This House, This Home

 

tree top

Armed with addresses of houses within our budget, I’d drive-by properties to take a look on my own. Pulling up to this sweet place for the first time, the atmosphere seemed to change and I felt like I’d gone back in time. It was late summer and the white cape dwarfed by trees with a hedge setting the property apart from the quiet street, called to me. This one, I told Mary Lou, I want to see this one.

An old woman named Mrs. Henderson lived here before us. Her only son lived down south and somewhat reluctantly, she was moving to be closer to him. She’d lived in the house for 45 years. We quizzed her about the yard – Azalea shrubs, a Dogwood (that has long since died) Forsythia and a long bank of Peonies. She and I sat on the porch together. With every breeze, the leaves seemed to applaud. It’s been a happy house, she told me as she watched Neil lead Molly across the lawn. I knew she liked us and wouldn’t dicker about our lower bid. Charming Neil and earnest me with our darling daughter, almost two. They will be happy too, she must have thought.

living room

This 1938 Cape with charming glass doorknobs and a fireplace, hardwood floors badly in need of refinishing and a water tank barely able to accommodate one of Neil’s hot baths became ours. The place needed a lot of work but our budget was limited so we did little to improve it. The year Neil died, I somehow managed to put a new roof on.

When I fantasize about winning the lottery, I don’t imagine buying some fancy joint, I’d finally fix up this one. I would put in a new bathtub, finally refinish the floors, replace the drafty old windows, maybe add second bathroom on the first floor. And I’d definitely tear down the garage of such sad history and replace it with a sweet live-able studio.

house in snow

At times, I wonder about remaining here – mostly because of money, doubts about whether I can do it all myself, but also, because unlike Mrs. Henderson’s years, on our watch, this house has seen great sadness. Within a only few months of moving in, money began disappearing, Neil started sleeping all day, losing jobs and ignoring home responsibilities including his wife and daughter. Finally, I learned of his addiction. Years of struggle followed – cycles of hope and despair until he ended it all here at our home. Someone else might have moved away but I never blamed this house and memories fade with time. Somehow, we always come back to joy here because, there is our love, Molly’s and mine. One I dreamed of.

chair window

My journals written in my twenties and early thirties are full of longing for a home, a craving for a place, for love. And even with sadness, old and new, this place has been that. Next year Molly and I will have been here 20 years. Our home, this house, remains rich with the most profound love I have ever experienced – for my daughter who I have raised within these old walls. And this is her home as well as mine, this house where the floors have never been refinished, where the old pipes leak and that cast iron boiler just better hang on for at least another winter.

I have spent these last snowy days inside this shabby, beloved house watching the light change through the hours, sitting in the warmth of sun pouring in the windows. Later, I will light a fire and finally, climb the creaky stairs to bed and with sweet old Tetley curled at my feet, I will sleep. And I think, this is a house of happiness. In fact, sheer joy. And when Spring comes and the leaves come out, I know they will applaud again.

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Sunday Silence

I lived without a television from the late 1970s through the early 90s and thus have lots of television related social gaps. Dallas? Laverne & Shirley? Mork & Mindy? Missed them all and didn’t miss them.

The boob-tube, or idiot-box as my father referred to it, came into my adult life when I got together with my late husband in Sarajevo. He loved it even risking his life for his favorite television shows. To placate the the journalists who made up most of the guests at this Holiday Inn smack on the front line, the satellites on the roof were carefully angled for best reception of CNN, ITV and Sky News. Neil figured out that if he could shift a dish just so, he might see his shows. Donning his flak jacket and helmet in case any snipers spotted him, he crawled across the hotel roof. Armed with a walkie-talkie, he communicated with a friend stationed in his hotel room. Neil shifted the dish until Captain Kirk and Spock were in perfect focus.

When Neil and I moved-in together in Zagreb, he insisted on having a television with the necessary dish. I settled easily into watching his English comedies (and I sheepishly confess to still being hooked on Eastenders). Initially, like all beginning romances, it felt cozy and fun especially after living without electricity and minimum home entertainment for over a year.

