Doing “Single” over the Holidays, can it be done with grace?

When I first left my long marriage one of the things I immediately noticed was a decline in invitations especially where couples and women were concerned. I could see a bit of why the couples might stop inviting me since we had all socialized as a foursome and there was a hole in the works that could not be stopped.  What shocked me was the number of women and a couple of men friends who just dropped away, no calls, no invites, no making sure I was not alone on special occasions as I had done with all of them when they were single over the years.

While I can think of no plausible explanation for those adults who behaved in less than graceful ways, I can tell you what it is like to be single over the holidays as in recent years I, myself, spent solo.

  1. Mark your calendar. Know that you will have more time on your hands and make plans for it. Plan to see the free events in your area, choirs singing, holiday displays, Christmas plays at the schools, parades or musical events. Every community has some of these and you may think going alone sad but I can tell you from doing so that it was far from sad. The singers gladdened my heart and nobody was there to chatter my ear off or otherwise interrupt these magical moments of mine and mine alone.
  2. Give back. I know, I know, everyone says this and the last thing you may feel like doing when you are lonely over the holidays is giving anyone anything. Even if you are flat broke, you can find a way to give to others less fortunate. A friend of mine serves dinner in the local men’s shelter on Christmas Day. When I had it, I spent $20 on grab bags at a local women’s store. These grab bags each contained four or five sets of jewelry suited to teens along with socks, hairbands and other little items that translated to 15 or 20 gifts I donated to a local charity Christmas Drive. I know teens are the hardest to find gifts for at Christmas from working in the non-profit sector and this was, to me, just a great thing to be able to do. But you don’t need to have new items. I have a friend who collects clothing and donations for the local animal shelter, a place often abandoned over Christmas but the needs are high all year round. A friend’s daughter buys 50 or 100 hamburgers at McDonald’s and passes them out to hungry strangers on the street. Pass a street person a coat you no longer wear, the ideas are endless and unlimited for finding ways to help those less fortunate. And somehow, in the midst of the giving, we receive an “afterglow” of our good deeds that translates to a little more joy for ourselves.
  3. Indulge yourself. Whether it is a marathon of watching your favorite series on Netflix, spending a whole day in your pj’s or having some treats you normally don’t allow yourself, or all three, just pamper yourself.  Because, alone or not, you are so worth it. And this is the sort of thing we tell one another in times of needing comfort so why not apply it to ourselves.
  4. Mingle. You may feel like a fifth wheel when invited to holiday gatherings and simply decline. That may be what you are most comfortable doing and that’s okay, too. If you accept (which I did because, hey, why not?), don’t focus on being alone, focus on being “together” and make a point of asking polite questions of people you don’t even know. You may make a new life long friend or find yourself with a terrific job offer, you just never know what may come of a simple gracious connection over the holidays. I once ran into a woman who had interviewed me for a job I didn’t get despite making it through every level of the screening process. I asked her why she didn’t hire me and she replied, “Because I knew being a 911 operator would hurt you.” She was right. I am a highly sensitive person or HSP as Elaine Aron’s book states. Imagine. The years spent wondering why I didn’t make the cut wound up being a gift to me. A gift I would not have been given had I just stayed home.
  5. Gift yourself. This is an open season deal where you decide what you would most like to get and give that to yourself. The year after my mother died was tough. A lot of “firsts” without her, first Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day and so on. Near Christmas I was browsing in a shoe store and found a pair of all leather knee high boots by a very high end company. I never had a pair of knee high boots since I was 11 years old in Ontario winters and thought what the hey, I’ll try them on. They fit perfectly and looked great but I could not bring myself to buy them even though they were, I learned, last year’s stock on clearance for less than 1/4 of the original price. I phoned a sister and told her about them. She said, “Go back and get them, those are YOUR boots.” I decided these boots were a gift from my mother and would take me places I could never dream of going. On the walk home with boots in hand, I glanced down at my parcel to find the name/model of the boot on the box. It was “Hope.” My mother was giving me hope from the heavens is how I saw it and still love my boots which will likely outlast me. It doesn’t have to be expensive as long as your gift is something you love, a book, a sale cologne, a thrift store treasure or a promise to shop the boxing day clearances for a sweater you can’t afford right now. It’s your gift to make yours in whatever way feels best for you.
  6. Honor loved ones. You can do this by hand making and sending a card for those you cannot be with this year or setting up a time for a “visit” phone call where you catch up, hear familiar voices. Again, the ways to do this are endless and it can even be loved ones who passed before us. When I was single and very, very broke, I took my last twenty dollars and decided that Christmas to stop avoiding the hospice tree in the local mall in the usual wide arc I made around it after my mother died. That year I went and put the names of my mother and mum-in-law on the Christmas tree and received a handmade bird (every donation receives a gift back). I thought I would cry. I didn’t. Instead I felt a sense of peace and calm that lasted a very long time.
  7. Phone a friend. Nothing can cheer us faster than hearing the voice of a friend who loves us unconditionally and gives us a safe place to just be ourselves. It’s like plugging in a lamp that has a new bulb. Everything “shines” brighter under the light of love and having a good friend or two is among these gifts. If you can get together, great, but if you are geographically or holiday commitment distanced, the phone is a wonderful tool to employ for a little holiday warmth.
  8. Volunteer. Not everyone has the energy or desire to do this and that’s okay. We can’t all be good at doing things all the time. But there are many organizations, especially during the holidays, that require a helping hand. Maybe you could help unload and organize the donations for a local thrift store. Or maybe you could deliver meals to those shut in alone over the holidays. Perhaps the local animal shelter could use an extra “walker” this year. Again, the possibilities are endless and most of your local newspapers or community pages will list organizations you might like to volunteer for. As a former volunteer manager for the city I reside in, I can tell you this: Volunteers do what they want to do and finding something you want to do that benefits others as well as yourself is a double gift.
  9. Start early. This does not mean start shopping early. This means starting early to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for being alone or even possibly being alone over the holidays. One of the things I did was to sit and contemplate all who were working right through the holidays. From nurses to paramedics, from doctors to doggy sitters, from police to prison guards and all in between. My heart filled with gratitude that someone would be there if I needed to call 911 which I did not but it felt good to know I could, thanks to some dedicated professionals who work complaint free right through the holidays.
  10. Appreciate what you do have however humble. Most of us have had parents who, in an effort to get us to eat food we don’t really like, tell us there are starving children on the other side of the world who would be glad to eat what’s on your plate. The thing the parents don’t grasp is that means nothing to us because we can’t see those children, they are not in our daily radar especially as children ourselves. Yet, as an adult, I will use this to remind myself that whatever is on my plate at the moment, there are many elsewhere who would be glad for what my “life plate” holds today.

