Friday, August 26, 2016

farewell, good and faithful friend

In my last post I made mention of some losses over the last year. These fall under a variety of categories, but there's one that cuts so deeply to the bone that I haven't been able to talk about it. It's time, though, in order to tend to my grief and help me navigate toward healing. 

What I have lost is a treasured and cherished place, Melrose. If you've known me any length of time you will know about Melrose primarily as a regular vacation and respite destination. But it was so much more than that.  Its history includes its use as a peach "plantation" by my great-grandfather (distaff side, for what it's worth) in the early years of the 20th century. The story goes that he purchased the property in the cooler hills across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, to find relief from the oppressive, southern, summer heat in neighboring South Carolina. Peaches ensued, but eventually, as William Maltbie Rowland aged and his declining health limited his ability to manage the plantation, it settled into a state of neglect. 
 peaches ready to ship out
The Rowland women offer hospitality: that's my great-grandmother at the left, 
and my grandmother in the plaid skirt.
 
Oddly, there are no remnants of the orchards, and in time the native lob-lolly pine of the south took root and became a substantial tree farm that my grandmother managed. She spent roughly six weeks there each spring and fall, traveling from her home in Manhattan to do so. She made these trips in part to oversee what had become the business of the farm, but she likewise found renewed vitality for her spirit in a place that was home to her, and nurtured local and family relationships as an extension of the hospitality for which she was known. 
As a family we spent each spring vacation traveling to Melrose, so it holds distinct memories of a childhood full of climbing rocks, walking through the woods to a favorite swimming and picnic spot, gathering on the lawn to watch the sunset each night, and so much more. During college I managed two trips there on my own to visit my grandmother, and gradually, in adulthood, I claimed my own pattern of regular visits to connect with her, and to establish a bond with that place that has anchored me to the core of my being.

To be at Melrose was to pause time. Its amenities, in the physical sense, were practical and sufficient. The cottage wasn't insulated, so relief from the cold came from fireplaces in the living and dining rooms, and a handful of scattered space heaters. We added ceiling fans to two of the three bedrooms, the living room, and the front porch 10 years ago, and continued to draw on floor and window fans in an attempt to snag a share in whatever cool air might be found on a hot, South Carolina day or evening. Until the later 70's, perhaps even the early 80's, there was no phone service there, and until about the same time the water for use at the cottage was pumped from the ground (it was, at least, an electrical pump!). There was no television, and radio reception was spotty. Although this description sounds primitive, it never felt that way. Care was taken to keep the cottage maintained and hospitable. It was here that I learned how to use a paint brush--a vacation project that tapped into a team of volunteer laborers--to prune trees, bushes and shrubs, recognize bird calls, and make pancakes.  It was here that we spent hours around the dinner table feasting on each others company, playing games, or sitting before a roaring fire on a damp day working jigsaw puzzles.

When various projects didn't beckon, time was spent on the front porch reading, conversing, working crossword puzzles (my particular favorite past time) or simply staring across the front lawn toward the Georgia hills to the west.  There was a hammock in which to stretch out and sway, or a glider for matching the rhythm of the breeze that danced up the lawn. There were walks down old roads to former tenant farmer homes, or what was left of them, or to streams that found their source in springs farther up a hill. There was time, and breath, and the unbearable luxury of letting the gentle magic of nature seep into your pores and keep company with whatever joy or heartbreak arrived with you when you pulled into the drive. At Melrose there really weren't any distractions to lead you away from yourself, or escape pesky concerns. Instead, the time and space to sit with your life brought the opportunity to find clarity of perspective, acceptance away from judgment, and an assurance that whatever woes afflicted one's life, the serenity of this place acted as a balm against the assaults of the world. Its beauty was two-fold: that which was natural, and the way it loved you so fiercely when you came to be in its presence.

Once I moved to Tennessee in 1999 the proximity of Melrose made it possible to make visits there twice a year, as my mother began to do in her retirement, following the pattern of her mother before her. By then my grandmother had died, leaving Melrose's acreage physically divided between Mom and her two nephews. As a way to protect this legacy from the jaws of crushing taxes down the road we established a family partnership, so that in time my brothers and I essentially owned the property as general partners, and Mom managed it. 

