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Capture & Cultivate Inspiration whenever you can

light-1030988_1920I decided to write this post after I made the same mistake several times in the last few weeks. While out walking, shopping for food, working out or being engaged in other work an idea for an article, or a chapter in the book I dream of writing, pops into my head and words just start rushing through me like a motorcycle screaming down an empty desert highway. In these moments I often made the mistake of thinking: Let me just finish what I am doing right now and then I’ll sit down and write. Big mistake! Once I found time to sit down and write the inspiration was gone and I would just stare at the screen in front of me, unable to produce a single word.

Steve Jobs once said, on the topic of creativity: ‘When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something.’ I can really relate tho this phenomena because inspiration often feels like it didn’t come from within. Instead it feels like I momentarily tapped into a creative source and I become a channel for creative thought to flow right through me. At this moment I am simply the vessel for a certain idea to be born. But when I don’t follow the flow I lose connection with this creative source again.
The word inspiration comes from the latin word inspirare which literally means ‘breathe into’ or ‘infuse animation or influence’, especially through divine influence. In other words, to be ‘in spirit’. Similarly the word enthusiasm comes from the greek word entheos, meaning ‘possessed by a god’. Both of these words origin point to a concept of being influenced by a creative source.

Now whether you are a writer, a poet, a musician, a designer, an artist or a creator of some kind I am sure you can both recognize the feeling of being in this flow and perhaps also the notion of losing touch with that same stream and standing in front of your canvas, screen, microphone or paper completely blocked to the ideas that seemed obvious to you just a short while ago. I myself have spent countless hours with writer’s block and I think most of you know exactly how this feels…Not great!

After falling in this trap several times lately I decided that I didn’t want to lose more great ideas this way. As a way of capturing inspiration/creativity as soon as it comes I devised two different actions for myself. If your creative endeavour is important to you and, like me, you sometimes let good ideas slide away from you, here are two tips that might help you.

  1. Drop whatever you are doing at that moment and give into the flow of inspiration. I understand that this is not practical in all situations (don’t drop the baby/client/crying friend!), but then at least try to document as much of the flow as possible. Write your thoughts down, make a video/voice recording on your phone, scribble down a sketch or whatever you need to do to capture the connection so you can find your way back to it later. The more detailed you can document your train of thought, the better it will serve to help you reconnect later.
  2. Try to see how the connection happened in the first place. What are the external factors? Are you in a specific place? Are you in a specific mindset? What was the spark of the creativity? A song, an article, a conversation with a friend (or a stranger)? If you can remember the conditions that got you to this creative flow you can try to recreate it later. Sometimes I even notice a larger pattern that can help me overcome blockages in the future. Maybe you always get your good ideas while singing in the shower, half-sleeping on the train or listening to certain music while wistfully gazing out your bedroom window, but you never paid attention or attribute to the internal & external conditions that opens you up to creativity?

Just writing all this in a post has really helped me to capture those moments more consistently in my life, and I hope it might help you as well! If you have any other tips about inspiration or creativity, feel free to leave a comment below so all the creative souls (that’s everyone, right?) can benefit from your wisdom too.

Love, A

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The Myth & Dangers of Multitasking

clown raised his hands juggling objects of office life as a symbol of the business agendaIn a previous post about The Magic of doing only one thing at a time, I briefly mentioned some thoughts on multitasking. Now it is time to revisit the subject and dedicate more energy on the subject.

In the trainings I give around productivity and focus I always take time out to dispel the myth of multitasking. I usually do this through a series of exercises that show exactly how poorly we multitask.
Surprisingly enough, multitasking is still considered a virtue and I am sure some of you have boasted your multitasking abilities on a CV, aptitude test or job application. Perhaps equally surprising, many recruiters still see multitasking as a necessary skill when hiring new talent.
The truth, backed by an overwhelming amount of research, is that multitasking is a complete myth. If you think about attention as a searchlight illuminating whatever part of consciousness that you shine it on, you clearly see that we can only focus our attention on one thing/task at a time. What we normally refer to as multitasking is actually switch-tasking, a process of constantly switching attention and focus from one task to another.

