Unanswerable Questions

It seems that we are endlessly confronted with realities that confound, enrage, and incense. We sift through their rubble for the smallest shard of meaning. We search for clues, breadcrumbs, anything that will put our tired minds and broken hearts at rest. And for all of this striving, it is rarely with measurable result.

We are always left with more questions than answers.

Rainer Maria Rilke offers us well-known words on the subject:

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day. 

Easier said than done.We know the value of living the questions. We also know the discomfort inherent in not having (and offering) answers. 

A case in point: When we are with someone who is grieving we know to not speak a single platitude (e.g., “God has a plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”). We know to not try to make sense of what has happened. We know to not talk about our own feelings. We know to not offer answers to questions that cannot be answered.

I know this . . . and . . . in my discomfort over others’ discomfort, I have rushed to possible explanations, to next steps, even to hope many, many times. As recently as last week, I SO wanted to offer some explanation for life’s unfathomable cruelty (even though I don’t have any). I resisted, but barely.

In truth, it’s no different internally than it is externally. If I don’t catch it quickly enough, I slip into a sort-of frantic motion both within and without. I get more busy. I run through a Rolodex of memorized stories in search of logic, affinity, and sense-making. I think and think and think instead of feel. I talk and process and talk some more (even if only to myself). I work and wrestle. I write and write and write. And at the very same time (maybe inherent in these very things), I avoid and dissociate.

Bottom line: I am in search of and in demand of answers all the time! It’s exhausting.

I want to believe there is a gift in unanswerable questions, that there is grace to be found in the midst and the mess of it all.

Here’s what I know, in spite of myself: 

  • Unanswerable questions invite me to remember that I am not in control, that life is impermanent, that *just* being here is worth it – for myself and for others.
  • Unanswerable questions call me “further up and further in” to what and who truly matters.
  • Unanswerable questions require that I sit still instead of run, allow instead of demand, let go instead of grip.
  • Unanswerable questions are not a “pass” from action and agency; rather, they are incentive to stay awake to the need and pain and deserved advocacy that is all around me, all of the time.
  • Unanswerable questions invite me to stay. Stay present. Stay here. Stay put. Stay with.

This all sounds right. I’m sure it is. And yet again, easier said than done.

A confession: 
I’ve deleted almost everything I’ve written today. Paragraphs and paragraphs that have been an attempt to land on something that feels complete, tied up with a bow, hopeful . . . My attempt to provide answers, really.

I know, it’s ironic. And not all that surprising.

So, just this remains:

 . . . there is a gift in unanswerable questions; there is grace to be found in the midst and the mess of it all. 

Though I don’t know how, I still say, “May it be so.”

The Devastation of Hope

Last week I watched someone I love ascend into the heights of joy only to descend into its complete opposite. All within a span of about six hours. It has been excruciating to witness, acknowledge, experience, and allow. I feel completely helpless, barely helpful, and tongue-tied to say anything that might offer a modicum of comfort. There is no sense-making, no sufficient explanation, nothing that can possibly console.

They sit with the devastation of hope.

In the in-between moments of texting and talking, shedding my own tears, and worrying about them, I have noticed particular snippets of thought flit through my mind. Shards, really. Sharp and glistening daggers of truth.


Hope, as an emotion, an experience, an aspiration can feel dangerous, even foolish.

Why hold onto it when there is the possibility of it slipping through your fingers? Why trust in something good when there is a definite chance that something bad will happen instead? Why have faith with no guarantee that it will be rewarded?

It’s understandable, really.

We have all had moments-and-seasons in which we know hope beyond measure. We let ourselves feel all the emotions of hope-fulfilled, of what it will be like when X, Y, or Z finally happens. We allow ourselves to imagine. We see the future and it is beautiful beyond compare.

Sometimes every one of those emotions, imaginings, and visions come to be and we soak in the gift and grace of it all. And sometimes (it seems, more times), what we hope for does not happen and we berate ourselves for ever believing it would. “I was foolish to think that this could ever be.” “I should have known better than to hope.”

As hard as it is to sit with loss, disappointment, and grief, I don’t know what the alternative is. Well, that’s not exactly true. I do know the alternative: pessimism, disconnection, severely lowered expectations, low-grade cynicism, numbness, all of the above.