I was the only one of my siblings to maintain an attachment to Melrose. After we interred my grandmother's ashes there in a special garden bed, my younger brother and his wife visited once. My older brother and his family came a few times when my nephew was young, but Jesse, soon to be 26, was 14 the last time they were there. As a family we held a collective commitment to practice good stewardship of the gift that was Melrose, both environmentally and financially, with a primary goal being to draw on this asset, as needed, to support my mother's quality of life. It was this latter factor that drove an earlier-than-anticipated decision last year to sell the property.

Through tears I made every possible appeal to find a way to leverage the value of what we owned without having to lose it. Perhaps startled by so much emotion, one brother asked me if I could describe my feelings about parting with what to me was more than a cherished legacy. "Sure," I told him, "it's like a death." And so it has been.

In March an offer to purchase the property came that we decided as a family to accept. In April Ken and I spent the equivalent of a week packing, sorting, and dispersing the contents of the cottage, trying in between phases of emptying cupboards to enjoy this final opportunity to sit on the porch and drink in the view that transcends time and space. It was during one of those last stretches of fixing the view into my memory that I stopped to consider the durability of the physical place that had housed family gatherings and provided a retreat for friends here and there as a getaway.  There is no denying the emotional and psychological benefit of having a place of continuity in life. Melrose had been that for me and for my family. Yet as I looked at the posts reaching between porch railing and roof beams, I saw them suddenly as a standard-bearer of faithfulness. They were always there, greeting us on arrival and bidding us farewell when it was time to load the car and depart. Sentries, if you will, of stability and endurance, and part and parcel of the experience of welcome and acceptance that characterized the heart and soul of what this place had been for me. It is a place that never failed me, but simply let me be, and for that my heart will forever be grateful. 

A few days ago I recalled that experience of acknowledging the witness born by the cottage through the years, and an epiphany followed. That place that I loved, and that loved me in return, is still there. It continues to love me from afar, to rejoice in the time when our lives intersected and our spirits danced together. It remembers my tears and my anguish and rejoices in a heart overflowing with gladness for its very existence. Our connection can never be erased, nor can the power of its beauty ever be extinguished. 

I continue to mourn the loss of this beloved, and will for some time. As I move into a future that doesn't include its real presence, I will treasure the sunbeams it left in my heart. I will find comfort in the knowledge that its springs continue to nourish the earth and fill the river, that its branches offer a landing for the hawks and the wrens, and that the deer and the turkey find refuge in the glens and the broad spaces that make up the tracts of what was our land. I will imagine the rain on the roof and the the light gleaming through the wisteria leaves on the arbor that shaded the porch. Perhaps most importantly, I will draw on the strength within that was nurtured by the peace and beauty of this extraordinary place, and thus honor the legacy that was my privilege to enjoy and love.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

it's a hard knock life

There's a reason I don't post here as frequently as I used to. Sure, Facebook offers a quick and dirty means of sharing salient and silly slices of life, and the ease of that forum has contributed to less frequent appearances here. But the fact is that, over the last five or so years, life has simply been hard. Not just challenging, but gut-punching hard. What has felt like a never-ending assault on my efforts to stand upright and propel myself into a forward-leaning direction has drained me. Though my self-confidence hasn't evaporated it has certainly sought refuge in a place tucked safely away from further injury. The experiences that have led to its removal from the line of fire have also contributed to a soul-piercing isolation. As an introvert I can handle a lot of solitude, but the lack of a sustaining community to which I could turn for relief or solace has simply not existed. Where once I had a robust circle of friends with whom I felt connected there are now a mere handful of souls with whom I feel it is safe to entrust my heart. 

As well, some things simply can't be shared here. Public pages have their limits, and a blog is an inappropriate place to rage against some of the people whose words and deeds are sources of deep pain. Through difficult times hope has been my most faithful companion, but the persistence of difficulty has taken a toll on that relationship, too. God? Let's just say, "it's complicated."