Perhaps the most cited study on the subject comes from a group of researchers at Stanford University in 2009. Their research showed that people who multitask regularly are actually worse at it than those who do not. They have become chronically distracted and have a much harder time focusing, memorizing and organizing information. As a result they were more prone to mistakes/errors and less likely to remember details.
It takes a lot of energy to constantly re-focus your attention and you often end up spending more time than if you would have focused on one task first, then the other.
Different tasks also require different mindsets, so you will find more flow from first writing all your emails, and then pay all your bills instead of trying to mix them both.

So while it’s very clear that multitasking actually hurts our productivity, now we are also taking the habit of constant distraction into our private lives. I text while biking, eat while working and update Instagram while socializing with friends. As a result I am less present at any given moment and experience less enjoyment and quality of life. I also remember less details of these moments, because my attention is always divided. Essentially we can retrieve from memory only the things we put in there. If we aren’t paying attention, less information about any given moment will be stored in your long term memory and less information can be retrieved in the form of a memory. This explains why I, and several of my peers, have been experiencing a “failing memory”.
I simply cannot remember where I put my keys if I don’t pay attention when I leave them somewhere.

So have we damaged our brains beyond repair with our constant task switching and habits of distraction? I don’t believe we have. Our brains have shown great potential for plasticity, and even though we have spent years training our brain to be distracted, I certainly believe that it is possible to reverse this process. There are several things we can do to sharpen our focus and attention. Let me briefly go over some of these now.

Meditation
Perhaps one of the simplest and most beneficial exercises you can do for increasing your focus is meditation. Focus on something very simple, basic and accessible. Your breath, surrounding soundscape or bodily sensations are good places to start. Distracting thoughts will come, and it’s ok. Remember that it will take time to retrain your attention. Be patient and kind with yourself. When you realize that you were distracted, simply bring your attention back and start over. With regular practice you will notice quite quickly (usually mere weeks) that you can sustain your attention for longer and longer periods of time.

Reading
Another accessible way of retraining you focus is to read longer pieces of text. In our current paradigm we are used to reading tiny bits of information. Status updates, comments, excerpts, summaries, and blog posts have become norm. In many cases we have even switched out reading for small byte-sized pieces of online video. Try reading more books or in-depth articles. You will notice that, much like meditation, you might have a difficult time to focus on the text. You read a page, but by the end of it you have no idea what you just read and you have to do it again. This can be quite discouraging, but don’t give up! It doesn’t take very long to notice that you can stay focused on the text for longer and longer periods of time without getting distracted.

Eliminate Distractions
Maybe the most obvious way of being more focused is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Consider putting you phone on silent or flight mode, turn off all notification or maybe even just turn it off?? It might seem like an impossible feat in todays society, but keep in mind the benefits you will have from honing your attention. When I give my full attention to something or someone I am not only more focused, but I experience a deeper sense of connection and enjoyment. Food tastes better when eating is treated as an activity itself. (Just try it!) Relationships, whether professional or personal, grow deeper when I give someone my undivided attention and my work is of much higher quality when I can focus than when I am distracted.

Batching
A concrete way of avoiding multitasking and constantly switching our attention back and forth during our work is to batch likeminded tasks together. Schedule all meetings on the same day, send all emails at once, pay all invoices at the same time. To avoid having to switch mindset between these unrelated tasks do all the tasks that require the same mindset at the same time, and then move on to the next focus area…or go for a walk. =)

An interesting piece of information to end this post with is that I have been trying to finish writing this piece for the last week, while simultaneously trying to finish 2 more posts and doing everything else life throws at me. It was only today when I finally removed all distractions that everything fell in place. I was tempted several times with tons of different distractions and each time I tried to avoid judgement, bring my attention back and just keep going. It works!

Love, A

 

Please go changing, not to please me

1254228-8In my previous post about change I explain how change is really the only thing we can ever count on and it is indeed synonymous with reality. The Buddha called it the “impermanence of all things” and the Greek philosopher Herakleitos called it “the only constant”. Our world is constantly in a state of change, of flux and so are we. This means that there is also no constant self or unchanging identity.
Physically speaking we know that our cellular structure is always engaged in a cycle of death and rebirth. Skin cells dry up and fall away while new ones are created in their place. This also holds true for our stream of consciousness, our sense of self.
We are continuously changing our minds, opinions, values and behaviors due to internal and external factors. This can be quite a liberating thought as you don’t have to identify with your thoughts or even be limited by a certain idea of who you are.

