Last night we watched the planets collide. Or so it seemed. And it got me thinking back to the three kings bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, the magi astride their camels. What confidence, curiosity, or desperation does it take to follow a star, even if that star is actually two planets conjoining?
And what are the stars I follow, even when I can’t see them? Friendship, community, family, work, attention, keeping the gutters clean. It’s a good list to consider. Easy to fall into abstractions. But watch the concrete tangible stars emerge when you think of how you spend your days. You cut someone off in traffic and a sinking feeling creeps into your gut. That feeling is a star you follow. You remember it before you do the same thing again.
In my family version of the Christmas story, everyone—kings and shepherds alike—finds their way to Bethlehem by the light of the star. It’s a story, and we liked that version of the story, so that’s what stuck. When I think of the heroes of the Christmas story I think of the sheep. Maybe because I was a sheep in our first grade Christmas play. We were a chorus of baas surrounding the manger where the baby lay—the baby was a sack of sugar wrapped in a blanket. Our instructions were simple: Baa and keep baaing except when Mary or Joseph speaks. A couple of years later, in his own school play, my brother played the Virgin Mary and had to deviate from the script to tell the sheep to settle down.
I think of the sheep because, of all the players on that cold desert night, they were the ones who didn’t follow the star; they followed their shepherds. They weren’t oriented toward the cosmos; they were far more worldly than that. They weren’t dreamers, as the kings and shepherds were, they were hungering for anything that looked like grass, or a few juicy sprigs of rosemary. Pragmatic, those sheep. Irreverent. Practically profane.
In nativity scenes, whether painted by one of the greats or a three-dimensional homemade thing sitting outside in your neighbor’s yard, the sheep are there, swarming the manger. Some of them have that bored expression you find in snapshots of relatives who’ve overeaten. Others look fondly at their shepherds. And still others are nibbling on the baby’s cushion of straw. Who could not love these sheep? They are exactly who we are. They bring themselves—their full selves—as gifts for the occasion, because what else would they do? Who else would they be? If this is an occasion, I hear them say, every day is an occasion. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Even the cosmos is enacting what it enacts without effort or guile. The star is beautiful, the star is grand and handsome, but isn’t also a single juicy blade of grass?
December 8th is Rohatsu in the Zen tradition, commemorating the moment of the Buddha’s awakening. According to legend, it happened in the early morning, in the presence of Venus, the morning star. Siddhartha sat unmoving after a rough night of temptations by the demon Mara, until finally he came to a deep understanding of the cause of suffering. Can you see him there? Above him the leaves of the fig tree rustle like clapping hands, and the fragrance of the figs themselves remind him of his own appetites, his own preferences—human things. He’s been a practicing ascetic for many years. He’s close to death by starvation. Then clap! Here comes the smell of figs—the whole tree gives off the scent of abundance—and he laughs aloud. He’s enlightened!
I like this version because it involves the sensual world. The smells, the tastes, the sounds of our human lives. In another story, before Siddhartha sat beneath the tree, he lay on the ground, close to death, and a child came to him and fed him a pudding of milk and rice to restore his strength to live another day. And what a day it was. It was the day and night and early morning of his awakening, when Siddhartha became the Buddha and one of the great spiritual teachers in our human history. His life was prolonged by a child. And she (she’s portrayed as a girl named Sujata, but of course she’s anyone, everyone, just as the Buddha is anyone, everyone) represents compassion in this world. Compassion and wisdom are the two roots of Buddhist tradition. In the poet Jane Hirshfield’s words: “One great tap-word of Buddhism is compassion, which is the deep affection that we feel for everything because we’re all in it together. Be it other human beings, other animals, the planet as a whole, the creatures of this planet, the trees and rivers of this planet. Everything is connected.”
About five years ago I made a decision. It arose out of my experience of anorexia when I was a twelve-year-old, and again when I was in my early twenties. I decided to make a practice of saying yes to any and all food that was offered to me, if it was offered in friendship. I learned to enjoy cookies this way, if they weren’t too sweet. Cookies were a big step for me. Then I began to discern all the other areas in my life where I said no, and I vowed to open my mind to yeses. This has been a tremendous practice for me. It’s a practice of ahimsa or kindness to self. Like the child Sujata, I offer compassion to the starving one, the ascetic, in the form of food or praise or the encouragement to go fishing in the middle of the day. I embody the child and the ascetic both, as most of us do. The jailer and the jailed.
