A Child’s Search For Meaning

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since my last blog post! I’ve been busy doing a lot of ‘inside travelling’ more than country-hopping, so I’ve kept my reflections a little quieter. It’s been a very good year.

I’m now a school counsellor.  One thing I started last month is writing articles for the school newsletters.  I’ve been hesitant, feeling that I can’t really have my own voice – it feels too under-qualified, too inexperienced and I might have it wrong and be criticised and lose respect and approval.  Today I received an email from a friend of mine who is a mother at one of the schools I work at.  It was titled “Being You and Writing From Your Heart”.  She reads my articles and wanted to encourage me to let myself out more in my writing.  The article below is the first (of hopefully more!) of me writing articles to mums and dads from my heart.

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From innerhtml.decktisite

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One of my favourite books is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  Victor was a young neurologist and psychiatrist when World War II started and as a Jew, was taken to a concentration camp during the final year of the war.  One thing he began to notice is that the people who saw no purpose, who gave up hope of understanding their experience and could apply no meaning to their grueling experience, died.  Those, however, who found some way of making meaning from their suffering (perhaps a reason or lesson that they could teach others after the war), lived.

From this experience, Existentialism was born, particularly Frankl’s strand of Existentialism that sought to teach people that if they were able to make meaning from their difficult experiences, they would find much greater joy and satisfaction in life.

Today I sat with a young boy who is going through a really difficult time.  It’s tough, it’s grueling and it’s heartbreaking.  There’s nothing I can say to alleviate his burden.  I can’t take away any of the factors and relationships in his life that are tough for him right now.

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From The Guardian: Sadness and fear: what the drawings by children in detention showed us.

In today’s world, we’re often taught that this is ‘love’.  It’s ‘loving’ to take do whatever you can to alleviate another’s suffering.  To an extent, this is true; if there is something unethical, immoral or abusive going on, or if we can help with food, safety, water, this is certainly true.  But often we try to sedate pain in other, unhelpful ways: we zone out in front of the TV or play X-box for hours to numb out; we overeat, or starve ourselves; we exercise addictively and compulsively; we might smoke, drink, take drugs, or engage in unhealthy relationships.  When we do this, we miss what we can learn through sitting through the pain – we miss learning how to make meaning from our suffering.

A key word in Education this decade is ‘resilience’.  Resilience is our ability to bounce back from life’s troubles, to work through difficulties and overcome adversity.  There’s a lot of material out there about how to teach kids resilience, but I think it all comes back to one thing.  Help them to sit with their pain and make meaning from it.

With the young boy today there was nothing I could do to ease his pain, so I told him two things:

  • That, like a chapter book, where the main character goes through trials and challenges and then reaches a point where the issues are resolved and she/he is happy again, he will get to a point where the issues are no longer there and he will be happier again – that he just needs to understand that this is just a part of the chapter book – and to keep ‘reading’!
  • That like seasons, we can go through difficult patches of weather. Times when things seem really cold and dark and uncomfortable inside of us.  That he might be in winter now, but know that spring will come.

When you are suffering or when your child is suffering, sit with it.  Let yourself really feel it.  Know it. Some kids will want to draw where it is. Others may want to write about it in a diary or a letter. Some may want to shake it out or dance through it.  Climb a tree. Sing about it. Whatever it is, let them be with it.  And then explore it, reflect on it, squeeze the juice from the lemon and make lemonade – make meaning from it!

Some questions to invite reflection on this topic may be:

  1. What are you feeling from this experience that you’ve never felt before?
  2. What is this experience teaching you about your life that you didn’t know before?
  3. I know you’re not comfortable, but what is the best thing you’re learning from this?
  4. How could you help someone else from what you’re learning?
  5. Will this experience change the way you behave from now on? Why/Why not? Is this change of behaviour positive (will it make you happier and be kind to the world?)?

Though this, true resilience can be built because kids will learn that they can experience suffering and come through it, enriched – knowing they can do hard things and feel hard things and they will not be broken, but built.

