A Seed of Hope

downloadThe e-mail flyer from the MAC (Merrymeeting Art Center) was ambiguous and intriguing:

Hmmmm…. What kind of exhibit was this? 

I read the flyer again. Then I checked the clock. 12:15.

“Hey, Lyddie,” I called, “want to go downtown and check out a show?”

“What is it?”

“I’m not really sure, ” I replied and showed her the e-mail flyer, “It’s opening today though. We’d have to leave right now, but I’d like to check it out.”

Lydia, ever up for an adventure, agreed, and about ten minutes later we were in the car, driving to our town’s local Arts Center.

After arriving, we parked, put on our masks and walked over to the entry. Outside the gallery was a small table with hand sanitizer and a stack of masks. A sign stated that only four people could be in the gallery at one time and masks must be worn. We still had no idea what the exhibit was.

As we approached, Mark, a town artist and MAC member, came to the gallery door. He greeted us and explained a little about the exhibit. It had been planned before Covid-19 and was based on the old-fashioned game, Telephone (the game where you whisper a word around a circle of people and the end word, when announced, rarely matches the initial word.) The twist, initially conceived of by a group of NY artists, was this:

“What if the game were played, not with spoken words, but with art?”

We were hooked.

What an amazing idea!” I exclaimed.

“I know!” he said, “I wanted to be in the show as soon as I heard about it!”

He guided us to a written explanation of the show and then stepped back to let us experience it for ourselves. According to the explanation, the process involved presenting the first artist with a stimulus, having him/her interpret it in the artistic medium of choice, and then sending that art to the next artist to spark another interpretation. Each artist had only 24 hours to respond. Talk about pressure!

In this case, in honor of Maine’s Bicentennial, the process began when the initial stimulus, a single chocolate cupcake with a candle, arrived at the home of the first artist, a local 10 year old girl. It arrived, unbelievably, on March 13th, as Covid-19 made its presence known. Undeterred, after a “mad scramble” of grocery shopping with her family, and amidst speculation and rumors about school closings, this young artist dove into a “creative flurry” and crafted her frosting-daubed collage:

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by Nori Edwards

The exhibit creation was underway!

In the next day or two, as our world shifted dramatically and quickly, the Arts Center and artists considered their options and ultimately decided to forge forward. They realized the process for this exhibit was actually well suited to a “distanced” setting. Now, instead of delivering the actual work to the next artist, images and files were sent of the inspiring pieces. No physical contact was necessary.

Commenting about the experience for her daughter, the mother of the first artist wrote:
“Doing the work and sharing it with other people felt important in that uncertain moment in time.”

So, off they went, inspired by others, creating within their own spaces, sending the message on down the line, until finally, all the pieces were brought together in this community space.

In the gallery a red string leads from piece to piece, evoking old string-and-can telephone memories. As suggested, we followed the string to guide us through the gallery. What began with a chocolate cupcake evolved into various interpretations before our eyes.

As we walked through the exhibit, I stood before the pieces, admiring the art, reading the artists’ words, and was deeply moved. More than once tears pricked. The  parallel between the creation of this exhibit and our recent Covid experiences is so strong. It was inspiring to see the creative effort of this group and to know that each piece was crafted in isolation while such huge uncertainties loomed over us all. This exhibit made visible the idea of working individually toward a collective goal. It was such a positive response to frightening times–a pivot to creativity in the midst of darkness.

Midway through, we stopped before a boombox and read the description, suddenly realizing that the music playing in the gallery was one of the artistic interpretations. The artist this time was the elementary school’s principal. He had composed a piece of music after receiving his prompt, a photograph of an elaborately conceived chocolate cake.

Mark, came back to join us.

“Wow, how cool to have a musical interpretation,” I enthused. “It really changes things.”

Mark, who had received the original musical piece as his spark, emphatically agreed.
“I know!” he said, “I looked at the e-mail attachment and was like…wait…this is an mpeg file, not a jpeg!”

