So you’ve found a Viking warrior’s grave…

Reconstruction of what the grave may have looked like to begin with. Credit: Uppsala University

Recent evidence has come out that a Viking-Age grave in Uppsala Sweden contained a woman buried with arms, armor, horses, and a tactical board game.

Looking at the evidence as a lay person, I feel like that’s all you can really say about it that cannot be disputed. However, combined with literary sources that mention women warriors and commanders, it seems likely that she was a woman warrior. Widows of wealthy and powerful men in Viking-Age Scandinavia were sometimes known to command their dead husband’s warriors. While in the lists of virtues in the Eddas, young men and women had very different aspirations–bravery and good housekeeping, respectively–the virtues that older men and women could aspire to were the same: wisdom, fair dealing, strategic thinking.

There seems to be a bit of circular reasoning in much archaeology, as it purports to tell us how people lived: a grave found with weapons in it must be a man’s, therefore only men were warriors. Similarly, a grave with household goods in it is necessarily a woman’s grave, therefore women mostly tended the household. This circular reasoning is more likely than most to uphold our current social biases. It is good to have DNA evidence that gives evidence of more possibilities.

Still, we have good evidence that this woman would have been unusual. (If she truly was a warrior; of course, I love to think that she was! But we also have literary evidence that women were given swords to hold in trust for their sons, so a woman might be buried with weapons for symbolic reasons, not necessarily martial ones.) Most of the literary evidence does point to a sharp division between the sexes, especially allowing for the fact that literary sources are more likely to highlight unusual and dramatic circumstances than prosaic ones.

Articles like this make me more glad than ever that I’m in the business of writing fiction, not history. I like to think about the breadth of what is possible–to me it’s always seemed likely that there were some Viking warrior women–without worrying about whether there is verifiable evidence of every possibility I’ve imagined.

For more on the roles of women in Viking literary sources, check out this essay I wrote for LitHub: “To Live Like the Women of Viking Literature”.

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On Critique and Criticism

One of my favorite podcasts is I Don’t Even Own A Television, a podcast about bad books. I was the kid whose parents literally did not own a television when I was growing up (ask me about 80s TV! I have no idea! I’m like an alien who arrived in pop culture in 1994!), so I love the title. Even more, I love the criticism; it’s a funny, snarky podcast about bad books. The hosts are hilarious and well-read, and approach the subject with positivity, wit, and joy.

Recently a question came up on the IDEOTV message boards for authors: how would you feel if they did an episode on your book?

Oh, dear readers, I would not feel good. They can and should approach whatever books they want, and I’m sure they would do a wonderful job, but sharing fiction with the world makes me feel more vulnerable and exposed than if I walked down the street naked. I would not listen to that episode and would avoid learning anything about it.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There is a difference between critique and criticism. Critique is feedback aimed at making my work better, and at making me a better writer. Criticism is for other readers. Perhaps it would be helpful to see a pattern in criticism of my work and try to address my deficiencies in the next novel, but ultimately, criticism is for readers deciding whether to read my books, and how they might think about them when they do.

I’m not sure I need to learn to feel good about bad reviews. But I did need to learn to take critique and turn it into self-improvement. Before I got my MFA, I took some writing classes with Gotham Writers Workshop, which was a fantastic way to get my feet wet and get used to receiving critique on my writing. The first story I wrote touched on a very painful friend breakup I had experienced. After turning it in for workshop, I got sick to my stomach and couldn’t hold down solid food for a week. True story.

It got easier over time, but I am not a thick-skinned person for whom taking critique came easily. I would like to be perfect. A part of me believes that if I make any mistake, the earth should probably open up and swallow me so that I am no longer a blemish upon its surface. I want to curl up, cease to exist, fling myself into the sun, hide in a closet, run away and change my name so none will ever know my shame…

So much of advice about taking critique is about not getting defensive and angry, about being open to other people’s perspectives. I envy people whose first instinct is defensiveness and not self-abnegation. The most important journey of my adult life has been learning how to live with mistakes and failure without feeling like they are existential threats.

