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Posts Tagged ‘Friends’

Sitting on the couch watching telly, M turned to and very casually asked, “So, what do you want for your birthday then?”  It was Wednesday of last week, and my birthday — a very Significant Birthday — was only a few days away.  The sound of the telly faded from my consciousness abruptly as I looked at him, dumbfounded.

M has not had a good track record these past few years when it comes to my birthday.  He started out just great a decade ago, when love was fresh and the stakes were high, but these days… Well, I haven’t had a birthday or Christmas present from him for about three years running now, except for one book that he grabbed at the grocery store on Christmas Eve.  And not wanting to continue this trend, I have been reminding him of the Significant Birthday almost every day for the last four months.  So it really did stop me cold when he asked his question.

“Youuuu… ummmm…”  Paused, dumbstruck again, and then found my words, “You haven’t bought me a gift yet?!?”  It was said with calm control, but with a rising irritation he could hear plainly.

He decided to play with fire.  “When have I had time to go shopping for a gift?!?”  It’s true that he works practically every hour God sends, but if he thought that kind of logic was going to help his cause in any way, then he clearly did not understand what he was walking into.

I will spare you the full transcript, but suffice to say I flew almost instantly into a full-blown rage, and proceeded to tear strips off him in a manner that he never saw coming.  Honestly!  When did he have time?!?  He’d had the past four months that I’d been reminding him every other day!  No, he’d had the past YEAR, because — conveniently enough — my birthday rolls round with stunning predictability.  I’d even made a wishlist for him and emailed it to him, as well as my sister and my mother.

He made more feeble attempts, pointing out that he barely knows how to use the computer, let alone how to buy off a wishlist…  and I blasted back that he could have asked my sister, my mother, or even ME to walk him through it.  He made noises about me maybe helping him now…  and I nearly spat that it was too late — most everything on my list was obscure enough to need to be back-ordered, almost nothing could be bought now, with my birthday only a few days away.  He’d blown it!  He’d blown it AGAIN!  And that realisation motivated me to really rip into him in earnest, at full volume and with hands waving wildly, and — I’m quite sure — steam blasting out of my ears.

There was no stopping me and he didn’t fight it.  He sat quietly and let me go on and on and on.  And then, at a moment when I paused to draw breath, he said quietly — so quietly I barely noticed he’d spoken — “Could we…  could we just forget this happened?”

I stopped at that.  This is what psychologists call the “rescue moment” — he was trying to rescue this, to claw it back before it really went too far.  He was presenting me with a fork in the road and I could choose which way to go: to follow his lead and rescue this, or to carry on tearing mercilessly into my husband’s psyche.  I thought about it for a moment, and the sensible part of me decided to stop now, to go with the rescue.

But then, just as I opened my mouth to say something mature and calm, I realised what was about to happen.  I would forgive and forget this ever happened, he would rush out the next day and try to buy something… something…  some little trinket or maybe the easiest thing on the wishlist or, heck, a book from the grocery store again…  And on my birthday I’d stick by the bargain and say, ooooh thank you, thank you, and give him a kiss…  And the whole time — the whole stinking time — I’d know that, actually,  he’d forgotten.  Actually, he’d forgotten my birthday again.  So there was no “forgetting this had happened”. It couldn’t be done — the cat was out of the bag, the truth was told:  he  had  forgotten  my  birthday  again, even though this was an Important Birthday, even though I’d been reminding him, even though I’ve been a GOOD WIFE, DAMMIT!  He hadn’t cared enough about me to make as much paltry effort as was needed to just remember my birthday long enough to order a present off a wishlist.  And now I knew it, and there was no “forgetting” that.

And so when I opened my mouth, instead of going with the rescue moment, I let all of that fury and frustration  fall out instead — very loudly and for a very long time.  And when I was done, I turned back to the telly and just sat staring in its general direction and so angry my stomach ached.

M let out a little groan and I looked at him.  His face was twisted, his jaw clenched at an odd angle, and he was looking at the floor.  Then a glance at me.  And then, “No… wait.”  A pause, a deep slow inhale, and then very quickly, all in one breath: “Look, something’s been done.  It’s… it’s been taken care of.”  And then his eyes back to the floor, and an uncomfortable silence.

