The Gift is in the Preparation

I woke this morning to the sound of wind squeaking through my ill-fitted bedroom window.

(Hmm. Wind. Window. Is there a relationship here? Be right back; I need to check the etymology of window. Yep. They’re related. Window comes from Old Norse words vindr meaning wind and auga meaning eye. So a window is a wind eye, or a wind hole. The earliest mention of window came early in the 13th century, and it meant an unglazed hole in the roof. So originally a window let in the wind and now it keeps it out?)

But back to the matter at hand . . .

I snuggled under the covers, thinking that I’d take a zero day today. (A zero day in backpacking terms is a day when no miles are gained.) Then I remembered my weekends are supposed to mimic a backpacking trip, and if I were really out in the wilds, I’d have to keep on the move. (Or not. There is that zero day thing.)

I remembered also that I only have these three days each week to condition myself to carrying a pack, since I have dance class the other four days. (I still hope for grace and balance from dance. It could happen.) And I need all three backpacking days to get used to carrying extra weight.

So, I got dressed, shrugged on the pack and headed into the wind. Yikes. Cold! And gusty. Some of those gusts were so strong they almost blew me over. But I did it — trudged four miles, teetering in the wind, with twenty-two pounds on my back — and I realized that though the goal might be to backpack on the Pacific Crest Trail, the gift is in the doing. It was hard going today, but what a thrill to be on my feet, moving through the blustery air, racking up the miles. Admittedly, four miles isn’t exactly “racking up the miles,” but still, to be able to walk any distance is a true wonder.

It seems funny that I’ve been thinking, writing, talking about the Pacific Crest Trail for so many years — four-and-a-half years since my first mention of the PCT, four years since my first hike on the trail — but until this very year, I never actually strapped on a backpack to try to train myself for such an epic hike.

I still don’t know if I can do any long distance sauntering, but as I discovered today, the PCT is the goal. The gift is in the preparation. And that, for sure, I can do — even on a windy day.

I still remember seeing this sign and taking the photo when I was on a different outing (to find the San Andreas Fault). I was so excited to see evidence of this mythical trail that I walked up the path a bit, but then I had to turn around because neither of my companions had any interest in the trail at all. I’ve done many day hikes since then, but still no overnights. That fearful joy is still to come.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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Waiting to See What I Will See

I strapped on my backpack today and went out walking in the desert again. I’m surprised that the twenty-one pound pack doesn’t bother me all that much, though by the end of four miles, I did get a little wobbly. The cold wind today didn’t help, especially when it blew my hat down so I could only see a few feet of the ground ahead of me. So for all I know, this is what the desert looked like today.

Yeah, right. I would guess, no matter how little of the scenery I saw today, it was nowhere near as beautiful as the photo, which I took during my cross country trip on the Overlook Azalea Trail in Georgia’s Calloway Gardens. The Azalea Trail has understandably been called the most beautiful place on earth, though the California Poppy Preserve in Antelope Valley is a close contender.

But, even if today I didn’t see such vibrant April color (both photos were taken in April, though two years and a continent apart), I also didn’t see a skull in a bucket, like a friend of mine did. The skull incident happened several years ago so, although the bucket was found on a trail I have been walking, I am not in any danger of my skull ending up in such a place (so not an item on my bucket list!)

Although I’ve been feeling as if I Want to Run Away, the truth is, I also want to run toward. There is so much of this country I haven’t seen, so many fabulously beautiful places that are waiting to delight my eyes (and yours!). Fall in Virginia. Summer in Glacier Park. Lovely lakes hidden in the back country. Wildflower meadows beyond the bend. Peaks and valleys, creeks and twisty trails.

Luckily, I will be getting a peek at the wider world when I take a trip to the Pacific Northwest this May. I can hardly wait to see what I will see.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Wanting to Run Away

Lately I’ve had the feeling I want to run away. I’m not sure if I’ve been around people too much, especially those I don’t care for, or if I haven’t been around people enough, including those I don’t care for. Either way, especially today, I feel the need for something else, though I don’t know what.