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Stairway in Beirut – brit.co/stair-art/

 

 

Experiments in Love

The past few months I’ve been doing some work with little kids on an Australian Indigenous community.

The bread and butter of the project I’ve been involved in has been administering cognitive intelligence screener tests to little children.

In all honesty, this has not been very fun.

These little kids come from really tough backgrounds. Their families often don’t value education and sure as hell don’t value white fellas coming in with their ideas, institutions and policies, with their judgements on high horses.

Every morning, I would check in with my supervisor, and then head down with my load of instruments and pluck the little beggars from class for fifteen minutes with me.  The first kid was lucky – we were both fresh – but by the fourth, I was exhausted and numb to what I was doing… I was just ‘going through the process’.  This happened day after tiring day.

Then one day was different.

My mind was sharpened by remembering that these kids had possibly only been speaking English for a few months, that their cultural values meant that when I said, “What is your address?”, they couldn’t tell me what street, but could give me explicit directions and draw a perfect mind map, and that for many of them, their parents didn’t have any books in the house and the kids were frequently left alone and hungry.  Mentally, I threw away the marking scale that usually left me groaning in dismay after the first five questions.  Today, I just wanted to enjoy these little people, these wonderful little people.

I met them with joy and held their grubby little hands as we walked together to the room.  I touched their hands to play games and make contact. I smiled.  I relished their responses and encouraged them and felt joy when they got things ‘right’, and reassured them when they didn’t.

They seemed to change.  The little boy with hyperactivity settled when he was encouraged and given hugs.  Many little ones came for a hug and their eyes lit up.  All of them changed visibly and improved as the session wore on.

At the end of the session, we held hands and walked back to the group.  I was full of energy.  I had come to know this little person a little bit more – and I had enjoyed them.  The little person was not depleted and walked more confidently than at the beginning of the session. Their eyes were clear and they looked…happy.

This taught me two things.  Firstly, I saw the potential to harm or nourish through our contact, our teaching and our assessing of little people (and big people, too). Secondly, I had experienced first-hand and in a very brief time-frame, the impact of loving (enjoying, encouraging, appreciating and accepting) upon learning outcomes and student morale.

That night I had a breakthrough moment as I realised that, in the words of Someone From The Bible, ‘I can have the most wonderful words (ie. lessons, sermons) in the world, but if they don’t come from a place of love, I’m basically as useless as a noisy old clanging gong’ – or something like that…  I recognised that I can teach pedagogically perfectly lessons, assess students with faultless instruments and write flawless and elegant reports, but if I don’t love my kids, I do them a disservice.  As many can attest, instruction can be given without heart, but loving kids naturally leads to wanting to help them learn and grow.

Good teaching should help learners to feel as though they are there with you, because you are there with them.

The world of adolescence and childhood is a pretty harsh, dank place for some and when we ignore the value of the soul beneath the skin we are doing a huge injustice to the child.  Little people need to be shown they are worthy and lovable and special by the big people around them.  Not because they know they right answer and can tell you their postal address.  They need to know they are worthy without doing a thing.  As a teacher, I cannot tell you how often I have forgone this crucial element, this fundamental teaching of love and humanity.  I have dismissed it, bowing under pressure to design better curriculum, write endless reams of assessment tasks, report more frequently and more often.  At times I have sacrificed the opportunity to truly teach in a scurried flurry to gain approval and tick boxes for my employer.

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As I am drawn into the quickening vortex that will bring me to the end of my second Education degree, I hope that I will never forget this truth, this experiment, the implications of these connections between love and learning and little people.

I pray that when the mounting waves of pressure and expectations build and threaten what is right for a child, I will be able to stand firmly against the swell and see the child for all of the wonder that resides within them… if I open my eyes and hold their little hands.

