Writing, Creativity, and Meditation: I’m in a Yogi State of Mind

When I was in my 20’s, a friend—I’ll call him Anthony—gave me a book called Be Here Now, by the Western-born spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. I was eager to dive into it because Anthony was totally gaga over the “amazing” concepts contained therein . . . um, none of which I’d been able to put a finger on, because I hadn’t been able to pin Anthony down to my satisfaction. 

So the book would be my way into Anthony’s head was what I thought, because the title meant nothing—it held no mystery or cachet for me (although Anthony did)—because where else could or would I be except where I was?

So in I went, leafing through the book before actually reading, what I always do with new books—and my heart sank looking at a drawing I didn’t get, which mirrored a man I didn’t get (Anthony, who, in the end, I shouldn’t have gotten).

But now here I am, many, many years later, with my own book out—a novel entitled The Angry Woman Suite—and I get “be here now.” I get it big-time, because “be here now” got me from “back then,” when I was a mess, to, well . . . here and now, where I like who I am.   

Yet, why, someone recently asked, has it just come up again? Why are you talking about it so much now?

First, it didn’t just. But I haven’t written about “be here now” much until now, because, for me, it feels a little like talking or writing about breathing—which could make me sound a little too much like Anthony lecturing on the right way to breathe. 

But the truth is, “be here now” never actually went away, because big truths never do. 

After Anthony, life eventually took me from being a scatterbrained, impulsive, unhappy, immature and romantic compulsive idealist (and those were my good traits) with a big ol’ stirring spoon in a drama cauldron the size of New Jersey to a relatively centered—and, according to others and I’m not going to quibble—calm, and mostly content (the three C’s) woman who learned to “be still.” To listen to the quiet (yes, that does mean turning off the cell, the music, the car radio, and the TV).  

And that, as it turned out, became my path: quiet. Not Anthony.  

But I didn’t even know I loved quiet so much until I forced myself to finish my first book after Anthony broke my heart (and I say forced, because as any novelist will tell you, it is extremely easy to turn away from finishing a book). But, come to find out, writing is a lot like meditation.

In fact, writing is meditation.

Just as it takes practice and focus and quiet to meditate, it takes focus and quiet to write. But here’s the B-I-G clincher:

Creating something from nothing, becoming fully absorbed in its creation, even separating from time and place during, causes us to secrete dopamine, a lovely fulfilling hormone that stills the “hysterical” hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.

According to Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press), “. . . research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and, conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.”

“Steer our brains”? Oh, boy. Who knew? Why isn’t this stuff being packaged and marketed?

And who needs a drama cauldron that invariably leaves its stirrer exhausted, unfulfilled, and unhappy, when real joyfulness is creativity—“be here now”—or, put another way, “mindfulness”—and why couldn’t Anthony just have said that?

Mindfulness is engrossing, beautiful, and ever-changing—and it’s habit-forming, so that after a while we even notice that the desire for creating becomes stronger (and the books and blog posts get finished).  

And another plus is that with practice, quiet, and continual creating, we become able to tune into the “here and now” even when not actively creating.     

On the other side (the dark side *smile*), my just-released novel, The Angry Woman Suite, a Kirkus Critics’ Pick, with enough drama in it to fill ten cauldrons, is available from Amazon.com in quality softcover, or from the Kindle store, and also via the Barnes and Noble website.   

The Angry Woman Suite, about a celebrity double murder in Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s, and the effects on three generations of two families, has also been nominated for a Global Ebook Award.  

Thanks for stopping by, and here’s to peace and quiet in a compulsive, noisy world. How do you “be here now”?

        

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Dog to Writer: Life Isn’t a List

Baby and LeeBaby Rae, my Australian cattle dog, is talking to me.

How do I know? She’s bringing me things, all sorts of things: dog-speak for, Hey, down here!  So far, she’s deposited a muddy ball in my lap, a sock from the laundry room, and remnants of the newspaper front page.

I get it: she has a valid point. I’ve been “missing in action” again, my head firmly up—watch it—in the air. Lost in the ether. Inside myself. Not part of the world.