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Originally, my May trip was supposed to be the beginning of a year-long road trip (partly because I do not want to spend another summer in debilitating heat) but I backed off because I need to give my arm more time to recover. And give me more time, too — after all, I spent six months juggling between narcotics and pain, in addition to being injected several times with the soup of drugs they use for anesthesia (some of which no one understands why they have the effect they do).

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But today I again wonder if it’s time for . . .

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I don’t know. More adventure?

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But May will be coming soon, and that should give me a taste of being out and about and help me decide when/if to continue my great adventure.

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After tomorrow, where I will have to deal with someone I would prefer not to deal with, I will have three days of adventuring in the desert. Maybe that will be enough to get me through another week without running away.

Or not.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

My Faux Backpacking Trip

Dance class was cancelled today, so I was going to take a “zero” day — in backpacking parlance, that means no miles — but since I had nothing better to do, I eventually shrugged on the pack and headed up the road. I figured, in a real backpacking situation, for example one in which I was running out of food, being lazy wouldn’t get me out of the predicament, and the saunters this weekend were supposed to — sort of — mimic a backpacking trip.

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Sixteen miles in four days carrying twenty pounds sounds like a lot (and feels like even more!) but for a real backpacker, that would be a day’s hike with a light pack.

But then, I’m not a real backpacker, and have no real aspirations to be. What I’m aiming for is time in the wilderness rather than monster miles through the wilderness, but one doesn’t get to remote areas without some effort, so that’s what I’m doing. Putting in the effort.

As of right now, I figure I’m carrying the basic pack, or rather the weight of a basic pack, which would include the pack itself, a tent, sleep system (a total of ten pounds for those three basic items), and perhaps another ten pounds of emergency supplies and tools and extra clothes. What’s missing? Yep — food and water.

I could, of course, get rid of some of the emergency items and tools, such as the external battery for my phone and the Solo camp stove, to make room for food, but an even better plan would be to get strong enough to carry more weight.

I’m doing well for just having started my conditioning for a backpacking trip. I’ve also stuck to most of my non-resolutions, such as no sugar, no wheat, almost no dairy, but the not-eating-after-6:00-pm has been a problem. Still, it’s on the list, and one day, perhaps, I can adhere to that item, too. I do other things on the list, such as stretching and lifting weights (very light weights because of my arm) most days, which hopefully will also help get me in shape for the trip. Oddly, dance classes have become something of a respite from the trail conditioning because even grand plies are easier than trudging around with twenty extra pounds piled on my body.

Best of all, by being disciplined and going out for a trudge, I got to enjoy the lovely day.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Truth About My Desert

I always try to take the most dramatic photos when I am out hiking in “my” desert, which makes it seem as if the place is wonderfully remote and serene.

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Despite what the above photo shows, the truth is that folks in the nearby neighborhoods use the place as a dump. There are piles of junk everywhere, but instead of railing against what I consider a desecration, they become part of the mythology of the place and help keep me on track. For example, I know that to return to the city, I need to turn right at the pile of trash spilled from a black trash bag. At the top of that hill, to show me I am on track, is an entire suite of broken-down living room furniture. And on a more distant pathway in a more distant time, is this television.

One of my favorites was this lovely bear I found during my early days of grief. He always made me smile, reminding me that even on my darkest days, the desert, at least, loved me. After weeks of seeing the little fellow, I decided I should rescue him, but he’d disappeared. I never knew if someone else had taken him or if the strong winds had blown him to another sad woman who needed his message.

Mostly, of course, I see such things as discarded condoms, empty beer bottles, and ragged clothing, but sometimes a bit of color catches my eye, such as this toy I saw today, which shows there is beauty in unlovely things:

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Or this one yesterday that seemed to be urging me down a different path than I had planned:

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All in a day’s walk. All part of the truth of my desert.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

A Lilt in My Heart

Ever since I made the commitment to do a solo backpacking trip in May, I’ve had a strange feeling, one to which I am so unaccustomed that it’s taking a while for me to recognize the emotion. Maybe excitement. Perhaps anticipation. Or could it be . . . happiness?

