beside still waters

Good morning, love

Its warm enough this morning to move out onto the porch with my coffee. A gentle thunderstorm rolled through overnight. I heard the rumble as if it was high above the house and then the rain began to tumble. I imagined it as a mother squeezing out her rag over the head of a bathing child, or a sick one, and I received that blessing.

We are all needing a mother right about now. I think of the Dr Suess book, Are You My Mother?, all of us having fallen from the tree into this strange new world. Of course, I don’t have one of those. Few women of my age do. We are the mothers now, called to place those cloths upon foreheads, to encircle sobbing bodies in our embrace, to soothe with songs.

The birds offer their song to me this morning. I do not know their names, cannot ever seem to retain the songs I learn from one spring to the next, save the White Throated Sparrow, beloved harbinger of my Sweet Canada. There is a redbellied woodpecker out there with his vibrato laden call. The tree he chose 2 springs ago, outside my bedroom window, the one I’d climb out onto the porch roof to watch, has lost its limb. It came down upon the porch roof, breaking some boards and bending the gutter last fall, springing us from bed. The water drips from that still-bent metal, beads of water lined up on its edge like birds on a wire.

The steady, but slowing, drip drip of the rain, still dropping from the tree limbs overhead also soothes, accompanying the birdsong with it staccato beat. Last evening, taize songs, shared by the Eucumenical Community and retreat house at Richmond Hill on the computer, did the same, (likely stimulating my parasympathetic nervous system, the yogis and meditators might say). Music soothes the savage within me, the raw edges smoothed. I hauled my flute and my dulcimer, down from the attic last week, intuiting this need to self-soothe within me. Times like these, I miss my piano.

The water in the lake below is doing its annual withdrawal, coerced to do so by the owner of the ‘concession’, who drains it each spring for a month or so, ostensibly to make his inspection of diving platforms and decks. So nothing grows in it, is what I suspect. The water fowl, attracted each spring to its promise, suddenly left to flounder, will soon depart, though last year a family of wood ducks, nesting in one of the trees at the time of the draining, no doubt, survived to delight.  Life finds a way. This year, I’ve not yet seen the huge old snapper, who is often stranded in the mud, wallowing. Perhaps we are all like him this spring, wondering who pulled the plug and why? Will it be good for our ecosystem, this reorientation to our world? I pray it is so.

Without that water to soothe, my body made its own way yesterday, as if directed by some inner compass, along a tiny path-lined, skunk cabbage crammed, stream to the spring fed frog pond up the hill. At my approach, the tadpoles, already fat, darted for cover in the leaf litter at the edge of the pond . I had forgotten about the springwell at its entrance, walked around to gaze into the circular capture, remembering my own well of grief. Here, its overflowing created a home of sorts, artificial though it might be, for tadpoles and eventual frogs, and a few disposed of goldfish that survived the mild winter. Deer and small mammals come to quench their thirst at the edge, as do humans. Below the exit a stray cat, black and white and fat as a skunk, curled up in the sun next to the emptying flow. I imagined him soothed by the sound of the mini cascade. Someone placed a bench for human beings, to still themselves by those quiet waters, I crawled upon it like a child onto her mother’s lap.

Perhaps my own overflowing well might do the same, offer comfort, peace, communion. Soothe the savage like a song, offer a cool cloth to the forehead or a lap for curling into. May my pouring forth be like that well, offering life, not like that draining dam, emptying, the depression left behind devoid of life.

The water continues to drip from overhead, from the spouts, though the sky, peeking through the breaks in the trees, is azure blue. The dulcimer beckons. I’d like to teach myself the song, The Water is Wide. It will be good to give my heart something to sing.

this well of grief

‘I now affirm that I will look deeply into myself without fear’

Dear love,

These last days I have been noticing it more, this deep sadness in me. I mentioned it one of the last times I wrote, the way suddenly a sadness would sweep through me like Rumi’s broom, such that I would have to just go sit down with it. So it’s been knocking for some time.

