The State of an Author-Composer’s World

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Do you ever have that feeling that there’s just too much going on? No, of course not, she says (wink-wink). This summer hit me like a Mack truck, and the grace in it was that I was so focused on two weeks in July–my week at NPM in Cincinnati and our trip to Colorado last week–that I didn’t have any time to spend calculating how much other work was getting shoved off to the side. If I had really processed how much there was, the stress level would have skyrocketed.

As I was taking these pictures I was feeling bad for the poor mama moose, who was having to raise her babies with 50 people taking pictures…but now I think I sort of missed the part where she was living in ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, with no responsibilities except existing. There’s some beauty in that.

My poor kids have two weeks of summer break left and it’s the first real unstructured time we have. We needed one day for recovering from twelve hours on the road–day 1 we saw moose at Sprague Lake, I battled Nicholas and Michael on the aerial course, we had lunch and souvenir shopping, and THEN drove 6 hours in 7 hours. Day 2 we got up, ate breakfast, and drove 6 hours in 7 hours. And then did eight loads of laundry and went to a birthday party for the baby of a choir member. So yeah, we needed Sunday to recover. And Monday.

By Tuesday, they were “all war zone, all the time.”

And me, in the meantime?

I knocked out my first two deadlines on Monday and Tuesday–the shortest two. Some of the other tasks on my to-do list are gargantuan. It’s easy to say, “Query Trust Falls.” What that line item doesn’t tell you is I have to write a synopsis. And take the list of upwards of a hundred agents I’ve been collecting for the last two years and organize it and figure out which ones are the best match. Then agonize over the query letter and make sure it’s as compelling as it can possibly be, with the right balance of, well, everything. And only then comes the querying itself.

It’s also easy to write on that list, “Trio.” But writing a piece of music is not a short process. I will likely spend three or four months working on that.

So I view the upcoming school year with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, all the kids will be in school all day for the first time. (Hurrah! Uninterrupted days to work!) On the other, homework season is starting. The reading assessments that ended 3rd grade underscored to us that we’ve really underserved Miss Julianna, and we can’t do it anymore. We’ve GOT to figure out where to scrape together 15-20 minutes a day for reading comprehension, and when the speech therapist sends home that 12-page packet that says “do this list of words 3x a day for a week, then do this list 3x a day for a week…”…well, we really need to do it.

Such things make me feel like whimpering. It makes me miss this even more:

I could totally stand to spend every day climbing enormous piles of boulders at the Alluvial Fan and cuddle up by a fire in the evening to write. Wait. If I write, that presupposes all the deadlines and the other stuff…roses and thorns.

When this round of deadlines clears out I have to take a clear-eyed stock of what I commit to and be more realistic.

That’s the state of my world right now, and I know no one’s all that interested, but I debated not blogging at all today because I just remembered (I’ve been working on agent lists this morning!), and I have a flute duet rehearsal any minute, so I decided it was the type of day that calls for a stream-of-consciousness post that only takes 12 minutes to write.

My “Week Off”

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I was supposed to take this week, the last week of summer school, as a week off writing. I’ve finished my novel revision, and that was my reward: scrapbooking, some time sitting outside in the quiet, a shopping trip, maybe even a couple hours in front of the TV.

Well, I have deadlines, so forget that. Boo hiss.

So my “week off” became “two hours off” (three, including transit). About ten minutes from my house is Finger Lakes State Park, which is a reclaimed strip mine with a water trail. I’ve been on it once with my family and another family who are friends of ours, but with 8 kids, you can imagine that day was not a particularly peaceful one.

Yesterday morning was absolutely perfect. Cool, quiet–so very quiet, back there on the water trail. Just me and the frogs and the birds and the cicadas. Even the highway was obligingly quiet, for a change.

And since, you know, deadline, I’m just going to share some photos taken with my not-phone (what do you call an old iPhone with no service plan, so it only functions with wireless internet? We’ve tried ipod, but somehow “not-phone” seems most accurate). In any case: not fabulous photography, but enough to say: a wonderful week day couple hours off.

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Kisses In The Outfield (Photo Friday)

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Monday night, when the coach dismissed the boys from their last (praise God!) baseball game of the season, he followed it up with, “Let’s get together for a parents-vs-kids game on Wednesday!”