Suddenly I understood.  He’d got me a gift.  He’d remembered my birthday — not forgotten me at all.  And he’d just been winding me up and it went too far and he’d not known how to pull it back.  But he hadn’t forgotten me at all.

And it was only then that I felt the full strength of how hurt I’d been by his question.  The feeling took me completely by surprise, and churned violently in my stomach, and mixed with the relief and the regret that were washing over me like waves.  I felt suddenly nauseated.  And all that emotion rose up from my gut so fast that I couldn’t contain it — up through my chest and spilled out across my face, mouth open and pulled tight, eyes closed.  And I managed a soft  “oh no!” before it all escaped from me with a sound a little like belch, and I burst into sobs that racked my whole body and revealed, there for him to see, just how much the being forgotten has hurt these past few years.

“Oh no,” he repeated back, so lost for words that he could only borrow my own, and then sat there, helpless beside his blubbering wife, no idea what to do with her.  This what never what he’d intended — he’d only been taking the mick — and now he wasn’t quite sure how it had gone so far.  He’d never meant to hurt me.  He put his arm around me and pulled me in.  I needed that desperately, but there was no outward sign that it help — I couldn’t stop crying.  He let me go, except for one hand that he held, and stared at the floor.  Eventually, I calmed myself down.  We sat for a while, both a bit shell-shocked, and neither of us knowing what to say.

—————————————————

My birthday was absolutely wonderful.  There were balloons and singing and three cakes and my family all around me.  My children presented me with hand-made gifts.    It was not a big celebration, but it was exactly what I’d hoped for.

Led by M into the next room, I spotted a bouquet of balloons first and then, underneath it, a huge box wrapped in flowered paper.  I knew immediately — there was only one thing that would be in a box so big — and the realisation made my lip quiver.  I tore the wrapping off and spotted that I was right.  “Oh sweetheart, look!” my mother exclaimed to my father, “She’s crying!”,  and her announcement embarrassed me sufficiently to stop the tears before they really started.  But the emotion was the same, and I was overwhelmed.  “Something’s been done,” he’d said and, indeed, something had.  It was the Lendrum spinning wheel I’ve been coveting for a year; the wheel with an 18-month waiting list, and my mother had had to ring a dozen places before she found one in stock; the wheel we couldn’t afford.  I pulled to from the box, put it together there and then, treadled and felt the silky movement of the mechanism, wished for fiber and spun air instead.  Over the moon!  Over the bloody chuffing moon and not knowing how to really tell them all properly and just hoping they could tell by the trance I was in.

Later, after my family had gone back into the kitchen to pick at the leftovers and I was still sat treadling, M came in and knelt next to me.  “Do you like it?”

“Yes!”, with shock and incredulity plain in my voice, feet still treadling, hands spinning air.

“The thing is…  we, um…”  He took my hands.  “I have to pay my portion of it.  Ummm…  I owe your mum.  I don’t really know where that’s going to come from.”  He had to tell me, because I handle the finances and, when money has to be found, I am the one who finds it.

But I didn’t mind, because he hadn’t forgotten me.  He’d got me my heart’s desire, taken that plunge even when he didn’t know how he’d pay for it.  He could have been sensible and bought a book from the list, but he hadn’t.   He’d bought me what he knew I really wanted because he loves me, and love is not sensible.  It was never about the gift — it was about being remembered.

And that was what I’d needed — what I’d been needing for a long time.  And now, to his surprise, I could offer back a little of what he needed.  “I have something we can put toward it, ” I said, as he looked up with surprise.  “About half of it.”  Because I’d gone to my knitting group earlier in the week and cards had suddenly appeared, and some of those cards contained money from new friends who had read my previous post and had taken the opportunity to act like old friends.  “It’s for your Lendrum fund,” one had said, and I nearly cried there too, stunned by their generosity.

There were loud voices from the kitchen and then laughter, and I felt a warmth rush over me.  There is much in our lives that we have to worry about but, at that moment, none of it was touching me.  I had my family gathered around me, a husband who (secretly) loves me, and — after a long time — I have some friends.

And those things alone were gift enough.  But then, there was also the brand new Lendrum, whirring away softly at my feet.

