How much do you buy — and toss?

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I admit it…one of my favorite Toronto stores always gets a visit

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Her name is all the rage, again — the Japanese expert on de-cluttering, Marie Kondo, and her motto: If something you own doesn’t spark joy, toss it!

As someone both frugal and sharing a small-ish apartment with not very many closets, this is an issue of both limited income and limited places to put things. So, typically, we don’t buy a lot of additional stuff and, routinely, take castoffs to local thrift or consignment shops or to Goodwill.

Every time I drop off at Goodwill I’m stunned by the mountains of stuff I see being donated; having lived in Mexico and visited developing countries where even the basics are considered luxuries offers me valuable perspective.

We live in a small town in suburban New York and drive everywhere, including to any store, so most weeks I only buy gas and groceries and a meal out. Maybe a nail polish or a lipstick.

 

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I do look at lots of things on-line, but rarely succumb. I recently bought three — a lot for me! — sweaters on sale from my favorite retailer, a Canadian company called Aritizia. But my shopping sprees are so rare that my credit card company software gets alerted as a result; I use only one credit card, American Express.

I almost never buy “fast fashion”; too cheaply made, not my size or style and, most essential, environmentally ruinous.

In lean times, and even in better ones, I haunt a few favorite consignment shops, both for home goods and clothing and tend to keep things for a long time — still wearing a pair of (designer) Italian monk-straps (then new) bought in 1996.

A classic style, made of top-quality materials well cared for is a great investment as long as it still fits you well; I’m still using a down jacket I scored for $50 in 2004.

And, yes, I love new things and last summer spent (madness!) a mortgage payment on a brand-new, on-sale Tod’s suede handbag. I had just gotten a breast cancer diagnosis and it was my birthday and I said the hell with it! (Our mortgage is not that big.)

I recently read that Americans throw away (!) 81 pounds of clothing a year.

 

This is insane.

So it’s a challenge, especially as I do treasure lovely things and adore fashion and really love to look stylish. I shop like a Frenchwoman, buying only a few items each season, being very thoughtful about each. I stick to neutrals — black, gray, cream, brown, navy — and add fun with my accessories.

For our home, we buy, similarly, the best quality we can find, and keep using it for decades, like our Wedgwood white daily china and the heavy crystal goblets we bought at an antique show.

I confess to two layers of boxes in the garage about six feet high and a small storage locker,  holding a mix of luggage, out-of-season clothing, sports equipment and professional needs like photography lights and books.

To avoid acquiring objects I:

1) buy the most expensive possible, which limits it!

2) regularly toss out anything we’re not using.

3) focus on enjoying experiences — travel, museums, concerts, meals, nature — more than things.

 

Do you buy — and toss out — a lot of stuff?

Have your shopping habits changed?

Kintsugi life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia

 

The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.

By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.

We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.

 

In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.

 

I’m into it.

Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.

I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.

I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.

I feel this way about people.

The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening  and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.

 

Cleaning house

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

It’s what I do when I’m angry, bored or stressed — and boy, does the apartment look great!

Silverplate polished, windows washed, rugs vacuumed, counters scrubbed, stove-top gleaming…

 

But this is also a time in my life, long overdue, of cleaning house in the rest of my life:

 

Ditching worn-out friendships

Time to lose people with whom I have little in common now beyond some shared history but little joy and pleasure in their company — and likely, theirs in mine. I’ve allowed too many unsatisfying relationships to masquerade as friendship. And my cancer diagnosis and treatment, inevitably, quickly thinned the herd of people I once considered friends, but who couldn’t spare a minute for a call, email, card or visit. Here’s a powerful essay on the subject from Thought Catalog.

 

Seeking newer, better clients for my skills

That might mean negotiating for more money or less onerous demands from the people I choose to work with. It will definitely mean dropping those who drive me nuts with their disorganization while being more selective upfront about to whom I sell my labor.

 

Setting tighter boundaries around my time, attention and energy

Yes, I’ll still dick around on Twitter  and Insta, (one of the joys of self-employment is the need to remain visible on social media, as well as interesting and credible.) But spending more time reading books, visiting museums, galleries and shows will serve me much better than sitting alone in the apartment to save money. That which brings joy and inspiration — yes! That which enervates and sparks envy, begone!

