Writing about what I have been reading and encountering in the media.
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I comment on things I am reading, encountering in media, and spiritual issues. I hope you will find something interesting.
|Cleaning out his closet, Starla found
three chess pieces; queen, rook, and knight,
all carved of black marble.
"Why a rook and not a castle?
Makes me think of birds."
she put the pieces on the bureau,
beside her mother’s wooden lamp
with a pale pink nineteen fifties shade.
Over the years, she faithfully dusted the trio,
sometimes wondering why.
she received a candle from a friend. Lighting
the candle to honor this event or that hope,
she arranged the pieces around the candle:
"A pleasant arrangement."
As time passed and the candle burned away
the chess pieces seemed more and more
With age came losses, friends, family, health.
Her doctor referred her to the nursing home.
She knew she would never go home.
The chess pieces went with her. Sometimes,
an aide would ask about them. She would say
“They have been with me a long time,”
moving them closer to her.
When, finally, the end came, her caregivers found
the chess pieces; the queen in Starla’s right hand;
rook and knight in her left.
No one came for her.
The nursing home people, the doctor, and
the funeral director decided to leave the pieces
in her hands on her way to the crematorium.
They gave specific instructions.
When her remains returned, the marble
chess pieces, lay intact on top of her
soft, grey ashes. After the nursing home manager
did as Starla had asked with her ashes,
she placed the chess pieces on her shelf and
dusted them faithfully, sometimes
Malachi 4: 1-2a.
*See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.
After my initial reading, I wrote my first thoughts. I imagined how it would sound to a child of 10 or 12:
In the night, a flash kindles a fire, a burning bed fueled by dread of being
found out. Ruthie dreamed she awakened to charred stumps for legs and a
future of torment.
After all, isn’t that what the Bible said? “The arrogant and evildoers will be stubble..."
She was still a child and already, she was doomed. She had been arrogant. She had demanded that her friends follow her rules. She told them she knew rules they weren’t following. They told her they didn’t like those rules and if she didn’t stop, they wouldn’t play. She stood her ground, and they all left her alone. Each of her friends had gone a different way and had not stayed together after the argument. They each remembered the incident too. For some reason, it left them feeling confused and uncomfortable. They had abandoned their friend. They had ended what had been, a very good day playing together, and had ended it in anger.
The next day in Sunday School, Ruthie brought it up and they discussed the problem with their teacher. Ruthie shared about her problem with the passage from Malachi. They read the passage together and the teacher advised the students to look up some of the words in the passage.
Arrogance – overbearing pride; exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one's own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner 2: showing an offensive attitude of superiority
Righteousness – acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin 2a: morally right or justifiable b: arising from an outraged sense of justice or morality
Revere – to show devoted deferential honor to or regard as worthy of great honor
Let us leave the class discussion as we take a look at the context in which the book of Malachi was written. The first thing I noticed was its location in the Bible. It is the last book of the Old Testament. It is the last of the collection called “the minor prophets.” I quote Ingrid E. Lilly who writes in the Women’s Bible Commentary, “With Malachi, we enter a world of relational dynamics where love, hate, honor and shame operate to distinguish insiders from outsiders.” The book comes from Jerusalem, a small struggling city, after return from exile and the temple has been rebuilt and Jerusalem serves as the administrative center to the vast Persian Empire. The exile has disrupted traditions, rituals, and devotion to the covenant of Moses. The Malachi prophecy seeks to rejuvenate confidence and challenges the priesthood to reform. Consequently, it includes a lot of social criticism followed by a presentation of hope of God’s return to the temple.
I think we can identify with the situation the people of Jerusalem faced. As the impact of globalization bringing us all into contact with people of other cultures, and as we try to include more people who were previously seen as unacceptable and redefine them as deserving the same respect as everyone else, we find ourselves in conflict. In other words, we are struggling with who is us and who is other. It seems that the responsibility to administer the Persian Empire is a bit like trying to create a sense of one from millions of immigrants from various cultures all over the globe. And then there are the rest of the eight billion people we interact with in trade and travel. We humans are pretty good at forming small, cohesive groups, but the bigger the group, the more problems appear that require attention for the enterprise to succeed.
I take you back to the problem my imaginary character, Ruthie, and her friends. I feel confident that we all have experienced what Ruthie and her friends are feeling. We have all been there in one way or another and probably several times. The more important the relationships, the more painful the experience of unresolved conflict. Malachi describes the experience vividly: burning like an oven, left as stubble. Ruthie pictured it clearly in her dream. I remember a time I was in conflict with a family member that felt like that. It was so bad, I thought healing would be impossible. My father said to me “I remember that happening with my sisters.” I found that very helpful because I knew them to love each other.