From having no TV presence, my life soon became dominated by it. It was constantly on. I learned to tune-out the canned laughter and Rocky machine gun fire. But I never liked the constant noise. Eventually, I asserted myself and demanded that Sundays be TV free until after 5:00 PM. No cartoons, no morning news programs – no irritating commercials!

Sundays became blissfully silent. I still stick to this rule – even when Molly’s at school and I am alone in the house. While I confess to now having my own addiction to shows like Downton Abbey, Homeland, British Mysteries and the news, I never turn it on until the evening, no matter the day. Even so, I still watch too much and it’s an incredible time-suck, don’t you think? But never on Sundays. That silence feels sacred.

When do you watch television?

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Enough IS Enough

Christmas tree

Today I assessed the gifts I’ll be giving for Christmas. Laid out across my bed in little piles by person – most for my daughter, a few things for siblings who will visit on Christmas day, and another  group for dear friends, it looked paltry. Especially Molly’s pile. I imagined them wrapped and under the cute little tree we bought the other other day and thought, “There’s not enough!” and off I went out into the fray to buy more stuff.

I know better. Molly doesn’t care. We’re more of a team than ever, working together on saving pennies where we can. There’s a year and a half left to get her through college. We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel of funds I’ve saved. She knows that. Still, I’m insecure about my ability to deliver on Christmas. Why? It’s ridiculous, I know. My kid is 20. She works. My family and friends work. We are all adults. It’s nice to get and receive things but none of it is necessary. Still, some mother-gene in me cannot imagine disappointing my daughter.

But then I really think about it. I think gratefully about how we all have roofs over our heads, good food to eat. How fortunate we are to flick a switch for light, turn a tap for water. How lucky we are that no one is bombing us. The little piles on my bed (slightly bigger after my outing) are enough.  We have enough and that really IS enough.

Enjoy your holiday! (and give books!) xxx

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A Good Start: On Dreams and Meditation

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I would like to do a better job of remembering my dreams. I rarely do. I’ve tried all sorts of tricks – telling myself pre-sleep: “remember your dream!” Nothing. At best, I manage a snippet. My intention is to learn more about my subconscious, to improve my discernment in every sense of that word. I’m tired of making the same mistakes in my life but if I don’t understand where they come from, I probably will. Hey, it’s only taken me to the other side of 50 to fully embrace this idea. Better late than never, right?

Recently, a pretty mundane remembered dream-scene inspired me to start meditating again — a discipline that in the past has been helpful. In my dream, I am searching for a different wake-up sound on my alarm clock, something besides my usual bird twitters. While the choices on my real clock has only said bird sounds, rushing water (effective perhaps in hurrying one to the bathroom) or horrible beeping noises, my dream clock included the mesmerizing chants of Tibetan monks. In my dream state, of course I choose to be woken by this chanting.

And when I actually woke and (eureka!) remembered this, I took it as very clear guidance. Wouldn’t you? Now, when my electrically tweeting birds wake me, I hit snooze but instead of burrowing deeper into my pillow, I scoot up into a lotus position and for 10 minutes or so until the birds start singing again, I focus on breathing, on silence. With each inhale I imagine filling up a reservoir of peace that might sustain me through the day.

Sitting for a few moments after opening my eyes, I like to observe the night change to day. This week, mornings were either shrouded in fog or spectacularly red – once in particular, the world beyond my windows seemed on fire, the crazy reds almost tangible so densely did they fill the atmosphere. In half-consciousness, I basked in those magic rose hues until they were absorbed into the normal light of a day. A good start.

Do you remember your dreams?

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Sunrise, Sunset, the Moon, the Stars and My Dog

 

2013-01-20 15.05.19My breath is visible and a cloud of steam rises from Tetley’s pee as he lifts his leg over a pile of leaves. I look up at the brilliant blue sky promising a beautiful day. I follow the flight of a little bird as it bounces through a shrub with golden leaves – the last foliage left in the wood. Yesterday’s wind cleared most of the leaves and now I shuffle through them as I follow my sweet old Cairn Terrier down the street. He pulls me forward then stops, lingering a long time to smell a suspect rock. So I stand and look around, listen, fill my lungs with fresh air – my initial grumpiness about getting forced out into the world earlier than I wanted fading. Like most of us, although I’d love to, I rarely get to loll about in bed past 6 AM and it’s now just after 8 on a Sunday – a little later than our usual circling of the neighborhood.

