Pilgrim’s Path: Roadside blessings

This is the great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing wich has been living in
your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world.
-Freya Stark

In a few weeks time, thousands of people from all over the world will gather outside of Boston’s city-skirts.  Individuals committed to a cause, a question, a challenge, with hundreds of miles of distance carried in their limbs, will congregate, and celebrate, in this  community.  Lithe, strong bodies will arise before the sun to lace up shoes and participate in the consummation of months-yes, even years-of training for The Boston Marathon.

While it is no Delphi, to argue that this notable race isn’t a sacred shrine would be to miss the enormous effort and journey it has taken everyone to get there.  The rewards of participating in this race are immediate and life-altering, as are the hours of sacrifice it took to reach the point of being able to simply look at the starting line.  And while the last 26.2 miles may seem to others the beginning and end of a great race, this really is the final stage of a pilgrimage that one was called to long ago.  For one doesn’t enter into the rigorous training and sacrificial lifestyle of marathon-preparation without carrying a deep and heavy question about something in their life.  And the pilgrim-runner inevitably carries this question or concern with them every single training mile and all the way to the starting line.  The race itself sets the stage for the soul-stirring vision and provides the sacred encounter, which can replenish the runner’s life.

In what feels like another life-time ago, I had the great opportunity to participate in Boston’s 100th marathon.  It wasn’t necessarily something that I set after, per se.  As it often is with the great seasons of life, it calls to and names us, even before we are significantly aware.  I had started running with a bit more focus while living abroad in Sweden.  After a handful of minor successes at small neighborhood races, I was encouraged (by my mother) to consider training for the Stockholm Marathon.  With youth and unfettered responsibilities on my side, I was able to train and prepare well for this race.  I wanted to participate in something that would give me a real, temporal perspective of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (I Corinthians 9:24-15).  When an athlete decides to run a marathon, he or she commits to serious training. Why would it be any different with my spiritual life?  I was reminded of the many stories in my faith tradition that involved transformational journeys, all of which included a road of some sorts and an encounter with the Almighty.  I wanted this training to transform me.  I wanted to be touched by God and be changed in return.  I wanted the milage put in on the road to be full of meaning.

I crossed the Stockholm Marathon’s finish line with a time that qualified me for Boston’s heralded race.  I shook my head in both confusion and surprise as my father this time, nodded his head emphatically:  You’ve got to run Boston, I recall him saying, This is a chance of a lifetime!  What I thought was the end of my running race, that which I imagined was the source of divine inspiration for me, turned out to be just the beginning of a greater pilgrimage towards knowing myself and subsequently, knowing God.

Drizzled, fog-filled back-country roads became my training ground.  I found mountain’s foothills and ran repeats up and down their curves to ready myself for notorious aspects of Boston’s course.  My dad would drive me 20 miles east into the North Cascade mountain range, drop me off, and meet me at home. I ran in the mornings.  I ran in the afternoons.   I read articles about running.  I studied maps of Boston.  And I dreamt of my finisher’s jacket.  My time, my energy, my life was focused and centered on preparing well for this event, and I believe I truly did what I could to make ready the road.

—–

The morning of Boston’s finest race had sparkled with diamond dew and turquoise skies.  My strategies to gain ground had worked, my stamina was strong and I was on the clock to PR this race and qualify again for the following year.  I was doing great by mile 20.  The almost half mile ascent up the infamous Heartbreak Hill began.  My feet kept a steady pace, my heart and spirit felt strong and determined: this is what I had trained for all those miles up and down Northwest woodland roads.  I crested the mighty climb!  The rest of the race was downhill; the finish line was almost palpable!  Soon enough I would be drinking beers and eating an amazing pasta dinner somewhere in the city with my family-I could almost taste the joy of that delicious finish line!

But then, at the high descent point, blew a wind so strong, that even my down-hill pace was slowed and swayed by its force.  And this easterly gust, being channeled by narrow streets, carried with it a chill for which I could never have prepared myself.  My once wet head, a mixture of both hot sweat and hastily poured road-side water, was quickly drying and taking with it my body’s crucial temperature and energy reserves.  I didn’t have additional layers and I was getting so cold.  Soon enough, I recall not being able to feel my hands and feet; that sensation moved through my extremities as I began to navigate the tunnel my vision was presenting me.  I was staggering.  And suddenly, alongside me came an upholding embrace and a warm, gentle voice offered me their top long-sleeve layer and gloves.  Somehow, while still running, I was helped into these items, and this loving arm stayed around my side until my vision began to steady and open up again.  When I turned to thank this benevolent fellow runner, there was no one there.  I mean, yes, there were thousands around me, running past me, not seeing me, but there was no one who had just just stopped and gambled away their race time on ministering to me.

