Posts Tagged With: stories

Drawn to Oxbridge

IMG_1695So, what are the stories that are drawing me to England this year?

The primary story for this journey to the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute in Oxbridge comes through his writings, especially Surprised by Joy. I desire to connect more deeply to that truth of God to which moments of joy point.

As I dig into the story of C. S. Lewis I’m drawn to this man, this academic who was passionate about the study of literature and philosophy and his path to faith. Through these loves, the means through which he saw and understood the world, he came to faith. Reading from Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf – “I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead” plunges him into a moment of joy that sends him on the path of reading literature and marveling in myths. His position at Oxford put him in the path of J. R. R. Tolkien and through a mutual interest in Anglo-Saxon language and literature a friendship is born. Through this friendship and literature God draws Lewis to seek and find him. Eventually, his understanding of myth led him to see the ultimate, true myth – Jesus dying on the cross and rising again.

Moreover, Lewis’ faith journey did not end here. Once he turned this corner, Lewis committed himself fully to knowing Christ and living out this belief. He used his gifts in writing and logic to explain Christianity to a new audience. He broke from the mold of an Oxford academic and wrote apologetics and children’s novels, along with significant pieces of work within his discipline. He shared the truth he was learning through scripture through the means he knew best. In addition he practically reached out to the people around him – whether this was his family, his students, or children evacuees during WWII. This is the story of a man “living in step with the truth of the Gospel” (Galatians 2:14).

Rippling out from the story of this mere man, many other stories have followed. Subsequent readers of Lewis’ writings have found faith at Oxford and around the world. They have seen a life lived. A broken life though it may have been, God used it. The fullness of this story draws people to this place to explore what following in the steps of such a life may mean for them. Or, they see Lewis’ rational grappling with faith and start along a similar path to ground their faith. Virginia Owens shares her experience as a pilgrim following in the steps of C. S. Lewis. In Oxford, as she went along Addison’s Walk where Lewis had had a life-changing conversation with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, she suddenly experienced a sense of “veneration” travel throughout the group she was with. Following this journey, she felt more “anchored” to Lewis and his writing through the moments she experienced.

It’s from these and many others stories connected with C. S. Lewis, Oxford, and Cambridge that I’m drawn to return. But I’m also drawn to gather with a IMG_1587group, the other participants and presenters, who also desire to live a well-lived life, with the truth of the gospel at the center. People who are seeking to live a full faith where God has placed them. Through a marvelous tapestry of talks, writing, music, dance, dining, community, thinking, and so much more this conference will help all of us be drawn deeper into God’s story.

So I’m stepping into the story of a writer engaging in pilgrimage, being transformed through the Holy Spirit in the midst of the stories I have already and will encounter. However, this isn’t just about me. I wanting to explore ways to connect people with the stories that deeply speak to them and create spaces to do this – in campus ministry, at church, with friends, and in a wider community. I don’t know what I will ultimately encounter this summer. But thinking of these stories is helping me to prepare and open up to possibilities.

Categories: Pilgrimage Sharings | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Being Careful with Words

Creation started with words – Let there be light (Genesis 1:3) – and by the God who has been called the Word (John 1:1). So why have we as a culture become so lax with them? We use them all the time as a necessary and mundane tool to get through the day to order coffee, share news, or present an idea.  But they are also so much more.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre provides beautiful reflections on words in her work, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  In this book of twelve reflections she encourages readers to take time to honor words and more clearly examine how we use them.  Through these reflections she encourages us to play, pray, converse, practice poetry, read well, share stories, and more.  Ultimately hers is a vision of stewardship of words.

I’m familiar with stewarding money and time, but words?  Why not?  They are a part of our lives that word shape us for good or ill.  I’ve never liked the kid’s rhyme sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.  In my experience, words can hurt immensely no matter what some well-meaning teacher may say about ignoring them.  Yes, we can decide how to respond to the words around us.  However, I’m not sure if we have complete control over words’ ultimate affects as they come at us from all directions.