Malachi creates the painful scenario, then offers this: “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” In the next paragraph, he goes back into his imagery of the wicked being stomped on and becoming ashes. This is confusing.
Are we supposed to stomp on people who disagree with us so that we can be redeemed? I certainly don’t want that to be the case. I don’t want to stomp on anyone even when we disagree. However, I have been known to fly into a rage, to yell, and to stalk away from someone who doesn’t agree. Then I feel like the lowest piece of rotted plant in the compost heap. I have trouble finding hope of ever feeling okay again. The thing I feel like stomping on is my anger, my rage, my decision to walk away. The thing I want rid of is my own behavior. I am the person who is not faithful. The other person was never my issue. Something that happened between us triggered my internal turmoil and I want it to be theirs so I can leave it behind like the kids who left the game thinking the problem was Ruthie’s behavior.
As it has happened so many times in my life, once I see that the problem I need to deal with is inside me, I start to feel some hope that I can heal. I can grab hold of hope and weave it into my thinking and emotions to settle myself and face the problem with resolve. It never happens that the healing of that incident prevents all future incidents. Don’t you agree? Don’t you just wish it would? How nice it would be if I could resolve a disagreement with someone and never disagree with them again. How happy this world would be if…
Wait a minute. I am doing it again. I am saying the world is my problem. When Jesus faced crucifixion, he didn’t say the Romans or the Jews were his problem. When he prayed in Gethsemane for God to “take this cup from me,” it seems clear to me that his struggle was internal. And so it is that Malachi says a lack of faith disrupts relationships and faith brings us together.
Let us get back to the Sunday school class with Ruthie and her friends. Let us imagine together that after these children tell their story to their Sunday School teacher and she listens carefully, she tells them what she has seen and heard in their story that represent faith. She asks them how they might draw on their faith to solve the problem. What would they do? How would they organize what they want to do? What do you bet that by this time the children are relaxed with each other and ready to talk rather than fighting? I can tell you it really does happen that way, at least with people who want to remain friends.
When people are steeped in “self-righteousness” fueled by fear, separations can become so uncomfortable that they seem unresolvable. That is where a third party becomes a resource: a third party with faith, who is invested in growing seeds of faith in others. I think that is what Malachi wants us to do. I think that is what Christ did. I think that is what the Holy Spirit will help us do. All we need is to ask each other to listen as Jesus would listen, without arrogance, but from a place of righteousness and faith. We need to ask ourselves to listen in the same way to ourselves as well as others.
So, let us listen to Malachi one more time and think about the whole passage rather than one line without the other.
“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
May this lesson open our hearts to your gifts, oh Lord,
and to each other. Amen
Jackson, Richard and Robert Vivian, Traversings, Anchor and Plume, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2016.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to write creatively back and forth with someone for a year or so, not sharing news, but just sending each other poetic ruminations. Richard Jackson and Robert Vivian did just that and turned it into a book. They are quite different from each other. Richard Jackson sees concrete details around him and wonders about the nature of these things. He gives voice to his environment in a way that helps the reader attach to the experience R. Jackson describes. Robert Vivian writes more often from somewhere in the spiritual realm or the realm of imagination. The reader gets to sail in whatever direction R. Vivian has chosen for himself.
Despite these differences, the work, which consists of pages alternating between the two writers, has them clearly playing off each other, taking the core idea or image from the previous work of the other. Richard Jackson gives agency to nature: "The early mountain snow creates a fresh canvas where each creature will write its own new story." Later in the same piece, "Our words are probes that will never reach that receding edge of stardust, but we write them anyway, not to escape whatever fearful stories the snow will record, but because, like the mockingbird flinging itself again and again against the glass of this invisible window, we want to believe there's another world beyond the frayed edges of this one." and it is quite true that I want to believe in the world described by these two creative men in their distinct ways. Reading the book makes this possible.
Robert Vivian responds to the quote above: "How many ache and never find home but look for it in a string of words, a hum or melody, a moan that would be king or queen in the valley of the little birds." These prose poems celebrate the life of communication, of thriving in words that bring the reader a world that sings, that thrives, and invests in our happiness without even trying. I loved this book and read it slowly, going back over each few pages before moving ahead. I have been a fan of Richard Jackson for some time and always read his work this way. This is my first extended exposure to Robert Vivian. The reading and re-reading approach works equally well with his writing style. I encourage you to read this, or anything by these gifted artists.
