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Home » editorials

Strength in Change

Submitted by on August 6, 2018 – 12:33 am18 Comments

By Prema-bhakti dasi

When I joined the ashram at the age of 19, I remember attending a lecture and asking the speaker what the term “like-minded” meant in the context of association of devotees. He looked around the room and said that we were all like-minded; “we are all following the same philosophy and striving to be Krishna conscious.” However, when I looked around the room I thought, “It’s true we are all on the same path, but did it follow that we were all like-minded?” On many levels, most of us in that room were very different and in any other circumstance I would probably never have crossed paths with them during the course of my life sojourn, what to speak of live with them and share an ideology. The speaker went on to recount Aesop’s fable, The Bundle of Sticks. An old man on his deathbed summoned his sons and asked them to bring him a bundle of sticks. He requested each son to try to break the bundle, but they were unable to. He then separated the sticks and handed each son a single stick, each of which they easily broke.

Srila Prabhupada also employed this simple fable on a few occasions to demonstrate the idea of “strength in numbers.” A single stick is easy to break, but a bundle cannot be broken. It was an important principle to instill in his followers. Srila Prabhupada was pioneering a movement and going against the cultural grain of the West. He was elderly and did not know how much time he had left to tender to his students. So, seemingly like the father in the fable, he stressed to his spiritual sons and daughters to stick together.

Nonetheless, I knew there must be some nuances to this idea, but I also took it to heart; in part because at 19 years old I was sufficiently fed up with the intensity and hassle of the world, but also because although I was living amongst veritable strangers, I would rather be with them than anyone else.

As time went on, the disparity between that fable and my reality grew wider. Practically speaking, in the world of Gaudiya Vaishnavism I found much strife and many factions. Was it naive to hope that we could all stick together while acknowledging not only personality differences but even some disparity in regards to both details and essential principles in our own tradition? This situation became even harder to digest when I saw it turning away people who otherwise seemed ready to take Mahaprabhu’s path. I was turned off by it too. I would often wonder of what use a dried up bundle of sticks was anyway, slowly breaking off, piece by piece, at the rope that bundled it up in the first place. It seemed such a bundle had little purpose at all unless tossed in the fire of purification.

Despite these personal and communal difficulties, I did take seriously Srila Rupa Goswami’s mandate in Upadesamrta that one should forgo intimate association with the non-devout. For the next two and half decades, living inside and outside of ashrams, I kept up this mandate. Through my twenties, thirties, and now mid-forties, I have experienced all the normal stages of human life and development almost exclusively in the company of bhaktas. I have identified as a Gaudiya Vaishnava for the greater balance of my life and other Vaishnavas have filled the roles of guides, friends, mates, co-workers, and confidantes.

Although I still maintain my conviction and I am forever indebted to those who have helped me along the way, going through two and a half decades of life trials and changes in the association of those I share an intensely purifying and meaningful spiritual relationship with has been my toughest challenge. Why is that? I think, most simply, it is because we are human, complete with foibles as well as having been blessed with a connection to an extraordinary lineage of powerful saints. Fellow sadhakas, unlike other people in our lives, reflect back to us our core self and remind us of our eternal nature, which, frankly, is sometimes that which we seek to forget. Sometimes it’s the quotes from sastra (sometimes offered insensitively, too) that we don’t want to hear. Yet such input in our lives should not be arbitrarily dismissed, even when communicated abrasively. Our path demands deep introspection. However, it is still much more disappointing to me when I feel a devotee has failed me personally. It speaks to my own insecurities and fragility. That disappointment is felt deeply within because I expect much more from them. It also pains the heart and may affect our spiritual progress because we are dealing with sadhakas, those who are plugged into the power source of the sacred realm of reality. Together we are embarking on the foundational spiritual journey of ego effacement, and when we are all in the pressure cooker together, it can get mighty hot and messy.

In navigating the sticky realm that is relationships among bhaktas, it is important to remember that although we will all have to work (and pray) through our difficulties in pursuit of our ideal, each of us will do so slightly differently. Anarthas, false values, do not all retire at once. Therefore we may see blemishes persisting in ourselves and others despite genuine signs of development. For this reason, we should bow down our heads to the generosity of Bhakti devi, who appears in our hearts despite such impurities. To extend that generosity to our dealings with others is an unavoidable (and further, essential) part of associating with fellow practitioners.

