Faith, Parenting, Personal Growth, Reflection

The First Pour

coffee pour by mark on flickr

We have this little ritual, West and I, of making coffee for one another.  Sometimes he makes it (usually after lunch), and sometimes I do (our morning cuppa, following the school run); but the process is the same for each of us:  rinse out our little Bialetti espresso maker, fill with fresh water, spoon the coffee grounds over the metal filter, screw the top back on, and place it on the stovetop to heat up while we microwave the two cups of milk for our lattes.  Mmmmm.  Rich, delicious, and – most importantly – caffeinated!

The coffee-preparation process is the same, but there’s one slight variation in the finished product each of us receives: whoever gets the second cup also gets a bit of ‘sludge’ from the coffee grounds.  It’s a very slightly finer cup for whomever gets the first pour.  Knowing this is the case, I make sure that West gets the first pour.

Oh, I know I could make it even.  I could do a little pour into each cup, back and forth and back again, to make sure that neither of us gets the dregs on our own.  I could.  But then neither of us would get the pure ‘first pour’, either.   And, in truth, I don’t really mind the dregs.  I know, too, that when West makes the coffee, he reserves the second pour for himself and gives me the finer cup.  It balances out.

When you think about it, it’s not just with coffee that there’s a ‘first pour’ and ‘the dregs’; our time, our energy, our families – with each of these things we have a choice to make, whether we realise it or not, about where we’re going to bestow this superior ‘first pour’.

If I’m working on an article or some other writing, it’s easy to be consumed by it; so focused on the words and ideas swirling around in my head that every other bit of input is a frustrating distraction.  In truth, it’s like that anytime I’m wrestling with ideas – even if I’m internally trying to figure out how to better nurture my children and be more patient with them, I’ll be swatting them away and growling at them while I’m trying to think it through.  How’s that for irony?!  There are definitely times that I need to lock myself away to sort out the ideas, set down the phrases, and complete a writing task; but at other times I really have to train myself to view the thoughts (and worries) as a distraction, rather than seeing my kids that way.  Sometimes, at the very least, my kids should get the ‘first pour’ of my energy, focus, and attention; my children as individuals and my family as a group – not just concepts, ideas, theories and debates about the concept of ‘parenting’.

Likewise, when life and lists crowd in and there doesn’t seem to be time for anything, let alone a sacred, quiet space in time to read the Bible, pray, or meditate, where does my ‘first pour’ go?  Likely, every little thing gets a drip of my best; the dregs, if anything, are what’s left for the pursuit of spiritual growth and nurture.

And although when I make a coffee I put myself second – with little to no detriment – I can see that it’s not healthy for us to always leave ourselves just the dregs of our time and energy.  Sometimes we need to make sure that we get the sustaining, superior, beneficial ‘first pour’ as well – not to short-change those we love, but to ensure that we function as healthy, fulfilled, and functional human beings.  When I start to feel like I’m pouring into too many cups, I know that the result will be unsatisfying – and unsatisfactory – for all of them.  I need to give myself the first pour – step back from things, renew my energy, regain my perspective, and then I’m fresh to make a new batch.

This isn’t a new idea.  In the Bible, one of God’s requirements of the Jews was that they would bring Him their ‘first fruits’ as an offering.  He also required them to sacrifice their best before Him; an unblemished lamb (sound familiar?), amongst other things.  Sure, these are Old Testament practices, but they’re ones whose essence remains useful to observe today:  what we do for God should be what we do first; and what we bring to God should be our best.  It shouldn’t be that church is what we fit in if we haven’t got anything better to do on a Sunday.  It shouldn’t be that sleep, activities, and TV crowd in and replace our time praying and reading the Bible. (It shouldn’t be the case, but I’ll raise my hand first – I find time to vege in front of Netflix almost every night, and yet I can’t seem to establish a regular quiet time routine for reading the Bible and meditating on God’s word…).

I think it’s worth considering, from time to time.  Who’s getting the first pour in your life?  Do you need to change the order of cups?