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I’ve come to an uncomfortable conclusion.  It turns out that… well… I’m quite boring.  I always had some suspicions  of this but I’d had enough social success to be able to brush those concerns under a convenient nearby carpet.  But just lately, that’s not worked and I’ve got to admit what I’m quickly realising to be true: I’m just not that interesting to talk to.

The problem starts with the fact that I am naturally very introverted.  And while I’m perfectly fine with old friends and people I’ve gotten comfortable with, I become only more introverted when I am in social situations which are new or unfamiliar — and that’s pretty much what they all are after you’ve just up and moved to another country.  So, being outgoing and interesting under those circumstances was always going to be a challenge for me, but… well, I thought I could get past that.  After all, I’ve moved before.  Hell, I’ve moved countries before!

Y’know, I used to have interesting things to talk about.  I used to know what’s going on in the world, have opinions, have angles on stuff.  Now… I’m a stay-at-home mum to two kids, one with allergies that have severely shrunk our social options, and I spend most of my week cleaning messes, keeping the household running, and interacting with only two other adults — one of whom is so exhausted at the end of the day that he’s often asleep within 30 minutes of finishing dinner.

And so, when I finally break free and get the opportunity to out for a while in the company of Other People, I  suddenly find that I just don’t have that much of interest to talk about.  My daughters dominate my conversation in much the same way they dominate my life, and I find myself going on and on about them regardless of whether my listeners are likely to be interested.  And then, without realising it, I find I’ve turned the conversation to the allergies because… well, they overshadow my day-t0-day  life so much that it’s as if my mind can’t shake free from them even for a few minutes.  Is the other person interested in the difficulties of avoiding our laundry list of allergens?  Probably not at all, but still I can’t seem to stop myself, even as it begins to dawn on me that I’m boring my listeners.

And so I abruptly try to change subjects but, to my dismay, I realise the cupboard is bare.  As I stand there trying to think of something — anything — to talk about, I draw a complete blank.  I’ve nothing to offer.  Even turning the conversation toward the other person and asking questions instead — that time-honoured short cut to being a good conversationalist — can only go so far before it starts to feel a bit stalker-ish.

And then I’m done for.  I’m outta tricks.  And one of two things happens: either the conversation grinds to an uncomfortable halt and we both start looking around for someone else to slink away to or… or…  I suddenly try to save the situation by overcompensating and going back to my standard subjects (the girls, allergies) and just running wild with it, talking a mile a minute, trying to fill up the air with words and words and words.  It’s not good.

One more thing: I’ve realised I’m just out of step with the whole rhythm of social conversation over here.  The rules I follow are British (specifically rural working-class British) and they just don’t work here.  What is PC there is most certainly not PC here.  What comes quite naturally out my mouth doesn’t work at all — it’s all too risqué or too straight or too lewd or too dour.  So I fall back on humour — a last ditch, gut reaction attempt to save a dying situation — and being humour with that extra u, I find to my horror that what seems hilarious to me suddenly falls completely flat.  I go home berating myself.  Why did I say that?  Why did I open my mouth? And what happened to all the stuff I used to talk about?

And when did I become so boring?!?

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I was busy working on another post about another topic, when my mother rang, absolutely bursting with excitement to tell me the news.  She had just received the invitation to the wedding of the daughter of some old family friends and, while the wedding itself was not the news, the invitation contained a surprise that had her all in a tizzy.

I have known this girl all my life — she and my mother were fellow British expats here in the US, both married to men who came over with the Brain Drain of the 1960s.  They lived only a few houses away from each other, had their babies around the same time, and became very close and dear friends.  But where my mother ended up staying in the US permanently, my “auntie” moved first to Spain, then to Belgium, before eventually returning to the UK when her daughters were in their late teens.  It was these two girls  — both US-UK dual nationals just like me, but both very much settled in their British self-identity, unlike me — with whom I compared myself most when I was really trying to understand why I was having so much trouble with my own identity.

My mother has been debating with herself for months about whether she is going to fly over for the wedding.  It’s a long way to go for a girl she probably hasn’t actually seen in years, but I know she’d love to be there.  And I know too that she is concerned about how it would make me feel, for her to jet back to the UK — which I am missing so much– while I stay here in the cold pre-Spring with the girls.  She’s even talked about springing for the tickets for all us, and I am touched that she’d consider it, but I know it’s unlikely — and probably not a good idea anyway.