Beer, Nicky, The Octopus Game, Carnegie University Press, Pittsburgh, 2015. Poetry
Who would even think of writing an entire book of poetry about cephalopods? It seems this is nearly what Nicky Beer has done. When I picked up the book, I expected a poem or two about an octopus or a squid, but not half of the book! Ms. Beer describes them in the loveliest ways:
"a heavy-lidded proprietress who is all raised hem and no flirt." Occasionally, she digresses into discussion of humans, as in "Please indicate the total number of sexual partners (male and/or female) ____." She imagines "them in her third-grade classroom." Then, a couple or so of poems about this or that but the talk of the octopus resumes, once as a showgirl in a side-show. The "game" seems to me to be about adaptation and resistance to adaptation. Her imagery is fresh and sometimes startling: In "Marlene Dietrich reads Rilke on the Lido, 1937," she writes "The latest La Stampa is crumpled at her feet like a cheap towel, a crab dozing on Stalin's mustache." She ends "Black Hole Itinerary" with "Today, love will be like starlight; when it arrives, whatever it comes from will have already collapsed." Her use of language is rich and substantial and luscious. I hope you will choose to read this delightful book.
|I am reading William Carlos Williams’ book, Spring and All, published in 1923. At that time William Butler Yates, T.S.Elliot, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound were eminent. Hitler had just completed his first push and the “western” world was recovering from WWI and the Spanish flu. He was involved in a new movement in poetry, imagism. It focused on sensory, concrete images to communicate “universal” ideas. The publisher ran 300 copies of the book, most of which didn’t sell, according to the introduction by C.D. Wright.
William Carlos Williams (WCW) begins with a response to critics who are concerned with the loss of rhyme and rhythm in poetry and who respond to his writing by saying:
“I do not like your poems. You have no faith whatever. You seem neither to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply. There is nothing appealing in what you say but on the contrary, the poems are positively repellant. They are heartless, cruel, they make fun of humanity. What in God’s name do you mean? Are you a pagan? Have you no tolerance for human frailty? Rhyme you may perhaps take away but rhythm! why there is none in your work whatever. Is this what you call poetry? It is the very antithesis of poetry. It is antipoetry. It is the annihilation of life upon which you are bent. Poetry that used to go hand in hand with life, poetry that interpreted our deepest promptings, poetry that inspired, that led us forward to new discoveries, new depths of tolerance, new heights of exaltation. You moderns! it is the death of poetry you are accomplishing. No. I cannot understand this work. You have not yet suffered a cruel blow from life. When you have suffered, you will write differently?”
It seems to me this could be said almost exactly the same way substituting the word “religion” or even “Christianity” for “poetry.” Doing so, you would be joining the dropouts from religion and those who engage in “literal interpretation of scripture.” Or, you could substitute “democracy” for “poetry” and join the people who wear MAGA hats and t-shirts saying “the founding fathers would be shooting by now.” You would be joining the originalists who want to resurrect jim crow and put women back into the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.
WCW responds by talking about “Imagination.” Among other things, he says “imagination is essential to freedom.” He says: “Lifeless in appearance, sluggish /dazed spring approaches. They enter the new world naked,/ cold, uncertain of all,/ save that they enter…”
Why you might wonder, am I sharing this? I identify with WCW when I read the attack on his writing. I admire his resilient, determined response. It hurts when your creative response to life, your expression of your experience gets trashed, or even simply ignored. It hurts when you are ready to move forward but those around you fear change. It is hard to pull your own hope, your own energy, your own perspective out of the trash heap they have built for you and continue to smile and share and create. It takes courage, but more than simply courage, it takes a certain internal coherence, a depth of thought that is well organized and anchored to the substance of your life. It takes faith in your own ability to make sense out of experience and to build something substantial. It also takes an attachment to the past that is not an anchor but is instead a source of energy, of inspiration, and wisdom. This attachment builds confidence and trust in life itself. It builds a kind of faith that others cannot hurt. It is the fuel that, like coal and oil, has passed through time in a way that has concentrated its value, its usefulness but unlike hydrocarbon fuels, it does not pollute, but instead simply propels us into the renewal of spring, or as Christianity teaches, resurrection and life. May you enjoy this in your own life.
|Smith, Maggie, Good Bones, Tupelo Press, North Adams, Mass., 2017. (poetry)
The title poem of this book has been widely disseminated. The collection, like the title poem, is about parenting, about seeing the world in new ways through the eyes of the child as well as the screen of parenting. The writing is straight forward and, initially, I thought it rather bland. I think that is because I looked up and read the title poem first. Don't do that. Just start at the beginning. The depth of awareness that grows in the parent grows in the book. Maggie Smith writes small poems about small events that open one's mind. I really enjoyed reading this and think anyone, even someone who rarely reads poetry would enjoy this book very much.