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Multiple times a day, Tetley leads me to moments of meditation. He gets me OUT. Even when I’m cranky or the weather sucks. And so I see the sunrise, the sunset, the moon and stars, the passing flock of geese honking through the sky, rabbits, and once even a coyote. He gets me closer to the subtle change in the season, I speak with my neighbors rather than just waving at them from my car. I watch the light, hear the bird songs. We sometimes go to the beach in a neighboring town where he can climb on the jetty in search of rodents and I watch the tides, hear the waves, smell the salt air. He greets strange dogs and I talk to their owners.

Tet color profile

Tetley makes me move when I’m inclined to hide at home, not leave the couch. And once outside, there is no purpose but to be there with him and see the world around us.

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In Praise of Dark Mornings and a Vote Against #DaylightSavingTime

Tetley shoots out the door ahead of me, barking at shadows cast by streetlights and a waning Moon. Dark mornings extend my dream state as I move almost immediately from bed into the street with a coat thrown over my pajamas, a hood pulled over uncombed hair. Recently my breath is visible in the chill.

tetley in leaves

Last week Venus, Jupiter and Mars gathered each morning like a gossiping trio on the Eastern horizon, a bonus for my early ritual of searching the still-dark sky for the glow of planets, lingering stars, a sliver or a some part of the Moon. Seeing these wonders gets me thinking about being on planet Earth, part of an extraordinary balancing act and the thought simultaneously dizzies and centers me. Breathing, shivering in the cold of a dark morning, I feel intrinsically part of the magnificence – one of billions on this incredible, flawed place in the universe with other spinning planets and stars.

The night sky at morning gives me a bigger jolt than any cup of caffeine, setting the stage for my day – a glimpse of something bigger than myself before I get sucked into daily requirements.

We turned the clocks back last night. I’ll miss my mornings in the dark.

How do you feel about Daylight Saving Time?

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Wondering About Belief

 

gardenia

As people flock to catch even a glimpse of Pope Francis during his visit to the United States, I wonder about faith. The lackadaisical religious training of my upbringing (4 years of Catholic School) is long gone but I love this remarkable spiritual leader as he rejuvenates the conscience of the church, of all of us, demanding we pay attention and act against injustice, poverty. How can we not be moved? He gives me belief in humanity – a good place to start.

Because of too many recent deaths, I have been in different churches celebrating and grieving lives of those gone. It’s good there are places to do this. I flailed after my husband’s death – not knowing where or even how to hold a service but thought it important to have one for my daughter, for me. I remain ever grateful to the Unitarian Minister who guided me with poetry in his beautiful church. But it was mostly him that drew me – the congregation was too white and wealthy to become my community.

To some extent, I envy the assurance of my wise friends of faith. They know where to turn to make sense of the world, they find comfort believing their loved ones are welcomed by a benevolent God after death. It’s a beautiful story but I don’t feel that belief. During prayers, I bow my head in quiet reverence and appreciate the hum, the music, the silences of the faithful I stand with and envy the ready community to be found in a church of shared faith. But I don’t share it.

And I wonder – how others feel so sure in their belief and why I don’t. I joke about being a recovering Catholic and that recovery takes a lifetime. But even that gives more weight to the impact my early childhood religion had on me. I was done early. I went to Catholic school until 3rd grade and in 4th or 5th, had the misfortune of encountering a mean priest in confession. Other than funerals and weddings, my family no longer went to church nor did we ever pray or discuss faith. It didn’t stick.

Even as I join with others in church, knowing I am welcome, sure my questions would be embraced, I feel a foreigner who doesn’t quite understand the language. I’m glad for the visit, sometimes, even exhilarated by the energy, the force of many voices raised together, the easy support they give each other, the love offered. I listen carefully and sometimes join the prayers waiting to be moved, for them to feel like anything more than a recitation and –  am not. So there you have it.

