Invitations

Recently on Facebook, a little message has come up saying – who would you most like to meet and dine with in history? There are so many interesting writers and artists I would have liked to have met. Jane Austen is probably near the top of my list, along with Constable (poor and tortured in love for a lot of his life), Coleridge, Gerald Manley Hopkins, L.M. Montgomery, I could go on….

But what about Jesus? Suppose you received an actual invitation to dine with Jesus. Would you go? What would you say to him? How would you behave? This is exactly what happens to Nick Cominsky in the book, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger.

A New York bestseller, this has to be one of my favourite ‘Christian’ books ever. Probably because its not ‘religious’ in any sense of the word, its just two men having a rather nice upmarket dinner in an Italian restaurant talking about the issues of life and things they struggle with. The conversation seems normal and interesting. Jesus comes across as a regular guy. Well, yes, he is American, but the book is set there, so this seems reasonable.

I have just discovered that there is also another book in the series entitled ‘A day with a Perfect Stranger’, which features Nick’s wife meeting with Jesus on a plane.

Perhaps you think this is a bit too much of a coincidence? I think I would agree. The first book is definitely the best. There is even a DVD on Amazon of the dinner, entitled ‘A Perfect Stranger’, although I’m not quite sure why the film makers have substituted Nicola for Nick. Who knows? But worth checking out. It’s free to view if you are an Amazon prime member but won’t cost much if you’re not.

So what do you think? Would you like to have dinner with Jesus? You may not have Nick or Nicola’s privilege of dining with the actual person of Jesus but in the Bible Revelation 3 verse 20, Jesus says – “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”

Food for thought this month!

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Loss and Death

The loss of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the longest serving consort in history, has been an event with worldwide significance. The funeral last Saturday, 17 April, was watched across every corner of the world, especially countries in the commonwealth group of nations. But although significant for the nation, how much more significant was his death and funeral to his immediate family, especially to his wife of 73 years, our Queen Elizabeth II? To her, he wasn’t just the public figure at her side for all of her reigning years, 1953 till the present day, but a dearly beloved husband, the only one to call her ‘Lillibet’. Quite simply, the love of her life. What words can answer that grief? She, who over the years has dispensed so many 100 birthday cards yet denied sending one to her beloved, dying just two months short of the date.

Perhaps only the poignant words of poet, W.H. Auden’s poem somewhat explain the inexplicable -:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Of course, there is still good. Prince Philip had a strong Christian faith, like the queen and so although she mourns his loss, she knows that one day she will see him again.

In my book, Waireka, Eliza loses the love of her life, Robert, to cancer at a much younger age but she is similarly distraught, especially as, unlike the queen, she can’t even attend his funeral to say ‘goodbye’. Informed after the event by his wife, Mary.

“Robert, dead or alive, would always be a part of her life. He would be in her every waking thought and prayers until she went up to be with him.” (p 218, Waireka)

Available either from me, or Amazon UK, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07DP8KBD9/ or from Amazon US, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DP8KBD9/ Book or e-book.

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Easter Greetings

Wishing all my friends and followers a very Happy and Blessed Easter whether you’re meeting up with family members or friends at long last or anticipating that meet up very soon. I have just a short message this time, by quoting from a published poem of mine. An Easter Haiku.

Nail Scarred hands
Crucified, left to die
That first Good Friday.

Dying for you and me
His separation from the Father
Love pierced him through

Blood running like water
Pouring out new life
He paid the price.

No end to this story
Rising again in glory
And death itself, died.

This Easter Haiku was published in ‘Stones before the Ocean’ An anthology of past and modern poets edited by Daniel Paul Gilbert.