This is the time of year when ceremonies and rituals abound. Rohatsu has just passed, Hanukkah is upon us, soon enough Christmas and Kwanzaa. Take one of William Stafford’s poems with you as you walk out into the world today. This one’s called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”:
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
The little dog died. Zenna. We put her down last Thursday, right there stretched out next to Ann in the bed. She was Ann’s dog, half chihuahua, half Italian greyhound—a perfect balance of character. The greyhound mellowed out the chihuahua and the chihuahua lit a fire under the greyhound. She might have had meerkat in her too, because when she wanted your attention, she’d sit up on her hind legs with her front legs folded over her chest. She was often very serious, but just as often she made people laugh. She ran like a greyhound, fast and banking on the corners. She’d greet me by racing up and down the hallway of Ann’s house, over and over, riding the throw rugs like surfboards until she was exhausted. She did this up until the last month or two of her too-short life. She was only ten when she died—middle-aged for a small dog. No one could tell us why she was dying, what she was dying of. For some reason that hurt my heart the most. It seemed unfair (as if fairness came into it) that we should lose her to something unnamed.
Zenna loved a lap, which is why so many of my photographs are taken from behind her head, behind those long expressive ears of hers. I was always trying to see what she saw, trying to gain her point of view. She was such a kind dog. That kindness extended to Ann always, but especially at the end. I’m certain she lived beyond the time when she needed to die, and would have continued to, for Ann’s sake, if Ann hadn’t returned Z’s gift of love with a gift of her own: letting her go.
Often there are no words for these creatures who don’t pursue us with language, but with their big eyes and hearts. These images are my farewell to Zenna, and my wordless thanks. Two hawks and an osprey (an osprey!) circled Ann’s home in the desert as we carried Z’s body out to the vet’s car. The night before, an owl hooted from an ironwood tree close to the house. Zenna was enjoying some cheesecake at that moment, but she cocked her ears, then went back to licking the plate. My guess is that when the birds come for you, the promise of flight is not frightening, but a promise of freedom, release and return.
This is a story about a stutter. Not the soon-to-be presidential stutter, but the stutter of a man named Ted Hoagland, a writer and teacher of mine at the University of Iowa. Ted himself has written eloquently about his stutter in an essay called “On Stuttering,” which I recommend to you, but his experience of his stutter was necessarily different than my experience as a student in his classroom. Every week I walked into the overlit room in which he taught, and whatever hesitation filled my mind, I let go of it at the sight of Ted at his desk, surrounded by arrogant young apprentice-writers who droned on and on before the class began, while he, the teacher and accomplished writer, sat silently, working out what I assumed to be his own hesitation.
We critiqued two student short stories each week, in a way that now reminds me of a cat playing with a mouse for sport. One student named Jeffrey loved the word irony and worked it into his criticism of every piece. “I think you’ve overdone it on the irony here,” he’d say, or “Scrap the ending. Too ironic.” I believe I succeeded in being respectful to every windbag I met in the halls of the English Philosophy Building where we converged for workshops and classes called Forms of Fiction, but sometimes I found it extremely challenging. To watch the windbags’ antithesis at work in the form of our teacher, Ted, was the balance my education needed.
Ted began each class with a short monologue. He’d speak about the themes that appeared in both of the week’s submissions, and the pitfalls both pieces presented and how they dealt with them. He’d thank the students who were about to go under the knife, and from that point on he’d say no more. He was a head-wagger and full body stutterer. His shoulders contorted and his back arched as he tried to speak. I don’t know the technical terms involved in stuttering, but I do know that for Ted, with a stutter as extreme as his was, making himself understood, unless on paper, was a magnificent act of courage. And endurance. Even that short monologue was an endurance exercise for him, and for the class of young whipper-snappers who’d decided they had enough to write about to try and make a career of it. Or they knew enough about writing to imagine themselves right there in Ted’s seat one day. And not just one day, but one day soon.