Yet, walking home from a love filled memorial service in a beautiful old church yesterday evening, the moon appeared huge and bright on the horizon. My heart filled and I felt the wonder of the earth beneath my feet spinning through the universe.

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Let Them Pass: August 1992 at a Croatian Checkpoint

Desperate scenes of refugees arriving by the thousands, crossing oceans, deserts, fields and forests carrying little beyond the weight of their terrible stories in search of safety and life, remind me of an encounter I had 23 years ago a few months after I began working with the UN in Croatia. 

zagreb

 

Yvetta and I replayed the highlights of our weekend as we sped through Zagreb on our way back to Knin, the dusty, sanction-bound town in the Serb held part of Croatia where we both lived and worked. Yvetta headed the UNHCR office responsible for relief and refugees. I was assistant to the civilian chief of Peacekeeping of Sector South in Krajina. Yvetta always ran a bit behind schedule but today she was late because she’d picked up a Satellite phone. It was August in 1992, pre-cell phone days and this new equipment would allow her to make phone calls from her car. It was worth waiting for.

Now it was Sunday and time to go back to work, back to what was for now, our home. We’d enjoyed our two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel – luxurious hot baths, television, busy streets and even Chinese food. We were heading back to our UN jobs in dusty, desolate Knin where electricity and water were intermittent.

We knew that after 5:30 we might be refused at the Croatian-Karlovac checkpoint so Yvetta stepped on the gas of her little UNHCR issued Honda. A few days earlier, we’d had to sweet talk our way through the checkpoints to get out and now we might have to do the same to get back in to the UN Protected Areas so we could make the three hour drive back before dark.

On Friday, we’d had to charm Serb soldiers, Kalishnokovs slung over their shoulders, red faced and rheumy-eyed from drink, to let us pass. “Nema problema” they said. As far as they were concerned, they’d move the mines blocking the road but we needed to ask the Croatians to move the ones on their side. Yvetta unfurled the UN flag from her car and stretching the cloth between us, we marched down the deserted road, lone marchers in a surreal parade past ghosts in burnt-out buildings, once shops, past houses once filled with normal life. Stepping carefully between and over the anti-tank mines, we walked the equivalent of a city block through no-man’s-land, giggling nervously at this weird spectacle no one could see, glancing at broken windows, into the dark rooms.

rubble 1

Two Croatian soldiers stepped out of the small hut, looked at us like we were crazy, gave a cursory glance at our blue UN Passports and agreed to move the mines. We flinched as they kicked the heavy green metal out of the way while we jogged back to the car. Yvetta navigated us over the pitted road and through our now hysterical laughter, we called “Hvala!” to the soldiers, giddy with the insanity of our lives in this war zone.

Two days later and we were late again. Jokingly we wondered if we’d have to make that march through no-man’s-land but the Croatian soldiers let us pass with barely a glance. About half way to the Serb checkpoint, we were met by a cloud of dust and another car with flapping UN flag followed by 3 civilian cars and a UN truck driven by two Peacekeeping soldiers from Nigeria.  In that strange landscape of the time, civilian cars were more of a surprise than the Africans on this road, since sanctions meant there was no fuel for the local population. Paolo, Yvetta’s colleague from UNHCR Sector North pulled his SUV up beside us.

“Can you help?” he asked. “One Bosnian family has no papers. The Serbs let us through but I’m not sure the Croatian side will.” Paolo,  a soft spoken Italian with thinning hair, wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief.

We looked at the clobbered looking car behind him – a muddy Yugo with a worried looking father driving, his wife beside him and two little girls in the back. The man’s knuckles like white marbles, clutched the top of the steering wheel. Paolo told us, they were Moslems fleeing Bosnia and he was determined to get them through to Zagreb – they could not be protected in this Serb-held area.

Yvetta, swiftly turned us around and led the way back to the Croatian police we’d just left.