I’ve been gazing at a computer screen the better part of a weekend, tying up loose ends and marketing stuff re my novel’s release (The Angry Woman Suite) at the end of this month; getting taxes out of the way, and trouble-shooting my husband’s long term care insurance reimbursements, grrrr (note: this is how insurance actually works: you pay the provider—much the same as you pay premiums before you’re ever eligible for benefits, on time—and then the insurance company gets around to reimbursing you at their leisure).

Leisure being the operative word.

But back to the point: Baby and I have a “contract.”

When I brought Baby across the border to the U.S., I vowed never to let harm come to her if I could help it; and to feed her, exercise her, give her rawhide treats, groom her, take her to the “puppy doctor,” throw balls for her to fetch, and sit with her in the sun, preferably for hours on end. And to sing “How Much is That Doggy in the Window?” before she falls asleep at night (don’t ask).

For her part, she shows up.

See how uncomplicated dogs keep things?

But this is what Baby keeps reminding me: Love isn’t a list. And neither is life.

Instead, it’s about showing up, sharing food, and not biting others. Pretty simple.

And I know this, but I sometimes forget. That’s why we need dogs, who teach by example, and so of course they never forget the lesson. And the lesson is that somewhere in the middle of anything is the balance for everything. And balance, not a list with everything on it crossed off, is the goal, the optimum—the whole point of sucking air.

Not that I can leave my lists behind. Or doing. You might as well ask me to make my tall self shorter.

But I can keep aiming for balance.

The muddy ball is back in my lap. And we all know where this is going.

I’m closing down the computer. Baby’s an excellent teacher: we’re going outside.

We’re going to be instead of do.

Being and Doing

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

Before I pick up where I left off (about my mystery man, Lazarus, and publishing my book), I just have to share something that’s struck me funny. Publishers Lunch Deluxe is a weekly (or whenever they feel like it) report on all things happening in traditional publishing (like what publisher bought what book, and for how much, and which pubs and/or literary agencies are merging or quitting (aka running for their lives).

Okay, so here’s a direct quote from their November 9th bulletin: Amazon announced three more authors who have each sold a million Kindle ebooks or more, but we’re really not going to report on these releases any more.”

Serious? You’re really not going to report on “these releases” anymore? Here’s what I hear: “You Amazon people and this so-called new age of publishing (read: indie, who are over-populating the Kindle play list) are major pissing us off, so we’re not going to play with you again, ever. So there.”

Moving on . . . the three newest authors to join the Kindle Million Club are David Baldacci, Amanda Hocking (indie–you go, girl), and Stephanie Meyer. 

And now back to me. *smile* And Lazarus Bening (his spy name). But, first, a question:

How many of us, do you think, are doing/being what we pictured ourselves doing/being when we were, say, 17? Or 21?

I knew Lazarus Bening while I was still in high school. He was four years older, in college. He wanted to become a commercial pilot—he didn’t. He became a teacher instead (what I’d believed I’d end up doing, though I was never excited at the prospect). Because I was so unmotivated by the career choice picked by my parents, I became more of a “fritterer” than a serious college student, trying on all sorts of mindsets and people, and having way more fun than was legal. Along the way, Lazarus and I parted.   

Come to find out, Lazarus began writing. Essays and short stories at first, in-between teaching classes. He published a novel. He published two more. Fiction for men. He gained a following (while I was still frittering), all unbeknownst to me.

And then we met again after an embarrassingly long time, at a signing for his latest novel that my writer cohort-friend, Josh, dragged me to. And the first stupid thing I said to Lazarus was:

“I didn’t know you were a writer.”

He laughed a little (very little).

And the second stupid thing I said was (because this event was about his book, not mine, duh): “I have a book too!”

I explained about my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, and how my agent had left the book business for a new career in finance, and how I was now thisclose to going indie.

Lazarus’ expression had turned—quizzical, maybe? I couldn’t read him. He said, “I have two words for you.”

Uh-oh. Was he still that ticked over what had happened between us a thousand years ago?

I swallowed hard. I was a “grownup” now—I could take what was coming (and what, truth be told, I probably deserved). But I moved in a little closer to Josh anyway.  

“Telemachus Press,” Lazarus said.

“Excuse me?”

“Telemachus Press. Best there is.”

And then, “Steve Jackson’s the guy you want to talk to—a good guy; he’ll steer you straight. He’ll get your novel out there, and it’ll be done right; a class act.”

