Monday, August 29, 2011

The Gut Wrenching Moment of Yes

The moon hangs over the empty sea, and the car battery hums occasionally to remind us of where we are. We stare at the ocean and listen as waves kiss the shoreline, snatching a bit of sand on their return journey. It's the same place we were in February, when I whispered to her the secret hope that lives inside me: how I want to be a writer. How I would die if I couldn't write. How if I was brave, I would write and write and never stop. And I would spend my life in the midst of characters and consonants, learning to tell the stories I have inside me.

It was in February that I began to write in earnest what I fondly call, "the myths" - my retellings of the older, well-worn stories. I weave them fresh with twists and turns, listen to Eurydice and Apollo talking to each other, wait for Demeter and Persephone to guide me to their next conversations. It was then that I felt the first flicker of what living the "yes" might be like.

It is a gut wrenching yes. It is a yes that abandons the practical. A yes that forsakes the safe for the wild, the known for the possible, the familiar version of Hilary for the daring, daunting, heart-beating-in-heady-anticipation Hilary.

Tonight we are here at the same stretch of ocean again, and she remembers my promise. The promise to live the gut wrenching yes, and never stop, not for one moment, not to regret or reconsider, not to panic, not to waver. She looks at me with her soft brown eyes and says, "You hear Him calling?" I nod. She smiles and says, "Then go." It's Italy we're talking about, actually. Going to Italy, somehow, after school, between or in the midst of what's next. Doing the impossible, the impractical, and finding a way to get to Italy next year. To go, and to write. To learn the language, to steep myself in the bricks and trees and the sound of the fields and to soak it all in, and write from it. I complain of the piercing clarity - that it seems so obvious, so important, to go there, like some singular refrain I can't stop singing - yet how could I?

I go quiet, watching the waves, and listen for a moment to the clamoring voices in my head. The one that says, "What if no one ever cares about what you write?" The one that says, "Wouldn't they all be disappointed if you didn't go straight into graduate school?" And the one far at the back that whispers, "After all, Hilary, it isn't what makes sense." I keep watching the waves, in and out, in and out, and then I hear the other voices. The ones that say, "Go to the sea, Hilary." "Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." and the still, smallest voice, the one nearest silence, when I can just barely reach out to feel the salty wind at my fingertips - the one that says, "Behold, I am with you always."

Could this be it? I wonder, as I turn back to my friend and we listen to each other dream a bit wider, talk about the ending of Orpheus & Eurydice, the last stanza of her newest song. Could it be, that if I say "yes" to seeking after the seemingly impossible that I will find the Hilary I'm longing to be?

This is the gut wrenching moment of yes. This is the moment when we promise ourselves to source our life from nothing less than Him. To step out off the cliff and trust the wind and trust our hearts and fill our lungs with the harsh clean air...

For when we push beyond our wild expectations we discover that we are spun of such stuff as dreams are made of, and so much more, that our hearts have a gravity that calls to us, that we each have a something that we must do. A thing that flickers in us, waiting to catch flame.

This is the gut wrenching moment of yes. 

Will you say yes, too?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I Make A Surprising Promise (to be Courageous)

Dear God, 

Today is a day when I wish I had what someone else has. I wish I had her discipline, his calm, their happiness. Today I wish my hand was in someone else's, palm to palm, and I could walk along in this rainstorm and with that smile (You know the one), the rain is dripping down the edges of my foggy window, and there isn't a promise of sunshine for the next 36 hours, and I'm remembering  how much I want my own... that moment, or that person, or that certainty. I wish for clearer skies, for confidence, for Your voice over me.

I read today that You said, "Fortifiez-vous et ayez du courage! Ne craignez point et ne soyez point effrayés devant eux; car l'Éternel, ton Dieu, marchera lui-même avec toi, il ne te délaissera point, il ne t'abandonnera point." or "Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.” (from Deuteronomy 31.6)... And Lord, I want to know - how do I believe this? 

I don't know how many times my heart will tread this territory, how many blog posts and journal entries and conversations it will take to stop wondering so much about it. Does He go with me? How do I know this promise, live it, believe it? I ask Him over and over, so many times that I have lost count, to show me the way to trusting. And I realized today that it's my turn. My turn to make Him a promise, after the multitude He's already upholding.

