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To the degree we can embrace our mortality rather than deny it, we can live that much more completely and joyfully.

– Dean Ornish, MD

Some time has passed since my Year to Live project came to an end, but my interest in reflecting on death as a way of truly living continues on.  I’m happy to recommend a book called Enjoy Every Sandwich to anyone else who isn’t afraid of the conversation!

A quick read, Enjoy Every Sandwich is a spiritual memoir written by Lee Lipsenthal, a young physician who learns he is dying of esophageal cancer.  It reads a lot like Tuesdays With Morrie, flowing with insight and the beauty of human connection.

Here are my main take-aways:

Read the rest of this entry »

Last month my year to live journey came to an end.

For nearly one year, a small group of us met each month at the Village Zendo in New York to discuss mortality and to think constructively about how we might go about living our lives if we truly had just one year to live.

I documented my thoughts throughout the year in this blog.  What I did not write about was the all-too-real end-of-life journey of my earliest childhood friend Marisa, who was courageously facing metastatic cancer while I went about my hypothetical journey.

On the night of November 17, our class did a “dissolution of the body” meditation — a guided exercise used by Tibetan lamas to prepare people for the journey of death and beyond.   I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was like because right at the point when our teacher said, “Resist the temptation to fall asleep,” I fell promptly asleep.

But that’s not the important thing.  Five days later, Marisa passed away.

In my grayest moments, I’ve dismissed my own year to live process as frivolous because I am, as much as any of us can claim, healthy.

Then I remember the last time I visited Marisa.  We laughed about the silly details of our childhoods together, like how we let our brothers con us into racing their dirt bikes off a ramp, flying through the air over us (a la Evel Knievel) while we lay completely flat on the asphalt.  And the great trips our families took together involving rented beach shacks and RV trailers.

“It’s hard to come up with a memory from childhood that doesn’t include you guys,” she smiled.

With a lot of hard-earned wisdom under her belt, Marisa posted on Facebook in June: “9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I’ve seen my share of ups and downs over the years but I seem to only really remember the ups.  The downs will come and go – no reason to get stuck on them.  But the ups, those are the memories you keep forever.”

Of course, “forever” is a relative term.  Marisa’s ups are now my ups.  And maybe someday my own children will remember parts of the stories and her ups will be theirs.  But eventually it all fades into some ethereal mystery.

Still, I like her view of things — if we can put the things we’re grateful for into some kind of internal treasure box to look back upon sometimes (all things in moderation, of course), we’d probably be doing ourselves a world of good.

I can imagine that burying a child of any age has to be the most painful act of all.  I’ve heard many people question faith and god in these circumstances.  Allow me to share a passage from one of the best books on dying I read all year (and believe me, I read my fair share of them!).

“Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident.  I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident.  There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table.  And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in.  No one meant it to happen.  It just happened.  And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

“God does not spill milk.  God did not bash the truck into your father’s car.  Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’  God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love.  So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

I’ve been looking for love everywhere.  I saw it in my fellow classmates and our teachers at the Zendo this year.  I saw it in heartfelt comments on this blog.   I saw it played out in my own family.  I saw it in the acts of complete strangers on our trip overseas.  I saw it in the hugs and stories shared at Marisa’s funeral.

I’ve got a year’s worth of learnings, sayings and little nuggets I could end with.  I think, though, I’m going to leave it with this.  If you find wisdom in it, please use it to inform your own journey.  And please keep me posted!

Every day in Zen temples around the world, the following verse marks the close of the day’s ceremonies:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take heed, do not squander your lives.

May our paths cross again soon,

Barbara

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For a recent Year to Live class, we were asked to bring five objects that represent the most meaningful aspects of our lives.  The task was to place these 5 things on a small altar in the classroom, where we could then explain them to our classmates.  (There’s a powerful twist to this exercise, but I’ll get to that later.)

