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I Could Have Run a Railroad

November 25, 2020

By Alisa Schindler

I have always loved the rain. The quiet of the sky. The soothing drone of a million hearts beating overhead. The deep grey seeps into my bones like a drug, slowly calming, and telling my brain to shhhh. There is nowhere to go; no bright and tempting sun guilting me with its happy warmth, pressing me forward to run, skip and laugh. No open, welcoming day beckoning me with possibilities. Now it is alright just to breathe and embrace that feeling where pressure simply evaporates. There is only a moody somberness, a gentle drum lulling me into peace.

When I was younger, my father used to chasten me about the bubble I surrounded myself in and accuse me of complacency. “Don’t be another boring housewife,” he’d say and gift me books by Ayn Rand hoping to inspire. “You’re a Dagny.”

I’d roll my eyes, but take the books, devouring them in private. Deep down I heard him, his message taking root in the brain I was busy ignoring, although I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. It wasn’t like he had the right to judge, I thought. He had done nothing of substance. He was a man with huge romantic notions of the world and no follow through, all about the ‘big ideas’ and being one of the ‘beautiful people’.

To be fair, he was beautiful. Strong and masculine, with crystal green eyes that mirrored my own and thick wavy hair that had prematurely grayed. He was a legend on the ball field and the racquetball courts. With his charismatic smile, easy laugh, and love of a good party, both men and women gravitated towards him.

Even with erratic work habits, his charm, good looks and intelligence helped him survive and, at times, even thrive, in his vocation as a salesman. But that was in the 70’s and 80’s when no one looked too deeply. If they had they would have seen an addict who moved from one sad, dirty, cluttered place to another, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Someone who lived from paycheck to paycheck and visited his kids on the weekends at their new home with their new family out in the suburbs. Still, he always came bearing gifts and smile.

For a time.

By my twenties, his alcohol and recreational drug years were behind him, but his struggles were just beginning. I made the mistake of moving in with him after college after a failed back operation led to dependencies on pharmaceutical opiates. It didn’t take long to realize I was trapped. He needed me to shadow him as he staggered around on pain medications. He needed me as he seesawed between the lows of depression and manic bursts of energy and enthusiasm. Some days he couldn’t leave his bed, other days we played tennis. Some days I wrestled car keys from his hand; his glazed unconscious eyes in complete opposition to the strength of his anger and grasp. Other days, we sat side by side watching episodes of X-Files or Star Trek eating Tupperware bowls filled with cereal, finding moments of ridiculousness and laughing till milk came out our noses.

It was the inconsistencies of health, mental and physical, that kept me tied. The highs that reminded me of his sparkle and my childhood adoration and the lows that overwhelmed and obligated me. He had no one else. I was his sun, his moon, and his savior. But when he talked to me about stepping outside my bubble, I could see nothing but his need and my potential floating away.

Like a good first-born child, I took to my martyrdom like worker bee to queen. I dove in and let it define me; using it to separate myself, to hide, to solidify the bubble into armor, until there was only me and my struggle with his struggle.

As the years passed, I finally found a way to move out and leave him – I got married. Had babies, boy one, two and three. Created a life filled with privileges and pleasures. But through it all he was there, an umbilical rope of need and devotion connecting us.

As he aged and weakened, he softened his view of me and the world. Dagny Taggart wasn’t all that anymore. He excused my complacency and decided to extol my virtues instead. “You’re a great mom,” he’d say. “I understand why you like your bubble. The world is crazy. Your bubble is good.”    

My bubble was better than good – a wonderful husband, beautiful children, the house in the suburbs, endless books to read, writing to keep me satisfied and sane and good friends to laugh and cry – but with him attached I remained, as always, harnessed. Stuck to the ground, rooted, never taking flight. No longer sure I even wanted to.

And then, he died.

Something that was ‘a long time coming’ and should have happened decades before, took me by complete surprise. I was suddenly free from his tortuous, desperate need. I could float in the sunshine of my family, meander in and out of marshmallow clouds, drift through the lazy rainbow days of baseball, baking and boys. I could write. Or run a railroad.

Yet, the relief everyone talked about didn’t come. I missed the burden. The insanity. The ridiculousness. I missed him. The man who dreamed I could be Dagny Taggart but whose everyday life careened off the rails. The man who laughed without limits but also cried without restraint. The man who opened my eyes to the joys and horrors of the world, but also made me turn inward and away. The man who was one of the ‘beautiful ones’ who became disabled and deformed.

Maybe it was always my nature. Maybe I gravitated toward a life heavy with a responsibility that allowed me to stay shielded, my purpose small but mighty. My world limited but loved. My heart soaring in words but my feet on the ground.

I’m okay with the bubble. The smallness. The calm. The nothing.

I always loved the rain.