He rose to the challenge and created a sculptural fiber arts piece in response. It was free form, but somewhat nest-like. And, one after another, the artists continued to respond, interpreting along the way. Ultimately, the show ended with a fabric piece of two birds nesting:

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by Caitlin Johnson

I turned to Mark. “Wow! This is such a wonderful show. It resonates so much now, doesn’t it?”

He nodded, pleased and smiling, and I turned again to the last artwork, the two birds nesting. I was struck by how uncannily appropriate that piece was. We’ve all spent so much time at home lately, tending to our nests and trying to interpret the messages coming down the line.

It was a small show, but it was a powerful show. It was a testament to art, to individual effort, and to collaboration. In the midst of a pandemic, the Arts Center persevered, the artists created, and a show was born. And as I walked through the exhibit, a small kernel of hope took root.

Garden Lesson

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I would have said it was impossible.

The snail caught my eye while I was playing around with my camera in the front garden. It was on the edge of a bishop’s weed blossom, perched in what seemed a slightly precarious position.

Be careful, little one!

I leaned in for a closer look.

DSC_0426 (1).jpgI’m not fond of the destruction snails can wreak in a garden, but I still think they’re kind of cute. As I watched this one, it stretched it’s head out toward a nearby blossom.

“Taking some time to smell the roses,” I thought, smiling.

DSC_0428Then, as I watched, it stretched even further across the empty space toward the blossom.

Uh, oh! That looks risky! What’s it doing?

I squatted down and prepared to watch the drama unfold.

DSC_0430It was hard to see exactly what was happening, but within a short time, the snail had somehow grasped onto some of the adjacent blossom,

What’s it doing? Is it eating? Is it using its mouth or its foot?

DSC_0431.jpgAs I watched, it became clear that eating was not its primary intention at this time.

No way! It’s not going to try that, is it?

But the snail, far more intrepid than I, was clearly charting its trajectory forward, pulling itself closer to its intended destination. I watched, astonished.

DSC_0432Bit by bit, it moved forward, committed to its path. I held my breath, wondering at the outcome, marveling at the snail’s unhesitating flowing movement forward. Slowly, but surely, the two blossoms came closer together as the snail manipulated them, its body bridging the gap between them.

DSC_0433In a surprisingly short amount of time, the snail was clearly entrenched on the second blossom.

It’s actually going to make it.

DSC_0441 (1).jpgAs the snail moved forward, the previous perch released and swung back to its original position. The snail continued onward. I sat back on my heels, dumbfounded. I considered how far the snail must have already come and how far it must be going. I marveled at its steady path forward across daunting, seemingly impossible, barriers.

DSC_0442Just look at the distance between those two blossoms! Look at the length of the snail’s body! Incredible, right?

Before this moment when I stopped to watch its journey, I would have said it was impossible.

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Letting In Some Light

slice-of-life_individualWendell Berry’s poem “In the Peace of Wild Things” is one of my favorites because I can so readily relate to turning to Nature as a source of solace. During recent weeks, so many people have done the same, desperate for some relief from the dizzying, dismaying reality of our world these days.

These days my own forays into nature have taken on an almost frantic air. I feel slightly desperate to find some space to breathe, to escape. I am perpetually thankful that I live in a place where I have so many options to do so; yet, in view of our current national woes, these moments feel tinged with guilt or almost inappropriate somehow. As a friend recently questioned seriously on a Twitter post,  “How dare I enjoy my garden?”

Still, I need the time within nature to pull my thoughts out of torturous circles, to find a short respite from the ongoing concerns of our embattled country, to find some peace. So, I go out and wander and take pictures when I can, and when I can’t not.

I post my photos frequently, seeking to share the beauty and solace I find. With them, I send an implicit message: “Look at the beauty in our world. Lose yourself in it for just a moment. Breathe.” Still, in the midst of such turmoil and tragedy, I worry that I’m being tone deaf  when I post photos of lily pads, dandelions, and osprey.

