Faith on Friday: Not a Moral Project

messy-spirituality-coverI’m a mess. Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell understand. Ed Sheeran gets it. Life is messy. Spirituality is messy.

One of my (Orthodox) Godchildren recently sent me a link to this post by Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest I’ve met several times and often follow on Facebook or through his blog, “Glory to God For All Things.” This particular post was called, “You’re Not Doing Better.” The post received 84 comments—many of the commenters debating one another and asking Father Stephen for further clarification, explanation, etc. It’s not a simple essay, but it has a simple theme:

Our Christian lives are not a moral project.

He explains further:

The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.



With Great Lent just around the corner, many Christians are probably already beginning to worry about how “well” they will do this year. Will they do better with the fast? Will they do better in overcoming their passions?  Father Stephen blows this whole approach wide open and turns it on its head in his essay, bringing the reader back over and over to the one thing needful in our lives—God’s grace. It is a gift, not something we earn. In an effort to explain his approach better, he wrote this post a few weeks after the first one I linked to: “Saint Mary of Egypt and Moral Progress.”  This post garnered 120 comments! A couple of quotes:

There is a moral struggle; she battles the passions (with such ferocity!). But she describes her victory in terms of pure gift: a calm and sweet light.

Should we think of her as making “moral progress?” Were that the case, she would have no fear of the “dangers” and “violent thoughts.” She would have laid them to rest. What we see is repentance. Her repentance is not of the moral sort, a mere sorrow for deeds that have been done. Her repentance is an effort of self-emptying that is greeted by a Divine-filling.

This was especially helpful to me because (1) St. Mary of Egypt is my patron and (2) I still struggle with the same passions that have been my undoing over and over for my entire life. It’s actually comforting to hear Father Stephen explain that our goal isn’t moral progress. It’s receiving the gift of God’s grace.

You know if you’ve been reading my blog for a few years that I don’t like Lent. I don’t look forward to it at all. I don’t embrace the fast and I’m a huge failure at most ascetic struggles. And I react strongly to people—clergy or laity—who preach these things with any legalistic or fundamentalist vibes.

But repentance—and seeing myself as I truly am—is something I can do. By repentance I don’t mean being sorry for my sins. Often I’m not sorry (sin can be damn pleasurable and outright comforting at times) but by God’s grace—and it is a gift—I can sometimes turn away from the sin and choose life. Sometimes. But I won’t be grading my progress on this endeavor during Lent this year. Or ever.

Writing on Wednesday: Seventh Inning Stretch

sad-writerWhen I got home from my day trip to Jackson on Monday, I stepped out of my car and immediately felt a severe pain in my left knee. The pain continued through the night, morphing into a more generalized pain on the back of the knee and in the thigh yesterday and last night. It still hurts this morning. My husband asked me if I stopped to stretch halfway through my drives to and from Jackson. On the way down I stopped in Grenada and got a cup of coffee and stretched my legs for about ten minutes. But on the way home I drove the 200 miles nonstop, wanting to make it home before dark. Evidently my body needs to stretch more often than it once did.

Some say President Taft started the seventh inning stretch...

Some say President Taft started the seventh inning stretch…

The first time I went to a major league baseball game—back in 1998 in Atlanta (go, Braves!)—I was amused when organ music started playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and everyone stood up and sang. I wasn’t familiar with the custom of the seventh inning stretch, but it sure made sense after sitting in those (hard) seats for a couple of hours.

I’m not usually one to use sports metaphors in my writing (my husband and our pastor both use them in their homilies—no surprise there) but I woke up this morning thinking about the idea of a stretch and this is just what came to me. If our bodies need physical stretching, surely our creative and generative selves also need this.

As impressed as I am with writers like Donna Tartt, who patiently works for ten years at a time on a single novel (and all of them turn out to be best sellers and literary gems, one winning a Pulitzer) I’m just not wired that way. It’s been almost five years since I penned the first draft of Cherry Bomb, and as I continue the daunting task of another round of revisions (working with a third editor on the project) I panic at the thought of doing nothing else for the next few months. Anne Lamott once comparing writing a novel to marriage and writing an essay to a one-night stand.