And these? It’s tempting to believe that not hoping will keep us safe, that it will prevent us from ever feeling what is as close-to-unbearable as we can possibly get. 

But here’s the thing . . .

We are not safe from the realities of life—either the heights of joy or its complete opposite. This IS the reality of life—at least one fully and well-lived: allowing all of it, letting ourselves grieve, celebrating with abandon, knowing profound ecstasy, reeling in pain, everything in-between.

To try to not feel shuts us down and prevents us from really living. My therapist once told me, “The degree to which you try to avoid grief, Ronna, is the degree to which you will not know joy. The reverse is also true: the more grief you let in, the more joy you will know and feel.” (Reluctantly and over a very long time, I came to agree with him.)

And so, given these options, these realities, these truths, I will always, always choose hope. Yes, even the devastation of hope. 


The devastation of hope is a marker of just how beautiful our desire is, how worthy, how holy, how profound.

The devastation of hope is an unswerving commitment to what we deserve, what we know-that-we-know-that-we-know, what we will not not believe.

The devastation of hope is the evidence that our longings are worth having, holding, and honoring.

The devastation of hope is what invites us to the depths of grief, the most honest acknowledgement of loss, and the eventual return to hope’s embrace.

The devastation of hope is what enables us to hope yet again.


Part of a text conversation from a few days back:

Are you OK?

Not totally sure. But I will be.

The devastation of hope.
Hope, yet again.

And in between every one of these, so many tears. Theirs and my own. Over their sadness and grief, yes; but also in stunned gratitude for their honesty, their courage, their strength, their heart, their hope . . . despite its devastation.

What I am privileged-beyond-measure to witness in them IS the cycle, the ongoing truth, and an open-ended (albeit somewhat reluctant) invitation to a life that is full-to-the-brim with all the feels. Alive. Awake. Accentuated. Excruciating. Glorious. Beautiful. Grievous. Impossible. Amazing. Holy.


Even after writing all of this, I am clear about hope’s danger, even seeming-foolishness. What it costs and what it affords. What it threatens and what it invites. What we suffer and what it summons.

Still, I don’t know how to not hope.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

~ Emily Dickinson

“Hope . . . never stops – at all . . . “

May it be so.

Treasuring All that is Precious

As I write this (early January, 2023), I am in Toronto at the home of my dear friend, Tanya Geisler. I was scheduled to fly there nearly three years ago, but had to cancel at the last minute because of my dad’s sudden and unexpected illness, days thereafter, his death. Then Covid. And border restrictions. And leaving my job. And moving across the country. And life. Now, at last, as of this past Thursday, I am here.

Tanya and I met online more than a decade ago. 2010, if I were to take a guess. I knew of her and somehow, shockingly, she knew of me. I decided to invite a small group of women to an in-person event, certain every one of them would say no. Three days together with no agenda—just time and space. All of them said yes, instead. Tanya was one of them.

She flew out of Toronto. Changed planes somewhere in the U.S. Landed in Seattle. Took a shuttle to the ferry dock. Took a ferry to Whidbey Island. Took another shuttle to where I picked her up. Then, having never seen me in person and after travelling for far too many hours and feeling a three-hour time difference, she jumped out of the van and literally ran to me, arms wide open. That embrace? Words fail me.

When I got here three nights ago, I felt that same embrace.

I leave tomorrow. She’ll embrace me one more time. It seems too soon. I cannot, would not trade these precious days for anything in the world.


My mom, knowing how much I love the writing of Ann Patchett, recently told me about her latest book, a collection of essays entitled, These Precious Days. My library loan expired before I got all the way through it, but I’m back on the waiting list. Before it was out of my grasp, I highlighted these words:

I’d been afraid I’d somehow been given a life I hadn’t deserved, but that’s ridiculous. We don’t deserve anything – not the suffering and not the golden light. It just comes.

This is how I often feel when I reflect on my relationship with Tanya. I don’t deserve it. Maybe better stated, I’ve not done anything to deserve it. It just came to me, and to us. It’s precious, sacred even. It’s a gift of grace.

