Thoroughly Alive

Jack Quinn’s for Joy

Jack Quinn’s for Joy

Posted By on Mar 17, 2014

A repost from a favorite St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. I don’t know what I shall be doing on this St. Paddy’s Day, but I promise you, ’twill be grand fun whatever it is. A joyous St. Patrick’s Day to you all!

My St. Patrick’s day celebration was impromptu. I love all things Irish and think St. Patrick himself the hero indeed, but the great day  found me mired in about a thousand unanswered emails. I got home from church to face the prospect of a Monday morning to-do list that stopped me cold in my tracks. The fact that it was Sunday and I was supposed to be sane and calm and thinking holy thoughts added guilt to my fretting. I despaired of fun and set to work. But a phone call late in the windy afternoon changed the fate of my day: “Sarah,” said my mom, “we’re downtown; do you want to just go for a quick bite of fish ‘n chips at Jack Quinn’s? Leave the emails. There will be music!”

I couldn’t say no. Jack Quinn’s is a dim old downtown Irish pub, floored in dented, honeyed wood, with tiny booth rooms windowed in stained glass just like the pubs I visited in England. It has the dusky depths, old-photos, and jumbled shelves of mugs and jugs to give it the feel of a real pub. But steeped in age and shadow as it is, the ceilings are high and sheathed in forest green tin. Voices and folk music bounce in a rollick of notes from the floor to the heights in a brightness and dance as good as light. For such a place, I always want to spare an hour. I paused at my desk and almost stayed. I stared at my list, I despaired of my life. But as the sun set, I flung down my pen and out the door I went.

And oh what a party awaited me. The moment we stepped in the door we joined one great, grand swirl of Irish celebration. The long room was crammed to its every edge.  A bag piper rose to play as we entered, kilted and bold in the middle of the room, all purple-cheeked and bulging-eyed as he filled the pipes with song. Hundreds of feet kept a good tapping time, laughter boiled up like a drumroll from every corner, and voices rang like trumpets as people talked over the scream of the pipes. The faces in that dim room glowed like fireflies in a hot summer garden.

Everyone wore green. Eight or eighty, no respectable soul would come to an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day without a token of emerald to honor the feast. Some wore glittering bits of jade or jewel, some were decked in the gaudy gleam of green plastic beads, some were clothed head to toe in forest, moss, sage, or emerald, every hue of the color of Eire. And then there were the men who swept by in kilts. They had that delighted pride of eye belonging to those who are dressed just right for a grand occasion. At least I had on my lucky green shirt, thank goodness.

I smiled as I stood, I could not help it. I leaned against one of the old walls to wait for our table with the breath of song and laughter in my lungs. I bumped elbows with strangers and swayed to the jigs flung out from the fiddler now on stage. When our name was called, we trundled upstairs to community tables stretching the length of a long, low room. Plates were piled with cabbage and corned beef, or fresh fried fish and chips. We settled in with a jolly bunch of strangers, exchanged names and stories, and set to the work of feasting. The music on this floor was softer, but no less pert. A band of fiddle, whistle, and bodhran kept our toes tapping the entire meal. Another explosion of laughter rumbled from the far end of the room as the fish salted my mouth.

And, “blessed be the day,” thought I. Joy welled up in me as if a new spring of water was struck alive at the core of my heart. Exuberance was a tide, rising in my blood and thought, a freed delight in the sheer gift of life. Forgotten were bills and furrowed brows and the dullness that comes from forgotten zest. Remembered was the ever-present possibility of glee, the limitless capacity of my heart to come alive to a fathomless joy, to respond to friendship, to lift up my soul to the cry of music.

A sudden silence came upon me then; one of those moments in which a part of myself stepped back, suspended in time, to ponder the scene and my abruptly joyous self at that table. Keenly did I look at the hundred faces lined in laughter, closely did I listen to the rumble of voices and music. I saw the clustered groups of people in sudden fellowship, watched as music wove us all into a pattern in which no one felt loose or at odd at ends. I saw the way good food and people pushed close for the eating made friends of strangers. I saw fun, plain and simple in the jigs and chips and tapping toes, saw the childlike mirth in the eyes of my family, felt the warmth of it in a blaze on my face.