But writing essays isn’t my only way to stretch my creative legs on a long drive. During the years since I started working on the novel, I’ve also organized and directed two writing conferences and one writing workshop, spoken at several writing events, published essays in two anthologies and participated in readings for those books, and hosted two “salons” in our home here in Harbor Town. So… as I move forward with novel revisions, I’m also making plans for:

Hosting another salon—this one in February will feature a young woman who has a creative approach to all things financial.

Editing and publishing an anthology. Still tweaking the theme/title and researching publishing options, so I haven’t sent out a call for essays yet, but stay tuned.

When I asked a friend and mentor whether or not I was crazy to start up a project like this (anthology) before finishing the novel, I loved her reply:

I don’t think it’s crazy. In fact it may be quite smart to have something tangible, different, or something that seems to be or shows progress amidst a terminal hamster wheel ride. I applaud you. And it strikes me as a good topic. 

Glad to hear the novel is still alive. Hang in there, but enjoy whatever new project recharges you.

Did I mention this friend has edited and published two anthologies and contributed an essay to another one while also writing and publishing her own book? And working in a university setting?

A terminal hamster wheel ride. That’s definitely what this novel feels like at times. But I already feel more excited about working on it now that I’ve also got new projects to recharge me.

I think I hear organ music.

Mental Health Monday: Alive Inside

This will be a short post. I just returned from a day trip to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother. She’s been at Lakeland Nursing Home for six years. During this time I’ve written many posts as I’ve watched Alzheimer’s Disease take over her brain and her life. Today I could barely wake her to get any response as I spoke with her. She was in bed, as she was when I visited last month. This is a new development. For most of the past six years she’s been up and dressed and out in the hall or the lobby or the dining room in her wheelchair, smiling and talking to whoever will listen. Today I wasn’t sure if she was even listening.

Alzheimer’s sucks.

0aliveinsidedocI just watched this film, “Alive Inside,” about how music can awaken people when they are slipping away. I’m thinking of putting together a playlist of songs that she might respond to and taking them with me on my next visit.

Stay tuned.

If you are inclined to pray, that would be good.
That’s all.

Faith on Friday: Catherine’s Pascha—Beautiful Children’s Book for Easter

Catherines Pascha coverMy dear friend, Charli Riggle, has written a wonderful children’s book about Pascha.  Catherine’s Pascha: A Celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church is available for pre-order now in hardcover and paperback and will be shipped on February 23.

Pascha is on April 12 this year, so the book comes out just in time for gifting to your favorite child, grandchild, Godchild or friend.

Illustrated by the talented R. J. Hughes, each page is a delight for the eyes. The story of Catherine’s family and her best friend, Elizabeth, is framed against a backdrop of Orthodox churches around the world—from New Orleans to Antarctica! Catherine’s family are “cradle Orthodox” and include a mix of Greek, Arab and Slavonic relatives. Elizabeth and her family are converts to Orthodoxy. Each page is full of illustrations of parishioners with very diverse backgrounds celebrating this beautiful feast together.

Charli Riggle, author

Charli Riggle, author

Pre-release parties and book signings are already scheduled in 15 states starting on February 1. One of those will be at my parish here in Memphis, St. John Orthodox Church on February 1.

Catherine dollDandelion Dolls is making Catherine and Elizabeth Dolls for a FOCUS Pittsburgh (a Greek Orthodox charity) fundraiser. Here’s a sneak preview of the Catherine Doll’s dress and petticoat.

I’m so proud of Charli for seeing this project through. What a treasure!

Writing on Wednesday: Unbridled and Authentic

As I begin yet another round of revisions on my novel, Cherry Bomb, I’m searching for inspiration for the difficult—but hopefully exciting—work ahead of me. Some of that inspiration is coming to me from fellow writers and mentors, and for that I am thankful. And then there are the writers I’ve never met who share their wisdom through excellent publications such as Writer’s Digest Magazine. (See my post from last Wednesday about the wonderful interview with Garth Stein.)

jf15_coverToday my inspiration came from Grant Faulkner’s article in the January/February 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, “More Ideas Faster: Writing With Abandon.” (And here’s a nice interview with Faulkner about National Novel Writing Month.) Faulkner’s description of his typical writing style sounds much like my own:

My approach formed itself around what I’ll call ‘ponderous preciousness.’ I’d conceive of an idea for a story and then burrow into it deliberately. I’d write methodically, ploddingly letting thoughts percolate, then marinate—refining and refining—sometimes over the course of years…. My writing moved slowly from one sentence, one paragraph, to the next, and I often looped back again and again, driven by the idea that I needed to achieve a certain perfection before I could move forward.