In the days before our class, I found myself going through all of my possessions, clutching photos of friends and places, wishing the teacher had asked for 10 things instead of 5.  But being the ever-dutiful student, here’s what I came up with:

  • A photograph of my family — including my children, my parents, an aunt who is like a second mother to me, and my nieces and nephews.  It had been a perfect evening by the bay.  Everyone was healthy, and we were almost giddy about being together.
  • A photograph taken by my father-in-law of a lone apple tree which stands on their windswept property in upstate NY.  I love this gnarled tree.  The trunk is absolutely hollow, yet it supports the most incredible foliage and fruit season after season.  The photo represents a profound appreciation of nature, as well as resilience and abundance.
  • A piece of drift wood taken from the enormous message Dave left for me on the beach one morning years ago in drift wood, sea shells and pine cones:  “Barbara, will you marry me?”
  • A small clay Buddha made by one of my sons while we were on a family retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.  It symbolizes the gifts of contemplation, compassion and community that I’ve found through studying mindfulness.
  • A necklace made by desert women in North Africa.  It was given to me by a human rights activist I worked with who became a true friend.  A year ago she nearly died on a hunger strike, and I learned much about what it means to take a stand for what you believe in.  The necklace represents my work, which is fulfilling and gratifying (most of the time!) because of people like her.

On the evening of our class, we set up our small altars side by side.  I was blown away by the power of what everyone brought:  photos, baby clothing, journals, sheets of music, cherished jewelry, an onion, a note from a lover before she died.  All of it symbolizing the significance of our lives and the broader web that links us with the people and places around us.

Then came the twist. . . we were going to do a walking meditation around all of the altars, and each time we walked around we were to take one of someone else’s objects and put it under a cloth on the adjacent table.

Wait – did I hear that right?  We were going to take one of these life treasures away from someone?  And others were going to take away mine?  Yes – that was the exercise.

I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through.  The objects themselves I can live without.  But what they represent, I cannot.  If the very idea of the exercise was that painful to me, how could I inflict it on others by gathering up their things?

So we began the walking.  And the taking.  And the being taken from.  First the photograph of the apple tree vanished.  On the next rotation, the drift wood was gone, then the necklace, then the Buddha.  I also picked up objects from others and placed them as carefully as I could under the cloth.  I could hear some of my classmates quieting tears.  Mainly, I was focused on the photo of my family.  I nearly pleaded, “OK – I get the point.  Let’s just stop the whole thing here.”  In the next rotation, the picture of my family was gone.  Then the very cloth that represented the altar was gone.  I was gone.

There may be an element of  ‘you just had to be there’ to this.  But I can tell you that the experience felt like death itself.  It shook me to my core, revealed all of my attachments, and demonstrated viscerally the lesson of impermanence.  Up until that moment, I thought I was handling all of this study of death pretty well.  Now I see that I had been holding it at arm’s length, dealing with it intellectually and in words.

There’s been much for me to reflect on as a result of that class, and the lessons don’t come easily to conclusion.  But in the meditation that immediately followed the disappearance of our altars, I felt inexplicably hopeful and light.  It was as if a source of great worry had been lifted.   I wasn’t at all sure what it meant, but it seemed like a net good and I’m going to go with that.

I’d love to hear what 5 objects are most meaningful to you…

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One of the recent assignments in our Year to Live class was to do a “life review,” and the instructions began something like this:

Sit quietly for a while and bring to mind someone from your past whose kindness touched your heart.

Envision yourself speaking to that person.  Tell them what they have meant to you.

In general, I’m a fan of any exercise that offers the chance of meaningful reflection.  Somehow, though, the process of envisioning myself speaking with people who are very much alive seemed utterly ridiculous.  Why not actually talk to them?  Which is how I found myself on a mission to find my favorite high school teacher from 25 years ago.

Unfortunately, Dr. Montella (for she was one of those rare public high school English teachers with a PhD in the topic) had no discernible presence on the Internet.  A call to the high school led to another dead-end when the receptionist told me that it was against school policy to give out contact information for retired teachers, nor would she be able to tell Dr. Montella that I was looking for her.  I tried the phone book but found no trace of her.

Finally I thought of my sister-in-law’s mother, who taught typing in the high school years back and seems to know just about everyone in the state of New Jersey.

“Yes,” she said.  “I know exactly where she is.  My husband takes yoga with her every week.”

I began to worry if Dr. Montella would have any memory of me.  She must have encountered hundreds upon hundreds of students over the years, and the only thing that might have stood out as a memory of me was that I had won some state writing contest while I was in her class for a literary analysis of the 15th century morality play Everyman, and she had taken me to the award ceremony.  (My own memory of that event was noting how weird it felt to be sitting in my teacher’s car!)