Alisa Schindler is a freelance writer whose essays have been featured online in the NYT, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and The Well at Northwell Health, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, suburban fiction. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Tough Conversations

When the Mothers Are Gone, When the Mothers Return

November 22, 2020
Navajo

By Nicole Walker

Kit Carson and his men scorched the earth after they forced the Navajo people off their land, toward Bosque Redondo. Where the men destroyed peach trees the Diné had tended for three centuries, not even stumps remain. Some tamarisk mark their impossible green against the red cliffs and the red ruins, but the original life-sustaining fruit trees are gone as are the churro sheep whose fat the People rubbed into cuts left behind by pruned branches.

*

My mom calls to tell me about how she and her new boyfriend visited with her new-found son at his house for the first time with his kids. She’d given her son up for adoption before I was born. My husband teases me that now I’m no longer first-born child. This new son is very tall. I don’t think it’s fair he got the tall genes and first-child status, both.

I ask her how the visit went. She says, “well, really well. My, is he glad I didn’t abort him. He keeps telling me.”

“That’s not how abortion works. If you’d had an abortion, which you couldn’t have had, legally, he wouldn’t know he didn’t exist. It’s like every masturbated sperm complaining that it didn’t to impregnate an egg. You’re not alive until you exist.”

“I know, but he’s still really, really glad.”

“I bet,” I say. She knows I’ve had an abortion. She seems to think she’s done something right. She’s not quite telling me I did something wrong, but maybe she is. I try to feel bad about it but then I’d have to feel bad about all those misdirected spermatozoa. That menstruated egg that didn’t get her chance to replicate.

*

Kit Carson and his minions may have cut down the original orchard of trees, but the People replanted. High desert, Colorado-Plateau growing is not easy work but there is a reason the Navajo survived as long as they did where they did. There are tricks to growing and the People have been here for centuries. The Hopi, who received peach seeds from the Spanish, who live also in the high desert but further east, and who not always friends with the People, still gave peach seeds to the Diné, as a gesture toward future friendship. And although Canyon de Chelly has thick red walls of de Chelly sandstone, unique for its horizontal deposit, green things grow. To the left grows grass. To the right, Utah Juniper. In between? A mixture of pines and yucca and cactus.

Canyon de Chelly is a complicated life zone. To grow peaches here might be a miracle. Or to grow peaches here might be a logical extension to growing olives in Spain. Isn’t the Mediterranean its own kind of semi-arid climate? What is not obvious, at least not to me, is the idea of a planting trees from seeds. I am so wrapped up in horticultural bondage, I’ve only grown fruit trees from grafted rootstock. And even those have turned out first stunted, then dead. And I am lucky enough to own a hose that stretches from hosebib to rootstock. Canyon de Chelly growers must rely on spring water and rain to get their fruit trees to grow.

*

“He’s just so glad I didn’t have an abortion,” she tells me on another phone call.

I try to tell her about Schrödinger’s cat. The cat is both alive and dead inside the box. It’s only when you look that he turns out dead. “Don’t look, mom,” I tell her.

There is a lot more genetic matter in the world than there used to be. There’s a one in 420 trillion chance of you being alive right now. We are all equally lucky the world is full of green and equally cursed that the world is running out of water. The planet is getting hotter. Our genetic material swarms like a virus. The planet has a fever. Perhaps the fever will burn us off.

*

Kit Carson and his Army burned the peach trees. They also killed the Churro sheep. The Churro sheep are a strange breed. Unrefined, some say. But the women who weave prize the wool the sheep produce. The weavers tried merino wool once but it didn’t possess the sticky fiber’s tug that the Churro’s twisty follicles produced. Without peaches and without sheep, Kit Carson expected that moving The People to Bosque Redondo would be permanent. What did they have to return to?

But The People knew how to grow peach trees from seeds. They just had to wait out Carson’s savage obsession. Once he moved on to different kinds of destructions, Canyon de Chelly’s soil and water would still offer what it gave when they planted the seeds the first time. Perhaps the Hopi would gift them again on their long walk home.

*

It is my fault my mom has a new son. His wife messaged me on Facebook to say, “Hello, my husband just received a notice from Ancestry.com that your mom is his mom.” I’m pretty easy to find and open on social media. I told her to hang on. I’d be in touch.

When I told my mom about the message, I replayed for her the advertisement on Pod Save America where Jon Lovett says, “Try Ancestry.com. Find that brother that you never had. Ask you dad, hey, dad, is there something you wanted to tell me?” My mom didn’t find the joke funny. Since my sisters and I had known about her new son, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But what do I know about the loss of children?

When I asked my mom to remind me why she told us about him, she said, “I didn’t know how your father might weaponize it during the divorce.”

The Facebook message didn’t come as a shock then. More of an opportunity to tease my mom about the benefits and drawbacks of Ancentry.com. “What kind of ancestors do we have anyway?”

“Same as we thought before. Mormon all the way down.”

*

Stephen C. Jett published an article in a 1979 issue of Economic Botany describing the cultivation of peach trees in Canyon de Chelly. “The trees in some orchards appear to be of uniform age; in other orchards, mixed ages. None of the trees attains a very large size.” Hill noted that well-cared for trees bear after 3-4 years.

