Beauties

I’ve had water in my ears for weeks, a deep l‎iquid whooshing that rings and muffles intermittently, crackles in surprising pops as if my ears might finally clear and then settles back into the thin spaces of my eustachian tubes to ring and to muffle again as I go through my days.

It is ocean water that is caught in my ear, the Atlantic.
Floating, I had no name or history or future.
It’s been two weeks since we got back from the beach, the usual trip to the usual stretch of coast, year after year, the same though I know it’s different every time, different in a million ways. ‎
“These trees have been here a long time, haven’t they?”
“Yes, they have probably seen a lot. Look at them, quiet like they are.”
“This used to just be woods, didn’t it?”
“Yes, not too long ago.”
“I wish it were still just woods.”
“Well, we wouldn’t be here if it were just woods, if there were no houses, no road.”
“That’d be okay. It’d be better if no people were here. This place doesn’t need people to be here.”
I don’t remember having that sort of consciousness the summer that I turned 14.
The beach was dotted with little roped off squares up by the dunes – loggerhead nests protected by a thin bright orange ribbon, four stakes in the ground, a sheet of paper.
The moon was full a few days after we got home, but I didn’t think about the turtle nests down on the coasts. I’d forgotten about them already, forgotten to send a hoping up into the night that the houses were dark and the tiny knowing fins would pull the new life out into the sea under the waiting watching moon.
I walked the dogs up and down the street and stared at the full moon here in the mountains, listened to the insects sing their nighttime songs. The full moon in July is called a Thunder Moon. ‎
I just learned that today. There are so many things I don’t know.
Here are some other things that happened recently:
I turned 40 last Wednesday. My daughter made me a coconut cake.
I sang the old Gram Parsons song Sin City while walking the dogs last night. I did not sing quietly, but with my whole, open voice. People sing on this street sometimes, but I never have.
I decided that I would like to paint a series of portraits of flora and fauna indigenous to the place that I grew up. The first painting in that series was probably the panther of last Fall. The next one will be a kingfisher, perched on a wire, with other wires stretching above and below it. Phone lines, power lines. Connection and transmission.
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‎I made a list, a schedule of my days, where the hours that have to work with/play with tend to go, what I spend my time doing.
One thing I did remember is that today is the 27th and that seven years ago on July 27th I started this web-log project about drawing everyday. ‎I was at the beach and I drew a shell.
I didn’t draw at all this year at the beach, but I did wake up at dawn and run to the south end of the island, breathing deep the smell of marsh and salt and rotting oak leaves, already-rising heat. I didn’t bring my banjo to the beach this year, but I did swim for hours every day.
In just a few days, I will have been totally nicotine-free for 8 solid months.

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That antenna is still up there, even though it’s not good for much other than a crow perch or a lightning rod. I ought to have it taken down, but it’s one of those things that I’ve just sort of gotten used to and hardly even think about except for when I do, which – like I said – is hardly ever.

The only times it really nags at me is late some nights when the wind gets to blowing over from the beach and I can hear the old antenna up there, creaking away in the salt air. It isn’t so much the sound that bothers me, but the thought of it up there on the roof in the dark, all that nighttime spread out all over around the house, the river wet black and snaking through the marsh, moon on the water and the fish still stirring around the banks, sloshing and searching, always eating and running, diving down and away from the heron’s beak and the raccoon paws dipping into the dark, clawing into the mud, looking for a little something, a mussel, an egg.

The antenna makes a lonesome whine when the wind gets high, like a siren from some place far off, like something bad must be happening somewhere, but maybe not here, and that gets me to thinking there in the dark of all the people and places sleeping and awake, right here around, with the barking dog and the car going somewhere, all stretching out to the piedmont and the mountains and all those places I’ve never even been, out toward the plains and the deserts, and us here on the edge of the land where the ocean pulls and pushes all day and all night long.

When I’m awake and moving around, keeping busy with this and that and the sun is burning hot or a storm’s coming on I don’t think about any of the bigness of world.

