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Archive for December, 2011

Perfectly Imperfectly Perfect

Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.   Leonard Cohen

We eagerly opened the box filled with neatly-wrapped presents that arrived on Christmas Eve.  It was from Chris, our son, and his girlfriend, Diana, who were celebrating the holidays in Salt Lake City where they live.  The two of them, when they are not at the University finishing up their graduate degrees, love to create pottery, and, I think, as we squeezed and fondled each precious gift, we all secretly were hoping for something handmade by our artisan kin.  And, sure enough, the next morning, when we unwrapped the glorious handiwork of Chris and Diana, we were thrilled:  a porcelain bowl with a bird in flight carved on the inside with Diana’s own hands, another bowl with an ocean-wavy rim created by Chris, two hefty mugs for Chris’ brother, Pete and sister-in-law, Shel, and, in the final package, a platter and dip tray in the same soft glaze as Chris’s bowl.  Except the platter didn’t look like a platter.  It was broken into puzzle-like pieces, too many pieces for even Chris’s dentist dad, who is really really good at fixing things, to glue back together.  I admit that I had a moment of disappointment, a moment of envisioning what this creation had looked like before, and how perfect it would have been at Joy Center gatherings.  And then I examined it more closely.  It had broken into something beautiful and unexpected and unique, a curvy shape around the intact bowl at its center.  And it became the center, this broken piece of pottery; it became the centerpiece of our Christmas table and I loved it even more because it was broken.  And it still sits on the table, with a lily blooming in its bowl and fronds of cedar resting on its jagged rim.

In the soft candlelight moments of yoga, as we sink inward and connect with something true at our center, it’s easy to hear the words, that we are enough, not just enough, but magnificent, and, that our cracks and quirks give us character and brilliance, that we don’t have to prove, or improve anything.  But, in the bright light of day, sometimes we forget that our rough edges don’t need to be polished.  Every year, for thirty years, my husband, Cam, has taken it upon himself to be in charge of cooking the Christmas turkey.  And every year, for thirty years, he begins the day with a sense of optimism.  And every year, for thirty years, as we hover around the kitchen waiting, he lifts the steaming bird from the oven, and, every year, it is still pink and not-quite-done, and our meal is postponed.  Cam’s a great cook, takes pride in showing off his skill, and he has tried everything.  People come out of the woodwork to give him tips: put it in a turkey bag, wrap it in bacon, buy a better thermometer, cook it at a high temperature, cook it at a low temperature, buy a fresh turkey, thaw a frozen one for days and days and days . . . he tries them all.

And last year, when the turkey had smelled so good and looked so promising and had been too rare for safe human consumption, he lost it.  He called himself worthless, put the turkey back in the oven, went out to the garage for five minutes to pull himself together, and, two days later, at a Joy Center open mic night, shared his turkey story.  And his story began to take on an exaggerated shape as he sensed the audience was with him, as he heard our laughter and commiseration.  It seemed as though he was having fun.  It seemed as though he was trying not to laugh.  It seemed as though he was realizing that this was a funny story, that he wasn’t worthless after all.  And his cathartic turkey confession must have worked.  Because, this year, once again, with optimism high – he had consulted his mother who always cooks a perfect turkey – Cam placed the organic locally-raised turkey in the oven, and carefully, on paper, calculated when it should be done, and, once again, when he hauled it out of the oven at the appointed hour, as usual, the pink juice leaked from its center.  I might have heard him mutter a swear word.  I might have heard a sigh of disgust.  But, then, he, my transformed husband, just placed that turkey back in the oven, and, with no drama at all, welcomed our guests, and an hour later, proudly professed that this was the best turkey he had ever tasted!

What if, in 2012, we forget the perfect offering?  What if this year we relax our shoulders and let the light shine through our cracks?  What if this year we crack ourselves up with our idiosyncrasies and quirks?  What if we allow our hearts to break wide open so we can experience more love and joy than we thought possible?  What if we decide that this is the year that we will make a choice to feel good right now, not waiting for the illusion of some future perfection?  So what if our edges are rough?  So what if the turkey needs to cook a little longer?  So what?!?   Happy New Year!  And know that you are always welcome at Joy Center!