I have not wanted to bring any of this here, to weigh down with woe and heartbreak a place that is intended to be a source of creativity for me and connection with others. But I can no longer afford to be absent from this place of self-expression and sharing.  I need to be able to grieve the losses that have collected, and wonder aloud about the mysteries that get stuck in the crevices of my days. It is critical, as I experience a dearth of community, that I make myself available to find new connections and rekindle old passions. To take the risk of discovering how ignorant I might be as I pick up the shovel to dig into and out of my complicity in the perpetuation of racism. To honor my own peculiar nature even as I come to terms with the deficits in my character that inhibit a fuller life. 

My struggles aren't unique to me. One of the things I have learned through sharing my life and my foibles here over the years is that others sometimes recognize the tune that becomes recognizable between the lines. In the way that music has the power to unite, that place of recognition serves to connect. And connection, after all, is why I started this blog in the first place. 

I need to be here. I need to write, to let what is within flow without. And I need you. There. I've said it. To the extent that you want to be here, you are quite welcome to join the effort to muddle through. My hope (still here) is that renewal will take place, that transformation will occur, and that redemption will lead me into a thriving life. If that sounds like a tribe with which you want to link your arms, your mind, and your heart, I'm blessed to have your company.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

cracking white open

I had a Come to Jesus Meeting the other day. It was one of those stop-dead-in-my-tracks kind of epiphanies that felt more like a gut-punch than an, "oh, now I get it," revelation. Sobering, humbling, disturbing, convicting. 

It began the day after five police officers were shot in Dallas, which in turn followed the shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am essentially without television these days, so social media (Facebook) is my exposure to what is happening in the world, and in turn my exposure to the reactions to those events as they appear in my news feed.  Rest assured it's not just memes. I follow or read the shared links by others to news sources that I trust to report accurately, and other posts that help me read more widely and probe more deeply.

The political views of my friends and acquaintances on fb cover the spectrum from waayyy to the left, to waayyy to the right. I read the outcry from BLM communities and supporters, and see the Blue Lives Matter posts, too. Related to the latter, I was also seeing posts the day after the Dallas shootings depicting an outpouring of support to law enforcement: pizzas and cookies, hugs and selfies with local police officers, stories of compassion and more about our men and women in blue. I got it. Celebrate the good they do and acknowledge the sacrifices they make. Show the love. We've got your six. What was missing from my feed was any sort of demonstrated support to people of color. 

I was roused from my reflection about this by the sound of a crowd chanting nearby in the neighborhood. I wondered if it was a protest march, since we're not far from the state capitol. It soon became apparent, however, that the gathering was stationery, and I decided to go take a look. 

I went out the front door, noting a couple of police cars parked across from the house and a handful of uniformed officers standing on the sidewalk. I then ventured down the street to the corner where I could see, across the street and up about half a block, a group of people marching in a circle, carrying signs, and being rallied by someone with a bull horn. The words on the signs seemed to indicate an issue related to health care. I wondered about the presence of the police, but imagined that it was related to safety after the events of the week. I turned to head back to the house, and just as I was about to pivot up the steps leading to the house, I felt compelled to go speak to the policemen across the way. Black lives matter to me, and so do blue ones. 

I approached them with a smile and said hello, acknowledged that it had been a tough week, and let them know I was thinking of them. They appreciated the thought. We chatted briefly about the gathering drawing our attention, and I learned that the group was in violation of a noise ordinance. Bullhorn. A little bit of small talk followed, then I waved a farewell and returned to the house. 

While I had been talking to the policemen a woman who lives up the street passed by on the sidewalk. She was Black. I felt awkward. I wondered how she perceived what she saw, and the absence of support to the Black community in my Facebook feed gnawed at me. It's easy to show up to the local precinct with a plate of cookies, but where do you show up for the Black community? I could bake cookies for the kids who play in the park every day, and who get excited when Juliet comes through on her walk. Seriously, though. Cookies? To say I'm sorry for and lament the racism that plagues your life and runs like a toxic stream through our society? Cookies?

For the next few days I stewed about this, feeling utterly helpless to make a difference in stemming and reversing the tide of racism. As more and more of my Facebook page pushed back against the increasing presence of the BLM movement in communities across the country, denying white privilege and asserting All Lives Matter in retort, the truth of my own racism sank like a stone into the depth of my being. It isn't enough to understand how racism permeates our institutions and perpetuates prejudice and injustice. It isn't enough to see the statistics about minority crime and incarceration and know that the context for interpreting them is absent from public discourse. It isn't enough to live in neighborhood where whites are a minority.  My open mind and inclusive heart aren't enough, and the reality that I am part of the problem cuts through me like a knife. I thought I knew about white privilege. Instead I am the face of it.