As Hill observed, “a planted tree remains the property of the planter, even in the event that he abandons the land and someone else assumes the care of the tree. Trees are often planted by a father and given to his children.”[i] Children may inherit trees from their fathers, but from their mothers, they inherit animals who help trees grow. The Churro sheep supplies the women with wool. The Churro sheep supply the whole community with meat. The connections between sheep and tree are integral. Rendered fat from the Churro sheep is pressed into wounds left behind by cut limbs. Sheep fat is rubbed on seeds to help them geminate. Rams’ horns line the edge of the orchard or even hang from the branches of trees to strengthen the trees.

To build bodies in the semi-arid climate requires a wide network. The thread of the sheep fat and wound looped into a weave. The ram’s head calcium plaited into the dirt. The rendered fat interlaced between the peach pit’s rivulets. This cross-species blending orchestrated by the matriarchs since long before the Spanish brought their peach pits to the Hopi. That existed before Kit Carson rounded up the women and children and marched them to Fort Redondo.

*

I am trapped at home with my 14-year-old daughter during a virus outbreak. This pandemic is forcing us on lockdown but we aren’t as quarantined as our Navajo neighbors to the north. Because the virus spread so quickly on The Nation, I don’t imagine this will be the last pandemic we’ll suffer. As the climate warms, I imagine the melting ice releasing all kind of novel viruses. The swine flu hit just a few years ago but the corona virus is first pandemic where we’ve been told to wear masks and to stay away from public places.

My daughter, Zoe, is beautiful, hilarious, athletic, and brilliant. She’s also a pain in the ass while we’re waiting for everyone to develop an immunity to a disease we’ve never known. I ask her to come plant some pea seeds with me. The package says, plant these 6-8 weeks before the last frost. I think it’s late in the season but maybe I’m on target. It’s hard to tell with climate change. Maybe we’ve already seen the last frost. Maybe it will snow another two feet at the end of April.

She declines my offer to come plant. I talk Max, who is 10 and less of an automatic-no, to press the pea seeds into the garden box filled halfway full of store-bought dirt that we got lazy and ran out of money to fill to the top of the wooden frame. The garden box 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 3 feet tall. We can’t grow in the regular ground. The dirt is poor. The deer will eat whatever we plant if we don’t plant it in this box that’s wound with plastic, protective fencing. Whose peas will these be?

I look at Zoe’s skinny frame and cannot imagine either the sex or the zygote reproduction. Or rather, I can imagine. With too many folds and body parts, too many lips, I gave her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves like my mother gave me. My mom did not ask me to plant peas with her. I don’t know if it was because she preferred to plant alone or just didn’t want to hear the automatic no of the 14 year old species. I take solace is Zoe’s resistance to planting. Not interested in owning or being owned, she is not into boys and not into peas.

*

The pandemic has hit the Navajo Nation hard. I was talking to the teacher-fellows in the Diné Institute.

“It was The Gathering,” Carol said.

“What gathering?”

“Oh, every year in New Mexico. The New Brotherhood Church holds a gathering. Everyone from churches all around gather.”

“They should have canceled it,” Maria argued.

“I didn’t go.”

“I didn’t either.”

The Navajo Times reports the number of cases every day. Today, 3465. 100 deaths.

A lot of families on the reservation live closely together. Some don’t have running water. It’s hard to convince yourself to sing Happy Birthday two times if you have to drive to Flagstaff or Shiprock or even Tuba City to fill your tank. No one wastes water on the reservation. Even the peach trees know to inhale water from the air.

*

I always thought my mother was militantly pro-choice. She drove me to the abortion clinic for my first abortion. The nurse hurt her feelings when they made her stay in the waiting room instead of holding my hand through the procedure.

It was for the best that she hadn’t heard the doctor tell me not to have sex so young. I wanted to tell the doctor it wasn’t my idea, the sex, the abortion. I think my mother would have yelled so hard at the doctor, he may have rather sucked his own ear drums out. I can imagine him taking the doctor by the shirt collar to the neighbor boy who was supposed to be my babysitter and say, “Tell him about how young she is.”

Or, maybe she wouldn’t have. There are things that are said in girls’ bedrooms between mothers and daughters and things that are said when the boys are around. Perhaps she would have agreed with the male doctor. I mean, I agree with the doctor. No one should have sex that young whether they want to or not.

*

A woman takes a peach pit and rubs Churro fat into its folds. While the male members of the tribe might own the branches, she owns the dirt below. She tucks her hands into dirt. Later, she tucks her hands into wool. Women are hand tuckers. They press their hands within the dirt, through the hair, into the birth canal. They can bring out life in the form of a plant or a blanket or a baby. They can bring out a different kind of life that may look like a disorganized skein but this unwoven fetus is woven into a different story.