Here is what I want, the desire that sings in the birdcage of my heart even on the days when I deny it: I want to be courageous.  

One day last week my friend and I were talking about our favorite virtues. He asked me what mine was, and though I flirted with "patience" or "hope" or even, "love" - my answer was courage.

Courage. Because it looks at mystery without fear. Because it sings about hope. Because the courageous person trembles but does not waver. Because courage is always listening for Him.

The courageous person is a listening person. The courageous person gulps, settles into the chair, with nothing but the question, and then waits for an answer. And maybe the answer will make us laugh, because of its simplicity. Or maybe the answer will make us wonder, because of its mystery. Or maybe it will make us throw our hands in the air in frustration and admiration, all mangled together in our soft human selves.

I want to be courageous. I want to be brave. You, dear reader, already probably know that Narnia teaches me some of the most important things I've learned about God in my still young life. One of the moments in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when all seems like it might be lost. They are sailing through the shadow valley of lost dreams. And it says, "Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting-top and whispered, "Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now." The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little - a very little - better... An albatross...circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow... But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, "Courage, dear heart," and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan's."

So, Lord, I return to my journals, to the ones I wrote in Italy when Your voice was so bright and loud, and I remember how You whispered, "Courage, dear heart" over and over until I was filled with it. I promise to remember. I promise You courage. 

Love, from all the wonder inside me, 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Eloquence and Criticism

Eloquence. The way we package words. (This is the prompt my wise roommates and friends give me as I sit here pondering what to write tonight)

The first word I loved was "essence." I sounded it out loud in the empty fireplace room of the old house of my high school, when I thought no one was listening, and its softness slipped around the room. "Essence" is a slippery word. 

The second word was "child" followed closely by "beloved" and then "gentle" and then "lithe" and then "gossamer." I wrote them down, watched their letters curl together on the page. I said them to myself and wove them into stories, for no other reason than they are rich: the sibilant s, the light and quick l's and i's, and the quiet ch of "child". The words are good words. 

We forget to be choosy about how our words sound. Perhaps we think only the poets concern themselves with syllables, consonants and their counterparts, and the way the word echoes. Maybe we assume that the purpose is to get "to the point" of whatever we want to say, and forget worrying about the sounds we make on our way there. Or maybe it's just more work to think about how we say things, and we'd rather spend our time saying more things. 

But I want words to be beautifully said. I don't want to just say, "amazing" when I think about the fierce red sun over the Atlantic that night coming home from Provincetown. I don't want to just say, "it was really good" when someone shows me a piece of writing they've done. Words are gifts we give to each other. Shouldn't we spend an extraordinary amount of time wondering about how to say it well? 

And this is most important when we say hard things. When I was in my junior year of high school, my poetry teacher taught me the most crucial lesson I have ever learned about criticism. He was talking to our class about how to give feedback on poetry because every class period, we had several people read what they had written and then the rest of the class listened and commented. Charles sat in his pale green armchair around that low slung table in the fireplace room and he looked each one of us in the eyes, and he taught us: You must be honest, but you must also be loving. You must remember that poetry is personal, writing itself is personal, and when you comment on this poem, you are commenting on more than this poem. This is the person who wrote it, too - they are in the poem. So you must be loving while you are honest. Choose your words carefully. 

I hadn't thought about how to say things well before: how to craft words, and sentences, so that they were truthful and kind. How to let the words I love be the words I spoke, and how to temper and shape my comments. How to be quiet, and contemplate the best way to say the first thing that comes to mind, rather than blurting it out just so that I can say that I have said something. 

My poetry teacher taught me that love was as important in criticism as honesty. It was as important, even more so, to learn how to compliment carefully and to improve gracefully as it was to hear the words that stuck out like sore thumbs and the plot points that failed. Being a writer, and then being a critic, means that you learn how to suggest and not demand, to be intentional about saying what could be better in the most loving way possible. If we are going to be lovers of words, we must be lovers of the words well spoken.