Bewildered and blessed, I tried to keep running and just finish the race.  My personal record was shot, as was my chance to run Boston again the following year, but I knew I still must cross the finish line.  As I did, my state must’ve been like a siren, as medics immediately brought me to the first aid tent.  I had hypothermia and had I not had these great layers and gloves, I could’ve been very badly off, I was told.  My body lay wrapped in emergency blankets for what felt like hours processing this experience.  My heart was warmed by the memory of whomever-or whatever-it was that covered and comforted me on the road.  My spirit was stirred by that service; I knew that God had brought me through the race and I now began the work of pondering the wisdom of the finish line.

That ultimate sense of wonder within the experience is what drives so many people to engage in these rigorous trials.  Father Stephen Canny, an Irish priest who leads a parish in Santa Rosa, California, believes strongly in the effectiveness of pilgrimage.  He has climbed Croagh Patrick, a popular pilgrimage site and storied mountain in Ireland, three times himself and has seen it work wonders on the devoted. “You are more alive after you have overcome something difficult,” he says.  “You’re changed by the mountain and the fact that you have confirmed your faith.  It’s a remarkably effective way to answer the question, What is my purpose?”

Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world.  In the accounts of the four Gospels, Jesus road into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, whilst the gathered crowd waved the branches of palm branches and laid them on the ground before the mounted Christ.  An incredible journey had brought Jesus to this point, this final stretch of dusty road.  His riding into the sacred city proclaimed his purpose, and people blessed him with shouts of Hosannah.  His entire life time–nay, all of time–had led him to this pivotal point in the Greatest Story ever told.  He would climb the most important hill in humanity’s history in the upcoming week.  And it would be a heart breaking hill.

But because of this great ascent, and the cross at the crest, we have the potential of knowing our uniquely created purpose in ways that only can occur through a cosmic lens!

——

This week, as we move through the last leg of our Lenten journey, reflect on these questions as a means of bringing you to your place of pilgrimage, your Easter-place:
What sacrifices have you made to get this far?
What has the inward experience been for you while you have traveled the outward road?
What are your recollections of images of humbleness on your journey?
The call that has brought you thus far was the call to pay attention to the sacred source in your life.  What is your response? 

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Labyrinth: The Darkest Wood

“Meg suddenly finds herself alone in complete darkness. She has no idea what is happening to her. She seems to have vanished into nothingness. She is lost in a void. Then she hears Charles Wallace saying that they have had quite a trip. Calvin reappears too. Meg finds herself in a sunlit field, where everything is golden with light. There is an atmosphere of peace and joy. …They arrive on a mountain peak, from where they can see a moon of Uriel. As the sun sets, they see a faint shadow of darkness that seems to have a life of its own. The stars come out, but the dark shadow remains. Meg feels how terrible the shadow is,
and is afraid.”
Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time


Afraid of the dark
.  How many of us have known that feeling, either as a child in a dark bedroom,  or running up an ink-black stairwell, always fearing that someone is coming up quickly behind you to grab at your ankles and pull.  Or, even having to take the trash out on a dark night-that skip of the heart, that dread is real and rarely do we dally there.  Meg’s fear in A Wrinkle of Time is one based on the immediacy and darkness of evil.  But even in her quest to journey to, and confront, this ominous presence, she is brought to a place of self-knowing and light; a kind of self-knowledge to which we can only arrive when we have journeyed through alien lands.

What we call these alien lands in our life may have many names and metaphors, but common themes, however, hinge on the images of wilderness and woods, deserts and darkness.  The journey through these themes is often equated to a pilgrimage.  Phil Cousineau describes sojourns such as this as “a transformative journey to a sacred center full of darkness, hardships and peril.”  We are brought through the wilderness-through the labyrinth, which is often the long way around-to our sacred destinations, to our places of divine answers and self-knowledge and understanding. If we are to arrive at the heart of our pilgrimage, sometimes this means we must enter that dark wood and go into that lightless labyrinth.  But we mustn’t believe that we are destined to be lost there.  Darkness is just part of the trip.  This is the typical point of panic and precariousness. For when are we ever really encouraged to BE in the dark? You know, to be okay with it?  At night there are street lights everywhere.  In our homes we likely have night lights in the hallways. We are never completely in the dark.  But to be well with it is to allow it to be a holy-dark and to surrender to it enables us to journey to the real light.