Another thing that helped was doing some freelance writing for an ad agency. I wrote 1000-word case studies about marketing analytics software. My soul and id is in my novels, but not in that copy. When I was learning the style that the agency wanted, I had to do five drafts of the first case study. It wasn’t great for my ego, and I still felt badly about not getting it right on the first try, but it wasn’t as though they were criticizing my inner self. Taking that critique and using it to improve the advertising pieces made it easier to be a bit more businesslike about my creative writing.

There are differences as well, though. When you’re a freelance writer, writing for a customer, the customer is right, and has the final say. When you’re doing creative writing, you are the final arbiter, and the work’s fidelity to your vision is what success should be measured against. Critique in a workshop also has its challenges. It is different and, to me, better to be taking critique from people invested in selling my books. But no matter what, the steps I go through in taking critique are as follows:

  1. Don’t react externally to critique, especially right away. Don’t justify or apologize. They’re both useless. Thank the person for the critique, and plan to spend some time with it.
  2. Feel your feelings. You’ll probably have lots of feelings. Some of them may be intense. For me it’s self-pity and worthlessness; for you it might be anger and denial. They’re your feelings. They’re okay. They won’t last forever. You’ll probably not want to share them too much except with trusted friends. Don’t vent on the internet. I like to set aside a day or two to sit with critique before taking any action on it.
  3. If you don’t understand the critique, ask questions about it.
  4. Measure the suggestions against your own barometer of what the work should be, but remember that a new reader will see things you have not. I love suggestions for how I should change something. Often I change the thing in a different way, but seeing the way a reader wants something changed points out to me what they snagged on. I might not agree with their solution, but it’a always good to know what tripped them up.
  5. Get ready for the next round.

Critique is a gift, but don’t be ashamed if it’s challenging to process, and requires practice and self-knowledge. If I didn’t feel anything when I received critique, if I were 100% thick-skinned and could shrug it off, I wonder if I’d have enough emotional investment in my work.

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May Book Updates

Blushing pearsI got a wonderful review from Kirkus:

“Steeped in legend and myth, Hartsuyker’s debut is a swashbuckling epic of family, love, and betrayal that reimagines the Norse sagas.  At 20, hotheaded Ragnvald is old enough to be a warrior “and counted a man”—but not old enough to see betrayal coming. After he’s nearly killed in a plot orchestrated by his stepfather, Ragnvald swears allegiance first to King Hakon, then to King Harald , hoping to win enough power to take back the land that’s rightfully his. Meanwhile, his sister, Svanhild, abandons the protections of family and friends to escape an arranged marriage—only to find herself at the mercy of her brother’s betrayer, Solvi. Hartsuyker bases Ragnvald’s tale on the epic of King Harald Fairhair, one of her possible ancestors. The historic figure of Ragnvald rose to prominence as one of Harald’s fiercest warriors during the unification of Norway in the ninth century. In the gaps of recorded history, Hartsuyker weaves a tale of myth, magic, and superstition, where “the chilly fingers of Ran’s handmaidens” can pull a sailor to his death or an undead draugr can terrorize a village. The contours of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s reality are equally dangerous, and Hartsuyker doesn’t shy away from depicting the slaughter, rape, and deception that marked the raids and battles of the Viking age. While Hartsuyker’s prose is straightforward, the plot is as deliciously complex as Game of Thrones. And, in an era so dominated by the tales of men, it’s nice to see a complicated, cunning heroine like Svanhild swoop in and steal the show. Hold on to your helms and grab your shields—Hartsuyker is just getting started.”

The Historical Novel Society published an article showcasing The Half-Drowned King and other new voices in historical fiction.

The Half-Drowned King has made a bunch of very flattering lists:

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Should you get an MFA?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve done a blog update. I’ve been working on edits to The Sea Queen from my editor at HarperCollins–all done now! I’ve also written some essays that my publicist and I are trying to get placed in various publications to promote The Half-Drowned King.

