Please Don’t Ever Change

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When I look at this photo I want to laugh and cry and fall to my knees. I want to say to the young man planting grass, “Please, don’t ever change.”

What I actually said went something like this: “Those sticks, Ketut. Do you really expect them to grow?”

“Ya,” he replied. “Soon many.”

My only frame of reference to gardening was Minnesota. If you lopped a branch off a tree and stuck it in the ground in that climate, trust me. It absolutely would not grow.

Ketut gathered cast-off cuttings from nearby hotels and scrounged compost piles after dark. He dug up bushes from his family’s garden in the mountains near Kintamani and transplanted them here. He had a vision and the skills to manifest it. In no time the grass filled in and the stick-garden matured. There were papaya and banana trees, frangipani, and bougainvillea.

In spite of my skepticism, the plantings matured and multiplied. I added a gazebo to the once-upon-a-time stick-garden. Ketut installed electricity and a fan. Now I could have my coffee there and read or write surrounded by voluptuous tropical foliage.

It’s been five years since Ketut gathered branches and stuck them in the ground. Hundreds of plants bursting with fruit and flowers have emerged from those scant beginnings. I wonder, have I changed too? Have the seven years in Bali transformed me from the stick-garden I was when I arrived to someone fully alive?

I have more close friends, more visitors, more invitations, and more commitments than ever before. I’ve learned a foreign language, written two novels and a memoir, and had many articles published. I’ve leased land, built a house, and explored the mountains and coastlines of the island on the back of Ketut’s motorbike. I’ve held Writing for Self-Discovery workshops and my blog has brought others to Bali to imagine their own possibilities.

But what about self-discovery, the reason I began this writing journey in the first place? I had to dig for those answers and when I did I found I’ve become more honest. I’m willing to be seen hanging out my dirty laundry. I’m prepared to be disliked rather than sacrifice who I am. My list was revealing.

  • I let go of perfect – horns fit me better than haloes
  • I know things – it’s okay to be smart, intuitive and right
  • I’m worthy of love – self-love is essential, not selfish
  • I’ve developed a sense of humor – dry and warped but it works
  • I thrive in tropical heat – with an ice-cold mug of Bintang
  • I’m a creature of habit – don’t mess with my routine
  • I’m courageous – but definitely not fearless
  • I’ve become transparent – see my shadow? It’s really dark!
  • I need privacy – especially in the morning
  • I feared loneliness – it didn’t happen
  • I can manage unconditional love – but not marriage

And Ketut? The young man I hoped would never change? His smile is broader, his laughter even more infectious. He’s incapable of malice. His kindness is immeasurable.

Everything changes, but some things just get better.

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Your Dull Suburban Heart Writing Memoir

There’s a way of expressing language that makes me want to slurp it up like melted ice cream, or a Killer Coconut Cocktail. For example, the following was taken from a speech Charlotte Wood made to an Emerging Writers’ Festival in New South Wales:

Allow your writing to expose your shameful ordinariness, your dull suburban heart, your fear, your humanity. Write truthfully into your frailties not away from them.

Your shameful ordinariness. Your dull suburban heart.

That’s what I mean. Using words we all know, Charlotte puts together phrases that make me want to read everything she’s ever written, want to feast on it hoping somehow it will nourish the same brilliance in me.

When I started the memoir, I didn’t know about writing truthfully into my frailties. But I did find myself stopping often in mid-sentence to ask, “Was that how it happened? Or is that just the story I’ve always told myself?”

I wrote the initial draft in first person present, reliving everything as though I was once again in that moment. It was tough. Really tough. The narrative was raw because my life was raw. I rehashed events taking no notice of the lessons they were meant to teach. But I finished it without slitting my wrists.

And sent it off to agents.

One answered. She said two things, 1) at 160,000 words it was too long, and 2) I hadn’t resolved the issues. She suggested slimming it to 80,000 words, an acceptable count for first time authors.

