Appropriating Christmas: How the Philippines took a foreign religious holiday & made it their own

Christmas is more fun in the Philippines! Christmas begins September 1 and ends in December. The joke is that this is because these are -ber months (all ending in -ber), which is reminiscent of brrrr and admittedly is the coldest things get in the Philippines (where daily temperatures begin at 25C and go up). I thought that a look at Filipino Christmas and a comparison with the Christmases practiced in other parts of the world, might help us further understand the process of appropriation.

The Christmas I remember included a variety of images, from Jesus in the manger, to Santa Claus’ red suit. There were shepherds, angels, wise men, reindeer, carols, Christmas songs, presents, and turkey dinner. We put up decorations, stood up Christmas trees, sat on Santa’s knee, and participated in and attended Christmas pageants. We debated: Should it be Christmas or X-mas? Is it proper to celebrate Christmas before Remembrance Day? When is the best time to tell our kids that Santa isn’t real. If Christmas falls on a Saturday, do we need to have a church service on both Saturday and Sunday or can we just have one? The longest kind of celebration for Christmas was the 12 days immortalised in the song. Canadians even had Bob and Doug MacKenzie’s version to enjoy!

What perhaps I didn’t realise back then was that Christmas is an intensely cultural experience and different cultures express and experience Christmas in different ways. Just go back over the lyrics to Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? to see the absurdity of some of our ideas!

Christmas is an important time of the year for Filipinos. Preparation begins September 1 when malls begin playing Christmas carols. Soon decorations appear that depict various “Christmas” scenes. In mid-November, people began planning Christmas parties at a variety of locations: A person can expect to attend multiple Christmas parties each Christmas season. The start of Simbang Gabi on 16 December is significant in more ways than one: Not only does it signal the final nine days leading up to Christmas, it also signals the start of Christmas Carol season. 

While it may be called Christmas there are some features of a Philippine Christmas that differ from the Christmases I experienced as a kid in Canada and maybe from the Christmas that you are used to.

World’s Longest Christmas. I guess we can begin at the four months of Christmas. Filipinos often brag that they have the longest Christmas celebrations of any place in the world. They also sometimes apologetically say that they start too early. I guess maybe I could point out that perhaps everyone else starts late?

Parol. The picture at the top of this post is of a parol. The parol is the ultimate Filipino Christmas decoration. Children learn to make these in elementary school and every house has at least one. The simplest parol feature a bamboo frame with colourful plastic skin while the more complex ones feature lights and music. The centre of parol culture is the province of Pampanga, just an hour or two north of Metro Manila, where craftsmen have perfected the art of parol. They have even developed a home-grown system for making the lights dance that predates modern digital light controllers.

Simbang gabi. Simbang gabi is nine days of early morning worship at the local church. It begins on December 16 and goes until Christmas Eve. Some treat the experience as panata, or vow, believing that God will grant their request if they attend each of the nine days.

Christmas caroling. Christmas carolling in the Philippines is a type of wassailing, similar in some ways to Canadian Halloween practices. What is interesting is that one of the more popular Filipino Christmas carols is actually about wassailing. Perhaps the best-known example of Christmas wassailing is in the popular Christmas carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas. As one looks at the lyrics one sees the wassailing process, described from demands for treats (“give us some figgy pudding”) to threats (“we won’t go until we’ve got some”). (Actually the Christmas carol “I love to go a-sailing” is actually “I love to go wassailing.”)

One year I did a study on Christmas carolling in our community. The choice of songs was limited. More than half of the groups sang the typical Christmas medley of Sa May Bahay Ang Aming Bati [We Greet the Owner of the House], We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Thank You Very Much with two more groups merely omitting Thank You Very Much. By far the most popular song of the evening was Sa May Bahay Ang Aming Bati at 11 hits followed by We Wish You a Merry Christmas at 10 hits, and Thank You, Thank You, Thank You Very Much! at 9 hits. I was surprised that Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit [Christmas is Drawing Near] was only sung once that evening. Other songs included Jingle Bells, Noche Buena [Christmas Eve], Pasko Na Naman Muli [It’s Christmas Time Again], Last Christmas, and Maligayang Pasko [Merry Christmas]. While all of these songs are identified as Christmas carols, none of them makes more than a passing reference to the birth of Jesus.