I understand now, looking back on all of us, that of course we had little to write about and that was the reason for all the talk. All the windy holding-forth that happened in that classroom was the direct result of having nothing to say. And the fact that Ted didn’t interrupt us, didn’t intervene and scold us, or at least beg us to tame our bulging egos, the fact that he sat in silence while we all carried on, strikes me now as its own teaching tool, but a tool we didn’t know how to accept when it was given to us, nor how to use if we could accept it. Silence wasn’t fashionable in our twenties. We believed language was our life. And the subtleties of silence, the wide worlds of difference between deference, defeat, and tact, wouldn’t dawn on us for a long time.
I hear that some years ago Ted lost his sight, and through a risky operation it was restored to him, but during that time he lost his stutter, or most of it. What an extraordinary development for a man, a writer, who has always expressed himself within the safety of the written word. To venture out into the spoken, but with the understanding that less said is often the greater gift. A lesson for all of us.
What fascinated us that summer was Mr. Burden’s bomb shelter. We came across it deep in the woods one day, a squat gray concrete bunker with heavy metal doors that stood open. Inside, four or five spacious storerooms filled with cans of food and water. We’d never seen water in a can before. The place was filled with novelty and mystery.
It looked to me like Pharaoh’s tomb. There were rows of geraniums planted on the roof. “To disguise it,” said one of my older cousins. “From the air,” added another. “But no one has a garden of geraniums,” said my sister, the future botanist. “They’re houseplants. Have you ever seen a garden of geraniums?”
We decided Mr. Burden wasn’t a detail man. He’d ordered a roof garden to disguise his bomb shelter from enemy planes, and if geraniums were on sale that week, he got geraniums. Inside, it was cold and echoey. I tried to imagine the Burden family holed up in this uninviting place while a nuclear bomb destroyed the world around them. It took out their friends, their enemies, their schools, their livelihood. It took out their home, their gardens, their artwork. It destroyed huge swatches of the natural world that gave them joy. The fires ignited by the blast burned right up to the door of their bomb shelter. The geraniums didn’t survive. Nothing did.
I was only ten, but I’d had a Cold War childhood. Earlier that year, the Cuban Missile Crisis put New York City in the crosshairs. I stood at the window of our Manhattan apartment and looked out at the eerie urban glow and wondered if Khrushchev really wanted to kill us all, and if so, how fast that would happen. I was initiated enough to understand the scope of destruction carried by nuclear weapons, and I felt the communal dread and fear. Air raid drills and fallout shelters were part of my vocabulary. We’d been ducking into our lockers at school and heeding the sirens for a couple of years.
So to come upon the bomb shelter, the manifestation of dread and fear, was almost a relief. Here before us, set in concrete, was the enemy, the danger, and our constructed response to it. Here was the way to fight evil, because good and evil were much in fashion back then. We relied on one to sanctify the other. We were children, and that made sense. Apparently, it made sense to the adults in our world as well. The great divide between right and wrong must have been alive in Mr. Burden’s heart, given the effort he expended creating his tomb or fortress. Later, when none of us wanted to return to that place in the woods, the reason we gave was that it was ugly. No one wanted to admit to being afraid of it and what it stood for. Instead, it was ugly.
I urge us to consider every possibility besides the ugly one in our dealings with those among us with whom we disagree. While good and evil are tempting paradigms, they’re more convenient than accurate, and in the end they lead to inconveniences from which it’s difficult or impossible to recover.
I’ve been sleeping outside recently, and I don’t know if it’s the stars talking to me, or the wisdom offered by this particular moment in the vast space we call time, but I’m beginning to grasp the absurdity of the value we place on money. Maybe the word “value” is what’s absurd. It calls into play a hierarchy that’s entirely human-created. Take the stars, for example. Not only do they not know they’re stars, but they have no preference for stardom. What surrounds them and consumes them isn’t of “value,” it’s just what surrounds and consumes them—and it’s not even that. In the words of the old Buddhist joke, language is the horse we ride. We forget we’re riding it. It sets us up for valuing one thing over another. It sets us up for seeing things as things.