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Christmas Magic

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer, and more beautiful.    Norman Vincent Peale

 

Plum Pudding

Each year, after the stockings, the presents, the squeals of delight,

after the carols, the playtime, the fancy salted nuts,

after the purple grapes with the chewy seeds

and the olives I never liked,

after the celery and carrot sticks,

the sautéed onions and the bright green peas,

after the rolls you could break into three equal parts

and the roast beef with its gravy in the fancy silver boat,

after the wee sips of Cold Duck in the red-stemmed glasses,

after the candles had melted and the china plates were scraped clean,

after all that, our father dimmed the lights

and our mother stood there above us holding the giant white platter

and she poured the brandy or the whiskey

or whatever you pour over an SS Pierce canned plum pudding

and suddenly, with the flick of a match,

she stood there on fire

or so it seemed to our Christmas-filled eyes,

our mother on fire with the flaming plum pudding

and then she spooned the fire-filled brandy

over that fire-filled pudding until the flames turned blue

and melted away and that’s when we ate it,

the pudding covered in our mothers homemade hard sauce,

that’s when we swallowed it, the mouthfuls of Christmas magic.

Allowing life to feel good

Your life will simply be as good as you allow it to be . . . Abraham-Hicks

“What is your favorite thing about the holidays?”  Penney, who was leading an art workshop at Joy Center asked us, her group of students.  I was surprised by my response.  “I love it when the presents are all wrapped, and the tree is decorated, and the jobs are done, and the house is still, and it’s nighttime, and I’m sitting there in the glow of the twinkling lights, just sitting there being quiet.”

I’m thinking about this now, on Christmas Eve in the mid-day, with the washing machine chugging and churning, and the bathrooms needing to be cleaned, and the Christmas meal still a grocery list of possibilities, and the kids flying through the air toward home, toward a house that isn’t quite ready for them.  It’s not exactly true that the pause at the end of the day is my favorite part of the holidays.  I love the hustle and bustle, too, the carol singing and bell ringing, the Christmas movies, the holiday gatherings, the Joy Center events, the sequins and the sparkles, the time with family.  I love whooping it up in the snow – one Christmas blizzardy Christmas Eve, when Chris was in grade school, he and I plopped down on each of our neighbors lawns and swished our arms and legs in magnificent snow angel after snow angel!  I love all that busyness, and . . . and I love the pause where I can breathe it in.

Two days ago, on the Solstice, I sat in the sun with my mother.  It was the last morning of a four-day visit to coastal Maine, and the weather, on this, the shortest day of the year, had brightened, and my ninety-three year old mother and I were taking advantage of it.  I wheeled Mom outside, to the Dionne Commons patio, and the two of us sighed deeply and relaxed into it, the warmth of the sun on our faces, the fresh air, the quiet.  It was a lovely pause for both of us.  And that’s when we noticed the squirrel.  Someone had scattered peanuts on the ground of the patio, and this little red squirrel was collecting them.  We watched, captivated, for a long time, as this creature picked up a whole peanut with its mouth and skittered off to its home under a gazebo twenty feet away, returning again a minute or so later, for another, then another, of these peanuts which were almost too big for a little red squirrel to handle.  But handle it the peanuts, it did.  This guy or gal had purpose, focus, a job to do.  And there was no wasted energy.  No fretting, or whining.  “I don’t want to wrap another present!  I don’t want to clean the bathroom!  I don’t want to work so hard.”  In fact, this little red squirrel seemed to be enjoying him or herself.  And every once in a while, our new friend would find an already-shelled peanut, and would find its own place in the sun and perch there for a few minutes, chewing its tasty treat.  And then, it was back to the task at hand.

So, as I pause here from my tasks at hand, I’m glad to remember the red squirrel, how it gathered those peanuts, one by one, and, in a short time, accomplished its goal.  And I’m inspired, also, by another teacher I witnessed while visiting in Maine.  Two days earlier, on a midday hike through a forest of white pine and old rugged oaks, on a rooted and pine needle path that follows the wide coastal Kennebec, my friend, Muriel, and I noticed something bobbing out in the swirling currents.  At first we thought it was a black duck, but then we realized it was too big.  It was a seal, out in the middle of this wide wide river, a seal, miles and miles inland, a seal, who, in the instant we looked out and recognized it, lifted its body way up out of the current and into the light, and, in what seemed like a slowed-down motion, arced itself forward through the air in a gleaming sun-silvery dive.  A downstream dive.  The tide was almost low and the current was pulling outward toward the sea and the seal was following that current, going with the flow.  So the seal, who had probably followed the tide inward in the early morning for a day of river fishing, was now whooshing its way back to the wide mouth of the river and its home in the sea.  With ease.

