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GOOD FRIDAY 1613:  RIDING WESTWARD

LET man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

~John Donne

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Surrender:  (v.) To give up, resign, abandon, relinquish possession of, esp. in favour of or for the sake of another.  Also, to render, return (thanks, etc.).  (Oxford English Dictionary)

My church’s “Moms’ Group” is beginning a new book on Monday, called Surrendering to Motherhood, by Iris Krasnow.   Not knowing anything about either the author or, really, the subject matter or focus of the book itself, I found myself pondering the book’s title this week, turning it over in my mind to imagine what “surrendering to motherhood” might mean.

I thought about my aversion to major life changes, or at least ones I know will disrupt or significantly alter my routine, the way of life to which I have become accustomed.  Though I am deeply ashamed to admit it, when I found out I was pregnant in December of 2006, with a baby we’d been trying for and whom we truly wanted, it took me several weeks to fully embrace the fact that I was going to become a mother.  Rather than feeling the dreamy joy or giddiness every other expectant mother seemed to feel, I was terrified, wondering if this had been a mistake.  What the hell was I getting myself into?  How would this change my life?  How would having a baby limit my freedom or independence, change my identity forever?  I was doubly ashamed to admit this to anyone because I had so many friends desperately trying to have a baby, so I felt even more ungrateful and undeserving.  I found myself withdrawing, brooding in a not-healthy way, resenting already the changes to my life that this baby would bring.

Now, of course, looking back I can’t imagine life without AE, would not change a thing about becoming a mother or the new life that has meant.  And yet I already find myself, in thinking about a second child, resenting that child for once again placing me in that state of feeling tied down, limited to one identity and one way of being (at least when the child is a newborn), of feeling like nothing more than a milk machine, an exhausted, sore, weepy milk machine.  Because AE has gotten to an age where life feels “normal” again, where I have more freedom to have a life of my own.  And I am once again ashamed that once again I anticipate not receiving and enjoying the blessing of motherhood when so many friends would give anything for such a chance.

I know, of course, in my head, that life does get back to normal eventually, that I will once again feel human, feel more than a feeding/breeding machine, and that whatever child God blesses us with the next go-around will be, like AE, more amazing and breathtaking than I could possibly imagine.  I also know that the changes a child brings are all good ones, that children take you out of yourself in the best way possible, reminding you that there is more to life than YOU.   Embracing the period of the newborn baby reminds you just how dependent you are on God and on those who love you, reminds you that there is more to you than what you accomplished that day, that reminds you that you are not in control, and that all you can and should do is enjoy the present moment for the gift that it is.  I am so grateful for a God who blesses me even when I least deserve it, who forgives me my selfishness and ungratefulness.

But all this is to say, in pondering the phrase “surrendering to motherhood” I found that the word “surrender” opened up a whole new way of thinking about motherhood and about living life in general.  Once I surrendered to my new identity as mother, I was able to enjoy it.  When I am not spending all my time and energy fighting against something (most especially a blessing!), I can enjoy it, appreciate it.  What a life-giving way to be, to surrender to what life presents, both the good and the bad.  Because in surrendering you acknowlege your weakness, and you save lots and lots of time and energy fighting against things over which you have no control.

What if, instead of railing at minor frustrations like not being able to find a place to park downtown, or having to run errands I don’t enjoy (I know, poor me, what First World problems I suffer from!), what if I surrender to current circumstances, not in the sense of “giving up,” but of “embracing,” but also, as the OED defines it, of “giving back” my (fantasied) sense of control to God, the one whose plan is far better than any I could imagine or hope for.   (One of the moms in my church group once said that she’d learned she HAD to let the small things slide by, because if she used all her energy getting upset about those little things, what would she have left for the things that are truly difficult?  And I have found that to be SO true; those are some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard:  I’ll spend a day getting so worked up, so angry or resentful about small inconveniences, and find I have so depleted my emotional store that I’ve got nothing left with which to face the truly terrible, should it arise.  I mean, goodness gracious, if I throw up my hands in abject frustration or fury because the vacuum cleaner broke, what on earth will I do when something really goes wrong??)

And what if I surrender also “for the sake of another”?  In surrendering to motherhood, or to dissertation revisions, or to housework or to money worries, I relinquish my resistance, and I do it for the sake of those around me who witness a much calmer, more centered, and less self-focused me.  Surrendering to being AE’s mom means I give up part of myself (which also happens to be the self-centered, lazy part) to serve her as Christ wants me to and as Christ does every day of her life.

That is such a freeing concept to me, the idea of humble, grateful, selfless surrender.  And the added blessing is, of course, that in surrendering I gain more than I ever thought I lost.  I hereby surrender to today.