And I knew again why feasts are of grave importance, vital events to be claimed and marked. Festal days must be kept with great resolution for this single glimmering fact; we are made for joy. We were fashioned for gladness with hearts formed for fellowship and spirits for singing. Feasts teach us to remember this core fact of our being as they fling us together and banish our listless thoughts and the loneliness that hovers like a fog around our hearts. Polite, isolated, technologically-tied souls in a sin-shattered world that we are, feasts remind us of friendship, they force us into a joy we might have forgotten in the midst of our busy, driven accomplishing of life. A festal day reminds us that in the beginning, far before pain broke into the perfect world, life itself was a feast to be eaten. Existence was a great song, our lives an answering dance, and in Christ, the broken music begins anew.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a dull-eyed ghost in my own modern life. I move about my days, working at this bill or that project in my quiet room. I bump about my hushed suburban house, drive my car along deserted concrete streets to shop in big, impersonal stores, and I’m lucky if anyone even waves. I work mostly on my little black box of a computer. When I get really lonely, I check my email, hoping for an offer of comradeship from my machine. Or I sit anonymously in coffee shops, wanting company, but wary of breaching the divide of polite silence that dictates correct, autonomous behavior. Add some grief, a dose of guilt, and I find I forget to fight for rejoicing, or even to remember that all good things have their birth in God.

Satan, I think, strikes a few of his best blows when he can persuade us that God is boring. That life with our Savior is a dull and dutiful upward climb toward a summit of righteousness always a little out of reach. We are close to defeat when we start to believe that God cares nothing for joy, that holy people are wage slaves to long days of righteousness. Work, pray, endure, and pay your bills, check off that list of upright deeds. And the image of God in our weary minds becomes that of a long-faced master whose only concern is our efficient goodness. We forget that we are called to a King who laughs and creates, sings and saves. That our end is a kingdom crammed with our heart’s desires. We forget that our God is the Lord of the dance and the one whose new world begins with a feast.

At Jack Quinn’s, I finally remembered this fact. Celebration cleansed my mind and renewed my hope. And I wonder, today, if celebration is a craft I need to learn, a practice of faith affirming the joy of my saving God. Perhaps my moments of chosen joy incarnate the beauty to which I believe I am being redeemed. On high days and holy days, yes, but also during the common days. A candle lit, a meal prepared, music played, and laughter exchanged; perhaps amidst the fear, the grief and need of fallen life, those moments cup a draught of new-world joy. God came that we might have life, and life to the full. St. Patrick gave his life to the proclamation of that very fact. I think I’ll join him by celebrating his day, and the God whose cosmic feast is about to begin. All joy is mine. Blessed be the day indeed.

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Be glad of life…

Be glad of life…

Posted By on Mar 5, 2014

…because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars; to be satisfied with your possessions; to despise nothing in the world except falsehood and meanness, and to fear nothing except cowardice; to be governed by your admirations rather than by your disgusts; to covet nothing that is your neighbor’s except his kindness of heart and gentleness of manners; to think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and every day of Christ – to spend as much time as you can, with body and with spirit, in God’s out of doors, these are the little guideposts on the footpath to peace.

-Henry Van Dyke



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Storyformed Conference!

Posted By on Mar 4, 2014


“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

You are cordially invited to…

The Storyformed Child Conference :: April 12, 2014 :: Sterling, Massachusetts

Hello friends, I am delighted to announce the very first Storyformed conference, the first event I am launching as part of my new venture at For years now, I have wanted to hold a conference on the topic of story; its power, its spiritual significance, and how parents can use it to deeply shape the lives of their children. This conference is the answer to that hope, a day long event in which I will deeply explore the power of great books, the need for beauty, and the vital importance of imagination in the life of a child. Speaking from my own experience as a child deeply formed by story, and my study of children’s literature and imagination at Oxford, I truly hope to inspire those who come to a love for story, to an understanding of its soul-forming power, and to a vision of how to create a storyformed home. I’ll have new talks, special workshop sessions, and a conference workbook designed to help parents plan for the storyformed life. I hope to leave those who attend with a deep understanding of the power story has to shape, equip, and kindle heroism in the hearts of children.