Although I’ve heard my good friend, Neil White, give his wonderful craft talk on the Art vs. Craft of Writing several times, I’ve never been able to make the shift from slow, methodical writing (revising as I write) to a style of writing—at least a first draft—with abandon, without care for craft, only for the art, opening wide the creative avenues down which the words carry the writer. I’ve never allowed myself to write what most authors affectionately refer to as “shitty first drafts.”

Grant Faulkner visits a familiar landmark on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, where the OTHER Mr. Faulkner holds court.

Grant Faulkner visits a familiar landmark on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, where the OTHER Mr. Faulkner holds court.

But now that I’m faced with the challenge of introducing new subplots to my novel—and letting the characters take off in directions I might not have originally planned for—I think I need a taste of this abandon and speed (Grant) Faulkner writes about. At one point he refers to the other Faulkner’s writing:

William Faulkner wrote as many as ten thousand words a day during his most prolific period, and generally averaged three thousand words.

If I’m going to add 20,000 words to my novel and set my characters free, I’m going to need some of this inspiration. And in following this advice, maybe I’ll find the voice I’ve been hoping to develop:

We don’t possess a voice as much as we create one, find one…. I’ll always tend to write in the slower rhythms of a walker because I didn’t train as a sprinter in my youth. Still, it’s nice to sometimes jump out of my more methodical process, whether in a rough draft or a fifth revision, and open a vein to search for something more unbridled and authentic.

Susan w FaulknerThat’s what I hope to do as I tackle this next round of novel revisions—to jump out of my usual process and allow my voice to become more unbridled and authentic. Again, here goes…. with help from a couple of Faulkners.


Mental Health Monday: Laughing at Spam

acedia_by_petah55-d2xk0jiHaving just spent an hour reading through some of my favorite and most helpful passages in Kathleen Norris’s book, Acedia & Me, I finally decided NOT to write about my struggle with depression this morning. Of course this is a cyclical thing (this post from two years ago sounds way too much like I’m feeling today!) and although we can learn new ways to deal with old shit, sometimes I think we need to just sit with it as quietly as possible for a while. It’s been about two weeks now—I’ve also been battling physical illness during this time—but the sun is shining today and the birds are singing outside my office and I’m choosing not to spend the rest of this beautiful morning dragging my readers through another round of my darkness.

So there.

Instead I’ll spend it exercising (yes!) and putting away the Christmas decorations we finally finished taking down this weekend.

spambotsAnd for my blog post I’ll share some ridiculous spam comments I’ve been saving as they attempt to find their way to my blog. At first I was annoyed by these. Until I actually read them and found myself laughing out loud. I hope you enjoy them.

Here’s the first one:

Magnificent goods from you, man. I’ve be mindful your stuff previous
to and you are simply extremely excellent. I actually like what you’ve obtained here, really like what you’re saying and the way in which by which you assert it.
You are making it entertaining and you continue to care for to keep it sensible.

This one is from someone named, “Acne Treatment During Pregnancy”:

I believe what you composed was very reasonable.
But, think on this, suppose you composed a catchier title?
I ain’t sugesting yoiur content isn’t good, however what if you addd a titpe that makes people desire more?
I mean >It is Well With My Soul: Reflections on the Feast of Theophany and American Culture @ is kinda vanilla.
You might llook att Yahoo’s front page and note how they create post headlines
to gra viewers too click. You ight add a related video or a pic
or two to grab people interested about everything’ve got
to say. Just my opinion, it might bring your posts a
litle bit more interesting.