These are some of the things I did when single and longing to make the holidays more meaningful. Some of my best holiday memories are from those times when I stood listening to a local children’s choir or knew that some teen-aged girls would get a little something for Christmas. Believe me when I say I indulged myself in a few tears, too, they just couldn’t be stopped. But even that was bittersweet and not entirely awful. There are many ways to make the holidays “yours,” just start thinking of what pleases your soul and go from there. And if you have any ideas you would like to share, please do, as always I welcome your thoughts and comments here. Wishing you every good thing, good health, good home and good memory making even if only for yourself.

"What fills the heart becomes us." ~ Janni Styles

(this is a "re-run" first published November 30, 2016 and in the photo is the "bird" ornament I speak of in number 6 above)
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Surviving Difficult Times: PTSD and Trauma

Many of you already know what I went through these past few years so I will not repeat my entire story. Let me just share with you what I have learned about surviving difficult times including this very recent period of losing my brother in October and my sister in November and the ensuing grief that often chokes me because it is so hard to get used to the world knowing they are no longer in it. Initially I was thrust into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from a physical assault in 2012 (though many believe I was suffering from it long before I walked out of my more than three decades marriage due to the shocks I endured in that relationship). What happens with me since the onset of PTSD is that I can easily be triggered back into the full blown symptoms by life events, losses and abrupt changes to name just a few. Still, I am at a place where I hope to help others with what worked for me as I clawed my way out of the darkness to where I am today. While I still have PTSD it is not as severe as it once was and hinders me less because I have found a few ways to help myself survive difficult times. You or someone you know may appreciate what I have to share with you today.

