27Aug
Grasshopper

The American Context vs. August in Italy

For the second time in a week, I’d found myself smack dab between the lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” The first time had happened the day after we arrived in the Italian Alps, after we had laced up our shoes and left the narrow walls of our hotel and picnicked on a grassy slope, butterflies tangoing with the wind around us. The second time was on our final hike of our getaway. I was stretched out in a meadow with my camera, trying to soak in as much of the place as I could before we packed up, when the miniature grasshopper sprang onto a blade of grass in front of my nose. At least I think it’s a grasshopper. It could be a cricket or a locust or a boll weevil for all I know (or, to be honest, want to know) about six-legged creatures. I did not, however, jump back shrieking in my standard Insect Encounter Dance. Instead, I watched it, fascinated and at peace while Mary Oliver filled my mind:

“Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

I had the time to understand her phrase “idle and blessed,” to take the ancient Hebrew lyric “Be still and know” to heart. Out of all souvenirs, that state of unhurried intention is what I most wanted to bring home with me this summer.

It didn’t even make it down the mountainside.

///

August is a quiet month in Italy. School is a purely September construct; no one is thinking of fresh pencils or new jeans just yet. Instead, everyone is in beach mode, moving through the steamed air like half-dressed anemones. Shops are closed. Utility companies are on vacation. No one here expects anything remotely resembling productivity.

Except for me.

Even here, in the warm laze of summer, I choke for want of time. It feels almost like a nutritional deficiency, this sense of depletion when I look at the clock. If I could just work out how to double the hours between eating and sleeping, I think, then I could keep up with the pace of online work, to say nothing of the dust bunnies that procreate like… well, rabbits around here. I would also settle for getting my brain to work twice as quickly or my body to have twice the energy. Basically, my aspiration is to become Bart Simpson on Squishee syrup.

///

I just started reading Tsh Oxenreider’s Notes from a Blue Bike, and I can so closely relate to her struggle to keep the slower European lifestyle within the faster American context that I want to look up from every other sentence and tell her, “Me too!” I know I don’t have a great deal of room to pine over the European lifestyle considering that I live here and all. Obviously, I’m already in the perfect place for slowing down, embracing simplicity, and savoring the little things. What’s not as obvious, though, is that I’m still operating in an American context. I am the American context. My work philosophy, my personal expectations, my tendency to view life as an emergency… all of it is part of the cultural package that leaves me rushed and harried even when everyone around me is in vacation mode.

And this is after seven years of adapting.

Clearly, I still have much to learn from Italy, but Tsh’s assurance that we can choose how we live is buoying me today. Even as I write this, we’re packing up for a few days at the beach with friends. My attention keeps drifting down to the to-do list on my desk, a wee slip of paper that carries enough weight to sink me some days. It’s already tried twice today. There are so many chores to squeeze in before we leave, and I need to remember the beach stuff down in storage, and I haven’t gotten a haircut yet, and the girls will need packing help, and my email inbox is going to seed again, and how can I sit here dallying with words when there is so much to do, so very very much, and so very little time in which to do it, and AAAHHHHHHHH?

The answer is with that little grasshopper above. I can sit here and write today (albeit distractedly) for the same reason that I could lie on my stomach photographing blades of grass last month—because I chose to do it. I can ignore the chaotic context within me and do things on purpose that give me life. I can throw my lopsided sense of responsibility to the wind. I can choose.

I know that vacation isn’t the typical setting for one to channel her inner Thoreau, but my hope is that if I can remind myself how to live deliberately when I’m kicked back on the sand, maybe—just maybe—it will stick around once I’m back home.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

22Aug
Book Stories - The Escape Artist

Book Stories: The Escape Artist

If you’ve been following my blog for any time, then you know 1) that I identify as Christian, and 2) that “Christian” means something very different to me today than it did when I was growing up fundamentalist. The Christianity I experienced as a kid was a members-only club with lifestyle requirements and political loyalties, whereas the kind that I’m discovering and embracing in adulthood is more of an open-air party in which the only common denominator is Jesus. I am more grateful than I can say for the freedom to see God differently. Disengaging myself from the mindsets that formed me, though, has been about as easy as performing a total skeletal transplant on myself.