And that, my friends, between my writer friend Josh, and my computer guy, and old flame Lazarus is the more or less true story of how I came to know Steve Jackson at Telemachus Press. Steve Jackson is truly Mr. Wonderful. Every phone call and email is responded to quickly and thoroughly—and Steve makes me laugh. A BIG plus-plus.

Two big thumbs-up for Telemachus Press.    

The Angry Woman Suite will be out in a couple of months—I think. Maybe longer. Depends on how the editing goes—I think. And how the cover goes. (I’m picturing a black and white cover, because The Angry Woman Suite is largely a period piece, taking place between 1915 and 1968.) An amazing review of The Angry Woman Suite goes public on the Kirkus Reviews website 12/15/11, but you can read it here— it’s a link in the right column. 

And Lazarus?

Well, like it or not, first loves leave lasting marks on us. Maybe not big fat scars; maybe only scratches—but, whichever, we’re changed forever.    

But this is what grownups do when assessing our scars and scratches: we notice the parts we played, or didn’t, in all our relationships. We forgive others and ourselves, and we heal. We keep evolving—otherwise, the point would be??–and we stay open.

We make the positives a part of us, and store the negatives for future reference.

Reference for—what, you ask?     

Whatever comes along next—and, well, in this case, you’ve got to know that every player in my life story, and every take-away, is going to end up in a book someday (or a post)—or maybe already has. *smile*

Thanks for coming by! More later in the week. . . .     

 

The Angry Woman Suite Comes In From The Cold

Happy Halloween! And thanks so much to all of you who sent encouraging emails and/or left comments at my Oct. 27th post.  

For those checking in with me for the first time, my back story is that I’ve written a historical-commercial novel called The Angry Woman Suite (about a double murder in the early 1900’s, in Pennsylvania, and subsequent fallout on two generations). The novel, both mystery and love story, garnered very good reviews, and a literary agent.

But back stories, like life, never have straight trajectories, and this one is no exception. In my case, my agent left the publishing business (I’d nothing to do with it, I swear! I’m not that powerful!) . . .

. . . though e-readers are. . . .  

And so my new paradigm became a sudden and succinct bottom line of no agent = no contract. The Angry Woman Suite went from promising, front and center, to Nowhere Land, out in the cold—and took me with it.

What to do next? Well, after some impressive dithering and waffling on my part, I met two men whom I’ve introduced via previous posts: potty-mouthed Josh, who looks a little like Ashton Kutcher on a bad day, with glasses (which is still an excellent look). Josh is a successful non-fiction writer who told me to get off the dime (and with the program, with digital publishing and a blog).

The other man is Tim, who’s a much shorter, much younger version of Obama (though I’d bet Baby Rae’s next chicken treat Tim’s never seen the inside of a business suit). Tim’s a rumpled genius. A kind, rumpled genius who put my blog together (and never once laughed or snickered, at least so I could hear, at my lack of computer skills).  

And now here I am—and if someone had told me a year ago I’d be a blogger, I’d have sniggered and said odds are I’ll strip to my skivvies and run half-naked through Balboa Park first—and we all know that’s never going to happen.  

Put another way, never say never.

My last post ended with Parts 1 and 2 of scary things to try before I die, so coming up next, naturally, would be Part 3 of what I now call The Angry Woman Suite Project—as in Manhattan minus the bomb stuff.

I pretty much thought I’d get at least ten blog posts out of the arts of dithering, waffling, whining and attendant nuances before moving forward with Part 3, which was to name who will format my baby (The Angry Woman Suite) and put it out there—but here’s what’s happened: another never.  

I met a third man. Actually, I met two more men. One I can’t talk about—yet. Mystery man.

(Hint: I knew him a long time ago, in school, and could never have predicted what he’s become since, or how it could affect the “project.)    

The other is Steve Jackson (aka Mr. Wonderful, and he is). Steve is the voice for Telemachus Press. I’ll be writing more about Steve and Telemachus as we go along, but for now my headline in the sky reads:

The Angry Woman Suite is coming in from the cold.  

So, Part 3 of the “project” has been implemented—already! I have a publisher, and I’m very excited at the prospect of working with Telemachus.

