Tag Archives: South Africa

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 2 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here.

I was “saved” in the Newcastle Full Gospel Church, when my father randomly decided he would go to church, prompted by an invitation from his supervisor at work. A visit by aliens would have been less surprising. I walked down the aisle that Sunday morning and “gave my heart” to the Viking-look-alike-god I encountered all those years earlier. I waited for the magic to happen as I was told I was now “saved” and transformed and a whole new being. In a sense, I did experience magic – suddenly, I belonged to a group of people who smiled constantly and fed me delicious South African desserts. The wandering little girl, now in her teens, had found a home.

Like a woman possessed, I frantically built the structures of certainty and absolutism around my life, following my coming to faith. I embodied the zealous figure of Saint Paul before his conversion, slaughtering any and all ideas that contained seeds of doubt and paradox. Fundamentalism, with its overtures in literalism and dogmatism, became the strong tower that produced my concept of God. I was a loyal soldier to the cause. Finally, I had found something that soothed my angst over what appeared to be a harsh, confusing, and meaningless world.

In the meantime, on the geographical front, we returned to Germany for a year and then migrated to Australia. It was in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1984 that I would meet the man who would become my life partner. He was travelling up the coast with a friend and dropped in to visit my church, an offshoot of the large Pentecostal faith community called Waverley Christian Fellowship based in Melbourne. His father was one of the ministers there. So, one bright, sunny day in February 1985, I packed up my old Valiant station wagon affectionally called “Boris,” and embarked on the long drive to Melbourne, sleeping at the side of the road along the way. So begins my story of a three-decade-long journey as an integral part of a conservative religious institution and my addiction to certainty.

Kierkegaard was an admirer of Socrates and the Socratic dialectical method. He observed how Socrates would consistently examine a student’s certainty in an area of knowledge because certainty eventually leads to paradox. Paradox provided a pathway to higher truth. Kierkegaard believed that engaging in this dialectical process would offer more valid glimpses of the Divine in one’s journey. This belief, for him, was the only developmental certainty – the trek through the “stages of life’s way.” I found this to be a helpful reflection as I look back on thirty years lived within a conservative Pentecostalism that had little room for questions or paradox. Pentecostalism has a strong emphasis on spiritual manifestations. It tends to resist critique and is at times known for its anti-intellectual stance.

I often wonder why it took me nearly thirty years to wake up in the matrix. I think my internal fear of chaos and confusion collaborated so well with the structural ideologies in a place that refused to question. I do not want to give the impression that these were in any way “bad” years – they were not. I experienced a sense of happiness and fulfillment in the various roles I filled in the megachurch of which my husband would become Senior Minister in 1995. They were heady days of success, expansion, and growth. I developed as a speaker and was travelling the world, delivering profundities from various platforms about everything certain and absolute.

People cheered. I had found truth.

In our structure-building phase of life, we often find safety and solace in organisations that exude confidence and assurance. This includes religious institutions that embrace biblical literalism as a form of orthodoxy. They provide an irresistible framework of certitude for anyone seeking guarantees or formulas that will work in this wild ride called life. Unless we foster a strong culture of critique and self-reflection in these settings, we will mistakenly confuse our flourishing ego as faith and our elitism as a community. With such a narrative, held in place by praise and success, it becomes increasingly difficult to change and grow.

Richard Rohr writes, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future”(Falling Upwards). My ego had hired my love for certainty and structure as security guards to prevent any ideological challenge or change. Working together with the idea of ‘success’ and applause from the multitude, they dulled my senses – a sort of concoction that has us cling to fantasies and keep us blind.

Maybe that is why I didn’t question hierarchical structures or patriarchal dominance for such a long time?

My love affair with certainty ensured that I obediently nodded to ideas and doctrines that were presented as absolute truth, yet jarred deeply with my values. At least I submitted in the early years when influential leaders would propagate the myth of male headship. However, both my husband and I began to fall down the rabbit hole as we opened ourselves to voices outside our tight-knit community, and the wheels of change began to slowly move and creak. Questions started to arise, often uttered in hushed tones, questions that prodded at some of the communal ideology adopted through the adherence to dogma stemming from the Holiness and Latter Rain Movement.

This was not easy.

Holy Cows are very precious.

However, paradox was calling … and her voice was growing louder … (to be continued)

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Meandering Paths (Part 1)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book. They are reflections of a very painful season in my life. However, hindsight also provides me with deep gratitude. May these posts offer some hope and courage to all fellow liminal pilgrims.