Our little convoy pulled up close to the checkpoint and all of us UN staff gathered to give the impression of greater authority. I glanced at the little girls in the back of the Yugo – they looked between 6 and 10. One had such thick glasses her eyes appeared larger through the lenses. They sat quietly. The mother, hair pulled back in a scarf, stared straight ahead through the windshield towards Zagreb as if it might disappear if she looked away. The father looked like an accountant with his business style slacks and button up shirt, too big over his slight frame. He opened the car door and stood there, not taking his eyes off Paolo and Yvetta as they spoke with the authorities who held his families fate in their hands.

“Without papers? No guarantee, no enter Zagreb.” the soldiers shook their heads and shrugged almost sheepishly.

“Wait! I have a phone!” Yvetta surprised herself with the memory. “Can he call someone? What if he calls and you can talk to them and they tell you they will come get him?”

The police shrugged again. She waved the father over to her car and all of us gathered around, our UN badges dangling against the hood of Yvetta’s car.

“Is there someone you can call? Do you have a number?”

The man nodded and said in English, “I think.”

The phone shook in his hands as he dialed the number. We all watched him carefully, collectively willing someone to pick up at the other end. We heard ringing. “Halo?”

“Damir! I’m in Croatia!” he exclaimed, “We are here! We are here!” Through sobs, he spoke with his relative then passed the receiver to one of the soldiers who asked a few questions then handed the phone back to the man.

“Hvala, hvala! We are here!” the man said through tears. His guarantor would come to Karlovac and they would be allowed to pass. The father burst into tears and embraced his little girls who’d climbed out of the car and now stood beside him. The mother collapsed on the dashboard in sobs. Yvetta and I dissolved in tears.

I wept for miles, overwhelmed by relief, by sadness. I wept at the desperation of that family, their lives packed into a car. What had they left behind? What had been taken from them? And they were lucky ones.

Multiplying by numbers and gravity the glimpse I had of that family’s story by thousands now fleeing their homes, saddens me. Watching barbed wire fences erected to block their movement as they stand at the border, enrages me. I think of this family – just one family – and the relatively tame drama of their simple crossing back in 1992 when things in Bosnia were just beginning to simmer into what would become an explosion of violence, harassment, of war crimes, massacres. I think of that one family as I watch the current scenes of families, fleeing the rubble of their lives, trying only to get across to safety however they can. Mostly, they seem to carry nothing but their children. No one takes to unknown roads with infants unless they are desperate.

I conjure the face of that mother staring at the horizon imagining a better life, willing it to be. The father, ill equipped to navigate a war, only knowing one thing: to get his daughters to a place they could safely sleep. I recall the bewilderment magnified in the glasses of the little girl in the backseat of the car. And how we all wept with relief when word was given that they could pass. That’s all they wanted to do – to pass, to join the caring friends, relatives, who waited. I think of them now, 23 years later, while watching thousands of refugees trying to cross borders to a better life. They do this because there is nothing left to leave behind. I would do this too. I would not take my eyes off the place I needed to get to. I know better than to think such a fate is impossible for any of us.

  • There are so many organizations that do great work but I send my donations to MSF (Doctors Without Borders) as I remember the great work they did in the field and also, most of their budget goes towards programs – not administrative costs. Check out Charity Navigator to see how the NGO of your choice rates.
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Into Every Life Some Rain Must Fall

blue skies

Night is the only time the sun stops shining here in Connecticut. Summer has been perfect – unless you’re a plant or a reservoir.

We need rain. Leaves rustle too crisply in the smoke scented breeze. I fill the bird bath twice in a day.

I’ve had a longtime crush on California – imagining myself living where days are mostly bright and Winter means wearing a sweater. But these relentlessly dry days make me think about the long drought out West and I’m re-evaluating my fantasy. How terrible to live under threat of fire the likes of now in California, Washington and beyond.

No one has told us to curb our usage around here and I’ve watered the Peach trees and Hydrangea bushes to keep them alive – although this one may not make it.

hydrangea

For no particular reason, I’ve sacrificed this pot of Pansies and this Petunia.

petunia and pansy

I’ve ignored the plants out front – too far to drag the hose and anyway, the earth is so parched, water just flows down the slope into the street.

slope

 

I definitely am neglecting the lawn. I don’t fertilize it so our grass is never our neighbors’ envy. Whatever. We’re not a golf course.

lawn

Without nurturing, beloved plants quickly wither in these summer days so glorious we exclaim to each other in agreement how great the weather is. I miss summer storms.