So here I am, refreshed by the pause, refreshed by taking this time to push the save button, to remember my Solstice visit with Mom, how it felt good to sit mother shoulder touching daughter shoulder facing the sun on the shortest day of the year.  So here I am, ready to get up and turn on some holiday music, to focus my red squirrel energy on the tasks at hand, and to bring in the playfulness of seal, to move this afternoon with the currents, with the tides, to allow it all to be easy and fun.

“What’s your favorite thing about the holidays?”  Right now, mine is making up the guest room bed and cleaning the bathroom.  Happy holidays, everyone!

Mom on the Solstice

Let it Snow!!!

You can’t get too much winter in the winter.   Robert Frost

The first few winters that we lived in the Upper Peninsula, I baked bread.  Anadama, oatmeal, whole wheat, multigrain.  I baked them all.  With my two toddler sons playing at my feet, I poured my creative energy into the dough.  As the winds howled and the snow pelted the windows and the banks outside grew higher and higher, I punched and rolled and stretched that dough until it became soft and supple and ready to bake.  Through two long winters of inside living, the boys and I ate warm buttery bread.  On most days that is – the days that the bread rose to the occasion.  Sometimes though, in the midst of yet another blizzard, the bread fell flat.  Those were the boys’ favorite days. “Mommy made brick bread!  Mommy made brick bread!” they would cry.  And then we would fling open the door as the winds gushed in and the snow stung our faces and we would heave those weighty loaves, set them flying right out into that white wild world of winter.

As cozy and warm as a kitchen is, it can become cramped.  And bread baked every day is no longer a treat.  And there’s something fun about flinging open a door and letting winter into your heart.  So that’s what we did.  We opened the door and set ourselves free.  We discovered there was something even better than fresh-baked bread – a glittering glimmering playground waiting for us.  There were the miles and miles, and months and months of snow. There were the balsam trees and the red osier, the quiet that seeped through the layers of your clothes, and the wild, howling wind that set your own spirit to howling.  There were the animal tracks: the path of a wolf, an owl’s wing, the slippery slide of an otter.  And it was all there for us outside the confines of a warm kitchen.  The boys, a little older now, built snow forts, tobogganed down the hill behind our house, and, on Saturdays, glided along the groomed trails at Al Quaal in the Bill Koch Ski League.  And I bought myself skate skis.  It was the closest thing I knew to flying.  And I forgot all about baking bread.

The boys have grown into men who love winter sports, and, I, for the past twenty-five years, have snapped those ski boots of mine into my beloved skate skis and have set off into that wintry world.  I love to ski!  I love the motion, the push off, the great sweeping strides, the way my heart pumps so hard it becomes a song that nudges me forward.  I love the way I can think about anything and I do, the long list of what I appreciate, the story I’m writing in my head, the dreams not yet manifested.  I love the way that every day is different even when you’re skiing on the same trails.  I love to ski in the mornings when the trails are a freshly groomed ribbon of perfection and in the evenings when the sky turns fuchsia and orange and the air is still and it is magic and once you are certain that you heard the swoosh of an owl.  I love skiing in November when the snow is slushy and muscles are creaky and the golf course is perfect for practice.  I love the holiday skis, those first blizzards when you swish by each other in your cheerful hats and cheerful smiles.  I love to ski under a sliver moon in January and on the longer days of February and March with the smell of the first thaws.  I love skiing in April with the coyotes and the geese, on the last of the snow’s thin crust.  And each time, no matter the season, when I release those skis, I love climbing back into my Subaru, and heading home again, to that inside world, to the warmth of the kitchen – maybe to a pot of piping hot soup and a loaf of fresh bread bought that morning at the local bakery.