Take gender roles. The Christian subculture in which I grew up basically assigned one of two identities to everyone at birth. The first identity was “Leader” and came with secondary characteristics such as strength, outspokenness, superior reasoning skills, and money-making prowess. The second identity was “Follower” and brought with it expectations of docility, fertility, weakmindedness, and a knack for the domestic arts. The one and only basis for choosing which identity to bestow on a baby was which set of body parts he or she had.

I can’t speak much to the experience of growing up male in that system, but I do know what it was like to grow up under the “Follower” heading. Because I had been born female, my calling in life was to act as support staff to the males put in authority over me. Our family wasn’t nearly as rigid in this as many other patriarchal families; I was encouraged to get summer jobs and to go to university, experiences that many girls, seen only as homemakers-in-training, are denied. (In fact, one of my favorite posts to write this year was What Our Parents Did Right.)

Still though, I grew up under a list of gender-specific shoulds, some of them directly taught and some of them just implied:

A woman should defer to her father’s or husband’s judgment in all things as her own way of thinking is flawed.

A woman should always seek to diminish herself; her body, her voice, and her actions should never draw attention.

A woman should work tirelessly and selflessly in her home sphere, managing household tasks and child-raising so expertly that her husband never needs to be burdened with them.

A woman should understand that her purpose in life is to help her man fulfill his.

…for the Bible tells me so.

Actually, the Bible’s part in these gender prescriptions was always a little confusing to me. We didn’t follow Bible verses saying women needed to avoid jewelry or wear head coverings to pray, but we agreed most adamantly with verses saying women shouldn’t teach men (at least not from a pulpit), that they should obey their husbands, and that they should busy themselves at home. Despite the pick-and-choose nature of our theology, the message was the same: Men were God’s white-collar workers, and women were his field hands. And this message stuck with me, deeply.

Even after I had moved halfway across the world with a husband who considers me equal and the beginnings of a fulfilling profession, I felt my fundamentalist identity like a choke chain. In my mind, being a woman was so linked to inadequacy that I couldn’t look at a single aspect of my life without guilt. I wasn’t organized enough, diligent enough, submissive enough, successful enough, conventional enough, reproductive enough, energetic enough, religious enough. Plus, I could only manage something like .003% of what that damn Proverbs 31 woman did on any given day.

And then I read this:

Book Stories - A Year of Biblical Womanhood

“As I saw how powerful and affirming this ancient blessing could be, I decided it was time for Christian women to take back Proverbs 31. Somewhere along the way… we abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description.” – Rachel Held Evans

I had at least one friend (hi, A!) think that A Year of Biblical Womanhood was about how to be more fundamentalist based on its title and, you know, the whole woman-in-a-head-covering-banished-to-her-roof thing. What isn’t quite so obvious from the cover is the author’s tongue firmly in cheek and heart firmly for women like me caught in the chokehold of “Biblical Womanhood.” Really, those two words should always be in ironic quotes because, as Rachel shows in alternately hilarious and touching experiments, there is no such thing.

I read the book about a year and a half ago, and it was like an escape artist had personally come to spring me from the cramped confines of “Follower.” I do still struggle with feelings of guilt and not-enoughness; if Dan and I are in such a busy work period that we’re having trouble keeping up with household tasks, my first instinct is to berate myself for neglecting my responsibilities, for prioritizing my work over righteously clean floors. Or if I say something at a dinner party and everyone turns to listen, my inclination is to shrink back and turn the conversation over to someone with more a more valid viewpoint. The difference is that I can now recognize these wilting instincts as byproducts of an identity that was never meant to be mine. I can see cultural preference where once I only saw divine prejudice, and I can choose not to be ruled by it.