Recently, I’ve been reconnecting with some friends from my MFA program. Also, one of my cousins is considering going for an MFA, and it seemed worthwhile to write about my experience for anyone who googles “Should I Get An MFA” as I frequently did when making that decision. When I was about 30, I was working at an internet startup that I was not particularly excited about. I had gone through several years of therapy to help with cycles of depression and anxiety that made my life rather unpleasant. I was starting to feel like I was not, actually, one mistake away from utter ruin, and that I could try different things with my life and it would be okay. At the same time, I was considering my career path, and where I might find meaning in my life. I loved writing and wrote whenever I had free time, but didn’t feel like it was a serious enough pursuit, or that I was good enough at it, to commit to it.

I was considering going back to school, possibly to get an MBA so I could be better at helping run internet startups. Maybe if I threw myself into that, I thought, it would start to feel fulfilling. I was ruminating on that possibility on a now defunct journalling platform. One of my online friends, who had seen me start and stop many writing projects, including what would grow into The Half-Drowned King, wrote, “You shouldn’t get an MBA, you should get an MFA.”

It was exactly the right thing to say to me. I thought: yes, I should get an MFA. But before committing the time and money, I wanted to make sure it was the right choice. I signed up for a Gotham Writers Workshop’s Intro to Creative Writing Class with Evan Rehill and then took several iterations of Gotham’s Novel-Writing Workshop with Diana Spechler.

I loved both of those classes, but eventually I found that wanted more than they offered: to study with students who were perhaps more committed to their craft (though I worked with many very serious writers at Gotham), to read and learn from published literature with my fellow writers, and most of all, I wanted to make a commitment to myself about writing. By the time I began my MFA program at NYU, I had finished writing a few drafts of The Half-Drowned King, and had representation for it, but I wanted to learn more, and continue down the path of becoming a more skilled and interesting writer.

It was the right choice for me. I had savings so I wouldn’t need to go into debt. I had an established career I could go back to. I had confidence in my writing, along with a desire to learn and change. I don’t think these are prerequisites for anyone doing an MFA, but they were for me.

Things to know about MFA programs:

  1. They do not guarantee a writing or teaching career, but they can help An MFA is a degree that qualifies its bearers to teach Creative Writing. Many programs help writers meet agents. But teaching jobs can be scarce, and agents accept plenty of writers who don’t have MFAs.
  2. Workshops are both good and bad. I plan to write a whole separate post about this, but they are not the be-all, end-all of learning to write. I think, at their best, they reflect your writing back to you, so you can see if it had the effect you wanted.
  3. It’s a Masters of Fine Arts, with the emphasis on arts. I view writing as both craft and art, and like to make sure my craft is solid, while art comes like grace. Some of the works we studied felt to me like diving in at the deep end of the pool, looking at novels and stories that broke every rule and still succeeded before learning how and why the rules exist in the first place.

Things I loved about getting an MFA:

  1. Spending so much time with other writers. We’re an awkward, introverted, vain bunch, infuriating and wonderful at the same time. Most of us see our own foibles and each other’s far too clearly for comfort, but there’s something wonderful about that as well, like being with family. I don’t always love the workshop format, but some of my best workshops were great because of my fellow students at least as much because of the faculty.
  2. Reading, reading, reading. My dearest hope going into an MFA program was to get to read things I would not otherwise read, and expand my horizons that way, and I did, in many wonderful classes, and then I filled notebooks with lists of books I should read in addition to those.
  3. Devoting the time and mental energy to writing. For two years, my whole life was about reading and writing. When I graduated, I did get a full time job again, but I knew writing was my most important pursuit and chose my job accordingly.

So should you get an MFA? Yes, if you want to, and:

  • You can afford it
  • You’re serious about writing and want to spend 2 or more years thinking about writing
  • You’re open to growing and changing as a writer
  • But also have a clear vision of and commitment to who you are as a writer. I was very glad I took a number of writing classes before getting an MFA, was practiced at taking critique, and had some experience sorting helpful critique from unhelpful.

Getting an MFA was the right choice for me, that continues to pay wonderful dividends in my creative life, but it is not the only choice for writers.

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UK Cover and Other News

I am very pleased to announce the UK Cover of The Half-Drowned King from my UK publisher, Little, Brown.

