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I give myself unlimited chances

and infinite wishes

That I can choose to grant

I cultivate curiosity

exchange skepticism for wonder

I create simply for creation’s sake

Offering the same opportunity to others

I draw with a thick black marker (chisel tip) the delineation between me and you

And I will shimmer and shine in my own space while you do as you wish in yours

The truth is, I don’t want to have Thanksgiving without FG.

It’s not as if we would have physically been together this year, especially with COVID rampaging across the country, but we would have talked and texted and I would’ve sent her pictures of the food I made after consulting her about the right proportions of ingredients. Some of our family recipes are vague. For the stuffing, if it’s too dry you add more broth. If it’s too wet you add more dry ingredients. Every batch of stuffing is unique and special. I don’t usually make deviled eggs, but she made them perfectly. I was thinking about making some for tomorrow but I can’t call her for a reminder about whether or not she adds a little mustard in with the mayonnaise.

Today we had a wonderful surprise visit from two alpacas and a baby goat for my brother-in-law’s birthday. I would have loved to FaceTime FG during this encounter to see her reaction, which I know would have been expressive. I would print extra copies of the photos to send her at Christmas.

Every year I would choose one of my favorite novels that I’d read that year and I’d send her a copy for Christmas. Every February I would send her a valentine.

There is a picture of my parents and my kids and me with FG the last time we all visited, in early summer. It’s on my bulletin board above my desk and I look at it every day. It’s not the best photo of FG. Near the end of her life she had lost weight and her face changed shape. She seemed to be caving in on herself. I don’t think she was putting her teeth in most of the time. In the last few months she seemed to have aged 10 years. But I look at this picture anyway and look in everyone’s eyes and imagine what they were thinking and feeling at that moment.

I think FG was in some amount of pain then, even though she wouldn’t have said so to all of us. But she’s smiling as if she was happy we were there. That day when the photo was taken, she said something to me about when she would be able to come up to Virginia to visit again. I don’t know if she really thought that would happen or she was just talking. I would give anything to pick her up at the train station one more time.

I am thankful for so many people and so many things, but I am also broken-hearted this Thanksgiving. Not only because I miss FG, and I know other people I love are also desperately wishing she were here. But also for the family and friends of the nearly one and a half million people who have died from COVID. It’s hard to even comprehend. And I am heartbroken for the people I know who have lost a parent this year—whether from the coronavirus or another cause. Bethany, Bean, Melissa, Lee, Mark, Paige, Dave and Jim. And for the children and parents taken away from each other by our government at the US-Mexico border. And for the friends and family of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all the innocent people who were killed by police this year and over the centuries.

There are many more disasters and tragedies I could name, but I won’t. And of course there are just as many blessings and opportunities and fragments of goodness we’ve managed to cling to during these crushing circumstances. I will list some of those another time. For now I will just be thankful that I had FG in my life for 46 years. I hope she will be whispering in my ear when I make the stuffing to let me know when it looks just right.

Never before
have I been asked
by so many people
to pray

This moment
must require
immense
energy
from all
of us

We understand
(at last)
how much
we are bound
up in each
other

Prayer
(to me)
is intention
not
transaction

So I breathe in
(deeply)
and breathe out
fully

and send
prayers

for

strength

courage

peace

relief

patience

healing

grace

calm

presence

Take what you need
and share
the rest
with
others

In my closet hang 21 summer dresses in shades of blue and red and pink with flowers and stripes and paisley patterns. I usually wear them to church on Sundays and to meetings with clients and to plays. I have several pairs of strappy sandals with wedge heels to wear with the dresses. I like the kind of sandals that show off my toes because usually my toenails are painted some vibrant color with an impossible delicate design of daisies or something similar on my big toes, courtesy of the artisans at Nails 2000.