Okay, she wanted me to chop it in half. Sure, I could do that. And I did. But the second time through I told the story in third person past. It was me, older, wiser, pondering my younger self. As I wrote, it was obvious that of course I hadn’t resolved the issues; I hadn’t even recognized them. That’s when I started to question. Perhaps I hadn’t been the ravaged heroine I’d imagined. Perhaps I’d had more culpability in my tragedies than I’d been willing to admit. Victim energy leaked through the narrative and made me nauseous. Oooo. Ouch! Unacceptable.

That rewrite took the better part of a year. An entirely different story emerged, a truer one, and the word count was just a hair over 80,000.

I sent it off to agents.

One answered. She said, 1) the current market prefers to have memoir told in first person. There was no number two. As soon as I read it, I knew she was right. A compelling gut feeling told me that I’d needed that perspective for myself. But for the reader, the third person past point of view left too much distance between the main character and the action.

I’m currently in the third rewrite and once again it’s narrated in first person. But it’s coming from a much different place now. I won’t be well liked but I’ll be real. I won’t be a victim but readers will sympathize once they get over my serial stupidity. And the issues? Are they ever truly resolved? At least it will be clear that I’ve learned from my mistakes.

More than any therapist ever could, this labor of self-love, this monumental undertaking that has already spanned four years of my life, has helped me own my demons. Nobody really cares about Ms. Perfect. It’s the shadow that makes us interesting. In writing and rewriting life’s journey from three different perspectives, I’ve become honest about who I was and fiercely grateful for who I’ve become.

I’m about to send it off to agents…again!

When You’re Real

Most of my life I craved REAL while living the opposite. By the time I was in my late fifties I’d grown bone tired of keeping up appearances, looking happy when sad, successful when failing, confident when crushed, in love when…sigh….

Nobody said I had to fake it. The compulsion came from inside. The whole perfect facade of my life hid a mucked-up mess.

It was the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, that helped me change; helped me become REAL.

Isn't it ironic how this was one of my most favourite stories as a child and I really didn't know why ... but now I do.

It was the single most profound thing I’d ever read. It became my holy book, lines underscored, pages earmarked, and this paragraph especially, tear stained.

I look back on that time often, now that my joints are loose (more likely stiff) my hair’s been rubbed off (gotten thin) and my eyes have fallen out (lasik surgery). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I don’t feel a bit ugly. I surround myself with REAL people, and they understand.

I no longer require pristine perfection in other things, either. Like, for instance my REAL groceries from the Ubud morning market. Far from the scrubbed and sanitized, shrink wrapped, color enhanced, chemical infused products proliferating the shelves in the local grocery stores, my food is brought in battered trucks fresh from the villages at 5:00 a.m.

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Ketut visits the market pre-dawn and does all the shopping. When I realized a year ago that I was protein deficient and needed to add a little meat to my vegetarian diet, I asked him if he could get chicken at the market. His answer was lengthy. Not only could he get it, he could get it fried, open fire roasted, grilled, steamed in banana leaves with Balinese bumbu, made into satays, and raw. I decided to try the fire roasted. He looked happy.

Next morning the grossest looking fowl I’d ever seen (exactly like the one above) arrived on my counter top. I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I squeaked when I saw it. I scream at snakes, most everything else that surprises me gets a squeak. I asked Ketut to take it to his kitchen, remove the head and feet, and return it looking less like it might get up and walk. He said I should use those parts to make soup. I told him he was welcome to have them for that or any other purpose just please take them away.

Of course it turned out that the scary bird was the most delicious meat I’d ever eaten. I’m sure it had been free-ranging, scratching and pecking in the family compound only minutes before it was captured, de-feathered, gutted, cleaned, and roasted over the smoking fire.

The brilliant green spinach offered up a few surprises of it’s own. It’s locally grown and organic. How do I know? It comes complete with bugs still residing in the leaves. The ones I miss during cleaning come floating to the top when I boil it for dinner.

And the eggs…?

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The eggs still have REAL poop on them!

I derive such pleasure from the simplicity. These products haven’t been cleaned up and made presentable. They come from farmers living a few miles away who load their trucks at o-dark-thirty and rumble into town. I love knowing that by avoiding the grocery stores and purchasing from the morning market I’m supporting independent family businesses, REAL people with REAL food.