I say all this not to be sentimental because, frankly, not all sanga is equal. The sadhu is full of grace and we should seek out enlightened souls and serve them without hesitation. But we should also recognize the little saints among us. They exist, although our hyperopic vision makes it hard to put them in focus at times. At the same time, we are all individuals and we may jive better with some than others. Since “finding” my group within the larger circle of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I have experienced that there has never been a greater feeling of joy and satisfaction in my heart. I would say it was analogous to the feeling of stopping someone for directions in a neighboring town and finding out that person is your best friend who can guide you back home. When one has experienced this connection, the struggle with our own shortcomings becomes more meaningful and more relevant as we move from obligation to gratitude to genuine love. Our business then is to strive to make ourselves worthy of an invite into the land of faith where all mundane disparity dissipates.

I write this as my humble attempt to get real, with myself. Throughout the 25 years I have associated with devotees, I have judged and I have been judged. I have forgiven and have been forgiven by others. I have experienced bliss and also experienced my ‘dark nights’ of the soul. Despite how unflattering it is, I have given in to resentment and contemplating karmic retribution for those who I have felt hurt me; hoping for some judgment or wrath of God to make it all right in my tiny mind. Yes, it is embarrassing for me to write this! But it is the truth and I wish for it to set me free.

There is a popular quote by Mahatma Gandhi out and about on bumper stickers and t-shirts and quoted in many different circles: “Be the change, you want to see in the world.” It’s a nice saying and certainly true, but change is damn hard. And yet, as my gurudeva often says, “Change we must.” This is the substance of anartha-nvrtti and it is not for the weak hearted. Yet, this is the progressive path to our sublime potential.

Purity is the force and that will never be trumped by fancy buildings, how big or small a mission is, or how qualified the spiritual leader is. We just can’t get around the ultimate challenge to “be the change.” I therefore challenge myself to be the change I wish to see in the Gaudiya Vaishnava community. By writing this, I hope it will open me more to the huge task ahead of purifying my own heart. Anartha-nrvrtti is no cake walk, but I hope the more candles I place on that prized cake the wiser and more grateful I become. May those who feel similarly take guidance in the perfect instructions of Srila B. R. Sridhara-Deva Goswami,

Submissiveness and modesty – that is the law of Mahaprabhu. Trnad api sunicena taror api sahisnuna amanina manadena – these things must be repeatedly preached. Trnad api sunicena means I must not be so rigid that I may not accommodate others. Taror api sahisnuna – if still someone is aggressive toward to me, I shall try to tolerate. And amani –I must never insist on any fame from the environment, still I will always be ready to give honor to all. With this attitude we should march on our way. This maxim should be given a very broad circulation. To become a Vaishnava we must be deceit-free and have discipline of this type and this comes from none other than Mahaprabhu himself.

In the darkest of moments with my one foot out the proverbial devotional door, it has been the devotees who have pulled me out of my self-absorbed pity. In such times of gratitude, Sri Rupa’s mandate rings true. The devout will always rescue me from losing my heart’s true ideal and for such kindness, despite our sometimes mutual shortcomings, I hope to remain in their company life after life.

18 Comments »

  • Ishan das

    Dear Prema Bhakti dasi Prabhu,

    Please accept my humble obeisances.

    I think that your conclusion is my only hope. The association of devotees birth after birth.

    After leaving the disconcerting condition of ISKCON in the early ’80’s, I eventually become deeply involved with a good soul who is not a bhakta, more of a pantheist, one who envisions nature as sublime, and who has no faith in the idea of an existence beyond this present embodiment.

    Now, although living “on the land” I am without vaishnava association, and too much influenced by feelings of gratitude and obligation to simply set off for the nearest of Swami Tripurari’s ashrams. Selling out in this market is a great challenge. She is willing to sell and accompany me – I can only pray that this can come to pass.

    Your message comes at a time when I am most ready to say, yes, yes, yes. To be able to live the remaining years of my life in the association of devotees – if only that could come to pass.