Never knowing which way was up

Until I drank the bitter cup

And then the sky it disappeared

And I was falling without fear

Falling, falling without a sound

Down down down down down down down

This is who I am, this is what I need

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is how I live, this is how I bleed

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is what I know, this is how I think …

Joel Sattler

 

Storytelling is the aorta that runs through my family and ancestors. It has nourished us for generations. The traditional German Kaffeeklatsch may start with just two or three people drinking coffee and eating Sahnekuchen, but within minutes the room is filled with invisible guests, joshing for their stories to be heard from another time and place. I was a fortunate child to grow up surrounded by such rich narrative.

The stories of war and displacement were never far from the lips of my Oma. She lost her husband, my grandfather, in the battle of Stalingrad. As a young mother, with my aunt who was a toddler and my father who was a three-month-old baby at the time, she had to flee her hometown of Lyck (Elk, Poland) as the Soviet Army approached in 1945. Her survival stories were harrowing: stories of despair, hunger, abuse, but also of hope. The man she married six years later would provide a safe haven for a young widow and her children.

My mother suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder all her life, most of those years without a diagnosis and unable to understand her own sense of consistent, heightened anxiety and insomnia. She was older than my father and remembers the war – running for bomb shelters, shaking violently as the fighter jets approached, the sound of Gestapo boots on the street, and her Jewish neighbour jumping off her balcony to her death so she would not be arrested. Her childhood was turbulent and traumatic.

The stories my parents and grandparents told shaped so much of my world. I grew up in a loving and nurturing home, but I was not shielded from these stories, and for that, I am so grateful. It prepared me for what I was about to experience as a seven-year-old when my parents packed up house and moved from Germany to South Africa.

Most immigrants can relate to the sense of disorientation and disconnection experienced when one settles into a country that is very different from their accustomed culture and social norms. I felt as if I was caught in a giant tidal wave of learning and new experiences. I did not find my feet for several years. I had to learn English and Afrikaans – an apartheid-torn South Africa had a dual-language approach. I also learnt Zulu. But all that took time. In the meantime, I became the focal point of playground fun and belittling. Children show little mercy when they can distract potential bullies to prey that is more vulnerable than they are. The school library became my safe place during recess and the Giant Illustrated Catholic Children’s Bible became a source of wonder.

I had no embedded idea about the blue-eyed, blonde-haired man I was looking at in that Bible. He reminded me of someone from Norse mythology or a Viking character that featured in one of the many stories my Oma told. It would be quite a few years later before I would encounter this man again. At that time, I learnt his name: Jesus.

It was the system called apartheid – an ultimate form of marginalization, bullying, and oppression of people based on the hue of their skin — that reminded me that the world is not really a safe place. My lack of friends at school was quickly compensated for by the children of the cleaners and helpers at my mother’s hair salon. It was with their help that I mastered Zulu long before Afrikaans. It was their presence that exposed me to the cruelty I now witnessed in person, not in stories. My Zulu friends could not go into the shops I visited, they had separate drinking fountains, it took them a long time to find a public toilet they were permitted to use, and they often had random grown-ups shout at and abuse them. They were not permitted to be in the streets of the area where I lived. I have a distinct memory of the neighbour across the road beating an African man unconscious because he took a shortcut across a nearby field. That neighbour then dusted off his suit and got into his car to go to church. I later found out he was an elder at the local Dutch Reformed church. To me, he remains immortalized in my historical narrative as the archetypal arsehole.

These were some of my pre-liminal stories and life experiences. I would dream of a better world. In my imagination, I was the super-hero who would put every bully in his place and liberate the oppressed. I was a child waiting to become a zealot, looking for a cause. More than that, I was a child desperately looking for belonging, safety, and predictability. I found it in institutional fundamentalist religion … (to be continued)

 

 

Dismantling Our Ivory Towers One Human Story At A Time

“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)

Ivory Tower by Hideyoshi on DeviantArt

For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”

Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …

Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.

One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfillment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass.” The figure Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Litany of Loreto) references her as, “Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, house of gold…”

Over time the Ivory Tower became a symbolic space of retreat and solitude. It was a feud between poets that drew the ‘living in an ivory tower’ expression into a negative notion and by the 1930’s it had become a politically charged. It became a pathological place. Today, anyone living in an ivory tower is held with certain contempt and distrust. Ivory Tower Dwellers are thought to have an attitude of superiority, divorced from reality and the rawness that is known as life.

Ivory towers do become strongholds. They become a place of privilege and entitlement. They delude Tower Dwellers into thinking this is the real world, the true world – I guess in a sense Ivory Towers are the set of the Truman show. They keep those who dwell in them from reality – a huge moat of wealth, power, fear, superstition and dogmatism bolstering the separation. So what would cause anyone who has fallen under the spell of the enchanted Ivory Tower to wake up to the delusion? Normally freedom comes with one human story at a time.