Without clouds, without root soaking rains, life fails.

I see this as a metaphor for my own life. I’ve prided myself on my abilty to move-on past shitty times as quickly as possible, for being adept at pulling my socks up and scurrying quick to brighter days. I don’t get depressed easily. I don’t cry much. I’m good at detaching from unpleasantness – something someone recently suggested to me might be masking denial. What is sacrificed  when we fail to acknowledge, to sit in the darkness with sadness, to really feel pain and loss? Embracing emotional darkness and clouds can provide as much nourishment as the rains — allowing us to experience everything more deeply. We need these roots to feel the richness of love and joy. Without it, everything turns to dust and blows away.

Some days must be dark and dreary. Let it rain.

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Hawks and a Star

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Driving through the hills of Northeast Connecticut on Wednesday with my windows open, I inhale the delicious scent of country. My sadness at leaving my daughter for her Junior year at college is dwarfed by the comfort of knowing she is safe and happy. This world feels right for her, she thrives here – so my ache is sweet. As the road turns into a highway, I step on the gas and a huge bird swoops toward and then alongside my car, keeping pace with for a few seconds. I struggle to keep my eyes on the road while watching this incredible creature. I think with a loaded heart: this is Molly’s father checking in with me as our beautiful girl begins another chapter. I smile through a blur of tears.

Friday morning, I arbitrarily decide to take the highway to work. This is a crazy stretch of I-95 but I go in the opposite direction of most commuters so the drive is usually a breeze, shaving a few minutes off my easy 15 minute trip. I speed up on the entrance ramp, behind the car ahead of me ready to join the river of heavier-than-usual traffic. A car crazily brakes to almost a full stop on the highway – blocking us in. With a screech and a groan a tractor trailer slams on its brakes as does the car on the ramp ahead of me. I pull over to the right  and for a moment, we are all stopped, stunned there is no crash of metal. Hearts pounding, through a cloud of burnt rubber from the truck’s brakes, we all move again, continuing our journey. Trembling as I picked up speed, I see a hawk sitting on a post beside me and let out a sob.

Last night I met up with a friend of more than 40 years. A rare visit because tonight, it is just J and her dear mother. As a teenager, this house and family provided comfort and warmth from my own angst filled home. Later, J and I drive to the beach to look at the full moon, to watch the light of it dance across the Long Island Sound. I shared with J, like me – a widow too young – how 11 years after his death, I sometimes miss my husband. The fury I long felt about the torment caused by his addiction, his suicide have faded. J responded how this is a beautiful sign of healing. Driving away from the beach, my eyes on the road with the horizon dark beyond the trees, I tell her about my hawk encounters and as I do, a shooting star drops like a huge firework above the tree line.

This morning, I sat outside in the early sun, legs tucked beneath me, phone to my ear sharing with my beloved sister these mysterious moments and JUST as I am am telling her, a hawk (yes, really) flew low through the branches, flapping wings audible as it passed over. Okay — I get it! I am not alone.

I’ve been thinking about faith recently, marveling how many people stick with the beliefs of their childhoods, or perhaps they have a faith renewed or maybe they discover it for the first time. I claim none of that. I wonder a lot. I was moved recently, by the certainty of believers I witnessed in a church last week, their belief such comfort to them, so huge it burst through song – in wails of grief, shouts of joy belted out in full confidence and better pipes than I’ll ever have. I am silent when prayers are recited by rote on cue, not moved to join in, the words sounding hollow to me.

I feel something bigger than me in this universe but I can’t name it. I search for and sometimes find my own words, my own prayers – or no words at all spoken to…? Maybe it is these spirits of the dead who have loved me, who I have loved. Molly’s father keeping an eye on my daughter, on me? My Grandfather – perhaps the dearest man I ever knew? There is certainly mystery, wonder – and I am reminded this week by a hawk, a star. Alert to and grateful for all signs of comfort, of love, of reassurance that I am not alone.

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