    Your servant,

    Ishan

    • Prema-bhakti

      Thank you for your comments Ishan Prabhu. I wish you success in fulfilling your desire to be in the company of devotees.

      Your comments slightly touch on a point I originally included in my article but was edited out because it took the article on a bit of a tangent. The purpose of the article is obviously not to call into question those who move about in the secular world. We all have our needs and requirements for maintenance and our various psychological dispositions. For instance and as you mention about your personal situation, many devotees have mixed faith marriages and they can be as favorable and compatible or even more so than marriages of the same faith. The main thrust of Sri Rupa’s mandate is to do what is favorable for bhakti. We live in a fast paced world and a fair amount of social intercourse occurs and some very meaningful. For most struggling sadhakas, the chasm between the devout and non-devout is not very wide. So with a partner or without, just get sanga!!!!!

      • Ishan das

        Dear Prema Prabhu!

        Right-on! (as they say).

        I am praying for guidance in this respect.

        Also I have scheduled a 1 month visit to Madhuvan (Costa Rica) for the month of December (when Tripurari Maharaja will be there).

        One thing I see is that your article has prompted responses from the lady bhaktas that we don’t often hear from on this site. Like your article has brought them forward. And that is nice.

        Otherwise, please accept my humble obeisances.

        Hare Krishna! Ishan

  • Madhumangala

    Wow! What an article…

  • Goloka Dasa

    nice article Prema I especially liked the part quoted from Sridhar Maharaja about Tolerance in follow Trinad api…. Your experiences are shared by all of us. Thanks for putting it to words! Your friend, Goloka

  • Kula-pavana

    Didi Prema Bhakti, pranams and thank you for such a sincere, soul searching writing.
    As I get older I tend to appreciate more and more the value of these ‘negative experiences’ we all have in life. Seems like we need to get scammed and cheated in order to properly recognize and appreciate value, truth, and goodness. Otherwise we tend to take these good things for granted when they come to us, often uninvited, and too often under-appreciated.
    We have all become better and wiser thanks to all these painful experiences. We should be thankful for them – not just grudgingly accepting, but truly glad we had them. And also maybe thankful to people who provided them to us… they probably need our good energy anyway… That is most likely the best way to deal with all negativity… 🙂

    • Prema-bhakti

      I was thinking about your comments and I came across this nice poem by Hafiz, a Persian poet and mystic (circa 1300 C.E.). I think it describes beautifully how beneficial it can be to hold and put into perspective the low points and grief we sometimes experience on our spiritual journeys. These experiences have the potential to soften us and perhaps make us more compassionate and empathetic to the suffering of others and therefore increase our feelings of dependence on each other(sanga) and ultimately God.

      “Do not surrender your grief so quickly
      Let it cut more deeply
      Let it ferment and season you
      As few human or divine ingredients can

      Something is missing in my heart tonight
      That has made made my eyes so soft
      And my voice so tender
      And my need of God so absolutely clear.”

  • This is one of the most poignant and beautiful articles I have read in a long time. You made me weep. It was so truthful and from the heart and gives hope to all devotees. Many, many thanks Dhanistha

  • Tarun

    Thank you Prema Bhakti for this important article. It deals with an area that is oft overlooked in our missions. It seems to me that if association with devotees is so important, then acquiring social skills would be something that we would teach in our sangas. Krishna bhakti is a science and is taught systematically, but when it comes to this very important area of devotees interaction, it`s kind of like `whatever`…. each man for himself.. you have whatever skills you have when you come to the movement.. nothing more is taught… and so i see people like myself floundering for lack of ability to create positive relationships, to see ones own shortfalls in interpersonal dealings.. and to deal with others’ lack…

    Knowing the details of the spiritual world is one thing, but unless, as you point out, the anarthas are not acknowledged and dealt with appropriately, then spiritual life becomes a kind of fantasy.. and even worse a hypocrisy. Ego effacement is the real job, but unless it is done systematically and scientifically, it can remain just a concept. There is great power in dealing with anarthas in the association of other souls who want to do that work, however. What comes out in a circle of compassionate listeners, what gets reflected back from a group, is very difficult to achieve on one`s own. We have our own stories about how we’ve been victimized by the world, and those stories make up our personalities to a large extent. As you say

    Despite how unflattering it is, I have given in to resentment and contemplating karmic retribution for those who I have felt hurt me; hoping for some judgment or wrath of God to make it all right in my tiny mind. Yes, it is embarrassing for me to write this! But it is the truth and I wish for it to set me free.