The bride-to-be has lived in London for at least 12 years and her sister and parents are in the Home Counties, so we assumed the wedding would be there.  But the invitation turned that on its head…

“Have you seen your email?!?  I sent you an email.  Have you seen it?  Have you seen where the wedding is?!?  You won’t believe it!!!  You won’t BELIEVE it!!!”  I walked over to the computer and began moving the mouse while she carried on at speed, excitedly spilling the beans before I ever got to the email.

The wedding will take place no-where near London, and not in the Home Counties either.  It won’t be taking place in the town that the bride went to school in, nor where her fiancee is from.  The wedding will take place a full three hours west of London, in a tiny Somerset village which, as far as I know, they have no connection to at all …but which I know like the back of my hand.  It is a village that I drove through on tiny back-lanes every single day for years.  It is the village that M was living in when we started dating.  I know its pubs and its corner shop, I’ve attended its church and visited its fledgling art festival.  I’ve walked all its little lanes, in the sun and the rain.

And for some reason which I didn’t actually understand, that went straight through me.  I sat looking at the emailed invitation in disbelief, as my mother carried on nattering away in my ear, and in my mind’s eye I was driving those lanes again.  Down the hill into the village, past the medieval tower on the left,  over the little stone bridge that crosses a shallow river (a creek! a creek!) which swells so alarmingly each winter, then up the rise and, there, at the T-junction, sits that field which always contains a few sheep munching happily and which belongs to the farm where the wedding will take place.  Oh yes, I know it well.

“M, do you remember?  Do you remember that farm?” I asked him later. “Can you believe that’s where they’re having the wedding?”  He looked at me only half interested and wholly uncomprehendingly.

Where?”  His wife’s yapping on exasperates him as my much as my mother’s yapping on exasperates me.

“You know!  You go down the hill, into the village…” I went though it, image by mental image.  It was as clear as if I were right there.  “And then, you know the field, opposite the T-junction?”  He shrugged.  “The one that always has the sheep in it!” I said impatiently.

“Oh yeah.  I know,” he brightened as recognition crossed his face.  And then, he added,”They do weddings there,” as if that were going to be news to me and wasn’t exactly what I had been talking about anyway.

And then he went back to eating his dinner, and I went back to mine.  And as I ate, I realised I had such a knot in my stomach that I didn’t much want my food.  It took me totally by surprise, this physical reaction to such an insignificant piece of news.  And it bewildered me.

Until…  until I realised it’s because I had been there tonight.  I had been there — so close, right there.  It was all so close.  The cowslip along the lanes, the brown sheep amongst the white…  And the being there had made the actual distance suddenly so real.   I can’t go to that wedding — that wedding that’s practically in my own backyard.  I am on the other side of the world.   And thinking about people I know going to places I know so well, when they don’t belong there and I do…  that made the distance come into sudden and sharp — and painful — focus.

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I was chatting with a friend today — another mother I have met whose children are the same ages as my girls — and I was describing the way E1 breastfeeds her doll.  Now, I know that might sound strange if you’re not used to the idea, but it makes sense — little girls mother their dolls the way they see their own mothers mother them.  And I breastfeed E2, so she breastfeeds her doll.

But what makes me laugh is the absolute accuracy she brings to it.  She pulls her top up, she carefully positions her doll, holds her head gently, and then…  and then…

Living in rural England, we were surrounded by farms — never more than a mile away from a flock of sheep or a herd of cows — and after a while, their ways become part of the fabric of a person’s world, much the same as the sound of birdsong or the cycles of the seasons.  One thing that had always struck me was the very bizarre expression that every ewe takes on as soon as her lambs begin their (surprisingly violent) suckling — it always registered a strange mix of resignation, pain, boredom, and duty.  It looked so odd  to me and I never really understood it.

Until, that is, I had my own babies and began to breastfeed them.  One day, soon after E1 was born, I was nursing her — trapped in my spot on the couch, slightly pained from her still-rough sucking, and bored in that quiet room with only the tick-tock from the clock in the kitchen to entertain me — when I realised I was pulling exactly the same face as all those ewes.  That particular look has nothing to do with being a sheep, per se, and everything to do with being a mother.  And it is that same bored, pained, resigned expression that E1 pulls off with absolute perfection every time she feeds her own doll so tenderly.  She is my image, mirrored in miniature.  And it is — no, honestly — hilarious to see.