I am so not a girly girl. I hardly wear makeup and I haven’t blow dried my hair in decades and my typical outfit is a t-shirt and jeans–or in recent months–yoga pants. But it’s easy to dress up in the summer and it’s literally cooler. I don’t envy men who feel compelled to wear jackets and ties when it’s 80 degrees.


I suspect that this summer I won’t have any occasion to wear any of my dresses. I watched church this morning in my pajamas. All the concerts and plays have been canceled. All my meetings are online. And it doesn’t really matter what you wear online, as long as you’re clothed.
I recognize that none of this is a serious problem or anything worth complaining about when juxtaposed with the incomprehensible (and inexcusably somewhat preventable) suffering in the world right now. I understand that.
I only mention it because I spent hours cleaning out of closet yesterday and rearranging my clothes by season and seeing all my dresses reminded me all over again of what’s wrong with our world.


Seeing my dresses reminded me that the president told religious congregations to reopen their doors and return to services as usual, inviting their members to get sick and infect others or perhaps die. My church, like many others, has been holding services and offering programming online and will continue to do so indefinitely. In response to the president saying churches are essential, our newly called senior minister (who will join us in August) said to her current congregation, (I’m paraphrasing) you know who’s essential? Our people. That’s why we will not be gathering, because we want our people to stay healthy and alive. My dresses reminded me that the president does not care about people. While the New York Times ran a front page filled with the names of nearly 100,000 Americans who have died from coronavirus, on a weekend where we honor those who have died in military service, the president played golf.


Who knew my dresses were so fraught with meaning?

Ordinarily I am distracted by looking at myself on zoom calls, but tonight at UUCA’s congregational meeting where we announced our call of Rev. Amanda Poppei to be our next senior minister and she accepted, I was beaming. I couldn’t stop smiling.

There are few endeavors I’ve been a part of that have been as demanding and singularly focused as the ministerial search committee. The two that come to mind are pregnancy and childbirth. While those experiences were definitely more physically taxing, I think serving on the MSC may have been more emotionally and intellectually challenging. Of course since it’s been 7 years since I was last pregnant I could be misremembering in that way that the details of childbirth become hazy when you’re removed from it.

In one of the books I just read, Writers & Lovers, the narrator—Casey—talks about how all the male writers she’s known have been unwaveringly confident that they have at least one great book inside, ready to be written. But neither she nor her female writer friends ever seem so sure, even when they devote their lives to writing that book. In one scene, Casey is talking with her obnoxious landlord and he says to her about her book something like, “I can’t imagine you have anything to say.” Which makes Casey wonder if she does.

I was thinking tonight about this and about a conversation I had with my friend Art from church at a leadership retreat a couple years ago. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about except that it had to do with my writing, and what was keeping me from sharing more of it with the world. I think he asked me something like what was I afraid of, and I didn’t know. I realize now that this is vague and doesn’t sound particularly motivational, but whatever he said made me feel braver.

At first I resisted the nomination to join the MSC, for a variety of good reasons. Then my friend D, who is also a writer, and who served on a previous MSC, told me that the heart of the search process is storytelling, and that’s why I needed to serve. She explained that the first part of the search is listening to the congregation’s stories and crafting a narrative from them about the church. The next part of the process is listening to the stories of the ministers who apply for the position. And finally, you have to tell the story of your candidate to the congregation so they will see in the candidate what you saw and vote to call them as your minister. Of course this is a significant oversimplification, and she didn’t mention how many thousands of hours the whole thing takes, but what D describes was true. And I thought, that’s what I’m good at—listening to people and helping tell their stories.