This essay first appeared in the Winter 2011-2012 Health and Happiness Magazine.

Hats

There are many things that give me pleasure, but there are few things that give me as much pleasure as the joy of making something.    Julia Cameron

My cousin, Abby, makes hats.  She makes floppy hats with wide brims and head-hugging berets.  She makes cloches and fedoras and bright perky cocktail hats that giggle when you put them on.  Her hats are magnificent.  They are works of art, each one of them with its own personality.  She and her baby bunny live in Manhattan in a small one–room apartment, and this is where she works her magic.  And although I’ve never been to her home, I envision her surrounded by fabrics and ribbons and feathers and bows.  I envision hats sitting on tables, hats on the floor, hats in boxes, hats that her baby bunny can snuggle up to, hats on her head.  I admire Abby.  She works at her craft.  She is focused.  Last March when we met at our grandfather’s art exhibit in Amherst, I asked her what a day of hers looks like.  Some days, she said, require fabric-hunting, and some days involve trips to the boutiques where she sells her hats, and all the days require the dreaming up of designs and the creating.  She is a member of the Milliner’s Guild in New York, and her hats find their way around the city to the stores and the designers and some of her hats find their way to the far corners of the world.  And the hats that have sat in her apartment a little too long, they find their way to the Upper Peninsula, to Joy Center, and onto our heads.

When you claim the time to make something you love, it not only is a deeply pleasurable personal experience – Abby says she loves the hats she makes – it also is a way to share this delight, this joy with others.  And Abby is generous in spreading her joy.  A few weeks ago, a huge cardboard box of her hats arrived in the mail.  It is always a thrill to open a box of Abby’s creations.  This time, I pulled out two designer- quality Santa hats that will be perfect for Cam and I to wear around town in the next few weeks, three veiled and baubled cocktail hats that a gal would be delighted to don for a royal wedding, and a black velvet Shakespearean beret that brings out an unexpected renaissance flair in a twenty-first centurion.  There were big straw summer hats adorned with grapes, bursting with pink blossoms, and two wide floppy hats draped in ribbons and bows and just right for a derby in May.  This new display of beauties added to the hats contained in last years’ box is providing quite a collection for us at Joy Center.  And the magic of creativity is that it grows.  One person’s pleasurable act of creation shared with the world inspires the creative acts of others.  And that is what has happened with the hats.

A drama class from the local high school meets at Joy Center each Tuesday for an hour and a half, and the hats have become a part of their fun as the students practice their version of Hamlet and unleash their unbridled improv talents.  And the Wednesday after the new box arrived, Abby’s hats made their way into an evening Joy Center performance by these teens.  And, later in the week, the hats found their way onto the heads of yoga students.  And, later still, the hats were the surprise hit at Cam’s office party. When Cam slipped the purple-veiled cocktail hat onto his head, he looked pretty good.  It’s fun wearing a hat.  It’s fun wearing a hat that brings you somewhere new.  All of a sudden you are in Morocco charming a snake or in Italy dancing in a vat of grapes.  All of a sudden you are bigger and more expansive and maybe more silly than you were before.  Joy Center now has a lending library of Abby’s hats, and we, who choose to play with them, like Abby, can find pleasure in creating.

Only Abby can make these hats; they are her unique creation, and the pleasure that she pours into each one of them is palpable.  But we all can enjoy the pleasure of making something – and, we do.  All the time.  We make meals that sing with the harvest of the season.  We make quilts and clothes and meetings that flow with an ease and a grace.  We make paths through the snow and ripples in the water.  We make days that open up wide with synchronicities and laughter and acts of kindness.  And, sometimes, when we’re busy creating – creating what is calling to us in the moment – we can put on one of Abby’s hats and perhaps it will cheer us forward.  That’s what I’m doing these days.  In this most recent box of treasures, I have found the perfect Abby hat for me.  It is small and made of woven straw and the color of the summer sky and it perches on the top of my head, and, if you look closely, you will see something special.  The top of this sweet little creation forms a nest and in this nest are three cream-colored velvet eggs, and glorious feathers shoot out from behind.  And believe it or not, this hat is a winner on my tiny short-haired pinhead that usually doesn’t look good in hats.  And it is a perfect fit for a gal who is calling herself a storytelling traveler, who is finding so much pleasure as she allows her own eggs to hatch into poems and stories and essays, for a gal who is feeling light on her feet and ready to fly.