It’s hard to tell. I haven’t felt lighthearted since Jeff fell ill decades ago. Watching him waste away destroyed my happiness, and the long years of grief after his death certainly didn’t do anything to remind me what happiness felt like. And even though dancing has been good for me, brought me back to life after Jeff died, it hasn’t been a consistently lighthearted endeavor. Sometimes it’s frustrating learning a new dance. Sometimes it’s hard making my body do what it’s supposed to do. (Yeah, point those toes!) And then there always seems to be one individual I have a hard time dealing with. (For me, dancing is about paying attention, everyone doing what they are supposed to, all moving as one — the zen of it. And some people insist on doing their own thing, no matter what the teacher says. I try not to let it bother me, but the truth is, their improvisations destroy the energy, pain amelioration, mental stimulation, and the joy that synchronized dancing brings.)

Still, it could be that this feeling has to do at least partly with dance classes. We are learning fabulous dances in both Hawaiian class and Belly dance, as well as reclaiming a great tap dance I sort of learned at the very beginning that got lost from disuse. And Hawaiian class was great this past week, going through all our old routines, which truly gave me the zen of dance feeling.

But that can’t be all of it, because there have been many such dances and days over the years. Mostly, I think, the lightheartedness has to have come from the idea of the backpacking trip.

A long time ago I read an article about dreams. If, for example, your dream is to visit Paris, and you are unable to go there for whatever reason, the suggestion was to figure out exactly what you want from the visit and what would give you the feeling you craved. Do you want the joy of sitting in an outdoor café eating brioche and sipping Café au Lait? Eating delicious French food in a fancy French restaurant? Visiting art galleries? Then try to find a substitute for whatever it is that you want. If you can’t go to a French café in France, find one near you. If you can’t afford an expensive French restaurant, save up your money and treat yourself — though it might be outside your budget, it would be a heck of a lot cheaper than airfare to France, and might give you a taste of the dream. And if art galleries are what you most desire, then visit those you can in this country. Or look for traveling exhibits from the Louvre.

What I’m getting at here is that whatever it is that I want from a remote backpacking trip, I am apparently getting at least a part of it now, though I have no idea what it might be. It’s possible that roaming the desert with a twenty-pound pack makes me feel as if I am already on that mythical trip. It could be the thought of walking around with my house (a tent, a sleeping system, and a camping stove qualifies as a house, right?) on my back like a turtle amuses me, even though at the moment, the turtle effect is only in my mind since the pack is filled with water bottles. (Each .5 ml bottle weighs approximately a pound, which makes it easy to add weight and calculate the total.) It could be that I like the challenge of training. It could be a lot of things, but I don’t suppose the reason matters.

All I know is that I woke this morning with a lilt in my heart that even the soreness of today’s saunter couldn’t dissipate.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Running Away

I was talking to a couple of friends today about my upcoming trip to Seattle and my plans for a solo backpacking trip when I’m there. They asked me why I even wanted to go out into the wilderness by myself, and I had to admit I wasn’t sure. All I know is that after Jeff died, the idea took hold of me, and that every time I had an upsurge of grief, the idea came back even stronger, and now it just won’t let go. (The desire for such an adventure is a common reaction to grief.)

One woman said it sounded as if I were running away. Well, yes. Of course I am.  But then, I am also running toward something I can’t yet imagine. When I explained that the trip is a spiritual journey, a vision quest, the other women said she hoped I would find what I was looking for.

Am I looking for something? I don’t know. Do I expect to find something? Not exactly.

“Aren’t you afraid to be out in the wilderness by yourself at night?” they asked. Well, sure. But I think that’s sort of the point. To feel the breadth and breath of the night. To be aware of danger but at the same time bask in the vastness. To be afraid and in awe of the very world we live in. We’re used to thinking of the wild world as our own backyard, and yet the world exists in and for itself, without a single thought for the oh, so arrogant humans who live on the surface. Perhaps a respectful fear is a good thing to cultivate — at least it’s a recognition that we are not the center of the universe or the galaxy or even the world. In many respects, we are superfluous. If we did not exist, the earth still would continue revolving around the sun. If the earth weren’t here, we’d be . . . nowhere.