In truth, there are countless, countless people and stories and memories and experiences in my life that are just like this. They have “just come”—in both suffering and in light. They have changed me, strengthened me, shaped me, and ushered me more deeply into a sense of awareness and acceptance and gratitude.

Precious, to be sure.

Why would we turn “precious” into something that is, well, less so?

I don’t have definitive answers, but I am reminded of a story . . .


I got married when I was 31 years old; my husband was almost 48. Given our ages, we were determined to get pregnant as soon as absolutely possible. After five years of infertility (and unsuccessful treatments), I was convinced it would never happen.

You already know how this story played out. I have two amazing daughters. Emma Joy is 26 and Abby is 24. I remain stunned and humbled by their presence in my life. Miracles, both. Precious, to be sure.

But let’s go back to those five years. I did NOT, in any way, see my suffering as precious. In point of fact, I didn’t even allow myself to suffer. At least not visibly, consciously, wisely. Every twenty-eight days I’d give myself a good talking to: “buck up, accept your lot, get it together, trust God’s plan!” If you hear a ridiculous degree of harshness, you’d be right. Even typing it now, I feel a lump in my throat. In many ways, what I told myself (without realizing it until this very moment) was to NOT be precious; to not consider myself more highly than I ought, to not see myself as “entitled” to that which I held most dear and of great worth and price.

Isn’t this sad?

My longing deserved to be precious and dear. My suffering and grief deserved to be precious and inestimable. My hope deserved to be precious and prized. Instead, I told myself that I was being affected, fragile, and pretentious.

We can be so quick to dismiss that which is rich and tender and vulnerable in our lives. To Ann Patchett’s point, we can, all-too-often, see ourselves as undeserving and so, not notice what “just comes.” When what’s precious comes to us through suffering more than light, it’s that much harder to see it as such.

Before I turn this around (which I promise I will do), I’m wondering where all of this lands for you. I’m wondering if, like me, you have stories of suffering that you didn’t allow, experiences you couldn’t let yourself grieve, hopes you couldn’t dare hold onto. I’m wondering if, like me, you have been far more inclined to see yourself as undeserving and so, in light of such, have not given yourself permission to take in, revel in, and honor all that is precious in your life . . . and in you.

I cannot be talked out of this truth: The definition of “precious” defines you—valuable, of great worth or price, honorable. The synonyms for “precious” describe you—adored, cherished, dear, inestimable, loved, prized, treasured.

You are precious, to be sure.


Tomorrow I will fly back to Charlotte NC. I’ll go through customs, take the shuttle to my car, and then make the 3.5 hour drive back to Hampstead. I’ll feel tons of gratitude for the days Tanya and I have shared. I’ll be lost in thought about all we talked of together. I’ll be happy the weather is at least 20-30 degrees warmer. I’ll wish I weren’t driving back in the dark. I’ll listen to an audio book. I’ll stop for gas and probably drive-through dinner. I’ll pull into the driveway, see the porch light left on for me, and say a prayer of “thanks” that I’m safe, that I’m home, that this is my life. All of it is precious—when I choose to see it as such.

I’m certain the same is true for you.

May it be so.

Living from a Softer Place

For as grateful (and amazed) as I am that I’ve completed my book, it is an incredibly odd thing to place it in someone else’s hands, to know it is no longer in my own. I’ve been writing its words and pages and stories in some way, shape, or form for nearly two decades and so, without it, I feel a bit wobbly, out-of-sorts, and slightly disconnected from myself.

I am rhetorically and repeatedly asking what I’ll do next, what I’ll create, what writing will yet be mine.

No answers come.

It’s not only about the writing. It’s also about time. What do I do now? What do I not do now? How do I fill up the empty space? And with what?

Still no answers—at least not any that are immensely helpful, generous, or grace-filled.

And so, as one does, I turn to Google.