Rachel even got me to like Proverbs 31, which I consider a feat of staggering proportions. Or should I say… biblical?

“Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?” she asks in her introduction. “Do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I?” And in her answer, I found a way to keep both the Bible and myself. Pure gift.

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

18Aug
On the news

An HSP Watches the News

At the bidding of a friend, I finally took the Highly Sensitive Person test this morning and ended up selecting 25 of the 27 points. (14 are enough to classify someone as a HSP, so I assume 25 means something like Watch Out, This Person May Spontaneously Combust At Any Moment.) This explains a lot about how I operate in general and how I processed last week in particular. According to the book on which the test is based, we combustible folk absorb more of the environment around us and thus become more overwhelmed than the 80-85% of the population with normally functioning brain-filters. Therefore, if—hypothetically—I spent a week hearing about the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq, watching Humans of New York give faces to those suffering in the Middle East, revisiting my old depression diaries in response to Robin Williams’s suicide, and following the shocking play of events in Ferguson, I might—hypothetically—have trouble unpeeling myself from bed in the morning.

I have been heartbroken by the news, and this has been bothering some people.

Some people have not been heartbroken by the news, and this has been bothering me.

Everywhere I’ve looked this last week, humanity has confronted me: prejudice and suffering and community and callousness and hope and no-hope and initiative and frustration and rhetoric and rawness and so many conflicting interpretations of which rights we should allow to those different from us. As a species, we have yet to mutually agree to each other’s right to live; opinions just get more fragmented from there. And it’s all so much, so very much, so close to too much for my porous mind to bear.

 “A billion people died on the news tonight
But not so many cried at the terrible sight
Well Mama said, It’s just make-believe
You can’t believe everything you see
So baby, close your eyes to the lullabies
On the news tonight”

Over the weekend, I was pulled in by this passage from my favorite book, in which 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding is confronting the reality of death:

“At the cowboy matinee last Saturday a man had dropped down dead on the white-hot screen. Douglas had cried out. For years he had seen billions of cowboys shot, hung, burned, destroyed. But now, this one particular man…
He’ll never walk, run, sit, laugh, cry, won’t do anything ever, thought Douglas. Now he’s turning cold. Douglas’s teeth chattered, his heart pumped sludge in his chest. He shut his eyes and let the convulsion shake him.
He had to get away from these other boys because they weren’t thinking about death, they just laughed and yelled at the dead man as if he still lived. Douglas and the dead man were on a boat pulling away, with all the others left behind on the bright shore, running, jumping, hilarious with motion, not knowing that the boat, the dead man and Douglas were going, going, and now gone into darkness.”

This is how it is for me, how it is when I hear that a child has been beheaded by a terrorist group in Iraq or a teenager shot by police in Missouri or a comedian hung by his own fractured mind in California. I feel the loss of life like a blow to my head, and the weight of all the things that person will no longer do or see or experience or be sends concentric shock waves through my system. Do you feel it too? The immense mushroom cloud of tragedy balled up in that single word, dead?

If you don’t, that’s okay. At least, I’m doing my very best to accept that it’s okay. According to the test I took this morning, Douglas Spaulding, Jack Johnson, and I are among a small percentage of people who feel everything deeply. This doesn’t mean that others feel nothing; it just means they have a thicker layer of protection between themselves and the goings on in the world. It just means that they can watch the news, compartmentalize what they’ve seen, and go on with their days.

When I watch the news, I fall in headfirst.

My conscience has waffled back and forth for years on the topic: Should I stay up to date on events as a responsible and caring citizen of Earth? Or should I avoid the news as much as possible in order to spare my heart and mind from constant overload? Should I engage the negativity, or should I retreat from it? Is awareness worth taking nightly boat trips alone with the dead? I haven’t reached a conclusion yet that gives me peace, and maybe that’s because the world is so far from a place of peace. As long as I continue to be a Highly Sensitive Person in a highly human world, I’m going to struggle with a weight that most people don’t often feel. Every news link I click in my lifetime will carry a price.