The yoga classes I am taking are slow flows, restorative, with much time for stillness built in. Throughout them I am often on the verge of tears, as if my cup is full of them always, but somehow the busy-ness of my mind at other times drains them off enough that I don’t feel the nearness, how close they are to overflowing. I picture a spring, perhaps, filling up from beneath with no place to spill itself into in these days, to flow into life-giving rivulets. My busy-ness gives them some escape, but not enough to keep up with the backlog.

David Whyte is offering recitations of his poetry, snippets. A few days ago, I noticed that the one he was sharing was “The Well of Grief”. I didn’t pause my scrolling to listen to it that day, but it rises in me this morning, I know it well.

“Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief, turning down through its black water to the place we cannot breathe, will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering, the small round coins, thrown by those who wished for something else.”

I awoke this morning to snippets of some nightmares. In one, I had gone to get my hair cut, and was tipping the stylist afterwards. I miscalculated the amount of the tip, and was digging through my purse to correct my error, my brain trying to sift through the calculations as I did so, when the stylist ripped the purse from my hands and angrily helped herself to what she rightly deserved. A smallish nightmare, if you will.  In the second, my daughter was screaming, ‘help me’. I heard it muffled at first, couldn’t make it out, but then ‘saw’ that her mouth was gagged with a towel . That one got me out of bed.

Perhaps I need something to get me out of bed in the morning. Perhaps there is too much stillness in these days, nothing to pour myself into. Nothing to lift my energy. Yesterday’s ending meditation in the Yoga practice invited me to imagine fire in my belly. It was difficult for me to find that flame. Perhaps the ‘opposite’ of stillness is not busy-ness, but passion.

But I cannot deny that there is grief. Is it merely my own, I wonder? Or am I feeling the collective? Is this a reflection of my empathetic soul, or is that a cop-out? I am worried, that is true, about loved ones—their sorrows spilling into me. So many losses – income, homes, dreams, security, life itself. Last night I learned that a young mother, in a freak accident, lost her leg. Of course, these sorrows and losses are always and forever with us in this thing we call life, its just that they are so much more cumulatively present in these times. And though I know that such losses feel as if they won’t be overcome, they will, and all will be well, in ways unimaginably so. Still, this day, here and now, contains much sorrow – so much that it overflows, perhaps.

Do I need to get out of my house (literally—and perhaps step out of Rumi’s guesthouse as well)? The walks in the woods help for as long as I am out there, (I’ll share those tender photographs with you) – the earth is sending flowers, but I am snippy with my partner. This sorrow does not slow him down. He doesn’t understand this, gives it momentary recognition, but is distracted/busy in his own way.  How can I expect him to understand that which I cannot name?

And so this morning’s enneagram invitation in my inbox , ‘I now affirm that I will look deeply into myself without fear’ feels a challenge. I realize I don’t really want to return to that place. I have worked so hard to heal myself, I don’t want to return to woundedness. I don’t want that to be my identity. I don’t want to be a burden.

I don’t want to feel this.

I don’t want to pathologize this sadness within me. Perhaps sadness is the appropriate response to the world right now. Perhaps I need only to sit with it, acknowledge its right to be here, now, welcome it onto my lap and let it cry.…….

Perhaps wildflowers will grow along this trail of tears… or that skunk cabbage I revisited yesterday, with its scent of death somehow bringing freshness to this flooded forest floor, a swath of brightness, the buzz of life.

Hope

Addendum:

After posting this entry, I returned to Facebook, to share it there as well. Greeting me atop the page were these words, reminding me how to embody the wisdom of my years. So, yes to this too. Both/and.

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”

~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

heart scan

Here I sit in the morning, once again waking with the suffering of the world on my heart. Here I sit, seeking to discern what is mine to do, scanning volunteer agencies for the need that my heart can fill. Or is it vice versa- the need that can fill my heart?

Scanning my heartI ask these questions

Is it fair to have dismissed this feeling in me as the mere neurosis of one who has anxiety about ‘being enough’ and ‘earning love’? What am i seeking in this- is it a martyr complex, a hero one? Why must every deep human desire be pathologized?