Kandace Littlefoot for Truthout writes, “As a Diné woman raised by my maternal grandmother and my sisters, I know that respecting someone’s right to make their own reproductive health decisions is a value deeply rooted in our sovereign Indigenous communities. In our matrilineal society, women have always had direct autonomy over our lives and our reproductive health care decisions. Historical accounts show women and pregnant people in our society have engaged in some form of abortion over generations. I support abortion access because of my Indigenous matriarchal values and traditions — not in spite of them.

Shí éí Kandace Littlefoot yinishé. (I am Kandace Littlefoot.)

Tséníjiíkinií nishłį, Kinliichíinii bashishchiin, Tsédeeshgizhnii dashicheii, dóó Táchii’nii dashinalí, ákót’éego Diné Asdzáán nishłį. (I am born for the Honey Comb Rock People/Cliff Dwelling People, born to the Red House People, my maternal grandfather is the Rock Gap People and my paternal grandfather is the Red Running Into the Water People; in this way, I am a Diné woman.)[ii]

From what I understand, the Diné aren’t more or less conflicted than anyone else about abortion, but some members of the Diné Nation do go on record to say, in a report entitled Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights: The Indian Health Service and Its Inconsistent Application of the Hyde Amendment, written in October of 2002, that “Traditionally, in Native American communities, matters pertaining to women have been the business of women. All decisions concerning a woman’s reproductive health were left up to her as an individual, and her decision was respected. Oftentimes a woman would turn to other women within her society for advice, mentoring, and assistance concerning reproductive health. Within traditional societies and languages, there is no word that is equivalent to “abortion.” Traditional elders knowledgeable about reproductive health matters would refer to a woman’s knowing which herbs and methods to use “to make her period come.”[iii]

But then there is strong resistance to abortion from some members of Native American communities that, because of forced sterilization and reproductive control by the US Government, Navajo women shouldn’t have abortions. Elizabeth Terrill, writing a guest column for The Navajo Times, in January 2020, writes, “Precisely because of our history of being discarded and disdained, we have an obligation to stand for those who are today being denied the rights that we have fought so hard to obtain.

Today, unborn Native Americans are the most vulnerable among us and they are under assault from many sides. By our culture we know the importance of our children. Our children are our future, and our children are the heart and soul of our families, clans, and tribes.”

Are you a peach pit or are you a sheep? Do you need a little pruning or do you sacrifice yourself for your community? Some Diné women rub the fat into the peach pits. Some of weave blankets. Some work at Walmart. Some turn arid ground into peach trees. Some trees need pruning, some seeds need fat, some wool needs to be pulled and tugged rather than shorn.

*

When the pandemic hits, my mother is living in her rented condo with the owner of the condo. It worked out when my mom was single but now she has a new boyfriend. They’re supposed to move in together but the pandemic seems to hold them up.

“Mom. You guys were supposed to move on January 31st.”

“He wants to finish the floors. We’re almost done painting.”

“Mother, you are 73 years old. You shouldn’t be painting.”

“I think I’ll move into your sister’s for awhile.”

“Are things not working out with Bill?”

“They’re great. I just don’t want him to get irritated with me.”

“Valerie will get irritated with you,” I told her.

“Yes, but she can’t get rid of me. I’m her mother.”

*

I put a land acknowledgement at the bottom of my signature line. I walk on the land that the People and their ancestors walked on before me. It’s not just their land but the water we take, pumping from Red Lake under the reservation to our pipes in Flagstaff.

I add the land acknowledgement but that is words and it’s really my body that’s taking place. My body is taking up space. It is space my body doesn’t need to take, but I don’t know where to put my body.

*

My mom texted me to say, “Have I told you lately that I love your smile.”

My mom never texts me.

“What made you text me that, mom?”

“I just saw the pic of you, the hat, and the cat. Hug emoji.”

Women build bodies through the telephone. Women build through the furniture they move, or don’t move. Through their clothes. Their hair. Their weavings. Through their menstrual pads and IUDs, and their kids. They tell stories through the plants they grow and the water they carry to the plants from the spring over half a mile away. They cook the lambs. They strain the broth. They take the fat skimmed from the top and rub it into peach pits. Those lines on the peach pits they recognize as bark on the tree, as the knot of a cervix, the pleading lotic of a son she’d always wished she’d had. I can’t regret abortions because the strings of this horizontal story pulled me one way and another. I am just a cat in a box. It’s unfortunate that a man owned the box. My mom used to swear men were nothing but trouble. But that tall son of hers is made something out of nothing, like all good children. He is full of flesh and he looks just like my mom.

When I met mom’s new son, my sister wouldn’t join us. She called me, “I don’t know, but this whole thing just makes me cry.”

“This whole thing is just weird. But think of it this way. Now we have a bigger family. We’re growing like spider webs. Walker blood everywhere.”

“Mom’s last name wasn’t Walker when she had him. Neither is his.”

“She’s not going to love him more than us,” I try to console her.

“You’ve seen how she is with her grandsons. They can do no wrong.”

If there is one magical force in the world, it’s making something out of almost nothing. Sperm and egg, so small.