I feel powerless in the face of this overwhelming sin from which I benefit, and as difficult as it is, it is nothing compared to the powerlessness that people of color feel and face every day. Because of my privilege, I stand a chance to rise above the feeling of powerlessness with relative ease. It's one of the ways that the system can work for me to help dismantle the system that works against others. That is how it starts. Use the tools available to me. Work with what I've got. Step in and do my part. And grasp the reality that my brothers and sisters of color know a whole lot more than I do about the meaning and power of love, forgiveness, and grace. 

I've come to Jesus. I've got such a long way to go.

This post on another blog also addresses this topic in a way that might be helpful if you are struggling with this same issue.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

those were the days

I had dinner the other night with an old high school friend. Connected intermittently through the faith community of our childhood, our paths intersected again in high school, where we developed a deeper bond of friendship our sophomore year. In spite of being thick as thieves in high school we lost touch after I went to college out of state, and where I continued to live for a couple of years more before moving back home.  Meeting up again now, 40 +/- years later, we returned easily to conversation and that magical place of knowing that is an undefinable quality of friendship.

Through Marilyn I met the guy who would become my first boyfriend, and I landed my first job, as a sales clerk at Mayron's Bakery. Mayron's was a bit of a fixture in the local Jewish community, and Mayron himself staked a larger claim to fame by creating the birthday cake for President Kennedy's 44th birthday celebration, an occasion that required closing the bakery for two weeks while the equivalent of five layers of pound cakes were baked and assembled before being shipped off to Washington in an armored car. To be accurate, it wasn't Mayron who did all the work--it was his baker, but Mayron gets the credit. You know how that goes...

In many ways it was the best. job. ever. Mayron's offered a typical range of baked goods: breads, bagels and rolls, danish and coffee cakes, cakes, cookies, and other sweets. There were, additionally, more typically Jewish foods, like challah (the best bread in the world), hamantaschen, rugelach, and a rolled pastry loaf whose name I can't recall.  Our store was one of three or four owned by Mayron, tucked into a strip mall anchored at one end by a grocery store, and the other by Sears. It was open seven days a week, because people like their bread to be fresh.

Marilyn and her sister Martha worked at Mayron's, which is how I found my way there. The shop was managed by a woman named Stella, who at 60+ years of age wore a wig of gray hair more befitting her age than the jet black hair that continued to grow from her head. At least that is what she always told us. Stella loved her soap operas. Her day began at 6 so that she was there when the delivery truck arrived with its load of fresh baked yumminess, then she was gone at 1:00 so she could get home to watch her stories. Her husband had died some years previously, and though she had a regular guy in her life who treated her like a queen, she wouldn't marry him because The Church had taught her that you only marry once in life. That was her story, and she was sticking to it. At the time it seemed a rather sweet, if narrow interpretation of What The Church Says, but upon more recent reflection I think she knew exactly what she was doing by remaining single.

Stella's daughter, Marianne, also worked at Mayron's, and I remember her lovely blond hair swept back away from her face and pinned up in the back to stay out of the way of bakery chores. Two other employees rounded out the crew: Maura, a Nice Catholic Girl (her own description), and Joan, a free spirit Jewish girl who was so short that she was always trying out the latest platform heels as a way to ease into the stratosphere of taller people. I can still hear her laugh, and picture her dancing behind the counter to the radio when there weren't any customers in the store. She called Mayron "Ruby," because he had dyed his hair red, and she was fond of being irreverent about our ultimate boss, who was about as short as she was.  On pay day "Ruby" would come to the store, take cash out of the register, and divide it into manila envelopes with each of our names written on the outside with the amount owed to us contained within. The envelopes then went into a safe, and Stella would deliver each one to its intended recipient. I'll bet Mayron's bookkeeper loved this method of disbursing payroll. Not!