With this in mind, I welcomed this book as a way to slow down and consider how I use words and the delight that they can be.  Here are just a few ideas that struck my imagination:

  • That the role of the writer may at times be analogous to that of priest as we take seriously the authority writing can imply 65
  • That guides are needed to open up the spaces in story where author and reader meet 78
  • That good conversation is life-giving as it inspires and invigorates 90
  • That play comes from loving life and play with words comes from loving language 191
  • That our work in prayer is to make our words an offering and let God make them worthy 222
  • That we need times of silence where we lay down our pens and swords and take our rest 234

As I finish this post I again find myself fighting to find words to say and frustrated that they are not readily available.  But I’m also eager to see what new conversations may come from these words.  Furthermore, I’m reminded that they are a precious resource to share with others – even in quick e-mails.  Who knows what new creations will come from the words I hear and share in the coming days and weeks?

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Encountering a Childhood Story Again – Little Women

On the other side of the kitchen door a dining room table was set for supper and a piano stood in the corner ready for someone to play.  Later in the evening four sisters would wait in the parlor for people to attend their weekly open house.  If the oblong pillow on the black sofa was vertical, then the second oldest sister would be in a mood to talk.  Otherwise, it was better not to approach her.  Listening to the guide as I stood in the parlor at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, it was easy to imagine the lives of the four Alcott daughters that had inspired Louisa May Alcott to write Little Women.  I was reliving scenes I had read as an eight-year old child who desperately wanted to follow in Jo March’s footsteps – getting up plays, going to the big city, and writing.

Over thirty years ago I first read the novel, and over twenty years ago I first entered Orchard House.  Since then I’ve been exploring how stories, novels, places, and journeys come together.  It is great fun to look back at favorite stories – and to follow in their paths when possible.  Each time I’ve re-opened Little Women or re-entered Orchard House I have similar feelings of wanting to re-engage with my dreams – whether of writing, teaching, or just playing better.  I leave the house or close the book, ready to begin.

These journeys have played a role in choices related to schools, graduate study, research, and even a renewed practice of writing.  This blog can even be linked to it.  Many other women tell stories of their connection with this story.  It’s one of those books that people read expecting a merely a story about young girls.  Something you can easily return to the shelf when finished.  However, this book refuses to stay on the shelf.

Quotes like the following from Little Women keep me coming back.

“Why don’t you write?  That always used to make you happy, said her mother once, when the desponding fit overshadowed Jo.

I’ve no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things.

We do.  Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world.  Try, dear, I’m sure it would do you good, and please us very much.”

These and similar quotes provide for me a renewed imagination of what life can be.  Writing does make me happy when other things seem to be crashing in on life – but maybe for others it’s painting or building or teaching.  Whatever it is, being able to do it within a community – whether of family or a writing group – is a true gift and an opportunity for transformation.

Now I have an opportunity to share some of my ideas about the novel, the place, and pilgrimage with another audience – a small group who will hear me read a paper at a literature conference.  I wonder how this ‘little’ paper will be received in the midst of what I perceive as cutting edge literary work.  But does it even matter?  More importantly I would like my writing to be a conduit for people to find this or other stories and places that draw them to live more fully.

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Stories of Haiti – Preparing for a Journey

(It’s now been a year since I made a trek to Haiti on a mission trip with a great.  The next few posts will reflect on this time.)

As I prepared to travel to Haiti on a mission trip, I realized that I really didn’t know much about this land.  Most of my knowledge came from reports following the 2010 earthquake.  So, I started to immerse myself in other stories of this foreign land.  In the midst of the physical preparations of shopping, getting vaccines, and organizing projects, I also read and questioned.

Libete: A Haiti Anthology, provided a view of a land that has been constantly invaded by outside forces – starting with Columbus; used by conquerers for resources – including France, Spain, and the U.S.; desirous of freedom and proud of its revolution – while continuing the enslaving practices of the colonizers.  Since the revolution of the slaves, a series of bad and even despicable leaders has kept the population far from prosperity. Centuries of struggle, oppression, and at times terror have shaped a populace that appears reconciled to living this way.  These readings contained shards of broken stories to be careful of when walking through the land.