I remember the book my mom and dad read to me about how babies were made. A pencil dot, almost invisible, for the egg. Sperm even smaller than that. But some electric connection between the two leads to replication after replication. All that mitochondrial DNA doubling and doubling.

My mom’s new son is very tall, I tell you again. Six foot three at least. I am a foot shorter. He probably weighs as much as me and my sister combined. So much mass in the form of a really nice guy. It is possible my mother will love him more than her daughters.

*

The miracle of mass is not necessarily miraculous. Replication for the sake of replication isn’t automatically impressive or useful. Yeast grows. Plants grow. Fetuses grow. But so grows the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The amount of fossil fuels burned. The temperature of the plant. The number of people dying from the pandemic. The number of species going extinct. Growth for the sake of growth doesn’t a mother make. If a seed doesn’t germinate, even with sheep fat scrubbed into its crevices, only shows the planter, the soil, the sun, the rain, and the sheep understand the nature of seeds.

*

The planet doesn’t need more mass or more people. Some climate scientists say that if we planted a trillion trees, we could cancel out a decade’s worth of greenhouse-effecting-carbon. Donna Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble likes the slogan, “Make Kin Not Babies.” Then someone said, well, it might not work. Then, someone else said, there is nowhere to put the trees. Then someone said, the oceans absorb 50% of the carbon. Then someone else said, if they planted them on ice, they’d actually make the planet hotter, since white ice reflects yellow sun heat.

But some Indigenous People, like the Swinomish in the Pacific Northwest, are planting trees right now. Mass is the measure that makes women choose to direct their lives non-child-wise. It’s not the fear of roots or becoming rooted. Planting 8 billion trees won’t save us. Planting 8 billion trees won’t not save us. It’s the verb rather than the number that matters.

*

When I meet my mom’s new son and his wife at a restaurant, I am as short as ever. My family’s one gift is to try to make strangers feel as comfortable as possible at the very first meeting (and then pull that rug out from under by the end of the meeting) so my mom’s new son is happy to follow my mom’s lead to tease me about my height. There’s the using my head as an elbow rest. There’s the ‘can I reach that for you?’ There’s the, ‘oh sorry I tapped your foot with my foot. I didn’t know your feet reached the ground.’

There’s the picture of my mom and my mom’s new son. Their faces match. I can’t if they look more alike than me and my mom or if it’s the newness that makes them look surprisingly identical.

I don’t feel anything. My stomach is not in knots.

There’s something body-less for me in this moment. I don’t know what to order from the menu. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or not. I look to my mom to give me some advice on what to order but she’s busy trying to talk her new son into sharing a Reuben with her.

Maybe in revenge, I will become a vegetarian. “Want to come over for dinner, mom? I’m making ancient grain bowls.”

That will teach her.

*

When the Diné returned from Redondo, when they found their peach trees burned, their sheep slaughtered, they took turns collecting peach pits hidden between blades of grass in what was then, at least still, a fertile valley. They found old ram bones to mark the rows. Without any sheep fat to moisten the seed, they didn’t have a lot of faith that anything would grow. But they planted the seeds anyway and waited for three years for the seeds to germinate. Now the Diné living near Canyon de Chelly have new peach trees that are just as beloved as the old ones. They have found some new sheep. The children, even the female ones, have inherited a few trees, some rendered fat, and a puff of wool—not too much but possibly enough substance to sustain their bodies another three centuries or more, if the rain comes back in time.

[i] Jett, Stephen C. “Peach Cultivation and Use among the Canyon De Chelly Navajo.” Economic Botany, vol. 33, no. 3, 1979, pp. 298–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4254079. Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.

[ii] https://navajotimes.com/opinion/essay/abortion-is-not-a-solution-for-native-women/

[iii] http://prochoice.org/pubs_research/publications/downloads/about_abortion/indigenous_women.pdf

Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She has previously published the books Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013), and This Noisy Egg (2010). She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story (2019) with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) with Margot Singer. She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ.

 

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Guest Posts, pandemic, spirituality

Searching for Meaning in a Strange New Normal

November 1, 2020
condolences

By Robin Eileen Bernstein

I never thought an invisible cosmic force could pull our strings.
Then coronavirus came along.

On the last Wednesday of February, I awoke to an avalanche of condolences on the death of my mom.

Except my mom wasn’t dead. Not yet.

Surreal? Yes. But that morning in a pre-pandemic New York City, as I scrolled through my Twitter notifications, I didn’t know that surreal was about to become our new normal.

The tweets were mostly in Spanish. “Lo siento,” said one. For that I didn’t need Google Translate. But for the others I did, dozens that poured in that day and the next, all a variation of: Our deepest condolences to the distinguished ambassador Robin Bernstein and to her family for the death of her beloved mother…

Full disclosure: I’m not an ambassador, distinguished or otherwise. But I share a first and last name (and passing resemblance) with the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, so I’m often tagged by mistake. If that’s not enough, she’s a Trump-appointed Republican and I’m a lifelong Democrat who wants him booted from office. While this was a level of surreal I’d come to accept, the condolences were a bridge too far. Because my mom had been admitted to the hospital three days earlier and things didn’t look good.