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She heard _____’s voice coming toward the phone, saying, “Oh, thank you!” in that exaggeratedly cordial way that he seemed to have affected long before she ever knew him.  Other people, men, were talking and laughing, maybe bickering. It might have been the soundtrack to a movie, or something happening in real life, on some hall a few thousand miles away, a landscape she can’t imagine as being anything other than full of right angles and institutional beige.

She can’t tell if the sound is real or not-real.

She has, a few times, wanted to ask _____ to describe the place to her, to tell her what it is like, but she has resisted, because she doesn’t want to pressure him to talk about where he is or to have to tell her about it for no reason other than to satisfy her own somewhat morbid curiosity about what, exactly, a state hospital might be like out in California.

“Hello?” He talks loudly, because it is loud on the unit and he cannot hear himself and so thinks that this means that she cannot hear him. There is a question in his a voice, a sort of disbelief or uncertainty in the phenomenon of someone calling him, of someone being on the phone for him.  She has a number that goes directly to the unit phone, a phone on a wall or on some small shelf that is recessed into the wall.  When she calls, if the line is not busy, a man answers and she asks to speak with her friend if he is available, using her best manners.

It is usually the same person who answers the phone, another patient-inmate, and he is very polite, “Yes, hold on please.” Some nights, her friend is outside, and she asks the man who answers the phone to tell him that she called, “Tell him that I will call again, maybe later or tomorrow.”  She does not know if her friend gets the messages, but she always tells the person who answers the phone thank you, “Thank you very much, have a nice evening.”

Her friend gets to go outside every day. “There is a little knoll-like area that I can go and sit on.” He tells her that lately it is hot and he sits outside and he worries about radiation drifting across the ocean from Fukushima.  “It’s different here, you didn’t see it, because you are far away, but my grandfather and I saw that the fish were dying, when we’d go sailing, there were dead fish and the levels of radiation were not just detectable, but actually high and – of course – these LA fucks act like nothing is happening, they just go jogging.”

She hasn’t asked him what the view is like from the knoll-like area, or what the weather is like on the days she calls, which is almost every day, but not quite every day, because some days she doesn’t feel like talking with anyone at all and the thought of the loudness of his voice saying “Hello?” when he picks up the phone is weirdly off-putting.

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Sometimes, she doesn’t feel like listening to anyone, doesn’t feel like paying attention.  She doesn’t call on those days.  Last week, she went 3 days without calling and he called her, let the phone ring twice and hung up.  That meant that he was thinking about her and that maybe it’d be nice if she called, if she wanted to.

She has tried to write him a letter, but she is not sure that she is able to write letters anymore.  For the past year or so she has not felt confident in her capacity to be pleasantly conversational. She talks with and listens to a lot of people at work, that is her job – talking and listening.  It makes sense to her that she would be weary of talking and listening at the end of the day, at the end of a week, at this point in her life.  She tells people that want to talk with her that she feels quiet, that she still feels quiet, and is surprised to realize that people have gradually just left her alone, that they’ve stopped calling, stopped texting.

It’s peaceful to her, the feeling of having disappeared.

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“I haven’t wanted to talk with anyone for a long time, but I actually want to talk with you,” she explained to her friend.  It was true, she did want to talk with him.  She wanted to hear his voice, to hear him drop off in his sentences in the way that he does, a sudden silence.  During the months that he rented out the spare back bedroom, a half-decade earlier, they would sit on the old couch that she used to have on the porch and talk about ideas and theories and memories and plans and the weather.  When the conversation paused, she would reach over and touch his hand, pull herself closer to him, settle her head into his chest and listen to his heart beat and his lungs inhaling and exhaling, smoking a Pall Mall, until he started talking again and the sound of his voice filled up her ear.

She has been trying, again, to write him a letter, but it has been hard to feel alive in the words.  Last week they talked about the death of words, how words are woefully insufficient to describe anything that might be unmitigated truth or beauty, that some things cannot be adequately conveyed by words.  While this may be true, she does find it troubling that she cannot seem to even write a blandly cordial letter, that she cannot describe the simple series of events and observations that constitute her day, that she cannot even say how she feels or what she thinks about or what she remembers.  The freedom to say anything seems to chokes her.