In the province of Samar caroling is called Pananarit, a Waray-language retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Carolers go from house to house asking, through song, “Can you see us here?” Those in the house answer “There is no room in the inn.” The complexity of the song required many singers. The song is quite lengthy, taking up four pages of paper, and a caroller was expected to know it perfectly if they expected to receive a prize. This is repeated every night until Christmas Eve when English songs such as We Wish You a Merry Christmas are permitted. This is because Jesus has now been born and so they don’t need to look for a place to stay.

Aguinaldo and the code words “Merry Christmas.” Since a major part of Christmas is gifts, there are a variety of hints that one can give in order to get a present. Aguinaldo is the term for the P20 that godparents give to their godchildren on Christmas. Some Godparents visit the bank to ensure that these P20 bills are new. In some settings the term “Merry Christmas” is code for “I am waiting for my gift,” which is why some offices ban its use. Having an Exchange Gift is a common feature at Christmas parties. The value is determined before hand to ensure an equitable distribution. 13th-month pay is enshrined in Philippine law that requires employers to give their employees an additional one-month’s pay each December.

What’s different? Christmas is a wonderful time for Filipinos. But you may have noticed a few differences with how you celebrate the same event. By and large Santa is missing. Maybe that’s because the only places with chimneys sell litson manok [roasted chicken] and anyone sliding down those chimneys would end up getting roasted. Other features of the Santa story are also far from the typical Philippine experience: Sleighs, snow, warm winter clothes, reindeer, and North Pole. Christmas carols are also different, as noted above. The Philippines has developed its own set of appropriate Christmas songs. In fact, the main indicator that Christmas has begun is that Jose Mari Chan sings his famous Christmas Song, Christmas in our Hearts.

All Christmas celebrations are in fact appropriations (like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc) in that they have been appropriated to bring different meanings to previously pagan festivals. Of course celebrations of Christ’s birth predate these appropriations but we don’t celebrate those anymore. Thus some of the main features of Christmas are really repurposed pagan items. This repurposing gives new meaning to old symbols. This is why I don’t agree with some who claim that to celebrate Christmas or Halloween is to embrace paganism because most paganism has been repurposed and given new meanings — examples of the conversion of culture that Andrew Walls speaks of.

I am hoping that this look at Christmas helps us understand the kinds of appropriations that are appropriate to use. Particularly those who are in the same line of work as I am, namely proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to people from another culture, can help find ways for this kind of appropriation to happen. Part of the secret I think it to let it happen organically.

What about your own Christmas celebrations? Have you experienced change in Christmas in your life? How have you made them your own? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Remember, sharing is what friends do.

Oh, and, Merry Christmas!

Image by Eugene Alvin Villar (seav), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tiktok: Bakit ako sumali sa isang social media phenomena na puno ng mga tao mula sa ibang henerasyon

Read this post in English.

Oh. Nasa Tiktok na ako. Baka isipin mo na nagsimula na akong sumayaw o gusto kong bumagsak ang aking karera sa musika, huwag mag-alala. May paliwanag ako. Ang Tiktok ay nasa likod ng aking isipan mula pa noong isang klase na itinuro namin sa SEATS noong 2021 na nagrekomenda ng paggamit ng plataporma para sa ministeryo sa simbahan ngunit dahil wala akong ganap na karanasan sa Tiktok ay hindi ko naisip kung paano eksaktong gamitin ito. So anong nangyari para makumbinsi ako?

Ilang taon na ang nakararaan pinangasiwaan ko ang pagtatayo ng isang paanakan malapit sa aming bahay. Hindi ko makuha ang kredito para sa paanakan — naroroon ako para sa mga kapanganakan nina Emily at Daniel ngunit wala akong pagnanais na dumalo para sa mga kapanganakan ng sinumang bata — ngunit nakapagbigay ng ilang input pagdating sa pagsasama-sama ng pasilidad kung saan ipinanganak ang mga sanggol.