From the moment I fell in love with the word "essence" I have realized the importance of the well-placed word, the one that captures and captivates, and sets free. Because words are gifts. Language makes meaning. I want it to be beautiful.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Going Home Again (When The Place Has Changed)

Not long ago, I went to Italy. I packed a small suitcase, boarded a plane, landed in Rome. I was there about ten days, and we traveled from our monastery home in Orvieto to Florence (Firenze-Santa-Maria-Novella) to Rome (Roma-Termini). I journaled my way through gelato afternoons and sitting on the edge of the river taking naps, through long train rides and walks around Orvieto hearing church Italian - una colomba and Signore Dio - like so much music.

You can read about a few of my thoughts here and here, my musings about the stars, about the sweetness of life, about the delight we can taste and touch if we are looking.

I have always heard that traveling changes a person. That you leave and the dust of the place sticks in your hair and on your skin. That the place breathes inside your bones, calling on you.

But I think traveling changes places too. Our homes without us in them shift their shapes, grow to expand new people or close in on the empty spaces we left behind. When we go back, we'll find it different. Maybe what we think is all our own glorious transformation is just as much the place we left resettled into a different position.

I imagine Italy is different, now. The hills I think I've captured in my camera have long since tilted a little more towards the setting sun and spilled their real dirt over hundreds of scrambling feet. The ruins gazing up at me in January from hundreds of years away have looked on other faces and moved back towards the dust.

I wonder how much DC has changed while I've been gone. How the streets have been scrubbed clean, again and again, how much rain and humidity and earthquakes they've had. How new restaurants have emerged, how Eastern Market smells, whether or not they still make the hazelnut latte the way I love it at Ebenezer's. I imagine the city has stretched its arms open to new people and that perhaps the small mark I made on it remains, tucked away on the bus or perhaps on the sidewalk of M St in Georgetown where I think I realized what it meant to know and love a place.

Since I began this blog a year ago, I've traveled - to California and back twice, to the District, to Italy, to Pennsylvania, countless times to Gordon. I've traveled in my heart, too, from disappointment to joy to fullness to unanswered questions.

And tonight, at the end of a long (too long) day, and before the beginning of classes tomorrow, I hear all those places bending and stretching towards what is new, and my own heart echoes the same. Because traveling changes us, and our homes. And after this year of journeying, I close my eyes and wonder, what will home look like now? 


Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Point of It All

is to become obedient.

I open the letter with trembling hands. It's a familiar free-flowing scrawl, and as her words pour out of the page and spill into the room, I'm suddenly crying. I sink into the folds of my comforter crinkling her letter in my sweaty hands. I've been cleaning my room in preparation for the chaos of moving back to school and there are piles of things still waiting to be sorted and packed. Books are strewn everywhere, and the good words abound, but in the haze of Friday afternoon humidity, I just hear Joanna reminding me that the point isn't the "after college" or the "next thing" or even the horizon blazing ahead of us. I can almost see her sitting on my sister's bed, putting her arm around me as I shudder with frustration and saying, "It's going to be okay." How did I forget? 

I've been caught in a circle in my head. I've been telling this story about the doom of missing "it" - the right path, the right job, the right topic for my thesis. I've been walking on eggshells around the future, afraid to disturb it with my own blundering efforts to get it right. As school begins, I'm more afraid than ever, because the things I love seem so close and so out of reach.

I treat myself as a tightrope walker - and a wrong step means the world shakes. My feet tremble and I look around me with the sinking feeling - there is no place to fall - and I feel the rope beneath me bend.  I live in this mad dash, no room for mistakes, no room to have the "wrong" major or to forget a phone call or leave an email behind for more than 24 hours. I live thinking I have to work to earn my place in the world. I have to prove that I'm worth it. I can't not know something, because that means I'm falling short, I'm not as wise or as thoughtful or as kind or as good as I think I should be.

And maybe I live thinking that I have to work to earn His love, too.

Maybe I pray for grace but I don't think He'll give it. Like praying for rain and running around with a watering can. Like praying that He shows you the way and then kicking down every door in sight without waiting for an answer.