My dear friend Stephanie is hosting this conference at a local church, and ensuring that it will be a delightful first event. A lovely lunch will be catered (you have three choices at registration), and resources will be available at the conference. My goal is to make this a day to nourish your soul, kindle your own imagination, and immerse you in the beauty of great books.

But register soon! Register by March 8th to receive the limited, special offer of a copy of my new book as part of your registration!

Caught Up In A Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books and Imagination With Your Children is my soon-to-be-published book exploring the power of story and helping parents know how to use that power to shape the hearts of their children. Complete with booklists and short reviews, personal stories, and ideas for bringing literature into the home, this book will companion and encourage parents ready to live the storyformed life with their children. The book will be available at the conference, but early registrants will receive a copy free with their registration.

You can go directly to The Storyformed Child conference website, or click here to register. The website offers an abundance of answers to any questions you might have about the particulars of the event.

I am delighted beyond words to have the opportunity to finally give a full conference on a topic so dear to my heart. I hope this will be the first of many, but I invite you to take part in this very special first event.

So please, spread the word every way you can and let any of your friends in the North East know about this special event! I hope very much to see you there. 

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Good and Hard

Good and Hard

Posted By on Feb 21, 2014

I write this from 35,000 feet up in the free blue air. A grey quilt of clouds obscures the earth below, but sometimes the cloud down frays and the earth winks up, a brown, wry face patterned with laughter lines and the rutted gullies of old tears. I never get tired of having the window seat on an airplane. My awe at technology is usually spoiled by my suspicion that it might be ruining my imagination, but I still have a tiny girl’s wonder at the fact that we humans can fly. Airplanes feel a little like magic to me. I could sit here, nose pressed against my window, reveling in my rare, eagle’s eye view for hours.

At the moment though, I’m also just glad to be sitting. I can feel the dark circles under my eyes. For the third time in four weeks, I have gotten up far too early to lug a half dozen suitcases and crates to various airplane counters. I have packed and unpacked, washed (and, well, “unwashed”) more loads of laundry in the past months than I care to mention, changed time zones, chased rental car shuttles, and stumbled up, hair awry and eyes slightly wild to quite a few hotel desks. I have a bag of cherry tomatoes in the bottom of my bag, because I couldn’t stand to throw out good produce one more time, but they sit next to a bar of chocolate because travel season wrecks my healthy intentions. My carryon is stuffed with the speech I haven’t yet gotten by heart, the insurance papers I haven’t figured out, and the manuscript I still haven’t edited though the deadline is this weekend. In order even to write this, I must ignore the ten, urgent, unanswered emails sitting on the next tab over.

I tell you all this because in this rare moment of (literally) suspended calm, I find myself contemplating the worth of doing hard things.

Everything in my life of late seems hard. Conference season is hard. It comes as a mix of marathon, disaster, and holiday. Writing is hard. My brain at the end of a working day feels like a mental sponge squeezed dry of every word, and my heart rate spikes at thought of all the work I have yet to do. Integrity is hard. To write about beauty is one thing, to make it amidst exhaustion and laundry with nerves frayed and tongue sharp is harder. Health is hard. To eat good food, to walk long miles, to seek out natural instead of processed food takes time, and thought, and a mighty dose of discipline. (Especially amidst travel.) Even loving God is hard. Turning my mind away from the many lists of things I need to do, the countless desires, the endless distractions in order to sit with my Bible and listen, listen to his whisper in the silence is one of the most difficult habits I have ever undertaken.