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Nicholas sent a good line drive out there, and he hasn’t even been playing baseball this year.

I clamped down on the biggest “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” ever heard in the history of humankind. (Yes, I too can do idiotic superlatives that bear no resemblance to reality, thank you very much.)

I started praying on the spot for the grace to take this calmly and not gripe about yet another night’s worth of commitments. I told myself the boys were incredibly excited about this game and it wasn’t fair for me to ruin their enjoyment. And maybe it would even turn out to be something I’d enjoy.

Which it did. We all played, even Julianna.

Baseball is much more fun to play than it is to watch. And how can you not enjoy having a 5-year-old shadow in left field with you, leaping into your arms and slathering you with kisses every time you look at him?

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Different game. Same adorability.

Besides. I got a hit. Oh yes, I did. 🙂

Learning To Say No…to Me.

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Summer School“I need to learn to say ‘no’ more.”

Those words, spoken by a friend of mine this past January, were like a tiny pebble in a small creek. They resonated, but I already knew, or thought I knew, what I wanted to focus on in 2017, and the word “no” wasn’t it.

But as the year has gone on, the ripples from that tiny pebble have been spreading and ricocheting off each other, gaining momentum, and I’ve realized this is what I am supposed to be doing this year: learning to say no.

The thing about being type A is you tend not to set limits for yourself. In fact, often you choose not to accept that you have them. You see a need, you see an opportunity, you see that you have the appropriate skill set, and you say, See? I can manage this too. Then you find your nights chasing your mornings and your schedule crammed with activities for 4 kids all at the same time in opposite corners of town while DH is otherwise occupied, and you can barely breathe, but by golly you get everybody where they’re going and you still manage to make some minor progress on editing That Novel. And you think, See? I can do this.

But at some point you start thinking, Okay, I CAN do this…but what am I doing to myself in the process? And WHY?

I’ve been thinking about m y friend’s words a lot, the past few months. And I’ve been practicing saying no. It feels terrible. Terrible. I’ve said no to a couple different volunteer opportunities for causes I’m passionate about. No to a couple of teacher appreciation lunches at the Catholic school and the request for volunteers in the classroom. I feel dirty and somewhat guilty about this. Who am I to say my time is more important than that of any other parent in the school? Still, I did it.

But here’s the thing I’m discovering: as important as it is to learn to say no to outside commitments, sometimes it’s myself I have to say “no” to.

I don’t always have to fix dinner from scratch. It’s not the end of the world to grab fried chicken from Kroger on a baseball night, or to heat up chicken strips at home some night when I’m wiped out. It’s not even the end of the world to grab fast food once in a while.

I don’t have to make every single loaf of bread from scratch. It’s okay to buy one from the store once in a while. (Even if it’s not nearly as good.)

I don’t have to increase the number of Jazzercise classes I take every single year. The important thing is to exercise; if I get to three classes a week and fill the rest of the time with gardening, biking, running, lawn mowing, and swimming, that’s fine. I don’t need to pressure myself to make that 20-minute drive to and from the center four or five times a week when I can do different exercise based around home.

This is what I’m working on now. How I’m trying to love myself. And it is a particularly important lesson to keep in mind today, because this morning I am turning a page: All my kids wanted to go to summer school.

First, I feel a need to explain this. I am beginning to realize that summer school in my town is a very different experience than it is in most places. It’s all day, every day. And it’s fun. The kids are doing a couple hours of core learning and then they’re doing units on bridge building, gameology, puzzles, and technology. So they all wanted to go, and that means instead of waiting until August to have an empty house with all four kids in school, I get a one-month sneak preview.

Last summer, a friend of mine whose kids are a little older than mine gave me some advice. I was sharing how hard it was to write with Michael getting older and being ready for kindergarten but too young to go—how bored he was at home, and how much I was looking forward to the 2017-18 year. “Kate,” she said, and I braced myself for the usual annoying don’t wish it away/enjoy it/you’ll miss this when it’s gone advice. Instead, she said:

“When the time comes…pace yourself.”

Words to live by.

The Negative Loop From Hell

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coyote-bluffLife has been feeling pretty overwhelming lately. If I haven’t given out that vibe, just look back at the fluffy blog posts I’ve been publishing, trying to avoid talking about it.