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When _____ was in the jail,  she sent him an envelope filled with all the ½ started letters she had written.  “Dear _____, I am sitting on the porch and watching the fireflies come up from the earth, drifting toward the trees. The sun has just gone down and the air is full of the buzzing and whirring of insects in the summertime.” “Dear _____, I have tried to write to you a few times lately, but am having a hard time finding my voice, or maybe I am just feeling quiet. Everything is fine here. The other day I came across this list of index words from the University of Pittsburgh.  I don’t know what it is, but look at this nice list of words.  The list is over a 150 pages long. Here are three pages. I intend to write a poem using all of these words.” “Dear _____, I am sitting on the porch and the day is hot. It wants to rain. The bluejays are cantankerous, the dogs lethargic. I don’t know what to say anymore.”

She had gotten only one letter from him during the year he was in jail. The handwriting was shaky and he had scrawled OUTCAST PRIDE across the bottom, right below his several signatures.

“He is not doing well,” his mother said in a message. “He’s gotten very thin. Hopefully, they will move him soon.”

It took a year for the state of California to move him from the jail in Rancho Cucamonga to the state hospital in San Bernandino.  Soon, he will go back to the jail, because he is going to trial. Just now, the thought has come to her that this little window of time might be the only time they will be able to talk for a long, long time.  She doesn’t know if he will be able to call from the jail.  Her penpal on Death Row can call her, using a pre-paid phone card.  She doesn’t know if they have phones in the California jails or prisons.  Probably. Still, she doesn’t know how long this little span of time will last, how long the conversation between them will be easy like it has been.

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She hadn’t realized she had missed him as badly as she did until she heard his voice again.  They hadn’t talked in almost two years.  When she heard his voice, the certain pacing and timbre of his speaking, she suddenly remembered a handful of separate events that were marked in her memory as fits of strange longing, a bodily ache, a ghost hand on her heart at odd times.

Sitting in the aisle seat of a plane flying through the night and feeling strongly pulled to rest her head against the shoulder of the man sitting two seats away.  He was slumped against the window, asleep.  Her arms and skin and gut ached with wanting to be near him, though she did not know him and did not find him attractive in any sort of usual sense of the word. She ached to touch something other than the plastic of the armrest, the plastic of the seat, the cold little circles and lines of metal at the edges of everything.  “Is this what baby animals feel like, when they want to be held or tucked close?” It was almost agony, the wanting to feel the warmth of someone through the fabric of their shirt, to cup her hand around the curve of an arm, to hold on to someone as she hurtled through the night toward home.  Sitting there in the dark, not touching anyone, her throat ached with a sense of absence, but it wasn’t until she heard his voice that she understood that she had missed him that night, that she wanted to curl into someone the way she had curled into him.

Her friend was supposed to meet her in Vancouver, but he did not come, and she flew home wondering where he was.  The last time she had talked with him, he had changed his name again, and was angry about the drug addicts up on the mountain, the radiation that was turning everyone into cannibals.

“What these people don’t fucking realize is that it is already the apocalypse out here. The world already ended. Los Angeles is gone, it’s Idaho now, New Mexico, and my name isn’t that name anymore.  Just so you understand, Putin’s bitches weren’t those bitches from 1903, were they?”

She got a message from his mother, all lowercase, sent through Facebook. “my beautiful son is missing and homeless.” His mother was always dramatic like that. She didn’t know where he was, hadn’t talked with him.

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The day before he got to Asheville, she took 30 turquoise blue paper cranes, big ones with wingspans of almost a foot, up to the top of Beaucatcher Mountain, where the cellphone and satellite towers are.  She tucked them into trees and nestled them in grasses, a flock simply resting.  The next morning, she picked him up wearing her dull golden dress, the dress she’d gotten for her ex-sister-in-law’s wedding.  She waited in the parking lot of the tiny Greyhound station on Tunnel Rd, smoking cigarettes and looking for the bus to come through the tunnel cut through the bottom of the mountain and turn into the parking lot. When the bus finally did come, it came from the other direction. She could not see through the windows and barely knew what Steven looked like. She’d only seen one picture that he’d sent, a young man on a porch, blond-brown hair thinning on the top and curling at the ends, his nose and mouth lovely like a statue, puffy around the eyes from the shots of risperidone that he took on a weekly basis as a condition of sleeping in a shed behind his mother’s house.

