Where the Joy Came In

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.

I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.

Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
~Christian Wiman, “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing. 

Coming to Christianity is like color slowly aching into things, the world becoming brilliantly, abradingly alive. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Simone Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
~Christian Wiman “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.

Like this old pink dogwood tree, I now lean over more,
I have a few bare branches with no leaves,
I have my share of broken limbs,
I have my share of blight and curl.

Yet each stage and transition of life has its own beauty: 
bursting forth with leaves and blooms
after a long winter of nakedness adorned
only by feathered friends destined to fly away.

Color has literally seeped in overnight,
resulting in a riot of joy.

Yet what matters most is what grows unseen,
underground, in a network that feeds and thrives
no matter what happens above ground,
steadfast roots of faith remain a reason to believe.

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.
Especially me. Oh, and especially me.

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A Restless Sabbath Love

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

It’s just a boarded-up shack with a tower
Under the blazing summer sky
On a back road seldom traveled
Where the shadows of tall trees
Graze peacefully like a row of gallows…

The congregation may still be at prayer.
Farm folk from flyspecked photos
Standing in rows with their heads bowed
As if listening to your approaching steps.
So slow they are, you must be asking yourself
How come we are here one minute
And in the very next gone forever?
Try the locked door, then knock once.

High above you, there is the leaning spire
Still feeling the blow of the last storm.
And then the silence of the afternoon . . .
Even the unbeliever must feel its force.

~Charles Simic, from “Wooden Church” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

Mom,
You raised your hands while we sang this morning
like I’ve never known you to,
but I guess until recently I’ve never really known you in a church that let you feel alive.

Were you tired of hiding,
or just tired?

Thank you for letting yourself be seen.

Thank you, Lord, for her.
~Griffin Messer from “An Analysis of Worship Today”

There is so much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith,
we who look odd and lean awry,
so keen to find flaws in one another
when we are cracked open and spilling with our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing and absorb the Word-
we are visible people joined together as a body
so bloodied, bruised, being healed
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands, to kneel and bow
in a house God calls His own.

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: A Broken Heart

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart
Psalm 51:17

Every day, as the sun goes down,
I consider how I messed up that day
in big and small ways –
how I broke and splintered when I needed to bend.

My mistakes seem illuminated,
weighing down my heart,
and impossible to forget.

Yet, as I pray for mercy,
there follows a peacefulness.
The slate, one more time,
is wiped clean, whiter than snow.

I remember, as morning dawns,
there is glue for fractures,
there is healing for broken hearts,
a promise provided by each new day.

O Lord, I am given another chance to get it right.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum,
dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea:
et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco:
et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci:
ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum:
et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti:
incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.

Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor:
lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam:
et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis:
et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus:
et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua:
et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui:
et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas:
et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae:
et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.
Domine, labia mea aperies:
et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique:
holocaustis non delectaberis.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus:
cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion:
ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta:
tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
~Allegri’s Miserere — setting of Psalm 51

Translation (Psalm 51):
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offenses.

Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness:
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults:
and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned,
and done this evil in thy sight:
that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying,
and clear when Thou art judged.

Behold, I was shaped in wickedness:
and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts:
and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.

Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness:
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God:
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence:
and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.

O give me the comfort of Thy help again:
and establish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked:
and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God,
Thou that art the God of my health:
and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.

For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee:
but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, shalt Thou not despise.

O be favorable and gracious unto Sion:
build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness,
with the burnt-offerings and oblations:
then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.

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An Absence of Secrecy

I came here to study hard things
– rock mountain and salt sea –
and to temper my spirit on their edges. 
“Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers,
a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend. 

These mountains — Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan,
the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula — are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world…. 

That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them,
as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious
by their very visibility and absence of secrecy.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
~Denise Levertov  “Witness”

Even on the days like today when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  It has not moved in the night, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover today, but it will return to my line of sight, if not tomorrow, perhaps the next day, maybe not until next week. 

I know this and have faith it is true – the mountain does not keep itself a secret.

On the days when I am not bothering to look for it, too preoccupied so walk right past its obvious grandeur and presence, then it reaches out to me and calls me back, refocusing me. 

There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there it is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

It witnesses my lack of witness and, so in its mysterious way of being in plain sight, stays put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and as a result, lift my veil, just one more time.