This book is available from Amazon UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stones-Before-Ocean-Worship-Anthology-ebook/dp/B01NCOSC76/ or Amazon US https://www.amazon.com/Stones-Before-Ocean-Worship-Anthology-ebook/dp/B01NCOSC76/

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The Cheltenham Festival

These packed stands are not an image we will see this year 2021 during Covid times. I have fond memories of working here several years running very hard work but rewarding. The thrill of the odd glimpse of the finish post, of making a cup of tea for AP McCoy or getting racing tips from Richard Johnson or Ruby Walsh in my clients box – not that we were able to use them, we were just there to serve the client and his guests. Then, hosting race goers from the UK and Ireland over the last 7 years for bed and breakfast, again hard but rewarding work. We will certainly miss them this year.

I have used my experience of the racecourse both as a spectator and as part of the working team there in the scene in my first book, Alpha Male.

As a journalist and reporter at the Alpha Course, Craig is able to use his friendship with one of his local paper’s sports reporters to get some free tickets for an evening event at the racecourse. However, things don’t quite turn out at the event as Amy and her friend Kate expect when they find out they have other female guests of Craig in competition for his attentions. Amy manages to have beginners luck and backs a winning horse but the whole evening is a disappointment with Craig spending very little time with her or paying her much attention.

“Amy felt despondent in spite of her win and was inclined to go straight home, queues or no queues but decided it would be rather mean-spirited of her not to offer to buy a round of drinks with her winnings.” On her way home with her friend, Kate, Amy gives vent to her tears of anger and humiliation. (p21)

“he’s nothing but a shallow flirt…How humiliating to be made to look foolish by those girls. I dare say he thinks us foolish too, a couple of silly little religious nutters.” (p22)

It’s great that as writers no experience we have goes to waste but can all be used as fodder for our writing.

Alpha Male is available on Amazon UK in both print or kindle form from as little as 99p https://www.amazon.co.uk/Alpha-Male-Sheila-Donald-ebook/dp/B01FVBEZIU/ and on Amazon US in both print and kindle editions https://www.amazon.com/Alpha-Male-Sheila-Donald-ebook/dp/B01FVBEZIU/

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Births – modern and past

Recently my family faced a difficult situation with my niece giving birth. She was due to have her twins by epidural mid-February, a month early, which is apparently normal. However, just a few days before this scheduled date, she suffered pain and blood loss which necessitated a quick trip to hospital in the middle of the night. The twins were delivered while my niece was under general aesthetic. Again it seems, not uncommon when the mother’s life is in danger and one of the twins was struggling to survive in the womb.

Thankfully, after a few days of the little boy being in intensive care and mum and female baby in a high dependency ward, all was well. The little boy joined his mum and sister and within another few days, all were home, well and thriving. But what would have happened in the same situation a hundred or two hundred years earlier without all our modern medical advances? It could well have been a different story. Without forceps, vendeuse, epidural injections or even general aesthetics, many mums died in birth, especially if the baby was breech or couldn’t be delivered by normal means.

Then, even if the baby survived birth along with the mother, they could easily succumb to childhood ailments for which there was no cure.

In my novel, Waireka, Eliza suffers the death of two of her children, first Alister and then Margaret.

“At just three months old, following an abnormally cold winter, baby Alister caught a nasty cold. Eliza nursed him vigilantly day and night but little Alister’s condition seemed only to worsen…Eliza had tried various procedures to get the baby’s temperature down, although he wouldn’t take any medication. Before too long, baby Alister’s body had grown limp in her arms like a rag doll until she failed to get any response at all.” (Chapter 5 pp 90-91)

“Margaret continued to thrive until she began to teethe. With the advent of teething she caught a nasty cold that went to her chest. Eliza began to relive those fearful days with baby Alister as she nursed the baby day and night…Alister had said that every couple could expect to lose one child, but two? Eliza couldn’t face going through that again.” And yet she did.

With each succeeding birth, the only comfort Eliza is given from her husband, Alister is – “We must be grateful, Lizzie, that you’re just safely delivered in this rough climate.”

This was even more true in some of the undeveloped pioneering countries where medicines and doctors were scare, than in Britain in the nineteenth century, but Britain wasn’t that safe either. A woman took her life in her hands in giving birth and at a time when a large family of ten or more children was normal, this was the case for her multiple times in her life.