Sometimes I wonder: What if I’d never read The Velveteen Rabbit? Would I still be living a soulless life? Words have incredible power to inform and transform. That little book happened to fall into my hands at precisely the time I was ripe for it’s message. And oh what bliss: the intoxicating magic of REAL!

 

 

 

 

Dealing with Uncertainty

When I wrote my last post a few days ago, Mt. Agung was still just a stately presence, the highest, holiest mountain in Bali and home to Besakih, the mother temple. Right now, as I keyed in that sentence, another tremor rattled my windows and shook the floor. Holy Mt. Agung is trembling, threatening, poised to erupt – or not.

Not even the most expert of the experts can predict when, or even if an eruption will happen. They cannot foretell the explosive strength if it does blow. But over 50,000 people have been moved out of their homes on the slopes and in surrounding villages because they would not survive if…

I’m in Ubud. We’re told that here we’re far enough away. I think that’s supposed to make us feel better. The streets are teeming with visitors, more people than I’ve ever seen in this town before. They’re shopping, laughing, packing the many restaurants, and going about life as usual.

But I live here, and for me, this is not life as usual. Time hangs between tremors – between news flashes – between numbers, 3 for be careful, 4 for beware. We’re at 4, the highest these warning numbers go. I know many families that aren’t evacuating. Ketut’s is one of them. They live 10 kilometers from Agung. A 7.5 kilometer distance is the mandatory evacuation zone. I worry.

I have never had to psychologically manage such uncertainty before. It’s a helpless feeling. I’m a ‘doer’ and there is nothing I can do to change the situation. I like to imagine that I have control over my environment. I have none. Mother Nature is in charge. Meanwhile, we wait.

 

 

Hiding out in the past

 

I’ve been writing my memoir for three years. It seems like forever until I think about the 67 years it took me to live it.

On Tuesday, September 19th, 2017, at 11:30 p.m. Bali time, after once again reading through the entire 99,327 word manuscript, I deleted an unnecessary adjective on page 181, took a weary breath, and hit send. A kind woman in New York City will take a look at it. She’s been in the publishing industry for a long time. The fate of my labors hangs on her advice.

I didn’t anticipate the feelings that would arise in the absence of that project. I expected relief and little else. There’s been a little relief and a lot else. Every morning for the past three years I’ve awakened knowing I had work to do. September 20th, dawned with an entire day empty. That’s how it felt: empty. The truth is, I’m retired. Every hour is mine to fill or not in any way I choose. But I’d committed the previous thirty-six months to writing, and that gave my life focus. Finished now, at least for the moment, what would I do with all that available time?

Before I could swing my legs over the side of the bed for morning ablutions, a realization hit: I was back in the present. I’d spent three years reliving the past. I don’t mean remembering – remembering is passive. Reliving is active involvement, re-experiencing, re-feeling, bringing up old emotions to craft into words so future readers can connect with something real. Sending the manuscript on its way detached me from that former time and catapulted me into the present.

A huge portion of mental real estate was wiped clean. My mind, scrubbed and shiny, felt new. The sensation expanded throughout my body. It made sense. The tens of thousands of words I’d dredged up to tell my story had been at the expense of every nerve and cell where traumas were stored. My entire being had existed in the past for the duration of the writing, and now I was free.

The present is a new experience, and I’m not yet altogether comfortable with it. Although much of the past was unpleasant, it was familiar. I could always duck into it, hide for days believing that I was working – writing – which I was. I was also healing. Mucking around in those stories, retelling them, gave me the opportunity to see things in a different light. In so doing, wounds healed. But at the same time, I was stuck there, using the past as a buffer to cushion myself from – from what?

From getting old. Yes. From the very real, very present evidence of encroaching old age. To be fully present means accepting who I am now. I’ve heard many mature adults say that inside they still feel sixteen, or twenty-five. I used to say the same. But writing the memoir has brought me current. I’ve lived those years, twice. I’ve learned the lessons, finally, and have earned the earmarks of the elder: sags, wrinkles, and wisdom, one would hope!