A few weeks passed before this somewhat complicated web of relationships yielded a response.  Dr. Montella certainly remembered who I was, and she would be delighted to hear from me.

I called her immediately, and we did a quick catch-up.  She was exactly as I remembered – no-nonsense, interesting and interested.

“If it seems like I’m writing down what you tell me,” she said, “it’s because I am.”

I wanted to ask if she might like to have lunch someday.  I felt nervous and 17 again.  Thankfully she beat me to it.  That’s how I came to be seated in the dining room of her orderly, yet cheerful, northern NJ condo this week.

For 3 ½ hours we talked like old friends.  She wanted to know about Dave and the children and what I had done with my career.  (“Ghostwriting [part of my work these days] seems so unfair,” she said.  “I understand the function, but really you should think about getting your name on things,” she observed, ever the supportive teacher.)

Much had happened in her life as well.   The momentous news was that her beloved husband had passed away.  After fifty years, it was an adjustment to live without him, though she seems to have dealt with this life-change without a hint of “why me.”  She volunteers at the local hospital, goes on trips with Elderhostel, belongs to a book club, and sings in a choir.  Through it all, fond memories of Tom sustain her.

Which led me to what I really wanted to tell her.

“You gave all of us such valuable skills,” I began.  “But the most important thing you did for me happened the day you put down the text you were teaching, looked around the room, and said, ‘Here’s a bit of advice for your own life when the time comes:  Be sure to marry your best friend.’”

I told her how much those words meant to me.  How I had judged all of my relationships by that measure.  How looking for my best friend had led me on a circuitous but definitive path to Dave.

“Funny,” she said.  “I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly agree with the sentiment.”

We lingered over tea until it was time for both of us to continue on with the tasks of the day.  Getting up to leave, she reached out her arms and thanked me for coming.

******

Right after I wrote this, Dave send me this article from the New York Times about people finding their teachers years later through FaceBook.   I highly recommend trying it yourself.  And if your teacher hasn’t joined the FB revolution, going the extra distance to find him/her might yield benefits to you both!

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230 days remain

Many years ago I worked in a drab office full of cubicles where there were no secrets.  One morning my colleague poked her head over the divider to tell me that she was having a visitor later that day — her best friend from college who, she confided, had inoperable brain cancer.

This friend was traveling around the country with her boyfriend to spend time with loved ones while she still could.  She was all of 24 or 25.  When I caught a glimpse of her that day, I couldn’t believe how happy she seemed.

I’ve thought about that young woman many times during my year to live project.  While I, admittedly, knew precious little about her state-of-mind, her trip struck me as a beautiful, courageous way to approach her remaining time.  An act of graceful acceptance, fully honoring the primacy of her web of interconnectedness.

In that spirit, I’ve vowed to venture out this year to be with people I care about.  By dint of the career I chose (loosely defined as international social justice) and the time I’ve spent on the road, many of my close friends are far away.  I wish that time and frequent flyer credits would allow me to visit every single one of them this year, but I’ve decided that small steps towards that vision are better than merely paying it lip-service.

This weekend you’ll find me at the annual sheep shearing party on the farm next to my brother’s in New Jersey, surrounded by three generations of family.  Then I’ll fly to London to see a friend who I’ve been promising to visit for the past 8 years, which happily coincides with the travels of two other friends — one from Spain and one from Angola — who will also be there.  Then, volcano gods willing, I’ll make my way to Ohio to be with my freshman roommates.  There’s a lot of catching up to be done.

I know.  It’s an odd assortment of places to be in one week’s time.  And it’s a totally privileged thing to be able to do (I carry around a healthy dose of guilt about these things).  But the window of opportunity can slam shut quickly, and life is too short to make excuses.

I’ve always loved this Irish blessing, and it’s my hope for you no matter how near or far you roam this summer:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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This week I bring you two heads-up pennies that I gathered along my way.

  • The first is a letter about an encounter with a woman who was “too mean to die”  from my friend Kathleen,  a volunteer hospice worker.    It’s a great reminder to begin again when life gets the better of us.
  • Second, a poem by Mary Oliver that we read  in our Year to Live class .  I’m told that Mary Oliver lives on the tip of Cape Cod and draws inspiration from long walks along the beaches and salt ponds.

Wishing you time to muse this week as you stroll along under the open sky!