 

Tossing out stained, worn-out clothing, shoes, towels, linens and all other items I just don’t like, never use and want gone!

 

I recently took a stack of good, thick (unused) towels to our local dog shelter, which they use to keep the animals warm and dry. I’ve clung for too many years to too many items for fear I won’t be able to afford to replace them. Fear is not a great place to live.

 

Upgrading the quality of what I buy, see, eat and experience

The obvious cliche of getting older — (and a scary diagnosis) — is valuing what we have and making  sure to savor the best of what we can afford. Cheaping out and defaulting, always, to frugality has helped me to save a significant amount for retirement — but it’s come at the cost of constant self-denial and deprivation. Enough!

What gives you comfort?

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Photo thanks to Peter DaSilva; taken after the Camp fire in California, 2018.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as comforting to some of us as delicious meals, solo or shared, as Jennifer Finney Boylan writes in The New York Times:

 

When the last present has been opened, I will sneak into the kitchen and don a ridiculous chef’s toque. There will be scrambled eggs. There will be hash browns; I like to make these from red potatoes, tossed with olive oil, kosher salt and chopped mint. And there will be a plate of smoked maple bacon, Smithfield ham, hot Tuscan sausages.

Because I am from Pennsylvania, not so far from Amish country, there will also be scrapple…

Christmas morning, my family will gather around the breakfast table: Sean, Deedie, Zai and me. We will have eggs and bacon and hash browns and scrapple. And by the grace of God, we will have one another.

Ranger will look at me with his gray dog face. What did I tell you? Remember the good things. Like this.

American food writer Ruth Reichl titled her 2001 book “Comfort Me With Apples.”

In times of stress, fear, grief — or just everyday life with all its various challenges — we need comfort. We need places, physical, spiritual and emotional to help us patch up the bruised bits of our soul, to feel at ease, to feel safe, to feel enclosed and secure.

 

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I’m sure there’s some Neanderthal DNA in each of us, most dominant in the cold, short, windy days of winter, that says HOMECAVENOW! (One of my favorite boyfriends used to say HOMECRASHNOW! and I like his thinking.)

I’m a big fan of comfort and things that comfort us.

 

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I’ve had this little guy for decades — a great travel companion, this portrait taken in Berlin, 2017.

 

Our apartment isn’t large (one bedroom) but we have lovely throws, in pale gray and soft teal (bought in Paris) we snuggle under on the wide, deep, soft sofa (perfect for napping at seven feet in length), or to slide beneath for an afternoon snooze.

We have many kinds of tea and two teapots and a kettle and real bone china mugs and teacups with saucers with which to enjoy them. Plus a thermos — my favorite thing is to fill it with coffee or tea and get back to bed under the duvet, the most comforting thing ever. Soft, light, warm.

 

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I have no embarrassment about having these guys sitting in an antique toolbox on a bedroom shelf. I love their furry smiling faces, comfort every day.

I loved this piece from The Guardian, in which many adults happily discuss their still-beloved stuffed animals and the tremendous comfort they get from them:

 

The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown!, on display at Somerset House in London until 3 March 2019, shows that Schulz had a profound understanding of loss, childhood and the human condition. His depiction of the attachment Linus feels for his security blanket touched something in his readers – and in Guardian readers, too. When we asked readers about their favourite earliest possession, we received stories and photographs of teddies and blankets that had been literally loved to bits.

Catherine Jones, 45, from Hull, has Teddy, whom she was given in her first year of primary school. Ian Robertson, 50, from Whistable in Kent, clung to Panda “even after my brother chewed one of his eyes out and spat it from the family Vauxhall Viva as we were heading up the M6”; he now occupies the best chair in his house. Rachel, 45, from Farnham in Surrey, was given Dog after her grandmother died, so he reminds her of precious family ties.

 

 

We are, for now, fortunate enough to have some decent retirement savings, which also gives me comfort that I’ll be able to stop working.

Our cars are safe and reliable, comforting knowing we can get where we need to, for work and leisure.

Jose has been a great source of comfort through my new life with DCIS…for some of you, it’s provided by a sibling or child, a loving pet or a community that knows and appreciates you.

It’s tough to soldier on without respite and charm, something soft and warm, delicious and soothing, accepting and nurturing.

 

What gives you comfort?