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Finances, Reflection

Dwelling Places

red-brick-house-by-thomas-au-on-flickr

If I was asked to describe my house, it’d be pretty easy:  one level, three bedrooms, tiny office, open-plan living/dining, kitchen, etc… Oh, and it’s a rental.  But the funny thing about that last point is that it doesn’t actually describe my house – what it describes, I’ve come to realise, is my dwelling place.

For a long time I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of buying our own house.  In some ways it feels like it should be a given – we’re both university-educated, West works full-time, we spend as lightly as we can while providing for our family’s needs (swimming lessons are a necessity when you’re surrounded by water, and we don’t sign them up for much else), so what’s the hitch?  Well, there are lots of reasons why we haven’t been able to buy a house – and none of them, I’m quite sure, could be fairly labelled as ‘our own fault’.  We haven’t got unpaid debts, we always pay rent/bills on time, we don’t gamble or smoke and we drink very moderately…  Nevertheless, here we are, just managing and with next to no hope of owning a place of our own.

But here’s the thing:  I may not own this house, but I do live here.  I live in this house with my loving hubby and my beloved children (and even, now, with two quite adorable kitties!); we have great landlords, we live by the beach and we’re close to good schools.   Why should ‘it’s a rental’ be what I dwell on, when I’ve got all those other positive things to focus on??!  And yet that is my focus.

I realise that I’m not alone in this.  It’s all too easy to find ourselves dwelling on the things that aren’t living up to our expectations; the hurts, the heartaches, and the difficulties.

Maybe you wanted another child, and it just hasn’t happened.  You might live in a mansion with a devoted husband and three healthy children, take wonderful overseas holidays, go to lavish parties and enjoy countless opportunities but be completely blind to the joy and wonder of your life because you couldn’t have a fourth child.  And you can’t fathom the situation you find yourself in, because it just seems so easy for others and for you it has been loss after loss after loss, and your heart is raw and bleeding and you feel like you’ve lost who you were before all the sadness.

Maybe you’ve been passed up for all the promotions and you feel like your career’s at a dead end.  You may earn plenty to live on and enjoy your work when you’re not thinking about that corner office on the fifth floor that should have been yours, and maybe it’s nice being able to leave your work at work and get home to your family but you’d never admit it…  You’re tired and you’re bitter and when you think about it you’d never have believed that at this age you’d still be in this position, at this company, working for these fools who don’t even appreciate you…

Maybe you’ve trained for something and just as you were about to go out and prove yourself you sustained a devastating injury.  All the blood, sweat, and tears – down the drain.  No medal.  No accolades or lucrative endorsement deals.  No acknowledgement or reward for those thousands of hours – those years – of slogging away to be the best, only to have it all end in defeat.  And now you’re a hollow shell of what you once were, because all that potential was never realised in the end.  You feel like a ‘has been’ who never was.

We all have broken dreams.

We’ve all suffered loss.  We’ve all grieved for the person we were before we experienced this disappointment – for the naïve hope that we held for what has not come to pass.  And maybe some of us even feel a bit foolish – I know I do.  Foolish that we ever thought it possible; foolish to have dared dream, or foolish that we haven’t somehow made those dreams a reality.  Foolish for still hoping that somehow, someday…

And there are always those who seek to minimise our losses – to brush away our despair with a breezy, “Well, why should you care so much about having another baby/getting promoted/winning that medal/buying a house?  After all, there are plenty of people who aren’t even able to have kids/work/run or swim or dance/keep any kind of roof over their heads!”  And it just doesn’t help, does it, to hear that?

Truly, when we hope for something, work for something, or strive for something, and those dreams don’t come to fruition, we need space to grieve.  We really do need to give ourselves the freedom to feel that disappointment and process what it means for us.

In processing my own disappointment, I realise that for me it’s not just about owning our own home – it’s partly about that; about how I don’t quite feel like a grown-up, and how when my friends start chatting about renovating or landscaping or whatever, I feel utterly unqualified to contribute to the discussion.  It feels like everyone else our age is at the stage now where they’re secure enough financially to start looking at holiday homes or building up or taking overseas vacations, building up their retirement savings, and making plans for the future, while we’re really just barely hanging on by our fingernails.  And in the bigger picture, not owning a home raises questions for me about how we’re providing for our children and how we’re going to provide for ourselves and not burden them with supporting us in our old age…  To think that once upon a time I dreamed of having a home with a granny flat just so that my folks could stay close by.  How far we are from that dream of being able to provide for them!