And how much of that one wild and precious life that He's given me have I spent hiding from my insecurities and keeping myself safe from mistakes, away from the ledge, running around behind His back with a watering can when, just over the horizon I can't quite see, He is rolling in the drenching August thunderstorms to quench all my thirst?

So I sit on my bed, pages of her time and attention and love, pages of her self all promising me that we'll get there, we'll find it, if we knock the door is going to open even if we do not know anything. And the stories she tells me in every part of who she is, and is becoming, are the grace I don't know how to pray for. She reminds me of the point - God's delight, obeying, the wild promise of grace. Always that.

Oh, Hilary! I can hear her say as she smiles at me over the chipped rim of her coffee cup. We're going to get there. We're going to learn it. We're going to fumble our way towards the fullness. 

And the point is the obedience.


Friday, August 19, 2011

The Newness of Me (a five minute post)

This week Lisa-Jo over at The Gypsy Mama took suggestions on what to write on for our weekly floating and flying free - also known as Five Minute Fridays. We write without worries, without edits, without feeling like our words must have their perfect place. We write to let the beauty roll out of us and into the world. I'd so love for you to join us! This week we're writing about new. 

At the beginning of everything we wonder what it will be like, if we'll have the story just as we planned, if we'll be surprised along the way. We wonder how the new path that meanders into the future and into the transformation and into the beauty will go. We worry about it, too, don't we, worry that we'll miss the boat or miss the newness or be stuck in the same old pattern.

But the secret to beginnings is to close our eyes to the future, and open our hearts to the present. To firmly shut the gate on all those insecurities, those nagging questioning pushing persistent doubts and say, behold He makes all things new. And we open ourselves up again, and again and again until the whole of us is soaking in the sun and running through rainstorms and all the while reveling in what's new.

I imagine to myself that maybe I could begin this year, full of its questions and fenceposts fluttering with possibilities, I could shut my worry and revel in all the things that are beginning. I'm beginning to be a writer. I'm beginning to fall in love with history. I'm beginning to learn to pray. I'm beginning to wake up each morning with the promises of His love wafting through the air like honeysuckle in June. I'm beginning to grow into all the spaces in my heart that are waiting for me to love more fully and more deeply. I'm beginning to see Him. I'm beginning to see all of you, too, and all the wonder that you are.

All of that newness, and my eyes must drink it in. So I listen and look and wriggle in the newness of me.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dear Reader, You are Extraordinary.

I'm sitting on my bed last night, surrounded by piles of books and papers, clothes and high heels and a long list of things I still have to buy before I move back to campus next week. My computer croons Mat Kearney to me and I'm hiding from the massive amount of cleaning I need to do by reading through these letters that I wrote to my friends in high school.

I wrote letters as a way to whisper in people's ears when I couldn't actually be there. I wrote to surprise them. I wrote because words have always presented themselves to me, promised that they'll help me send my heart out into the world if only I spend the time with them. I wrote in the hope that I would speak over them the miraculous words - you are extraordinary - because how many of us get told that every day?

And I realized how much I missed saying that to people. I think somewhere between the disappointment of love (my sophomore year those letters got my heart into trouble) and the chaos of turning 16, then 17... I lost the pattern of watching what is extraordinary about people.

So I wanted to tell you, whose name I hope I know, whose words I hope I read (in whatever form they emerge), whose life has undoubtedly crossed into mine...

Dear Reader,

You are extraordinary. I don't know how to compile the words in a more elegant way, but that word, extraordinary, seems to fit. I wanted to tell you that I was thinking about you the other day, how you journeyed with me from all these different places - from my semester in Washington, DC, to my ten days in Italy, to the semester here in Wenham and this beautiful and difficult summer. I was thinking about how you have read my rambling words and taken time to write to me about them.

Sometimes I worry about reaching you. I worry that I'm not saying what I mean, that when I write these words down you can't hear me say them. So picture this:

We're sitting in Starbucks. It could be a different little coffeeshop around here - the Atomic is one of my favorites, Trevi's is cute, maybe we're at Zumi's in Ipswich or the Pleasant Street Tea Co. in Gloucester. But wherever we are, I have my hands cupped around a latte or iced tea lemonade. I'm wearing jeans, the new Toms shoes I'm obsessed with, and this microfleece jacket thing I got on sale at the Saucony outlet because I sort of thought it made me look sportier.