 

When does ambition fade?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I recently had lunch with a friend my age — a former executive at National Public Radio — who now travels the country with his very cool project, getting people into working for public radio, called NextGenRadio. I love his ambition and passion, at an age when many are thinking about retirement.

One of my spin teachers, in her early 40s, is doing the work for pre-med, and is 18 months away from taking the MCAT, the med school admission test. Another friend, a former New York Times editor, is now enrolled in a program to re-train doing yoga therapy in medical settings.

Here’s a very long piece about re-inventing your life after 50, from a new website I’m writing for, considerable.com.

I’m slowly working on two new ways to earn an income, with no expectation that either will fully sustain me financially, but each of which makes me happier than journalism does at this point. I started writing for a living at the age of 19, while also attending university full-time. I enjoyed it, but it was also really stressful. Now the industry is in such a mess — and with pay rates, literally, back to 1970s and ’80s lows, (then a very good rate!), I’m ready to flee.

 

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The two things I hope to do a lot more of are coaching — both writing and PR strategy (details are on my website) and selling my images to interior designers. I’ve been coaching now for several years and really enjoy it; my students get instant ROI and lots of practical advice, not the generic “You go, girl!” bullshit I so often see being touted by “experts” on social media.

My husband is a professional photo editor, who worked for The New York Times for 31 years and helped them win a Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 images, so we’re also culling thousands of my images to select the initial few hundred and set up a website. I began my career as a photographer, selling three magazine cover images while still in high school and later, to Time, The Washington Post, Toronto Star, The New York Times and others.

I do, still, hope to publish a few more books.

 

What ambitions do you still hold?

 

Do you have a timeline for achieving them?

Why it’s great to have friends of all ages

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In 2017, this was part of a fun Montreal afternoon I spent in the company of a young business-owner I met at a NYC conference and stayed in touch with

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story from my first employer — The Globe & Mail — about a terrific inter-generational friendship between a Kiana Eastmond, a young black entrepreneur in Toronto and Paul Copeland, her older Jewish landlord, that began thanks to $8,000 in her unpaid rent.

She finally managed to re-pay him, but the relationship was much more than transactional:

Falling $8,000 behind in rent, which seemed to her an insurmountable sum to pay back, she simply avoided him. When she finally ran into Mr. Copeland, who lived in the building, “I almost felt a sense of relief that he was finally going to evict me,” she says. “At least I wasn’t quitting. I’m not a quitter.”

But Mr. Copeland didn’t react the way she expected. “What’s going on?” he asked. She opened up and told him the truth. “I cried,” she says. He didn’t offer advice or a shoulder to cry on. He tossed the ball back in her court. “Figure it out,” he told her. “I want you to do what you told me you were going to do with this space.”…

The two ultimately became friends, hanging out and going to movies and concerts. He enjoyed her youth and energy. “I taught her about music,” he says. They both laugh. “No really,” she says. “He has this insane music collection, with slave hymns and gospel music.” He would drop by the studio and chat easily with whoever happened to be there.

As someone with friends who are decades younger, this doesn’t strike me as odd, but it is for some — why on earth would a 20 or 30-year-old want to hang out with someone “old”?

What would we have in common?

You name it!

Work, music, politics, travel, family issues…all the things that people just talk about. My father, at 89, has friends decades younger as my mother always did. I simply don’t buy the notion that being older or younger eliminates all the other reasons you might enjoy someone’s company.

And some of my much younger friends have already faced some really bad shit — like paternal or maternal health issues, mental and physical — that prematurely forced them into care-giving roles. I faced that myself, so I get it, and the complicated stew of filial duty and resentment it can create.

My younger pals are often those I’ve met through journalism and initially on-line. I make sure to have lunch with them whenever we’re in the same city, delighted they make time for me.

Another is 21 years younger but every time we’re in the same city, we end up talking so long that a lunch date turns into dinner.

 

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I’d never been to the amazing orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx — until a younger friend took me. So gorgeous!

 

True friendship is a meeting of minds  — and people who are curious, adventurous, smart, kind, fun and resilient are usually someone I want to know.

It’s not just me, of course.

American advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, writing for The Cut,  recently described  her friendship with  a woman who’s 93; she’s 48.

 

Speaking of which, I went to go visit that 93-year-old woman I met on the plane, the one I wrote about a few weeks ago. She had told me her birthday was coming up, so I brought her a birthday card.