For you, too, who want a child or who want more than you can have – it’s about more than just that.  It’s about passing on your wisdom and experience, nurturing, being held close and having your young ones depend on you – it’s about your vision for a big family and what that would feel like…  I know that your disappointment is bigger than what the rest can see when they look at the checks and balances of your life.

And for you, who’ve found that the rungs on the ladder to what you deemed to be success were greased or missing, making that climb to the realisation of your dreams an impossibility.  It’s not just the title on your name plate or the medal or the corner office you’d have liked – it’s about much more than that.  Recognition.  An affirmation that your choices have been the right ones.  And so much more.

I don’t for a moment want to negate the impact those disappointments – big and small – have had on us.  But I believe we need more than that, too.  I believe that we also need to be encouraged to look beyond the hurt to the wholeness.

How is it that I’ve found myself living here – in the boulevard of broken dreams (as Green Day so aptly put it)?  I’ve built a dwelling-place for myself here, brick by brick.  Every pang of jealousy, every flush of envy, every bitter remark about how it’s all so unfair… each one a brick in this house that I’ve built on the boulevard of broken dreams.

The thing about this boulevard is that we don’t actually have to dwell here.  We ALL have to walk it – whether it be for a short phase in our life or even for the majority of our days here on earth – but we don’t all lay down a foundation and add bricks and mortar and put up a picket fence and plant trees here…

Now that I’ve realised that I’ve put down some roots in this dead-end street (yeah, turns out it’s not a boulevard at all), it’s time to do some demolition.

When you start to pull those bricks down and chip away at the mortar you realise that the walls you’ve built as you’ve been dwelling in the boulevard of broken dreams have been obscuring a view.  All this time, there’s been an AMAZING VIEW that you’ve been missing:

There are vineyards on the landscape that you’d thought barren; they’re heavy with ripe fruit, ready for the picking.  The sun, for so long hidden from view, beams down benevolently from blue skies – and there you’d been, imagining that the night you’d fled when you’d retreated was a perpetual one…  People who love you have been knocking on that impenetrable door you’d erected, clamouring to break into the silence into which you’d been muttering the lies you believed were going to drive them away.

Suddenly you realise that this place you’ve built has blinded you to what you really should have been seeing on all along.  By focusing on what you lack, you’ve obscured what you possess.

I’m sure I will always have pangs of grief – when I pass a realtor’s office, page through a real estate magazine, or see a ‘For Sale’ sign on my street, I know I’ll feel a fleeting stab of regret.  It’s inevitable that news of someone buying a house will make me wonder what that would be like, and if I’ll ever experience it.  But I can change how much that affects me, and how long I’m affected, by focusing on three things:

Do I have sufficient?  Maybe there’s no surplus.  Maybe I don’t have exactly what I hoped for; but I have enough.  Enough food, enough to buy medicine when necessary, enough to clothe and shelter us.

Am I grateful?  Am I mindful of how little so many others have in comparison?  Am I looking to fill the needs of those around me instead of holding tightly to what I have?  Am I being generous of spirit, showing that generosity towards those who have more as well as those who have less?

Am I content?  Do I practice intentional contentment?  Have I learned to trust enough in God’s provision to let go of my need to stockpile and control?  Am I striving to do more for others instead of more for myself?  Am I exemplary in my practice of grace in the midst of struggle?

I’ve come to realise that, for me, these three things give me a victory.  If I have sufficient, then I’m not needy – and I shouldn’t have a mentality of being a ‘have not’.  If I’m grateful, then I’m not allowing my lack to obscure my blessings.  If I’m content, then whatever life throws at me, I will have such grace and joy that those around me won’t feel guilty for having something that I lack.  Those who witness my life will understand that God is my sufficiency; that He sees to the provision of my needs; and that I am content to wait for His perfect timing for that provision.

I can see that there is such freedom in this kind of homelessness – the kind you get when you demolish the house you’ve built on the boulevard of broken dreams.  Freedom from bitterness and resentment; freedom from being dragged over and over again into the depths of disappointment and mired in the muck of defeat.  Long may we be free; may we never let our disappointments define us.