One of my all-time favorite poems:

The Journey of the Magi

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This:  were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

~ T.S. Eliot

A couple of blogs I read, one a blog written by a friend, the other my favorite “mommy blog,” have featured posts on running lately.  I’ve recently started running with some regularity, and find that if I can run every other day I start to see major improvement quickly.  I run slowly but make myself run the whole time.  My sisters, brother-in-law, and husband and I ran a Turkey Trot 5k on Thanksgiving morning, and my youngest sister remarked, as we all piled into the car at 7 AM, “Who are we?  Did we switch families?”   It was a hilarious comment, and spot on, because we are an active, healthy family but not the kind that wakes up at 6 AM on Thanksgiving to go run in the cold.  But I was so glad we did; even though for some people a 5k requires no training and is in fact merely a warm-up run, for all of my adult life I have thought of myself as one of those people who isn’t and never really will be a runner, though I truly wish I were one of those people for whom running is fun, a release and a joy. 

But I have indeed found running to be like most other things in life that are “good for me”– that is, I always am glad once I’ve done it, often enjoy it once I begin, but never seem to have the willpower to stick with it, to drag myself out of my lazy resting state and get going even at times or on days when I’d Really Rather Not, thankyouverymuch.  I love the feeling in my lungs for the rest of the day after a run, like they’ve really been put to use; I love feeling the energy and the health and the improvement in mood that follows a good workout.

Today’s run started off okay, and then went downhill from there, probably because I hadn’t run since last Friday and was already slowly creeping out of the habit.  After about 20 minutes I did not want to keep going (my goal had been 30 minutes).  I found myself once again listening to that voice in my head, the needling, wheedling little one that says things like, “Go ahead and stop, you deserve to give yourself a break.”  Or “Nobody is watching or cares whether you run this next 10 minutes or not.”  Or “You just can’t; you’re not built for this–give up!”

And then I realized that my answer to all these suggestions could tell me a lot about my answers to a lot of life’s challenges, big or small.  Why do I push myself, challenge myself, do things when I don’t want to?  Why keep going when it gets tough?  Who’s watching and who will really care?  (It’s almost easier, once you become a parent, because you haven’t any real choice in the matter.  It may be 6 AM and you may be exhausted, but someone does care if you get up, no one thinks you deserve a break, and they certainly don’t care whether you think you’re up to it!)

That last 10 minutes today was about more than running another mile (or less, since it’s me we’re talking about here– my mile is more of the 12-minute variety, but whatever, I show up!)– it was an attempt to counter all those doubts with an affirming confidence and self-discipline.  I ran those last 10 minutes for my athletic friend, who’s so painfully pregnant right now that she can barely walk across the house, much less run.  I ran for those who are sick or injured and who would love nothing better than to have the choice to stand up and run.  I ran for the One who redeems me from all my self-pity and fear, for the One who gave me a body that can run, and run farther than I ever thought possible.

“Apart from the Incarnation, we would never fully know the depths to which we are loved or the lengths to which God can be trusted. That’s why we celebrate each Christmas.”

~Advent Conspiracy

This struck me as so true, at least for me.  It is so easy for me to slip into that habit of imagining God as distant, the prime mover sort of God, the watchmaker who set things in motion and then wandered off.  Thinking of the Word being made flesh, of Love walking among us, reminds me that God is here.  Always.   Hmmm… I can trust God?  God loves me that much?  God has a plan?   How quickly I forget.

This reminds me, too, that Christmas is also the precursor to Easter, that I so easily and quickly move from kneeling in the stable to standing amongst the raging crowd calling out “Crucify him!”  

The Incarnation is beautiful, but it is also a holy terror.  There is no Christmas without Easter.  John Milton opens his 1629 “Nativity Ode” with a verse of celebration:

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

But he stops himself about 100 lines later:

But wisest Fate sayes no,
This must not yet be so,
The Babe lies yet in smiling Infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both himself and us to glorifie:
Yet first to those ychain’d in sleep,
The wakefull trump of doom must thunder through the deep…

And so right now, at Advent, I am remembering not only why Jesus was born but why he had to die.  Let us celebrate the innocent beauty of Christmas but give due reverence to the terrible beauty of Easter.  So, an Easter poem:

7 Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

~ John Updike

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance.  It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickened life in every other thing that moved.