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The new religion is fear

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Once upon a time, I had less fear.  I wouldn’t say that I was utterly fearless, in fact sometimes I was utterly naive, but that sure helped.  I would go to parties and dance while everyone was still sober – right there – right in the middle of the dance floor, alone – and I would go for it with gusto and every iota of chutzpah my little heart could muster.  I wasn’t five years old, but nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.  I wore incredibly interesting compositions of clothing that I had received as hand-me-downs or scrounged from garage sales, and I wore the clothes with no self-conciousness because it never even crossed my mind that it would be an issue if they weren’t trendy, attractive, or hole-free.  I had a lot of money in the bank too.  Money from an inherited source that made me feel assured that I would always have enough (especially because my dream house was a mud manyata somewhere in Africa). I studied, not to work, but because I liked to learn and I liked to teach.  I didn’t work as I studied, I volunteered.  I spent my university holidays going abroad and volunteering too.  I was a one-project-at-a-time kinda girl because I wasn’t pulled in multiple directions to veer onto new pathways because I was worried about failing or anxious to please.

I dreamed of working in developing countries, of building schools and communities, of loving God and letting him take me wherever, whenever.  I lived life in what I can best describe as an ‘arms wide open’ approach.

Then one day, some of that money was swallowed in the GFC.  But I was still assured.  Until I spent it all and then it was gone.

Right.

Fuck.

Never saw that one coming.

Over the past six years, I have built a temple.  It’s not just about money, but I’m not going to lie, money is the foundation.  There is a desperation for approval that has crept in to form the walls.  There’s no real roof, because each year, I add another storey to my Temple of Fear, muddy handful by muddy handful and it grows bigger.

You see, I have looked back at my time of comparative carelessness and wondered how I could get back there.  I believed that if I had money again, I could buy back my chutzpah, my gall and my wicked dance moves. I simply postponed living with arms wide open, telling myself I could live like that again once I had a house and a retirement fund and some financial security. I sold out. Big time. I built a temple.

I made fear my God.  I’ve paid homage, sacrificing Life and Love and worshiped fear.

I have become so forgetful of what once was, so blinded to a life without my new religion and its funky temple  that I have forgotten that to coexist with this temple is a choice.

I don’t want to work in a job where I feel cooped-up and bored. Where I know that I am here simply to support the construction of another floor to my temple.  Where I know that my big goals in life are not being pursued, but neglected.

I want to remember my passions, drowned out as they are by the ‘call to prayer’ from my temple.  I want to stop satisfying my priests with placations of financial security and assurances of approval.  I have been numb; deadened to the rush of life in my veins, deaf to the knock on my door of trust.

I have missed a crucial lesson; there is no way to buy myself into living with my arms wide open again.  To live with courage and passion is to take a risk.  To build a Temple of Fear is to avoid a risk.

Finding myself with no money wasn’t a call to live a life of safety.  It was a call to pick myself up, to learn, and to step out into the wild again with a thumping heart in my body and blood of life in my veins.

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This blog is dedicated to my soulmate, who inspires me and draws me closer with his own passion, courage and faith.

Singing in Samburu

 

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Northern Kenya: The edge of the Ndoto Mountains

I have never heard such a musical language.  To me, a listener and crudely amateur speaker, the Samburu language seems comprised of a smattering of letters and indistinct phrases, but mostly, it is song.  I am sitting on my porch and the meeting of four Samburu “Wazees” (old men) blown my way on the warm wind. They are praying. Together. Just like yesterday. And just like yesterday, I will fall asleep to the rocking lullaby of people talking, singing, laughing.

To respond to the greeting ‘Supa’ is ‘Oh Yea’, which sounds simple enough.  Yet the transference of this message relies wholly upon the tone, tempo and lilt in my voice, all this while my tongue and mind work in frenzied unison to ensure correct meaning and double-check cultural and situational appropriateness.  God help me if they actually respond.  The language is heavily comprised of vowels, which are responsible for the soft sound, but is eternally tricky for the outsider.  In English, we rely on our consonants to deliver the sharper quality, and meaning is less dependent on whether we hit the right musical note on our response to ‘How’s it going, mate?’

