hard to work around.

I need, also, to acknowledge my own stress and anxiety, and make that okay for myself for now. Following on from my last post, I need to seek a new balance for now at least between being kind to myself in the sense of allowing myself time to just be and work through the other stuff in my head right now, like how to shop for groceries during lockdown and how to keep my asthmatic son safe, and being kind to myself by creating a work routine and pushing myself to get things done every day, Monday to Friday so I don’t meander around aimlessly feeling like I’m not doing anything useful at all. I need to just see that this is all not business-as-usual-working-from-home, or even school-holidays-working-from-home, and let myself have a few more moments of listlessness and meh than I usually allow.

In my planning for teaching, I want to create a little more space than I usually do to talk about the affective dimensions of making time to write, to show students that it is completely normal – usually but especially perhaps at the moment – not to feel like writing, or thinking, and to even feel that all of that academic work is a bit silly or non-essential in the face of this unprecedented global crisis. We need to adjust our understanding of what it is to ‘be productive’, and offer ourselves and others kindness and understanding as they navigate these new anxieties and stresses in their day to day lives, whether they are constantly surrounded by people and noise or all alone (both of which can be very hard to live with day in and day out with little respite). We all need to be patient, with co-authors, with supervisors, with critical friends, with colleagues, as we work out a new normal that may last quite some time.

For myself, I am making a list, highlighting tasks I really need to push myself on, like bits of my own writing (all co-authoring currently), and feedback to students on their writing. Other tasks, like ongoing admin and planning and reading I’m fitting in when I have focus and energy, and I’m taking it easy on keeping that stuff ticking over. I’m building a massive puzzle of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I’m mending some curtains I have been meaning to mend since Christmas — 2018. I’m tidying bits of the house that have been ignored for too long, and sorting clutter (Lovely Husband is super happy about this one, and the curtains). I’m trying not to snap too much at my poor kids, who miss their friends and their routine, too. In short, I am doing what I can do to be ‘productive’ and to be well, in a time when both of those things seem tenuous. I think this is all we can all do, and we need to encourage and support one another as we work this out. Hopefully that solidarity and kindness will be what we carry forward into the future that we create out of this present. Take care, everyone. Stay home and stay safe.

*This is Kate Chanock’s term.