I’ve been thinking though that if I were the one in the news this last week, if it were my death being announced in professional newscasterly tones and argued about by a parade of talking heads, I would want someone out there to cry for me. I would want the loss of my life to mean enough even to a complete stranger in another country that she would lose sleep over it. I would want her to get willingly into that boat with me, away from the motion and noise, out where I was no longer a news story but a full human carrying the sum of my years and experiences and aspirations with me off the edge of the world.

So I’m here… not seeking out the news today but not hiding from it either, not exactly loving my status as Highly Sensitive Person but not exactly wanting to trade it out either. If my role in this sea of humanity is to care—even too much, even beyond my own pain threshold—then I’ll care to the best of my ability. And if your role is different, I’ll do my best to remember that you’re the normal one here… and that whenever I spontaneously combust over the ten o’clock news, you’re the one who can put out the flames.

12Aug
Dead Poet's Society

Depression, Robin, and You

So much is going on in the world right now, so much heaviness, so many strings wrenching our hearts in all directions. Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza… It’s all so much to take in, and I have absolutely nothing constructive to add to the discussions on international policy taking place. I do know depression though, and waking up this morning to news of Robin Williams’s death reminded me what an important topic this is… especially from a practical point of view… and especially especially for members of the Christian community. I’m sharing my experience A Deeper Story and would love if you’d read along:

~~~

“Waking up feels like getting socked in the gut. I feel instantly strained, smothered, vaguely panicked. I have trouble breathing through the tightness of trying to hold myself together, trying not to cry or yell or fly into a million little pieces. The simplicity of my life seems unbearably complicated, and even the tiniest decisions—which sweater should I wear?—are draining. I blink back tears from an urgent but indefinable sadness. The day feels like a sheer precipice, and I can’t see the footholds. I can’t see the top. I can’t even tell what type of stone is blocking my way. I recognize that I have no reason to feel unhappy, no reason at all, but I stumble through various shades of sadness all the same.  I wake up with the wind already knocked out of me, and I choke on the idea that there is no solution.”
- From my journal, January 30, 2008

“It’s like this,” I explained to my husband in halting whispers, engulfed in the dark of another sleepless night. “It’s like we’re at a party with everyone we know, and there’s dancing and food and laughter. Everything would be perfect, except that I suddenly find myself locked in a steel cage in the middle of the room. I didn’t see who locked me there. I have no idea where the key might be. All I know is that I’m ashamed to find myself captured, so I try for a while to laugh along with the partygoers, hoping they won’t notice the bars.

“Food is pushed under a slat on the floor, but eating alone is not the same as lingering with friends by the buffet. You and the girls come by to talk to me, but it’s not the same as hugging each other with unrestrained arms. The music still plays, but my cage is too short for me to dance. I may be in the middle of the room, but I feel as though I’m watching the party from outside.

“My resolve to put on a good face finally breaks down, and I tentatively call to a few loved ones for help. I know they aren’t the ones who locked me in the cage, but my hope is that they can search the room for the key since I’m unable. I also wish a few of them would come sit with me, hold my hand through the bars, reassure me that the cage is real and that I didn’t put myself there. I call again, hesitatingly, torn between wanting them to see my desperation and not wanting them to think me crazy. ‘Hello? I’m a little stuck here…’”

{Continue reading over at A Deeper Story}

image credit

6Aug
Book Stories - The Jumper Cable

Book Stories: The Jumper Cable

Let’s have a moment of undignified honesty here: This week has been hard. In the perspective-maintaining, keeping-emotional-shit-together department, I mean. I have blogger friends who duck away from the internet the moment one of their pieces goes live, and I understand why. There are few things more unnerving than to realize your heart and soul are being taken in by thousands of pairs of eyes, filtered through thousands of sets of experiences, and setting off thousands of personal reactions. Even though that’s exactly what we writers want—for an audience to engage with our words—the reality of it can knock us off balance.