I thought about asking “what to do with extra time” or “how to manage a slightly existential crisis” but both of those felt just a tish too broad. Instead, I asked, “what to write when you don’t know what to write.” There are lots of helpful tips and techniques to be found but none were quite what I wanted to hear. So, I looked at the books on my shelf, thinking maybe something would inspire me. Nope. Then I got out a deck of cards I’ve had for a long time, but rarely use: Writing Down the Bones Deck: 60 Cards to Free the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. I thumbed through the first ten or so, and came across this one:

” . . . there’s nothing you feel like writing about. Don’t pop up or pull a different card. Sit there for ten minutes, feeling your breath. Allow everything to be as it is. Just now I’m asking you to be.”


On the back of the card, she says this:

“Now write what you can accept with no judgment, no criticism . . . What else can you accept? The more we accept what’s around us, the more we can accept what’s in us and what comes out on the page. Let’s face it, we are all a little odd, maybe demented. From another angle, delightful. For our ten minutes of just sitting, we can put our arms around it all and write from a softer place.”

We can put our arms around it all and LIVE from a softer place. 

That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? To live from a softer place.

If you’re at all like me, you are immediately looking for the how-to manual. Apparently, Natalie Goldberg anticipated this:

  • accept what’s around you
  • accept what’s in you
  • no judgement, no criticism

Deep breath.

I have a hunch that were I able and willing to do this—accept, accept, accept—my writing, creativity, time, and life itself would, indeed, be softer. 

This is what I want.


There’s an ancient, sacred story told of two sisters. One was busy with all the details connected to hospitality: cooking, cleaning, serving. The other sat at the feet of their guest and soaked up everything he had to say.

The striving one complained, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Their guest responded, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

There’s plenty I chafe at in this story. But at least in this moment, I’m accepting the wisdom it offers: to live from a softer place is the better choice.

The better choice—and—in my lived-experience, the harder choice.

It is easy for me to stay busy. I know how to work hard. I am actually quite comfortable with efforting and striving, thank you very much. *sigh* What is not easy, what I do not know how to do, at least as well, is to let go, to wander, to wonder, to sit still, to accept what is, to be.

It strikes me that my first step is accepting even this. Allowing it to be as it is, me to be as I am. Putting my arms around it all. Taking another deep breath. Letting these ambivalent places between work and rest, striving and ease, knowing and unknowing, even writing and not writing, be a softer place to land . . . and live.

How about for you?

Whether you are a writer, or not, it is well worth your while to spend some time with pen and paper (or, like me, keyboard and screen) and these questions. No urgency. No wrong answers. Allowing. Embracing. Soft, remember?

  • When you look at your circumstances, your surroundings, your relationships, your work, your world, what is yours to accept? Not accede to, but name honestly with deep breaths and no stiving.
  • Where, when, and with whom do you notice your tendency to strive, to effort, to push, to labor? What if you didn’t, even for a time?
  • What yet longs to be accepted within you? How can you put your arms around it all?
  • What would happen if you let go of judgment and criticism? How would you feel? What would change?
  • If there were a softer place to land and softer way to live, what can you imagine that would look and feel like in the most specific of ways?

And for us?

Imagine a world that is not endlessly embroiled in arguments, political tension, and seemingly constant fights over gun-violence and abortion rights and same-sex marriage and racism and ableism and sexism so much more. Acceptance does not mean we look the other way where injustice is concerned; rather, it means we see and name it for what it is. We respond from a place that is clear, succinct, and even devoid of judgment and criticism. It means we are compelled by courage, desire, and hope. And collectively, that would create a softer place for us to live—together.

Deep breath.

May it be so.

My Struggle with Envy

A few weeks back, in the midst of my morning writing/journaling, I reflected on a snippet of my behavior. Something about it caught me, like a snag in a sweater. So I typed lots (and lots) of words and sentences and paragraphs to try and identify what I was feeling.

I’m not proud of it, but “jealousy” is what I had to admit. Later, upon referring to Brené Brown’s lexicon in Atlas of the Heart, I realized it was actually “envy.” She says this:

Jealousy is when we fear losing a relationship or a valued part of a relationship that we already have. Envy occurs when we want something that another person has.

Definitely envy.

We live in a world that thrives on envy.

Capitalism and commercialism do everything in their power to create and sustain this emotional state. These systems flourish because they have us endlessly wanting something that another person has.