Often when strangers ask what I do for a living and I say writer, they ask if I’ve written any books. No, I haven’t written any books, I explain. And most people move on or tune out after that. But if they actually want to know more, I tell them. And I am really proud of what I do. I’m proud of the people who I interview and write about and they say, “you made me sound so much more interesting than I actually am.” But they really are more interesting than they realize. I’m proud of the stories I write about nonprofit organizations that educate and inspire people to get involved or contribute. I’m proud of the essays and poems I write that people can relate to, or that make people laugh, or think about something differently. And I am proud of everything I wrote for the ministerial search committee because what I wrote helped us find a spectacular new minister. Of course I didn’t do it alone. Our team was made up of some of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and hardworking people I have ever known. The rest of them have skills and insights that I do not possess. But I am proud that my skills and insights mattered. D was absolutely correct that the search process is about storytelling. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be a storyteller for this community that I love, especially knowing that the person we found to be our next minister is going to change people’s lives and those people will change the world, in ways large and small. To know this, and to know that words I wrote are catalysts, like the object at the beginning of a Rube Goldberg invention that gets the ball rolling to cause a spectacular chain reaction, fills me with joy.

I think girls and women are often told, subconsciously or overtly, to stay small and be nice, and are criticized when they stand up for themselves or proudly stand by their hard work. Elizabeth Warren, Taylor Swift, Megan Rapinoe, and Glennon Doyle are women I admire who come to mind, but there are a million more examples. I will probably never be famous, but I am a role model for my kids, and I’m a writer, and I’m proud of what I do.

On Saturdays we become feral. While our pre-pandemic weekends were packed with activities and outings, Saturdays especially are now anarchy. When each of us is sleeping or eating or dressed is anyone’s guess. By Saturday I have no energy left to organize anyone or anything.

Yesterday evening, Zoe and I went for a masked walk around the neighborhood. we walked almost the same exact route we had walked 24 hours earlier, but somehow noticed new houses and different flowers along the way. We saw fewer people out, perhaps because it had been drizzling. Walking is nice and it’s a relief to be out of the house, but wearing a mask and detouring to avoid other people, few of whom make eye contact or say hello, remains uncomfortable and disorienting.

Meanwhile, Randy and Zeke had not left the house all day. The effect of this on Randy was an attack of lethargy at 8pm and Zeke was running laps around the first floor of our house. I suggested they do a workout, and soon they were both on our puzzle piece mats in front of the tv doing squats and burpees and planks in 30-second intervals.

At this point everyone had gotten their second wind. I had been trying for several days to figure out how to play games using the Houseparty app or Jackbox games. Neither of these things are all that complicated, but my brain power has been compromised by the new normal.

So the kids and I played a few rounds of a drawing game with Zoe’s ukulele teacher, and after Randy dragged Zeke to bed, the three of us played some trivia games and something called chips and guac which is basically like Apples to Apples. I was reminded that I am old because the games included slang I’d never heard of, but there are also words Zoe doesn’t know so I guess we’re even.

I don’t even remember what time I attempted to go to sleep, only that by 3am I had not achieved success, so I got out of bed and wrote the first draft of the call to worship for next Sunday’s church service. I have always loved helping lead worship, but I haven’t done it in a while because of my ministerial search committee duties. Next Sunday, however, is (hopefully) the culmination of our search odyssey, as our candidate gives her second candidating sermon and the congregation votes on whether to call her as our next senior minister. So I was asked to serve as worship associate for the service. I feel a wee bit of pressure to perform, but it’s all self-imposed. I am excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Rev. Amanda and see what happens.

Sundays are less lethargic days, at least for me, because I make myself get out of bed to watch church. Also today I had many zoom meetings to host—both related to church and for family and friends. While there is something to be said for the convenience of video calls, they are just never going to beat being in the same room with people. I miss people! And hugs! Have I mentioned how I miss hugging people?

Monday and its accompanying structure—however erratic—is coming soon enough.

I gave blood today, but not as much blood as I wanted to give. I usually donate power red, which means they extract two pints of whole blood but pump your plasma back into your veins. To do power red, your hemoglobin count needs to be at least 13.3. Today mine was 12.6 despite the fact that I ate salmon and spinach for dinner last night and eggs and bacon for breakfast. I guess I should’ve had a burger. Last time I went to donate they pricked a finger in my other hand and that one contained sufficient hemoglobin but today’s technician said they’re not supposed to do that.