    Not many can make that call on themselves, and even harder to maintain it over time.. Much easier when you have a sanga of `like minded` people who are `talking` about it openly, and helping one another to face the music.. And it ain`t so bad really. We fear our darker sides because we think that what we will find there is the real ugly truth.. and it is.. but it is not who we really are, not really the truth of being… and as we look without hiding, the illusion starts to dissipate. When that happens, anartha nirvritti goes into high gear, and we can feel much liberation from our small selves in rather short periods of time..

    I`ve done this sort of work before, in weekend seminars, with a room full of people, and it was exhilarating.. but i have never done it with a group of devotees.. so sad, because it`s devotees that i have associated with for the greater part of my life. When you expose your biggest fears to others who are listening compassionately, it creates a powerful bond, that is so worth endeavoring for.

    Over the past few years i have gained some appreciation for Prabhupada`s emphasis, at least in the latter part of his mission, on varnashrama dharma. Though the details are still to be worked out, I firmly believe that organizing the social life of the community is good and right. The laisser faire attitude that so predominates these days doesn’t do much for creating loving sangas. If people can renege on commitments with impunity, if they can do as you say here

    … it is still much more disappointing to me when I feel a devotee has failed me personally. It speaks to my own insecurities and fragility. That disappointment is felt deeply within because I expect much more from them. It also pains the heart and may affect our spiritual progress

    then the fabric of our communal lives is torn. Half a sanga might be better than no sanga, but many who have options may prefer no sanga or maybe a Buddhist sanga that is practicing loving kindness. Or maybe an online sanga with no agreements and no commitments. The power and glory of Mahaprabhus movement is being suppressed by our kali yuga ways. It causes me pain when i think of the potential, and the reality.

    Better to light a candle, I suppose, than to go on with cursing the darkness, and so speaking and writing about this is something positive I can do. But you can`t really `be the change`when it`s a societal change that is needed. We can go on in our personal spiritual lives, and we can be detached from any madness that is going on around, and we can be content waiting for the small mercies that may come our way. But there is a mission!! There is something big here to accomplish. Something great and glorious awaits manifestation, awaits our full participation as healthy and whole persons engaged with others in loving exchanges. Will we have to wait till we arrive in the spiritual world to experience that, or will the spiritual world descend when we are ready? I think only the first rays of the Prema yuga have dawned so far. The sun has yet to rise!!!

    • Ishan das

      Hi Tarun! Hare Krishna Prabhu!

      Now I think that I hear what you are saying, about social interaction, and people bearing their souls (actually their mundane feelings)to each other. And all of that is well and good.

      But the real social skills of the devotional aspirants are described by Srila Rupa Goswami Prabhupda in his Upadesamrta. We have to first live in the association of devotees. And we have to participate in devotional functions together, such as daily sankirtan, attend classes, share prasadam, serve and honor the Deities together. There is more of course.

      Now, that is the process, as I understand it. And I don’t think it is going to happen any other way. Of course our individual efforts at japa and reading in our isolated ways will be to our benefit. But I am referring to the “full steam ahead” authorized approach.

      In that test tube, with the heat turned up, some challenges will naturally arise. But as I understand it, that austerity is part of the process, and the only way to get past it is to have our priorities in place and take up the path of “trinad api…” in the association of devotees.

      Am I doing it? No. Not since ISKCON went upside down. But now that I have found this oasis of Krishna consciousness under the guidance of Tripurari Swami, I am day by day feeling more and more that I must do whatever it takes to get myself tansplanted into that mileau.

      Perhaps I’ll see you there and we’ll dance together in kirtan.

  • Tadiya dasi

    Prema! Good to see you writing for the Harmonist 🙂

    On my way home from Poland, on a 6 hour train ride from Wroclaw to Warsaw, I was talking with Bhrigu about the Women of Bhakti film among other things and you came up in the discussion. I was telling Bhrigu how much I admired you for a.) being a strong woman and b.) staying true to the path of bhakti regardless of how much of a “long and winding road” it sometimes is (for all of us).