Brené Brown calls it a “vulnerability hangover.” In this foggy and fatigued state, we can’t quite pull anything into clear focus… least of all WHY we’d thought it was a good idea to share our tender-skinned selves with the world. Noise is too noisy, cheer is too cheery, and our own self-protective instincts lock us out of ourselves. I woke up yesterday without two words to rub together, and I concluded in true Bethany fashion that this meant I was done. All of my writer-ness had been used up. I no longer had anything worth saying, and the internet police would be along shortly to repossess my blog under the Imposter Act.

If one could buy tomato juice in this country, I would have been chugging the stuff.

Yesterday afternoon, I finally gave up trying to write anything for the day; I was getting nowhere at the speed of a runaway train. My backup plan, going to the park for a mind-clearing run, was then precluded by the crackle of incoming thunderclouds. Ah, screw productivity, I thought and reached for the brand new book on my nightstand. (Reading in the afternoon is up there on the luxury scale with chocolate in the morning and shaved legs just before bed. Partyin’ hard, mom-style.)

About two chapters in, I had my computer back out. I wanted to keep reading, but the things I was reading were giving me the rare gift of compulsion to write. The next couple of hours yo-yoed happily between book and Word document, other people’s stories charging up the storyteller in me. Turns out, when you crack open a book called Speak, you’d better get ready to do just that.

“When you’re the one on the fringes, one of the most powerful things someone can say to you is, ‘Me too.’ And really, it’s one of the most powerful things someone can say to anyone, regardless of status or social placement. The intrinsic value of mutual understanding and experience is immeasurable and priceless.” – Nish Weiseth

This isn’t a book review. Rather, it’s the story of how engaging with my friend Nish’s words gave me back my own. The more I read yesterday about how storytelling matters, deeply, to the world (and especially for those of us trying to model our ways of life on Jesus), the easier it was for me to remember why I’m here, why I write, why I subject myself to the odd vulnerability hangover. Because stories matter. Mine. Nish’s. Yours. The controversial stories. The painful ones. The ones we think no one will understand (which, in my experience, are the stories that lead to the deepest connections). The ones we are afraid to tell and the ones we can’t help telling. The ones that open us up to potential judgment and criticism… and to the almost-certain bond of “Me too.”

I wouldn’t say that I’m completely recovered from this week’s sense of displacement, but I’m not stuck in the fog anymore either. Besides, if I find myself at a loss for words tomorrow or the day after or the day after that, I have this handy paperback jumper cable right here on my nightstand.

This is the first in a series I’m excited to be starting here. Instead of writing traditional book reviews, I’d like to share why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my daily life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story? I’d like to open Book Stories up for guest posts as well. If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind to share, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes!

4Aug
01 - Uncorseted

The Gospel of Corset Removal

Starting this month, I’m going to be regular contributor to A Deeper Story, a writing collective that has been dear to my heart from Day 1. I had the unexpected and just plain awesome opportunity to sit down and chat with ADS founder Nish Weiseth this summer (over panini and gelato in Tuscany, no less!), and our conversation turned toward Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. Perhaps you’ve read it too, especially if you were one of the many hungering for “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality” in the early 2000s. It was a liberating book for meengaging where most Christian books were preachy, thought-provoking where others tended to push agenda-laced answersand Nish pointed out that the reason Blue Like Jazz was so compelling was that it framed theological discussion inside of story. No Bible-thumping. No argument-baiting. No dry platitudes or impersonal formulas. Just one person’s unique and intriguing experience with faith.

That’s what A Deeper Story is as well: a place where Christian spirituality is explored through the writers’ own experiences. It’s beautiful and relatable and surprising and mind-stretching, and I highly recommend poking around the site for a bit after you read my piece. You’ll see why it’s a community I’m delighted to call my own.

Now on to the story…

~~~

“Between two lungs it was released
The breath that carried me
The sigh that blew me forward”
- Florence Welch

///

At eleven years old, I had no notion of a drill sergeant except for what I’d seen in a passing clip of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., but I was pretty sure my ballet teacher fit the bill. As my class labored over our barre exercises, she paced the ranks, snapping commands like rubber bands into the smalls of our backs.