What is this feeling in me? It feels like compassion – that is honest and true. It feels like a callthat is less clear, quite strong but a sound i do not quite recognize. It is true, there is guilt entangled in it- how can i just stand by and watch?- is that a worthy motivator? It seeks action, this compassion in me contains a lot of passion in its desire to be ‘with’. Who am I called to Be at this time? Can i sort my desire to help from my resistance to being told that i can’t?

and so i sit, when i want to jump, and i wonder how i will feel in the end if i do nothing?

images yesterday of chaplains in masks , behind glass…. how to shatter that glass, reach through that wall and administer human touch. makeshift hospitals evoke images of similar ones from previous eras- during wars and epidemics, nurses in starched white aprons, sisters of mercy, showing up… because they were called, because they could not standby, because it is what human beings do.

st francis holding the leper; etty walking into the camp.

perhaps i am truly a coward. it is perhaps too easy to lament feeling helpless when i am being commanded not to help. if push came to shove, would i defy? is it easy to feign nobility from within this safe prison? Words are cheap.

Heaven help me

ephemeral gifts

Yesterday, I saw my first spring beauty of the season. The bloodroots are opening too. It made me think about the ephemeral moments in my own life, when something opened to bloom for a moment in time and I glimpsed unexpected beauty.

How often those moments were at times of transition, as winter into spring. This gives me hope that this too is such a time in our world, that after the starkness of this season, which has forced us all into our burrows, we will emerge to find unexpected blossoms that we cannot even begin to imagine, that even now are already here. This thought fills me with peace.

Birth. Death. Loss. Trauma. Each of these have somehow mysteriously blessed me, deepening me, opening me to the presence of Love.  It is the paschal mystery, the paradox of being human, that life here is filled with such Terrible Beauty.

In the boggier lowlands, skunk cabbage, which generated its own heat a few weeks ago to thaw the earth surrounding it in order to flower, seemingly grows a full inch even as I stand drinking it in. It teaches me too, that I can create my own warmth to push through hard times.

The small copse of trees surrounding that swamp were atwitter with birds, drawn to the insects, which were drawn in turn to the carrion scent –the scent of death- emitted by those resourceful cabbages. That fragrance is in the air surrounding us all today. It fills our breath with sympathy, with pain, with fear and despair. We are drawn to the stories by our compassion. What follows along behind that compassion may be the first hint of our own spring, songs of love.

This morning, I read the words of a Jewish man, whose family was murdered at Aushwitz when he was a boy. He beckoned to me, ‘you must learn to garden in the dark’. Planting a garden is said to be the ultimate symbol of hope- trust in seeds buried into the dark earth, trust that sun and rain will fall, trust that fruit will be harvested from the act of tending.

This morning, I ordered my seeds.

May the gifts of the earth bring healing to you this day.

the crucible of stillness

Scanning the horizon

You have been forced to enter empty time.

The desire that drove you has relinquished.

There is nothing else to do now but rest

And patiently learn to receive the self

You have forsaken in the race of days

-John O’Donohue

Dear one,

One of the things we all are noticing during this pandemic is that it is revealing things about ourselves that we perhaps aren’t aware of, or can at least more easily deny, in ‘ordinary time’.  Stress reveals our human vulnerabilities- both physical and emotional.  Forced alone time, without access to our usual (functional and dysfunctional) ways of coping and covering, exposes those shadowy vulnerabilities. Weaknesses, fears, and flaws come seeping or screaming out of the now thin veneer. We cannot retreat into our usual behaviors, addictions and drives- even the healthier ones of those.

I see us all sitting down here together at the base of Maslow’s triangle—shelter, food, rest, safety— with all those things we piled atop them, crumbled at our feet.

This is happening not only in our personal lives, as aspects of our personality and the myriad ways we have been conditioned by our culture come undone, but in our communal ones, as well. We can clearly see what wasn’t really working for us, what was built on a flimsy foundation. So, with this newfound awareness, we hope that perhaps when we begin to rebuild that pyramid we’ll choose some different bricks, firm up that foundation. What does real belonging look like? What does meaningful work look like? Can human actualization be separated from performance and the (American) notion of ‘earning our keep’?