When he got off of the bus, he walked stiffly in his boots, his white shirt was tight at the shoulders. She walked right up to him, “Hi…should we shake hands or hug, or what?” She could feel that he’d been sweating when she hugged him. He stood arm’s length from her, “You’re beautiful,” he said, a simple statement.

“Let’s get your stuff and go,” she looked at the bags being pulled from the belly of the bus, piled on the sidewalk.

“I just have two things,” he said, holding his violin case in his hand. It was a white violin he had carried from California.  He grabbed a black canvas duffle that was slumped beside the other suitcases that had been pulled out from the belly of the bus and they walked across the broken linoleum, past the bolted-down chairs of the waiting room and out into the day, a Tuesday morning.

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They sat in the car and smoked a cigarette together.  “You probably want to rest, huh?” She looked at his hand resting on his knee, studied the curl of his eyelashes. He had been far away and then he was here, sitting in her car, talking about some man who had sat next to him through Oklahoma, wearing yellow overalls like a decontamination worker.

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06/06/2016

It was not possible, she thought, to effectively convey the gentle rising of the insects from the grass through painting.  Even a photograph wouldn’t do.  She briefly considered rushing back to the house, only a block away, to get her phone, to record a snippet of video.  However, as she stood a watched the lightning bugs rise up out of the grass, pulled upward by a force she could not see, first several then many, she knew that even a video would fall short in showing the silent loveliness of the fireflies waking up as the sun went down. It wasn’t just the insects pulsing greenly into the dimming air, the hedges falling into lumpish shadows at the edge of the lawn, the sky stretching blue, pink, and finally a weary grey, the trees cut to silhouette.

What was beautiful to her in that moment wasn’t any of these things; It was all of these things, together, all of these things witnessed, seen by her, standing there on the sidewalk while the little dogs sniffed and pulled and rustled in the grass and leaves that were reachable within the scope of their tethers, their leashes.  The two cats, one old and one young, walked where they pleased, hanging back from the woman and the dogs, trailing along the sidewalk, running up small slopes and hugging the lines of fences.  The cats were a part of it, the beauty that the woman understood was not possible to paint, or photograph, or even video.  She stared hard at the last wash of orange-y light slipping across the side of a house that belonged to neighbors she never met and wondered if they saw her walking by every morning, every afternoon, every evening, a woman with her two little dogs and her cats following along, a staggered procession, one dog pulling, impetuous, and the other old and slow, the cats pausing to roll in a scrape of dusty earth or scratch at the mulch laid alongside a walk.  A robin stood in a yard and seemed, also, to be watching the fireflies drift up from the grass.  A car drove by, then another. [1]

Walking home, she thought about the conversation she’d had with her friend, who was currently sitting in a state hospital out in California, the end result of a complex series of events that culminated in a misjudged scenario and a middle-of-the-night manhunt, her friend picked up early in the morning, walking beside the road wearing purple snakeskin pants. This is what the brief news coverage she’d found online had said, that he’d been wearing purple snakeskin pants.  She did not know what the inclusion of this bit of information had intended to suggest.  She only wrote him two letters the entire year he was held in jail. She didn’t know what to say.  Now she can talk to him on the phone, dial a number that leads right to a wall phone at the hospital, where a voice answers and she asks for her friend and some person goes to get him from wherever he is, a room, a hall, sitting at a table in a landscape that she cannot imagine but that he says is very beige and plain.  Sometimes when she calls, he is outside, and she is glad for that, that he is able to go outside, to see the sky, though she knows that he worries, every day, about the radiation from the power plant across the ocean. It will leach into the air, it has already poisoned the oceans. He saw it with his grandfather, sailing to Catalina, the dead fish floating in waves that didn’t look radioactive in the slightest.