Hugo, Richard, The Triggering Town: lectures and essays on poetry and writing, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, and London, 1979, 1992, and 2010. I read it on Kindle.
This small book is full of play and wisdom. The triggering town is the town Richard Hugo imagines as a setting or a main character in writing poetry. The author encourages writers to avoid getting too attached to specific facts while writing. While he doesn't encourage stating falsehoods as facts, he is talking about getting to the part of the truth that is revealed by the facts in one's writing. This book has humor and pathos and was the most delightful read I have encountered about writing since Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird, which I read quite a number of years ago.
|On August 14, 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. It provided payments to older Americans, unemployment insurance, aid to homeless, dependent, and neglected children, funds to promote maternal and child welfare, and public health services. None of these had previously existed in any form.
Francis Perkins, the first woman cabinet member and longest-serving secretary of Labor led the effort. Among other formative experiences, she was raised in the New England Congregational Christian tradition. As a young woman, she joined the Episcopal Church and expressed her belief that "the need to make the Kingdom of God in this world would be a source of strength and commitment throughout her life," * and it was. She committed herself to build economic justice and the protection of workers.
The purpose of the Social Security Act was two-fold:
1. Provide a social safety net that would be equtable through a nation where wealth and poverty were not equitable;
2. Stimulate the economy.
The vast majority of Americans have always supported this effort. A powerful but small minority have always opposed it. It has succeeded in its goals in every way.
|Read Isaiah 5:1-7
The Song of the Vineyard
5 I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
This has been a difficult year for gardeners, especially in southern Howell County where the draught was worse than here. I talked with a friend this week who got almost no beans, her melons and squash didn’t germinate even though she planted them twice, and her okra plants aren’t even knee high.
I suspect she feels about the same way the farmer in Isaiah felt. It just makes a body want to tantrum, which is just what happened in Isaiah. If that had happened here in the Ozarks, what briars do you think would have grown up in the destroyed garden?
How about blackberries? Don’t you just love their sweetness when you pick them on a hot day in July, warm from the sun? But this year, they were just skin-covered seeds on our plants. Not even the birds would eat them.
It seems this year we can easily identify with the farmer in Isaiah, put ourselves there, looking at that non-productive plot. It is not so easy to understand why this tale has lasted almost three millennia. After all, it is so clear and understandable, but what makes it important? Perhaps a look at the gospel lesson for the day will help clarify this.
Read Luke 12: 49-56
Not Peace but Division
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Interpreting the Times
54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
Well, how do like that? “I brought you fire and wish it was already kindled.” Jesus came to bring division. And in Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah fertile ground, but it didn’t produce. How do these verses go together? The writers of the lectionary seem to have thought they do. Let’s think this through.
Isaiah was a prophet who was widely respected. Over about three periods of rule beginning in the 8th century BCE when the prophet Isaiah lived and taught through the end of Assyrian rule, the Babylonian exile, and Persian dominance, the teachings, and prophecies of others were added to Isaiah’s words to make the book of Isaiah.
The focus of this book is on Jerusalem and that city’s “relationship with YHWH, and the question of righteousness, both divine and human.” “Jerusalem is intended for a glorious future as the world’s center, the home of YHWH’s temple, the destination of nations who seek to learn the ways of peace.” (p.256)*
The people of Jerusalem were seen to make up a flawed society, “once righteous but no longer so.” The near destruction of Jerusalem is interpreted as “severe punishment from God in order to attain moral and ethical purity, to become the righteous city in which God delights.”
And then here comes Jesus a few centuries later, as Isaiah predicted. And what does he say when asked? He says he came to bring division, not peace.
Doesn’t that sound a bit like the citizens of the USA who want our society to be morally and ethically pure but have divergent ideas about how to make this happen?
Here we sit, a small gathering of people of God, like the people of Judah, trying to figure out what righteousness is and how to find peace through righteous behavior.
It seems to me the key words for consideration are righteousness and division. A simple Webster’s definition of righteousness is “morally good: following religious or moral laws” * clarified as Justice; equity between people."
Division is defined as: "disagreement between two or more groups, typically producing tension or hostility." It seems at first glance these two words stand in opposition to each other.
What I make of this is that righteousness is defined and redefined within the social context and language of a society and the process by which this happens is dialogue among persons with divergent ideas on the subject. In fact, the entire book of Isaiah focuses on defining righteousness and putting the definition into action.