That so many of us are struggling so mightily with this call to be still, with the permission given, nay commanded, for retreat, when we have been so conditioned to believe that our human ‘doings’ are what make us worthwhile human ‘beings’, is such a potent revelation. We feel as if we must do something productive! We feel selfish for taking care of ‘just’ ourselves, even when we are being told that very (non)act saves others. We feel guilty whiling our days away. Even when we are being begged to ‘stay in’, we ‘reach out’ with offerings – some of them life-giving gifts of presence and connection, for sure, but many others perhaps are a cry to be seen and valued, so as not to become invisible. We are witnessing so many people making up new kinds of work, so unseated by the notion that their very survival is not dependent upon somebody buying what they are selling (or giving away freely), that they cannot let go into the invitation to do nothing, to trust that they truly are supported (though sadly of course, many are not, and this pandemic continues to reveal that societal disparity), loved without needing to add one more thing.

But if this lasts long enough, IF we can move past the fear of loss clinging to so many of us, IF we can feel safe enough for now, sitting still at that base of the tower, perhaps some of that anxious dust will settle, and we will truly enter Slow Time. The Slow time of our ancestors. And Small Time, finding our connections in the immediate intimacies of daily life.  And Self Time, relying on our own inner resources for hope, strength, peace, and quiet. (Note to self- trusting that others can rely on their own inner resources too)

Yesterday, I became aware of my own busy-making, the covering over of my own tender fears and vulnerabilities. It hit me like a thunderbolt of awareness. ‘Nailed it’, as they say. I’ve been writing a lot these last days of the ways that my heart is seeing so much, feeling so much, the way it has been breaking open—hopefully in order to hold it all more generously and compassionately. I’ve been writing to you about this desire that has been driving me to help in some way. (How can I sit by, when my fellow human beings are suffering?!) I’ve been writing to you about the counterbalance I have been seeking for that energy, searching for the heart of Julian in all of this (How did she hold in her heart all that she saw from the window?) I have been reaching out to all of my loves—realizing how wide is that the net !

Of course, you also know how I have struggled for so long with my sense of feeling overwhelmed by the impossibility of being enough to those whom I love, knowing of course I never could possibly be.  This is not a new dis-ease in me, but this is being re-vealed in me, laid bare by the stress of this time, for me to look at more clearly.

 I have been scanning my environment forever it seems, checking in on the state of those whom I love, checking in to be certain they are ok, feeling their sorrows and fears as my own, feeling their anger, of course, too. My own anxiety is relieved only when those whom I love are at ease… and at ease with me. Anger, in particular, fills me with fear. I take another’s anger, even if they are simply venting their own frustration about something that has nothing to do with me, personally, and desperately strive to diffuse it.  Putting out fires everywhere, a counselor 20 years ago, suggested.

Yes, those boundaries between myself and the other are blurry. I suspect that a small(?) part of the reason that I feel so relieved and freed when I go on a wilderness journey is that the physical distance creates that boundary for me and I am released momentarily of that which I feel and carry with me always. The discomfort I feel upon reentering afterwards is often guilt for having allowed such a time and space for me, ( so selfish!!) and, unless am careful and attentive, can bury my love with the need for recompense, when what I truly long for is simply to reconnect with those whom I love.

And so it is exceedlingly difficult, feels utterly selfish, to just sit here and do nothing when persons are suffering around me. And the truth is, that there are good reasons for me to be concerned.

Hypervigilance is learned, I expect, and so I can also practice unlearning it.

“I learned early on that I must be who others want me to be in order to be loved, so it’s important to see negative emotions like anger and sadness before they are overt, to pick up on someone’s energy in order to intervene or change tact to keep things pleasant. “

This experience is giving me ample practice sitting with my OWN anxiety–about the intensity of other’s , including loved one’s, fears, sadness, suffering and anger, which I can feel (sometimes quite strongly) and perhaps even can hold but, in reality, cannot take away from them. It is giving me practice making choices for myself without feeling guilt or shame, because I quite literally cannot step in to save them (and even saying that feels so indulgent, as if another person’s suffering is a source of practice for me!)