How grateful we should be for current medical advances!

You can get a copy of Waireka via my website books page at www.journojohnson.com or by visiting Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07DP8KBD9/ or if you live in the US the link is https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07DP8KBD9/

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The diary of Isabella M Smugge – Ruth Leigh

Isabella is a modern social media type of Bridget Jones. Did you borrow the idea of your character from Helen Fielding? It honestly never occurred to me. The Diary of Bridget Jones is one of my favourite novels, so it may well be that my subconscious was shouting “Go on, Ruth, borrow a bit of Bridget for the Age of Influencers!”

Did this influence your choice in making it a diary? Very quickly, I decided that Isabella’s story was best told in diary form. I think this is probably because some of my all-time favourite novels are written in this style. The Sacred Diary (Adrian Plass), The Diary of a Nobody, Adrian Mole, The Diary of a Provincial Lady – there’s a certain informal way of writing and it gives you a natural story arc. It gives the author a chance to make subtle changes to the characters as they write.

Is Isabella modelled on anyone in particular, yourself, siblings, close friends etc? Or is she modelled on a type of upper middle class country dwelling woman? This is a question I asked myself mid-write. I couldn’t think of anyone remotely like her that I’d ever met. I was on the phone to a dear friend down in Cornwall, I mentioned Isabella to her, described her and said, “I just can’t think who she’s meant to be.” Kath said, “I’ll tell you who she is, Ruth. She’s all those mothers we used to see at toddler group who made us feel completely inadequate. The ones that breezed in, fully made up, smiling, having lost all the baby weight and not covered in weird stains. The woman who made me feel that I was failing at everything. She’s exactly the opposite of me, that’s for sure.

Isabella seems like the eternal optimist, at least until later on in the book. Would you say that this is you? Undoubtedly. I am ludicrously optimistic, to the point of complete denial. House on fire? Never mind, I don’t have to worry about the dusting. Cataclysmic floods? Oh well, I expect it’ll be better tomorrow.

Each section of the book is followed by a twitter handle. Real or imagined? Oh, completely imagined! The irony is that I am the opposite of social media savvy Isabella. I do Twitter and Instagram because I have to, but it doesn’t come naturally. I have a deep-seated loathing of hashtags, which makes it all the funnier that I ended up creating so many for the book.

What about Issy’s husband, Johnnie is he modelled on anyone in particular or the au-pair, Sofija? Johnnie is your classic City Bad Boy. I suppose bits of him come from my years working in London. Sofija, is completely made up. She’s Latvian because we’ve got some Latvian friends in the village and it gives Isabella the chance to show that she’s not that sensitive by mixing up Lithuania and Latvia, two completely different countries.

I liked the way in which you subtly weaved in Issy’s friendship with the vicar’s wife, Claire and her husband, Tom. Were you trying to tease your readers with a good image of Christians and the church, especially in the character of Claire and her background? Indeed, I was. I’ve spent years having chats in the playground, in clubs, bars, restaurants, at parties about my faith, but only when people bring it up. I specialise in being real about it all, not trying to present myself as holy and perfect (coz I ain’t!) and it was important to me that Claire and Tom were normal people, albeit from wildly differing backgrounds who were brought together and lived out their faith in a small rural village. For years, I’ve said that all churches should have a poster outside which reads, “May Contain Nuts.” Church is a cross-section of society with all kinds of backgrounds.

Were you aiming at a book that you could happily give to anyone regardless of their view of the church and Christians? I suppose I was. It’s classed as Christian fiction, but what I didn’t want to do was write a book where everyone miraculously becomes a Christian on the last page and they all live happily ever after. That’s not how life works. It’s messy and disappointing with lots of loose ends and unanswered questions.