Ang isang pangunahing aspeto sa anumang uri ng konstruksiyon ay ang mga manggagawa na gumagawa ng aktwal na trabaho. Mayroon silang iba’t ibang mga kasanayan. Ang ilan ay kasangkot sa proseso ng disenyo. Ang iba ay likas na matalino sa pangangasiwa sa gawain. Ang mga skilled ay may mga espesyal na kasanayan tulad ng pagkakarpintero o pagmamason. Ang mga labor ay gumagawa ng mabigat na pag-aangat ng pangkalahatang paggawa. Masaya at marami akong nakilalang lalaki. Bilang bahagi ng aking kontribusyon sa pagsisikap, nagsagawa ako ng lingguhang pag-aaral sa Bibliya tuwing Sabado bago matapos ang araw (kung kailan sila matatanggap ng kanilang suweldo para sa linggo).

Isang araw sinabi ko sa isang kaibigang pastor ang tungkol sa aming proyekto, alam kong kamakailan lang ay nasangkot siya sa isang katulad na proyekto nang itayo nila ang kanilang bahay sambahan. Ipinagmamalaki kong sinabi sa kanya na nagsasagawa ako ng pag-aaral ng Bibliya sa aming mga manggagawa bawat linggo. Bumalik siya na may pahayag na nagsagawa siya ng pag-aaral ng bibliya araw-araw bago magsimula ang trabaho! Nagulat ako pero napaisip ako. Ang resulta ay nagkaroon ako ng maikling debosyonal bago kami magsimulang magtrabaho tuwing umaga. Ang mga lalaki sa pangkalahatan ay hindi nahihiyang makipag-usap tungkol sa Bibliya sa normal na buhay at pinahahalagahan nila ang mga panalangin para sa kanilang kaligtasan araw-araw, kaya naging maayos ang lahat.

Noong isang araw, habang naglalakad ako sa clinic at iniisip ang huling yugto ng proyekto (na inaasahan nating magsisimula sa bagong taon), naalala ko na kapag nagsimula muli ang konstruksiyon ay kailangan kong pag-isipang muli ang mga pang-araw-araw na debosyonal. Noon natamaan ako. Maaari na akong magsimulang gumawa ng maikling araw-araw na debosyonal ngayon sa Tiktok! Nagpo-post ako ng pang-araw-araw na talata sa bibliya sa nakalipas na ilang taon sa mga social media account ng aming mga ministeryo kaya hindi ganoon kahirap gawin iyon para maging pang-araw-araw na debosyonal. Kaya gumawa agad ako ng Tiktok account at nagsimulang mag-record ng mga video.

Sa puntong ito wala akong ideya kung hanggang kailan ito magpapatuloy o kung anong mga partikular na benepisyo ang maaari nitong ibigay sa mga tao. Gayunpaman, ang mga tao sa loob ng aking ministry circle ay nagpahayag na mahalaga sa kanila ang araw-araw na mga talata sa bibliya na aking ipinadala. Mayroon ding mga tao sa aming komunidad na hindi makalabas ng kanilang mga bahay dahil sa malalaking isyu sa kalusugan at maganda ang video patungkol sa Bibliya para sa kanila .

Anong mga kakaibang bagong bagay ang ipinapagawa sa yo ng ng Diyos? Ano sa tingin mo ang kakailanganin para makumbinsi ka na gawin ito? Paki iwan ang iyong sagot sa comment box sa ibaba?

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Para sa mga kawili-wiling malaman ang higit pa tungkol sa aming proyekto sa paanakan narito ang isang maikling video na naglalarawan sa aming ginagawa.

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Tiktok: Why I joined a social media phenomena full of people from a different generation

Basahin mo sa wikang Tagalog.

So I’m on Tiktok. Lest you think that I have taken up dancing or want my music career to take off, don’t worry. I have an explanation. Tiktok has been in the back of my mind ever since a class we taught at SEATS in 2021 recommended using the platform for church ministry but since I have absolutely no experience with Tiktok I wasn’t able to conceptualise exactly how to use it. So what happened to convince me?

A couple of years ago I supervised construction of a birthing clinic near our house. I can’t take credit for the clinic — I was present for the births of Emily & Daniel but have no desire to be present for anyone else’s kid’s births — but was able to provide some input when it came to putting together a facility within which babies are delivered.