Hard, every bit of it. Hard every single day of my life.

Yet undeniably, unequivocally… good.

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Allies in Imagination

Allies in Imagination

Posted By on Feb 12, 2014

Hello friends! Forgive the long blogging silence. Three conferences, one wedding, and the travel in between have just been a bit too much. My writing mind is a rather shell shocked. But a post shall follow soon, scout’s honor. For even a mind bewildered by busyness can be renewed by a good few hours of reading. And ah, I’ve been reading.

Today though, I want to share this luminous video with you, a creation of my inspired friends over at Story Warren. Sam and Gina and their lovely, imaginative children (you will meet them in the video) are kindred spirits in their vision to help families cultivate children with “holy imagination.” We’re comrades in arms, I think. Enjoy.

This Is Story Warren – Allies in Imagination from Laidley Media on Vimeo.

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I didn’t mean to buy five books. I only meant to browse the tumbled shelves at Poor Richard’s. I came for replishment after two weeks of hard writing and a conference to boot. It’s not like I needed more to think about. I just wanted to have a good cappuccino, people watch, explore a few art books, read a few first lines. Peruse, at most.

It was the first lines that got me. How, I ask you, could I leave books with such words as these in their opening chapters abandoned in the shop? Obviously, I was meant to adopt them into my library:

To my Readers: This book of essays was written because I believe that culture begins in the cradle. Literature is a continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work sprung full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children… from Touch Magic by Jane Yolen.

Has it ever occurred to you that the acts of reading and meditation resemble each other in many ways? Both are usually done alone, in silence and physical stillness, our attention focused, our whole selves – body, mind, and heart – engaged. Both can draw us deeply into ourselves, all the while taking us out of ourselves. Our consciousness shifts… from Walking a Literary Labyrinth by Nancy M. Malone

Ironically, to Campbell, the end of the hero’s journey is not the aggrandizement of the hero. “It is,” he said in one of his lectures, “not to identify oneself with any of the figures or powers experienced. The Indian yogi, striving for release, identifies himself with the Light and never returns. But no one with a will to the service of others would permit himself such an escape. The ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.” One of the many distinctions between celebrity and the hero, he said, is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society… from Bill Moyers’ introduction to Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth

This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking, and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done – was only possible – on foot… It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales that tracks keep and tell, of pilgrimage and trespass, of song-lines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries. Above all, this is a book about people and place: about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move… from The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane

The mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps. The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed on golden finger on the little mouse. The older mice children gathered around to stare at Despereaux.
“His ears are too big,” said his sister Merlot. “Those are the biggest ears I’ve ever seen.”
“Look,” said a brother named Furlough, “his eyes are open. Pa, his eyes are open. They shouldn’t be open.”
It is true. Despereaux’s eyes should not have been open. But they were. He was staring at the sun reflecting off his mother’s mirror. The light was shining onto the ceiling in an oval of brilliance, and he was smiling up at the sight… - from The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo

What was I to do?

Brew a cup of tea, of course. And settle in for a longer winter’s afternoon of reading…





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A Playful Sky

A Playful Sky

Posted By on Jan 17, 2014

I woke quite early this morning. I resented the universe for startling me from slumber even before I opened my sleepy eyes. But when I did, I found a whole dawn sky of softest rose staring back and I felt that it was the face of a young child eager to play. The sunrise today wasn’t the fell, hard crimson of the dawns in “sailor’s warnings.” What I felt wasn’t awe, but laughter. For that light was gentle, an exuberance of playful color, a child’s breath lifting the thin morning clouds, blowing the streaks of mist into the light like dandelions in the wind.

I wondered abruptly if among the many other things he is, God is a glad-hearted child, a holy little one at play in creation, smearing vivid swathes of color over his page of sky, merry and sweet in his making, holding up his handiwork for us to see.

