Tag Archives: poetry

listening to birches

Poets can open our hearts and touch us. Robert Frost does this for me in his poem ‘Birches’.  The complete poem can be found at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44260 or in The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969).

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

And then after Frost digresses about how ice storms bend the trees downwards, he continues:

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

 

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Each of us may be touched differently by this poem. The full poem can transport us into the woods, the natural world. The description of the boy can take us back to the sense of adventure and freedom of swinging and climbing as children, and even our adventures as adults. But the poet also gives a way to think of our desires to be free of the constraints of the world, when our faces ‘burn and tickle with the cobwebs’ and ‘one eye is weeping from a twig’s having lashed across it.’  Yet, he reminds us:  ‘Earth’s the right place for love.’  We launch out in this wild world that is the right place for love.

light through the crack

cohen2lynnunderwoodcrop

drawing by lynn

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be….

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

These lines are from the song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen, a great poet who expressed his words in song deep and resonant and spiritual. The words of that song, “forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” are so potent.

In an interview on his creative process, he said: “It’s very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. But I was always interested in music and I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit…. I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things… I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things. I mean the important things — like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else — and I always thought this was the way to do it.”

He struggled with depression all his life, and he commented on the effect on him of the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, “the loneliness was dissolved, and you felt that you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was OK. Not only was it OK, but it was the way you embraced the sun and the moon.”

Here is a link to a performance by Cohen in Ireland of the song Anthem : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4U4lXgvorU

still life

art by lynn

Reflecting on the words ‘still life’ I thought of great artists I admire. How Matisse and Chardin and Cezanne see so much ‘life’ in groups of objects. I bought this jar of mustard because I loved the container. The idea of “Löwensenf” appealed to me, and I loved the shape and colors of the jar. I was also fascinated by the shape of this wooden gizmo that is used to release muscle tension.

Lion soft and strong

Mustard bites and warms

Pressing muscles till they melt

Grinding gently

Freeing flavour

means to a means

Well Water

What a girl called “the dailiness of life”watercompressedlynnunderwood
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
a means to a means to) is well water
pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
and hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
a sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
the wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

(by Randall Jarrell, Vintage Contemporary Poetry, pg 65-66, Discovered in the notebooks of Gertrude Beversluis)

Immanuel Kant, not my favorite philosopher, was adamant that we should treat people as “ends in themselves”, not only as means to an end.  Some people try to manipulate us, flatter us, and basically see us as means to their ends, ways to get what they want to happen. This is demeaning for us, even if we don’t consciously realize what’s going on.

We even do this to ourselves in our daily lives. And this is what this poem reminds me of. I so often slip into putting myself on the “squirrel-wheel”, pushing the wheel, getting only rusty water.  When I treat myself as only a means to an end I demean myself.  Instead I want to see daily life like the author does at the end of the poem, and gulp from the clear fresh water of the dailiness of life as I do tasks, relaxing with pleasure into the flow of life.

milagros

I found myself trying to find words and image to convey something of this tiny arm and hand full of promise.

Milagrosdrawing by lynnb

 

Loose

in the breeze of the holy

spirit

draw near

flow through

unclench –

no need.  New

power now.

Will of good pleasure

through my body

my arms

my hands.

 

 

valentine days

photo of my daughter by lynn 2015

photo by lynn 2015

I received an email from a counselor/researcher in Kenya last week. He was researching what makes for flourishing marriages. And it reminded me of a study in the Science of Compassionate Love book that reported predictors of good marriages many years on. When people began their relationships with both a global adoration of the other, and an accurate picture of their flaws, they had a better chance of the relationship still being strong and good years later. Being loved by someone who knows our flaws, our weaknesses, and still thinks we are wonderful, ‘the bee’s knees,’  is so great. I think it has a divine source, a source that is ‘more than’. Some of us do not experience this kind of love in romantic relationships, but taste it in other human relationships and/or our relationship with God. To receive this kind of love requires vulnerability on our part.