A key aspect to any kind of construction is the workers who do the actual work. They have various skills. Some are involved in the design process. Others are gifted at overseeing the work. Some have special skills like carpentry or masonry. Others do the heavy lifting of general labour. It was fun and I got to know a lot of men. As a part of my contribution to the effort, I conducted a weekly bible study every Saturday just prior to the day’s end (when they would receive their pay for the week).

One day I was telling a pastor-friend about our project, knowing that he had recently been involved in a similar project when they built their church building. I proudly told him that I was having a bible study with our workers every week. He came back with the statement that he had done a bible study every day before work! I was taken aback but it got me thinking. The result was that I had a short devotional before we began work each morning. The men in general don’t shy away from talking about the Bible in normal life and they appreciate prayers for safety during the day, so it all worked out well.

The other day, while walking past the clinic and thinking of the final phase of the project (that we hope to begin in the new year), I was reminded that when construction starts again I would need to think about daily devotionals again. That’s when it hit me. I could start now doing a short daily devotional on Tiktok! I have been posting a daily bible verse for the past couple of years on our ministries’ social media accounts so to turn that into a daily devotional wasn’t all that hard to do. So I bit the bullet and created a Tiktok account and started recording videos.

At this point I have no idea how long this will go on for or what specific benefits it might offer people. However, people within my ministry circle have expressed their appreciation for the daily bible verses that I have sent. There are also people in our community who are unable to leave their houses due to major health issues and for whom an option to watch a video about the Bible is a blessing.

What strange new things is God calling you to do? What do you think it will take to convince you to do it? Why not leave your answer in the comment box below?

Remember sharing is what friends do.

If you enjoyed this read, please don’t forget to like and follow my blog.

For those interesting in finding out more about our birthing clinic project here is a short video describing what we are doing.

Image by SCREEN POST on Unsplash.

When is it appropriate to appropriate? Why appropriation can be good. (Part 2)

“Not all appropriation is bad” may seem like an odd statement since in Part 1 of this topic I talked about all the reasons why appropriation is bad. In this part I intend to talk about one aspect of human culture that needs to be appropriated and if it isn’t appropriated then problems happen. I am talking of course about the good news of Jesus Christ.

Get this. The gospel is supposed to be appropriated. No one culture can claim ownership over it. No one group can say that they are the final authority on how the gospel should be understood and applied — such decisions need to happen in dialogue with everyone else. This is something very hard to do, granted, but also something that should be done. We know this because Jesus’ final command to his disciples — often called the Great Commission — is to spread this good news around the world.

Andrew Walls spent his life developing a framework of Transmission and Appropriation when it comes to the good news of Jesus Christ. What’s significant about Walls approach is that he sees not only the transmission side of things but also delves into the appropriation side as well. Appropriate is as intentional as transmission — eventually whatever is being transmitted is to subsequently be appropriated by the recipient. 

Walls talks about two types of recipients of the good news: Proselytes and converts. Proselytes adopt some one else’s encounter with God as their own while Converts adapt their own culture to reflect a new encounter with God. It may seem as if this is a two-stage process starting from proselyte and moving towards conversion but that is an over simplification of how things work. In fact in every culture we see examples of both co-existing. For example the practice of baptism, while debated as to its mode, is a nearly universally accepted practice among Christians, in spite of the fact that it originated in the Jewish religion.

The fact that the gospel is to be transmitted also implies that it will also be appropriated. Thus, Appropriation and Transmission must occur together. What’s also interesting is that ultimately the process also happens in reverse to create a richer transmission culture: The appropriator becomes the transmitter and the transmitter becomes the appropriator — or at least it should 🙂 Cultural hybridity is not a bad thing. In reality there are very few cultures that exist that have no interaction with other cultures. 

We have seen the dangers of what Bakhtin calls monologues — where only one person is allowed to speak. The results are staggering. 

Church participation in Cultural Genocide. I have already written a lot about this topic particularly as it relates to the Canadian Indian Residential Schools System but suffice it to say the church’s failure to listen to the voices of the Other in their missions efforts has been nearly universal. The “Other” is “someone or something who is perceived, either consciously or not, as alien or different.” In this example, while missionaries may recruit some of those they are on mission to into their own ranks, their otherness is often maintained as seen by the second example.