Then this past Saturday, I shared these photos:


Beneath them, two friends commented:Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 6.00.25 AM

So, while I puzzle over how to do my part, how to stand up for what I believe while balancing my need to be informed and my need to periodically retreat, I’m still sharing. I’m hoping to find peace amongst the wild things and to offer that momentary respite to others. The presence of beauty doesn’t deny the darkness surrounding us, instead perhaps it lets a bit of light in so that we can replenish ourselves, gather up our strength, and persevere. At least, I hope so.

SOL: Blue Jay Gratitude

slice-of-life_individualI owe such a debt to the birds–maybe even my sanity these days (that’s assuming I still have it). However I’m feeling, watching the birds takes me out of myself and lifts my mood. It’s a combination of meditation and treasure hunt.

At this time of year, newcomers abound at the feeders and through the yard and there’s so much to see. Orioles linger at orange halves, red breasted grosbeaks sing in a nearby apple tree. You might see a finch flapping his wings wildly to woo his lady love, or a hummingbird arcing through the sky in a pendulum flight display. Some days I’m rewarded with a glimpse of a migrating warbler hopping through trees or shrubs. Recently, I delighted in seeing a chestnut sided warbler and a black and white warbler within minutes.  All this in my own yard.

I sometimes feel guilty about the blue jays, though. They are here year-round, so I tend to overlook them as loud and pesky regulars. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and it truly is so with blue jays. If I’d never seen one before and one flew by my window, I’d be rapt–delirious with joy at the beauty of the brilliant blue, the raised crest, and the bold black and white markings. Since they’re here daily though, I tend to disregard them.

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Yesterday, however, I looked up from my computer at the insistent call of a blue jay. I nearly turned away again–not much to see there. Just a jay. It’s so easy to overlook or disparage this common bird with its gluttonous, swaggering behavior. It swoops in like it owns the place. Big, bold and brassy! But yesterday, my eyes lingered.

Have you ever watched a blue jay squawk? Really watched? I’d never noticed before, but it invests its entire body, lifting and stretching with each call. This jay sat on the platform feeder squawking away, bobbing up and down. Sun filtered along its back, highlighting the softer blue, then illuminating the lower brilliant blue, black and white feathers like stained glass. The jay stopped squawking only to eat the choicest seeds. It cocked its head, contemplated its choice and then tucked each one away. I wondered at its capacity–how many could it fit!?– reminded that jays had a role in reforesting the land with oak trees after the glaciers retreated. Amazing! Finally, the jay retreated to the tree tops where it commenced squawking again, its momentum setting the thin branches swaying. Other jays joined it in a raucous chorus that literally set the treetops into motion.  

I often think of how much I miss by simply not paying attention. There are so many things to amaze and delight within the commonplace. Yesterday I was grateful to the blue jay for reminding me.

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blue jay enjoying peanuts at a different feeder

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Non-standard Units of Measure

slice-of-life_individualI’m measurement challenged. I simply can’t envision distances or lengths well. You say 10 yards, I say, “What?” Sure, I can do the calculations and translate to feet–10×3=30 feet– but that still doesn’t mean anything to me. So then I always translate to Kurts, my non-standard measurement unit of choice.

Let me explain. Kurt, my husband, is about 6 feet tall. After 37 years by his side, I have an innate understanding of what 6 feet looks like. So, I translate all measurements into mental images of Kurt lying down or standing one atop another. You can laugh, but it works! You say 10 yards…well, that converts to 5 Kurts. Oh, now I can envision it. 20 feet? About 3 1/2 Kurts. I got it!

At any rate, call me slow on the uptake, but I just realized that the most touted Covid 19 social distancing length is 6 feet, or one Kurt. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that. With all my practice, I’m certainly well positioned to determine a safe 6-foot distance now, but it’s a bit unsettling to have it linked to Kurts, my own personal measurement system, not to mention my for-better-or-for-worse life partner.

Just a random thought on this random morning…

Balancing the View

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Looking at downloaded pictures the other day, I realized that I hadn’t taken any scenic views recently or even pictures that gave much context by including surroundings. In fact, during the past few weeks, I’ve been using my zoom lens almost exclusively.  It struck me suddenly that this reflects my experience of the world these days.