And I wonder if we, in our frailty, are careless, faulty keepers of this Child who tugs so ceaselessly on our hands, begging us to look on his creation. We barely glance, for we have more important things to do. We sleep or work through the beguiling moments of first light, our eyes fixed already on the lists within our brain before our eyes have even opened. We wake impatient for God to get on with the real stuff, willing only to look at him for spiritual business, for action, and need.

And he, with saddened eyes lets the soft, pink light fade. The hard day kick swiftly into gear along with his faithfulness and he sighs, hungry for the morning when we will all have aged enough to be a child like him once more.

But he, eternally innocent soul, is indomitable. His laughter rises with each new morning and he peers into the windows of our homes and hearts once more, begging us to play, to laugh, to see.

At least today, I did.

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The wind was bright and sharp, the blue sky cold, our skin reddened with the icy air, but we didn’t mind. The day of the C. S. Lewis symposium at Westminster, we Lewis lovers got to the doors of St. Margaret’s almost an hour before they opened. I tightened my scarf and watched the line grow; hundreds of us queued in the chilly air, ready to honor an author whose words had formed us, heart, mind, and soul.

But a question grew in my mind as I waited, clapping my hands against the cold, watching my breath etch the frosty air. Why, I wondered, is the draw of C. S. Lewis so strong? What power in his self or stories summoned us from around the world, from all walks of life, to honor his tales and study his thoughts? His books are famous, yes. But so are countless others. Novelists, we have aplenty. Apologists too. And though his status as an Oxford don intrigues us, it’s really not enough to kindle the kind of love that lasts for decades and links the hearts of countless different kinds of souls.

I pondered this the rest of the day. As I listened to the excellent symposium talks, I glimpsed the fact that part of it was the extraordinary way that Lewis reconciled reason and imagination. But I felt there was another element still to identify. I mulled it as I walked home that night and as I rode the Tube back to Westminster for the memorial dedication next morning. Only at the end of the service did I start to guess. After two hours crammed with the truths that Lewis strove to tell spoken into the air of that storied, sacred place, echoing down the decades to us, I began to see. Two weeks later, I think I understand.

We came because Lewis lived a great story. The best tale that Jack Lewis ever told was the tale of his own life and that story lends a power to his words that time cannot dispel.

In his essay On Stories, Lewis wrote of the “atmosphere” imbuing his favorite books of “romance.” Some tales were steeped in a certain air beyond the cycle of mere events, an air that struck the reader with a sense of the other or beyond. Whether the long, awful dark of outer space, or the chill, pure sky of Northern myths, some stories let us enter, for a moment, a “sheer state of being” that stirs our souls to life with hunger, awe, or wonder.

Human lives have atmospheres as well. Some are a mere series of events. But some lives, like the tales that Lewis loved, are marked by a vibrancy of mind, body, and soul so potent that we taste the numinous in their history and presence. The life of C. S. Lewis is a romance in and of itself.

His story bears the atmosphere of pipe smoke and good pints drunk amidst a world of word craft and learning. His tale has the air of hearth-sides and shabby college rooms in which fast friendships and strong opinions played out in brusque good humor and jolly tones. In his tale, the fresh air of long walks and even longer thoughts blows free. His elements are tea and common sense and books and the call of the distant hills.

But into this rich air flows a fresher one from the vast beyond; the heady wind of imagination. Who would have thought that an Oxford don skilled in logic, the “best read man” of a generation whose intellect cowed countless students (and peers) could countenance a fairy tale? The atmosphere of Lewis’s story grows wondrous as we marvel that the mind at work in Miracles wove also the tale of a little girl named Lucy and the love she had for a wild, but very good, lion. Talking trees and tea-drinking fauns peer round the corners of Lewis’s life. Lions roar through his dreams and give his story an atmosphere in which any number of wonders might take place. We love his tale because it gives us hope that our own stories could quicken with the wind of imagination.

But I think our love of Lewis and his story runs far deeper.