So, I was telling all this to my new friend and I said, “…and  then…  and then she gets this look on her face…  Well, you know that look that sheep always get when they are feeding their lambs?…”  And from the momentary flash of bewilderment on her face, I suddenly twigged that she didn’t.

The thing is, I have told this story probably half a dozen times before, and I have never once had to explain that look.  Everyone I knew just… knew.  Until this afternoon, I’d completely forgotten that there were people — city folk! — who wouldn’t.

Toto, we’re not in Dorset anymore…!

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And just when I was losing my faith, I received a gift from a virtual stranger.

Which makes me wonder, in a virtual world, how do we draw the line between stranger, acquaintance, and friend?  When we spend years interacting with people we’ve never met and probably never will meet — as we all do in this cyber day and age — should those people ever rightly come to mean more to us than just a convenient distraction, more than just pixels glowing on a screen?  How much affection is it prudent to feel for someone you don’t really know?  And why does walking away feel so much more difficult than just turning off the computer?  I mean, when it comes down to it, who knows if these people really even exist — they might all be just figments of our imaginations.

Until, one day, one of them suddenly jumps right out of the great cyber-void and leaps into real life, by sending you a lovely package of the tea you’ve been missing so much.

Thank you, Nichole!  I am chuffed to bits!

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Halfway though church today, M turned and whispered, “Will they be having Mass at home now?”  For a moment, I was confused — surely he hadn’t forgotten there is a time difference? — but then I realised he was right: we were at the latest morning service and, five hours ahead of us, they would be starting their Sunday evening service.  I saw it vividly in my head — I knew exactly who would be there, where they would be sitting…  In my mind’s eye, I was there too, taking my seat in the tiny chapel with the cold stone floor and the hard benches that badly needed painting, and looking around at all the familiar faces with a friendly nod and a smile.  That parish has the most wonderful sense of community and, even though a lot of the people don’t know each other much outside of that one hour on a Sunday, there’s a remarkable amount of genuine care for one another.  And there they all were, right at that very moment, celebrating the Mass together on one side of the world, as M and I sat in this cavernous, packed church — and yet all alone — on the other. Suddenly, I was biting my lip and blinking hard, trying not to let my emotion get the better of me.

I miss that sense of community enormously.  In England, we lived in a tiny market town out in the middle of the countryside — it took us an hour to get to the nearest cinema or hospital, and at harvest-time E1 and I sat in the front window and watched the tractors roll by.  On a walk into town, there were so many familiar faces that it was sometimes hard to get your business done — there were days when it seemed to take me 45 minutes to walk half a mile, I got stopped so many times, and that only got worse once there were babies to coo over.  I knew the shopkeepers, I knew the publicans, the doctor waved as he drove back from his housecalls.  I knew my neighbours — I heard them rowing, or snoring, or coughing when they had colds.  I’m sure they heard my daughters conceived.

It’s all different here.  We are so close into the city that every town melts into another.  People are friendly enough, but I don’t see the same faces time and again.  M has gotten to know the barstaff , of course, and we go for a drink often enough that they’ve come to know me and the girls as well (I think they think we’re a bit odd for bringing toddlers in for an afternoon drink, but there you go).  But even in getting to know barstaff and shop staff, it’s different, because they are mostly young people who will only be there for a time and are only working a shift…  It’s different.

Thus far, the only real community I’ve had here has been a very tight sphere of four: M, my mother, and the girls.  I have been very remiss in keeping up contact with my friends further afield — unfair, I know, to both them and me.  I knew I wouldn’t really be able to find any sense of belonging until I knew where we were going to be living, but I tried to use the internet to fill in those gaps in the meantime.  I put out feelers on a local email list and met a nice SAHM in my area — we’ve met a couple of times and I enjoy her company well enough, but these things take time to be tested and solidify.  I have relied fairly heavily on an internet forum I’ve been a member of for years to lift some of the stress and loneliness but, while it is a nice distraction and a useful resource, it is no real substitute.  Internet friendships, I am reminded again, can be such illusionary things — so easy to get wrong and not to be relied on until you can meet in person and look each other in the eye to see if the connection you imagined was there actually is.