You see, that disgruntled parishioner all those years ago woke me up from the slumber of certainty. It wasn’t her hostile words, but her life story that caught my attention. Suddenly some of the ideas that I had fashioned and formed so carefully in that tower, surrounded by people who thought exactly like me, was found wanting in the light of her story. A little splinter entered my heart that day, a splinter of grace and providence. It would take many more of such encounters to free me from the illusion held in Ivory Towers.

The Ivory Tower begins to crumble like a Jenga tower when we recognise our human connectedness. Herman Melville wrote, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The way we connect is by recognising the fear that keeps us removed from others, by learning to listen: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention …” (Rachel Naomi Remen). Listening to each other breaks down barriers.

So, friend, perhaps we need to face the hard truth that in some ways we all live in ivory towers of our own making? Perhaps some have taken shelter in Ivory Tower organisations that provided a sense of safety and security – but it is time to step out again? Ivory Tower Dwellers stagnate, and fear and paranoia creeps in, feeding our sense of elitism or ‘specialness’. We adopt cult-like thinking and mannerisms. Stepping out of our towers can be terrifying. And then we look up … to a world that is so much bigger and beautiful than we ever thought possible. The Ivory Tower is recognised for the childish notion it is. Our life and our story becomes connected to the many colourful stories of people around us. And after a while, we look back and realise that we have been forever changed one human story at time.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
– Madeleine L’Engle –

 

Why don’t you all take a hike?!

A repost and a good reminder for 2018!

“There comes … a longing never to travel again except on foot.”

Wendell Berry, ‘Remembering’

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“Komm, wir gehen im Wald spazieren”,  was our family weekend anthem when I was growing up. “Let’s take a walk in the forest.” Like all children, I often had much better things to do than to trudge through a forest, but my parents never understood this. So we would walk for miles through the woodlands surrounding our village in northern Germany, and later through the bushland in South Africa. Both my parents were interested in local flora and fauna, and to this day dad brews all sorts of healing potions from herbs and exotic plants that he finds or grows … but more of that in another post.

When I married and had children, I became as cruel as my parents. Amidst howls of protest, I would drag the offspring from their crucial tasks of mutilating creatures on the computer screens to take a walk. “It’s sooooobeach-768642_1280o boring, mum!” Yes, it is. It certainly is. When we compare a walk to what assaults our senses on a daily basis, from news channels to social media updates, advertisements, and a very loud world, a walk in the woods is by comparison … boring!

A walk in nature creates perspective. When I walk past a giant gum, I consider how this magnificent tree has stood the test of time. It is still here, while many ‘important’ people are not. The chances are that it will still be here when you and I no longer walk on this earth. Apart from the scared wallaby dashing past me at break-neck speed, nature reminds me of rhythm and seasons, and how in a bygone era, humans used to try and live by these. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” said Albert Einstein. Studies reveal how great minds; Goethe, Dickens, Darwin, Steve Jobs, and others, all took a daily walk. It has a direct, positive effect on a person’s health, creativity, productivity, and communication. Life makes a little more sense when you take a walk.

Wanderlust’ runs deep in a German’s veins. It’s hard to translate this wonderful word. It is about a philosophy, a way you look at life. It is insatiable curiosity, a desire to discover and learn. The word is derived from ‘wander’ and holds the idea of roaming or hiking. From Schopenhauer to Schumann to Goethe, German literature, poetry, and song, heralds the romantic notion of being deeply connected to nature by ‘wandering’ (for a delightful series on wanderlust by BBC, check out this link).

For some, wanderlust is translated into their own spiritual pilgrimage. Camino de Santiago is certainly on my bucket list. To join the joy of walking with the idea that thousands of other people have walked this path, for spiritual or personal reasons, certainly inspires me.

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Today, walking has become a regular way of keeping fit for many folks around the globe. The evidence of physical and mental benefits that a daily walk provides is massive. IMG_0855In a developed world, which faces an epidemic of coronary heart disease, diabetes, and the health complications related to obesity, walking is a simple way to improve health. You can walk nearly anywhere – all you need is some comfortable clothes and good shoes.

So, if you have not already done so, why not start a habit that could change your life? It can help slow your frantic pace, make you aware of the beautiful home we call Planet Earth, and improve your health. Up for the challenge?