In his pithy little book An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis identifies six qualities belonging to the kind of story that he calls a “myth.” He describes myth as a story that is “a permanent object of contemplation—more like a thing than a narration—which works upon us by its peculiar flavour or quality…” Myth, he contends, is a story not dependent on literary finesse or narrative twist. A tale of absolutes, it deals with “impossibles and preternaturals.” “Myth, “ says Lewis “may be sad or joyful but it is always grave.” Last, and most important of all, Lewis believed that in reading myth we encounter some facet of Reality itself. We come up against something, clothed in story, that “will move us as as long as we live.” In tales of dying gods or kings returned or great sea-faring heroes, we apprehend some aspect of eternal Reality. Myth, at its best, gestures to Christ.

The life of Lewis was the best kind of myth.

Not because he was sinless or brilliant, not because he was a legend, but because he turned every facet of himself to the love of God and that turns a person mythic in the end. Lewis did nothing by halves. From the point of his conversion he followed every logical conclusion demanded by faith. He shirked nothing. His books are certainly marked by reason, by beauty, by vivid imagination. But they are also shaped by an eminently practical faith. His frank, good-humored obedience to worship and pray, confess his sins and love his neighbor, succor the poor and bear the difficult made his very life “a permanent object of contemplation.” His was a heroic virtue, the “impossible or preternatural” virtue that comes through Christ, lived on the scale of the every day. The longer he lived, the more his own story was subsumed into the life of God. His life became a form, as he described, a fixed and lovely object, that gestured fully toward Reality.

Perhaps any man who spends a lifetime loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength will begin to grow mythic in the end. The lines grow starker the longer you follow Christ. Sin gets sloughed away. The soul grows crystalline with love and the light of Christ shines through, “lovely to the Father in the features of men’s faces” (Hopkins). Lewis believed his own words in The Weight of Glory and “conducted all his dealings” in such a way that his life was the slow becoming of “everlasting splendor.”

His way was not without pain and doubt. His books fully picture the inner dilemmas of temptation. He knew the struggle that comes with truly learning to love. And when death took his beloved wife, Joy, the book that he wrote voiced the anguished abandonment we know in loss. He knew the way that God himself seems to change when suffering obscures our sight. But I remember how Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward described him in the months after Joy’s death: as if he had fought a battle that cost him everything. And yet, “there was almost a light upon his face.”

I don’t believe that the stories Lewis told or the truths he argued could wield such power today without the bedrock story of his faithful life. His writing and work were rooted in the primary story of his life. I think that perhaps even his remarkable ability to reconcile reason and imagination grew out of a life in which the concepts of Love were embodied by faith. He chose God and lived Love at every turn, and his life became a living story gesturing toward that Love.

When the life of C.S. Lewis is considered, I often hear people wonder who the next Lewis will be. Young Christians are encouraged to pursue rigorous training in reason and apologetics, or aim for the best kind of literary education at a prestigious university. These are fine pursuits for believers who hope to emulate Lewis’s genius at cultural engagement and imaginative apologetics. But if we really want to raise up another Lewis or two, I think we have to start with our own hearts and follow the advice of Lewis himself:

Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Look for Christ and you will get Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair, and ruin.

Those words pounded down the corridors and echoed in the air at Westminster Abbey on the day of the memorial service. They came to us in Lewis’s own recorded voice, and they opened the service with a challenge. Everything that followed—the tributes and songs, the prayers and stories honoring Lewis’ life—was framed by his own ringing description of what he thought it meant to live, and live to the full. The story of Lewis confronted each of us present at the service with an invitation: to join the best story that has ever been told. To live the one true myth in Christ.

Lewis once said that “you could never find a book long enough” to suit his taste. Like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who found the best tale ever told within the house of a great magician and wished she could read it forever, Lewis himself hungered from childhood to get inside of the great myths he loved. The great, joyous fact of his life was that he actually did. In his love of Christ, Lewis entered the one true myth of the world. He got right inside the best story ever told and his life became a living image of its beauty. And he calls to us, through the stories he left behind, to join him.

“Further up and further in!” said Aslan… and Lewis. Shall we follow?


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