So I gave a pint, which takes no time at all compared to power red, although the tech did have to call over someone else to help angle the needle correctly because of my tricky veins. And I ate my cheez-its and miniature nutter butters and drank two tiny boxes of cranberry juice. I’ll make an appointment for 56 days from now to go back and next time I will go full carnivore to ensure that 13.3.

From the Red Cross I stopped by my parents’ house to deliver some masks and attempt to fix an issue with my mom’s iPad, which I think I made worse. My mom wanted me to come in but I felt like it was safer to stay on the front porch. I was wearing my mask. It felt all wrong.

Then I stopped to fill up my gas tank for the first time in weeks. With my grocery points, my gas was $1.67 per gallon and I filled the tank for $30, which I don’t remember ever doing. I also filled with anxiety, dealing with all the things you have to touch when you pump gas. I wrapped baby wipes around my fingers and have sanitizer my hands five times since filling up the van. Then I picked up dry cleaning. More sanitizing. I keep wishing every business had automatic doors because I have to keep touching doors and door handles and it makes me cringe.

Now I’m sitting in my car, waiting for my breathing to slow so I can drive home.

It is not lost on me that today is day 40. I would like someone to lead us out of the wilderness now and into a healthy, just, equitable, and safe new world.

I’ve been pretty grumpy the past couple days. Migraines, the sorry state of our government, and the needless suffering of so many humans, especially those who have already been systematically oppressed for centuries.

An occupational hazard of working with organizations that are trying to heal the world is that I spend a lot of time reading and writing about all the brokenness. I’ve been editing a lot of documents lately about the lasting effects of institutional racism, such as dramatic health and educational disparities. I learn over and over again about systems and policies based in selfishness, greed, and so many people’s inability to walk in someone else’s shoes, or even believe that someone else wears a different kind of shoes. Why are we so arrogant?

Surprisingly, what got me out of my funk tonight was a ministerial search committee meeting via zoom. Our committee is in the home stretch of our epic two-year mission, and we are all stressed. But we received some wise guidance from our wonderful interim minister and shared some funny stories with each other and I felt a sense of relief being together. Meanwhile, Randy and Zoe made a delicious dinner of maple glazed salmon and maple glazed baby carrots and pearled couscous and spinach salad with strawberries. Zoe brought a plate up to the office for me to eat during my meeting and it was so tasty.

I am thankful for my search committee team members for so many things, but especially because they push me and inspire me to be my best self—to evolve and grow and look at the world in different ways—and to always think about what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

The ideal person to be quarantined with would be my Nana. She was born in 1911, grew up on a farm, survived the Great Depression, and was smart, industrious, patient, thrifty, and a phenomenal baker and cook. My Nana always had two refrigerators and freezers filled with food enough to last forever. She washed clothes in the sink and sometimes in the washing machine, and dried everything on the line. She washed and dried the dishes by hand. Somehow I feel like she wouldn’t have run out of anything or would’ve known how to make what she had on hand last and last. She never learned to drive and would’ve been content to stay at home taking care of her family, reading her devotions, sewing, and playing Scrabble as long as was necessary. She might’ve been sad that Major League Baseball was canceled because she enjoyed watching the Atlanta Braves play. She would’ve missed going to church every Sunday, but she wouldn’t have skipped a single day reading the Bible. She would’ve called to check on the women in her Sunday school class and people from the church who were homebound (of course we’re all homebound now, but the people who were sick or incapacitated). She would’ve made meals and pound cakes and asked my Papa to drive her to deliver them. I am confident that Nana would have remained calm during all this craziness.

Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about my Nana so much lately, I had two terrible dreams last night in which she had just died. In one dream, I was in the house on Chestnut Street in High Point, North Carolina where she and my Papa lived for most of my childhood. I dreamed that she had died and the entire rest of my family had suddenly vanished. I had no one there to talk to or who could console me, except for an acquaintance I didn’t really trust.