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I mean, honestly, who wants to spend a lot of time checking out the bigger picture right now? It’s pretty daunting. So, I’ve been choosing to deliberately narrow my focus rather than look at the big picture. My survival strategy, in large part, has been to focus exclusively on what’s immediately in front of me. Getting through the days, moment by moment.

By necessity, we’ve all done this a bit. Most of us are at home most of the time, and seldom head out. At our house, it was noon today before we even noticed that a tree had fallen and blocked our driveway during last night’s winds. There was no sense of urgency about taking care of it. I mean, who’s going anywhere?

Apparently this limited lens has transferred to my photography as well. So now, even when taking pictures, I’m avoiding looking at the bigger picture.

As I pondered this, it struck me that when you look only at what’s right in front of you, you might lose your perspective. You might also lose track of the journey, or the path you’re taking and its ultimate destination. That struck me as problematic.

So, when we went for a walk on Saturday afternoon. I purposefully changed lenses, literally and figuratively. I challenged myself to look at the big picture. Not to ignore the fascinating and distracting small details, but to lift my eyes more often to the bigger view. To keep an eye on the trail ahead and pay attention to the scenery around me.

Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all about balance. We don’t know what the future will bring, but living life exclusively on zoom seems a bit limited and maybe not too healthy. It is helpful to have some idea of the approaching landscape, after all. So, I’ll begin with my photography and see if it transfers over to my daily life. Then, if I get really brave, maybe I’ll start listening to the news again.

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SOLC Day 31: Thank You

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March 2020 SOLC–Day 31
A huge thank you to Two Writing Teachers for all that they do to create an amazing community of writers and a safe, welcoming space to write, learn, share and grow.
http://www.twowritingteachers.org

I saw it first on Facebook.

Ohio Man Uses His Company’s Bucket Truck to Visit Mom Quarantined on 3rd Floor of Nursing Home

items.[0].image.altYou can read the article here, but the title really says it all. I didn’t read the article closely, but was touched by the lengths this man went to to connect with his mother during this time. I remember thinking how heart warming it was, and how it was a great example of how we’ve all been pushed to think creatively, to connect in new ways.

Then I got an e-mail from my cousin with the subject heading, “Julie and Charley– fabulous article in news.” It contained an article from a different newspaper with the same picture. It turns out that it was my cousin, Charley, who had gone to such lengths to visit his quarantined mom, my cousin, Julie.

This story doesn’t stand alone. Our days are filled with compelling stories right now. Even if some of them are ones we don’t want to dwell on, many are inspirational. I’ve been touched over and over again by the lengths so many individuals, groups, schools, and companies have gone to during this pandemic. People are thinking outside the box, pushing themselves to do more, to think more creatively, and above all, to connect with each other.

All of this reminded me of the slice challenge–this challenge that always pushes me to do more than I think I can, to reach deeply and write. To find a new idea. To capture the heart of a small moment. To show up and “do the job.”

Obviously, I’m not saying the SOLC  is as difficult as facing a pandemic, but there are some parallels. It’s all about taking it day by day, making it through and doing so in the best fashion we can manage. It’s also about building a supportive community, leaning on each other, celebrating with each other, and commiserating as well.

We’re facing unprecedented challenges (Ugh…I’m sick of that phrase!) and it’s unsettling not to have a concrete time line or even a clear picture of where this is leading. But overall, I’m learning, as I do every year through the challenge, that we are capable of more than we think we are. It might not be pretty, and it might be dotted with moments of despair, but there are also moments that lift your heart and shine a light on what is the best in all of us. Those are the moments to focus on. Like Fred Rogers’ mother told him, “Look for the helpers.”  And if those words aren’t enough, consider the ever-wise Winnie the Pooh’s.

Winnie the Pooh quote: "You are braver than you believe, stronger ...

Thank you to all Slicers for a month filled with sharing, grieving, celebrating, supporting, encouraging, and more. This year the challenge, more clearly than ever, transcended its boundaries. We may not have a bucket truck at hand, but going forward, we do have Tuesdays and this community. Let’s continue to connect.

Keep writing, my friends. Be well.