If you want me, I’ll be here, walking the road but not dwelling in it – reflecting, instead, on all the blessings that are no longer obscured – and removing these old walls we’ve built, brick by brick.

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Easter, Faith, Grace, Life, Reflection

Sanctuary to Sacrifice

2 Corinthians 1 4

Maybe it’s the stage of life I’m in, where one child’s nighttime waking is almost guaranteed (and so, therefore, is my tiredness), or maybe it’s because we sprang for the extra layer of cushioning on our mattress, but I love my bed.  I could just nestle in there and stay snuggled up all day.  The demands of my life don’t permit such laziness, though (more’s the pity!); in order to attend to my necessary duties, I’m forced to leave the comfort of my bed.

A couple of years ago I was compelled to write about not dwelling in comfort; I wrote the following article for our church magazine, because it was to my fellow Christians that I felt this message should be directed.  Basically, I felt the need to remind us all that comfort is not a dwelling place; i.e. it is good and necessary for us to nestle into the comfort of our salvation; it is good and right that we should draw near to Jesus and find peace and joy in His presence; but we need to remember that we are called to be His hands and feet.

God calls us to take refuge in Him.  He calls us to find comfort in Him, to ‘dwell’ in His perfection and light as a respite from a world in which we experience pain and struggle and darkness.  Our Lord encourages us to take time to reflect and revel in being in Him.  We are to embrace and celebrate the sanctuary of God’s love – but our responsibility does not end there.  The purpose of this refuge is to re-charge us to go into the world and embody that love for others. Second Corinthians 1 instructs us that God comforts us in order that we may then provide the same comfort to others.

Christ himself took comfort in the Father.  Jesus went up to Gethsemane to pray and to seek peace from the turmoil in his soul.  But he did not stay there; from that hilltop he went out, strengthened in his resolve, to do what God was calling him to do.

God is calling us to do His work, too.  Like a mother whose reluctant child is clinging too long to her skirts, He is ushering, cajoling, exhorting us to take heart and trust in his love to go with us as we leave the sanctuary of His breast.  We have things to do in the world around us and we must not tarry in this place of comfort for too long, lest we deny our calling to be God’s heart out there in a hurting world.

As we approach Easter, we’re invited to look upon the Cross.  Often, we’re tempted to bypass the gritty crucifixion scene and move straight to the more comforting symbol of the empty cross and the hope and peace offered there.  It’s easier to skip the hard parts of Christ’s story – His suffering for our gain – and go directly to the joy of our redemption and His resurrection.  But let us pause before the Cross, and Christ upon it – bound there by our sins – and consider the challenge therein.

It’s difficult to contemplate the Christ’s experience on the cross.  It is not comfortable to encounter the pain or suffering of our fellow human beings; it’s not comfortable to consider how much we have and what our responsibility might be to those who have not; it’s not comfortable to think about speaking God’s truth into a world which has, historically and continuously, rejected Jesus. “I’m not called to missions,” we declare – forgetting that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in this world.  “It’s a fallen world – there will always be sin and poverty and sickness.  There’s nothing we can do to change that.”  But do we really think we’ve got no responsibility to pass on the comfort of the Father to those who struggle beyond our natural sphere of influence and interaction?

As Christians, we’re called to be people of action.  Our deeds should reflect God’s heart in the world.  But too often we go to that place of refuge in our faith and we STAY there. Instead of taking sanctuary, being filled up and encouraged, and then getting back into the thick of things to do God’s work, we wrap ourselves up in the comfort of our salvation, in the comfort of our blessed lives, in the comfort of our smug completeness – and we do nothing.

Instead, let’s commit to the challenge of aligning ourselves with God’s will for our lives.  This is an ongoing process; the action God expects of us depends on our particular gifts and talents as well as the stage of life we’re in – we need to remain open to God’s calling in small ways as well. But we do need to be willing to embrace discomfort in order to show God’s heart to others.