So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world.  Grendel was the name of this grim demon…

 

Feeling outcast and enraged, envious of the warmth and light of the Danes, the monster Grendel preys upon them while they sleep, attacking and ruining the peace of the mead hall in which the people escape from the dark and the cold and the unknown they contain, until Beowulf comes and slays the monster and frees the people to live without fear.  I’ve been thinking of Grendel lately, and finding myself identifying more with him than with the fortunate Danes.  I spent most of yesterday with a severe case of “house envy” after a wonderful dinner party Saturday night.  Our hosts for the evening were a young couple with a daughter a bit younger than AE.  They have a beautiful, spacious home, with a brand-new, state-of-the-art kitchen, lots of living/entertaining/play space, a huge bed in a comfortable master suite, the list goes on and on.  It wasn’t a McMansion by any means, just a modest but comfortable house that’d been added on to over the years and decorated with love and good taste.  But once again I felt this nagging sense of entitlement, of self-pity:  why don’t I have a house like that?  Is that too much to ask?  I just want a home to which I could invite people over, hold a birthday party for my child, have room to breathe on a cold, rainy day.  I love our home, it’s been a wonderful place for M and me to start our lives and our family together.  But it is very small, as those of you who’ve visited before know, so it tends to feel very tight, especially when it’s cold outside and toys are strewn around, and you want to decorate for Christmas but find that every square inch is used up already, every surface and wall.  You want to put up a real Christmas tree but realize there isn’t any room, nor is there enough space to really stand back from a distance and admire your handiwork. You can’t get outside, can’t get perspective.

Ninety-five percent of the people in our neighborhood are poor or immigrants with six people living in the same size house as ours.  Generations before me raised an entire family in this home.  They had far fewer opportunities and have far less money, and yet here I go again, feeling sorry for myself, feeling entitled to more, waiting for that imagined day when I will have “enough.”

What my house envy reminds me is that I’m not so good at living in the present, of seeing and enjoying the abundance all around me.  I feel the first pangs of winter and decide I will just “survive,” get through, until spring comes again.  I see my house in comparison with another and decide that I’ll really start to live and to have fun once we have a bigger house, more money, etcetera etcetera.  I start to act like a Grendel, imagining myself on the outside, envying those who seem to have more. 

So I am trying to learn to live in the present moment, with joy for the blessings great and small (though really, are there any “small” blessings?).  As cliché as this sounds it’s surprisingly hard to do.  This weekend it was terribly cold, so that even when it was sunny, on Sunday, it was still too cold to be outside.  I tried to take AE out so we could get a few minutes of sunshine, thought it’d do my mood some good, but it was just freezing:  her little hands were like ice but once I put mittens on her she couldn’t really play because it was like trying to push  her play stroller wearing oven mitts.  We went back in the house, me hating winter more than ever because it means we can’t be outside; I always feel in spring and summer like I need and want to be outside, soaking up the sunshine and warmth, every possible second.

Today I decided instead to embrace the present situation, not just survive until spring but to find things to enjoy right now.  I bought a little Christmas tree and AE and I set it up this evening, lit a bunch of candles around the house, enjoyed the warm light they offered.  Maybe it’s the cold and the dark, but I once again found myself recalling another medieval English text, another moment of darkness versus light, joy and life versus “just getting by.”  It’s from The Ecclesiastical History by the Venerable Bede and quotes a cleric offering the pagan King Edwin his opinion on why the teachings of Christianity might be worth considering: 

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.
The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.”

Well, I’m going to enjoy this in-between time; I am going to practice living joyfully in the moment instead of looking restlessly to some imagined future.  Tonight AE and I danced and read books in the warm little glow of our tiny house, and I gave thanks for my sweet, happy, healthy girl, my loving, kind husband, my furry, patient, good-natured dog, my wonderful family, and a snug little rabbit hole that I know we’ll always look back on fondly as the house we made a home, to which we brought our baby daughter home for the first time, a house that stretched its little walls to hold all this warmth and light and love, even if only for a little while.

What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love Him too, but that if we let Him, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.

What is both Good and New about the Good News is that mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull of by ourselves.

Thus the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror.  Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday-School picnic.  On the contrary.  Child-birth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never.  Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery.

~Frederick Buechner

I walked this puppy today.  His name is Reaper, so called not only because he looks otherworldly, but because his owner, a youngish, otherwise-healthy guy, went into cardiac arrest a month before the puppy was to come home with him.  I’d met the puppy and the client on Monday, but not until today had I seen him outside, in natural light.  His eyes were positively haunting, as are many Weimaraners’, but they were almost uncannily piercing, light and ethereal.  His entire puppy body, his color and light, reminded me of a time about 15 years ago when I went by myself to Pensacola Beach on a fairly warm but cloudy, foggy day.  Pensacola Beach (at least the parts of it that haven’t been raped by commercialism) is beautiful in itself, with its sugar-soft white sands and its blue-green waters.  But on this particular day the beach felt like the threshhold between this world and some other, mysterious and haunting and beautiful.  As I sat on the sand and watched the grey-green water and sky, I remember thinking to myself, “Keep the image of this moment in your memory, and come back to it when you need peace and rest.”  And, it seems, I have.  I love those “thin places,” as the Celts call them, where you have a sense of being almost able to touch the world(s) beyond our own.  My sister had a similar experience on a trip once, and wrote a beautiful poem about it.