Although there are similarities with the book and the Diary of Bridget Jones, there is very little bad language in your book, and a lot of depth of character and emotional content. Was this intentional? No. It wasn’t! When I sent over the original MS to Instant Apostle, the reader’s report came back saying it was full of bad language! I was a bit taken aback, but out came all the “crap” and “effing” and “badass”. Characters like Liane Bloomfield swore like troopers, because they would, but with IA’s policy on language, I had to be much more creative and I think the book is better for it. I hope so. I wanted to show who these people were, and it was easy to do that using Issy’s voice, especially as she gets so much wrong.

The backstory of Issy’s parents and her relationship with her sister, Suze, is an evidence of this depth. Was this your intention in weaving in these characters? Yes, it was. When I was writing chapter one, I kept asking myself, “How did she get this way?” I was going back in time to find little Bella Neville and her sister. They had to be extremely close, almost the two of them against the rest of the world, and why was that? Hence, I wrote their parents’ difficult marriage which affected them both so much. Isabella often gets through life by covering her pain.

Like Bridget Jones diary, there are so many ‘laugh out loud’ moments in the book. Does humorous writing come naturally to you? It does seem to! I’ve spent the last twelve and a half years writing fairly serious freelance articles, sometimes Christian-based, sometimes not, and it’s virtually impossible to get jokes in there. I was amazed by how easy it was to “write funny” with the novel and how many half-remembered stories and funny incidents were floating around at the back of my brain, just waiting for their place in the sun. I love it and I want to do lots more of it.

Anything else you’d like to add? I’d like to encourage other writers. A year ago, if you’d told me I would be the author of a novel, I’d have laughed in your face. I was a freelancer, all my time taken up with work and family. Suddenly, lock down happened, I lost three quarters of my work (bad) but had loads of time to write (good). Through writing a funny blog by chance for ACW which caught a few people’s imagination, Isabella was born. If it’s the right time (and lock down doesn’t seem that it should be), you can seize opportunities. I did, and I benefited hugely from the support and experience of a supportive community of other writers. Keep at it! You never know what’s going to happen next.

You left the story on a cliff hanger. Was that intentional to get your readers desperate for the next book to find out what happens? Completely intentional. I wanted people to really care about the characters and I wanted to end on Isabella considering what she really thinks about faith. She still isn’t sure, but I needed her to be in a crisis situation, hence the book ending that way.

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A Remarkable Woman

This pandemic has robbed many people of family members and friends. It has robbed not only my friends and family but the world of a most remarkable woman, Dr Jember Teferra, Ethiopia’s champion of the poor.

Although from a privileged background herself as the niece of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopian lady, Jember and her husband, Hailegorgios, suffered imprisonment during the communist revolution of her country in 1974. There, instead of complaining of her lot, Jember set about encouraging and teaching her fellow prisoners. Sharing a mattress in a rat-infested prison, Jember came to identify with the poor in her nation’s capital and on her release, set about doing something to improve their lives. Her approach took the initiative of asking people what their needs were and working from that information. She wanted to care for the whole needs of the poor, from health and housing to education and employment. She began a work in one part of the city, and when those needs began to be met, then moved on to other parts, helping to fund education for the children, support for the elderly and infirm and providing all with proper housing and sanitation. I was privileged in 2008 to visit the projects, staying for a week in one of Jember’s houses.

Throughout her life, Jember kept a strong faith in God despite terrible suffering and multiple bereavements including her husband and one of her sons. The other son, Workneh suffered a stroke and heart attack several years ago, which left him incapacitated and in a home. Jember had to stop her work in Ethiopia, travelling across the world to fund raise for the poor when her own son’s needs took precedence. She has cared for him relentlessly ever since, staying near him in the UK. Sadly, this dedication has now cost her own life.

Following my visit to Addis Ababa, Jember recently gave me the great privilege of writing up her thoughts and devotions. She hoped to see all them, previously published in various pamphlets, now collated into one book. Sadly, she never lived to see this happen, however, I hope that I may continue, with the family’s blessing, to finish this work as a legacy to a truly great lady, once called ‘Ethiopia’s Mother Teresa’.