Dante spoke truly of this journey in the following passage from The Inferno:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw…. (Canto I)

Traveling through times of darkness will ultimately bring us to that sacred center – full of light and joy.  While darkness is not the whole of the story, as pilgrimages often have vistas of beauty and happiness, it is often the part of the story left untold.  Parker Palmer writes prolifically about these obscure seasons and offers a mandate that we share with others about our journeys. He wisely recognizes that in telling what we saw in our dark woods, we cross an essential threshold into a place of selfhood and regenerative new life.  Furthermore, there is a sense that to tell the whole of one’s story-to illuminate one’s life journey– can actually help to keep us out of the darkness.

I need to tell my truth, my story, for another reason. Many of you today are journeying through the wilderness and traveling without the knowledge of company or solidarity.  That kind of isolation can eclipse all hopes in ever leaving the labyrinth.  Those of us who have gone before you would be false if we withheld the shadowy parts of our own lives.  We have the power to provide community and comprehension for others when we share authentically about our own story.

The tale of my journey through barren wilderness is no more or less important than anyone else’s.  Mine is simply mine, and therefore the only context from which I can speak.  My dark night began when I was a university student. I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew and called a friend. The darkness of that particular night became that of an endless, starless season. I became pregnant as a result of the rape. Horrified doesn’t even begin to touch the emotional state in which this realization spun me.  For so many varied and vulnerable reasons, my overwhelming shock hunkered into my deepest, softest places and alone, in quiet confusion, I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. I soundlessly screamed against a God who could allow this to happen to me.  I reticently raised my fists at systems that seemed to condone such manifestations of mysogony and misappropriations of power.  I was in shock. I was in denial.  I felt I like was dumped at the trailhead of a trek for which I would never in a lifetime have signed up.  But like it or not, my life was taking me into the darkness of a journey that called me to wrestle with dark angels and beg me to ask this question: toward what newness is God calling me?

This assault brought me to my knees, my spirit to the ground. I felt alone and alienated in my pain, and completely unknowable in my experience.  This isolation later contributed to factors that diagnosed me with clinical depression.  Wise counsel helped me understand that instead of perceiving these attacks as being crushed by the enemy, I could see this rather as an invited time of being laid down on the ground, a place where it would be safe to curl up and cry, but to ultimately stand up tall again as well.  I had to discover the ground of my own truth, my own nature, my own mix of darkness and light.  This wilderness journey, this labyrinth, wasn’t leading me to hell, but was journeying me towards God.

Now here are where the paradoxes of our faith come into play.

Now, clearly I don’t believe that God willed and allowed me to basely suffer at the hands of that man. That happened because our world is fallen in nature.  Nor do I believe that God wanted me to have an abortion and become depressed.  There is deep and distracting theology around both those points; here is not the place to delve into either.  However, what I do believe is that God inhabits the perilous places in our pilgrimage.  The Bible often uses darkness as a metaphor for sin and the absence of God.  On the other hand, there are references to darkness being a place where God dwells and seems to take comfort.  In Psalm 18:11, the Psalmist describes it this way: “God makes darkness his hiding place, the covering around Him, the dark rain clouds of the sky.”  The image of the Creator of the Universe shrouded in darkness with images of distended, dark rain clouds is not our normal frame of reference; the Psalmist’s perspective, though, has sufficiency and solidarity all over it.  God in the dark.  God living your darkness. Therefore, darkness can feel strangely nurturing, swollen with the mystery of becoming.  All of life first incubates in darkness.  New development follows and life begins.  Darkness indeed is a necessary condition for development.  Whenever a new life begins and grows, darkness is crucial to that processes.  Whether it is the caterpillar and the chrysalis, the seed and the soil, the wee one in the womb, or the true self and the soul.  There is always a time of waiting. In. The. Dark.

In John’s Gospel, there is a story of when Jesus tells a high ranking Pharisee named Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again.  This did not mean reentering his mother’s womb; rather, Christ was talking about a spiritual transformation.  As Christians, we often just focus on the-life-everlasting after the rebirth and forget to recognize the inherent (and necessary) gestation period.  Sue Monk Kidd describes this as a time of “incubating darkness.”  I believe that Jesus selected this strongly feminine metaphor not just so we could grasp the power of new life but also to engage in the implications of the womb that precede every birth. If we want to enter the kingdom of God, we will have to enter a place of waiting, of darkness and of incubation. We will have to walk the wilderness. Julian of Norwich wrote that “our wounds become the womb.” This touching image points us to the awareness that transformation hinges on the ability for us to turn our wounds into a fertile place where life is birthed-the womb.