I had great relationships with my co-workers, and adored them tremendously. Though working part time, we found time to share our lives, our struggles, our hopes and our dreams between waiting on customers, consolidating trays of food as the inventory sold and the volume reduced, and keeping the store clean and presentable. We wore blue smocks, a uniform that identified us as employees, and kept our clothes clean from the likes of frosting from cakes and brownies, and the powdered sugar that was kept on hand for the donuts. Jelly and some cake donuts came to the store plain, and if a customer wanted them powdered, we popped them into a bag, added some powdered sugar, folded the top of the bag over a few times and shook with all our might. Voila! I'll be you never thought about how powdered donuts got that way. Now you know! I also learned that the secret to writing on a cake is to do so while it is frozen. We kept several cakes in a freezer at the shop, offering choices of cake (yellow, chocolate, or marble), and colors of flowers and piping on the top. When a customer purchased one we took it out of the freezer, wrote the greeting in the corresponding color, boxed it up and sent it on its way. Cakes thaw in a relatively short period of time, though usually orders were called in ahead of time so that we could ensure a thawed cake, or the main bakery would send one with the particulars already inscribed.

Mayron's was a wonderful introduction to the responsibilities of being a paid employee. At the end of a shift we took turns sweeping the floor, cleaning the glass of the food cabinets and the door into the shop, and washing the food trays that had collected bits of jam, frosting, or crumbs in the course of their utilitiy. We took turns calling special orders into the main store, and notifying customers that their order was ready for pickup. We prepared boxes of food specially ordered so that when a customer came in their order was ready and their needs were met. We assembled boxes so that cakes, coffee cakes, and larger orders could be added to them and secured to be sent home. It wasn't a demanding job, but it required attention, and we had each other for support and laughter, and occasionally, tears.

It was the best of times. And in spite of snacking on brownies and such whenever I wanted, I managed to lose weight. Ah, the metabolism of a teenager. It was a great way to launch into the "real world." It was the best.

Monday, June 13, 2016

blinded by the light

I haven't been in the habit of reading much in recent years. It seems that vacation idling, when the routines of daily life at home are replaced by new a environment and fewer demands, provides the best opportunity for me to fall into the pages of a story or idea. That, or plane travel--captive soul, and all. But I don't fly much.

Now that I'm in a new environment for an extended period, and my days lack routine beyond dog-walking and a few other necessary tasks, reading ought to jump to the fore of how I pass my time. Perhaps soon. I'm still in the process of settling in to a new life, and I don't quite feel the ease of indulging in leisure. 

As it happens, I brought just one book with me on Phase One of The Move, Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. It was recommended to me by a friend, who in turn loaned it to me. At the time I was hungry to find the resonance in its pages that my friend assured me was there, so I managed to find some time to start it, and then take it along on an expected trip via air travel. My friend was right. Time now to read the last chapters.

Learning to Walk... is a rich offering that I savor as I turn its pages. Through personal stories and reflection Taylor affirms the value of darkness as a companion in life, especially as a spiritual teacher and bestower of unique gifts. Having grown up in a tradition where Light is the primary metaphor for the presence of the divine (the inner Light, holding one in the Light...), and having loved Light as a grounding experience in my own faith journey, I found myself jolted out of the complacency that the "quest" for union with the divine, and spiritual or personal wholeness is found by focusing on the Light. 

My preference for Light shows up in hymns (I want to walk as a child of the light), in poetry ("I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, give me a light that I may find my way in the darkness..."), in photography, and on and on. All of a sudden, through Taylor's writing I am experiencing Light and Darkness not as opposites that serve as object lessons of good versus less good (evil, if you want to go there), but as necessary partners that together expose the beauty of the created order and the extraordinary diversity of that order (sometimes chaos!). Together Light and Darkness have the capacity to elicit from all its creatures the fullness of who we are and who we can be. Learning to Walk... serves to remind me that the blinders that we think protect us from the shadows instead reveal that shadows have as much to teach us as the Light by which they are cast. 

This is an extraordinarily thought-provoking work, and I cannot commend it highly enough.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

facing what lies within

I remember, years ago, attending a talk given by the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark. Now retired, in his active years in ministry Bishop Spong seemed best known for the controversies that surrounded the frankness with which he discussed matters of doubt in the life of faith. He was thoughtful and articulate, and as I recall him telling the audience, his aim was not to espouse what was considered by some to be heresy, but to share every aspect of his faith, including his questions about foundational doctrine, as a way to encourage others to be willing to do the same.