Cam in cocktail hat created by Abigail Aldridge

Lost and Found in Paris

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.    Ernest Hemingway

 

My grandfather was one of those lucky young men who Hemingway speaks of in his famous quote.  Grandpa Haskell traveled to Paris the first time in 1897 when he was twenty-one and lived there for over a year.  He joined the American Association of Paris, studied the works of Manet, Daumier, Degas, developed his own curriculum independently in the Musee de Louvre, created lithographs and liquid graphite drawings.  And I imagine him walking the cobblestone streets, basking in the golden light, mingling with the artists and writers of the day, creating his art with passion and fervor.

I, too, was lucky enough to spend time in Paris.  Six years ago, in January, my husband and I rented an apartment for a week, and we, like my grandfather before us, walked the cobblestone streets, basked in the golden light, mingled with artists and the artists of life, and breathed it all in with passion and fervor.

 

Here is a journal entry from that trip:

 In the Latin Quarter

It is late afternoon and there is a haze over the city, a soft winter glow on the golden buildings of Paris. The air is crisp and I can see my breath as we wander the narrow cobblestone streets in the Latin Quarter.  And I love walking briskly and I love exploring the streets and I love feeling a bit lost.  And my husband, Cam, is mumbling something under his breath – panicking because he is looking at his map and he doesn’t know where Rue Bonaparte is and he doesn’t know where Rue De la Bucherie is and he doesn’t know where the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, is, and he is lost in this winding maze of streets and he doesn’t like being lost.  He is lost among the galleries and creperies and patisseries, lost among the boutiques and the store filled with toys.

“Look here, Cam!” I squeal.  “Just look!  A tin ferris wheel filled with tiny people spinning round and round and round!”  Cam is lost and he is spinning round and round and round, and he is looking at his map, and I am spinning round and round and round, too, and suddenly I am found, here on this street as the sun sets behind the buildings.  Because it is here in this cobblestone alley beside a gallery that I am engulfed by my grandpa.  It a feeling.  A sense of him.  Even a smell of his thick tweed coat and the pipe that he smoked.  He is not on the map.  Cam has not found him, but I am having a grandpa moment nonetheless.  He is no longer an etching or a biography in a book.  He is no longer an ocean breeze or the familiar granite mica-flecked rocks of Sister Point in Maine where I know that he, too, lived.  He is here in Paris, across the sea, in an alley in the Latin Quarter that Cam can’t find on his map.

Alignment

Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.  Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.    Carl Jung

I loved my early mornings in Boulder.  And because I’m an eastern-time-zone girl who spent Thanksgiving weekend with family at the edge of the Rockies in Colorado-mountain-time, I woke up early, before the sun did, hopped into our rental, and, each morning, bright-eyed and alone, drove down Broadway, past Walnut and Pearl, to Alfalfa’s, the hometown version of a Whole Foods.  And I became a regular during our four-day visit, one of the very first customers to walk through those automatic doors as they opened at seven.  And each morning, I rushed past the fresh-cut flowers and wreaths, past the check-out lines, the vitamins, the breads and deli to my own version of a morning espresso.  It was the juice bar that drew me in and the shot of ginger that made my hair stand on end. As my new young friend with the three-day beard and friendly smile shoved the leafy greens and apples and lemons into the juicer for my Dirty Nico that would follow, I swigged down my shot of fresh-squeezed ginger.  It’s a great way to start a morning.  Ginger wakes you up.  You feel it as it rushes its way from head to toe.  It grounds you and enlivens you and is a perfect prelude for what I did next each morning.  As the sun rose over the fields and the red-roofed buildings of the University and the Boulder Flatirons that edge the Rockies, I walked on my own two feet, felt them connecting with that Colorado sandstone beneath me.