In the next dream, I was in another city–maybe Arlington or DC at night and I was hysterical about her death. I was parked very tight between other cars and was trying to figure out how to get my car out of the lot. My friend Elizabeth appeared, along with a guy who sported an unfortunate Prince Valiant style haircut. Elizabeth asked if I could give her and Prince Valiant a ride somewhere because it was raining. I said I would, but then I was driving up absurdly steep walls, like in a skate park, and I couldn’t seem to get anywhere. I was crying and told Elizabeth I couldn’t drive because I was so upset and she would have to drive, so she did.

When I told Randy about this he suggested the steep walls I was trying to drive up represented the nightmarish graphs we keep seeing in the news, of the rise of coronavirus cases and deaths, and the unbelievable unemployment numbers.

My Nana died in 2005. I wonder if I am suddenly missing her more than usual because in all this terrifying uncertainty, I am longing for her steady, reassuring presence. She would know the right thing to do. I wish she were here so she could meet my kids. And so I could bake her a cake. I think she would like that.

I had the privilege of leading the service this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, in a fabulous collaboration with Ashley Greve and Bob Blinn. Our wonderful artist in residence Maya Rogers led the music.

You can watch the service here!

I included this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye as part of my prayer and meditation.

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

Here’s my reflection: The New Kid

The New Kid

Picture me, age 7, wearing a sunshine yellow Izod shirt and matching cotton shorts, missing a couple teeth, cruising down the sidewalk in blue and white roller skates. I would happily skate up people’s driveways to see who was available to play. Some days we watched monster movies with Geoff and David, some days we twirled batons with Amy and Karen, some days we played king of the hill on the pile of mulch in the Perrys’ driveway. It was all very suburban and lovely. Until…

After I finished second grade, our neighborhood elementary school closed and became a police station. The kids in our neighborhood were sent to two different schools, one of which included the gifted program that I had been assigned to. I was nervous about going to a new school, but then third grade started, and I found my people, and absolutely loved my new school. One of my best friends from third grade remains one of my best friends today.

Meanwhile, back in my neighborhood, something strange was happening. When the kids I used to play with in the cul-de-sac realized I wasn’t going to school with them anymore, they stopped playing with me. Or speaking to me. Somehow, they got this idea, whether it was from their parents or each other or who knows where, that I thought I was better than them. I didn’t. I wasn’t. Just because I was going to a different school with a different program did not mean I didn’t still want to ride bikes and play tag with them. I did. But I wasn’t allowed to anymore. They unceremoniously unwelcomed me from their midst. It was awkward and painful. They assumed something about me that wasn’t true—that I was suddenly arrogant, or a snob, even though I wasn’t behaving any differently than I had when we were hanging out in their basements. But that was that.

Fast forward a few years to ninth grade and another fork in the academic road. My friends from junior high were scattering to different high schools. My neighborhood school did not have a stellar reputation. I had heard rumors of chain-wielding gangs of immigrants roaming the hallways. Somehow, I bought into some bizarre stereotypes. I assumed the worst. So, I found a math class I could take at another, allegedly better, high school, and transferred. And I had the absolute worst year of my entire public education career. At this school, which was much richer and much whiter than my neighborhood school, people were mean to me. I was turned away from activities I wanted to do. Hardly anyone in my classes spoke to me. I was miserable. I made a handful of friends who sustained me that year, mostly people from the literary magazine who considered themselves willing outcasts of the school’s elitist culture. By the end of the year I was willing to face the prospect of roving gangs at my neighborhood school because I figured they couldn’t possibly be more unkind than the privileged white kids I’d been surrounded by all year.

First period in 10th grade I walked into Mr. Lunsford’s biology class at my neighborhood school and a whole bunch of people, most of whom I had never met, seemed surprisingly, genuinely happy to see me. As the days and weeks went on I was warmly greeted by familiar faces from elementary school and total strangers. I felt at home instantly. And guess what? No threatening thugs anywhere. Whatever I had assumed turned out not to be true. Surprise!