Marginalisation of Other clergy. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Rev. James N. Settee, was the second person of First Nations ancestry to be ordained as a priest in the Church Missionary Society (Anglican Church of Canada). He devoted his entire life to spreading the gospel among first nations peoples in Manitoba and Saskatchewan but was also forced to spend much of his time combatting the inconsistencies and discriminations that he himself experienced on a daily basis to the point that it hindered his ability to do actual ministry. What’s interesting is that he clearly appropriated the gospel into his life’s work but found baggage that needed to be peeled away in order for it to work in his context. 

Other examples. This can also been seen in the many Church splits and schisms that have marked church history as people took stands on where they thought the gospel should end — I suspect all done without acknowledging different contexts.

Rather than monologue, dialogues need to take place and it’s only through the use of dialogue that the appropriation of the good news of Jesus Christ can take place. We talked about Enriquez’ approach to what he calls indigenization from within, which is in effect a system of appropriation governed by insiders rather than outsiders and perhaps this is the best way for appropriation to take place — under the control of the Other!

Salin a Tagalog root word that means “translate” and also “pour” and talks about the process involved in making something one’s own in a different language or culture. Just as liquid is decanted from a pitcher into a glass, and thereby made useful, so also concepts can be decanted from one culture to another and more more understandable. But translation is more than simply making something more understandable — translation means that ownership is taken of the new word or phrase and making it one’s own. So how does someone make something one’s own? Here are a couple of examples from the Philippine context.

Sometimes this combination is more complex than merely combining indigenous and exogenous theories. Regardless of theoretical origins, other factors come into play that exert influence on human decisions, including sociopolitical purposes, religious institutional ends, and religious practitioners’ ends. The various actors, whether those in authority or those under oppression, are each able to exert their own will and influence outcomes. Wendt and Guazon each talk about the interaction of these three factors in the Philippines. Both describe situations where the original intent of the transmitters was re-purposed by the appropriators according to their own needs.

Wendt (1998) talks about fiesta, looking at both historical origins as a means of Spanish control that eventually was co-opted by Filipinos and reformulated into a real part of Filipino identity. Wendt says, “The functions originally intended to implement colonial rule, cultivate specific attitudes and stabilize the colonial system were counteracted to the same degree by the Filipinos’ incorporating the fiesta into their own ways of life and social structures.”

Guazon’s Crisis in the Formation of provisional members of a religious congregation in the Philippines is a study of the interactions between “formandi” and “formators” in the CICM, which is “Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae, the institute’s Latin name. CICM is a Roman Catholic male religious missionary institute of Belgian origin.” The formandi are acolytes desiring admission to the order and the formators are those charged with overseeing the initiation process. One would assume that the process is quite straight forward since the acolytes are the ones seeking admission and will presumably submit. This is not the case, however, with tension occurring on multiple levels. In the end, Guazon concludes that the formandi … are “active participants” in the process and appropriate the requirements of their new social system “according to their own cultural matrix.”

Feedback is always welcome.

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Image by Tyler Nix on Unsplash.

When is it appropriate to appropriate? Why appropriation is bad. (Part 1)

Cultural Appropriation has made the news again. Nuseir Yassin runs the popular video log Nas Daily. He recently made the news (herehere, and here) when he offered a tattoo course by Whang-Od on his Nas Academy. Whang-Od is a traditional tattoo artist from the Philippine province of Kalinga who was honoured by the Philippine government with the Dangal na Haraya in 2018. The controversy started when Whang-Od’s grandniece called the course a scam. It turns out that Nuseir didn’t follow the proper procedures in making the deal with Whang-Od. According to Dr. Nestor Castro, 

“Whang-od is not just an individual artist but she is also a member of the Butbut Tribe of Kalinga. Her skill on the art of traditional tattooing is derived from the indigenous knowledge of generations of Kalinga ancestors. Thus, this indigenous knowledge is collectively owned (although it may be individually practiced) by the Butbut. Thus, the consent of the members of the Butbut is necessary if this knowledge is to be shared to outsiders. Getting the permission of one individual is not enough.” [Click here to read the entire post].