I have told clients for years that I am not the sum of my past, rather infinite possibility. From this point on, I can go anywhere and do anything that I like. The only thing holding me back is my sense of a static identity, an unchanging self. This realization alone can help to puncture limiting beliefs I have about myself and to increase my self-acceptance.

But in the context of a relationship this can be difficult to consider.
You might have heard the cliche phrase: You are not the same person I met five years ago.
Of course I’m not! Considering what we just talked about I am not even the same person you met five seconds ago. I am a dynamic being, constantly changing. learning, moving forward. To expect that I would stay the same person you met five years ago is nothing short of ludicrous and quite frankly quite an unfair expectation.
Unfortunately what often happens in relationships is that we spend a portion of time at the very beginning of our love story, getting to know each other. We just met and this person in front of me is the most exciting and mysterious being for a time. Then, at some point, we kind of decide that we know each other. I have now made a complete picture in my minds who this person is, and I start the ridiculous and destructive process of holding the other person to this picture I created of them. I praise the behaviors that fit with the picture and I scold the behaviors that don’t. Either the other person feels stuck in a role they didn’t ask for, they feel taken for granted or they will more-or-less-consciously start hiding the natural state of change, which in turn leads to drifting apart.

Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that the beginning period of getting to know each other is also the time many call “the honeymoon period” where everything is rosy and lovely? What if that feeling comes from being curious and accepting of the other person as a dynamic creature? Could we then extend this honeymoon period for an unlimited time? There are usually no quick fixes, but I believe there are some things we can think about in order to be more real with each other.

  • Accept that you are constantly changing. Your thoughts, sensations, emotions, needs and opinions are transient and always in a state of flux. This means that you are neither the you from yesterday nor the you of tomorrow.
  • Accept that the same is true for your partner. Stay curious, forgiving, attentive, flexible and never stop getting to know this person. Celebrate their development, their growth and let him/her be real!
  • Accept that since you are both changing you can never know how much time you have together. There is always a possibility that your lives take different directions. Don’t take each other for granted and enjoy the time you do have together.

Even though change is all around, and inside us, it is not always an easy fact to accept. As people we place a great deal of safety in things staying familiar and the same. For this reason change often seems scary, simply because it is unknown. But since we know that change is a constant, having a fear of change might be the most limiting fear we encounter in our lives. What does change mean to you and what can you do to make it your companion, whether it be in relationship or in general?

Love, A

 

Over-inspired and Unfulfilled – When there is too much of the ‘good stuff’

10xcsf10 ways to live a happy life, 21 ways to get things done, 15 ways to love your woman, 8 questions to find your passion, 12 ways to live your dream, 10 magical morning exercises, 15 quick psychological tricks everyone should know, 14 things you can do right now to feel happier….there is no limit to the amazing life I could be living right now, if I wasn’t so caught up in reading lists, quotes and other bite size wisdom about how amazing my life could be if I wasn’t so caught up in reading lists…blablabla…you get it!

I’ve grown weary of all the bite size tips, inspirational quotes & off the cuff spiritual advice that are now seemingly taking up as much space on the Internet as porn. They are literally everywhere. Disguised as good news, helpful advice or profound wisdom they invade my news feed and my browser tabs with superficially positive messages of living a peaceful, connected, loving, grateful, adventurous, healthy & passionate life under the rainbow.

Without realizing it discomfort or malaise occasionally find their way into my day, at which time I find ‘the answer’ in a top 10 list about being happy. After a momentary spell of utterly superficial happiness, I feel even more miserable because my life is not the ecstatic circus act it ‘could’ be. Then I see a beautiful picture of adorable penguins making love against the backdrop of a wintery sunset saying ‘everything happens for a reason’ and for a minute I feel warm and cozy until I start wondering what that reason might be and worrying about whether I understand that reason or not. Along comes the article about how to find my purpose in 19 easy steps, but after step 7 I already feel more lost than when I started. Frustrated I scroll through my feed of choice and come across a picture of laughing dog/cat/hyena/hamster saying ‘happiness is a choice’…Gaaaaahhhhh!!! Why can’t I then just choose to be happy all the time?