I don't remember the content of his talk that day (I don't really need to, I bought a book and a video to which I can refer), but one thing he said took root for me. He talked about growing up in the south, and the inner work involved in the transformation to overcome racist teachings and beliefs that pervaded his community and the environment in which he lived, worked, and learned. He was white, male, and educationally and economically privileged, and the layers of institutional racism that was the lifeblood of the south took time to peel and discard. It spite of coming to see and advocate against institutional racism, and to spend years seeking justice for persons and communities who suffered as a result of it, Spong confessed that he still had to fight the deeply ingrained teachings from his youth that continued to live subconsciously within him. 

In my first, "real" job as an adult, I was fortunate to work as a program director for a local YWCA. I say fortunate because the national staff and Board of the YW worked hard to train and educate affiliate staff regarding its One Imperative: the elimination of racism wherever it is exists, and by any means necessary (the latter phrase always raised eyebrows, so in case yours just went up, it needs to be understood that "by any means necessary" was grounded in the context of the Mission of the YWCA*). Boiled down, the YW defined racism as the result of power + privilege--in my mind I can still see those words written on a pad of newsprint, propped on an easel. 

The training provided by the YW served to strengthen and solidify the belief system of openness and inclusivity with which I was raised, and that was supported further by the educational environment of a Quaker college.  It gave me a specific foundation for understanding the nature, impact, and consequences of racism. My personality type doesn't lend itself easily to activism, but my time working for the YW served to fortify my desire, at least, to live in whatever way I could as the prophet Micah called his people to do: seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In spite of the blessing that was my upbringing, the benefit of the education and training received from the YW, and my commitment to recognizing and valuing the dignity of every human being, this week I came to understand afresh the confession shared so long ago by John Shelby Spong: the work to overcome the existence of racism within is an ongoing battle.

The mundane nature of the incident that sparked my thoughts underscores how ever-present the menace of racism is, and how easily it can grow if left unchecked by other means. At the end of my dead-end street is a park, frequented by many who live in my neighborhood, which is predominantly Hispanic and African-American. The park has large trash barrels placed near benches that line a circular walkway that winds around a play area. By and large these barrels are used, but nearly every time I walk through the park I find myself picking up trash and depositing it in the nearest barrel. From the perspective of privilege I wonder why my neighbors don't care about disposing of their trash, but another part of me understands why, and knows better than to wonder, or judge. 

Earlier this week, I saw a young Latino man make his way to one of the barrels and throw away his trash. The thought entered my mind to affirm the behavior and thank him for doing so, and then it hit me that this response was nothing but racism at work. How do I know? Because it would never have occurred to me to thank someone who is White for disposing of their trash. What was revealed to me was that I held an expectation of behavior based on ethnicity (and contextually, fed by the demographic of the neighborhood). Shame on me. 

I can't say that a year ago I would have had a similar response to witnessing the disposal of trash in a city park. I can't say, because a year ago my senses hadn't been saturated with the rhetoric which has come to characterize the expressions of fear from citizens across a variety of spectrums of life in this country. Whether from the lips of a political candidate to the cheers of his supporters, or the fists that make contact as a response to the engorging anger that has been let loose, fear undergirds it all. It's not that I believe those words or condone the actions in any conscious way, but the power of institutionalized racism, or any -ism, is such that it subliminally affects how one may think or act. I'm not afraid of people who look, think, or believe differently than I do. I am afraid of not taking seriously enough the damage being wrought in a climate where hate is acceptable, and disregard for others has become the normative public face of who the citizens of this country are. We cannot, at any level, turn away from what is ugly if for no other reason than to keep the fight alive within, so that it may be effective without.

It is a small thing to worry about trash making its way to a barrel. To ignore my response, however, has implications that I don't want to imagine.

*For many years, this was the historic mission of the YWCA: Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America, a movement rooted in the Christian faith as known in Jesus and nourished by the resources of that faith, seeks to respond to the barrier-breaking love of God in this day. The Association draws together into responsible membership women and girls of diverse experiences and faiths, that their lives may be open to new understanding and deeper relationships, and that together they may join in the struggle for peace and justice, freedom and dignity for all people.
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