Surviving Difficult Times:

  1. If you have any people in your life who are negative, critical or even in any small way unfair or abusive, avoid them. If you are struggling to get through a difficult time these types of people can only add to the burdens we are already packing. Yes, we may love or even be related to some of those people but tolerating any criticism or negativity from people we love is often more hurtful than from those we don’t know as well. This only exacerbates the situation we are in. Someone unfairly chastised me royally on a social site for posting a “funny” she obviously disliked. This triggered me and I did answer her but she blocked me. Clearly she is neither safe nor compassionate and blocking me was probably the best favor she could do though at that moment in time it just felt like more abuse. We need safe, loving, healthy, kind-hearted people around us when we are experiencing difficult times. This doesn’t mean you have to end the relationship(s), only that you may need to avoid those insensitive, cantankerous types until you are through the rough patch you find yourself in. Avoidance worked well for me and is still working well for me.
  2. Surround yourself with loving, healthy people wherever possible. From your health care providers to your social circles, clean house as often as need be to ensure that you are being supported by only those who are “safe” with good and kind intentions. Nobody needs ill intending people in their worlds at the best of times but at the worst of times those people can just feel like one more source of aggravation and abuse we simply do not need or deserve. They are also extremely draining, the last thing you need when trying to build yourself back up.
  3. Find your happy place or space. This can look like your own cozy bedroom, a favorite park or an activity you enjoy from reading to running. You choose what it is that makes you feel better and if that is music, baking, camping out, visiting a friend, doing yoga or escaping into a good movie or a book, whatever, it doesn’t matter as long as you have a few moments or, perhaps, hours, away from what is constantly overwhelming you. Retreat as often as you need to into your happy place or happy space. Friends, books and long walks or writing are my go to’s for a break from my personal life challenges. I found it helpful to keep adding to my “safe” go to list as I went along and discovered things that were helpful for me. Often I still prefer to have no stimulation, no noise, no light, and just being still with myself. Somehow it re-energizes me and I am able to get back on the bike of life and pedal my way forward. When everything and everyone “hurts,” finding our happy place or space can take a little time but that’s okay too. Just go gentle on yourself as you find what works best for you.
  4. Tell people what you need. This was the hardest of all for me. Learning to be my own best advocate was fraught with challenges I could not foresee. Once when the bank overcharged me for something I panicked because I did not have enough money for my rent (this was all reversed by the bank and I did have enough for my rent in the end).  Meanwhile, the talks-too-fast clerk kept repeating herself and would not hear any of my questions. I started to cry and the bank manager and security people all came over which made me cry harder. Finally, stuttering severely as I do when PTSD triggered, I was able to tell them I have PTSD and requested a note be put on my file (I wrote the note which said: I have PTSD. Please be kind and patient with me. Sometimes English sounds like gibberish to me if my PTSD is triggered. Please speak slowly and please repeat yourself if I need you to. Thank you.) Nearly five years later that note is still there and the service I get at the bank is impeccable, very considerate and caring. With others I may decline an outing or a visit at the last minute because I just can’t take any stimulation that day. Knowing what we need is half the battle. I spent a lot of time asking myself what do I need because there were moments when I truly did not know. If you can figure out what your needs are, asking others to honor those needs is the best way to take care of ourselves in my opinion. They may not understand why we need what we need but that does not matter. They may never understand. What matters is we know how to take care of our needs to avoid being triggered or overwhelmed by all the things in the world that are out of our control.
  5. Seek professional help. If you have an emotional or mental condition that needs attention don’t try to manage it all by yourself. Talk to your doctor and if you don’t have a doctor, try to tap into your local community services to see if there is a Health Unit or other source of support or help they can guide you to. Trying to manage it all by yourself is not advisable. I do not know where I would be if I had not sought and availed myself of professional help. Going to trauma counselling for two years after I was assaulted not only gave me a safe place and professional people to help me heal but it also gave me many skills I learned from one trauma counselor. Simple exercises like counting my breath or counting the items in a room, anything to distract me from feeling panicked, overwhelmed and unable to cope still help me to this day. Luckily for me, where I live we have some terrific community services and I was able to get help for the legal process of court which took three years and also a lot of emotional support and guidance. Without the help I received I know for sure I would not even be here. Seeking professional help is always wise.
  6. Believe. Believe there is help available for you and don’t give up on trying to find it. Believe there will be better days because as black as this moment may feel, there will be better days eventually. I didn’t think there would ever be better days when I was in the midst of just trying to cope but there were and those then rare days helped me believe there would be more. Believe you deserve the help. None of us deserves to be hurt, lied to, criticized, abused or assaulted in any way, shape or form. When we have been good people and always done the right things in life it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to be so cruel to us for any reason. But some people just are as recently happened to me online and in the real world when I shared the loss of my brother and sister. However much it hurt us, this is not as important as changing what we can for ourselves. We can block/delete online and in person we can leave, move away from or distance ourselves from harmful people and situations that are not good for us. It just takes time, professional help and focused effort to reach the place that is best for ourselves. Believe you deserve the best in life because you do.