Inspiration leads to discouragement over and over again as I enter the downwards spiral of what can only be described as an addiction; an addiction to inspiration. Like any illicit drug I need more inspiration to feel happy and each time I get a fix the high gets less profound, so I chase the next piece of transient enlightenment with the same gusto as someone chasing the dragon in the smoky depths of an opium den.

The addiction to inspiration keeps me in a constant state of seeking. I will always need more; more information, more insights, more wisdom and more advice. I become so used to searching that the idea of actually finding seems farther and farther away. For every piece of fleeting wisdom I consume, I get the feeling that a peaceful existence is far in the future and beyond my reach. So I clamber to the next article hoping this will be the final piece of the puzzle, while the puzzle grows larger every day. I keep looking outside for answers instead of relaxing in my imperfect being, trusting that all the answers are inside.

So why do I allow myself to keep this cycle going and how can seemingly good intentions turn into suffering for myself & others?

I do believe that most of these articles, top10s and beautiful words of wisdom are published with the intention of helping others to feel better, accomplish more and improve their lives. They seem like noble intentions and a genuine expression of altruism, but instead I often end up feeling inadequate, discouraged and unhappy about myself. What I don’t realize at the time is that every top 10 list of ways to make me happy is also a top 10 list of things that I should change in my life, a top 10 list of reasons why it’s not ok to be human & a top 10 list of things to make me feel like I am not enough.

It was when I became conscious of the similarities between Internet inspiration and giving advice that things fell into place. In my work as a coach/counsellor I try to avoid giving advice or trying to fix people and instead I focus on listening, holding space and allowing what is, to be. The greatest gifts I can give anyone is my undivided attention and empathy. Any advice I give will be based in my own experience of life and not necessarily applicable to other peoples lives, but when I can allow the person sitting opposite me to feel what they feel and be who they are, true connection and transformation is possible.

I know this from my own experience. Advice make me feel like I should be more like the person giving it and this gap creates distance between us. I feel less connected and more ashamed of my rollercoasteresque experience of life. I want to feel heard, seen, accepted and understood. I want to know that I am not the only one who has weird feelings, dark thoughts & quirky personality traits. I want you to allow my very human experience, and I want to allow myself to feel very human. I just want to be real, raw and imperfect…I just want to be me.

I think of the inspirational memes and lists I have (re-)posted and even though I might have done this from the best of intentions, I have actually been spreading unsolicited advice across a worldwide media platform and thereby made a significant amount of people feel unseen and unheard at the same time. Now that is some effective disheartening!

I get it now…I do.  I could feel sorry about it, but that would just be another way of labeling my own process as bad and not allowing myself to make mistakes in life. It’s ok to not be awesome all the time.

It might be frustrating to realize that I invited these things into my life, but it’s also empowering because this means I can choose to rescind the invitation and bring peace back to my inner world. I closed all the tabs with unread articles from my browser, I have left all inspirational groups and pages on Facebook and I am now limiting my input to books and other in-depth media. But most of all I am taking time to actually integrate the wisdom I have recognized into my life. This is something I never have time for when I am in constant searching-mode. And you know what? I will surely stumble and fall many times on the way…and it’s ok! I am done bypassing my true feelings with pseudo-happiness. Life is a messy process with a full spectrum of emotions that needs to be fully lived and not repressed by clever nature pics with white block letters. I want to embrace the fact that I am only human and sometimes I will feel anger, sadness, envy, jealousy, discontent and all the other undesirables.

Don’t think the irony of publishing an article, about reading less articles, is lost on me. Not at all! I am publishing this because I hope that more people will recognize the situation and join me on this spiritual diet. Even if you don’t, please take one thing away from this. Never let yourself be ashamed for your very human experience of life. Let yourself be.