I’m not sure why it seems so much harder right now. Really, not all that much has changed. Maybe this is what people mean when they say they’re under spiritual attack: you resolve to adopt a demeanor of joy and immediately the powers of the universe start aligning to beat you down. This belief, I should be clear, is not my default approach to the spiritual life. In fact, it’s not even on my list of approaches to the spiritual life.

I’m more inclined to think maybe everything is as it has been for a long time–it’s just eventually I get worn down.

One way or another, my outlook hasn’t been too pretty lately. I’m trying really hard to see the positive, because it’s always there—I know that. But my work load is currently higher than usual, and the time to accomplish it has been significantly compressed. I’m not imagining that.

Nor am I imagining the repeated calls/visits to the orthotist, the new PT visits, ENT visits, the ongoing foot pain, the escalating need for homework supervision, or the ridiculous number of early-outs and scheduled no-school days this semester. In other words, the persistent, consistent interruptions that prevent a person who works from home from establishing any momentum. The kind that make you feel like every day you’re trying to launch a rocket from a dead standstill using half a cup of lighter fluid and a single match.

And the global worry. Oh my word, the global worry. And trying to separate hysteria from what really warrants worry. It’s exhausting.

Still, I’m experiencing at a visceral level a truism I’ve bandied about glibly for years: it’s really, really easy to get into a negative loop. And once you’re there it’s really, really hard to knock yourself out of one.

My choir helped me today. So did a walk with my family and a few minutes sitting on the bluff, watching the wind skip from one part of the valley to the next before arriving at our rocky outcrop. Listening to the kids (and my husband) trying to make echoes off the far hills. But of course, multiple extended periods of air conditioner weather in February brings me right back to “global worries.”

I know all this, too, will pass away, and I have to choose joy in the meantime. Take a day off. Say no to things I want to say yes to, and yes to things I want to say no to. Maybe I need to chew on a 5-year-old belly. Maybe I need to list two positives for every negative.

Most of all, now that I’ve said my piece, I’ve got to quit complaining about it. Because, you know…negative loop.

The Challenge of Achieving Zen When Your Kids Are Wrestling On The Floor

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The women of the 2017 Liturgical Composers Forum

I spent last week hobnobbing with my fellow liturgical composers…which means I got to geek out about hanging out with people I have looked up to since I was old enough to pay attention to the names in the copyright line at the bottom of the hymnal pages. And yes, I am fully aware that this paragraph outs me as a complete Catholic nerd. But I don’t think that was a big surprise to most of you, so…y’know. It is what it is. I am who I am, and all that.

(Bracing for the lightning strike.)

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Long days and late nights….my camera tells me I took this picture of the Eagles jam session at 10:45 p.m. That’s an hour past my bedtime. 🙂

It was an intense three days, during which I played for two morning prayers, an evening prayer, and Mass. Oh right, and the big Forum concert. But it was also very calming. Which is surprising, in a way, because I realized about 12:30 on Day One that I was poised at the edge of a spiritual cliff—a result of an extended neglect of the quiet stillness that keeps me spiritually and emotionally healthy.

I knew I was pushing it a couple weeks ago. You can coast for a while, but sooner or later you have to feed the soul or you fall to pieces. At least, I do. And I could tell I was getting close to the danger zone, but there’s just so little time this year. Last year, Michael was in a.m. preschool and napping after lunch; this year I only have afternoon preschool. And there’s always a dentist appointment or a Christmas party to attend. (Or a kid’s birthday gift to buy, as was the case today, because doesn’t everybody wait until two days before their daughter turns ten to think about what to get her?)

So my daily mantra this year has been, “Next year…kindergarten…next year…kindergarten…” A way to keep myself from getting too frustrated at the lack of work time. And I’ve been substituting mantra for spiritual food. I haven’t taken the time to go out and sit by a creek or under a tree.

So when, last Tuesday afternoon, I recognized the first stages of anxiety and a potential for a real crisis of faith, I knew I had to ignore the feedback on two novels sitting in my inbox and focus entirely on faith and music for a few days.