Memoirs added to these stories.  Whether written by travelers, anthropologists, or novelists there remained an underlying current of anxiety mixed with the desire to move forward.  Nothing was easy or transparent in this land.  The rule of law could not be expected.  Transportation was difficult.  Basic needs weren’t met or even known.  There was always someone to fear.  Trust of those in authority was non-existent.   Yet, the country’s artists and writers were depicted as holding a key to breaking out of the country’s past and present.  They could see the land differently and move beyond the stasis that has been the modus operandi of this country for so long.

In novels I continued to see the fear that has been a central element of Haitian life: hiding and running from the authorities, crashing into blockades, being spied on.  Many of the novels were written in fear of the ruling parties.  Some were written about the past, but referring to the present. They are responding to questions.  How could this island, once the pearl of the French colonies, now be in such desperate straits?  Were they waiting for someone to save them or content with their lot?  Those from outside Haiti see a need to save it;  those within, to accept and even re-create.

One thing I noticed from these readings was the presence of creation even in the face of fear.  Hiddenness is a part of this creation.  Books were written and published outside of the country.  Masks which hide a person’s face are an important art form in Jacmel.  Even the spiritual life is hidden – at least that of voudou.  Churches are visible across the country, but the popular religion, voudou, takes place in secret. It’s not something with which an outsider can connect.

Yet, even as Haitians live within the boundaries of their country, they find ways to create dangerously – as Edgwidge Danticat writes.  These stories helped me better understand the land to which I would be traveling – not primarily as a place in need of help from outside, but a place with a rich history that would teach.  It was also a place where the team could look for opportunities to create together.

Some Haitian readings:

Libete: A Haiti Anthology.  Ed. Charles Arthur and Michael Dash.  1999.

The Kingdom of This World.  Alejo Carpentier.  1957.

Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych.  Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  Trans.  Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokur.  2010.

The Comedians.  Graham Greene.  1966.

Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti.  Ian Thomson.  1992.

After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti.  Edwidge Danticat.  2002.

Mountains Beyond Mountains.  Tracy Kidder.  2003.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.  Edwidge Danticat.  2010.

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Searching for Atonement in Re-written Stories

I recently finished listening to Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement as I drove to and from several long distance meetings.  Over the miles I was drawn into what I thought was merely a novel about a budding writer, Briony Tallis, who is learning to see life as a story through her writing of plays and novels.  With this perspective, she wants to more actively construct the storyline of her life.  [Spoiler Alert.  The rest of this post contains descriptions that reveal the novel’s ending.]

In the span of one day she attempts to involve her cousins in a new play, without much success and happens upon a moment of sexual tension between her older sister, Cecelia, and a childhood friend, Robbie Turner. Her way of understanding these and other actions of the day evolve into a narrative in which she is the protagonist who steps in to right situations.  This seems to be a harmless method of growing up until one of the constructions becomes a crime – claiming that she saw Robbie leave the scene of her cousin’s assault.

Continually I’m fascinated with the idea of story and how we interact with the narratives surrounding us.  How much agency do any of us really have to change the stories before us?  Whatever the real answer, the possibility of change gives me hope.  I don’t feel weighted down with the oughts in life when the possibility of tweaking my story is before me.  I can choose to reorient my life – take more time to write, create a strategy for ministry, plan vacations, and reach out to friends.  This is all part of writing a living story.    We can even seek to right wrongs by seeking forgiveness for the ‘crimes’ we enact, as Briony attempts.

In the novel, all seems to progress toward a redemptive ending as the story moves forward.  Briony eventually seeks to atone for the actions that led to Robbie ending up in prison and being injured while fighting in France at the beginning of World World II. The writing of a novel explaining her part in the original crime is part of this attempt to make amends.  In hearing the retelling of this story, I knew I was in the midst of a powerful time of atonement.  While training to serve as a nurse, Briony takes a day off to visit her estranged sister and finally take responsibility for what she did.  Unexpectedly, Robbie is with Cecelia, just having returned from France.  Briony can now ask for forgiveness from both.  She leaves the pair, if not with unconditional forgiveness, at least with a list of actions that will move towards making amends.  It seems she has successfully rewritten her story.