So, I need to find that sense of real community again but, here, where the rules are different, I actually have to learn how to do that.  I am excited at the prospect of moving into our new house and putting down some roots, but I have no idea where to find the community.  There is no town centre and the churches feel so impersonal.  I have added to my natural introverted shyness that very British tendency to keep myself to myself, so bounding across the playground at some other child’s mother with hand outstretched feels impossible to me.  I have made a start by joining this “professional” mothers’ group.  On Saturday night, we went to our first official event — a nice autumnal hayride and bonfire.  M was slightly taken aback at these native traditions — he sat on his bale of hay and bounced along with a look of utter incredulity on his face.  When the tractor pulled away and left the group stranded in a field next to a roaring fire, I could see that he could barely believe that this was the climax of the evening.  He sat down heavily on one of the crates circling the blaze, looked at his watch, and muttered to me that, when the sun set and the fire had eaten all its fuel and died, “we’ll all be sat here in the bloody dark for two hours before they come to get us.” 

But the girls chased around in the corn-stubble and grass and were nearly beside themselves with joy at the sheer freedom of it.  I did my best to wander around and introduce myself to everyone, and made my stilted attempts at small-talk as we all turned in circles to keep an eye on our children and tried to hold a conversation at the same time.  Toasting marshmallows (label carefully scrutinised for soy and egg) fascinated E1, were simply never mentioned to E2 (too risky out in a field), and did not impress M at all.  The sun set and revealed a breathtaking sky full of stars.  And the fire never did die.

I can’t say I really felt a connection with anyone that night, but I know it is early days.  And it was an improbable task anyway, what with everyone so preoccupied with keeping an eye on the kids, and me knowing that M was not enjoying it.  It’s hard to believe that I could ever really settle enough in this place, amongst these strangers, to feel the kind of melancholy that I felt at just a moment’s though of my old church, but I know I have to give it time.  We’ve been here nine months now but, in many ways, this is where it really begins — we move into our house at the end of this month, so this is, perhaps, the real beginning, where all the rest of the time has just been a kind of meaningless limbo.  If I have to give it time — and I know I do — then the last nine months don’t count toward that.  The time to start finding — building — my community begins here, begins now.

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I posted awhile ago about a mothers’ group I planned to join…  I never got around to it.  I told myself it’s because I’ve been busy, but it’s really because the whole thing made me feel a bit odd — the fact that it was a group that you paid to join, and the way they were all so organised in their friendship…  It struck me as very sorority-like, and I was never a sorority kind of girl.  I prefered my friendships to build more organically — sororities always seemed too instant and…  somehow mercinary for it.  So, I have hung back from joining this group, wanting friends but not sure if I wanted them this way, while time ticked slowly on.

Last week I realised that we have been here for eight months and the thing that I have found most difficult — well, there have been so many difficult things…  Ok, one of the things I have found most difficult is the total isolation, the complete lack of friends.  In all this time, I have made a few friendly aquaintences and one possible friend-in-the-making, but nothing more.  My main companions are M and my mother, and that is too heavy a strain to put on those two relationships.

So, tonight I was thinking about it and realised that if I were a high-flying corporate type and got transferred to a new city, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to join a professional organisation.  I’d happily pay my dues, attend meetings, eat the nibbles, make contacts, network my way into my new workplace, and perhaps even discover an actual friend along the way.  Mercinary, yes, but all part and parcel of moving and establishing a career in a new place.

Well, this is a mothers’ group and my current job is Mother.  So paying to become a member of this group is no different from joining any professional organisation.  When I look at it this way, I suddenly feel totally comfortable with it.  And, what’s more, this group’s focus is as much about helping mothers transition out of and then back into work as it is on nappies and playdates, so joining it might actually be more of a ‘professional’ move than I had first anticipated.

So, tonight, I emailed the membership secretary and told her I wanted to pay up and become a member.  And I am feeling fine about it, because I do need to start thinking about what I want to do when it’s time to go back to work.  And I do need to make contacts and network into our new area.

And most of all — mercinary or not — I just really need some friends.

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