This one is hilarious:

Well Nick, I do believe in fate and signs .and that was an aeswome sign. I haven’t been to the gym because the three guys that meant the world are now gone first Spencer, next Mike, and now YOU .SNAP is not the same anymore ..I’m glad to see you are exploring and meeting new and exciting people. Keep me updated .missing ya much (mym)Angela

And this one:

I really like what you guys are up too. This sort of clever work and exposure!
Keep upp the very good works guys I’ve included you
guts to my own blogroll.

And … seriously? This one from an auto repo company:

In general, it will usually cost over $50000 for a heavy-duty, used
tow truck. Some of the larger businesses have owner-operators
working for them or have their own tow trucks to
make repossessions easier. Personal bankruptcy should be a
last resort in debt management and debt consolidation.

Faith on Friday: The Assurance of Things Hope For…

anxiety-girlAs a little girl I had trouble sleeping. I was what my parents called a “worry wart.” When my head hit the pillow at night my mind would fill with negative thoughts that often kept me tossing and turning. On top of that, once I fell asleep I often talked and walked in my sleep. I can still remember the terror of waking up in the middle of one of these episodes and banging my hands on the four walls that felt like they were closing in on me (I’ve also always been claustrophobic) only to finally wake up to discover I had walked into my shower and closed the door behind me!

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, and can even be beneficial. It’s only when it becomes an on-going problem that we should really be concerned.

So where does faith come into the picture? Prayer sometimes helps. I say “sometimes” because it isn’t magic. It’s about the heart resting in the nous before the loving embrace of a compassionate God and believing He will help me get through whatever is before me. Last night the prayer helped. I fell asleep fairly quickly, feeling my racing heart slow as I said the words, “Lord have mercy,” over and over, taking deep, slow breaths to calm the anxiety.

If you’ve read this far you must be wondering what I was (and still am) anxious about. It’s a problem I’m having with Medicaid. For several years now they’ve been making up the difference in Mom’s Social Security and retirement income and the cost of living in a nursing home. But a few months ago Mom received a small check as part of an inheritance from some family property that sold down in Mississippi. I knew the check would cause problems, but I had no idea how much. Because I failed to report the income immediately (I did report it a couple of months later—I wasn’t trying to hide it) Medicaid is saying that Mom must repay Medicaid for the months that she was “ineligible” because of the inheritance money. On top of that, her ineligibility has caused her to go on “private pay” at the nursing home until she gets re-accepted for Medicaid. The bottom line is they want her to pay over $11,000 for those three months. The total inheritance money she received for the property was just over $4,000. She doesn’t have enough money in the bank to cover the repayment. She barely has enough to make next months’ private pay payment.

I’ve left two phone message at the Medicaid office in Jackson for the person who sent the letter but haven’t heard back. It’s a helpless and scary feeling. One that can easily produce sleepless nights and trigger unhealthy soothing options like overeating, which I’ve already been struggling with all week.

1384096503-4029850535Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Sometimes it’s easier for me to have faith about more abstract issues like the existence of God and Heaven than a solution to Mom’s financial woes. And really they’re my woes, not Mom’s, since she has no idea what’s going on as she lives in her little Alzheimer’s-produced world. Me? I’m going to try to continue to pray, not eat everything in the house, and write a letter to the Mississippi Office of Medicaid….

Writing on Wednesday: Patience… and Detours

tired-womanYesterday morning I had coffee with a wonderful writer/friend who has become a sort of mentor to me in both my spiritual/personal and writing life. And really, these aren’t separate (unless you’re schizophrenic) but all components of who I am. This friend took the time to read my novel, Cherry Bomb, and then to read the recent editor’s overview and talk with me about how to proceed from here. What a gift.
For one thing, I’ve been struggling with some of the editor’s suggestions, and then agreeing with others. But either way, I knew I had LOTS more work to do, and frankly, I’m tired of this book. It’s no longer fun. It’s grueling. And yet I still believe in it, as does the agent who has shown such patience with me.

My mentor/friend told me about her experience with a book she has written that hasn’t been published yet. The editor at the small press where it will be published asked her to re-write the book with a completely different approach last summer. And she spent months doing just that, while disagreeing with the editor’s suggestion. In the end, the editor agreed it was a bad idea and they went back to the writer’s original approach.