In my Perspectives: Art, Science, and Spirituality class, one assignment is to select a piece of art — film, poetry, visual art, fiction — that represents compassionate love. One young man brought this one in. When he read it to the class, this poem gave most of us a taste of a kind of love that is truly nourishing. It transcends the romantic, helping us to inhabit eternal love.

Gate C22 by Ellen Bass

At gate C22 in the Portland airport

a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed

a woman arriving from Orange County.

They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after

 

the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons

and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,

the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other

like satin ribbons tying up a gift. And kissing.

 

Like she’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,

like she’d been released from ICU, snapped

out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down

from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

 

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.

She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine

she kept saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish

kisses like the ocean in the early morning

 

of a calm day at Big Sur, the way it gathers

and swells, taking each rock slowly

in its mouth, sucking it under, swallowing it

again and again. We were all watching–

 

the passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San Jose,

the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing

Cinnabons, the guy selling sunglasses. We couldn’t

look away. We could taste the kisses, crushed

 

in our mouths like the liquid centers of chocolate cordials.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back

and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost

as though he were a mother still

 

opened from giving birth, like your mother

must have looked at you,

no matter what happened after–

if she beat your, or left you, or you’re lonely now–

 

you once lay there, the vernix

not yet wiped off and someone gazing at you

like you were the first sunrise seen from the earth.

The whole wing of the airport hushed,

 

each of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,

her plaid bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse,

little gold hoop earrings, glasses,

all of us, tilting our heads up.

 

From Mules of Love, by Ellen Bass, BOA Editions Ltd., 2002.

 

 

the beautiful unknown

drawing by lynn

                                      

 

There will be something,

anguish or elation,

that is peculiar to this day alone.

I rise from sleep and say:

Hail to the morning!

Come down to me, my beautiful unknown.

 

Hail to the Morning, by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ICS Publications,1999.

welcoming

rentcolor3LynnUnderwood

from Scaffolding: Selected Poems, by Jane Cooper, Tilbury House, 1993

Our relationships with others challenge our sense of ourselves, and our perception of the spaces we live in. How do we listen? How do we make space for each other? How do we envision the places we live in together?

love remains

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross”

wrote the modernist poet Ezra Pound in Canto 81.

drawing by lynn

                                                                                 drawing by lynn

Limited descriptions in the media and by others about the way the world is structured frustrate me. Pinning dead butterflies to a wall, scientists and those describing science so often remove the vibrancy from concepts and the rich tapestry of life. Science is very useful – informing our understanding of the world in practical ways that can make life so much better. I spent years doing cancer research and public health work, and the result, even of my work, was that some lives were saved, through earlier detection. But to frame everything up in scientific terms, to give reductionism and determinism the high ground, is a mistake. Science can inform our understanding of love – illuminating some of the situations and circumstances that might promote love – and in other ways such as helping us understand some of the psychological and biological impediments. But in the end, there is something about self-giving love centered on the good of another, that is just amazing, and cannot be reduced to equations, and mechanical and chemical flux. A transcendent element of a full life.

Ode to Things

The objects in our lives are made up of particles of the universe, and they can also unite the past and present for us.  The most ordinary things can speak of life to us. How can we tune in to feel, taste, or see the ‘more than’ in the mundane objects around us? Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist, geologist and priest, said that his first ‘feeling of God’ was when he held a piece of metal.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I love things with a wild passion,

extravagantly,

I cherish tongs,

and scissors

I adore cups….

I love all things,

not only the grand,

but also the infinite

-ly

small.

Ode to Things, by Pablo Neruda, from Neruda’s Garden: An Anthology of Odes, selected and translated by Maria Jackett, Latin America Literary Review Press, Pittsburgh Penn,1995.

useless?

photo by macrina wiederkehr

photo by macrina wiederkehr

Useless

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu:
“All your teaching is centered on what has no use.”