    I especially liked this part of your article:

    For this reason, we should bow down our heads to the generosity of Bhakti devi, who appears in our hearts despite such impurities. To extend that generosity to our dealings with others is an unavoidable (and further, essential) part of associating with fellow practitioners.

    I say all this not to be sentimental because, frankly, not all sanga is equal. The sadhu is full of grace and we should seek out enlightened souls and serve them without hesitation. But we should also recognize the little saints among us.

    I consider myself fortunate to have many senior godsisters (and godbrothers!) to learn from. “The little saints.” What a wealth of experience (faith) and insights you all have to share with us –and for the benefit of us all. So keep on writin’ 🙂

    The devout will always rescue me from losing my heart’s true ideal and for such kindness, despite our sometimes mutual shortcomings, I hope to remain in their company life after life.

    Beautifully put, and so true!

  • Rudrani dd

    Hare Krsna dear Prema-bhakti,

    …because we are human, complete with foibles as well as having been blessed with a connection to an extraordinary lineage of powerful saints.

    The teachings and the saints are sublime and they are an incredible and undeserving gift given to the devotee. On the other hand, for the bhakta to come to the point of understanding and accepting that Krsna is the Supreme Absolute Truth and the Supreme Lord of our lives is no small feat. Whether by grace or because we may have traversed the devotional path before, Bhaktidevi is approaching and offering us Her wealth. But who are we? We tend to think that “others” are not as elevated, as enlightened… Proudly we believe in our superiority rather than humbly recognizing our excellent and undeserved good fortune.

    We also tend to have unrealistic expectations of others; we expect the other devotees to be perfect examples, perfect all around. Sadly we eventually realize that that is an illusory hope. Oh! So much sorrow, so much disappointment. It burns, it aches, it becomes an unbearable pain.

    Prabhupada says that Utopia doesn’t exist, not even in the spiritual world. Something to ponder on…

    Yet, we are on the path by our extremely good fortune, full as we are of inadequacies and defects, but on the path. As we stay the course we can start to observe how Krsna is working in our lives and all around us, how every second is a miracle, how everything He does is full of thought, compassion and love.

    We need faith, the faith that allows us to relax; we are doing our work, living a life of prayer and hope, and He is taking care of everything to the smallest, minutest detail. It’s time we let go. We are not in control of anything but He is controlling us by His tender affection, His care and His intelligent guidance. Faith, Faith, I pray for unlimited Faith…

  • Ishan das

    It appears that everyone is being as honest as they can, with themselves and with the rest of us. And no one has been unkind.

    Still, we have this recent declaration from ISKCON. I have not read it yet, but I understand that Swami Tripurari and anyone who hears from him and associates with his ashrams is labelled as persona non grata by ISKCON America. Similarly, they have this long standing offensive attitude towards Srila Sridhara Goswami. I do not know if this has been retracted, or is still the status quo.

    There has recently been a video on this site wherein Swami Tripurari discusses the course of action to be taken when one’s guru falls from grace. His advice was to find someone who is qualified, with the stipulation that if the first initiator holds an offensive attitude towards one’s new spiritual guide, one should break all connection with the first.

    So we have this situation. There are those among the upper ranks of ISKCON who I remember as floor sweepers and pot washers when we first joined ISKCON together. Now these same people have taken these offensive attitudes and are writing and endorsing these declarations.

    One of my neighbors is a rancher. When she goes away on short trips she asks me to feed her horses and water her flowers in exchange for a fee. Recently she asked me to also feed some young bulls that she had penned up. I explained to her that I could take care of the horses and the flowers, but that I could not feed the animals that were slated for the slaughter house, because then I would be implicated in the process.

    In the same way, those who align themselves with ISKCON and function under that umbrella are implicated in everything that ISKCON represents. Figuratively speaking, they are feeding the cows that are on their way to the slaughterhouse.

    Although this article has a very progressive devotional attitude that we all should embrace, it does not seem to address the reality of the position that ISKCON has taken and is taking towards our devotional family, towards Srila Sridhar Goswami who Srila Prabhupada respected as a siksa guru, as well as their obvious deviations from vaishnav standards, support of decadent so-called gurus, etc.