“Chest out! Head up! Stomach flat! Tuck that seat in! Breathe up and down, not in and out! No one wants to see your diaphragm move! Turn that leg out! ROUND ELBOWS, for the love! Stand tall, everyone! Taller!”

I adored my teacher despite her Sergeant Carter routine, and I practiced my posture daily at home. A real ballerina was a whipcord, long and lithe and compressed within an inch of her life. A real ballerina could corset herself through willpower alone. I cinched my ribcage tight in the mirror and watched each breath push my non-existent bosom upwards.

Perfect. As close to perfect as I was going to get, at any rate.

There it was in the mirror for God and so great a cloud of witnesses to see: the successful suppression of self. There was the proof that for all my excesses and deficiencies, all my shameful impulses and sins of omission, I could at least hold my respiratory system in check. I could breathe without breathing, and if I could do that, surely I could learn to pray without ceasing and do all things without grumbling and go a whole blessed hour without incurring the wrath of a Father who was perfect as I was not.

Forget Sergeant Carter; God was the greatest caricature of a short fuse that I knew.

{Continue reading over at A Deeper Story}

 

image credit

30Jul
Wildflower altar 1

Cracking My Shins on Wildflowers

This last Sunday, we went to our church for the first time in two months. “Are the Bassetts actually here today?” one lady asked us, feigning shock. “No,” I said, and we all laughed. I was only half-joking though. I was there, but not all there, and for that, I blame the wildflowers.

Wildflower altar 2

I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World on our vacation earlier this month, but I didn’t make it very far because I kept returning to the first chapter over and over for refills of the same heady draft. The chapter is about cultivating an awareness of God in the world, and in it, Taylor (Brown Taylor? BBT? B to the Bitty?) follows a line of thought that rang at the frequency of my own heart during our time in the Italian Alps:

“What happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees?… Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

Wildflower altar 3

I cracked my shin on an altar pretty much the minute we stepped out of our hotel in Sestriere, an alpine village so far west of Turin that it’s nearly in France. I had to look that last bit up on Google Maps, by the way. My sense of geography is marvelously awful. All I knew of location while we were there was that we had stepped onto the dance floor where earth and sky practice sweeping each other off their feet, and that’s all I cared to know.

Wildflower altar 4

We hiked every day, unable to stay indoors a moment longer than necessary, and while the girls skipped ahead gathering bouquets and improvising marching songs to the tune of “Let It Go,” I planted myself in wildflower meadows. More accurately, my soul planted me there. It wound roots down through my kneecaps and into the ground, anchoring me in a posture to notice flower couture, the stunning individuality of petals, the communion of velvet-trimmed bees, and the extravagance of it all there, untended and largely unseen, the original guerrilla art knit across the mountainside.

Wildflower altar 5

There is no path to reverence quite like realizing you are it—the one guest at the gallery opening, the sole occupant of the chapel, the only human being who will ever brush against this exact strain of beauty. I am the only person in existence, past or future, to photograph those flowers above; even flopped there on my stomach with camera in hand, I couldn’t quite absorb the whole of it. I didn’t need to though. I didn’t even want to, truth be told. For all of my devotion to reason and fact, I still like to take a hit of undiluted awe every once in a while.

Wildflower altar 6

“Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces?” BBT asks, prompting a little fist-bump of recognition from my heart. I realize that church is many different things to many different people, but I personally look to it as a mind-elevator—something that will draw my perspective back into the bigger but less visible realm in which God-with-us changes everything. Sometimes actual church accomplishes this, but other times it’s a meal with friends or an act of selflessness or a line of poetry said aloud under the stars or a line of music so lovely I fall straight into it. Or a field of wildflowers hidden up in the Italian Alps just for me to find.

Wildflower altar 7

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