There have been other shifts like this, seismic upheavals that heralded a new way of being, and all have come through writing. It’s a profound tool for self-discovery, and writing memoir is the ultimate challenge. For me, reliving my life through memoir accomplished what the first incarnation hadn’t: I grew up. But I’m not so adult as to pass on a pair of totally outrageous earrings at the Smile Shop – aren’t they great?!

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SOLAR ECLIPSE: Compelled toward CHOICE

solar eclipse embodiedA Solar Eclipse happens the morning of March 9th, 2016. Energetically this is a moment of profound choice that will deeply affect your fate for the next 19 years.

When I read that statement, my body tingled and sprouted goosebumps.

The event is the equivalent of a monumental power surge supporting transitions. Actually, forcing is the better word. In this crucible of opportunity we are forced to choose only one specific and critically important area of focus in order to make use of the energy.

In recent months I’ve felt a minor irritation, like a wasp circling my head, not too close but close enough that I can’t fully relax into my life. I’ve noticed uncertainties toward specific writing goals and family relationships. The questions spin through my mind, searching but finding no answers.

In the past, these sensations have preceded major adjustments to the status quo. Evolution cannot remain static. It’s essential to listen to the sounds pounding in the psyche, the discomforts rattling through the nervous system calling attention to the need for change. On one hand, the past offers a familiar path, the karmic conditions that dictated what life looked like before. Slipping into old patterns is tempting. But ahead, in the strange mystery of the future lies limitless growth. It challenges everything and promises only to pay your experiences forward with wisdom and empathy.

solar eclipse islandMarch 9th is also Nyepi, the Balinese New Years Day. It follows a night of chaotic wildness as dark spirits are driven out and the island experiences a re-set of benign peace. The eclipse and Nyepi taken together are formidable in their potential for effecting transformation.

It’s entirely probable that this supercharged moment provides the ideal frequency to connect with life’s purpose and core soul unity, part of the answer to Why Am I Here.

On the morning of March 9th as the sun disappears and utter quiet reigns over the island, planes grounded, the airport closed, people confined to their homes for silent meditation and reflection, I’ll sit in waiting, acknowledging the power of wounds, empty spaces and the sacred darkness, refusing to re-live those wounds or identify with them. But as I sit, will I contract with the universe to discard karmic patterns and re-assert my agency in the process of consciously driven evolution? Will I re-examine my belief systems, questioning roles, rules, and narratives I have held as sacred, unquestionable, or absolute? Will I release and walk away from anyone or anything that isn’t on my energetic wavelength? Will I trust my intuition, gut instincts, imagination and dreams?

Will I resolve to do only what is mine to do?

I’m excited and more than a little apprehensive. I’ve enjoyed four years of deep healing and explosive joy, unequaled by anything in my former life. It’s been a time of sacred idleness, a holy reprieve and I sense the chapter ahead will stretch me. On March 9th I’ll seal my fate for the next nineteen years. Will I lean into the unknown, embrace fears and plunge headlong into the vortex of change? Or will I stagnate, immobilized by the immensity of my own power to choose?

 

Credits:  Quoted text from an article, The Eclipse – Another Roll of the Dice, by Lorna Bevan

Image #1  –  http://www.globallightminds.com

Image #2  –  Holly Sierra, American Magical Realism Painter

 

 

When You’re Real

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“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit – by Margery Williams

For a long, long time I tried to be perfect. It was a need as deep as breathing and I fooled a lot of people including myself. “Oh Sherry, you’re so together. You’re always calm.” I heard it all the time and loved it. That was the image I created to cover the inside that was littered with guilt, shame, and blame.

But perfection’s a tough gig. Not only that, it lacks substance. Perfect is a china doll, an airbrushed painting, a lacquered wig. Somewhere along the way I began to suspect I was shallow, colorless. I was so tightly held, so carefully constructed there was no room for inspiration which, of course, added to the self-contempt. From age 26 to 56, this was my modus.

But something happened at midlife. It was like waking up from a Rip Van Winkle slumber. Who am I and where have I been for thirty years? Confused and disoriented, I consulted an insightful woman who told me to muck around in the nitty-gritty and don’t be afraid to get dirty. “I’m already dirty,” I said through tears. “I’ve tried so hard to get clean.”