The great thing about a conference, even one with an intense schedule, is that I can do that. Somebody else is responsible for the cooking and the cleanup and I’m a hundred and twenty miles from the chauffeuring and the “did you brush your teeth?” and the “where are your shoes/coat/backpack?” and the “is that any of your business?” Oh yes, and the “so-and-so forgot his homework, can you bring it to school?”

Last week, even though I had very little down time, I was focused on what I was doing. (As opposed to this moment, when I’m sitting on the couch at the piano teacher’s house and trying to decide whether to intervene in the wrestling match going on between my oldest and youngest.) I prayed several times a day. I played my flute every day.

And I came home tired—very tired—but also much more calm, with my heart in alignment.

While he's still small enough to hold like this...

While he’s still small enough to hold like this…

The trick, of course, is figuring out how to carve time out of real life to hold onto that calm. How to import a modicum of last week’s spiritual focus into days when I am, once again, on chauffeur and KP duty, and trying to make sure I don’t waste the last days of small childhood—that I spend time playing Blokus with or reading Batman to Michael.

And if you’re expecting some pithy resolution, I’m sorry to say you’re going to be disappointed. This blog is about my wrestling with questions, not providing bullet point answers. I just share my journey in the hopes that others will recognize themselves in my words and know we’re not going through it alone.

New Year, Not Exactly New Adventures

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Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

Well, I had all but decided to quit blogging as of January 1st. But I tossed off a quick post about Julianna and—gasp—a whole bunch of people read it.

So I’m entering 2017 with a willingness to keep on keeping on, although I think I’m going to be more off-the-cuff than I have been in the past. I’m going to go back to MWF…at least, most Fridays…depending on availability of material. I added a post right before Christmas called Friday Funnies, in which I’ll be collecting all the things that make us laugh as we raise this wacky bunch of kids.

You know how sometimes there are themes in your life, the same messages coming up over and over again in different contexts? In the last ten days of 2016, that theme was being too busy, or more accurately, how not to be.

The thing is, nobody has figured it out. We’ve all recognized the crushing weight of too much, but we don’t see a way to reduce it.

In my house, for instance, Christian has six piano students on two nights; the third is occupied by choir; and during parts of the year we might be doing baseball or basketball on a fourth. (And doubling up with some other night, just for fun.) And then there’s piano on Tuesdays and adaptive gymnastics on Sundays and band early morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays and school choir early morning on Wednesdays, and weddings on some Saturdays…

So we have a lot of discerning to do. Because we miss the deep breath and slow exhale of the nights when we don’t have to go anywhere. When the neighbor can bang on the door and say, “Can the kids come out to play?” and there are pickup wiffle ball games in the cul de sac. When we can walk up to the park and let the kids play. Or pull out a board game and have an impromptu family game night. Or I follow a rabbit hole and discover that there was a line in a Star Wars movie that none of us had heard, so we spontaneously throw it in the DVD player and find the scene…and then watch the special features, just for fun.

Another thing that’s been turning around and around in my brain is the idea of luxury and Christian responsibility. Again, something many of us struggle with. I “happened” across a post in which someone talked about how all gifts are meant to be enjoyed by the receiver—and that the pleasure for the giver is in seeing that gratitude lived out. And that includes the gifts given by God. This resonated with me. I don’t remember where it came from, which kills me because I really like to credit original authors. Nor do I think it entirely answers the conundrum. Yet it is one ingredient, added to the stew pot in my mind. Hopefully answers will—eventually—begin to surface.

And then there was this, with which I will leave you today, because after this sentiment, anything I have to say is entirely superfluous:

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Living Slow

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Sometimes life seems like a full-on sprint. I take a deep breath, as I did on Tuesday afternoon last week, and comfort myself that this is the worst a Tuesday is ever going to get, this school year. Or I have a Saturday like this past weekend, in which nothing was scheduled and consequently I made a list of things I wanted to accomplish that was so long, our whole family working together couldn’t have finished it all. Of course I was grumpy and torn. It was a perfect weather day and we had nothing we had to do. And yet I had myself so tied up, it didn’t even occur to me until I sat down to write a blog post 36 hours later:

Why the bleepety-bleep weren’t we all out on the Katy Trail renting bicycles?