Accepting grace is simply not enough.  How can we receive a transformative gift and remain unchanged by it?  God is calling us to demonstrate His love in this world.  He is moving in us, dwelling with us, encouraging us and renewing us; all for the purpose of equipping us to go out and be active in our faith.

This year, as we complete the Lenten season, perhaps we can challenge ourselves: if comfort is something we strive towards or even spend a lot of time thinking about, then perhaps it’s time to re-examine our priorities.

Jesus didn’t die to ensure our comfort.

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Something to consider: When we encounter difficulty/challenges, do we seek a way out of those challenges or do we seek God in the midst of those challenges?  Remember, God invites us to take comfort from Him; from there we are equipped to go out, strengthened by His love and His presence, and do whatever we’re called to do.

Go in peace (but do make sure you GO OUT THERE!),

 – Trix

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Faith, Grace, Life, Philosophy, Reflection

Growing Old Graciously

Folded hands by Horia Varlen on flickr.jpg

There was a series of ads for a popular anti-aging cream a while back that ended with this tagline:

“I don’t intend to grow old gracefully.  I’m going to fight it every step of the way!”

The line was delivered by a beautiful, feisty woman; one who didn’t look her age and one who, by her own admission, had no intention of allowing her beauty to fade as she grew older.  This was ostensibly her main goal in life.  As if wrinkles somehow negate a woman’s beauty.  As if youth were a commodity more precious than experience.

But is it truly a measure of ‘aging well’ that we should remain unchanged by the passage of time?

Aging, and how (or whether) we change as we grow older, has been on my mind lately because I’m on the cusp of a milestone.  As I’m a sentimentalist, this birthday feels like a significant event in my life; and, as with all such things, anticipating this milestone has caused me to evaluate the past and make plans for the future.

To me, the mirror isn’t the only place we should pause for reflection.

There’s so much to celebrate about the decade I’m leaving behind.  In the past ten years I have borne children (I had only my eldest in my twenties); I have moved countries (twice); I have travelled (with kids!); I have studied (and I’ve been a student in the school of life); I have written (and been published!); I have served (and been served).  I’ve grown.  I’ve matured.  And, most of all – I’ve softened.

I’m not just talking about the physical softening and the extra exertion of gravity on a body as it ages; I’m talking about a softening of the heart.  The years have had a tenderizing effect on me; many times when my heart is full, so are my eyes.  I no longer contain my emotions as carefully as I once did; I am no longer in such firm command of the inconvenient welling-up of love, or sympathy, or heartbreak.  And yet – I’m stronger, too.

I’ve seen more death, so life is more precious.

I’ve seen more life, so death has more significance.

I know more about people, so I can relate better and sympathize more.

I know more about myself, so I can play to my strengths and work on my weaknesses.

flaws quote

And there’s more to come.

In the decade ahead, what will I learn, and how will I grow?

This is what I’m hoping for:

I hope that I will grow more tender – and yet stronger, too – with each year that passes.

I hope that I will reach out more to those around me; to shake off the guilt over what I haven’t done in the past and embrace the opportunities that present themselves in the future.

I hope that I will honour my belief in the paramount importance of Relationship by nurturing the relationships I feel privileged to enjoy, while also opening my heart to new friends.

I hope that I will be quick to listen and slower to speak; I hope that the perspectives of others will always inform and interest me.

I hope that I will continue to listen and heed God’s call upon my life; my time; my service; and my heart.

I hope that, while my body ages, I will continue to be renewed by His grace.

Lamentations 3

I hope that, whether or not I grow old gracefully, I will grow old graciously.

 

Maybe my reflections will give my friends pause to consider their own.

How do you intend on growing old?

 

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Faith, Life, Personal Growth, Philosophy, Reflection

Books and Covers

Books and Covers by judy and ed on flickr

It was one of those church concerts you so often just stumble upon in European cathedrals.  A visiting Welsh girls’ choir was performing, and I nipped in and grabbed a pew just as the choristers filed in.  They arranged themselves on the sanctuary steps and very shortly a divine sound echoed into the cavernous reaches of the church.

As an old choir girl, myself, I was interested to see how some of the choristers employed techniques for improving resonance and maintaining pitch (including opening their mouths widely to let the sound out, and smiling to prevent the notes from falling flat) – but, in spite of the general professionalism of the group, a few girls looked as if they just weren’t trying.