So when I look at my manuscript and consider making huge structural changes—as well as adding about 20,000 words to beef it up a bit—I’m a bit daunted. My friend’s encouragement helped me see the “fun” of adding those 20K words as I develop some minor characters and follow a few of the main character’s rabbit trails a bit. But the re-structuring is what makes me tired just thinking about it.
WD0215_1And then I read this wonderful interview in the February issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine. Garth Stein, author of the best-selling book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, took six years to follow up with a second book, A Sudden Light. The whole interview is interesting and helpful, but this is the part I’m clinging to today, because it shows some of what it takes to write a book you really believe in:

I spent quite a long time—years—writing five generations of the Riddell family history. I thought that was my novel. I wrote 100,00 words of the family from 1890 though 1990, and I thought it was good, but then I stepped back and look at it and said, “Oh, this isn’t my novel. This is research I’ve been doing in preparation to write my novel.”

Although that might sound discouraging, it actually gave me some new energy to return to my manuscript with a willingness to look at it with new eyes.

Another thing my mentor/friend suggested during our coffee yesterday morning was to set the novel aside for awhile and do something else. My kneejerk reaction was “Noooooo!” I already set it aside for a year due to my car wreck and recovery. And I don’t want to lose this agent’s interest, or my own momentum. And yet… I’ve got another project on the back burner (editing an anthology) that’s calling my name, and I’m gearing up to host another women’s salon soon, so maybe I need some other activities to keep me from getting tunnel vision. Or bored. Again, Stein says:

I’m a big fan of telling young writers to take all the detours they possibly can, both in life and in writing. Those detours are going to lead you to where you need to be. If someone says, “How would you like to spend two years in the Czech Republic for the state department?,” you should do that. You can always get back to your novel. You need to have as many experiences as possible.


And then he applies this approach to writing:

If a new character walks in or your character does something unexpected, you have to go with that. If it’s a dead end, you can always get back to your map. But chances are, it’s happening for a reason.

And chances are I moved into a house across the street from a wonderful new mentor for a reason. I can handle learning patience much easier if I also have some detours along the way.

Happy trails.

Mental Health Monday: Bubbling It Up with Kevin Costner and Anne Lamott

180-dec-2014-ATM-cover.imgcache.rev1417461840958.webDon’t blink. Life seems to go by so much faster as we get older, doesn’t it? Sometimes it scares me that I’ll be 64 in a couple of months. I laugh with my husband as we watch sports because I no longer make comments about how cute the athletes are. It’s the coaches I notice. I’ve had a crush on Jeff Fisher for several years now. But he’s still a young 56.

And then Kevin Costner shows up on the cover of the December 2014/January 2015 issue of AARP The Magazine. Yep, he’s still got it. And he turns 60 this month. How does he do it? He says:

When I show up I have to be ready. Whether the energy is there or not, I bubble it up…. I still like swinging for the fences.

His energy inspires me as I continue to work on projects that are important to me, even when I often feel old and tired.

LamottBut it’s a small column in the “My American Life” section by Anne Lamott that helped me the most this month. “Have a Little Faith: How Getting Older Deepened My Belief in Goodness… and in Myself” isn’t just about faith in God. As she says in the article:

It’s about faith in goodness, in life, in things mostly working out. And let’s not forget faith in ourselves—the conviction that we are loved and chosen—which is such a component of the spiritual life.

If you don’t get the magazine, you can read the entire article on Lamott’s Facebook page. She posted it here, on December 9. It’s short and powerful and worth a read. She talks about things I need to hear about over and over, like forgiving ourselves and others. And laughter. And when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” And the importance of community:

Twenty-nine years in a tiny church has proved to me that when two or more are gathered who believe in Goodness, they will take care of those in their community who are suffering, scared, lonely.

I’ve seen community in action when I’m suffering—especially the hands-on help I got from the people in my church in the weeks following my car wreck in 2013. And even in good times, when neighbors we’ve only known for a few months brought over Christmas gifts, like homemade bread, a Southern Living cookbook, a nice bottle of wine, and even a calendar with beautiful images of angels in it because the gifter noticed the angels on our walls when she came to a party at our house. These expressions of love from new friends—along with the sustaining love of life-long friends—bolster me up when I’m feeling down, or tired, or just old. They help me “bubble up.”