Oh yes, the moment of ‘nailed it!’ (I almost forgot) Yesterday, I opened my Enneagram thought for the day, (a daily mailing curated for my type, which is motivated  by the need for harmony.) It read simply this,

What would it be like if you spent your energy only on yourself today? Would you lose all your friends and connections?”

Sharing that thought with a friend, his response “Take good care of yourself today. You don’t need to worry about this friend going anywhere.’, brought tears of sudden awareness. That is the primal fear, of course, of being abandoned, unloved, disconnected.

Of course, this time of stripping away those veneers (which we are discovering are more fragile than we imagined them to be) is also revealing/redeeming our gifts, many of which are inverse expressions of those very same vulnerabilities. The flip side of my wound is empathy. Empathy is a powerful force of Love. I do not want to repress that, of course. Empathy is both a source and a sign of bonding, a means of support, a balm for healing, a vital aspect of a resilient relationships, and fosters true acts of compassion.

But I am being asked to very literally to take care of myself (to be ‘selfish), to restrain myself from ‘helping’ others for whom I feel so much empathy, to feel what I feel and to not act ( to hold the FEELING alone), to trust that another will survive without me, to trust that I also am deserving of protection and love. I am being invited/forced to strip away all the ‘doing’ that I engage in to make sure I am safe, to make sure I am loved (to make sure You are safe too, for the loss of you, my suffering one, is a loss that feels too great to bear.)

Maybe this is not perhaps so much a dismantling to the base of that pyramid as it is a stripping of veneer, a removal of impurities that have tarnished who we are. This really is the perfect crucible to burn away that dross, and reveal the gold that lies beneath.

I just can’t imagine what that jewel of compassion will look like. Perhaps this will teach us all how to be Love in a new way.

So, my dear one, I know that for you, there will also be this balance to strike. How to Be Love in your world, no matter what your culture has taught you about what that looks like. How to Love without Fear. It may also be hard for you to trust that each person you Love is connected to their own Source of strength and wisdom, especially when they are suffering. They may simply need you to trust that, or to model it, or to hold it for them for a bit. Calmly. Try not to get swept into the drama of fear, Stay seated in Love. This may be the only way that you can offer hope and strength, compassion and Love for another.

a crown of thorns/ a basketful of flowers*

Dear one,

There are moments throughout these days when such sadness rises up in me that I have to leave what I am doing and go sit down with it. It seemingly comes on suddenly, the feeling rising from my heart, but  if I pay attention I can usually trace it’s source. It might be an image of bodies in bags that I saw 30 minutes ago on the news. Or a phone call with my daughter. Or a harsh word from a stressed loved one. Or the sadness of a friend.

This morning, it was vegetables. And soil. And the physical intimacy of growing things.  I was looking up information on a small local farm, whose young couple are offering to drop off boxes on doorsteps, in lieu of setting up their stand in the market. Drinking in the photos of their organic garden plots, their boxes full of color and texture, I could almost smell the soil. You know what they say about the sense of smell, how it brings with it memory. And so, my body was immediately brought back to the visceral experience of tending a garden, the way it helped me through difficult times, like some primordial embodied prayer.

Digging.— for the root of the matter

Sowing,— dreams of a different way

Thinning— seedlings of dreams that were not mine to grow

Supporting/protecting — the fragile, the predated

Weeding — (often more angrily) that which was threatening, hurting,

Watering.— pouring myself out

Tending.— my heart

 Perhaps the morning’s feeling was merely/mostly this last one , the longing to tend something, at this time when I am feeling so restricted from physically doing so. Or perhaps it is the hope that a garden represents — food for tomorrow. Perhaps it is more simply the quiet belonging with and to the earth that I am reaching for, when I fear the holy place, my Algonquin, where I have known such healing intimacy with Her, is slipping from my fingers.

Anticipatory grief, my friend suggested.

Perhaps it is merely the simplicity of physical tasks, the need to get out of my head and into my body, to work the trauma of these days through it, from it. That is also the gift that Algonquin has brought through these years, after all. A place to simply be, to disconnect and to re-member.