It took but a minute to find the obituary in a Caribbean newspaper, which only deepened the eerie parallels. Both my doppelgänger’s mom, 93, and my mom, 91, had just celebrated birthdays in February, a week apart. The obit included an Alzheimer’s organization for donations; my mom had dementia.

I put down my phone and exhaled. Was this a sign? Even asking felt wrong, because it was acknowledgement that real condolences might soon come my way. I shook my head as if to reject what seemed preordained.

Three days later, my mom was dead, too.

~ ~ ~

I’m a skeptic at heart. When it comes to all things woo-woo, even one woo is too much for me. My philosophy on the supernatural and paranormal mirrors what doctors learn about making a diagnosis: when you hear hoofbeats, look for a horse, not a zebra, and definitely not a purple unicorn.

Yet if anything fell into purple unicorn territory, it was those condolence tweets. Was it synchronicity? That was the word Carl Jung, the 20th century psychoanalyst, used for weird and mysterious events that can’t otherwise be explained. The Police sang about it, twice.

I have a hard time believing that a cosmic force is pulling our strings. As someone who prefers the practical and predictable, I don’t leave much room for the mystical. But what if everyone from New York to New Zealand suddenly got sucked into an unforeseen vortex that marked the end of our old normal? Can something be freaky when nothing makes sense? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” sang R.E.M., although unlike rest of the title, I don’t feel fine about it. So much happened in two weeks that by mid-March I could barely recognize my own life.

My mom’s passing, ironically, was my last brush with normalcy. Soon age-old customs would be kicked to the curb: sickness and death would be a solitary affair. Large funerals and rituals for the grieving? No more. I’ve read how some people are relieved their elderly parents had passed before this pandemic. It’s odd to be thankful for death. But like so much else previously unthinkable, it makes sense now.

“I’m dying,” my mom whispered to me her first night in the hospital. She knew before we did. “I want to go home,” she said. Five days later she went home to her own bed, where she smiled and blew kisses at me and the hospice nurse. She passed peacefully in her sleep the next morning.

What stops me cold is the what-if. What if she’d gotten sick two weeks later? I picture her in the hospital, allowed no visitors, her confusion and agitation mounting. She’d ask for me. And I wouldn’t be there. Yet this is exactly what so many have had to endure.

Is it normal to be grateful that she got sick sooner rather than later?

In our new normal, it is.

~ ~ ~

Everything was old normal on February 20, my mom’s 91st birthday. That afternoon I took a bus (like many New Yorkers, I don’t have a car) from Port Authority to her assisted living residence in New Jersey armed with cupcakes and a wrapped gift: a comfy nightgown. We sang Happy Birthday and she blew out a candle. Dementia was slowly robbing her mind and body, and I was determined to make it a good day.

Three days later, she spiked a fever and had trouble breathing. She ended up one step below the ICU with a wicked cough and pneumonia, symptoms that soon would scream Covid, except she tested positive for influenza. (She’d had a flu shot but I was told it may be less effective in the elderly.) I rented a car for the three-hour round trips to the hospital and back, and sometimes listened to all-news radio, where it seemed as if the only news was about the novel coronavirus. It was then that I felt the drumbeat of the approaching pandemic, faintly at first, then louder, the way the sky darkens before a storm.

I heard about towns in Italy on lock-down and a federal health official who said it’s not so much if it will spread, but when. On the day I got those bizarre condolences, I heard Trump’s bizarre prediction that our 15 U.S. cases would “within a couple of days…be down to close to zero.” The next day he said, “like a miracle, it will disappear.”

In the hospital, the drumbeat got louder, where lobby signs wanted to know if I’d recently traveled to China or had been in contact with anyone who’d been outside the U.S. A box of face masks and a shelf of latex gloves sat unattended near the nurses’ station; because she had the flu, anyone in her room had to wear them. “It’s upside down” said a nurse the first time I donned a blue surgical mask. The nose clip was by my chin. There was a nose clip? Yet soon I’d know all about masks—from N95s to handmade ones with a pocket for a filter. I’d wear one each time I left my apartment, not to mention buying them for my family, in tie-dye no less.

All those ominous warnings about coronavirus made me wonder, “Did mom have it?” But I never asked, and her doctors never raised it. It was possible; in one analysis, nearly nine percent of those who had respiratory illnesses also had Covid, and one in five who had Covid tested positive for viruses like influenza. Doctors now think some Covid deaths in February and early March were misidentified as flu or just pneumonia. Pneumonia was her official cause of death, along with cardiopulmonary arrest and multisystem organ failure. Far as I know, nobody in contact with her had Covid, unless we were asymptomatic. Regardless, I doubt she could’ve gotten a test back then. I may never have an answer. In our new normal, answers aren’t easy to come by.

Although eventually there’d be reports of a U.S. Covid fatality in early February, the first official reported U.S. death from coronavirus was on February 29—the same day my mom passed.