These are just a few little things I share today as I work on grieving two of my siblings in three weeks. Of course the loss of my brother and my sister has triggered my PTSD, the panic, the shaking, the loss of sleep, the general sense of being in an unsafe world with unsafe people everywhere. I know if I can lean on my supports and do the six steps above as often as necessary, I will weather this storm of emotional tests, eventually. There is so much more I could add but this is plenty for a blog post, I think.  Please note this list of what worked for me may not work for everyone and that is okay too. I am not a doctor or a professional in the field of trauma. I am just one survivor voice who could not find much that wasn’t academically written on the subject of trauma and PTSD. To that end, I hope to help others who need to hear from someone who has been there and shares her findings, not so much experience as findings because this is what I wanted for myself when surviving my difficult time in life. I wanted to talk to other trauma survivors, hear how they coped, learn coping techniques and I just couldn’t find that kind of basic easy to digest material out there. There was much on how the brain works but it didn’t help me one whit to cope or realize that I would survive this. So far so good, I am here, breathing and sharing.

Questions and your thoughts are always welcome here.

See you next time.

(c) Janni Styles

Small Comforts

At first there is a pang in your heart, a pang so wrenching you believe it will never go away. You look around and everything reminds you of her. A sea shell she gave you, a note she wrote, a tote bag with angels flying on the sides in a beautiful tan and blue tapestry of olde she completed just for you. You hope she is flying high with the angels but you wish she was still here. Being reminded hurts so much you pack up all the pretty triggers in cardboard boxes. Then you move and rediscover everything she ever gave you as you unpack the boxes in your new apartment. Somehow, in the time that has passed, the hurting has diminished. Looking at her gifts no longer hurts so much. Instead, they become a comfort. You even start saying good morning to them and when you have your bed time camomile tea, she is there with you, surrounding you with her small comforts before you sleep and, perhaps, get lucky enough to be gifted with another dream time visit from her.

(c) Janni Styles

How Will I Write The World Today?

maybe I will write the world today

when I am done with all my thinking

when the innocent stars have all returned

after the high sun finishes sinking

 

maybe I will write the world today

if this too fast life could just stop turning

if greed and gluttony would finally end

and all the hateful hearts stop burning

 

maybe I will write the world today

when my mind can just stop spinning

when humans are all bent on love

instead of winning, winning, winning

 

what hollow prizes must those be

when hurting others is the game

inhumanity and crime will never win

loving hearts remain ever the same

 

maybe I will write the world today

(c) Janni Styles

 

Bee Stings, Bullies and Where Blame Really Belongs

While I have heard you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar, I have to wonder about the life of the person who stated this because it is not always wise to be sweet as I have learned time and time again in trying to tolerate, maintain or repair relationships. Not all ships are created equal and not all relations are deserving of our loving kindness. This does not mean cruelty is in order either, simply that setting healthy boundaries or walking away is often the best choice to save ourselves. Staying in a situation that is unhealthy for us is the worst kind of punishment we could exact on our own psyche and well being but sometimes we find ourselves trapped in situations we could never have foreseen.

While I could include and discuss many relationships today I am going to talk about bullies. Where do they belong in our social system? Or do they belong at all? I say they are social misfits who do not belong near healthy people until they learn to behave with respect. My ex spouse, two sisters and their adult children are all perfect examples of bullies, they bully you shut, bully your opinion away and bully you into doing or saying what they want or they will go to greater lengths of abuse to try to make you pay for what is not even yours.  I will save all the details of those experiences for my book on complicated relationships and how easily we humans can become stuck in the same troublesome patterns, trying again and again when the result is always the same: no good for us at all. A troublesome bullying neighbor is my subject in this piece.