As I dive back into another round of revisions on my novel in the coming weeks (having put this task off during the holidays and having now run out of excuses) I’ll make time for coffee with a neighbor, lunch with a friend, and hopefully get back on the elliptical machine as often as my aching ankle will allow. To the casual observer it might not look like I’m swinging for the fences, but I know that I am. I still believe I can hit one out of the park. Thanks to my community, my family, and the inspiration of folks like Costner and Lamott. (And an occasional glimpse of Jeff Fisher.)



Faith on Friday: Letting Good Things Run Wild

1b9b63_531af8aafb23418a97c0b649d24bac10.jpg_srz_p_128_135_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzAngela Doll Carlson (don’t you just love her name?) and I have never met in person, but I feel like we know each other. We met on Facebook. And we’ve both contributed essays to the Saint Katherine Review. And we’re both converts to Orthodox Christianity. But our stories are completely different. Well, not completely, since Angela and her husband were part of a religious “start up” group which bore some similarities to the early years of the Evangelical Orthodox Church, which my husband and I were part of. But Angela grew up Catholic, so there’s that. And while I’ve written a memoir about my experience of becoming Orthodox, I decided not to publish it. Angel’s memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition, was recently published by Ancient Faith Press, and it’s terrific.

1b9b63_6061d920559d49698ae6b1bb7aaa13dd.jpg_srz_p_302_408_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzWait… don’t stop reading if you think this is only a book for Orthodox Christians. Or Christians in general. It’s so much more than that. It’s a book, as the Orthodox poet and theologian Scott Cairns says, that might “comfort, serve and assist other pilgrims along the way.” Yes, it’s about Angela’s spiritual pilgrimage and it’s filled with candid looks into a pilgrim’s honest grappling with issues many of us face, but few of us talk (or write) about.

Like fasting and being clean. Like confession and communion (and who’s allowed and who’s not). Like how prayer cleans your nous and how saints open windows when God closes doors. But ultimately it’s about freedom, although Angela doesn’t use that word. I almost chose “freedom” as my “OneWord365” for 2015, so maybe I look for it everywhere now. But I don’t expect to find it within the rules—or the structure—of the Church. Angela learned something about this from her friend, Beth, an artist and fellow homeschooling mom who eventually sent her daughter to a traditional school:

Beth had tried homeschooling…. Her artist-mom temperament made her a natural life teacher…. It sounded good on paper, this pairing of freedom and bonding and making the world a vast learning environment…. When Beth told me about the new plan to send Grace to school… the first thing she said was that Grace needed structure. They both needed it…. Because it allowed them both to be wild in their art lives.

Wild in their art lives. Structure provides that freedom? Angela points out that G. K. Chesterton agrees that it’s needed for “good things to run wild.”

One reason I started writing (painting) icons is also one of the reasons I quit—because writing icons requires lots of structure. There are many rules and even Church canons governing the process, and at first I found comfort in those rules. But eventually I realized that I was hiding within the liturgical art form when everything in my being was crying out to be “wild in my art life.” Iconography isn’t for everyone. Neither is Orthodoxy.

Which is why even after her chrismation Angela feels that she is still only “nearly Orthodox”:

My chrismation didn’t fix me, because I will always be in need of healing from the bleeding wounds I brought into the faith with me the day I was welcomed. I am always going to be healing, always practicing the faith, just nearly Orthodox—almost there, within reach, welcome at the feast, given food for the journey—because the road is long and winding, and it was never about the destination. It was always about the road.

In my own personal experience I have to say that it IS about the destination for me. If it was only about the road, I might not have made it. The road was (and often still is) too difficult. Too full of dangerous curves and unsafe passages. Sometimes I don’t feel that the destination (the Orthodox Church) was worth the journey, which damaged my soul as much or more than my years leading up to that journey. But I can still appreciate Angela’s story. And it’s so well written that it should be read and enjoyed for its own sake. She figured out a way to be “wild in her art” and to produce a memoir that is truly a work of art.

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