Know what’s odd? My entire writing life has been mostly shadowed (in a good way) by women; i.e., my mother, teachers, my critique group, my agent, my editor. But have you noticed that all the new people in my “project” story are men? Four—count ’em—four. And I’m just getting started.  

Poor me. *smile*     

Thought for the day, courtesy of Kristin Lamb:

“Learn to have a healthy relationship with failure . . . if we aren’t failing, we’re not doing anything interesting.”

Next post will be more on digital publishing and coming in from the cold; mystery men, and Telemachus Press.   

I post on Mondays and Thursdays, and sometimes more, but sometimes less. “See” you next time, and be good to yourselves.

Have fun tonight!

“Legacy’s Excruciating Embrace”

So picking up from where I left off (which was my post of Oct. 24th), what does a girl (that would be me) with a historical/commercial novel titled The Angry Woman Suite, a brilliant Kirkus review re same, and a missing literary agent do next?

Note: Not that my agent making a career switch was a bad thing—for her. It actually made perfect sense, considering the sucky precariousness of traditional publishing these days. The better question might’ve been, “What? Are you still here?”

Um, before she wasn’t, that is.

To keep the record straight, my agent was a nice person who totally went to bat for The Angry Woman Suite—and I wish her every success in her new career choice.

Okay, now back to me. *smile*

I left off (my last post) talking about “Josh,” the potty-mouthed non-fiction writer who told me in so many unprintable words to get my butt in gear and go digital and promote my novel via social media (at which point I went cold with fear; it’s that word promote). 

But I’d bought myself some time, I thought (so I wouldn’t have to make decisions/take a plunge/move ahead/whatever; all that hard stuff), by taking The Angry Woman Suite to Kirkus Reviews. I told Josh that if my review came in even halfway positive, I’d proudly go digital and start a blog and buy our next lunch together.  

Seemed a safe enough thing to say.

Oh, but there’s this thing about “safe” I’m not too crazy about. 

Safe is boring. 

More than that, safe is probably not what life’s supposed to be about (and I’m not talking the kind of safe from something truly dangerous). I’m talking the comfort zone kind of “safe,” where we hide, get lazy, or give up. Where we don’t apply ourselves, or test ourselves, and we make excuses for why we didn’t follow through on something we’ve told ourselves and the world we really want. “No time” is the #1 excuse, followed by “I don’t know where to start.”

I often wonder: Is that what we want to be thinking at the end of life; that we had no time? Serious? Or that we didn’t know where to start living? Really?

But if we’re still here, we have time. 

So, it’s not about “no time.” It’s about choices–about choosing priorities. 

Enough said. I’m nobody’s life coach. Are you kidding? A shy girl?  

But I do know I feel pretty ick about myself when I don’t do something just because I’ve doubted my ability. Which is when I make myself so busy that I get to tell myself I don’t have time to do the thing I’m afraid I might fail at, or that I might look foolish doing. And, no, of course I don’t know I’m rationalizing at the time. I’m very good at justifying myself—until I’m not.

And then it’s a clear call to arms.

So, looking back and moving on: 

Step #1 of The Plan: I’d sent The Angry Woman Suite to Kirkus—and then happily compartmentalized that move, because it was a 4-6 week turnaround. There was nothing more to add to Step #1: it was out of my hands. Next.     

(For those who don’t know, Kirkus Reviews has been around since the 1930’s. As a big-time reader, I’ve always looked for books with a good Kirkus one-liner across the top of a cover, assured I’d get an excellent read—they’ve never let me down.)

Step #2 of The Plan: I started a blog while “forgetting” about the Kirkus review outcome. 

Yep—because of the call to arms thing.

I’d been a blog reader for some time, of writers mostly, and agents, and anything to do with publishing—so blogs weren’t unknown to me. Making one was.  

I met a man I’ll call Tim, who came up with a design for the multi-contributor format I had in mind, for a blog to be titled Rooms of Our Own (inspired by the famous Virginia Woolf quote). The “rooms”—actually, the way Tim put the site together, they are separate blogs within a “web,” so to speak—are occupied by photographer Geri Wilson, and writer Shelley Marquez, and me.        

And what I’d been afraid might be a drag or a flop or a timewaste . . .