A full-on sprint is supposed to be a brief thing. Bolt only had to hold that pace for nine seconds. I, on the other hand—and a ridiculous number of you who are reading these words—keep treating life like a sprint that hits the 26-mile mark and keeps on trucking.

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Image via Pixabay

A week ago, we took our kids to the drive-in theater. This theater is about two and a half miles by road—one mile as the crow flies—from the farm where I grew up. And yet I had never once been there, until last weekend.

We watched Pete’s Dragon, which I found underwhelming. But the moon was setting, a pale silver sliver sandwiched between a charcoal-gray cloud and the privacy fence. A fat yellow star (planet?) hung off its starboard bow. And there, sitting on a really uncomfortable surface of gravel with nothing but a flimsy blanket for padding, and nothing for back support except the dusty bumper of my van (if you’ve never spent any time in the country, you have no idea how dusty the back of a vehicle can get in one trip to town), I found myself entranced by the slow, steady shrinking of the distance between that sickle and the fence. First a stretch, then a brush, then a touch and at last a long, slow swallow, until only a silver tip was left. And the next time I looked, it was gone.

I thought of this again this past Saturday afternoon. I ran errands in the morning…seven stops, an hour and forty-five minutes. I came home with a truckload of cedar mulch. Ate lunch. Measured ingredients for three loaves of bread. Then spent two hours transplanting geraniums and lamium, weeding and mulching four flower beds, and mowing the front and sides of the house.

Then I went inside and started folding laundry while watching Netflix. But I could hear the wind blowing through the sycamore trees outside my window, and I thought, Girl! What are you doing? No one needs you right now, and for your slice of time to yourself you pick FOLDING LAUNDRY?

And so, grumpy with all I was leaving undone, I went outside and sat down in the Adirondack swing beneath the weeping willow, and watched the wind flirt with the treetops for a few minutes.

I love the way every tree has its own voice. Pines sigh, or roar when it’s gusty. Sycamore and oak and maple chatter—sycamore being the sound with the crispiest edges. But my adolescent weeping willow is a soft hiss, like velvet on the ear—and the soul. I turned off my mind and practiced my meditation/being-still-in-the-presence-of-God. I watched the crown of that willow tree fling its head in circles, and I had the oddest sensation that I was actually looking at something sentient. And of course, the sycamore trees danced above us.

And I flashed back to that slow moonset. The way the deliberateness of it, and the pace, so slow I couldn’t even see the movement, put the brakes on my heart, too. How it seemed to lift the pressure to do, do, do, and freed me to be, be, be.

The trees did the same thing.

I love the feeling of being.

It’s hard to achieve sometimes.

Um. Almost all the time.

We need more slow living. We were not meant to rush through this world, never recognizing the beauty all around us. We were meant to work and then rest. We don’t need to fill every moment with noise and distraction, blocking out the world. Sometimes we need to embrace that moment of discomfort, of emptiness, when we pull out the ear buds or turn off the smart phone or leave the piles of laundry. Sometimes we need to acknowledge the things we could be doing, and set them aside in order just to slow down, to stop, even, and just, for a few moments…be.

The Grace to Let Enough be Enough

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More“What come next?”

There was a period of several months recently when Julianna was constantly asking this question: when a song ended on a CD, at the end of a scene in a movie, whenever we got back in the van after running an errand or going to a lesson.

Lately, it feels like the two younger boys have taken up the standard she dropped. The whole time we were at the Lake last week, it seemed the moment we left one attraction they were demanding to know what the next one was. Frequently asking to do other things that weren’t on the agenda at all. Since we got home, I’ve been on full-speed ahead, trying to catch up with everything I didn’t have time to do before we left and while we were gone. And yet the kids are coming to me with deep sighs and saying things like “When do we get to go on the carousel?” and “I want to go to the arcade at the mall!”

I came down pretty hard on that last one. “We just went to an arcade–at the Lake!” I said. Quickly followed up by a (short) lecture on ingratitude and an attitude in which nothing is ever enough. (Because we all know how effective Lectures were when we were growing up.)

But short as that lecture was, I could see in their eyes that they Weren’t Getting It. And I took a look inside myself and had to wince at what I saw.