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Unclench Your Fists

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

Journeying God,
pitch your tent with mine
so that I may not become deterred
by hardship, strangeness, doubt.
Show me the movement I must make

toward a wealth not dependent on possessions
toward a wisdom not based on books
toward a strength not bolstered by might
toward a God not confined to heaven

but scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized…

Help me find myself
as I walk in others’ shoes
.

~Kate Compston, from A Poem for Epiphany From Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.

~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” (translated by Seamus Heaney)

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

…And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

~T.S.Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

In journeyings often,
in perils of waters,
in perils of robbers,
in perils by mine own countrymen,
in perils by the heathen,
in perils in the city,
in perils in the wilderness,
in perils in the sea,
in perils among false brethren;
In weariness and painfulness,
in watchings often,
in hunger and thirst,
in fastings often,
in cold and nakedness.
2 Corinthians 11:26-27


Oh, when we are journeying through the murky night

and the dark woods of affliction and sorrow,
it is something to find here and there a spray broken,
or a leafy stem bent down with the tread of His foot
and the brush of His hand as He passed;
and to remember that the path He trod He has hallowed,
and thus to find lingering fragrance
and hidden strength in the remembrance of Him
as “in all points tempted like as we are,”
bearing grief for us,
bearing grief with us,
bearing grief like us.
~Alexander MacLaren from Sermons Preached in Manchester: First series

We are called to journey into the unfamiliar;
some go no further than the backyard,
some to the ends of the earth,
some to the moon and back.

The journey is not about the miles covered;
it is an internal trek we all must make
on the crooked road of our hearts,
by relaxing our clenched fists,
taking the offered hand and being led
to that straight path back to God.

Much of the journey is perilous.
We may become both sacrament and sacrifice.

He has been down that road before us,
knowing the temptations, and bearing the grief we face.

There is but one map available and one map maker.
This road leads home and home is where He patiently waits for us.

January 6, the traditional day of celebrating “Epiphany” as the manifestation of God on earth in the form of His incarnate Son, calls us to deeper scrutiny of our earthly journey —
away from our anger, our shame and our resultant homelessness,
to the restoration of our souls, resting in the sacrifice of Christ Himself.

1. On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
Praising the young King,
who was born to save us
And the maiden who
brought Him forth to save us.

2. His the doom, ours the mirth,
when he came to earth,
Bethlehem saw his birth,
ox and ass beside him,
He came to vanquish
the Prince of Darkness.

3. God’s bright star o’er his head,
Wise men come seeking Him,
They kneel and lay their gifts
beside Him and adore Him,
They offer gifts of gold,
frankincense, and myrrh

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Leaping with Life

Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.
~Loretta Ross-Gotta
from Letters from the Holy Ground

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place,
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise,
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power,
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young,’
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime.’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time,

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth,
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

~Malcolm Guite “The Visitation”

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Luke 1: 41-45  (Song of Elizabeth)

This scene in Luke is remarkable for its portrayal of the interconnected relationship of four individuals, not just two.  Here are two cousins who become mothers despite utter impossibility — one too elderly and one virginal — present on this day with their unborn sons — one who is harbinger and one who is God.

These unborn babies are not just passively “hidden within” here.  They have changed their mothers in profound ways, as all pregnancies tend to do, but especially these pregnancies.  As any mother who first experiences the “quickening” of her unborn child can relate, there is an awesome and frightening awareness of a completely dependent but active “other” living inside. 

She is aware she is no longer alone in her shell and what happens to her, happens to this other life as well. This is deeply personal, yet deeply communal at the same time – as we witnessed in the arguments about maternal vs. fetal rights that took place in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

The moment Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she and the baby in her womb are overwhelmed, filled with the Spirit from Mary’s unborn.  They leap, figuratively and literally.  Her voice leaps up, louder in her exclamation of welcome; John leaps in the womb in acknowledgement of being in the presence of God Himself.

How can our hearts not leap as well at God’s Word to us, at His hope and plan for each of us, at His gift of life from the moment of our conception.

After all, He once was unborn too,
completely dependent on the willingness of His mother to bear Him to birth,
completely alive because of the overshadowing Spirit of His Father.

We are all buds willed to flower by our God.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

At the Edge of Vision

At first you didn’t know me.
I was a shape moving rapidly, nervous

at the edge of your vision…

When you would sit at your desk, I would creep
near you like a question. A thought would scurry

across the front of your mind. I’d be there,
ducking out of sight. You must have felt me

watching you, my small eyes fixed on your face,
the smile you wondered at, on the lips only.