Over a year ago a woman who speaks six languages fluently and was featured in magazines for her award winning interior design work in her youth moved into the apartment next door to mine. I was pleased because I figured she would make a great neighbor from the landlord’s description of her. On our very first meeting she gave me a clue to her personality by telling me “I don’t think the landlords know about your boyfriend.” I was shocked and sputtered out, “He does not live here, he only visits and yes they do know because they welcomed him when I moved here.” What I should have said was, “Oh. So this is who you are. Mind your own business and keep away from me.” I didn’t.

Instead, I tried to “overlook” things, be patient, kind and tolerant. The more patient and kind and tolerant I was, the more invasive she became. She is a hoarder of junk and all things junky looking which she tried to pile up on my patio shortly after moving in. I had to involve the landlord who told her to take her stuff off my patio and don’t put anything there again.

Things seemed to settle for a while after that until she left on a three week cruise last winter. All of her windows were open and I told the landlord. I did not tell him that when she calls me over to show me her latest junk acquisition the heat is excruciatingly high and yet all of her windows are kept wide open all the time. The landlord found her heat jacked right up, turned it off and closed all of her windows. Immediately upon returning home, she told me the landlord stole her rental agreement and some other things when he went in to turn down the heat. I knew the landlord would never do this but there was no convincing her.

Not long after this she was upset about her car being “keyed so badly it is big gouges on the whole side up and down from front to back.” She yacked it all out in a 45 minute exchange with me. That is another 45 minutes I will never get back. I tried telling her they did not, would not do that, that they have cameras all around the house and I suggested she involve them because maybe they could look at the tapes and see who did it. At this time I did not look at the car. She told the landlord who informed me there was a hairline scratch on her car not even the length of his hand and it could have happened anywhere, she may have even accidentally done it herself.

Still, foolish git that I am, when her dog was recently attacked by raccoons, I could see she was very distraught and loving my rescued animals as I do and have in decades past, I gave her a hug. The dog survived. And then her stuff slowly started inching further and further back over onto my patio.

She asked for help with a cover letter for a part time job and I did it. It was easy to write because in my late twenties I once owned my own business doing documents, resumes and cover letters. She offered money but had recently given me a huge jug of dish soap she found herself allergic to so I said we are even now, no worries. When her car was stolen from the staff parking at that work place, I listened because, again, I felt sorry for her. From working in the justice system I knew these cars are often stolen for a joy ride or to do some illegal deal or other and I told her it would likely be back in a week or so. It was.

She has to pass by my door to get to her apartment and in the fair weather I keep the screened door open for fresh air. She would say hi every time she passed and often stop more than once a day to talk. I began saying very silly things like “my kettle is boiling” (who knows, maybe my “inner” kettle really was, haha) just to get rid of her. She stepped in one day when I was using my washroom and I yelled at her, “I  am using my bathroom!” She left but later came back to tell me some nonsense or other that I had no interest in. She has proven completely and totally impervious to normal social cues that would have the average person backing off instantly.

When I returned from a recent few days away for a family reunion she pounced on me at the laundry room just outside my apartment. She told me the landlord yelled at her while I was away and said “You women down there are evil! You are white trash and you don’t even deserve to live in my house.” I did not believe her and told her I find that hard to believe. What I believe now is that she was trying to incite me in the two-faced fashion of master manipulators to align me against the landlord. She failed.

She listens for me to open my door and runs out to talk. She hears me doing laundry and races out to talk. She plays her TV so loud that the junk TV talk shows I hate echo straight into my place, people onstage yelling and screaming at each other while the host eggs on the drama. Hard to believe that garbage is still on TV in my opinion and I’d rather have no TV than listen to all those time wasting dramatics. The last people I lived beside here for over a year just said hello in passing and never looked in my windows. She comes down the stairs in front of my place looking into my living room door and window the entire time, she doesn’t even have the courtesy to turn away or just pass without being nosy. I put up a curtain that sees me receiving less light than my already limited light down here and she just looks around it anyway.