Apart from this, the agreement also doesn’t conform to Philippine laws on the rights of indigenous peoples. In the end, Cultural appropriation of this type is inappropriate because it is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. The issue is culture or people’s right to be the gatekeepers of their own cultural wealth, whether that means protecting that wealth from other’s exploitations, or benefitting themselves as the owners of that cultural wealth.

Virgilio G. Enriquez, whose Pagbabangong-Dangal: Indigenous Psychology and Cultural Empowerment is from the Philippine context, presents six phases of cultural domination to which “indigenous psychology and culture have been subjected” throughout the world. Included in the stages are:

1. Denial and Withdrawal, where the “colonizers outrightly reject the very existence of what they perceive as an inferior culture.” This inferiority includes language, sport, food, law, and religion. “As the dominant culture denies the existence and worth of the indigenous culture, it also attempts to replace it with its own.”

2. Desecration and Destruction, where the “oppressive culture attempts to destroy whatever vestiges are left” of the indigenous culture. “Clearly, as the dominant culture atemts to destroy element s of the supposedly inferior culture, it tries to institutionalize and strengthen its own.”

3. Denigration and Marginalization, where the indigenous is labeled, giving the impression that it is inferior or damaged. This includes terms like Juan Tamad, quack doctor, ningas kugon, Filipino time, and talangka mentality as well as inaccurate portrayals of Filipinos in artwork depicting historical events, each of which is a negative stereotype of what it means to be Filipino.

4. Redefinition and Token Utilization, where the indigenous is “redefined and recast into the colonial mold.” Thus all indigenous meaning attached to the element is lost and it is not only completely redefined in a new context but also claimed by that new context as one of its own. Enriquez uses the Manila Galleon as an example. Here we have Filipino ingenuity in shipbuilding being redefined and claimed by the Spanish as one of their own. Enriquez also includes a discussion of what appears to be the token usage of “indigenous psychological texts” by Western-trained practitioners. It seems that they are being used not because of their value as psychological tools but because they merely make the client more at ease in an unfamiliar setting. 

5. Transformation and Mainstreaming, appears to be similar to Stage 4 only intensified. Here Enriquez focuses on the word hiyang, that at one time was considered nonsensical but is now seen as highlighting “personal differences” in therapeutic settings. Enriquez applies this to what happens in the doctor’s office, the kinds of food we eat, and folk-understandings of colors, shapes, textures, and sounds. “Once the prejudgment that the indigenous concept is merely superstitious or even useless has been proven wrong, the concept is reluctantly used but redefined according to the colonial mindset.”

6. Commercialization and Commodification, is where the real legitimacy of the indigenous is recognized by the colonizer. This can lead to one of two options, according to Enriquez. The first is “transforming and mainstreaming,” where “complete recognition and respect” is given by the colonizer to the indigenous and the two are mutually beneficial. The second option is where the indigenous culture’s knowledge and heritage are “exploited and commercialized.” Enriquez says that option #1 is rarely taken. He goes on to discuss the exploitation of indigenous genetics, both plant and human.

Enriquez proposes a counter-framework he calls “Decolonization, Counterdomination, and Empowerment” in order to guide in the recovery of what has been lost through colonialism. His model involves blending “both the modern and traditional cultural systems.” Key to his approach is what he calls indigenization from within, a traditional values-based approach that sees the indigenous as the main actor rather than the outsider. This internal orientation is essential to beginning decolonization because it puts the indigenous firmly in the driver’s seat. Enriquez identifies four aspects to indigenization from within, namely the “identification of key concepts from the indigenous culture,” the “semantic and lexical elaboration of these concepts,” the systematization and articulation of a theoretical framework, and applying and using this framework in the field. This process combines ideas and practices that are not only appropriate for the culture but also valid scientifically. So while one may conduct an interview in order to gather data, one is also free to conduct that interview in a culturally appropriate and relevant way.

Thus, by most accounts, appropriation is something that is bad but can be remedied. In our next post we will talk about a situation where appropriation is not only good, but is also the right thing to do.

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.