~ ~ ~

Within two weeks of those Twitter condolences, events in my life seemed to spin out of control so quickly I couldn’t catch my breath.

On Wednesday, March 11, after dinner with friends, I was on a train home trying to disinfect my seat with a Clorox wipe, which isn’t easy with your left arm in a cast and your fingers so bruised and swollen they barely move. What happened was that the previous Saturday, a week after my mom died, after I spent hours in her apartment boxing up photos inscribed with the handwriting of the dead, I tripped over a broken sidewalk and landed in the ER with a shattered wrist, and a week later in the OR to have it reassembled with a plate and screws.

The ER had not yet become pandemic central, although I recall positioning myself as far upwind as possible from a guy on a nearby stretcher whose cough was like a series of small explosions. One week I was a visitor. The next, a patient. Neither was an ideal time to be in a hospital. Might as well fly a kite in a thunderstorm.

Two days after I broke my wrist, which nobody saw and nobody reported, I took photos of the broken sidewalk, which was auspicious timing because the next morning, March 10, I woke up to the sound of jackhammers. That sidewalk, which I learned had been a hazard for years, was mysteriously being repaired three days after I tripped on it. I’d give that the same odds as getting condolences three days before my mom died.

The next day—when I met my friends for dinner—would be the last time I’d sit inside a crowded restaurant. Instead of hugging, we bumped elbows. Life felt crazy yet manageable, but by the time I left to catch my train home, the earth had teetered off its axis. There was a news alert on my phone about—what? A European travel ban? My daughter’s fiancé, a French citizen, was in France; his flight back to New York, where they shared an apartment a few blocks from me, was in three days.

Just like I did after reading those Twitter condolences, I put down my phone and exhaled. In a week’s time, I buried my mother and fractured my wrist. Now my future son-in-law might not be able to come home. I felt queasy, like I was standing on shifting sand.

The train was fairly empty, so I suspended my no-calls-on-mass-transit rule to check on my daughter, who was sobbing with gasps so wrenching she couldn’t speak. Clearly she’d heard the news. I overheard two passengers nearby; the words “Trump” and “Europe” came through loud and clear.

“Shh, it’ll be ok,” I whispered through her choked tears, as if she was still a little girl who skinned her knee. Except now I couldn’t stroke her hair and hold her close. I couldn’t promise that anything would be ok. I stared at my bloated purple fingers and a cold knot of fear lodged in the pit of my stomach. It dawned on me that I had absolutely no control over any of this, at all.

“I’m right here, sweetie,” I murmured into the phone. Soon I wouldn’t be allowed to get within six feet of her.

I went straight to her apartment and after an hour of frantic emails and texts and finally confirming that he’d be on a flight to New York, we sat silent and relieved. Finally, I asked the question we’d been dancing around for days.

“What do you want to do about your wedding?”

Her wedding was in May. In France.

She looked at me, one eyebrow arched, the answer obvious.

“What wedding?” she said dryly. As sad as a postponement would be, she now knew the date wasn’t what mattered. A crisis has a way of focusing you.

That Sunday, March 15, I was to attend another wedding, my cousin’s, in Brooklyn. Instead I and other would-be guests watched it via livestream, now de rigeur for pandemic celebrations. Then I went to New Jersey, where the assisted living residence had given me one hour to grab what I still wanted from my mom’s apartment before they went on lockdown. By then, it was virtually impossible to rent a car—everyone was getting the heck outta Dodge—so my boyfriend and I traveled there and back on a near empty bus. With my arm in a cast, I needed his help. I had wrist surgery the next day, and I’d recuperate and quarantine at home in Manhattan. He’d quarantine in Brooklyn, where he lived. When we finally saw each other again in person, ten weeks later, it was on what should have been my daughter’s wedding day.

There was one other event that weekend. On Saturday, March 14, my boyfriend and I celebrated my birthday in one of the few restaurants still open. There were very few diners besides us. I felt guilty, like we were doing something illicit. The waitress wore latex gloves and cheerfully placed four sugar-dusted chocolate cookies in front of me. I blew out a candle. As with my mom’s birthday three weeks earlier, we were determined to make it festive. I later learned that my birthday was the same day the governor of New York announced the state’s first Covid death.

~ ~ ~

We have no idea what our new normal will be like long-term. We’ve always been urged to “live in the moment” but what if that’s all there is? What if you can’t plan ahead because the future is just a flashing neon question mark?

Time has been warped. If you’re of a certain age or have a predilection for vinyl, imagine a 33 rpm record spinning at 78. Barry White sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Like a world on speed, stuff I never heard of in February erupted like weeds in March: Zooming, social distancing, 7 PM cheering. By April, the pandemic had generated record unemployment and one person who lost his job, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody in May, which sparked international protests in cities coast-to-coast, including mine. Yet while breaking news pelted us like hail, then and now, life feels lethargic. One day rolls into the next without the usual punctuation.