Shells, turquoise, gold, tea. These have all been used as currency in the past. I can imagine a future, right around the corner, where the ability to walk, to see, to laugh are our new currency. A good memory, a torn grocery receipt, a leaf under the car. Equal value. Imagine that. A pig’s nose, a lump in a throat, a whip being whipped, a frown being frowned.
Like language, which deals in concepts, and replaces objects with the idea of objects, money separates us not only from our experience of the world, but from each other. Money has become an uber-concept, moving from copper, nickel, silver and paper, to plastic, to numbers in the air. Some people’s numbers have more value than others? They’re numbers in the air! 64 is of greater value than 63? I don’t understand it. What I understand is that two fish feed more people than one fish.
For a few years I lived in a farmhouse in Iowa. Like many old farmhouses, it was a winter haven for mice. They made their way in and out through the many holes in the walls. One evening I came home, stepped into the kitchen and turned on the light. Something over at the stove caught my eye. The front burner appeared to be moving on its own, a slow circling movement I had no context for and therefore no language. Without language, I was invited into the direct experience of what I saw. This, I believe, is the definition of mystery.
As I watched, I felt a kind of excitement that wasn’t burdened by anticipation or fear. It felt like a pure and very present experience of vibrant curiosity. It lasted only briefly, and then the moving burner revealed itself to be a large bull snake, uncoiling from the warm place it had hoped to spend the night. Thought, language, value returned immediately. Along with the snake, the energy of the moment was gone.
I’d like to suggest this: Every time you grab numbers out of the air in exchange for a thing, a purchase, an hour of labor, consider the real value involved, not the value assigned. That makes this world less about money and more about connection. Not just human connection, but the interplay of, simply put, everything.
It’s a word my sister used after the death of Justice Ginsburg, when it became clear that the administration would be moving ahead as quickly as possible to fill her vacant Supreme Court seat. My sister, who lives in Australia, often wakes up these days to a round of staggering news from her homeland, and puts in a pre-coffee call to one of us here in the States. It’s three in the afternoon by our clock. By now we’ve had some time to digest whatever the day has thrown at us. But that day was hard. That loss was larger than most. There was little comfort we could offer each other, and by the end of the call we had worn out our grieving and were both feeling angry and defeated by the willingness of those in power to rush through a nomination that will change the way laws are decided in this country for the next two decades. That’s when she used the word. She said, “It’s unseemly.” And I said, “If you’re looking for seemly, you’ll have to look somewhere else. As political leadership goes, we are living in a time of almost unimaginable unseemliness in this country.” Her two boys needed breakfast and we hung up shortly after that.
We all arrive with our ideas and opinions, which on the low side of things turn toward judgments and a failure to understand. We are all capable of “unseemly.” But here’s the good news. That word has an antonym, and if we’re honest and look around with a fair mind, there’s plenty of “seemly” to witness in the world. It sometimes comes in the mail, via eBay, like this one. Three sentences, written in a shaky hand. It arrived in a package containing four watchbands:
My apologies for my tardiness in my handling and shipping your
watchband to you. So I have enclosed 3 similar style watchbands
(free of charge) in the hopes that you will forgive me as this is not
my usual practice in business but I was in the hospital and was not
in the frame of mind to have put my store on a leave of absence,
but that is not your problem so I wanted to make it up to you! Thank
you for your understanding and hopeful forgiveness,
Marie Smith of Colorado Springs is an example of humility, good business, and seemliness. In the future, whenever I need a watchband, you can be sure I will buy it from her. (Though with her generous gift of four watchbands, I’ll be 87 years old before I’ll need to call upon her again. Thank you, Marie.)
Unseemly isn’t what we are, mostly, though it’s the one booming voice in a quiet room. It’s tempting to throw up our hands and say, as the homeless guy’s sign said in black crayon on cardboard: Come on man. This sucks. That’s honesty, no doubt, but for many of us, seemly is something we can adjust within ourselves. Our circumstances have given us the choice. It’s a tool to go high (when they go low). That old-fashioned word, seemly, let’s make it fashionable again. Let’s do it for Marie Smith, in the hospital, worrying about my watchband. Let’s do it for my sister in Australia who feels the grief of distance compounded by a fear for the future of her homeland. Let’s do it for Justice Ruth Ginsburg and all the well-intended lovers of the Constitution of the United States of America. And for ourselves, our girls, our boys. Our world. This pear-shaped spinning object of great beauty, depending on us as we depend on it.