One girl in particular drew my eye.  She was plumpish and round-shouldered, and she carried a neutral – almost sullen – expression on her face.  She barely opened her mouth when she was singing, made no eye contact with the audience, and seemed altogether uncomfortable.  I kind of wondered why she was there at all.

I was surprised when I saw her step forward at the end of a song.  I figured that somehow she had been chosen to introduce the next piece, and I wondered if she were going to mumble an introduction the way she seemed to be mumbling the songs.  I watched as she took a deep breath.  The piano started with a few bars – and she began to sing.

Though many years have passed since my serendipitous discovery of that concert, I still remember the sweetness of that girl’s solo.  Her voice rang out, clear and true, and the audience was transfixed – none more than me.  I sat, awestruck, stinging with my own ears’ rebuke of my prejudice against this girl: the one with the angelic voice.

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As I ran along the waterfront towards home, the sun shone warm above me and salty breezes buffeted the buggy.  In the marina, the sailboats’ rigging lines sang in the wind.

I came upon a carpool of construction workers exiting a beat-up old van at their worksite.  Two of them were burly, with bellies hanging over their belts where their fluoro vests stopped short; another was rangy, with two days-worth of ‘five o’clock shadow’ and a ciggie hanging, unlit, from the corner of his lips.  We called out good-morning greetings as I approached, and in the background I could hear that their music was still playing loudly – as you’d expect.  What you might not have expected, though, was their choice of tunes.  Strains of Tchaikovsky spilled out of the passenger-side door and mingled with the cries of the gulls overhead.

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A global study on happiness was conducted a number of years ago (not ‘The Happiness Project,’ which is somewhat skewed towards richer respondents).  They looked at affluent societies, industrial communities, aboriginal groups, families living in the most abject poverty – in short, the researchers covered a great diversity in living situations.  And they came up with some surprising findings.  What they discovered was that some people living in poverty achieved a greater sense of contentment with life – happiness – than others in far superior circumstances.  I remember seeing an interview with a group of people in a slum in India following the release of this study’s results:

“Yes, we’re happy,” said one woman, “Because we’re together.”

“Together” meant eight adults living in a one-bedroom shack.  Together meant eating their meagre portions of rice in shifts, because they didn’t have enough bowls for them to share their meal at the same time.  Together meant taking turns to sleep, too, because there was only half as much space as they needed to all be stretched out at once.

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“You can’t judge a book by its cover”

We all know this expression, don’t we?  And yet, how often do we heed the truth of it?

A plain exterior can conceal exquisite talents.  Rough edges can hide tender interiors.  Financial poverty can obscure the fact of the wealth of a life shared.

Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.

-John 7:24

Again and again, I am reminded to suspend my knee-jerk judgement and look deeper for the truth.  People are so much more than they appear to be.

This seems an especially apt topic for me to cover right now, as I’m going through a bit of a ‘Common Dowdyfrau’ phase.  I look in the mirror, and all I see is what’s wrong with me – overweight, insecure, unattractive…  I know that this is how others might perceive me, too.

And yet, I also know that there is so much more to me than that.

I am a beloved child of God, for starters – no matter how unworthy I feel, I cannot dismiss the worthiness this gives me.  I am a mother – not always a good mother; not always an accomplished mother; but always, always a devoted mother.  I am a wife – loyal, loving, committed.  And I am a writer, an editor, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a niece…  The mirror tells me one thing, but the Bible tells me to look deeper.  My value – and the value of every other human – is contained in who I am and WHOSE I am, and not what I look like.

How much money you make, what school you went to, where you find your friends on the social ladder, who designed your clothes, and how many ‘Likes’ your facebook statuses get – those things don’t define you.  What defines you is who you choose to be on a day-to-day basis, and whose you are (because, whether you recognize it or not, you were lovingly created).

So let’s get past those covers and start delving into the stories inside.  Let’s stop believing that we’ve got other people all figured out because ‘we can just tell by looking at them.’  And let’s each try to be an open book and invite others to know us better so that they can move beyond appearances, too.

Let’s look inside.

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