As a language written more by melody than letter, foreign speakers are remarkable inept.  Laura, my American friend, has been working, living and raising her two proficiently multi-lingual children here for the past 19 years – yet, her children laugh at her spoken Samburu, and her son Loiweti tells me that the Samburu language never sounds the same coming from a foreigner’s mouth.

To my un-tuned ear, both parties repeat the main greeting, ‘Esearian’ a number of times.  They don’t rush into the conversation.  People here have time. The goats, cattle and camels are brought out to the wilds after chai and sun-up , and brought in as the sun touches the western peaks of the Ndoto’s.  The space between is filled with conversation, song, naps and steps taken with long strides and an easy gait.

A Kenyan friend of mine works at an international computer company that has an office in Nairobi.  He tells me about how his Western bosses organise meetings with the locals and charge in, hitting the ground running, telling the locals what they need and require from the moment they open the conference.  This, my Kenyan friend tells me, is not how meetings in Kenya work, nor is it how most Kenyans work.  He tells me that first a meeting should be called where they drink tea and chat about families, weather, farming… anything but the topic.  Then a second meeting will take place where the manager might, very casually, give an overview of the company and what his section does within it.  Finally, a third meeting will take place, where the manager will tell the guests what he is asking of them.  This process takes weeks.  This process takes relationship.

People here have time.

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The Ndoto Mountains

The words ‘boredom’ and ‘stress’ do not have existing counterparts in the Samburu language.  Laura’s husband is a Samburu and amidst the steady flow of Samburu chatter that floods the air when he talks with friends, the word ‘stress’ is spoken in English.  It seems it was never a word that was required prior to English unfurling its way into Northern Kenya, a word of which there is no native equivalent.

Mobile phones are changing this though, and ‘time is money’ and ‘pay per minute’ frustrate those wishing to ask a quick question of a friend, but are bombarded with ten minutes of inquiry as to one’s health, the wellbeing of their livestock, weather and children, and then the health, livestock, children and weather where one’s mother, cousins, brothers and sisters reside.

People here have time.

Even I, armed and fully loaded with my western baggage of ‘missing out’, ‘be productive’, ‘work harder’ and the inevitable guilt when doing nothing, am lulled by the heat and the songs of the livestock, birds and humans enough to sleep in my circular hut after lunch, and sit for hours on my porch to watch, to read and to write.  My evening strolls up the sandy river seep in through my bare feet and words and inspiration slip and slow-dance into my mind.  Unarmed and unsuspicious, I am given positive thoughts about my future, joyful and relaxed with a genuine sense of gently looking forward, rather than the frenzied, anxious ‘planning’ I have become used to.  And it is good.

However, with the invention of the word ‘boredom’ and the introduction of alcohol, communities and families are plagued by alcoholism, alcohol-fuelled violence and promiscuity.  Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, hundreds of years of a certain lifestyle have been put to an abrupt halt with the settlement of families in one place, for life. Schools, churches and medical dispensaries have lured families, and land degradation, depleting water sources and lack of waste disposal infrastructure and, (dare I say) boredom has resulted.

It seems far north Kenya is struck by the same condition as the rest of the world and the hearts of those within it.  The struggle between holding on to what is worthy and enriching, whilst moving and growing and stepping forwards.  The ‘figuring out’ of what is good and what is not. The apathy and laziness before the concern and experiments and awakenings inside us all.

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By Michael Leunig

Still, for the moment I breathe in the smell of smoky camel milk and scented wood from the fire.  I walk barefoot over last night’s elephant footprints in the dry river beds.  I listen to the constant day time symphony of wooden camel bells and wazees outside my hut, voices and sounds so many and so light it is as though I am listening to a bubbling river.

I have time. And it is good.

 

*This writing is old! Just over two years old – as I was in Kenya last in early 2014.

My soulmate

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My soul mate and I met in a room full of people.  He was outgoing and chatty.  I didn’t much like him.  He thought I was cute.