Gustav Klimt 1909

I have now been out of these dark woods for many years now.  That devastating time in the desert slowly began to change to seasons of oasis; the shadowy woods became my own personal Tree of Life.  I now have a loving, supportive husband and three beautiful children who daily teach me so much about life, our world and how to live well into it.  And I have a life that would not be what it is had I not sojourned through that dark, wild forest. The wound of that trespass so many years ago is now the site of great life and fertility.  The darkness of that decision and depression has given way to new perspectives on life and the Christ-light.  My threshold for empathizing with another’s story and listening without judgement has increased in depth and breadth because of that journey.  There is a great sense of light in my life these days and this certainly isn’t to say that I won’t once again travel in the hard, rocky places.  It is simply that I have such a clearer understanding that out of death, comes life.  We only know light because of the darkness.  I walk in the woods now and I witness a fallen tree on the forest floor and I smile and understand a little bit more; for this wizened wood has now become a nurse log, a fertile place which will provide life, and company, for a gazillion little creatures for a long, long time.

And so today I ask this: let the Christ-life incubate within the darkness of your wilderness.  Share your dark journey with a safe-someone else, for it is in sharing our story that we invite others to be light, to be grace, to be hope, and to be Christ to us; thereby bringing us out of the darkness or simply being there to illuminate it.

 

Taproot: Living Fully, Digging Deeper

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Taproot: Living Fully, Digging Deeper

I’m strongly compelled to interrupt my normal posting schedule to share with you a new magazine that crossed my mother’s counter top to mine over the weekend. Taproot is a dedicated printscape of stories; stories deeply rooted in the earth that tell of knowing our earthen HOME. These tales talk about urban chickens and soil under the finger nails, touching your food, and children in gardens. It is also ad-free and the kind of collection that calls you to make a pot of coffee or tea, and cuddle up for a read.

Please visit their site by clicking on their photo and consider subscribing to this beautiful new venture.

Labyrinth-The Lorica as Light

13th century image of pilgrims at sea

As we journey through life, we each come to, and through, seasons of great challenge and often despair.  From the time we are children, we face the fears of monsters-real and imaginary-and the dark.  We come up against the things that cause us to cringe and curl away from our castles in the air.  And we are reminded that in many ways, we are very much like Max, the cajoling, contrary little boy in Maurice Sendak’s story Where the Wild Things Are.

In this tale, through a sequence of events that tend to happen to parents of young children between the hours of 4:00-6:00pm, our protagonist, Max, finds himself sent away to his room without supper.  That night, a forest grew up in his room, and an ocean roared by, and Max boarded a boat and “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks…to where the wild things are.”  These wild things “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws,” but Max tamed and ruled over them, becoming their king.  Ultimately, it is clear to Max that it was time to return home.  He sailed back over the same vast ocean, in the same little boat, reappearing in his same childhood home…only he found that he was immeasurably changed, even as he ate his hot supper.

Our journeys will not be without trial and darkness.  What we have marked as a pilgrimage will most definitely bring us to-but always through!-turbulent oceans of fear and doubt.  Just this week, popular author and pilgrim, Phil Cousineau tweeted, “When you’re following your passion, threshold guardians will try to hold you back. Getting past them depends on how deep your passion goes.”  The image of the labyrinth is an ancient symbol for the meandering path of the soul that goes from light into darkness and emerges once again into light.  The soul emanates transformed. This darkness (the wilderness) is the heart of the pilgrimage and always involves an element of inner conflict or struggle. It is the time spent within the wilderness where you meet your fears and confront them-where you come up against whatever prevents you from hearing the voice of God or living a life of compassion and generosity.[i]

We may have not be sent to our room, but we have been sent on a soulful sojourn with the promise of sacred encounters along the way and a bounty beyond belief upon our homecoming.  But these “threshold guardians,” these wild things, will do their best to frighten and influence us away from our goal.  Young Max was wise to use power to command his fears.  As we progress through the pitchy places of our pilgrimage, we find St. Patrick’s timely prayer, The Lorica, and use it as a lantern to light our way.