It’s reinforced through endless messages (inside and out) that cajole us to believe we will only be whole, complete, happy, and fulfilled when and if we are successful, wealthy, loved, admired, thin, and/or ______________ (fill in the blank).

If this weren’t enough, the slightest scroll through Instagram floods us with images of those who DO have all this, who at least appear to have what we have been persuaded and convinced to want, desire, (and purchase) at almost any cost.

It requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and discipline to NOT feel envy! Brené Brown names that psychologically (and culturally) it is almost impossible for us to avoid it. But then she says this:

Even if we do not choose whether or not to make a comparison, we can choose whether or not to let that comparison affect our mood or self-perceptions.


This is what I’ve been thinking about since tripping over my own comparison and envy. It has definitely affected my mood and self-perceptions. I need and want to make a different choice. And I’m wondering if maybe, just maybe, you can relate.

We nearly buckle under unrelenting pressure to have perfect clothes, homes, jobs, bodies, faces, hair, shoes, relationships, and a practically perfect attitude at all times.

Since comparison is a given and the lure toward envy is rife, how can we make a different choice or at least have another way to look at this?

No surprise: I have some thoughts.

I once had the privilege of spending a day in the presence of Gertrude Mueller Nelson, author of Here All Dwell Free (which if you haven’t read you must.) I remember taking furious notes as she said that instead of feeling self-contempt or shame for our envy, we should understand it to be a reflection of our desire; a mirror of what we hold to be of value for ourselves.

Our envy offers us evidence of what we desire; that we desire, period!

When we want something another person has or wish that another person’s reality were our own, we are gaining profound insight into our very selves. This is not a bad thing. It’s a powerful naming and knowing!

Iwantto be aware of what I want. It’s the only way I can discern what is worth pursuing and what is most-definitely not!

When we identify and name what we want, we can distinguish between what we actually desire and what our culture tells us to want (and want and want some more). 

The morning I’d been journaling, I was writing about a webinar I’d attended the day before, taught by a relatively well-known woman: what I liked and didn’t, what I agreed with and didn’t. Instead of reflecting more on my own thoughts, I left the journaling document entirely, opened a new tab, pulled up her website, and fell down a too-deep rabbit hole that had me literally calculating (with a calculator) how much she must be making every year. Envy. Envy. Envy!

(Did I mention I’m not proud of this?)

When I finally returned to my words on the screen, my envy offered me a clue — evidence of what I actually desire. On the surface, it’s money. BUT (and this is important) once I saw and named this, I very quickly knew it to be something culture tells me to want, NOT what I really want. It’s not that I don’t want money. I am just very, very clear that I do NOT want to be sucked into any vortex that tells me having more of it will make me whole, complete, happy, fulfilled, blah, blah, blah.

What do I really want? What’s underneath? Mmmmm. Assuredness. Security. Groundedness. A sense of being “at home” and “at rest” with my work and very sense of self.

No matter what we think we want, no matter what we have been conditioned to want  money, beauty, success, fame, power, even a perfect holiday  all are mist and shadow, myth and false promise.

What lies underneath is ours to know, honor, and value. These deeper desires are worthy of us; they are good, deserved, beautiful and true! WE are worthy!

“. . . Esther Perel says desire is owning the wanting, and in order to own the wanting, there needs to be a self that feels deserving of the wanting.(Reclaiming Body Trust)

When we name what we truly desire, we have agency. We are not at the whim of anything Instagram or Facebook tells/sells us, others’ opinions or expectations, past beliefs, even our circumstances. And we can bravely name (even grieve), where these things have NOT been true, present, known, or felt.

To acknowledge what we truly desire allows us to step away from envy and instead, move toward ourselves. Our truest, deepest desire becomes our North Star!

That was a lot of words to ultimately say just this:

Let yourself want what you want. It invites you into the truth of what you most truly desire and deserve.

I wish I could tell you that I quickly identified envy that morning, walked through all of these insights, and closed the document on my laptop feeling so much better about myself. That would not be true. What I can tell you is that giving myself permission to name what I was truly feeling, albeit slightly painful, enabled me to eventually see and understand so much more. Isn’t that always the way of it? The things we’d prefer to avoid are the very things that invite our healing, growth, and wisdom.