Ten months later I saw him again when I had a boyfriend.  We started to go to the beach together, and together we went swimming in big, salty waves.  My soul mate became friends with my little sister, taking her ice-skating, sharing his books with her, cooking dinner with our family.  He started to fall in love with me.  In private, my soul mate cried, believing I could never be his, that I would be joined on the arm of another man forever.  I broke up with my boyfriend.  I rested.  And then I walked towards my soulmate.

We travelled together and camped in long grasses, tall forests, patches of highway dirt.  Hiked through mountain valleys and high passes, across snow and along rivers.  We lived together and bought property.  My soulmate felt things between us begin to crumble; he felt my heart harden and callous as I tried to push him away, tried to control him.  I judged my soulmate as not good enough and falling short of the standards of myself and my family.

My soulmate watched as things between us eroded.  He knew he was mine, that I was his, but how could he continue in a relationship so tortured? How could he hold onto someone that wanted to be free? How could he hold onto the person he loved, when the person he loved wished to run away and find another someone who would fulfil her needs and be approved of by her family?  We went on, separately.

He patched his life together.  I patched mine.

He loved me.

I ran to other countries.  Into the arms of other languages, cultures, jobs, men.

My soulmate lay down boundaries and rules so I could no longer try to hurt him through emails or phone calls.  I rebelled and kicked and screamed, infuriated that he was not who I thought I wanted, but whom, when all was quiet, was the only one I wanted.  I was enraged that he loved me but would not let me be with him in my blinded state of severe unkindness. He thought of me every single day, year after year.

He met me when I returned from faraway lands, briefly.  He sometimes seemed sad when he looked at me.  I pretended I had moved on.  I feigned happiness, and then cried all the drive home.

My soulmate, filled with integrity, never wandered into the arms of other women.  He built his life and worked towards his goals, never waiting for me.  Not waiting, but hoping and praying that, someday…

That someday I would be ready to come towards him without my anger, fear, superiority and judgement, and with a heart wide open.

I spoke to strangers, friends, psychologists and sometimes, God.  I came to see my qualities and love what I was doing with my life.  I also became more honest and slowly began to see my stubborn refusal to view myself as anything but perfect.  I began to see how much I hurt my soulmate (and others) with my beliefs, words and actions.

Slowly, I began to lay down my weapons, to look at them and to follow the long, red silk thread linking them to my past. On the way, I saw the mess and the people I’d hurt.

I’m still beginning.  I’m still holding many weapons, ones I’m scared to put down in fear of what I’ll be left with if I do.  I’m still learning how to be kind.  Like, truly kind, not pretend-kind.  I’m really good at pretending.

My soulmate always encouraged me to be myself.  He saw my pretend self and my real self as clearly as oil and water.  I have muddied the waters, believing things about myself that were not true, believing that the real me was things it just wasn’t.  My soulmate called it for what it was: bullshit, pretend, phoney, false.  My soulmate accepts my honesty with arms wide open and a complete absence of judgement.  He wants to hear about my hopes and dreams, no matter what part of myself they come from, the oil or the water.

My soulmate is not perfect, and he is the first person to admit that.

My soulmate is, however, the most wonderful person in the world.  That is not a matter of opinion; it is, quite simply, a fact. 🙂  And I love him very much.

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Esio Trot

I was zipping along the airspace somewhere above northern Australia in the dead of night, wrapped up in my thin little aeroplane blanket when I watched a film based upon Roald Dahl’s novel, Esio Trot.

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In the story an elderly man, secretly love-struck with his neighbour conjures up an elaborate, labour intensive scheme in an attempt to win over the woman of his dreams.  So shy is this Mr Hoppy and protective of his feelings for his beautiful, vivacious neighbour, that he spends his savings and up-ends his house converting it into a tortoise crèche in the hopes that he will make Mrs Silver’s dreams come true and she will see for once and for all how much he loves her.

Now, I am a romantic, but this does seem a rather an intricate, expensive and time consuming affair if you ask me.