What is it that eases my heart every time a train rumbles by? The predictability? The knowledge that when this one comes and goes, another will replace it? The sense of connection-by-track to the enduring cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and other great metropolises of this nation? The understanding that through fire and snow, sickness and death, the engines move undeterred across our immense landscape? That nothing will stop it, except robbers looking for bags of money, and they are a thing of the past? That all the things that bring us to our knees right now will not bring the train to a halt? That the sound and vibration are surprisingly comforting, like being held and rocked inside an enormous tunnel by a fleshy, unapologetic body?
Often I wake up in the night, thinking the house is falling down, only to come to my senses and understand it’s a train. There is no feeling of panic. I have no sense of impending disaster. I reason with myself: the house is falling—again. No, it’s the train, the first engines dragging and the last ones pushing. In between, there’s only the steady heartbeat of wheels scouring the track.
It comes into my dreams in the same sinuous way it takes a corner. The other night it carried me to the river, the Colorado, and left me on a high wooden platform that wasn’t stage or dam, but a scaffold of sorts over which people were dragging their boats. Looking down at the river below, we gasped. The river, the lifeblood of the Southwest, was only creek-wide. You could walk across it. You could throw a barstool across it. “Still,” said one man lugging a kayak, “it’s the right color and all.” I wanted to tell him the deep clear green wasn’t the right color, actually, just the color we’d all gotten used to.
It was no dream the two summers I worked on a fire crew up in the Crown King district of the Prescott National Forest. They’d helicopter us in, we’d scrape line all night, then they’d tell us to walk out. We were seven short people, wore the same length jeans, and we’d hike out of there singing “Hi ho, hi ho.” Jean was the only other woman on the crew and she taught me how to get in a good nap when the fire died down and the air cooled off toward morning. Dig a trench, fill it with hot coals, throw dirt on top of that and lie down. Though I was just as likely to stay up with the boys, listening to their stories about life in the mountains. If we weren’t out in the burning woods, we’d gather in the Crown King saloon on a Saturday night and listen to the not-so-bad band singing Eagles songs and Crosby, Stills & Nash while the old-timers two-stepped. I was, for a brief time, a band member myself. Banged the tambourine.
Which speaks nothing of the terror of working a fire—from ahead of it if you’ve got the maneuverability and the wind cooperates, otherwise anywhere you can lay down a line. Meals Ready to Eat and frozen canteens of water. For me the scariest thing was knowing I had a fire shelter in my pack, it looked like something you’d wrap a baked potato in before throwing it directly on the coals. That shelter frightened me more than anything else about that summer (except the 1979 Castle Fire that started in Crown King’s backyard). Knowing that I had on my person a tube of tinfoil whose purpose was to keep me alive as a fire ran over me—knowing I was supposed to keep from scorching my lungs by breathing with my face in the dirt while the fire raged around me—something in this allowed me no comfort, no peace of mind. It was, had I known then what I know now, the opposite of what the train offers, holding and rocking me inside its great fleshy heart.
For years I had a chair I never sat in. “It’s the wrong color,” I said. “Pale blue and yellow. I can’t sit in a pastel chair.” So it sat by itself. Occasionally we piled blankets on it and yoga mats and meditation cushions. It took up quite a bit of space in the living room. It faced a window onto the busy street. For people-watching, it occupied prime real estate, but I didn’t sit in it. Nobody sat in it. “Those pastels,” I said.
I grew up in floral and pastel surroundings. My mother made slipcovers for all our chairs, and for reasons in line with the 1950s, she favored unobtrusive, non-declarative shades of green, blue and yellow. If roses were available against a background of beige, we sat on roses. I was in my late fifties before I understood that walls could be painted rich, deep colors and the house wouldn’t fall apart. We go to what we know, and other people are there to reroute us if we allow them to. I’m going to suggest we’re in a stubborn time in our country right now, simply because we keep going to what we think we know. And it does, to our surprise or satisfaction, keep producing the same outcomes. Until we reject those outcomes, we’ll continue to not sit in the pastel chair.