At this point in my listening I was thinking of stories I needed to attempt to rewrite.  Perhaps reconnecting with lost friends or reaching out to family members.  Whatever the situation, it could be possible to make corrections.

However, as the novel moves to the present day something doesn’t feel right.  Briony is at a birthday celebration.  But the lovers, where are they?  It turns out the the novel she had written, though supposedly based on finally telling the truth, is more about the truth she would have liked to have shared.  Yes, she does fully concede her role in the crime.  However, the lovers were never reunited, both were killed in the war – one the result of a battle wound and the other of a bombing.  The actual story could not be rewritten,  atonement never truly made.  A deep chasm was and would always be present.

I was on my way home from work when the story reached this point and even when I was in the driveway I could not turn off the car.  What?  That story of reunion was made up?  It wouldn’t be possible to right the wrong?  Although this story of many layers was fiction, it rang truer than I would have liked.  I started thinking about the story lines on which I am working.  Are there any I need to rewrite before it’s too late?  What chasms in my own stories will never be closed?  My optimism for loose ends finally being worked out one day was appropriately crushed.  It was clear that I even as I work to re-write stories, atonement will often have to come from outside of my efforts.

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Festival Days

My soul is filled again with a renewed sense of the power of words and story – as well as their ability to nourish our souls.  I just returned from the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.  Earlier last week I was working to compress five days of work into three.  Hour after hour I was focused on planning activities, contacting people, and preparing for travel.  Then I spent six hours driving to Grand Rapids, furiously intent on reaching this conference.  As I headed to the first session my mind was still in this action mode.  With notebook and pen in hand, I was ready to sit down and gather practical suggestions for being a better writer.

But then something happened.  Words washed over me.  These words weren’t merely providing a list of additional tasks for me to do when I got home.  They were artistic expressions that drew me in and reoriented my thinking.  I relished what the individuals were saying and how they were saying it, allowing words to soak into my being.  I enjoyed having the time to listen to the words of inspiration and challenge.  This was not a time to merely gather facts or even to worship at the feet of the writers who spoke, but to come side by side in the act of creation.  The entire festival was infused with love for the words, the stories, the world – and God.

Within this world I started to gather expressions and bits of art in my notebook and soul.  Below are just a spattering of words from some of the authors I encountered.

  • Create community by observing the Sabbath. (Judith Shulevitz)
  • How do we bind ourselves to our ancestors without being bound? (Jonathan Safran Foer)
  • Live your one creative life fully, making it a gift back to God. (Ann Voskamp)
  • Stories are food, we starve without stories.  The more good stories we tell the more the world advances. (Brian Doyle)
  • People will be gracious to religious expression that is gracious to them. (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Stories change our minds, and changed minds change the world.  Become the church we dream of and stop critiquing the church we don’t like.  Engage a broken world with the creativity of our lives.  (Shane Claiborne)
  • Writing is not a tool to promote your ideas, but to allow them to flower.
  • Writing life and spiritual life require regular times of solitude and silence. (Paula Huston)
  • Art is an event first, then something to be analyzed. (Walter Wangerin, Jr.)

Leaving this festival, I wasn’t driven to add new practices to my life. Like most people, I definitely don’t need one more thing to do each day.  Instead I’m encouraged to start looking out into the world with a new lens.  One that isn’t so narrowly focused on the tasks on my many lists, but on the world in which these tasks take place and the God weaving it all together into a larger tapestry.  From this new stance I again am drawn to share the stories around me and encourage others to do the same.

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New Stories Emerge from a Store’s Closing

Borders, the bookstore, closed.  It’s been nearly a year, but I still remember the punch to my stomach I felt when I first heard the news.  What will we do with all these stores closing?  Is this indeed the beginning of the end of the corner bookstore?  I had these end times thoughts in mind, but also the loss of convenience and the effect on the local area.  Where will I have a place to explore when I’m in need of a book?  What else could possibly would move into this space?  Yet, the stories found in this space were not coming to an end.