Recently I’ve been reading this book—Wonder by RJ Palacio—with my daughter at bedtime. I read it originally when it came out in 2012, and it’s one of my favorite books. Wonder is about a boy named August Pullman who is starting middle school and he’s nervous. Not just because he’s been homeschooled his whole life, or because it’s middle school, but also because he has a severe craniofacial anomaly. Genetics conspired to make Auggie’s face startlingly different from typical faces. By age 10 he has already undergone dozens of surgeries. When Auggie introduces himself at the beginning of the book, he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Our only insight into Auggie’s appearance comes from his description of people’s reactions to him. Stares, gasps, kids running away on the playground. At his new school, all but a couple kids give him a wide berth. They cover their mouths when they whisper about him, but he knows exactly what they’re saying. Many of them play a cruel game they call the Plague, where they try not to touch Auggie, even in passing, and if they do they have to immediately wash their hands to prevent catching what they somehow imagine is the disease that caused Auggie’s facial differences.

The few kids who actually get to know Auggie discover that he’s awesome. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s kind. He loves all things Star Wars, and playing video games, and when his dog Daisy licks his face. But because he looks so different, most kids, and many parents, don’t give him a chance. They make assumptions, such as that the school made an exception to admit a student with special needs who requires extra accommodations, none of which is true. One mom goes so far as to Photoshop Auggie’s face out of the class picture, saying he just doesn’t fit in.

Later in the book we do read a detailed description of Auggie’s looks from the point of view of his big sister, Olivia. She is realizing that there’s the Auggie she sees, of whom she has always been fiercely protective, and the Auggie that other people see. She is candid about the effects that having a little brother who looks so shockingly different has had on her life. She is loving, and patient, but also weary. And honest.

Olivia’s voice is one of several we hear in Wonder, in addition to August’s, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much. Mr. Tushman, the director of August’s school, says at one point, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story,” and RJ Palacio offers us windows into the many facets of this story. She wrote a companion book in 2014 called Auggie & Me, which tells the same story through the lens of three other characters, including Julian, who is Auggie’s greatest antagonist in Wonder. Just as so many kids make assumptions about Auggie based on his looks, the reader makes assumptions about Julian based on his behavior. Clearly, he’s just a jerk, right? But there are, as Mr. Tushman points out, almost always more than two sides to every story.

Our brains are hardwired to categorize for survival—is this creature friendly or likely to eat me? Is this food edible or poisonous? But what happens when that desire to classify everything you see gets out of control? I struggle with this constantly. Is that person thinner than me or fatter than me? Does that person have holes in her clothes because she can’t afford better clothes or because she’s trying to be fashionable? Why is it fashionable to have holes in your clothes? My brain goes into overdrive. So while I want to be welcoming, while I aspire to be friendly, while I deeply wish I were the person who goes over and sits down at the lunch table where the different looking new kid is sitting all alone on the first day of school, I don’t know if I really am. I am convinced that sometimes my assumptions—about someone else or myself—get in the way. What if that person who is crying just wants to be left alone? What if I am insensitive because of my white privilege? What if I ask an intrusive question because I am curious?

Sometimes this interrogation of myself keeps me from being welcoming, inclusive, or brave. Our theme here at UUCA for September is welcome. So today I’m making a commitment to be more welcoming, everywhere I go, whether I am greeting the new kid or I am the new kid. I’m making a commitment to not let those questions and assumptions ricocheting around my head get in the way of reaching out to someone. I’m making a commitment to remember that there are almost always more than two sides to every story, and to do what I can to listen to all the sides.

One of the great characters in Wonder is Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who teaches his students about precepts—words to live by—and encourages them to come up with their own. I’ll leave you with Mr. Browne’s precept for September, a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

May it be so. May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

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