Also, The Half-Drowned King has been chosen for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program for Summer 2017. It will be featured in the Discover display in Barnes and Noble in stores across the country. I am currently working to arrange events at various bookstores in August, so it looks like I will have a mini book tour after all!

Yesterday I recorded a short video for HarperCollins’s Genre-Bending video blog, which should be available in a month or so. Previous entries here:

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I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but I’ve been having some hardware trouble. My computer is a Surface Pro 2, which I bought in early 2012, and has served me well and faithfully for all that time. However, the keyboard/cover, is a bit more touchy, and now it won’t let me type the letter “i” “o” or use the backspace button. o_O

So I have a new one on the way, but in the meantime I’m typing on a rather challenging wireless keyboard, and don’t really have a working mouse. This time, let’s blame my typos on that.

A month or so ago I read Arcadia by Iain Pears with my book group. It’s the first book of his I’ve read, though he’s most famous for The Instance of the Fingerpost. Like many of his books, Arcadia has a rather complicated structure, switching between several POVs and four(ish) different timelines.

It begins with the following events:

  • An Oxford professor tinkers with his fantasy novel setting, but never really gets his plot off the ground
  • A psychomathematician in a dystopian future plots her escape
  • A young boy in a pastoral world has a strange encounter

Eventually all of these characters and plotlines intersect and recombine, exploring time travel, history, the effects of events on the future, the truth behind the beautiful Arcadias, for of course et in Arcadia ego. Along the way, it pays homage to J. R. R. Tolkein, Aldous Huxley, Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and John Le Carre, among many others I’m sure I’m missing.

One of the things I really loved about Arcadia was how it played with the notion of history, causation, and time travel. It posits time as a string, you can move a piece of string around, but it is always connected to the rest of the string. If you change past, the future will change, and if you change the future, the past will have to change to accommodate the cause and effect that connects future and past.

I’m sure someone could poke holes in that, but it is a pleasing way of handling time travel in a narrative. In many narratives, like the TV show The Flash, time travel is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. Traveling in time to fix things has challenges, and causes unforeseen problems, but those problems often do not feel organic to the plot; they feel levers the writers can pull whenever they want.

But because Arcadia insists on cause-and-effect chains connecting future and past–in both directions!–the narrative feels much more satisfying. It also makes the book a special pleasure for a novelist to read. As I work on The Golden Wolf, and have a handful of events for which I need to come up with interrelated causes, I feel just like one of the characters in Arcadia, creating an effect in the future and then watching causes line up to create that effect.

The characters are also rather charming, especially the three main women, a plucky lass in 1960s Oxford named (of course) Rosalind, our psychomathemetician from the future, and a noblewoman in the pastoral fantasia. For a book that explores some dark possibilities, the experience of reading it is rather humorous and lighthearted. It sends up some aspects of pastoral fantasy (and Tolkein’s fantasy), though in an affectionate way, asking why a psuedo-medieval fantastical world would endure for millennia when in the real world, technology tends to progress. The answers make sense but are not always pleasant to contemplate. I recommend this book for any thoughtful reader of fantasy or dystopian SF.

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The Mists of Avalon is Real! (Sorta)

I was a child who never stopped pestering my parents for books to read, and after running through everything in the house remotely targeted toward kids or teens by the time I was eleven, I asked my dad for a book, and he handed me The Mists of Avalon. I imagine, he figured 800 pages of Arthurian legend would keep me busy for a little while.

And it did, because I became obsessed. There are books with tighter plots, more sympathetic characters, characters who spend less time moaning about their cruel fate. There are books written by authors who haven’t had fairly horrific child abuse allegations made against them, but there is probably no better book to give to an imaginative pre-teen growing up in the middle of the woods. If I could have stepped through a patch of mist into Avalon, and become a priestess of the Goddess, I would have done it in a second.

Now that I write historical fiction, and have done a good deal of research about Early Medieval Europe (i.e. The Dark Ages), I can appreciate the difficult task Bradley had creating a world full of Arthurian romance, while also trying to be true to the times. She doesn’t dwell on the mud and stench of turf fortifications, but neither does she shy away from the dark and difficulty of travel, the superstitions, or the bondage of women to tasks of making fabric.