With the closing came the sale.  At first I was reluctant to go.  It was as if I was profiting from another’s loss.  But I got over that quickly.  On the first day of the sale, I was there.  The close out signs were new and the shelves were still full and well kept.  This was only the first foray.  A week later the prices were a bit lower and I had more money in my checking account.  Again I went through the shelves.  This time they were a little messier.  People had been going through them.  I was intent on buying.  So I looked for books I had always wanted to read or have copies of – Alice in Wonderland, Paradise Lost, The Jungle, The Aeneid.  Modern novels and ancient philosophy.  Soon my arms were laden with books.  Like a kid in a candy store, I let myself go.

Two weeks later, I passed the store again and noticed yet another markdown – 30-60%.  It was time to return.  This time the books had been picked over and not always returned to their proper places.  What had been empty shelves were now filled with other items the liquidator needed to sell – slippers, blankets, and many stuffed animals.  I noticed one sign that read purchase at least 8 books would get you another 15% off.  Well, that was that.  I would find eight books.  Over to the literature section, the religion, and history.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Plato’s Republic.  All for the taking.  I saw several books I had put off buying before, but at 40% off, who could resist.  Not I.

My boundaries were down.  It was time to consider filling life with more stories.  It felt good to hold these books.  I couldn’t wait to dig into them when it was time.  Just having a stash on my bookcase gave me a feeling of wealth.   I was nearly salivating with eagerness to crack open these books – not purchased because they are for work, but because I’ve wanted to read them.  The books I bought were soon sitting on my shelves.  Merely paper.  But when I read them, when others read and we talked, they would come to life.  The space between the covers is ripe for potential, though they seemed rather dead on the shelves of a closeout store.

Even as I was getting excited about the opportunities these books held out for me, I wondered what would happen with this space.  No longer did it have even a pretension of being a third-place, a place in which community may form.  It had become solely a place where people were consuming books, not taking time to really look at them.  I longed for a place to create and cultivate – building on the ideas in the books.  To mull over these written thoughts and talk with others.

It’s been less than a year later and last night I was again in that building, this time with a book group.  For the past four months we’ve been meeting at the new bookstore in town – Joseph-Beth Booksellers.  One month a close friend, Jana Riess, joined us to talk about her book Flunking Sainthood, a month later a graduate student from the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Department gave us greater insight into the life at Pompeii, and last night we pondered the often unheard history of the Native Americans after reading Dee Brown’s, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  What had been a potential loss, has turned into a new opportunity to draw people to read and create places that will invite in others.  Now I’m not wondering about an empty space, but about the new stories that are generating from its re-created midst.

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Study Bibles

“Study Bibles are ruining community.”  I recently heard this statement at a conference on narrative and the gospel.   I may not like a lot of the study Bibles out there, but ruining community?  Really?

It used to be that people would read the Bible and seek to understand how it related to their lives through their interactions within a Christian community.  Pastors and other teachers would lay the foundations of how to understand God’s Word and friends and family would share stories of God working in their lives.  This was an interactive, living approach to God’s Word.  However, with study Bibles available for everyone from women to firefighters to environmentalists, an individual can select one that will speak just to her, get the answers, and then be on her way.  There is no need to engage with others in our faith walk.  The answers are neatly laid out for us.

This seems like an efficient way to learn.  It is also a lot safer for my ego.  If I’m not living up to the expectations I read in God’s Word, only I need to know about it.  It’s also much easier to twist the Bible to mean what I want if I’m not reading it with other people who are aware of my weaknesses.  But as we rely primarily on distant experts and stop sharing our stories with one another there is a loss of real community in our churches.  We become a group of individuals finding our own way to live out the faith and trying to convince others that we are doing well.

So what might be a response to this focus on individual faith – whether prompted by study Bibles or a multitude of other reasons?