I try not to have any expectations. I know it’s dangerous to be out there alone. I know even experienced wilderness hikers get lost, get hurt, meet up with dangers — not bears so much, but clouds of mosquitoes, lightning, corroded trails, raging streams, and unleashed dogs are all very real dangers. And yet, I can’t let my fears dictate my future — otherwise, I’d never leave the house. (Being a crazy cat lady sans cats is as realistic a fear as any of those I might encounter on the trail.)

So maybe what I am running away from is that untenable future? Maybe what I’m running toward is a way to change what seems fated?

The way I see it, only good can come from seeking the goal. (Not necessarily the trip itself, but the push toward the trip.) Using hiking poles is helping my miracle arm. (The one that was broken in twenty-five places but now acts mostly normal.) Carrying a backpack is strengthening my body. Projecting myself into possible unpleasant situations is strengthening my resolve. Research is stretching my mind. Eating a clean diet is making me healthier.

At least, that’s the theory.

I’m still a long way from actually doing the trip, but every time I go to ballet class or saunter with my pack or forgo a sugary snack, I am taking another step on the trail.

And that seems as good a reason for planning on going out into the wilderness by myself as any other.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Mentors!

It’s hard for me to escape the status quo of my life, to be spontaneous and just take off, so when I accepted an invitation from my sister in Seattle to visit her around mother’s day to make candy turtles in our mother’s honor, I immediately began making plans for what I will do once I have escaped my bonds. Camping. Sauntering. Visiting friends.

As if that weren’t enough to pile into one short month, I also thought it would be a good time to try my hand at dispersed camping or a short pack backing trip, something that would take me out of the relative comfort and safety of a national park campground and put me alone in the wilderness for a night or two. (Which is why I’ve been wandering around the neighborhood carrying fifteen pounds on my back — I need to get used to carrying a pack.)

I couldn’t even begin to guess where to start in my search for an appropriate beginners backpacking trip, but apparently, both my sister and her husband are experienced wilderness campers, so when I mentioned my problem to my sister, the two of them volunteered to help me plan a multi-day saunter during my stay. Not only that, they will know where I am, and if I don’t wander out of the wilderness in a reasonable length of time, they will be able to send rescuers or come look for me themselves.

When I spent those months in northern California a couple of years ago, my friend would drop me off at a trailhead and pick me up at the other end. Although there was always a moment of trepidation before I took that first step onto the trail, the nervousness didn’t last long, partly because I knew she had my back.

I’m sure the same thing will hold true this May — that awful realization I was on my own, then the fullness of the experience and the comfort of knowing that someone was waiting to hear how things went.

I have so many questions that need answering before setting out, but I am thrilled to actually have someone (two someones!) who can help me figure out the right trail for me, places to camp, where to look for water and how to use my water purifier, what weather to expect, and oh, so many other things! (And help me adjust my backpacking straps. Every time I add more weight to the pack, the straps need adjusting, but I can’t adjust them because of all the weight.)

I could, of course, do what I have always done — research, make the most informed decisions possible, and then hope for the best, but it will be so much better to know, rather than guess. And this is such an important step for me. It might kill the whole idea of an epic hike or it might stoke the desire even more. Either way, it will be nice to know that with the help of my mentors, I will be giving the project my best shot.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Sauntering

John Muir, an early advocate for the preservation of the wilderness, was involved in the creation of some of our national parks. Since so many hikers (those who have heard of him, that is) seem to revere him, I always assumed he was an avid hiker. Not so. He once said, “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!”

He continued, “Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

This might be only Muir’s interpretation of the word saunter because most definitions say the origin of the word is unclear. And yet, there is this from another source: “Usually the pilgrims [to Saint Terre , the Holy Land] — traveled in caravans for safety. Many saints, and good priests and bishops, from the East and West, preached against what they often saw in such journeymen as a spirit of uncertain and sometimes even scandalous restlessness. The French coined the word saunter to describe such peripatetic meanderings of vagabond types on their way to Saint Terre.”