It is also made difficult by the face that so much of the Arthurian legend was written long after the time it purports to describe. Nothing about King Arthur appears in the historical record until the 9th century Historia Brittonum, but some of the characters identified as his contemporaries have better historical attestation. One of those is Urien of Rheged, (married to Morgaine in TMoA), who is praised in the Welsh Manuscript The Book of Taliesin. However, until recently the location of the kingdom of Rheged was unknown.

All of which is preamble to this news: the kingdom of Rheged has been found.

“…new archaeological evidence from the excavation of Trusty’s Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway now challenges this assumption.

‘What drew us to Trusty’s Hill were Pictish symbols carved on to bedrock here, which are unique in this region and far to the south of where Pictish carvings are normally found,’ said Ronan Toolis of GUARD Archaeology, who led the excavation which involved the participation of over 60 volunteers. ‘The Galloway Picts Project was launched in 2012 to recover evidence for the archaeological context of these carvings but far from validating the existence of ‘Galloway Picts’, the archaeological context revealed by our excavation instead suggests the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration for the local Britons of Galloway around AD 600. Examined in the context of contemporary sites across Scotland and northern England, the archaeological evidence suggests that Galloway may have been the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.’

The excavation revealed in the decades around AD 600, the summit of the hill was fortified with a timber-laced stone rampart. Around the same time supplementary defences and enclosures were added to its lower-lying slopes transforming Trusty’s Hill into a nucleated fort, a type of fort in Scotland that has been recognised by archaeologists as high status settlements of the early medieval period.”

And if this is true, a part of me can still hope that, in a world divided from our own by a misty lake, the priestesses of Avalon still weave their magic and keep the old religion alive.

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Visual Aids

I have a marketing meeting (my first!) with my publisher today, and I’m bringing some visual aids that I thought you might enjoy also. (Credit for most of these photos goes to my husband Seth Miller.)

First some pictures from Strongman competitions I’ve done. While 9th century vikings did not pull trucks, they did some of the Strongman events that are seen in competitions today. For instance, the Husafell stone carry, which today is usually done with an object that looks like a small metal coffin, was originally done with a 418-lb Icelandic stone. (That is more than I can lift–usually I use a 200-lb stone.)

Me pulling a 17,000-lb truck
Me having gotten a 150-lb atlas stone to my shoulder for the first time.

Then some pictures from my research trips:

Out sailing at the Viking Ship museum in Roskilde


The site of this Norwegian farmhouse was settled in the 1100s; the building on the left dates back to the 1700s


Great views from up at the farmhouse


Suitor Falls in Geirangerfjord, Norway as seen from the farmhouse across the way where we camped


The Oseberg ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.


Decoration on a cart at the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.


Detail from a Viking-Age Icelandic vertical loom at the National Museum of Iceland. It would take more than a day to weave a yard of cloth.


One of the Faroe Islands, seen from a helicopter.


Sheep! More specifically, Faroese sheep that welcomed us back to earth after our helicopter ride.


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More announcements!

First, check out this spiffy draft of my Dutch cover! I’m gathering that “The Half-Drowned King” does not translate particularly well into some European languages, so the Dutch title is “The Legend of Svanhild”. And the German title is “Crown and Fire”.

I had a great meeting with my agent last week about marketing and publicity, so this is where I start spamming you every few minutes with reminders to…wait, where are you going????

Nope, this is NOT where I start doing that. No matter how much I love an author’s writing, I end up annoyed if they spend all their time prodding people to buy their book. I’ve done some rearranging of this website, and will do some more, but this will continue to be a space where I write about my life, what’s on my mind, what I’m doing, and what I care about.

I have made some changes to the website based on my agent’s feedbac:

  • The landing page is now my books page
  • My bio page now has more pictures of me
  • I have links in the right nav to pre-order the books from all major booksellers
  • I now have a Goodreads author page–where you can ask me questions!