The voice on the phone, quick and full of business.
All that you saw and heard and could not find

the center of, those days growing into years,
growing inside of you, out of reach, now with you

forever, in your house, in your garden, in corridors
of dream where I finally tell you my name.
~Cynthia Huntington from “Ghost” from The Radiant.


“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

~Sharlande Sledge

I suspect I am not alone in sensing there is something beyond the reality of this humdrum everyday world. I think of my perception as a “thin place” where I feel the veil lifted for a mere moment; I can see or hear or touch something of the beyond.

It doesn’t happen often but it is reassuring when it does. It is filled with light and warmth and peace – not at all frightening.

I know the name of who I sense is near: the “I AM” of old and the “I AM” now and the “I AM” of what is to come.

Through thick and then through thin, there is more beyond the here and now.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Generous Indefatigable Love

And what if I never get it right,
this loving, this giving of the self
to the other? And what if I die


before learning how to offer
my everything? What if, though
I say I want this generous,


indefatigable love, what if
I forever find a way to hold
some corner back? I don’t want


to find out the answer
to that. I want to be the sun
that gives and gives until it burns out,


the sea that kisses the shore
and only moves away so that
it might rush up to kiss it again.
~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “And Again” from Hush

The beach at Tohoku, Japan where the tsunami hit in 2011

What is it about us
that always holds something back
when loving others,
keeping in reserve
some little piece of ourselves
that we can’t quite let go?

Even so, we ourselves want to be loved
wholly, fully, completely, unconditionally
yet something in us doesn’t trust
it could be true –
we know how undeserving we are.

When we are offered such
generous indefatigable love,
we hold back part of ourselves
because we are afraid
we’ll be left desolate, never to be filled again –
a sun burned out and darkened,
a shore left high and dry.

Once we experience our Creator’s love
as wholly generous,
completely tireless and persistent,
unconditionally grace-filled,
we can stop fearing our emptiness.

He pours more than enough love into us
without holding back,
filling us so full that we might spill over to others,
again and again and again,
with our light and heart and spirit unbound.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Unattainable Unbounded Joy

I had a profound amazement
at the sovereignty of Being

becoming a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly
into the abyss of its mystery;


an unbounded joy at being alive,
at having been given the chance to live through

all I have lived through,
and at the fact that
everything has a deep and obvious meaning –
this joy formed a strange alliance in me
with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability

of everything I was so close to in that moment,
standing at the very “edge of the infinite”;


I was flooded with a sense of
ultimate happiness and harmony
with the world and with myself,
with that moment, with all the moments I could call up,
and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning.
~Václav Havel in a letter to his wife

– for Czesław Miłosz

How unattainable life is,
it only reveals its features in memory, in nonexistence.
How unattainable afternoons,
ripe, tumultuous, leaves bursting with sap; swollen fruit,
the rustling silks of women who pass on the other side of the street,
and the shouts of boys leaving school.
Unattainable.
The simplest apple inscrutable, round.
The crowns of trees shake in warm currents of air.

Unattainably distant mountains.
Intangible rainbows.

Huge cliffs of clouds flowing slowly through the sky.
The sumptuous, unattainable afternoon.
My life, swirling, unattainable, free.
~Adam Zagajewski, “Fruit” Translated by Renata Gorczyńska and C. K. Williams

Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

Sometimes the abundance in my life is so unbounded,
I possibly can’t absorb it all,
like an endless feast that far exceeds my hunger.

At times I have no idea how hungry I am
until it is laid out before me;
I don’t know where to begin.

When I feel myself on that cliff of overwhelm,
that thin edge of knowing
I can almost reach past the finite
to touch the infinite,
I realize it is unattainable.

Not now, not yet.

We live in the already but not yet.
The all-encompassing I AM is here among us,
His Spirit surrounding us with beauty beyond imagining.
But we are waiting, wondering, wistful
as the kingdom of God is already here
and yet to come.

So He offers a glimpse and a taste
and it is so very very good.

A new book is available from Barnstorming and can be ordered here:

Feathers of Flame

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…
~Czeslaw Milosz from “Veni Creator” in Selected and Last Poems

The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

Today, when I feel at times without hope,
as mute and dumb as cattle chewing the cud,
as the bent world reels with illness, blood and violence,
I remain in hiding: my faith feels frail, love seems distant.

I wait, stilled
for the moment I am lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in my heart deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings: His dearest
in this moment
and for eternity.

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