Love, A

The Magic of doing only one thing at a time

onestepIn the many workshops/lectures I have given about productivity and focus as well as the coaching work I do with individual clients I always take time to dispel the myth of multitasking. Keep in mind that when I speak of multitasking I am talking about doing multiple tasks that require some form of cognitive reasoning. I don’t take breathing, digestion, walking at a leisurely pace and other “automatic” processes into account.
The truth is that true multitasking is a myth, as we can only focus our attention on one task at a time. When we think we are multitasking we are actually switching our attention back n forth between different thought processes.
In 2009 a group of researchers at Stanford University released a study on the subject. Their researched showed that people who multitask regularly, constantly switching their attention between tasks, become chronically distracted and have a difficult time focusing, memorizing and organizing information. Eventually they get distracted by anything and everything. Re-focusing on different tasks cost time and it seems it also has a toll on our cognitive abilities.
Even though I know this I realized a couple of days ago, while reflecting on my own workflow, that I still do this to some degree. I eat while working, check emails in meetings, text while biking…etc.
I recognized that not only did this make me distracted but I also enjoyed the singular tasks less. I kept my attention away from the here and now, unable to fully enjoy the moment.
I also noticed that lately I found myself in one of the following situations:

  • After having a conversation with a friend I couldn’t recall what we were talking about.
  • Walking with intention into the kitchen realizing I have no idea why I went there in the first place.
  • Trying to recall what I did yesterday by having to check my agenda.

I take my work very seriously and I always make sure I am completely focused when talking to a client or a group, but in my personal life I sometimes let myself get distracted. I believe one of the reasons is that I have primed myself for short, bitesized pieces of information by reading feeds, lists and posts more than books and in-depth articles. With this newfound awareness I am changing these habits, but what about taking it one step further?

After reading an article by Nancy Christie about doing one thing at a time, I decided to try it for a full day. For 24 hours I would focusing my attention on each task fully. No eating behind my computer, no texting while seeing friends, no Facebook while working…etc. To instead award each task my undivided attention and singular importance for a full day. This day was yesterday and these are some of my reflections.

  • It was truly an amazing day and I had plenty of time to get the things I wanted to do done. But the day was not only about productivity. More importantly I tried this experiment because I wanted to feel what it would do to my sense of the moment.
    I am happy to say that everything I did felt more imbued with spirit & presence. Food tasted better when I didn’t eat while working, checking emails or scrolling my feed. While spending time with a friend in the evening and even during daily work meetings I felt more connected to the people around me, because I didn’t divide my attention by checking my phone or thinking about the next activity.
  • Because of my determination to focus on one thing at a time, I also noticed how some daily activities were left out because when I had to prioritize my focus, some things were simply not worthy of my attention. It was especially clear around the (ab)use of my phone. Normally my phone accompanies me nearly everywhere, but when I had to choose between eating or checking my phone (as opposed to doing both) the phone became much less important.
  • Time seemed to slow down and I really felt like I had all the time in the world. The day was rich and the sense of urgency disappeared because I knew if I focused on only one thing at a time I would get around to everything I wanted to, and I did!

I thought a day like this would be quite challenging, but to my great delight, this was not the case. In the first few hours I had to remind myself of the mission a couple of times, but the habit stuck really quickly and today I don’t want to go back to a fragmented reality.
I can highly recommend trying this one-day challenge, if not to change your whole concept of time, at least to make you aware of your triggers. Any change process starts with awareness and as you become aware of the habits that are not aligned with your values there is no turning back.
Doing one thing at a time might be the most basic habit of presence & focus, yet one of the most powerful I have tried next to meditation. Imagine living a meditative state. It is the easiest thing you can do to create a massive increase in your ability to focus.
Go on…try it yourself! Do only one thing at a time. I dare you =)

Love, A

 

Beyond Yes and No – In search of the 3rd answer

thinking
In my last post I mentioned briefly the power behind the statement ‘I don’t know’. I grew up in a world where not knowing was considered something bad. Somehow I had failed at getting the the necessary information and knowledge was heralded as the holy grail.
I have since broken free from this type of thinking, partially because I realized that there is no such thing as knowledge; only opinions and more or less educated guesses. History has shown us time and time again that what we thought was sacred scientific knowledge is merely a collection of what we have observed so far. The universe doesn’t orbit our disc-world and yes, there are indeed black swans.
I also found out while coaching my clients and in my own coaching that ‘I don’t know’ can be a tremendous opportunity to make new thoughts, as long as I can disconnect the idea of not knowing being something shameful or embarrasing.
‘I don’t know’ then becomes a portal into the vast grayzone of life, a space where ideas & thoughts have yet to be labeled, judgements have not been made and yes or no simply does not suffice as an answer.
As a professional (as well as privately) I really appreciate clarity and although ‘I don’t know’ seems unclear at first it is really the start of the journey towards clarity of mind around a certain subject. New ideas and new thoughts are required to find the clarity within yourself and there is always a fair amount of learning involved in such a process.