Statue of St. Patrick

The Lorica is also known as St. Patrick’s “Breastplate” Prayer.  These powerful words call out to God to protect those parts of the soul and body that would be preyed upon by evil throughout the day’s ventures.  These words become likened to the necessary armor that guards, but they also provide guidance as one explores their private seas.  Inevitably darkness and dismay will descend on your journey.  It has been said that “patience, silence, trust, and faith are venerable qualities of the pilgrim, but more important is the practice of them.”  Along with these virtues, this strengthening prayer becomes the light that will illuminate the darkness and reveal that which is at your sacred center.  Godspeed!

The Lorica (St. Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’ Prayer)

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.



[i] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001),12.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, (Harper Collins Publishers), Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate  is traditionally attributed to Saint Patrick during his Irish ministry in the 5th century.

The Pilgrim’s Path: Surprise in the Similar

I’ve been walking in our neighborhood’s woods for years now.  What started out as hopeful curiosity in a forest behind our house, led me down a path towards becoming a Forest Steward- trained in local flora and fauna, urban forest restoration and community activism. I wanted a trail upon which to walk my dog; I found homeless encampments.  I wanted a place in which to refresh and recreate; I found prostitution base camps.  I wanted a place in which to be quiet and still; I found needles and sex toys.  The sacred place I wanted didn’t even seem like a possibile hope; the English Ivy and Himalayan Blackberry covered the promise of this land with its dark invasiveness.

In 2007 we commenced our commitment to hosting monthly volunteer work parties for our neighborhood.  We believed that the fear, filth and felonious behaviors could be combatted to reveal the great gift Earth is always offering us: LIFE!  In the context of these first-Saturday-of-the-month gatherings, we began the slow, inglorious effort of hand removing the ivy and blackberry.  We became master garbage collectors and bore witness to the very real social tensions of encampments being told [repeatedly] to vacate.  We became versed in our City’s shelter programs and at which pier personal affects can be collected.  We canvassed the neighborhood looking for support and interest in changing something that was into something unimaginably better.  We were committed to the long-term work of restoration and transformation.  We wanted to transform this urban soil into a sanctuary.

The work of bringing down heaven to earth is no easy task.  And it always takes time…and a lot of it.  This is the epic work of pilgrimages and journeys, deserts and dreams.  There is always such fanfare and exhilaration when one picks up the walking stick and marks, and crosses into, the beginning of the journey.  The vision of the destination is so clear, so lucid–it seems you could just reach across a short breadth of time and realize every desired detail.  But soon you find your arm is tired from being extended for so long…for so very long.  Your hand clutches that walking stick with a deepened sense of understanding that this stick is with you to uphold and offer stability when the road gets longer, instead of shorter.  For sacred destinations always require time and long processes; the meaningful meanderings are necessary to bring you to that place where you are able to see and hear with a clarity that simply doesn’t exist at the beginning.

We have hosted over 75 work parties in our 10 acre parcel of urban forest in the last six years.  We have painstakingly picked up invasive plants and planted more than 1500 trees and shrubs.  We have written for and received grants to fund an urban forest trail system to connect neighbors and neighborhoods.  I have sat in Council members chambers in City Hall sharing our story of forest transformation and restoration.  The heaven that I thought was just one-shovel full away has taking me years to begin to see.  I have leaned on that shovel-and on the arms and hearts of committed neighbors and friends-in fatigue and frustration, wanting so badly to be done and to realize the destination for which I had set out for…so very long ago.

I long for free social weekends and open evenings not requiring correspondance with local organizations. …And then I have to make the choice–the choice we all have to make on our journeys.  When we have been on the road for a bit of time, the enchantments and sparkles of roadside attractions become great.  They call for us to stop, rest and even consider them a favored substitute over the sacred destination.  We can choose this…or we can look to the “imaginative, active encounter with the place” (P. Cousineau).  At this point in the journey, we must look all the harder and request for a renewed power of vision.

I went up into the woods this week and came across a beautiful, seemingly-spontaneously-built, road side alter of rock, wood and fern at the trail head into the woods.  I was startled and stunned by its presence.  Everything about its quiet appearance shouted reminders to me of what these woods once held.  For at one time-at this very spot, I had uncovered over 200 hypodermic needles…and now there was just this free, intentional, beauty.  This organic gathering was a blessed statement of how far along the journey we had come to seeing this forest as a place of community refreshment, a place of collective comfort.  We certainly aren’t there yet–the destination is still a long way off.  But the meaning that is being collected along the whole long way is going to make this little piece of heaven one helluva place!