But it was difficult. It made me feel dumb to show up at her house with a card. I felt embarrassed for some reason. I even felt a little stupid calling her earlier today, asking if she needed anything. I don’t have a ton of free time. I have a long list of things I should be doing. It feels dopey to call someone new, someone who is much older and probably has other things to do.

But this woman, I like her a lot. She is extremely interesting. She tells long-winded, wild stories. She plays poker and has a lot of friends. She even sang me a song that she wrote in 1968. She grew up during the Prohibition, motherfuckers. She’s had a lot of experiences and she’s made a lot of mistakes, and she doesn’t mind talking about them. She’s a very honest person.

 

Do you have any friends much older or younger?

 

How did you meet?

What do you enjoy about these relationships?

“You’re normal”

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Fragility is humbling and frightening

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a rough week, slowly recovering from my last radiation treatment — October 15 — and still fighting its cumulative fatigue and insane itchiness on my left breast. I was at my wits’ end, crying in public, (I almost never cry anywhere), just done.

I had a follow-up meeting with the radiation doctor, to be told I’d gained (!?) 10 pounds in six weeks and now needed blood tests to see why. This despite seeing my clothes fit more loosely and gaining compliments on my apparent weight loss.

Our GP, thankfully, saw us an hour later and did the tests; (I’m fine.)

But I started crying in his office, weary of all of it.

I apologized for being a big blubbering baby, ashamed and embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions.

“You’re normal,” he said, calmly and compassionately.

Jose, my husband, sat in the room with us, listening as I absorbed this pretty basic fact.

What, I’m not made of steel?

I’m…vulnerable?

Human?!

Kelly’s tend to be (cough) ambitious and driven; three of us won major national awards in the same month, when I was 41, my younger half-brothers then 31 and 18; I for my writing, they for business skills and for a key scientific discovery, (yes, the youngest!)

We tend to aim high, compete ferociously for as long as it takes, (each of my books, later published by major NYC houses, were rejected 25 times), and usually win, dammit!

We keep our emotions very close to the vest and keep small, tight circles of intimates. I don’t really do acquaintance.

 

Being weak, scared, in pain, exhausted and, even worse, letting others see us in this condition?

 

Terrifying.

I’m slowly getting used to it.

Compassion for my fragility is my new oxygen, as much for myself as the gratitude I feel for that shown to me.

 

 

The careless years

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How much time do we really have? How much of our lives do we waste?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not carefree.

I wish.

It’s “I don’t care.”

It’s a by-product of getting older, having less time to do what I really want to do, not keep meeting endless, endless financial obligations.

It’s getting a crappy diagnosis that instantly — however much a cliche — changes your perspective on life and what matters most.

It’s not rushing to people-please.

It’s cutting out chatter and acquaintances who suck up your energy and return little of value.

It’s avoiding activities that simply don’t offer sufficient pleasure.

It’s adding those that do.

We spend our lives working and working and working and trying our best to please everyone.

Those are noble sentiments and we all have bills to pay.

Nor am I arguing in favor of total disengagement or disinterest in the needs of others.

But, at this point in my life — and that of other women I know who’ve faced recent health issues — we really don’t care about the usual rules anymore.

When you really realize how little time we’re given and how quickly it can all change or disappear, caring about things that actually mean very, very little just….stops.

 

What defines you?

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Time off matters a lot to me!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

My past two posts here have been about two talented, driven American journalists — photographer Peter DaSilva and the late Marie Colvin. I’d say Peter, with whom I’ve also had a personal friendship for years, is to some degree defined by his attention to detail and compassion, while she was clearly driven, among other things less visible, by ambition and adrenaline.

As the decades pass, as work becomes less (one hopes!) an uphill climb and plateaus out to a succession of accomplishments, large or small; as one begins and grows one’s family (or doesn’t), our essential values and character become ever clearer to ourselves and to others — the words or phrases used to sum you up.

 

Are they what you want(ed)?

 

I think about this a lot, maybe because I work as a journalist and my role, often, is to observe a stranger and make some decisions about who they are and why they are that way.

I’m endlessly fascinated by what people do and how they enact their values — or don’t.

 

A few things that define me:

 

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A passion for story-telling

Whether here or in print or through the photos on my Insta account or sitting around a table with friends, I love to find and tell stories. Maybe it’s the Irish in me.