Chuang Tzu replied:
“If you have no appreciation for what has no use
You cannot begin to talk about what can be used.
The earth for example, is broad and vast
But of all this expanse a man uses only a few inches
Upon which he happens to be standing.
Now suppose you suddenly take away
all that he is not actually using
So that, all around his feet a gulf
Yawns, and he stands in the Void
with nowhere solid except right under each foot:
How long will he be able to use what he is using?”

Hui Tzu said: “It would cease to serve any purpose.”

Chuang Tzu concluded:
“This shows the absolute necessity of what has ‘no use.’”

(From The Way of Chuang Tzu, transl. by Thomas Merton, 1965)

the real work

art by lynn

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

By Wendell Berry

My favorite line in this poem is the final one.  Most of the beautiful music of the sound of water is made when it is impeded, obstructed somehow. Music made from what seem like obstructions in my life. But the other lines of the poem are important for me to hear too. Think of those people who are always totally sure of what to do next. They are not usually the wisest ones. What do we do when up to our hips in the mud?

http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/675

The House at Rest

How do we create the space for silence in the midst of the busy-ness of our thoughts, our activities, our feelings – a space of deep rest within, where we can draw strength for our actions and our effective presence in the world? So often our days consist of constant reaction to various things without a sense of a center from which we act. How do we hush the busy house of our minds and bodies so that our actions flow out from that inspired core in good and effective ways? This poem by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poems of Jessica Powers (ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1989) captures this imaginatively.

The House at Rest

On a dark night

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh, happy chance!—

I went forth unobserved,

My house being now at rest.     

– Juan de la Cruz

How does one hush one’s house,

each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,

the rooms made restless with

remembered laughter

or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,

the stairs that vacillate from up to down,

windows that bring in color and event

from countryside or town,

oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?

 

The house must first of all accept the night.

Let it erase the walls and their display,

impoverish the rooms till they are filled

with humble silences; let clocks be stilled

and all the selfish urgencies of day.

 

Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.

Caution the doors against both foes and friends,

and try to make the windows understand

their unimportance when the daylight ends.

Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny

the passages their aimless to and fro.

Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.

How well repaid that tenant is, how blest

who, when the call is heard,

is free to take his kindled heart and go.

 

 

difficulties

By now I think I ought to have what it takes to do what I am doing, to deal with the various challenges of life.  But so many things still feel like an adventure (that is the more optimistic term) and I need to find new resources and develop new skills.  I like the poem “Transcendental Etude” by Adrienne Rich, from the book The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974 – 1977  (Norton, 1978). Here is an excerpt:

fly magified lynnunderwood comprNo one ever told us we had to study our lives,

make of our lives a study,

as if learning natural history or music,

that we should begin with the simple exercises first

and slowly go on trying the hard ones,

practicing till strength and accuracy became one with the daring

to leap into transcendence, take the chance of breaking down the wild arpeggio or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.

–And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once

before we’ve even begun to read or mark time,

we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hard movement,

the one already sounding as we are born….

compassionate love

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

St Kevin and the Blackbird, by Seamus Heaney is part of Chapter 6, “The Flow of Love”, in my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book.  I wrote:

 I think about love for my daughters and how it feels. I wonder about how it influences their obvious care for others. Where did it come from? What keeps it going?

An Irish legend about St. Kevin forms the basis of a poem by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes St. Kevin kneeling in his monastic cell, praying with arms outstretched, one out the window through the bars of the cell. A bird settles in his outstretched hand and makes a nest there. Because of his compassionate love, Kevin just stays in that position until the eggs hatch. It must have been very hard, and he would have become very tired and wanted to stop. Not even reflecting on the logistics, where did he find the energy to continue holding the nest while the eggs hatched? Heaney in his poem touches on the eternal and rooted wellspring of love in the midst of difficulties, and how care for the bird allows that wellspring to flow through Kevin.

Are you holding any birds that have begun to nest? Do you ever find yourself stuck in the midst of commitment and care, in distress yet still desiring to love? Do you find yourself overextended in some way or another? And then what do you do? How do you sustain this love and care? How does that feel? ….”