A few reminders:

  • Please don’t randomly throw yourself on some bushwalking trail and hope for the best! If you are going for a hike, inform others, walk with someone else, have a phone with full battery, and good directions. It is a sobering thought that your survival is not very high on Mother Nature’s priority list!
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Wear comfortable clothes, a hat, and most importantly, great shoes. My personal choice are a pair of lightweight, waterproof hiking boots.
  • Please lose the headphones! Firstly, they are a safety hazard as you become unaware of your surrounding with AC/DC blasting out your ear canals. Secondly, they hinder mindfulness, the discipline of being present. So tell your brain that the songs of Mother Nature are quite adequate for an hour or so.

If all this sounds too complicated, why not start with a simple walk in a beautiful garden? Go on, get off your butt and enjoy a few hours outdoors … it is annoying how your social media ‘friends’ won’t even miss you.

This is far more important … start something new, be radical, take a hike!

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What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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“Youer Than You” – Saying No To Comparison

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is Youer than You.”
– Dr Seuss –

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You may be someone who looks back fondly on your school years: friendships, laughter and camaraderie. My school years were complicated. We moved around continents and countries and I changed schools regularly. It felt like the moment I began to settle and form new friendships there would be another house move and the inevitable change of schools. A new environment meant a whole new silent learning about the social order of the classroom and the playground. When I compared myself to the other kids in my new environment it didn’t take long to realise that I was the one on the outer. A skinny, dorky, spectacled German child, who did not really care for cheerleading or sports (unless it was watching heavyweight boxing matches or German soccer games with my dad), did not bode well when trying to fit into the country of “braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” (South Africa).

Comparison seems to be the social motivation upon which most schools are built upon. We learn the technique of comparison far more quickly and intrinsically than we do English or Maths. From a young age, we are taught to recognise those who are different to us and with it comes the cruel social obligation to make sure this person, or these people, know that they are different. This creates a herd angst to ensure that we all fit in. Comparison has made idiots out of all of us. Through the power of social media, we have now enabled a younger generation to analyse themselves 24/7, unable to escape that sense of incompetence and self-loathing that comparison brings.

Centuries before psychologists raised the alarm about this detrimental human behaviour of comparison, there was a man who touched on it in his writings. Saint Paul wrote numerous letters, or epistles, to various congregations in the first century, which can be read in the New Testament. Amongst his many words of wisdom was the idea that when we are children we think and behave like children but when we grow up we need to put childish thought and behaviour patterns behind us (1 Corinthians 13:11). Writing to the same Corinthian congregation in another letter he says that those who compare themselves with each other are serious idiots (my translation – 2 Corinthians 10:12). It seems that part of Paul’s plea to Corinth was to stop the childishness of allowing egos to run unbridled, to grow up and learn that love is the greatest of all. We should heed his words. There is nothing loving about comparison and there comes a time when we need to silence it’s very loud, mouthy and judgemental voice in our heads.

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Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”. Research backs his statement showing how when we compare ourselves with others we become increasingly envious, depressed, distrusting and lacking in self-confidence. Engaging in paralysing comparison creates self-loathing. Remember, that in most instances, especially when it comes to social media, you are comparing yourself to someone’s highlight snapshot: a tiny fragment of their life, nearly always positive, adventuresome and happy. This is NOT their whole life – it’s a tiny SNAPSHOT and sometimes it is totally incongruent with what is actually going on in their life! When you compare yourself to someone’s SNAPSHOT you will think that you are missing out on life … but, darling friend, their life has just as many issues, mundanity, hardship, tears and suffering as yours … it’s just not on Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram!

When we compare we will always lose. Always! Why? Because we are not meant to live someone else’s life, dream someone else’s dream or envy someone else’s journey. Our social compass and sense of ‘self’ became scrambled when comparison entered the mix! Violence, greed and murder … list all the evil of humanity … many of these things started when we stopped being satisfied and content with the path we were given and wanted another life. In contrast, joy comes creeping back when we start to retrain our brain to stop comparing our life to another. When we recognise that our life, with all its ups and downs, is a gift, and only we can live it!

“There is no one alive that is Youer than You” is the prophetic statement of Dr Seuss into each one of our lives. Maybe it is time to lay aside the glamorous, photo-shopped magazines that crowd our shelves and pick up our own dusty, neglected personal epic? Maybe it’s time to delete some personas off social media or go on a tech blackout? Maybe it’s time to make friends again with the person staring back at you in the mirror? Marcus Aurelius once mused about how much time we gain when we stop worrying about what others are doing, thinking or saying, but rather focus on living our lives. So stand up tall, get back on your track and live your magnificent life.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.”
– Brene Brown –

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