“When people call someone delusional, it has to do more with the perceptual constructs of the person who is claiming that a person is delusional, whether or not they see or believe in the reality that another person is experiencing. So, people aren’t really delusional.” 06/20/2016

The conversation that she was thinking about while walking the slow walk home after wondering how one might adequately convey the movement of fireflies in the dusky light had nothing to do with delusions. She had paused before she spoke, “I’m beginning to think a lot, or really – actually – to feel, something about the limitations of language, how completely useless words are as far as their utility in sufficiently communicating some really very important things.” They’d talked about that, the uselessness of language and the way that their friendship was inherently bound by the limitations of language, if one was objective and measured their exchanges in terms of words said, words heard, letters sent. What could be said to describe the edges of their laughter when, after a pause, they’d agreed that in addition to telephone calls and letters, they could also use telepathy to communicate?  How was it that they knew, without effort and explanation, exactly what the other meant?

Earlier that afternoon, under a blazing hot sun that knew nothing of dusk and the night’s coming coolness, she had thought again about how utterly insufficient language was, and how stupid it was that even in thinking this, she was not the slightest bit original and could, endlessly, say nothing new about anything that other people might care about. Everything, she really did believe this, had been said, and what does it matter anyway? Why should one have to say anything in their life at all? She understood that some people, most people, do not have to say anything and have nothing to say. She, unfortunately, was one who felt a deep and unabiding pressure to say something, and yet she had come to feel, just as deeply, just as unabidingly, that she has nothing to say.  That isn’t true.  This is the response that rises in her as soon as she resigns herself to a life of saying nothing because she has nothing to say.  She does have things to say, but she believes that what she might say would be of little interest or value to other people.  She doesn’t want to be brilliant, or even clever. She has no interest in analysis or devices.

“I’ve decided, again, that I am going to re-commit myself to a regular writing habit.”

She hadn’t known that she would tell her friend what she had realized and what she planned to do.  It had been earlier, when the sun was high and she was running in the forest at the edge of the town where she works.

This evening, walking home, the cats following, she decided to spend some time every day writing down things that she finds both beautiful and difficult to describe. She will not try to describe them, but maybe sometimes she will end up describing them, in exploring the ways that whatever it is may be difficult to describe.  “I’m going to keep a daily catalogue of beauties and wonders, stuff that most people probably don’t care about, but that really mean a lot to me, for whatever reason. I don’t know what will happen with it, but I’m going to try to start keeping notes on the things that I find both beautiful and hard to describe, the things that I’d want to share with…well, with you…but, that are resistant to words.”

She wants to share these things with other people, too…with her future self, a potentially forgetful self, and with her children, who are no longer children, and who will probably be adults by the time they have any interest in learning more about what their mother found beautiful the summer of her 40th birthday and why she felt like it was important to tell her friend who was stuck in the state hospital out in California what the fireflies looked like, floating up into the solstice.

06/17/2016

It is the next day, and the woman is – despite her better judgement – editing, putting segments of yesterday’s thoughts into footnotes.  She understands that there is something problematic about footnotes being used to include tangential thoughts.  However, she doesn’t care at the moment, because – again – she has decided that even though she does very much still give a shit about what people think about her and about her writing, because she does – very much – still have issues with self-confidence and identity and an enmeshment of her self-worth with the phenomenon of making pretty phrases. Not even pretty phrases. Much like fireflies rising out of the grass and the vast majority of other things that she finds indescribably beautiful, she cannot quite name what it is that makes writing good.  It is, like beauty, just a certain feeling.  She is using italics to indicate both emphasis and also a term that she, even for a moment, thinks could probably use a little expansion, maybe a footnote. For now, she will resist, will satisfy herself with simply saying that she finds the concept of things to be somewhat offensive.  This thinking of beings and objects and existences and phenomena as things is a very human sort of way of thinking about the world outside of oneself.  She doesn’t want to think about the world as an assemblage of things that she can either value or not value, like or dislike. Maybe some things in the world are things, man-made things, constructions of attire and decoration, molded plastics and other not-alive objects.  She can’t easily explain to people why exactly she feels like even rocks are somewhat alive, in that they arose from the earth itself and have a sort of feeling to them, some of them.

She is having a difficult time focusing, which is something that happens sometimes, because she thinks about a lot of things all at the same time, until her thinking becomes a sort of white noise in her head, with just fragments of sentences and stories cutting through the static. She is tired.