Mr Hoppy, rather than confronting his fear and having the gumption to tell Mrs Silver how he feels, puts himself in a seriously unusual situation in attempt to gain her affection.  The inconvenience and expense of a stealthy tortoise-conversion plot appears less uncomfortable to Mr Hoppy than the possible rejection he would feel if he said, “Mrs Silver. I find you delightful and want to know you better. Could I take you out to dinner please?” and (after a moments thought) she then said, “No”.

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Sometimes, we avoid the hard stuff by making stuff harder, in a totally distracting and disrupting kind of way. We are all guilty of conjuring elaborate schemes in order to assuage our fears.  Well, at least, I know I am. 🙂

For the most part, we don’t build tortoise-crèches in our living rooms.  Our ways are sometimes more subtle (but often not to the unbiased observer). *btw – if anyone is building a tortoise-creche in their living room, you have my utmost respect.

We end up, through a variety of means and measures that really ought to be commended for creativity, spending our life savings and whittling away at our valuable time in order to avoid doing the scary thing; acknowledging what we really want in all vulnerability and then doing it.  We, like Mr Hoppy, convince ourselves that it is the only way because the alternative is often invisible to us.  With a tremor so buried we call it instinct, we avert our gaze from the alternative.  The clever ones go on to justify with great conviction a few intellectual arguments so well reasoned they persuade not only those surrounding them, but themselves.

Towards the end of the film, the narrator exclaims that although Mr Hoppy’s plan did not work, it was about ‘having a go’ (for love is meant for expression, not containment).  It seems the narrator, like ourselves, is blind to the deeper fear that was covered under the blanket of the tortoise zoo in the living room.

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Perhaps I am being ruthless in carving up the motivations and actions of a shy old man.  Rest assured, I do it with compassion and my own messy motivations and actions in mind.  I am growing older and the blush of teenage potential is easily replaced by concerns of mortgages and retirement funds.  I sometimes dance a tortured dance in the balance of life.  Here, in this utter freedom of a life unencumbered by debt, children, and permanent contracts is my compulsion to follow the Rules Of Life, which none to ironically include debt, children and permanent contracts. Following rules makes me feel safe.  Following rules is less lonely because I can find others following rules.  I want rules! I love them.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those things, but for me right now, there are the nagging whispers from the Deep Inside Me, “Is this what I want? Or is this what makes me feel accepted and safe?”  

Are we keeping busy with menial tasks in order to avoid facing what it is we’d really like to do? Are we playing it safe by getting a dependable job, gaining a degree, procuring a mortgage?  Are we turning up the volume of other’s voices so we can’t hear our own rhythm?

We have a space to fill for the next 80 odd years we’re here on earth and each of us get to fill it with an assortment of experiences; relationships, words and feelings, music and memories, heartbreaks, illness, stargazing, sand, awkward moments, requests, compromises, bonfires, sideways glances, holding hands, sunsets, wind in trees, ochre coloured dust, dreadlocks, sunburn and rain.

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Let us all have courage to lead our lives with gumption, to cast away our tortoises and to be vulnerable and honest in what we want.

Esio Trot!

Meandering up the Irtysh-Karamay Canal

This week saw me discovering something amazing.

An older man bikes into town from... where is it exactly he's coming from?

An older man bikes into town from… hmmm… where is it exactly he’s coming from?

But first, a little background!  Karamay, the little city I live in, is situated on the edge of the Jungar Basin, which is on the edge of the Gobi Desert.  It’s an incredibly dry, barren, and lifeless place.  But there’s oil here.  Lots of oil.  So a city must be built to house the workers and tend to their needs.   But how to get water here?

There are two small natural rivers that flow and I suppose that these kept the new city satisfied for a while (the city was built in the 1950’s), but Karamay was rapidly expanding.  In 2008, eight years after construction started, the Irtysh-Karamay Canal Diversion was complete.  This monolithic canal spans from the Irtysh River (which eventually flows to the Arctic Ocean) and is over 130 kilometres long, with a tunnel over 7km’s length.

And so here I am!  After many months of being unable to go for long walks due to sub-freezing conditions, and a keen desire to be away from people, pollution and noise, I found myself heading upstream.  What I found simply blew me away.

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