But something in this haunting little puppy brought me back to my fascination with the space between heaven and earth, those borderlands that both entice and frighten us.  Transcendent moments like these also, however, fill me with longing and with a not-always-comforting reminder of my own mortality, my own contingency.  Julia Kristeva, a 20th-century French feminist-theorist, calls this the abject:  those sights or experiences of death that remind us of what we need constantly to forget in order to live.  She calls it  “the ambivalent, the border where exact limits between same and other, subject and object, and even beyond these, between inside and outside, and disappearing—hence an Object of fear and fascination.”  For example, we experience the abject when we are startled by the sickening sight of a dead body or some sort of human excrement or body part that thrusts the implacability of death (and the promise of our own some day) into our faces.  (Hence the ever-present human fascination with horror movies, vampires, zombies.) 

I took AE for a check-up with her otolaryngologist on Monday, and as we were waiting for the doctor in the examination room, AE noticed the anatomical diagrams in the posters on the wall.  One in particular showed a frontal view of a man’s face, where parts of the skin were left off so that one could see the location and structures of the sinuses.  AE pointed to it and told me, “Him have paint on his face.”  To her, the diagram was not two- or three-dimensional, including both the surface of the skin (to make the face recognizable as face) and what lies beneath, our sinus cavities and nasal passages; to a 2-year-old it was simply a man with face paint on.  But I found myself feeling vaguely sick at the sight of it, as well as others around the room, featuring, for example, a woman looking askance, with a “normal” face but her ear and neck naked down to the muscle and cartilage.  I realized that such anatomical drawings always make me uneasy; I’d prefer one or the other– either a drawing of a body, its surface only, or an anatomical diagram of veins, muscles, organs, bones.  But those drawings that feature half-living, half-dissected/cadaverous bodies are exactly, to me, what Kristeva calls the abject.

All that is to say that there was something about this little puppy named Reaper, who, with his piercing, intelligent eyes seemed to inhabit both dog-world and human-world; and who with his grey-green coloring seemed a visitor from the world beyond, the meeting of sea and sky, that made me realize once again how fragile my sense of self (its permanence, its transcendence) really is.  If I didn’t believe in God or in heaven as that resting place of  (as my friend Susan calls it, from a book she once read) “the heart’s deepest longing,”  I think I’d feel pretty terrified and hopeless in moments like these.  Instead, I rest my heart in the knowledge that this world is not the only one I’ll ever know, and give thanks for those moments when the border between the two worlds seems comfortingly thin, the presence–and promise–of God always near.   When death comes for me, I imagine he’ll look like a grey-haired, green-eyed puppy.

Random thoughts for the day:

Cold weather, even if it’s sunny, makes me somehow feel as if I am ill—makes me feel sort of stiff, achy, fragile, and also like I have a fever. I guess it’s that cold-skin feeling, even under your clothes.  So even on the most beautiful cold winter day I feel less alive.  I know lots of people who love cold weather and I love them, but I honestly to my core don’t understand how you can love the cold, the bare trees, the darkness.  I understand why people used to imagine that in Eden there was no winter, only fall into spring.

I love watching my dog roll around in the sunshine on the grass.  It makes me feel better about the world.

I used to sometimes, if not often, wake up in the morning feeling sad and a bit hopeless, just mildly depressed and for no good (or even identifiable) reason.  And Sunday evenings I had those blah feelings again.  But since my daughter was born I never get that feeling.  There is something about waking up to a little life in the next room, whether it’s happy or sad, that invokes some sort of good feeling.  Even if it’s just a momentary heart-stopping feeling when she cries out, of wondering if she’s sick or hurt.  Or more likely, I just hear her in her room talking or singing to herself, and my heart fills up.  And on those Sunday evenings– or anytime in which I used to find myself feeling a bit at loose ends, not knowing what I wanted to do next or feeling bored– I now feel comfort and joy, watching  AE  play and live in the moment.  Makes me cherish the times I do have the luxury of feeling bored or restless.  Having a child takes you out of yourself in the best way possible. 

I’m currently reading about Christian attitudes toward Islam during the medieval and early modern periods in England.  And it strikes me again how little we change over the centuries.  How there’s something inside of us—small, mean, and broken—that wants to take down something that frightens or confuses or threatens us.  I struggle a lot with the whole question of who’s got the “right” answer to who God is, what God is like.  In my heart, though, I have to admit that Christianity is “it” for me, while at the same time accepting that Judaism or Islam or Buddhism might be “it” for another.  For me, Christianity means joy and redemption, two things I could not live without.  I’m not in charge of the rest of the world, only of myself, and even that to a very limited degree.