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Happy New year

Or is it? We’re still fighting the pandemic, in fact, a new more virulent strain than ever. For most of us the world begins with a certain sadness and a longing to connect with others in a real rather than a virtual context.

But what about our writing this year? Have you become discouraged or downhearted? I listened to a talk about our writing as worship over the weekend. Whether or not you have a belief in God, I found the talk freeing as it suggested that we don’t have to write for publication, we can just write for ourselves, journal. In fact, sometimes when we are in a bad or a difficult situation, our words maybe difficult to share with others but may well be cathartic for us.

I am currently studying an MA in Creative and Critical writing, as many of my followers know. In beginning to write a piece of memoir about my life, I have seen the value of the exercise of writing our memoirs for our children or antecedents, particularly as I get older. I knew so little about my father’s life as he died when I was just a teenager. How lovely it would have been to have an account of it to read. I was even more excited when I learnt of a local company who will hand bind your memoirs for a reasonable cost. They can be found at https://www.crumpsbarnstudio.co.uk

Whatever form your writing may take this year, assignments, a novel, an article, a memoir or just journaling, do make time to do it, even just for a few minutes a day. It may just help you to get through this difficult time.

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Birthdays

December is a month of birthdays for many of us but me in particular.

On 6 December it is the birthday of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children and giving. A kind man born in Myra, Greece born around the third century. It is a day when some people in Europe exchange presents. The Dutch name for St Nicholas is Sinterklaas, which is how we get the name, Santa Claus.

It is also my niece’s birthday, another occasion for giving.

16 December is Jane Austen’s birthday and also mine.

I think the one on the left has the looks! I also won’t say how old I am, suffice it to say that I have sons of 29 and 31 – I’ll leave you to do the maths!

25 December is the most special of all the birthdays. It is the birthday of Jesus Christ (well probably not the real one, birthday that is, but that’s another story), otherwise known as Christmas Day. A time to celebrate even in these strange times, God coming into the world as a human being. A figure in history, like St Nicholas/Santa Claus, Jane Austen and me.

Wishing all of my followers and their families a very Happy Christmas and a better 2021.

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Liz Carter

My blog today showcasing my friend and amazing writer, Liz Carter, whose recently published collection of stories and poems, Treasures in Dark Places, has already become a great success.

1.   You were born with a serious lung disease weren’t you, Liz. How do you think that has impacted your life?

It’s not known whether I was born with it or developed it as a baby when I caught severe pneumonia. It’s made a huge impact — as a child I was sickly, often off school for prolonged periods, struggling to get the grades I was predicted. I saw myself as weak and useless, perpetuated by the words of peers and teachers as the years went on. As it’s a degenerative disease it has progressed over the years, narrowing my life more and more, so that nowadays I’m often housebound with acute infections and in hospital fairly regularly.

2.   How has it helped you in your writing?

I’ve learned that writing is incredibly cathartic and helps me to work through some of the emotional stuff that’s attached to living with long term chronic illness. One of the things I find so helpful about Scripture is the fact that so much of it is written with stark honesty — many of the Psalms, for example, are written out of a place of great need and sadness, yet somehow in the writing of them it’s obvious that God turns the writers’ eyes to himself and his great love.

3.   ‘Treasure in the Dark Places’ was written during the first big lockdown following the pandemic in March. Where did the idea come from?

I’d actually planned to work on another book I’d been writing before lockdown. When I received the letter advising me to shield, I’d thought it would give me a chance to get stuck into this book. But somehow the words were not flowing and my mental health was taking more of a kicking than I’d thought it would. A friend suggested I simply write for joy and see what happened, and another couple of friends suggested I compile some of the stories and poems I’d shared on my blog into a book. As I started to get these together I found fresh material birthing and taking shape, writing for joy but also writing out of the raw pain I was struggling with and wanting to help others going through similar kinds of struggles.