I keep putting my drink down because I always talk with my hands. I might almost knock over your drink once or twice. I lean in to hear you over the murmurs around us, and I then lean back with this mischevious grin on my face and ask you, "So. What's in your heart today?" I can't help it - I just think that's a better question than the one about what you do for a living, or what your favorite flavor is. I want to know the answers, and hold them up to the light streaming in the windows and share them with you - so you can see just how extraordinary you are.

So we're sitting in Starbucks, drinking our coffee and exclaiming over the questions and answers we have found, over Bon Iver's new music (Holocene is the song I insist you listen to, on repeat, for at least a few hours), over my story about running headlong into a glass revolving door and your story about the moment you had this summer with your family - where you realized just how crazy it is to belong to one another.

And then I lean in, and I tell you this, because whether you are wandering through England or Scotland or Wales, or wrangling two young boys in a house in Virginia, or typing back a facebook message to a friend while you're on the beach in the south of France, or patiently returning phone call after phone call at your job... you are extraordinary.

You are an extraordinary writer, because only you have the voice you have, and only you carry words the way you carry them. You are an extraordinary listener, because in our imaginary Starbucks afternoon, you've been listening to me and making space for me to ramble on and on, meandering through ideas and books and questions. You are an extraordinary searcher, and asker of questions and laughter filled, smile-so-wide-it-scrunches-up-your-eyes person, because you let things weigh what they weigh, not too heavily or too lightly. Because you help me see what's extraordinary about the world, even when I don't know how to love it or how to write a poem, how to make Orpheus and Eurydice make sense...

So thank you.

For being extraordinary.

For being in my life, and in my heart - and for letting me touch a small part of yours.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Much Love Weighs (a post for my friends, who are getting married)

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still-
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar. -
Robert Frost, "The Master Speed"

It's early still, 7am California time, and I type this with only the glow of the computer screen shedding light on the morning. Soon we will all wake up and begin, hair curling and applying bronze and gold eyeshadow, laughing while we tuck ourselves into our purple dresses and Hannah slips into the white gown hanging on the curtain rod in her parent's room. The house is still, and the refrigerator hums and clicks slightly, as if to remind us that in the midst of the surprising, the miraculous of today, is the good and heavy weight of the ordinary, too. 

I am about to watch my first close friend get married. In just a few hours they'll see each other, then she'll walk down the aisle in these sunken gardens, up the steps where we will be standing, to John, her eyes locked onto his and the weight of their love keeping her steady on her feet. 

Love weighs us down. When our hearts are emptied of love we are like birds with their hollow bones, perching on telephone wires, able to fly off at a moment's notice. Love anchors us to the earth. Love insists that we go moment by moment, that we stand still and hold hands. Love insists that we fear nothing, but embrace all, that we pour out more of ourselves than we think we can and don't ask for it back. 

This is the love I see in my friends John and Hannah. This is the love that binds two together like the seams of a book, that blossoms more each year. This weighty love, love that makes promises, love that gives again, and again, love that is the power of standing still against the hurricanes - this is the love I see in their hands and their eyes and their laughter. And this is the love that grows joy. 

Seek this love, wherever you are. Seek this if you are single, if you are married, if you are in the murky places between. Seek this love if you have children or don't, if you are asking God too many questions to count or if you sit silent in His presence without any words at all. Seek this love, and give your heart over to it, so that we might all be filled with all the gravity of love. 

And for Hannah, and John, who teach me that this love is astonishing, and beautiful, and true - I give you Robert Frost, "life is only life forevermore together wing to wing and oar to oar" - and all my love. 


Friday, August 12, 2011

You want to know what is beautiful (a five minute post)

This week Five Minute Friday (from the lovely Lisa-Jo at The Gypsy Mama) is about beauty - a topic I wish I wrote more about, a word that carries so much weight around with it... won't you join us, and let those beautiful words and selves out into the world?