“You’re not dirty, Sherry.” She plumbed to the depths of my soul with her eyes. “You’ve never been anything but perfect. The perfect daughter, the perfect wife, the perfect mother. I’m just asking you to be real.”

That may be the single, most profound thing anybody ever said to me. Putting perfect up beside real and seeing that the one made the other impossible, was revelation. As soon as she said it I knew it was true. I had no hope of being me unless I let go of perfect.

Of course, the person who emerged as the ‘perfect pictures’ slipped into the sinkhole of my shadow, was neither shallow, nor colorless. I found that I liked her irreverent, gutsy self. At first I protected her, didn’t say much about her past, just let her evolve and mature. But the more real she became, the less need I felt to gloss over the too-obvious flaws. The liberation that came when there was nothing left to hide, was the ultimate freedom.

Writing my memoir has been the full disclosure. I’ve filleted myself wide open to judgement but I’ve also let go at last of every shred of the need to look good as a disguise. I’m willing to let my hair be loved off, get loose in the joints and shabby, because at last I’m real, and I can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Photo credits to Sharon Lyon

Behold! Bawdy and Bold, the Banana!

My slice of heaven opens to a view of banana trees. At no time in the Minnesota years did I ever see a banana tree, not in the wild, and not in captivity. Even the Como Park Conservatory, that fantasy of tropical jungle under glass where I’d go in the dead of winter to be reassured that green still existed somewhere on the planet, didn’t sport a banana tree. I knew oaks, maples, an assortment of evergreens, and could tell the difference between birches and poplars. But when sliced banana appeared on my morning cereal, I didn’t think to wonder what sort of growth it sprouted from.

In Bali, there’s a new world of tropical flora to learn.  Unlike shy Minnesota flowers, Bali blooms are showy and bold, but when I noticed an extra large, bulbous, purple appendage dangling under a broad-leafed canopy, I stared in bewildered wonder.

P1090871“What’s that?” I point at the mutant growth that seems to have materialized in my garden overnight.

“Banana flower,” Ketut says.

“It doesn’t look like a banana, why would anyone name it that?”

“No,” he’s patient as always. “That flower make banana.”

I zoom in with my camera and, sure enough. Atop the eggplant color is a green fingerling hair-do, parted in the middle.

P1090874And above that are delicate flowers that look like rows of orchids.

P1090872It’s like watching grass grow on fast forward. Each day the flower looks more and more banana-like.

P1020806Until finally,

P1020802the bunch is ready for harvest.

Fascinated by watching the exotic transformation from flower to fruit, I do a little research and learn some interesting banana facts:

The banana is a berry.

There are over 370 varieties of banana. Some estimate closer to 1000.

A banana stem, such as shown in the last picture above, can weigh up to 110 pounds and have 3 to 20 tiers with up to 20 bananas on each tier.

The banana tree matures, bears once, then dies, but before that happens, a new shoot has already sprung up from the base. In this sense, the banana is a perennial.

Bananas are naturally, slightly radioactive due to their potassium content.

In Bali, the entire tree is utilized. Small squares cut from the leaves form the base for daily house offerings. Food is wrapped in banana leaves for steaming. A piece of the waxy green leaf often doubles as a dinner plate. The trunk is soft and is fed to livestock or used as the center of the offering towers to secure the pyramid of fruits.

I’ve always loved the flavor, texture, and sweetness of bananas. But since moving to their native habitat, I’ve come to respect the prominent role they play in every nuance of Balinese life. P1090642And when Ketut brings me a plate of banana fritters with shaved palm sugar, and says, “Enjoy!” believe me, I do, every melt-in-your-mouth tantalizing morsel!

A Downward Dog View of Yoga

The ex-pats in Ubud have an uneasy relationship with the yoga crowd that floods the streets with nubile bodies in leggings and sports bras. There are good reasons for this. I’m guessing that the median age of the ex-pat population here approaches 70 so maybe there’s just a speck…a smattering…of jealousy? But to give them credit, these people did not grow up in the era of self-discovery with the influx of mystical influences from the East. Even some of the younger ones roll their eyes and avoid organic and raw food restaurants known to cater to the heightened awareness  crowd.