SOLC 2020: Day 30: Draft Diving—Mowing the Lawn

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March 2020 SOLC–Day 30
A huge thank you to Two Writing Teachers for all that they do to create an amazing community of writers and a safe, welcoming space to write, learn, share and grow.
http://www.twowritingteachers.org

The well is running dry for daily slices as the month draws to a close and remote learning takes on a life of its own. Most years, at some point during the challenge, I resort to draft diving. I have quite a pile of saved drafts on my blog (127!), ranging from a line or two or a photo to a nearly complete post. Today, I dove in,  revisiting posts from long ago when life seemed so much simpler. (Oh! If only I’d appreciated it then!) Eventually, I pulled up a piece I’d started last summer about mowing the lawn, and finished it off to share it today.

Last summer, I read Amanda Pott’s slice, “Driving Greens“. She talked about following Rob Walker’s strategy of observation–essentially observing 10 things about the world without using metaphors. She then demonstrated how to beautifully do that on her road trip. I thought I’d try it while mowing the lawn. It didn’t work as well.

  1. I hold my breath when I yank the cord to start the lawnmower. When it starts on the first pull, I let out my breath.
  2. Lawn mowers are loud. I wonder how well electric lawn mowers work. I should look into that.
  3. Freshly mown grass smells amazing. But, wait a minute! I just finished reading Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl and she talks about the signals that trees send each other when they’re stressed. VCOs or VOCs. Is all that wonderful smell really grass screaming?
  4.  The sun is bright and it’s hot out here. It’s very hard to think without metaphors. For example, I keep thinking, When I finish mowing, I’ll be a human salt lick.
  5. Mowing words into the lawn takes a lot of extra time and isn’t nearly as much fun as I’d hoped.
  6.  Nature has its way. It’s constantly edging in. The limits of the lawn move closer to the house unless I relentlessly press those boundaries out every time I mow. The vegetation is poised to take over.
  7. Blackberry bushes are especially invasive.
  8. While I don’t think I’m particularly bloodthirsty, killing horseflies is immensely satisfying. Whack! YES!
  9. I’m back to thinking about how loud the lawn mower is. If it’s that loud to me, is it that loud to insects? Am I deafening moths and crickets?
  10. Even when you try hard to feel positive about mowing the lawn, it’s still a lot of hot, sticky work. In other words, you still have to mow the lawn.

SOLC Day 29: Treading Water

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March 2020 SOLC–Day 29
A huge thank you to Two Writing Teachers for all that they do to create an amazing community of writers and a safe, welcoming space to write, learn, share and grow.
http://www.twowritingteachers.org

I have a really poor memory. It’s so bad that when I can’t remember a person or event, my sister asks me, half kidding, “Are you sure you didn’t do drugs?” There are certain rare moments though, that shine intact through the blur of past events. It’s as if they’ve been coated in varnish and are impervious to the ravages of time.

I’ve been thinking about one of those moments a lot lately. I don’t know how old I was, but I distinctly remember taking a five minute “treading water” test in a pool. This was one of the prerequisites for heading into the hallowed deep end, something I longed to do.

On the day of the test, the lifeguard squatted by the side of the pool with the timer and I jumped in, then moved back to the wall.

“Ready?” she asked.

I nodded and turned around, poised to move away.

“Set!”

I pushed off the wall and into the water.

“Go!”

Immediately, I began to tread. I started out confidently, briskly treading away. I was a decent swimmer and very comfortable in the water. I wasn’t too worried about the test.

At first.

After a while, maybe a minute or two, it dawned on me that five minutes might be a lot longer than it initially sounded like.

I waited as long as I could, longer than I wanted to, longer than I thought I could, and then, I gasped out, “How much longer?”

Surely it must have been at least four minutes already.

“Less than three minutes left,” she answered.

Three? Almost three minutes left? It’s only been a little more than two minutes?!!! 

I kept going, automatically moving my arms and legs, but along with my energy,  my confidence was ebbing.

I might not be able to do this.

Time slowed down to a molasses trickle. My arms and legs moved slower and slower.