The night is still and I'm reeling from the questions I've been asking all summer long, with sand between my toes and in my hair, with the waiting, always the waiting and the running forward and then doubling back around the same unanswered question - am I beautiful?

I ask it to the constellations scattered over the humming wild night. I ask it to the strangers who smile at me in the airport as I wait for my flight to help my beautiful friend get married this weekend. I wonder it silently in my eyes and in my heart, and I look in the mirror so curious about that girl who looks back at me.
(mandie sodoma, sindisiwe photography)

I remember my friend once told me that I was on a quest for beauty. "Hilary," her voice got serious as she leaned over the desk where I was working. "You want to know what is beautiful." I looked at her in surprise, because I had never thought of it that way before. But that was and is the question, the one I carry in my pocket and that creeps out in my smile when my eyes meet yours over coffee, because I find my answer in you, in the joy of meeting you, in the conversation that floats above us and the laughter that causes other people to stare at us. I can't help smiling because all of you, you are what is beautiful and you remind me and teach me and I store it up like treasure in my heart and it leaks out like sunshine through the porch windows. Beauty is flinging wide the doors of your heart, no matter the past hurt and the past confusion, no matter if the question lingers late in the afternoon or if you don't think you'll ever get an answer. And so my heart's wide open.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Remember the Fontaine de Vaucluse

It was the darkness that first surprised me, the shadows of shadows, a dark that could drown you if you snuck too close to the edge.

Then it was the blue - the fierce, unyielding blue of water that never quivered or moved. It was ice and fire together. I sucked in my breath as we jostled backpacks between our sticky selves and our camera shutters clicked and flashed, trying to capture a picture of stillness.

Then it was the wind. It came from a direction I couldn't find, brushing our faces clean, widening our eyes. We put our cameras down after a few moments, when we realized that you can't see unless you drink it in, lean your face over the icy deep water and feel gravity almost push you in.

Our teachers told us to take an hour, to explore, to be still, alone, to write and draw. I nestled my back between a tree and a rock, staring into the pit where earth meets water and reflects sky. I couldn't draw it, I knew that much. But I wanted to tell the story, to put it in words. This was the moment when I knew, as Rilke so wisely asked me years later - that I must write. Deep inside myself, that ferocious blue of the water and the pale white rocks and the blank canvas that was the world waiting for my words.

I went to the Fontaine de Vaucluse in the south of France and I became a writer.

You see with words - labeling the world as you walk through it, and everything must be named and renamed as your fingers trace the letters in your journal and in the condensation on the car window and across the keyboard. Words surround you, overwhelm you until you will never type fast enough to catch the stream, until you're swimming in them, until you can't stop thinking about what to write, and how to write, and when and where...

You suddenly awake to how alive everything must and shall be. You realize that words are storehouses for moments - so that when you say, ocean you remember the stiff wind before sunrise and the feeling of the cool wet rock against your back and you remember how salt air is sometimes the only medicine. When you type the word lovely you think England and your field, with its hedgerows and overgrown weeds and the sheep that graze aimlessly next to you. When you hear the word, incandescent you shiver remembering the glow of the red moon over the harbor late one night as you ventured home.

That day at the Fontaine de Vaucluse I became a writer, and lately I've been feeling so at odds with writing, not sure what to say or how, not sure why, not even sure if I should do it anymore. So when I thought about blogging today all I wanted to figure out is that moment, when I answered the question, must I write? and I said, yes.

I scribbled down a poem that day, my pen leaking its own blue onto my fingers. I sat there, 16 years old and in love with words, in love with the awful beauty of things, and I've never stopped.

A Letter to Paul at the Fontaine de Vaucluse

You told me beauty
was not found on earth,
that nothing I see will last.
I tell you it has taken me years
to arrive at this still fountain,
years before my eyes learned to feel
the touch of the rock at my back.
Here, trees reach
to protect the stones beneath,
branches bowed, green bleeding into the sky above.
Here, silence stretches across water,
cliffs hold their breath.
You told me to seek Heaven,
the embrace of sky, but I cry,
it is found.
For moments, I linger in light,
words forgotten, and pray.


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