. . . has morphed into amazing fun. Yes, it does take time to write blog posts, and sometimes I wonder where I’ll find the time to write anything, in-between a fulltime job and taking care of a very ill husband and a house and writing another book—but when something is challenging in a fun way, how hard is it, really, to make it (instead of, say, dusting) a priority?

Plus, how cool is it to disregard a million and one excuses?  

Very cool (and I hired someone for the dusting, because it’s not fulfilling to me—this is only about me—best money spent, ever) . . . now the surprise:

I’d had a horrible day. (A horrible day for me is when my sick husband has not had a good day.) It was a Sunday, 9 pm, and I was almost too tired to check my email (that’s tired).

But the next day was a work day—I work in the medical field—and I wanted to make sure there were no weekend emergencies to follow up on first thing Monday morning.

There weren’t—but there was an email from Kirkus, with attachment. Oh, crap. No, double crap. I was so not ready; it could wait till tomorrow–it didn’t feel safe.    

That word again. (I’ve come to realize that “not safe” means anything out of my control.)       

Kirkus reviews are always structured the same way: three paragraphs, and the last paragraph is the zinger: the one that says it all. The “summer-upper.” The maker or the breaker.

How much worse could my day get? I thought. Plus, if I opened the attachment, I wouldn’t feel like such a dipwad, being afraid to open my own mail—it would be over and done. I’d start the next day with a clean slate.   

I opened the attachment.

I went straight for the third paragraph.

It read:      

“A superb debut that exposes the consequences of the choices we make and legacy’s sometimes excruciating embrace.”

Yowsa—and, geez, How Very Ironically Appropriate.  

To be continued . . . .

Next up, Part 3 of The Plan: the search for a digital publisher, what all is entailed (a lot)—and a decision.

Thank you so much for coming by; please come back, and comments are very appreciated. I post on Mondays and Thursdays or thereabouts; and sometimes more, but sometimes less.

Writing With A Blue Dog

Thommo is a blue Australian Cattle Dog with a ...
Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes it’s in the act of saving something else that we save ourselves.

Which I was newly reminded of this morning when Baby Rae nuzzled me awake. Baby Rae—or just plain Baby—is the Australian cattle dog I rescued when she was a sick, battered puppy—oh, and bald except for a dark Mohawk that started strong at the top of her little head and ran out of gas just before segueing into a tail that had been too crudely and recently halved.

Her skin, where it wasn’t an open wound, was tough to the touch but wrinkled like crumpled paper. Her eyelids were matted shut, blinding her: she was a study in absolute misery—and was being kicked around the Tecate, Mexico plaza by a federale when, without thinking, I’d taken off my sweater, intercepted a kick, and hustled the dog away, all eight pounds of puppy-misery swaddled in wool.  

But then I couldn’t hold onto what I’d just saved; she was too covered with bleeding sores and cuts. I couldn’t reassure her with my hands. She was too damaged. We couldn’t bond.

To complicate matters . . .

I picked the puppy up from the emergency animal clinic, which had been my first stop back on the US side of the border, and my two other dogs disliked her at first sniff (sick dogs are instinctively shunned by a pack, so my sick one would have to be carefully watched), and my husband, and my veterinarian, had looked at me as if I’d just sprouted a second head, for bringing home this thing.

I am not naturally impulsive. I had no non-emotional explanation for sneaking Baby Rae across the border.        

Heart sinking, I gazed at the tiny, wrinkled, wounded creature sleeping in the basket I’d made up for her and thought, Well, I can’t love her, she’s unlovable, but I can’t take her back, there’s no return policy. Second thought was, I’m just gonna have to suck this one up. Third thought was, this is what I get. . . .   

BC, or before crises, the shape of my life was determined by a craft—writing—and my discipline, exercise, and the joy of family, friends, and dogs. I’d say I felt a semblance of inner harmony back then—but, oh, how easy it is to be at peace when nothing is asked, nothing is tested.   

But then the “tests” rolled into town: cancer hit my family, then deaths, and I lost friends, even certainty. I couldn’t wrap my head around it all.  

At the time I found Baby (or she found me), my family was still recovering from a terrible fissure caused by my parents’ long illnesses. I was sad; a to-the-bone kind of sad. I’d stopped exercising, and begun eating and drinking junk, and as a result was tired all the time and not the least bit hopeful. I rarely wrote. I wasn’t as social. I was adrift on an island of misery—and the island was mine, all mine. An “investment” in carefully nurtured hopelessness, so of course I didn’t care to give it up. 