I hope envy is not a constant, even occasional visitor in your day-to-day reality. But on the off-chance that it is, may its presence remind you of just how beautiful your desire truly is; of how beautiful your heart is when it wants what it truly wants.

May it be so.


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About South Stars

I was talking with a client a few weeks back who can honestly and confidently state that she is strong and powerful and capable and competent. She’s 100% right about this!

Still, she is dealing with some things that have her feeling weak and wobbly and incapable and incompetent. She knows better AND she feels what she feels. It’s a conundrum, a paradox, a truth, a lie. And much like me, this has her spiraling a bit, feeling bad, berating herself, acknowledging her own ridiculous shame spiral.

I could attempt to talk her out of what she’s feeling. I could tell her what we’ve all heard a gazillion times: talk to yourself like you would someone you love. I could encourage her to see that she’s being overly critical, that self-compassion is deserved. (And of course, I could do all of this with and for myself, as well.)

Here’s the thing:

Our doubts and insecurities, our wounds and seen-patterns, even the negative thoughts that are completely contradictory to who we KNOW ourselves to be, are very, VERY good news! They point us to what matters, to what we care about most, to what we know-that-we-know-that-we-know.


When my client tells me she feels weak and wobbly and incapable and incompetent, these very pains and irritants serve as irrefutable evidence of what matters to her, what she cares about most, and what she most definitely knows is true about her.

It’s uncomfortable to feel and name the contradiction, but it serves as a generous reminder of what is more true.

  • If we don’t allow for the fact that we feel heartbroken and hopeless, we won’t see that compassion and hope are, in fact, qualities and characteristics that we hold dear and do, in fact, have…in spades.
  • If we don’t allow for the fact that we feel lonely, we won’t recognize just how much we value relationship…and that we are more-than worthy of such, no compromising or compliance allowed.
  • If we don’t allow for the fact that we care about how we are perceived by our co-workers, our boss, our kids, our significant other, then we won’t see (sometimes with excruciating clarity) that we must speak our mind, stand up for ourselves, and unswervingly value all that we offer and bring.

Our most uncomfortable feelings are often profound gift and grace.


I once heard someone explain the idea of a “south star.”

We know what a north star is: a concept, belief, or inherent truth by which we set our course, that keeps us focused, that points us in the right direction. A south star is just as powerful. It shows us where NOT to go and what is NOT true.

  1. What are your south stars?
  2. Think about some recent situation in which your internal response was almost immediate self-contempt or irritation.
  3. Write out what you felt, the self-talk that poured forth.
  4. Now, for each of those things you just wrote down, name their exact opposite. An example: I am so lazy. It’s opposite: Intentional. Contributing. Present.
  5. So, “lazy” is the south star that points you toward and reminds you that, in fact, what matters to you is being intentional, making a contribution, being fully present. And I’d be willing to bet that you already ARE all these things!

Worth stating again:

Our doubts and insecurities, our wounds and seen-patterns, even the negative thoughts that are completely contradictory to who we KNOW ourselves to be, are actually very, VERY good news!

They point us to what matters, to what we care about most, to what we know-that-we-know-that-we-know.


As my client talked to me about feeling the opposite of who she knows herself to be, she was able to use those emotions to name the exact conditions that often lead her down that path. She could see how those circumstances a) almost always bring about the same result, and b) are actually possible to avoid and eliminate. Honestly naming what she felt (her south star), even though hard, guided her back to remembering who she truly is.

I hope the same for you!

As caveat, let me say that not every painful or frustrating emotion can be *simply* converted into a south star that leaves us feeling better about ourselves. I do not mean to paint some kind of patina over the hard and excruciating things that happen in our lives. And believe me, though I am a profoundly hopeful person, I am not one who looks for the bright side or seeks out silver linings.

I am, however, a woman who believes deeply in the wisdom inherent in every emotion we have — admitted, expressed, or held tenderly within. Sometimes they are south stars. And sometimes they are veritable craters into which we fall. Either way (and everything in between), I am committed to allowing them in myself and others, to giving them ample and generous spaciousness and grace, to trusting that they will not overwhelm, but will, eventually and at last, walk us home to ourselves.

May it be so.


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