 

A momma-bear instinct to protect people I care about

Do not ever mess with someone I care about. I don’t have children, but those I love get a fierce loyalty.

 

 

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An endless desire to travel and explore new places

I have already been to 40 countries and have so many more experiences I’m eager to try: Morocco, Japan, Greece and the Amazon, to name only a few.

 

Never a very political animal

Journalists are expected professionally to remain fair and objective, and so can’t be seen favoring one side or another (although I tend to be liberal.) I can’t vote in Canada since I left years ago and can’t vote in the U.S. as I’ve chosen not to become a citizen. I pay fairly careful attention to political issues but generally don’t have a dog in each fight.

 

 

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A lover of luxury

Guilty! I wear cashmere and silk, drink champagne when there’s an occasion, and my favorite words ever just might be “Taxi!” and “room service.” Growing up watching my maternal grandmother run through her huge inheritance gave me absurdly expensive tastes, impossible to satisfy on lousy journalism wages. Challenging!

 

 

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Also cheap as hell

Which is how one can afford some luxury, even if not earning a huge salary or income; I’ve stayed in the same unexciting 1960s building, in the same one bedroom apartment, for 30 years. I don’t love either of these things but I do love our view, our town and a 38-minute train commute to midtown Manhattan. Staying put and not splurging on a larger home and all its furnishings and maintenance and taxes and repairs has helped me save for retirement and travel, my two key priorities.

 

I work to live, not live to work

I wrecked my 20s being a workaholic and made several people quite miserable as a result — whether some of my editors, friends or boyfriends. It was all I cared most about. By 30, I was a burned-out wreck.  I enjoy the work I do, but would happily stop tomorrow, having done it since I was 19. I have so many other interests — music, books travel, art, design, sports — and have accomplished enough in my career I don’t feel compelled to add notches to my belt nor be (uuuugggggghhhhh) “productive”, the great American obsession.

 

Zero tolerance for the pompous, whiny and entitled

None.

 

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Voracious reader

I never leave home without a book or magazine or pile of unread newspapers. Reading is my oxygen.

 

What are some of the qualities or values that define you?

Who’s your rock? And gravel…

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re going to somehow get through a frightening time in your life — whether it’s health, work, family, marriage, kids’ issues — you need a rock, someone you can turn to who’s as firm and solid as a boulder, something steady and calm to lean against and take shelter behind, a fixed point you know will be there the next day and the next and the next, no matter what happens.

As I got my breast cancer diagnosis — ironically, sitting on rocks at the edge of the Hudson River in the New York town where we live — my husband Jose had just left for work in the city on the commuter train. I sat in the June sunshine alone absorbing this news, delivered by phone by my gynecologist.

 

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Those vows include, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…Sept. 2011

 

Since then, as he has been throughout our 18 years together, Jose has been my rock. For which I’m so damn grateful and so damn fortunate. He came with me to every meeting with every doctor, (and there have been five MDs), listening and taking notes as a second set of eyes and ears. I’m not a person who cries easily or often — maybe a few times a year — but in the past five months, have done a lot of that. He’s stayed steady.

There’s an old-fashioned word I really like — character. Jose has it. I’d seen it on multiple occasions as we were dating. I wanted it in my second husband, that’s for damn sure.

 

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So lucky to have had the kindness of this fantastic team!

 

Then there’s gravel, a poor metaphor perhaps, for the pals and acquaintances whose love and sweet gestures have also proven hugely supportive, through letters, cards, calls, texts, flowers and even gifts. None of which I really expected.

Some live in distant countries. Some are editors I’ve worked with for years and have still never met. Some are women I went to school with decades ago. All of whom stepped up.

There were several putatively close friends I assumed would check in — and who proved wholly absent. That hurt. But it happens, and you have to know, especially with this disease, some people will flee and totally abandon you.

The most depressing thing I heard this summer — and it truly shocked me — is that some cancer patients have no one at all to turn to. No family. No friends. I can’t imagine facing the fears, pain, anxiety and many tests and treatments without someone who loves you sitting in the waiting room with you, driving you to appointments, holding your hand.

I recently got a call from a younger friend facing her own crisis, and was so honored and touched that she called me. I try to be a rock for the people I love. Sometimes I’ll fail them, I know.

But that’s what we’re all here for.

Be the rock.

 

Or be gravel.

 

But be there!