This drawing of mine was inspired by the wonderful poem. Here is a link to Heaney reading it with his soft Northern Irish accent. http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/st-kevin-and-blackbird

marvel

What is a spiritual experience after all?  Sometimes we can have a sense of what it ought to be and that can get in the way. I find that this poem, Veni Creator, by Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian-Polish poet, from the book, Collected Poems, 1931-1987, speaks to me.

Come, Holy Spirit,

bending or not bending the grasses,

appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,

at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards,

or when snow covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.

 

I am only a human being: I need visible signs.

I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.

Many a time I asked, you know it well,

that the statue in church lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.

But I understand that signs must be human,

therefore, call one person, anywhere on earth,

not me-after all I have some decency-

and allow me, when I look at that person,

to marvel at you.

anniversary

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

Wedding by Alice Oswald

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

This poem, Wedding, by Alice Oswald, is from The Thing in the Gap-stone Style (Oxford University Press)

Star

Joseph Brodsky, Nobel laureate, wrote a poem for Christmas each year for 18 years. When asked if he was a religious person, Brodsky, a Russian Jew, responded: “I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” He once referred to himself as a “Christian by correspondence.” As the poet Michael Collier wrote, “Brodsky’s religious uncertainty keeps his Nativity efforts clean of tinsel and commercialized sentiments.” These poems can bring us closer to what it means, no matter what our actual beliefs, that God took on human form and really knows how it feels to be like us. Here is one of them.

Star of the Nativity by Joseph Brodsky from Nativity Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001)

 

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold,

to horizontality more than to a mountain,

a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;

it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast,

the steam out of the ox’s nostrils,

Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.

He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray clouds, upon the child in the manger,

from far away—from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star

was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.

 

It must be somewhere

Study-of-Clouds-largeMUSIC
By Juhan Liiv

It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

Translated from the Estonian by H. L. Hix and Jüri Talvet  Source: Poetry (June 2011) http://bit.ly/kxfS8D

roots dangling

roots on_lynnunderwood

It is so much easier, when we speak to a group of people, to pretend to be someone we are not, taking the stance of the totally confident and sure expert. It takes courage to be who we are, warts and all. We think somehow if we seem perfect, then what we say will be more compelling, that people will take us more seriously. But it is when we stand with the mud adhering to our hands, and the roots dangling, that we speak authentically. I did this drawing to remind myself of this. In these days with airbrushing of photos and massaging of images on the web and in broadcast, “polished” seems to be the norm.  But who we really are, with roots dangling, mud clinging, imperfections sparkling in the eternal sun – that is real beauty.

Stained Glass

art by lynn

We,
people
are living stained glass windows
Beautiful in ourselves.
Meant
too
for
light;
for color-bathing others.

Marlene Halpin OP

heaney and the beauty of creation

The first of the 16 questions my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book explores is, “Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?”

A favorite poet of mine, Seamus Heaney, died last week, and it seemed a good time to offer this  excerpt from my book, which includes part of one of his poems.

“Experiences of wonder are there for the taking. They are around us every day. Awe-inspiring colors and sounds and touch-sensations. Signs of and pointers to the transcendent. When we have these experiences, we touch the transcendent as obviously as we touch the chairs we sit on. It may seem even more real. These feelings can provide encouragement to us. When I look out over a lake, watch a sunset from a balcony, see the bud of a flower in a vase in my apartment, watch the flame of a candle, there can be for me a vivid sense of the “more than.”

“What do you see as the beauty of creation? Can you see it in tears? In faces? In the rough and the smooth?

“Poetry, through expert use of language, can capture this well, and call our attention to these experiences.”

Seamus_Heaney Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” is a great example of this, and I quote it in the book; you can read it now here on line.