Even when I have made up my mind about something and delved into my mind looking for where in the grayzone I stand on a certain issue, I try to keep in mind that I still don’t know. New information or new circumstances might come to light and I will see the situation completely different. What I have gained is not absolute truth, only my truth at this specific time. This has helped me greatly to detach myself from my opinions and truths. I know that everything changes so I don’t identify with knowledge and stay more open to others opinions & truths.
For these reasons I would like to honor ‘I don’t know’ as one of the most transformational phrases I have come across in my life.

Another important 3rd answer I first came across in Robert Pirsig’s classic bestseller Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Mu.
The term Mu originates from the 13th century collection of Zen Kōans called The Gateless Gate. Kōans are Zen Buddhist teachings that come in the form of stories, questions, problems or dialogs between students and masters with the intention of invoking the great doubt, Mu. The word itself can easiest be translated as nothing, has not or without existence.
Mu points beyond my binary thinking of yes/no, on/off, one/zero because nothing really means no thing and even a zero is something. Instead Mu un-asks the question because a simple yes or no answer cannot suffice. My understanding of the question must be enlarged. This is also not a point to despair. Quite the opposite. Mu can be an even more important answer than yes or no, because it points to personal growth and an increased understanding of the context of the question itself. It is perhaps one of the most basic teachings of Zen Buddhism, as it evokes a beginner’s mind, where possibilities are endless and knowledge is secondary.

I hope that my exploration into the beautiful uncertainty will help you free your mind from black/white thinking and detach your knowledge/opinions from your sense of identity. Only then can our minds be truly free.

Love, A

How being stuck might be the best thing that ever happened to you.

stuck2
Feeling stuck can be one of the most frustrated states I can think of. Usually my mind gets stuck when trying to do too many things at once, when taking a decision that I usually overestimate the importance of, or when I feel I have completely run out  options and I am a victim of my circumstances.
I consider being stuck  is the mental representation of the statement ‘I don’t know’ (how to act, what to do,  which to choose) and there is nothing inherently  wrong with not knowing. Yet in the society where I grew up  and went to school, not knowing was considered   something bad  and   connected to  failure in many ways. As a result, I   pride myself   on the amount of information I   hold and feel insecure  when I am apparently lacking knowledge.
However in my coaching work I see the true power behind the statement
I don’t know! It just means that there is unchartered territory up ahead and new thinking is required to make sense of a situation.
Much like not knowing,   stuck-ness   shouldn’t be avoided, rather celebrated. Feeling stuck is the predecessor of all real understanding, just like I don’t know is the starting point for all knowledge.
When I see it like this  stuck-ness becomes     potential growth instead of unknown information; a chance for me to  be a conscious part of creating new neural pathways in my brain, a little something I   like to call learning.

As I see it now there are three ways of dealing with stuck-ness as it shows up in my life. Action/Change, Outer Acceptance & Inner Acceptance . These three roads help me deal with many problems actually. I start by  defining the question. What is it I don’t know?

Action/Change
When I   know the question behind my feeling of stuck-ness I also get an idea of where I might find an answer. This is my opportunity to learn, discover, go, see, listen, ask, feel, adventure…
I can take action and change the situation by finding out the answer to my question.

Outer Acceptance
Not knowing can also be very beautiful in its own right. I like to think of   all the different things in life  where I still don’t know. These are all places where I am still capable of feeling a child’s wonder and curiosity. This should not be taken lightly. Stuck-ness can actually be an opportunity for humility, letting go of control or of the desire to know everything.

Inner Acceptance
To avoid falling into the bliss-trap of the new cage movement it is important for me to know that sometimes I just feel stuck and it sucks! I don’t know what to do and I don’t feel like seeing the opportunity in the stuck-ness.  That’s ok! When I accept my inner state of resistance I create space for the emotion. I try not to judge myself as this just creates further suffering or panic. I’m just fine with not being fine.

I hope my experiences can help you get unstuck or at least be fine with your stuck-ness. If you know someone who would benefit from this post, please share it with them.

Love, A