Of course, there are stretches where I feel at peace too. Oh yes, something has most certainly settled in me, descended from head to heart. Those restless days of that first week, where my mind was so swirling that it couldn’t sit still are passed. Now I am able to pay closer attention, to feel all that is within me— the sorrow and the hope (more sorrow, at present), the worry and the wisdom. I have not experienced panic, but I have experienced sobering grief. And I also have known that all will be well.

Jack helped me a bit this morning, reminded me how to steady my heart, to ease its fluctuations, or at least to hold them within its vastness; reminded me how to dive into its deeper wisdom, its courage , and its hope; reminded me that my heart also contains the strength and the love of my ancestors, who survived great eras of difficulty. That strength, that wisdom, that courage, that love is within me too. 

My heart can embrace it all.

Jack told the story, which Thich Nhat Hanh has shared, about the Vietnamese refugees on the boat. How it was that, when confronted by pirates or storm, if everyone panicked all would be lost, but if just one person remained steady and calm it was enough. That steadiness showed the way for everybody to survive. He reminded me that I too can be that One on the boat. Even as I can hold the collective anxieties and fears, the confusion and sadness, which I see and feel, so can I hold hope and love and peace.

This perhaps is the way I can help (as you know, I have been feeling so utterly helpless) by remembering this. That I am stronger than I think. That my heart is more capable than I believe. That my people need someone that can hold them; perhaps this is the way that Julian eased hers.

Going out to donate blood this morning also helped. There was something about leaving my house (going out from my self), driving down out of my little village into the valley below, into that bright dome the sky (into the light) and then literally pouring out my blood for the sake of another. I prayed that someone might be healed by this pouring out of my heart.

I came home exhausted. I was told to rest and to eat. A lesson for me- after pouring oneself out take time to rest, to nourish.

A phone call with a friend in Canada. How has it been just a month since we were together. It feels like the world has turned over 30 times since those precious days. A group conversation with my ‘sisters’ this evening. Such a full spectrum of humanity, shared. So much fullness. So little time. Later, a text from a dear friend who had needed to contact Crisis Intervention for her child. Another phone call from my daughter…

All of these

Life-giving. Heart-breaking. In the same breath.

Time to rest.

*title refers to this poem, written in 2007, around my first reading of Etty Hillesum, at a retreat, when the I repeatedly saw the painting on the wall at the periphery of my vision as a crown of thorns, when it was in ‘reality’ a basket full of flowers.

A crown of thorns, a basketful of flowers

Oh you wounded God,

You come to me

with your yearning

            to be seen as beauty

with your longing

            to be held

just as you come

in your contorted face

in your scarred and twisted body

you can no longer hide

i see you

your crown of thorns, a basketful of flowers

my glands producing tears and milk, the same

this copious flow of blood,

concurrent dying, birthing

sacred and profane

these drops of pain, compassion

which your hungry mouth now opens to receive

from this, my breaking open heart,

a womb

to receive your penetration

oh

i tremble

at the terror of this tender touch

as i open wider to receive

the whole of you

and stretch to deliver you

in this pregnant moment

full of pain and joy

time for etty?

I am find myself needing to squash the passion of Etty in me, this yearning in me to stomp down to Westerbork Camp and be a balm to my people, the ones who are facing these traumas, to be hands of compassion, knowing that even as I do so I am putting myself at risk. She could have hidden away, after all. I am not afraid for myself.

And yet to do so, I put many more at risk perhaps than I help. This is the utter helplessness that I feel. It is an existential paradox for me.

So, this is perhaps not the time to turn to the heroics of Etty. Though her wisdom that Beauty is present, that God is present, that Love is present within and alongside ugliness and suffering and horror is a much needed balm, the pouring of herself into the midst of her people’s suffering is not wise. A more submissive (as in surrender one’s will for the sake of the other?) role is required.

And so, I turn to Julian of Norwich, with her window on the world, to learn from her how I can Be in this time. My window perhaps is this laptop screen, where the suffering and fear of the world pass before my heartbroken eyes. I need her wisdom this day. I need to know how it was that she kept herself walled up. How she offered hope and extended compassion at that window to the world. As the plague passed by her window, evidently multiple times, she watched and prayed and heard that all shall be well…

It just doesn’t feel like enough. 

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