So this morning when I opened an e-mail from my sister in Northern Minnesota, and read a poem she wrote recently, I knew I had to post it for two reasons: first, she’s a great poet and has published her work in a book, Musings of a Damsel, Reflections of a Crone (click the link to see more), and second, because it’s so true and I knew if I could relate then many others would too.

My Inner Eye
by Gwen Lee Hall (pen name: Wendolyn Lee)

My friend is into yoga; she practices faithfully.
She tells me it’s done her a world of good, and it would be good for me.

I resist, but she has an answer for every excuse I know.
Yoga can take me places I never dreamed I’d go.

It will open my breath, open my mind, teach my soul to fly.
I’ll see things I’ve never seen before when I open my inner eye.

And so I cave. I buy the mat. I learn a pose or two,
And sure enough, the part about my inner eye is true!

Downward Dog on the livingroom floor, I see popcorn under the chair,
Dust bunnies under the sofa, wads of puppy hair…

So today I’m getting my exercise with a dustpan and a broom,
Seeing things I’ve never seen, right here in my livingroom.

Thank you my friend; I now include yoga in my routine.
My inner eye gets a workout, and my livingroom is clean.

Writing Memoir – The Vulnerability Factor

“You should write a book!”

Shouldn’t we all? Isn’t every life worthy? Hasn’t each soul passing through existence experienced the joys and sorrows of living in a unique and personal way?

I’ve tried many times, sat down with the crisp blank Word Document staring me in the face. Where to start? Birth? I don’t remember much. Looking at the whole of my life rolled out through the decades is instant overwhelm. But worst of all, boring. I know this story. It isn’t like writing a fiction novel where the twists and turns are as much a surprise to me as they will be to my future reader.

Looking back at failed attempts I understand why it couldn’t happen until now.

1) Too painful.

To write memoir you have to go back into the stories and re-live them, write the experience of what you saw, the smells, tastes, and textures, the feelings. My heart hadn’t healed enough to go there.

2) Too revealing.

To write memoir you have to accept who you are and write from that place. I wasn’t ready to give up the façade of perfection, take responsibility for my own bad decisions and be honest with myself.

3) Too real.

To write memoir you have to be willing to be vulnerable. Your shadow has to appear in all it’s shameful, embarrassing glory. Because after all, isn’t it the shadow side that makes us interesting…and whole? I wasn’t willing to embrace the darkness of my own truth.

4) Too scary.

To write memoir you have to risk everything. We thrive on connection with others. Shame is the fear of disconnection. To reveal ones self, warts and all, is the ultimate risk. We go to great lengths to keep our sunny side up and numb ourselves to the shameful parts. I was numb.

5) Too soon.

To write memoir you have to have a clear perspective of your purpose. “Because someone told me I should,” isn’t a clear perspective. “Because I love myself and I have an amazing story to tell,” is better. But when you come to the place of knowing that your story isn’t yours, that it belongs to others who are still mired in the swampy numbness of their own failings and insecurities and it may show them a way through, that’s when it’s time.

My time is now. As I muck around in the past, digging up old stuff, the events that light up for me aren’t the ones I expected. And as I write them, the way they present themselves on the page isn’t always the way I’ve rehearsed them through the years.  It’s the most amazing phenomenon. What I’m writing is my life told from a place of wholeness and it doesn’t look anything like the dismal sink-hole I imagined it was.

When I hit a particularly bumpy stretch and make myself go back into it, on many occasions laughter bubbles up. The first time it happened I was dumbstruck. “Why am I laughing? This was a nightmare!” In a flash I realize that I’m laughing at myself, at my naiveté, at my relentless stupidity in not wanting to see what was right in front of my face.

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Walking the labyrinth

I’m loving this memoir writing process. The words tumble out and bounce back at me like the rerun of a movie I watched a long time ago. But I’m seeing it with older, wiser eyes, and a healed heart. And even though I think I know the ending, I’ve let go of the need to control it. I’m willing to be surprised.

 

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