4.   Where did the idea for the title come from?

I’ve always loved Isaiah 45:3:

I will give you the treasures of darkness

so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,

and riches hidden in secret places,

the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

(NRSV)

These words speak deeply to me of a God who is with us in our own darkness. Not only is he beside us, but he also gives us untold riches within the struggle and the pain. It’s my experience that in some of the worst of times, physically and emotionally, I’ve found that God draws me closer to his heart and lays open this profound treasure. I wanted the contents of this book to reflect something of this treasure we find in the darkest corners, and inspire readers towards hope but also towards a sense of great anticipation as we dig for this treasure together.

5. It’s a collection of stories and poems and your last book was based more on your own personal experiences of life. How do you think the books both differ and yet complement each other?

My first book, Catching Contentment: How to be Holy Satisfied (IVP, 2018) was an exploration of Paul’s assertion in Philippians 4 that he had found the secret of contentment in all circumstances. I drew in some of my own life experience and that of others. It’s a book of teaching but also a book of deep sharing and reflection.

Treasure in Dark Places is an anthology of poems and stories, a book to be dipped into and used in private and public devotions and liturgy. It’s a book to lead to hope and spark joy in its raw emotion and re-imaginings of encounters with Jesus. While the two are very different in style, they both lead us to turn towards God for hope and peace we cannot comprehend.

6.   Have you written poetry before and published it?

I’ve been writing poetry for years now. I’ve shared a few on my blog and social media, and there were one or two introductory poems in my first book, but this is my first foray into properly publishing poetry. It’s a little scary as poetry comes from such an intensely personal place, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive and so I’m grateful that God is using it to touch the lives of others.

7.   Have you a favourite poem in the collection?

That’s a very difficult question because all of them come from a place of encounter with God in different forms. I think my favourite might be ‘Lost and Found’ in the Summer section, a poem built around the experience of online church during the pandemic. It focuses not so much on what was lost but on what we discovered, the excitement of radical inclusion for those on the margins who were never included in church before, the relief of being able to join with my church family even when housebound.

8.  The stories are a retelling of Bible stories, and in the case of ‘Bread of Life’, placed in modern times. Have the retelling of them helped you to appreciate the stories in the Bible better?

I loved writing the stories and found that they led me into a new place of encounter with Jesus. When I was writing ‘Untouchable,’ the story about the woman with the long-term bleeding, I found myself almost in tears as I imagined the power of Jesus touching this woman with a chronic illness, and her response to him. I actually want to write a load more of these kinds of stories, so watch this space!

9.   Do you think they will help others to understand them better and relate to them better?

I hope so — people have already said that the stories have drawn them in to the biblical accounts in a new and vivid way, and that’s my hope for them — that readers will encounter Jesus in a fresh way.

10. Have you a favourite story in the collection?

I very much enjoyed writing ‘The Wise One’, in the Winter section, a slightly surreal story about a modern-day disabled woman journeying with the wise ones in the Bible to see the infant Jesus. I found myself reflecting on Jesus’ humility, creativity, presence and beauty as I wrote.

11. Your friend, Caroline was your illustrator with her beautiful pen and ink sketches. Why did you decide to illustrate the book with these?

Caroline is such an amazing artist. I really wanted to include images right from the start to bring some of the words to life – I love how God gives talents in such different ways and how the bringing together of different forms of creativity can create something even more beautiful.

12. The book has been an almost instant success even in these difficult times, what do you put this down to?

I think that people need words that are honest in these difficult and painful times. I think that we all need to lament, to remember that we are allowed to weep when times get tough. I was shielding over almost five months earlier this year, living in my room, unable to even touch or hug my family, and in this time lament became even more important for me as I poured out my sadness and frailty before a God who understands. My prayer is this book will draw you closer to God even when you are hurting, and resonate with you in your struggles.

13. Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve also just brought out an advent devotional, with short, bite-sized reflections for those who are struggling this year and need some glimpses of hope over advent. Advent Treasure offers bible readings, reflections and prayers for each day of December as you wait for the joy of Christmas to break through.

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