On Saturday, in the brisk thirty-degree dawn, I pulled the car into Chautauqua Park and hiked on the narrow path through the field that led up to the flatirons and the multitude of rocky trails.  As I tromped uphill, filled with the ginger and the juice and the excitement for the day that stretched out before me, I could see my breath puffing through the air and I could hear my heart pumping and my body felt prickly, lively, as it worked to keep itself warm.  And thirty minutes later, standing on a piece of that flatiron rock, I found it, what I’d been looking for, the sun, as it peeked up over the cliffs in front of me, as it spread itself wide, as I opened my arms and welcomed it with my breath, as I felt myself secure on the earth in my new hiking shoes, and a part of this wide no-clouds-in-the-sky blue blue sunny day.  “Good morning!” I said, out loud, with no one around me to hear.  “Good morning!” I said, “It’s a good good day!!!”

This sense of alignment, this connection to earth and to sky, this feeling alive in our own bodies, standing on our own two feet, this is something I need, something I bring each week into the four sessions of yoga that I teach.  And this week, after my Thanksgiving in the Rockies, I made it the highlight, the focus.  And although I say these words in every session as we sit on our sitting bones with our eyes closed or offering a soft gaze, they felt more real, more alive to me because of my Thanksgiving walks.  “Bring your attention inward,” I say.  “All the way down to your sitting bones.”  “You have strong roots,” I say.  “Roots that reach down to the center of this amazing earth, that connect you to its core, and, from these roots, you draw up exactly what you need.  Courage.  Strength.  Nourishment.  And this energy rises through you, up, up, up through the crown of your head, in a golden thread of energy connecting you to the sun and the stars and the wide expansive sky.”  As I say this, I really feel it.  And then I continue.  “You are that grounded and that expansive and that magnificent.”

I know in the core of my being that I need these morning walks.  I know in the core of my being that it feels good to remember my alignment.  I know in the core of my being that we do stand on our own two feet and that we are powerful and wise and we know what we need, and grounding ourselves keeps us from burning out or getting overwhelmed or blowing away.  And.  And, as I said the words this week in yoga, it was a delightful feeling in my belly to hear the soft breath of my fellow yoginis.  I was not alone.  And when we stood up later and marched around the room, stomping on the floor to our own drumbeat, it was fun to remember that we are a tribe.  And when we spread our arms wide and stretched them behind us in yoga mudra, beaming our heart-beams out into the world, there was a connection between us that was palpable and beating in its own right.  And yes, we were our own mountains, standing there in Tadasana, and we were also a range as gorgeous and expansive as those Rockies.  Finding our own alignment, living from the inside out, is a gateway not only to personal empowerment.  It is the gateway to the remembering that we are all connected, heart to heart, breath to breath, a part of the earth, the sky, a part of it all.

And so, I began my days, this Thanksgiving weekend, finding that alignment, strengthening it with ginger and juice and fresh morning walks.  And then, the days, each one of the four days, opened up wide and full and bustling with family.  I was not in Colorado to be alone.  I was there to play with my husband and our two boys and their women and my husband’s mother, our kids’ grandma.  And it’s the best, the very best, perhaps my life’s quest, to be able to feel empowered in my own two shoes, those new hiking shoes that feel as though I’m walking with my feet bare, to feel alive from the inside and stay connected to that feeling, in a crowd, a Thanksgiving crowd of others who I love, who have their own wants and desires and needs.  It’s the best when you can feel empowered AND feel your love for this family while crammed in the backseat between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law in that very same car that you were driving just a few hours earlier.  It’s the best when you can walk with the whole family on the same paths you hiked on that morning at dawn, when you can marvel at your mother-in-law’s spirit and spunk, the way she climbs into her own hiking shoes and keeps up with the family, and the way her son, your husband, and her grandson’s, your kids, cheer her on and love her beyond measure.  It’s the best when you  love these sons who are men now as they talk together, animated, lively and loud, in a quiet Zen shop, as they work to figure out where their feet will take them next, as you witness them and smile and know that they are empowered and that they will figure it all out.  It’s the best when you love their women who are bright and powerful and fun to be with.  It’s the best when, after the feast, you all sit down to a word game and you are relaxed and every one else seems to be relaxed as well, and there’s nothing you have to do, but laugh and love and let it all soak in.

Walking on trails behind Pete and Shel's condo on Thanksgiving Day, Boulder, Colorado

Pete, Shel, Grandma Zoe, Chris, Diana, Thanksgiving, Boulder, Colorado

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