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that she remembered that she had intended to begin writing again, every day.  She felt excited, hours ago.  On the drive home from work, she noted the way that the thunder-filled clouds hung soot-grey and low, superimposed against a blue and washed-out gold sort of sky. Ominous, sprawling in from the northwest, small snakes of vapor twisting down from the mass.  Fields of water-starved corn struggling over the hills, drifts of dried grasses and gravel at the edge of the road. The woman could almost feel how deeply the land wanted water.  A few heavy drops hit the windshield, and she wished the sky would pour out all that it held.  There was no deluge, just a spattering of rain.

She looked for beauties to make note of, and caught a lyric in a Peter Gabriel song that reminded her of a sculptural installation that someone she had known once did.  Something about bedrooms and sheets like a mountain range.  She smiled, driving, considered sending the lyric to the last email address she had for the person, and knew that she would do no such thing.

Sitting on the couch, listening to the fan sound like a small airplane, she realizes that she might be too tired to write anything beautiful tonight. She has got to get straight with her voice. This stream of consciousness, notes-on-the-day business is not working for her anymore. She does see the value in it, but she wants to write a story, she wants to tell a story. She has a story to tell.

She didn’t make a phone call to California tonight.

06/18/2016

She heard the screaming and squawking from inside and saw that the cats had entrapped a fledgling robin near the fence. She scattered the cats and gathered the shrieking baby bird into her cupped palms.  Several adult robins cried from the hedge-trees and powerlines, frantic and flying to and fro.  “Where is your nest?” She asked the birds. “Where is your nest?”

Carrying the bird, she went inside. The cats followed. She stepped back out onto the porch and closed the door.  The young bird was straining against her hands, it’s beak wide.  The adult robins flew about, calling and calling.  “Where is the nest?” She looked around, up into the trees that were clotted with woodbine and vitex. She walked to a clear space and set the bird down onto the ground. It tried to fly and could not; its tail feathers had been torn off.  The bird started hopping and flapping down to the street, panicked and not knowing where it was going.  The woman followed it and scooped it up before it fell into the gutter.  “Where is your nest?”

She took the bird upstairs and put it into a box, took it to the Nature Center the next day.

The calling of the family was a beautiful thing, as was her wish that she could somehow tell the worried robins that the young bird was okay, would be okay.

Tonight the sun set blazing red in the sky.

Yesterday, running along a four lane road, she ran her palm over the tops of the dried grasses and heard the seeds pop and release behind her.

The mimosa tree at the end of the driveway bloomed for the first time. She did not plant the tree, it just came up, with another, smaller mimosa.  This is the first year it has bloomed.

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[1] The beauty, she realized, was not a visible beauty.  It was a feeling.

[2] She has only been running for a few months, and is only now learning to trust that after the painful first mile, she will breathe easily and her legs will move without her telling them to and that, finally, she will forget that she is running and she will just move through the forest.  Today, she went further on the trail than she had gone before, pulled forward by curiosity and the smell of green and river, how the shade had a scent distinct from the sun.  “Everything is hard to begin, but after the beginning, it will get easier and if you keep going, then you will find that there will be stretches during which whatever you are doing is easy, and then it will be hard again, but if you keep going, it will eventually end and you will feel wonderful for having done it, and you might even be a little sad that it is over, whatever it is.”

This is what running in the forest taught her today and she thought about how if she had quit in the first ½ mile because it was hot and her right knee hurt and a truck belched black smoke on the road then she would have missed the solid mile of feeling certain that a man who died back in the fall would have delighted in being able to run through the forest and feeling, without question, a deep gratitude for the cadence of her footfalls and the easy way she could breathe. It was her feet hitting the ground that had, initially, reminded her of how pithy words can be, how maddening it is that even – especially – the word pithy is pithy.

One, two, three, four – – fix, six, seven, eight, one-two-three – four, fix, six – seven, eight, one, two, three, four – five, six, seven, eight, one-two-three.

She notices that she wrote the word ‘five’ as ‘fix’ and decides to leave it.

 

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