Letter from Kathleen

Your recent hitting the restart button post and the premise of one year left to live reminded me of a hospice patient I once had.

When the volunteer coordinator called me, she said she had a woman who was “too mean to die” and that she trusted that I was the right person for her.  (They used to send me all the “hardest” and “most unusual” cases!)

With that introduction, I left with an open heart and open mind, intending not to judge, but send loving energy to her.

She was the most miserable, unlikable, complaining, woman I have met!  She was staying with her granddaughter, who had escaped to Florida for a break, leaving behind her husband who needed to study for an exam.  She made his life pure hell!

She complained that the hangers in her closet were not hers and that other people had taken hers.  She wanted me to rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. When I told her that I was the volunteer and didn’t move furniture around, she demanded to know why I had come if I was going to be worthless!

When the nurse came, the woman went into the bathroom and wouldn’t come out.  When she finally did, the nurse examined her, changed the bandages on her legs, with the woman telling her how to do it all along the way.

When the nurse left, she cut off the bandages and called for the grandson to re-do them another way.  She complained about how he did it to!

This kind of thing went on and on all day… but I kept to my plan of open heart/open mind.

At the end of the day, I was putting her into her bed, and she looked up at me and told me this:  

Every day I go into the bathroom and look in the mirror and promise myself that I will be nice to everyone today, and I try very hard….but I find myself not being nice…..so I go back into the bathroom and look again into the mirror and start again! and again, and again…

My eyes filled with tears and I embraced her and told her that God knew what was in her heart and that was all that counted.

She was not too mean to die, she was refusing to die until she could be nice for one full day.

Talk about restarting!

When Death Comes

Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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"Early Morning" by CW Ye

300 Days Remain

One of the most common reactions I hear from people taking in the concept of the Year to Live project goes something like this:

“Before I die, I really want to walk on the Great Wall of China.”  Or see the Grand Canyon, go on a safari, explore Angkor Wat, hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

It seems that children also put travel among the top priorities for their lives.  The Make-A-Wish Foundation, for example, grants requests from young people with life-threatening illnesses.  Many of these heartfelt wishes are for cruises, visits to Disney, and seeing the Eiffel Tower.

There’s something so vital to travel.  It’s almost antithetical to death.

While I flat out refuse to buy the ever-popular book  “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, the very concept of which seems – well – a little greedy to me,  I must admit that I too am smitten by travel.

I feel like I’ve been lucky in this regard.  Early in my young adulthood, I was overcome by a desire to see the world outside of the New Jersey suburb where I grew up.  Without hardly a second thought, I applied for a summer job as a “house parent” in a home for teenage foster kids in Appalachia.  (I still marvel at their judgment/desperation in hiring an inexperienced  19-year old Yankee to manage a high-risk group of kids who had been hardened by years of abuse and humiliation.)

One “break” from the action which I always looked forward to during that Kentucky summer was accompanying the librarian of the BookMobile on her excursions into the heart of Appalachia.  In her beat-up old 4-wheel drive, she’d navigate dirt roads which were sometimes barely passable from the landslides caused by strip-mining, all the while compulsively eating Snickers (donated by the crate-load to the foster system).   With a heart full of compassion, she’d carefully explain the situation of each impoverished family we’d be visiting.  It seemed to me that delivering books was a convenient excuse for checking in with people to make sure no one was starving to death.

After that experience I ventured a little farther, spending a year studying anthropology in California, where I didn’t know a soul.  And then I crossed the Pacific and lived in Japan for a couple of years, choosing to teach English over accepting a coveted slot in the management training program of an insurance company back home.   (Some of my elders were none too pleased!)

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was so hopelessly addicted to travel that I vowed to combine it with my ideals – vaguely defined as anti-poverty and women’s rights – and somehow cobble together a career out of it.   As part of my jobs, I traveled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Kenya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Peru.  I loved being invited into the lives of locals, thinking about how we were different on the surface, but so fundamentally the same inside.

Now that I have a family, my adventures have mostly been closer to home.   Four hours in a car gets us to the beauty of New England.   Well-planned stay-cations visiting with my brothers and their families are fine by me.

Last fall, my husband asked me where I might like to go with the kids during our long spring break.  He said I’d get 51% of the vote.