Some people have been asking what you can do to help the book’s success:

  1. Pre-order it! Amazon | B&N | Google Play | IndieBound | iBooks | Kobo
  2. But even if you don’t, you can set it as “Want to Read” on Goodreads and that helps
  3. If you have read it *waves at my mom and dad*, please leave a review, or even just a star rating on Amazon
  4. If you have a book blog and you’d like an Advance Reader Copy so you can read and write about it, please let me know

Thanks for being here with me on this journey!

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Please pitch in

Doing a little City Council lobbying with some other SURJ volunteers and rock star City Councilperson Carlos Menchaca

I’ll have some cool book news tomorrow, but today I want to talk about activism. I went to the Women’s March in NYC the other weekend, and it was so heartening to see so many people out marching in person, and all around the country and the world. We’re going to need that good energy over the next few years.

I sprained my ankle Tuesday night, and was very upset that I couldn’t go and protest with people at airports on behalf of my immigrant friends, and my friends with immigrant parents, some of whom can no longer go home to visit their family. But it was also heartening to see so many people protesting, and it made a difference.

Speaking of which, I haven’t been updating my Making A Difference blog, not because I am not doing anything, but because I am doing too much to write about all of it, and in this case I feel like my effort is better put to doing things than documenting them. I am doing things. Every day.

And I want to ask you to do something as well. I have my own priorities that I’ll go into below, but I want to ask you to step up, and be active for a cause you care about.

It doesn’t have to be the exact right cause. You don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity to come along. You don’t need to know it will work. It might not, but you will learn something for next time. Or the way it works may be too small and subtle to see now. Try something, see how it feels, and then try something else. Take a little time out to rest, and then help some more. I have listed some suggestions below.

We are going to lose a lot of battles, probably even most of them. But no matter what happens, in two, four, eight years, wouldn’t you rather look around and say you tried to help?

Some things that are keeping me going:

  1. Getting into informal groups, in person and online, with like-minded people. I don’t love Facebook for this, but it’s better than nothing. My more motivating online groups are through Slack. My most motivating groups are my in-person friends who I’ve organized, and who have organized me.
  2. Getting involved in local, in person efforts where I can learn from people who have been active longer than me.
  3. Doing things that get me out of my comfort zone, like going to protests, and doing things that leverage my skills, like project/product managing Sister District
  4. Limiting the amount of time I spend consuming or disseminating bad news rather than trying to do something about it
  5. Looking at good news, like the news collected in this twitter stream.

I used to be scared of activism, because I worried I’d get something wrong. But I’ve decided that I’m just going to keep trying to help where I can. If I get feedback, I will try to do better, but I’m not going to stay away for fear I’m going to get bad feedback. And though I will accept critique from people who have been in the fight for longer than I have, I am not going to pay attention to people standing on the sidelines critiquing those of us who are actually trying to help.

You can’t do everything, but you can do something. I think it helps to commit to a number of hours or number of events you can do in a week or month, make it achievable with your schedule, and do it. If you have more time, do more. I am giving a couple of hours a day to this from hom, and as soon as I am on my feet again, at least two in-person events per month, and likely more.

It also helps to choose one or two issues to focus on. Other people will be focusing on different things, and that’s fine. Our safety is under attack from so many directions, we need people focusing on a wide variety of issues.

Here are my priorities:

  • Helping people in New York, often times following SURJ’s leadership on issues of racial justice, immigrant justice, etc.
  • Getting the GOP out of power as soon as we can, including at the state level, which is where we can fight voter rights infringements. I’m volunteerng with Sister District.
  • Environmental justice–here I’m focusing on the NoDAPL efforts right now, and the plastic bag legislation in New York State

Here are some sources of ideas for things to do if you’re not sure. You can go beyond calling and emailing and signing petitions, though. There is no substitute for being with like-minded people trying to make a difference.

If you’re upset about the way this country is going, if you see people who are hurting, if you are afraid of the future, please do what you can to make a change. Nothing is helped by panic and despair, though it is understandable, and I give into it more often than I like. You are not alone and there are many groups that need you, whatever your skills and abilities. Your country and your world need you.

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