At one point recently when her “visits” reached four times in one day, I told my boyfriend that I have to do something about her, I can’t take this for much longer. She interrupts my rest, my reading, my writing, my chores, my self care, she triggers my PTSD and my recovery time from her “Drama Queen” hurricane episodes. Not yet sure what to do about it, I aligned myself with the landlord who had expressed irritation at her stepping on their toes, painting the once soothing apartment a bunch of loud funky colors she did not have permission for among other things she has done to offend them.  I told them I was going to be speaking to her about her invasive ways. They said I have their support.

Well. Just a couple of weeks ago she started inching still more of her crap back over onto my patio. Then a few days ago she said, “Look, I have this nice table you can use if you want to, I will put it against the wall outside your window there.” I told her I don’t really want it there. I said I like to look at the wall of green I have created and I don’t like things cluttered up. But I don’t have room for it, she said. Well, you should give it away or donate it then, I said. She ignored all I said to put the table on my patio. It was on wheels so I shoved it back over on her patio and then pushed all of her encroaching junk back there, too.

When I arrived home from errands she was waiting for me. She came to my door and said, “Did you move my stuff?” Yes, I told her, I didn’t like it and I don’t want it on my patio. Well I can’t even get in there now on my patio, she said. You need to get rid of some stuff, you have too much stuff, I said. To which she retorted: you have a lot of stuff, too. Nothing like you do, I told her and I am not trying to absorb your patio to store my junk either, you are. She said, I will put it all back. If you do, I told her, I will shove it all back on your own patio. I don’t care, she said, I will put it back, I will put it back, I will put it back! Well then, I said,  I will involve the landlord. She said in a very telling statement common among bullying social misfits: “I don’t care.”

In the typical unaccountable methodical fashion of sociopath behavior meant to manipulate us into meeting their needs, she began blaming me, telling me “you are depressed, you need help!” Having had a lot of experience with this oppressive tactic from unhealthy people in the past, I told her, “You are so messed up, it has nothing to do with me at all. You need to stop being so pushy and listen for once in your life. Stay away from me, I am not your social life!”

She continued calling me names, attempting to make her abuse my fault and I told her she is going to get herself evicted if she keeps this invasive, disrespectful behavior up. At one point my boyfriend thought she hit me and stepped out on the patio to tell her to stop abusing me, told her that she needs to stop bothering me all the time. She denied it and he told her “I’ve seen what you do, you need to leave her alone.” It was actually her dog that jumped at me and knocked my sunglasses out of my hand. Still, she just shouted back, “You don’t even live here!” No recognition or acknowledgement of anything reasonable that is being said to her is certain proof of how messed up and disrespectful she really is.

In addition to what I said to her I told her I do not want to ever again hear her two-faced talking about our landlords. She denied doing so. I cited the examples listed above and told her not to speak for me to them either, I can speak for myself just fine. She said, I didn’t! Yes, you did, while I was away you complained about something and you said “we both” and I didn’t even know anything about it, I told her,  I just don’t want to hear anything about the landlords from you ever again, do not include me in your wild imaginings.

She continued to tell me I was at fault in many ways I don’t need to list here, said she has learned what an awful person I am. Such are the abusive patterns of those broken individuals who can no longer use, abuse or manipulate us into doing whatever it is they want us to do. My last words before I came back in my apartment were: Stay away from me, I am NOT your social life.

Today is the first day of peace for me since she moved here. No back and forthing to my door. No bothering me when I did my laundry this morning. No jumping out her door as soon as she hears me exit mine or when she hears me coming down the stairs when I return home. No going up and down the stairs just to get another look into my place or talk without invitation and use up my precious life minutes.

If you know me at all as all of my long time friends and healthy, loving family members do since childhood, you know I am a loving, kind person who is all about the people and relationships. I am even considering changing my blog theme to focus on human relationships of all sorts because whether poetry, short story or a piece like this, it is always winds up being all about the people for me.  Still, whether there is mental illness, abuse of any sort, sociopath patterns or meddlesome two-faced manipulators, I have learned I need to guard my kindness and save it for those deserving. A famous psychologist named Phil McGraw says “People tell us who they are.” They sure do. If we are listening.

Sometimes sugar and honey just turn the bees more aggressive so they sting you harder and more often. Know who your bees are before you feed them anything at all is the best thing I can think of to do. Off to enjoy more peaceful uninterrupted time to myself. Now that sounds really sweet to me. Ahhh, peace and quiet.

Hope to see you again soon.

(c) Janni Styles