I started thinking about all that I’d want to show the kids if this were to be my last year.  What would I want to impart?  What culture would I want them to soak in?  Where would my heart sing?

Tomorrow we leave for Turkey  — land of my favorite poet, Rumi.  The crossroads of Europe and Asia.  Home of baklavah.  Muezzin calling the early morning prayers.  Multitudes of opportunities to talk about how much better the world is when we don’t see things as Us vs. Them.

For now, as we leave our laptops behind, I wish you happy spring and joyous holidays.  No matter how far or near you venture, travel well.

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317 Days Remain

These are the words that we have printed out, hung by our desks, posted on sticky notes on our fridges.

Thanks to everyone who sent me quotes, poems and sayings that keep them going and provide inspiration in their lives.

If you have another one, please add it to the comment area!

Success by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.

– Meister Eckhart

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

– Eleanor Roosevelt

The secret to life is to die before you die and find there’s nothing to be afraid of.

– Eckhart Tolle

For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.

– William Penn

Why be saddled with this thing called life expectancy? Of what relevance to an individual is such a statistic? Am I to concern myself with an allotment of days I never had and was never promised? Must I check off each day of my life as if I am subtracting from this imaginary hoard? No, on the contrary, I will add each day of my life to my treasure of days lived. And with each day, my treasure will grow, not diminish.

– Robert Brault

The fear of death follows from the fear of life.  A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time

– Mark Twain

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

– Walt Whitman

There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.

–  Albert Einstein

If you judge people, you have no time to love.

– Mother Teresa

Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  And today?  Today is a gift.  That’s why we call it the present.

– Babatunde Olatunji

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.

– Anna Quindlen

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.

-Louis Hector Berlioz

Do something that nobody else has done, something that will dazzle the world.  Show that God’s creative principle works in you.

-Yogananda

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.

– Abraham Heschel

There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.

– Buddha

A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.

– Hugh Downs

How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
– Henry David Thoreau

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Living it up with homemade skis

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”  I love the old saying because it captures perfectly the paradox of lightness in our lives.

Laughter and smiles seem somehow foundational to our humanity, but sometimes it feels like too much of an effort to live with a sense of buoyancy.

I spent the past couple of days noting how often my children laugh.  They’re awesome at it (most of the time).   Giggles turn into cracking up, which turns into unstoppable belly laughs.  And just when you think they’re done, it starts all over again.

I am woefully far behind them.

In this last year, I want to recapture this sense of lightness.  I want to be amazed by subtlety, and to be reminded not to take this waning life too seriously.

We’re trying a little experiment in our house this week.  Can we make at least 3 people smile each day (not counting each other)?

Today we made an old lady walking down our street smile from ear to ear,  simply by smiling at her and saying hello.

When she had passed far enough behind, we high-fived each over, feeling  intoxicated by the connection.

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349 Days Remain

Deb and I have known each other for nearly 30 years.

When you know someone that long, you begin to turn into sisters.

If all of my goodbyes are as hard as this one, I’ll drown in a sea of tears before my final year is out.

I wrote these words in my journal the first night of my visit with Deb and her open-hearted partner, Sven.  I’d flown out to San Francisco so we could spend a final weekend together.  Having had another close friend go through a “Year to Live” project, they immediately understood why this trip was packed with such meaning.

“So what do you want to do with this time together? ” Deb asked pointedly.

All I wanted was to simply be together – preferably in nature.  And if I could get up close with a majestic redwood before I said farewell to California too, all the better.

With the weather gods on our side, we set out each morning.  Cherry trees were blossoming in February, and we spent hours wandering the trails along the dramatic coast line.

Mostly I spent the time feeling overwhelmingly grateful for our years of closeness.  We hugged a lot.  We acted silly, frolicking near the water’s edge.  We ate amazing local breads and cheeses (hey – why worry about cholesterol when you’re dying!), and sipped fresh brewed teas.  The three of us talked late into the night about life and life’s work, fighting waves of exhaustion to keep the conversation going.

When it came time for our farewell, I realized that my welling tears were more about the preciousness of our bond than a craving for its continuity.

Deb pressed a bright blue glass talisman from Sven’s recent trip to Turkey into my hand as we said goodbye in the BART station on Mission Street.

“It’s for protection on this journey, Barb, ” she said.

I love you so much, dear Deb.  Thank you for adding beauty to my days.

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