  • Where do we find places to dig more deeply into our lives and connect with others?
  • Places where we can learn from one another as we see how God is working?
  • Places where it’s okay to tell about the mess in our lives, as well as the joys?
  • Places where questions and failings are welcome, and forgiveness is ready?
  • Places where we can be affirmed that we are living in God’s grace and encouraged to go out and live more fully into the story where we are called?

I find that such moments occur not within programmed structures or alone in study, but in the throes of life.  Sometimes it’s around meals or over coffee.  It can also happen in a writing group,  at a ball park, or among whispered voices in a chapel  These are places where we can open God’s Word as we are with others, connecting our stories with God’s.  Such building and living in community is definitely not efficient nor focused on knowing the right answer, but it is biblical.  It’s also quite freeing.

Maybe it’s time to promote a new type of study Bible.  The added “helps” in this Bible would change depending on the group involved because they would be developed out of Christians living in the midst of one another’s stories as they center their lives on God’s Living Word – Jesus Christ.

Categories: God's Story, Journey Living | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

A Day in Hannibal

Mark Twain's Childhood Home

Last summer I was antsy to undertake another pilgrimage.  I wanted to fly over to England again and relish the passion of the moors or maybe follow the steps of Martin Luther in Germany.  But that wasn’t to be.  Lack of time caught up with me.  But I did manage a quick three-day get away to Missouri where I ventured to the homes of two iconic American authors – Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

For the past years, much of my focus had been on planting myself at home and learning this thing called campus ministry.  Unfortunately, this has led me to forgo one of the practices that has given renewed energy to my life – pilgrimage.  I’m not sure why I do this – bare knuckle my way through an activity because I think I should, while ignoring other parts of life.  Maybe I fear that if I allow any type of enjoyment into my schedule, I’ll give up practical work for foolish ventures.  However, often these foolish ventures provide the impetus, and even wisdom, for the practical.

So back to my latest pilgrimage.  I left on a Thursday afternoon to reach Hannibal, Missouri, on the shores of the Mississippi River.  I’ve enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s works, but have never really studied him.  One day in Hannibal wasn’t going to change that, but I thought it would help me to get back on track with my story.  The evening was wonderful as I walked through this small town, gorged on Italian food, hiked up to the lighthouse, gazed at the flooding river, and listened to an outdoor concert.  This was definitely a small town kind of evening and I allowed myself to just enjoy it as I was drawn into the interplay of people and place.

The next morning I made my way over to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.  When I stepped in, a rush of familiarity overcame me as I entered this literary site.  The museum was softly lit with well-produced displays covering the life of Mark Twain.  Immediately I started reading the words on the walls, looking at the copies of his books, and picturing the life that had made this writer.  I walked outside to the small Huckleberry Finn house and finally entered Mark Twain’s boyhood home.  The rooms had to be viewed from the distance of a plexi-glass divider, but I still got a sense of the life lived here.  Images of family life interspersed with lines from Twain’s works created a connection between the boy and the future writer.

Overlooking Hannibal

Of course the tour exited through the museum shop, and I loaded up on books to familiarize myself more with this writer – particularly his travel writings.  Striking out on adventures and telling childhood stories, even embellished ones, drove Twain’s life.  Did it make the stories he told a lie?  Not necessarily.  It helped direct and provide meaning to his life.  As a reader I was content to listen and be drawn into the adventures whether along the Mississippi (Huckleberry Finn) or in Egypt (The Innocents Abroad). These stories contain wonderful hijinx that show the characters relishing life.  I ended my time with lunch in a former bordello – still with a musty smell of a well-lived place – and a milkshake from Becky Thatcher’s Sweet Shoppe.

No literary breakthroughs here.  I can’t say I deeply connected with any of the stories.  Yet, I found myself moving toward pilgrimage again as I engaged with the stories of the place.  I even started to recall those my own from childhood.  Stories of enticing neighborhood kids to our porch with a set of building blocks, playing dolls with friends during summer breaks, and building forts with furniture and sheets on snow days.  It was a breath of fresh air that helped me break from the rut I had been creating.  Let’s play.

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