Sauntering, with its connotation of a spiritual ramble, is exactly what I do. Even though I use the term “hike,” the truth is, I don’t really hike. Or even walk. I saunter. I stop to look around. Breathe in the ambiance. Listen to the stillness. Smell the air. Feel the holiness of the land. Touch the spirit of the place. Sometimes even reverently touch a rock or a tree. (Or, not so reverently, the ground, if I trip.)

I used to go on group hikes, but even though there is supposed to be safety in numbers, I never felt safe. I always had to “hike.” To go at their speed. To hurry to catch up after stopping to savor a place. So not my idea of a proper wilderness experience!

Although my dream is of an epic hike, for me the challenge and the joy would be the time spent on the trail, not the distance traveled. Although thru-hikers deny that that hiking one of the major trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail is a competition, there’s really no other way to describe it. The competition might not be against each other, but there is definitely a race against time, the weather, even one’s own ability. There are only so many months to travel the trail before the winter snows make hiking impossible, and so sometimes grueling paces have to be set. And sometimes people try to break the record of how long it takes to hike the trail.

Not my idea of a spiritual journey or even just a good time.

Now a saunter — yep, that’s for me.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

 

Epiphany

The epiphany I mentioned in the title has nothing to do with the three kings, though, considering what day this is, I won’t rule out the possibility that this particular epiphany is a gift from the magi — the insight had to have come from somewhere.

This morning, after I stretched, I put on my two-pound belly pack and shrugged into my fifteen-pound backpack, grabbed my trekking poles and went out for a trudge. Actually, I am getting used to the weight a bit, so it’s more of a slow walk now than simply a plod.

My normal three-mile route goes up the road to the desert about a mile away, a mile turnaround in the desert, and a return down a parallel street on one of the few sidewalks in the area. Today, I spent a few extra minutes in the desert, enjoying being out in the open, enjoying the very thought of being away from civilization if only for a few minutes.

On the walk back, I marveled that I seem to be in the perfect place to train for some sort of extended backpacking trip. Proximity to nature. Winter weather conducive to walking. The right gear and clothing.

And then the epiphany hit me — maybe I really am supposed to do this. “This” meaning my impossible dream of an epic backpacking trek

At lunch with friends a week or so ago, we talked about our lives and the future. They have houses, responsibilities, family. And me — all I have is this dream. They couldn’t understand why I would even want to go camping, let alone backpacking, and I couldn’t explain the pull of the quest. I’m not athletic at all — spent too many years lounging around reading to be really fit. I’m not an outdoorsy sort of person — except for walking, of course. I certainly have no lifelong love of camping — until recently, I’ve always been too much of a comfort seeker to easily embrace the discomforts inherent in a camping trip.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

The quest is not — obviously — a quest for discomfort, though in a way it is. It is in stretching our boundaries, in embracing discomfort, in reaching for the unreachable that we see the truth of ourselves, learn how we connect to the world around us, understand that we are nature, that nature is us. If we could see the world and us as energy or a quantum state, we would see that there is no real separation between us and our surroundings. I understand this, but I would like to feel it — to be alone, just me and the world, to go past what is comfortable or convenient to whatever is beyond the ordinary. A spiritual quest, in other words.

Yoda (what or whoever that might be) said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” I’m wondering if the opposite is true. “Try or not try. There is no do.” It could be that in my case, the trying is the doing. Or the doing is in the trying.

There is a good chance that this trying — this training — is the quest. (Wait! Is that another epiphany?)

After Jeff died, I thought my move away from our home of two decades would be the start of a life change — a real journey. But it turned out the drive to my father’s house was simply a trip — the journey had been in all the changes I’d undergone before taking the trip.

I wonder if this quest is the same sort of thing — that if I am ever able to do some sort of long backpacking trip, it might simply be another walk, that the quest is in all this preparation.

Should be interesting to find out.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.