“You’re doing great, Molly! Keep going!”

When you tread water, you’re constantly moving, yet staying in one place. My focus narrowed to that small circle of water around me. My arms. My legs. My breath. My arms. My legs. My breath.

I don’t remember the moment I decided I couldn’t do it any longer. I’m not sure it was even a conscious decision. I just found myself heading to the edge of the pool.

“There’s only a minute and a half left,” the lifeguard called.

I kept moving forward, desperate to stop. To hold onto something solid.  To have the test over, even if I had failed.

Finally, I came within reach, and she stretched out one hand. I reached my hand toward hers, and as soon as our hands met, she pushed me back into the water.

What!?!

“You can do it, Molly!” she called. “You’re almost done.”

I was shocked. Utterly shocked! I kept treading, because what else could I do? She wouldn’t let me quit!

Would she let me drown?

My arms and legs were heavier and heavier in the water, and I was just barely keeping my head above the surface. I didn’t have the energy to argue. But I was done. Finished. I truly felt I had nothing left to give. I remember feeling scared, feeling I couldn’t possibly go on.

Yet ultimately, I did.

“Time!” she finally called. “You did it!”

I ducked under the water, and wearily kicked to the side. I came up, hair streaming and clung to the gritty pool edge with wrinkled fingers, exhausted. I remember having such mixed feelings. I’d passed the test, but I also felt betrayed. She’d pushed me away! I wonder if the shock of that is what etched this moment in my memory. Still, I’d passed the test. I’d made it for the full five minutes even though I didn’t think I could. I didn’t feel triumphant though. Mostly I felt dazed.

I think of that moment now as I deal with the fallout from recent events. I already felt overwhelmed with teaching before all of this happened–so often struggling to keep my head above water. Now I’ve really been thrown in the deep end. I’m trying to figure out how to do my job in an entirely different way while adjusting to a whole new way of life, and a whole new raft of worries.  I’m so thankful that I still have a job and that I can connect with my students and their families. Yet, I feel uncertain, vulnerable and exposed (Video lessons? Ack!), and at times, overwhelmingly inadequate.

I keep telling myself this is an opportunity to grow. To learn more about myself. To recognize that I can do more than I thought was possible. I’ve learned a lot already and I know I’ll learn more, but there are moments when I want to give up. When it all just seems like too, too much. When every atom of my being screams for me to head to the side of the pool.

Instead, I have to keep treading water madly as the edge of the pool moves farther away. No one’s pushing me back in (Thank God!), and it isn’t a physical endurance test (again, Thank God!), but I’m having to push myself further than I thought I could and in so many different ways. It feels like I’m being tested on teaching myself new strokes while simultaneously trying to keep my head above water with the ultimate goal of moving myself and my students forward through the now turbulent waters to reach some far-off yet-to-be-defined edge.

I wish I felt as confident in my abilities as that long-ago lifeguard did.

We’ve only been doing this for 8 days?

How much longer? 

 

SOLC Day 28: Waves

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March 2020 SOLC–Day 28
A huge thank you to Two Writing Teachers for all that they do to create an amazing community of writers and a safe, welcoming space to write, learn, share and grow.
http://www.twowritingteachers.org

Laura Shovan is sponsoring a month-long Water Poem Project. Each day a different poet offers up a water-related prompt. Today’s prompt came from poet, Heather Meloche, who asked writers to create a concrete or shape poem about waves. This prompt seemed especially appropriate since nearby beaches closed yesterday morning.

My husband and I both love walking on the beach. The closest beaches are about 45 minutes away, but we go several times a month during the winter and more often when my schedule opens up in the summer. We usually go early in the day or late in the afternoon. We’re not there to lie in the sun or even to swim (We do live in Maine after all! Brrr!). Instead we walk together, gather shells, watch the sandpipers play tag with the surf, and listen to the call of the seagulls. We scan the water for seals or unusual ducks. We admire newly deposited driftwood and intricate water-etched patterns in the sand. Often we stop and simply stand at the water’s edge, breathe the salt air and watch the waves.

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