Jesus came to his way of understanding first through dialogue in the temple, and then through dialogue with people he met along the way. He took time in the desert to think it all through. He taught what he learned in this way.
We examine ancient texts in the Bible translated into our modern language by persons who have studied history and archeology, theology and languages. They have done so with the goal of making this ancient wisdom understandable to us. Yet, we struggle to understand.
I had a teacher named John who said, “trust the process.” He was talking about how change and growth come about through dialogue among persons which considers both information and emotion.
For example, a mother and teenage son were in conflict about the son’s changing need for privacy. John asked each to describe the problem as they saw it, then to notice the feelings they had as they were talking. This led to development of a very simple solution that both mother and son thought would work well. The next time they met with John, they said it worked just as they had hoped.
We as people of God are part of a conversation that has been going on for millennia. It didn’t start with Isaiah, and it didn’t end with Jesus. We gather to participate in the conversation, and we will not end it. This discussion among ourselves and with God will continue long after we are gone.
We need to trust that the interactions among us will be fruitful. Even after tearing up the garden in Isaiah we figured the land would still be productive. Remember the blackberries?
We need to keep at it even when we can’t see harvestable fruit this season. God didn’t abandon the people of Jerusalem and didn’t abandon the people around Christ and God won’t abandon us.
The prophets interpreted calamity as God punishing his people in order to teach them. A lot of people today think that way, too.
I think the calamities we experience are just what happens under certain circumstances. We don’t have control of all circumstances and cannot be responsible for them.
God set things in motion and put us in the middle to live just as the animals and plants around us are here to live. Life is the gift and difficulties become our teachers when we take the time to notice the information within the difficulty and our feelings about it.
When we talk these things over with others, we improve our chance of developing an accurate picture. When we shut people out who are sharing the difficulty, or persons struggling with a different problem, we weaken our learning.
We need to listen to each other. We need to examine the nature of the problem with all intellectual tools available to us. In this way, our wisdom may look different from that of a previous or a next generation. It is, nevertheless, wisdom and it can guide us into righteous behavior. We need to trust this process and understand the problem is a gift as much as the solution is a gift.
*Newsom, Carol A., Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley Ed., Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Rev. and updated, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, K Y, 1992, 1998, 2012.
|(Written for a community memorial service>)
Do you remember the old Yellow Pages Ad? “Let your fingers do the walking.” The internet has given a whole new meaning to “walking fingers.” Recently I had a conversation with a friend about buying shoes online. We live in an area where odd sizes are unavailable locally, so I order three pair, try them on, keep the pair that fits best and return the others. I notice that a lot of people wear the same brand that I wear, which I like because they are made in my state. However, no one would be able to identify me by my shoes.
After the massacre at Uvalde, Texas, a child was so damaged by the shots to her body by an AR15 gun that she could be identified only by her shoes. Even when we don’t remember her name, we remember her shoes, green because she was a ten-year-old environmentalist. We don’t talk about the shooter’s clothing. We don’t talk about his values. We talk about his gun and what he did with it. We talk about him as if he were not a person. We grieve the victims, but not the shooter.
We who were not there know about the event, have feelings about it, but don’t feel a part of it. It is as if our fingers are walking through endless words that float in cyberspace. We don’t need shoes for this. There is no ground under our feet. We have ordered the story and received it written in a number of different ways. We pick the version that fits our perspective and ignore the rest. This privilege belongs only to those persons not present for the event. Had our hearts been ripped from our bodies, had our spirits been perforated by rapidly fired bullets, that version would be unavoidable to us.
What, then, do we need? How do we determine what we need? Do we need to understand what really happened, or do we need a story about it that fits our preconceived understanding of events? Do we need to go through such a thing ourselves in order to understand? What will make us value shooters before they acquire a gun? What do we need in preparation for loving the shooter as we love the victims? How can we ever understand the dynamics of the situation without empathy for everyone involved: the children, the teachers, the police, the shooter, those who love these people and those who don’t?
We are painting shoes green and hanging them in the sun, in public in an attempt to connect with the event. We want to remember, to overcome the strong desire to forget. We want to learn what to do next. We want to do what is right in our community. We pray for our spirits to connect with the tattered and begin the work of mending as our spirits become more whole each time we engage in healing while walking with others toward peace.
|What he said: Black women in New York City have more abortions than any other group in the USA.
What she said: They love their children.
What she didn’t say: Why would they bring a child into a world filled with people like you?
What she said: The largest number of abortions in the country is middle aged women who have raised their families and feel unready or unable to parent again. When did you last hear of a “change of life baby?”
What he said: I need to not discuss this stuff.
What she didn’t say: I need to find another broker.