    Yes, I feel hurt by ISKCON, by the way that they have conducted themselves in Srila Prabhupada’s absence. I trusted them and feel that they have betrayed that trust and behaved abominably, and continue to do so. Therefore it is a challenge for me to separate these feelings from what is best and appropriate under the circumstances, or to understand what is best and appropriate.

    I think that Swami Tripurari has spelled it out in that short video. Viz., if that guru who has fallen becomes hostile when we seek competant guidance, then we should turn our back on them. I think that we sould respond the same way towards their entire organization when that organization takes an aggressively hostile stand towards our leadership, our guidance, and ourselves as a body.

    I do think that many devotees under the ISKCON umbrella are young and are being fed false propaganda and therefore are actually victims of fallen leadership that is intent on covering up past offenses with more of the same. But for that leadership certainly there is no excuse and no reason for them to continue to deepen the rift that has developed, especially when they are so much in need of qualified leadership which our Swami Tripurari is so able to provide.

    All the above being said, the question of how to apply the advice of this article to this situation appears to me as an unhappy quandrum.

    • Prema-bhakti

      Bolo Ishan,

      Perhaps I did not directly address the quandary you propose in your comment. Yet I do feel the article and particularly this paragraph below addresses the larger issue of honoring free flow of faith and seeking sanga from genuine sadhus wherever and whenever they may present themselves. The idea of change is highlighted as well as moving forward and finding sanga that is inspiring and progressive.

      I say all this not to be sentimental because, frankly, not all sanga is equal. The sadhu is full of grace and we should seek out enlightened souls and serve them without hesitation. But we should also recognize the little saints among us. They exist, although our hyperopic vision makes it hard to put them in focus at times. At the same time, we are all individuals and we may jive better with some than others. Since “finding” my group within the larger circle of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I have experienced that there has never been a greater feeling of joy and satisfaction in my heart. I would say it was analogous to the feeling of stopping someone for directions in a neighboring town and finding out that person is your best friend who can guide you back home. When one has experienced this connection, the struggle with our own shortcomings becomes more meaningful and more relevant as we move from obligation to gratitude to genuine love. Our business then is to strive to make ourselves worthy of an invite into the land of faith where all mundane disparity dissipates.

      I do agree that there is so much more to be said on this topic yet in my humble opinion the bottom line is that the strongest contribution most of us can make in solving such quandaries is to “be the change” and have the integrity to stand up for what is siddhanta in the eyes of our illustrious guru parampara.

      • Ishan das

        Dear Prema Prabhu,

        I hear yuh! I really have some homework to do in my own heart. My list of stories of life within ISKCON, post-Srila Prabhupada departure experiences, and this recent declaration all adds up to a heavy burden.

        Still, the direction in which you are pointing seems to be the only answer for my own spiritual survival and progress.

        Being humble, honoring all while not seeking respect, praying for the advancement of all concerned, not engaging in confrontation…….

        Enough otherwise to keep us busy in our Krishna consciusness.

        Good orientation. Thanks. Hare Krishna! Ishan

        • Prema-bhakti

          Being humble, honoring all while not seeking respect, praying for the advancement of all concerned, not engaging in confrontation…….

          I agree with everything you say here but I would like to add that sometimes confrontation may be necessary especially in situations where siddhanta is misrepresented or aparadhas are being made towards one’s worshipful guardians. Such confrontation should not be considered egotistical or diminish one’s regard for humility.

          These situations vary and considerations such as one’s standing in bhakti, the time and place and one’s relationship with those involved are important factors.

          • Ishan das

            I hear you once again. And your points are well taken. I have just read through the 80 odd comments dealing with the recent GBC resolution. For me, it simply stirs up so much inner turmoil.

            Although it is important to keep current and informed, all of this simply moves me to withdraw from the arena of conflict, tend to my saddhana, and try to hear from those who help me to feel connected to the heart of Krishna consciousness.

            For me that help currently is coming from Tripurari Swami.

            The further I keep myself from this kind of interaction, the easier to it is for me to be respectful to all concerned. That has always been my way. For me, familiarity goes against the grain. I will have leave these struggles to those who are more elevated, more advanced.

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