Because I have this problem, too. Christian ends every day by taking a survey, generally of what went right: what we accomplished, what he’s thankful for. Meanwhile I’m always fighting this rumbling dissatisfaction, this desire for more, more, more. If I managed to write a text for one verse, I’m dissatisfied because it wasn’t two. If I write half a chapter on a novel, I’m frustrated because it wasn’t a thousand words. Or because I’m afraid it’s episodic, and I’m terrified that it’s never going to live up to the potential of the concept. (Because this concept? It’s a good one. Really good.) When we finish a project, I feel a brief satisfaction, and then it’s right on to the next thing I haven’t gotten done yet. And of course, the list of things I want to get done literally never ends.

This is how I’m able to “do it all,” as people always put it, but it definitely has a dark side. I love everything I do, but, German-like, I have trouble drawing a line and letting go when it’s time to do so. I have trouble living in the moment.

But it drives me crazy when I see it in my kids. Perhaps it’s because they are trying to make their ingratitude my problem. I look at the kaleidoscope of experiences they’ve had and I’m just thunderstruck at how it’s never enough. I take a deep breath and I remind myself that kids are always clueless, self-absorbed, and developmentally incapable of the kind of awareness I’m able to exercise. I tell myself surely I was the same way, and this is just part of the process of raising holy terrors into holy men and women.

But I also think I have some work to do in my own soul. This Chade Meng-Tan book I’m reading is slow going because I feel I should be practicing, not just dinking around with it, and I have too many other irons in the fire to devote the time properly. But in the way it resonates with my experience reading Thomas Merton, whose words in turn resonated with what I have experienced sitting in nature, I know that the key to this whole puzzle resides in a quietness of spirit that has to be cultivated.

So there’s my next challenge. And perhaps—just perhaps—my efforts will enlighten my children’s lives, too.

We Weren’t Made To Live Like This

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Photo by Mario_Guo, via Flickr

When you have four kids, life is going to be busy, simply by definition. But Christian and I have not given up the things we were doing before kids came along, and we were busy then. When I first quit working, I was a bona fide stay at home mom. Now, I work from home, but I am being dragged, kicking and screaming, to the conviction that I’ve stretched myself too thin.

See, the thing is, nobody actually does it all. Somewhere, something is going to give.

My head is just too full, and things are falling out of it. On Tuesday nights when Christian is teaching piano, I can get everybody to and from lessons, dinner cooked and on the table, bully everybody into getting their mealtime chores done, make the boys practice piano and trumpet before screen time, do their homework, and maybe even get a page of Julianna’s done with her. But I forget to have them make their lunches. I plan exactly who I have to pick up when in order to get everybody where they’re going when they’re supposed to be there (and we’re rarely late, believe it or not), but I frequently forget to tell the other half of the carpool, or worse, the school where I have to do early pickup, until fifteen minutes before I’m leaving.

Now, I’ve never been one of those parents you could count on to have a package of tissues in her purse. Or hand sanitizer. I am, after all, the mom who once took an all-day trip with the baby and forgot the diaper bag. And I do go easy on myself. I can see how insane that last paragraph is; I recognize that nobody could be expected to remember it all. Even so, a lot of my forgetting is because I’m distracted by all the other things I haven’t yet accomplished yet.

We were not made to live like this.

And then there’s that pesky issue of presence. I shouldn’t be spending car time trying to block out my kids’ voices so I can concentrate on brainstorming a scene, a blog lead, or a not-trite rhyme. For better or for worse, this is the time I have with my children, and my success or failure as a parent depends upon my interactions with them. I don’t want their memory of me to be a mom who is dazed and distracted, and never really paying attention.

(Says the woman who’s sitting on the couch writing a blog post while her kids are reading Tinker Bell, putting a witch hat on my head, and giggling about the walking in the woods story I paused to tell them about two children named Jichael and Mulianna. (They thought that was hysterically funny.)

My parenthetical, and the gauzy watch hat falling down over one eye, provides a good conclusion to this post. Because I have to find some way to be satisfied with what I’m able to accomplish on any given crazy day, even though it’s less than I want. I have to find some way to reduce the amount that I’m taking on, so that I can be present to my children, who are the richest part of my life and the reason I have anything to say to the world at all. And although I have no idea what exactly that looks like in my life, it also reminds me that the changes I need to make are incremental, and already in motion.