My mother moved out of the ‘50s along with everyone else. I was in college when she started using Marimekko fabric. Marimekko designs had big bold shapes, often in black and white, or a red or bright orange—seldom blue and green, and never yellow. In her own clothes she moved on to natural-colored linens that were quiet without being pastel. As her children left home she began to take risks, to move into unknown territory, and I must say there was a deep beauty about her boldness. Boldness, I saw, didn’t have to be loud, didn’t have to shout; it was a frame of mind that dared to explore a new way of being. We, as American people, lack boldness at this moment. Our trenches have deepened over the last four years and we’re digging in, going with what we’re sure we know, living in a vanishing past. We’re operating out of fear, a great wealth of it, suppressed and gone awry. Change, yes, both noun and verb. Change!
When I moved away from the house in which the pastel chair ruled our lives, I astonished myself by taking the chair with me. With one amendment. I took it to the upholsterer and asked my friend, Lynne, to come with me to pick out colors. I wanted rerouting; the whole situation needed rerouting. I exercised boldness and together we chose a magnificent red, a red subtly laced with orange and black, without one trace of blue or yellow in it. This chair—The Red Chair, as I call it—is now the chair I sit in to write. This morning, thinking about America from my perch in The Red Chair, and feeling the last soft days of summer breezing in through the window, and watching the play of light in the apple tree just beyond the window, I felt settled for the first time in half a decade. I felt sorry instead of disbelieving and angry. I felt myself as part of a great unknowing, willing to unknow. It is the boldest move we can make, to give up our investment in a fixed present, a familiar present, whether comfortable or not, and launch into an unknown that does not promise one damn thing except the satisfaction of daring to explore a new way of being. If there’s a chair in the room, please do what needs to be done to sit in it.
Impossibly, one Christmas my mother gave me a raccoon coat. It was not a new coat, but neither was it the worse for wear. The fur, or pelt might be a more accurate word, was not moth-eaten or sorry looking, if a bit dull, and my mother had replaced the entire lining with the same brilliant blue fabric that covered our living room chairs. She had rebuilt the coat from the inside and she presented it to me that Christmas, the Christmas I was twelve, with a beam of pride that broke my heart. Because the last thing in the world I wanted was to walk out into the jungle of New York City and through the doors of my school wearing a bunch of dead animals on my body. The last thing I wanted was a raccoon coat. I thanked my mother profusely, overdoing it to cover my shame. It was the shame of ingratitude, the anticipatory shame of arriving as I must in front of 610 East 83rd Street, my school, and being the laughing stock, the butt of the joke, the blushing target of everyone’s unmerciful teasing. Juanita Dugdale had worn a modest fur hat to school one day and for that she was crucified. I knew the consequences and my mother did not. Her plan was to save me in style from those cold New York winters, but in fact she was throwing me to the wolves.
My older sister’s best friend, Kate, was the first to land a dart. She looked me up and down and smiled dangerously as we stood at the bus stop together. “Height of prep,” was all she said. I remember the sting of it to this day. But I was grateful for the efficiency, the brevity of her blow. Others were not so reserved, or rather not so accurate in the delivery of their poison arrows, and several seemed genuinely confused as to whether or not the coat was made from our own pet raccoon, Mr. Peepers, who had come and gone in our lives several years before. I came home from school and stood as I always did in front of the cracker and potato chip closet above the built-in oven in our kitchen, and cried. I had not even bothered to take off the coat and I stood and hung my head and blubbered into the scratchy fur that came up to meet my face. Here it was, this hideous coat with its beautiful, elegant, blue as the blue sky lining, hand-sewn by my beautiful, elegant mother, and I had to choose. I had to either bear the shame or refuse the gift, which at that moment felt like refusing the gift of life she had also given me. With all its difficulties and uglinesses, I hadn’t refused that gift, had I? the gift of life? It was difficult and complicated, even hideous at times, but I had chosen to concentrate on life’s beautiful blue lining and now, I decided right there in the kitchen, I would do that again.
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