After Heaney’s quotation, I continue in my book,

“If we live in the countryside or near water or spectacular scenery, this can seem easier. But even in an urban environment, evidence of this is there for the taking. Parks, the sky, plants in our apartment, the sound of water, the beauty of people’s faces. And on the other hand, we can miss the chance even in the midst of the obvious. While living in a village on a mountainside in Switzerland, the Alps were usually in view, but I could be so consumed by my own preoccupations that I just did not notice this awe-inspiring beauty. These experiences are not defined by the setting, although it may be easier to feel in some places. You may want to go somewhere that helps you to see this beauty. Do you find space in your life for “wow”? There is something about the very substance of life itself that can inspire us, keep our hearts from drying up. When are you aware of it?”

enhancing spiritual connection through poetry in a secular context

Enhancing Spiritual Connection through Poetry in a Secular Context. Lynn Underwood. University College London. Institute for Advanced Study, Senate House, June 29, 2012.

Abstract:

Poetry can open the mind to better grasp the complexity of the divine, the holy, and help make connections in down-to-earth ways, integrated into daily life.  The language of poetry and the use of metaphor and apparent paradox can expand our conceptual understanding.  The concreteness of poetry can also help ground this in the substance of our days.  This paper will give examples of specific poetry from Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Rainer Maria Rilke, R.S. Thomas, Jessica Powers and others, and point to specifically religious poetry from a variety of faith traditions, describing how they have been useful in the classroom for enriching capacity for sense of communication with the divine for those from specific faith traditions and those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Poetry provides words that can open doorways without reducing the spiritual to a meaningless common denominator – leading instead to the depths and richness of religious traditions.

Poetry can help those of faith and those not comfortable in a religious tradition to enhance sense of connection with God and become increasingly aware of that connection in daily life. It can bridge traditions and beliefs and has been used effectively by the author of this paper in a variety of secular college classroom settings and in small group work.  Approaching poetry in a contemplative rather than analytic way facilitates this engagement, and journaling encourages direct encounter with the poems themselves in written conversation.  Structured group discussion of personal responses to the poems can also provide mutual illumination of contexts and invitation.

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neuroethics, the arts, and the nature of the human person

Neuroethics, the Arts and the Nature of the Human Person. Lynn Underwood. Medical Humanities Conference, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, September 29-30 2011.

Abstract

The arts and humanities are essential to effectively grapple with the questions that arise from advances in neuroscientific technologies and treatments. They are essential for medical practitioners as they make treatment and policy decisions. But even those not professionally involved with health care need the arts and humanities as we make decisions about what kinds of pharmaceutical and neurosurgical interventions are appropriate for ourselves and those we care for, policy decisions regarding issues such as human responsibility within health care and criminal justice, and decisions about how to regulate and respond to marketing of neurotechnologies of various kinds.

Also, neuroscientists and interpreters of neuroscience make claims about how ethics operates and the nature of the human person. The humanities can provide us with tools for doing the kinds of reflection necessary to effectively accept or discard these claims. The arts can help to reveal qualities and issues in novel and useful ways.

This presentation will lay out the scope of the problems, and highlight some particularly thorny issues.  Also, it will outline some of the ways to engage students, those in the health sciences and others, with these topics using the humanities and arts to better equip them for the particular challenges neuroscientific knowledge and technologies have brought to the fore. In this context the presenter will draw on four years of classroom experience teaching both Neuroethics and general medical humanities using these methods.

Examination of how we envision the nature of the human person is essential to adequately address many of the issues that increasing knowledge and technology in neuroscience has raised. Film, memoir and poetry, as well as insights from philosophy and religious studies, can usefully inform our decision-making and attitudes.  The visual arts, particularly portraiture and self-portraiture can give us special insight into the nature of the human person. The emergence of popular and scientific appreciation for the complexities of decision-making enable us to see why approaching a complex topic through the arts can give insight that can complement and enhance other kinds of analysis. The arts can enable us to enter into situations in ways beyond merely speculating on how we think we would feel in a given situation. Empathic engagement as well as enhanced sensibilities can result from the inclusion of the arts and humanities in these discussions.

The presentation will outline some of the issues and give specific examples of humanities and art resources that have been effectively used in teaching situations.

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