And then came Baby Rae. A horribly beat-up, wrinkled mess rocking my island, causing me to stretch awake and step outside myself. Dang—how utterly inconvenient.

Surprisingly, life took on a certain, steady rhythm.   

Though, for the longest time, I only picked Baby up in a towel or wore gloves. Her Mohawk began to grow, and she graduated from the basket at the foot of my bed to a bassinet at the side of it. She followed me everywhere. I so much as lifted an eyebrow and she was front and center, studying me for clues, for expectations (how could she have known I had none?). If I closed a door behind me, she was there waiting and smiling when I opened it again (and, yes, cattle dogs not only dance–see my Sept. 20th post–but they smile too).

Her wrinkles filled in, and her sores smoothed into thin white lines. She began coaxing me to play, bowing and nipping at my heels. Actually, being a natural-born herder, she was trying to herd me, and that’s what got quickly nipped. One day it occurred to me that she was actually happy, and that she’d not only begun a real healing, but was well into it, miles ahead of me—and that’s when something stirred in me, finally: a humongous admiration for Baby, for where she’d come from and where she was now, and pride, and even a small, warm burst of hope, because if Baby Rae could survive immense cruelty and pain and still be so dang happy, there had to be hope for me, too. For the first time in a long while, if even just a second, I felt a smidge of the old inner harmony, and I couldn’t help thinking of the adage, “When you give another being joy, there is the peace.”

Eddie Murphy eyes—and a blue coat is black hairs distributed fairly evenly through white . . .    

On a morning shortly after this, I bent over and touched Baby. Really touched her. I caressed her and crooned love words. I’d finally fallen for her. At almost 35 pounds, she was nearly an adult. Her coat had grown in, masking her scarred flesh. Who could’ve known she’d be blue? I marveled, thinking of the miserable bald puppy she’d been not so long ago. A beautiful midnight-blue. I ran my gloveless hands along her well-muscled body, relishing the thickness of her glossy blue fur. She turned just her head and looked back at me—and her eyes are huge and dark, ringed by thick hoops of white sclera. I call them Eddie Murphy eyes—and they are soft. It was a pure, overwhelming, uncomplicated love they conveyed.

I heard my own soft intake of breath.

Because it was at the precise moment of this truth, of understanding that Baby’s healing had begun the very second I’d picked her up in Mexico, that something inside me loosened further, quite literally working its way free of me—and then, like that, the heaviness was gone. Gone. I stood up, shoulders and back straight, feeling strong again, and my breathing felt easy, each breath satin-smooth.   

I looked back down at Baby and smiled, and her skewed tail thumped the floor a million miles a minute, because–and I could read her by then–she knew I’d finally gotten the message that was at the core of her being, the sole reason for her sudden appearance in my life that day in Mexico: It’s the second that counts, stupid. Stay with the seconds.   

And then there was that grin again.

I take another giant step outside myself and I see us:

I see Baby pass her contagious joy off to my strong, reinvigorated self and I see myself running with it, like I ran when I first grabbed her in Mexico, but this time it’s a sweet run, made sweeter by what came before it—the pain, the sadness, the giving up—before our sudden, unexpected save.

Then the win: the realization that in the process of saving Baby, she’d saved me by taking me out of my pain and into hers—and then she’d taught me how to live well again, joyfully, in the now, by example.     

It’s eleven years later. I’m still structured, which is my basic nature, but nowhere near as wary of spontaneity. I’ve been back to writing for some time. My novel, The Angry Woman Suite, will soon see light of day (it got a great review from Kirkus Reviews, “World’s Toughest Book Critics,” which is a link on this blog). 

Baby Rae—resting at my feet while I wrote this—is just up and at my side, rubbing her forehead against my arm. It is time for bed, she is telling me; for closing another day of writing with a blue dog who dances and smiles, and still, despite aches and pains, those inevitable harbingers of advancing age, finds joy in every second of our life together.

And I’m reminded yet again: every being has purpose and everything is connected. I feel Baby’s peace—it is mine, too.