I’m thankful that I was able to hold my mom’s bare wrinkled hand in my latex-sheathed one and remind her what a wonderful mom she was and what a beautiful legacy she was leaving, and to see, not in pixels but in the flesh, her face soften with relief. I’m thankful for the comfort of those who came to pay condolences. Yet with each consoling unmasked hug, a deadly parasite may have been hitching a ride.

As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare in which I’d be watching our black-and-white Zenith with the rabbit ear antennae and I’d click the remote once to change the channel, but the channels wouldn’t stop changing. They’d flip by faster and faster, out of control, until smoke began pouring from the TV and I knew it would explode.

This spring when I’d hear the wail of ambulance sirens, my daily soundtrack, I might think for a moment it was coming from a TV show I was watching. But this was real, a mournful howl rising from a world changing faster and faster, out of control, spewing an acrid cloud of death. Unlike my childhood nightmare, there was no waking up from this.

It’s no surprise that a kid who dreams of exploding televisions grows into an adult who prioritizes control. But I no longer have the luxury, or delusion, of thinking I’m the puppeteer. On February 20 I had two intact hands, my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and my mother. Three weeks later: Bum hand. No wedding. No mom.

Adapting these days means accepting the inexplicable, embracing the unknowable and acknowledging that we have no clue what’s around the bend. Not surprisingly, more people are reporting paranormal activity; a New York Times article suggested that in uncertain times, there’s a motivation “to find meaning in chaos.” It’s the same impulse, by the way, that spurs the tinfoil-hat crowd to connect dots that ought not be connected, poisoning the air with viral conspiracies, taking the search for purple unicorns to frightening new dimensions.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find meaning—synchronicity, if you will—in chaos. I still don’t know what to make of absurdities that hit, bam-bam-bam, like falling dominoes: getting condolences three days too early, a broken sidewalk repaired three days too late, a travel ban three days before a loved one’s flight home. When life as we know it is suddenly and monumentally altered, it’s tempting to think that Hamlet had it right: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Maybe, but doubtful. I’m still a skeptic. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. When a very real pandemic can trip up an entire planet and bring it crashing to its knees, shattering norms as easily as the bones of a human wrist, well, that’s surreal enough for me, thank you. I suppose if you’re searching for synchronicity, or purple unicorns, or for an invisible force that’s controlling us in ways we can’t conceive, look no further than the brand new virus that upended the world.

Robin Eileen Bernstein is an essayist, feature writer and humorist with bylines in The New York Times, Salon, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Daily News, Newsday, Narratively, Ozy, Weekly Humorist, Next Avenue, Purple Clover and elsewhere. Her coming-of-age memoir-in-progress is about growing up in Far Rockaway, NY in the 1970s and her dream of being a drummer in a rock-n-roll band. More at robineileenbernstein.com.

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Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

Tough As A Mother

October 4, 2020
tough

By Talya Jankovits

Four months ago, my children came home from school, and they never went back. Backpacks hung hopeful on hooks, until weeks passed, and it was clear that it was time to reach deep into the crevices of a dozen purposeless pockets and empty them of little bits of folded pieces of paper, a solitary cookie, a dried-out stick of gum. Even further still to the tiny colorful erasers hidden in the folds of the lining, these small prizes hoarded from teachers. Treasures of days traveling to and from school, all splayed out on the kitchen counter as I sorted through them like an excavator. What I could sneak into the trash before they catch me, what must get stored for next year. The backpacks went into the wash, then hung up to try before being put in the basement storage with no clear idea of when they might get pulled out next.

When I first faced the realization that we would be bunkered down, myself and my four daughters together as my husband, an essential worker,  continued to work outside of the home, anxiety filled my mornings, my nights and every hour sandwiched in between. I lost myself in the heaps of laundry, the ever-growing pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I sank heavy under the demands of varying ages of children from a baby up to a fourth grader who needed to learn how to write a state paper and all the tiresome math problems in between. Winter was still hovering in the slow birth of spring, and we watched the seasons change as the weight of our outerwear hanging on the coatrack thinned ever slowly into straw hats and baseball caps. Finally, summer had arrived and with that a redemption from remote learning and a rebirth that I had not anticipated.

As a mother, I now have never felt stronger as a result from having never felt weaker. I hadn’t understood the immense value in self forgiveness until I was one of the very few people in my new reality who could offer it. I had never embraced my flaws as a parent until I was face to face daily with the reflection of myself in the eyes of my daughters – all of whom needed me more than ever.  By the time the first tulips poked their heads out of the thawing ground I was slowly gaining awareness of my own metamorphosis. My body was softer than it ever was, fuller than its ever been. But I found that so was my heart. Parenting during a pandemic was, is, the fiercest thing I have ever done in my entire adult life.

Raising small humans was never a small task, but with the onset of a worldwide pandemic which held inside of itself historic happenings towards social justice, there was a surge in my responsibility towards fostering children that are human conscientious, anti-hate and anti-self-serving. I was terrified at all that was being hurled at us as human beings. All my obligations to absorb happenings and seize the opportunity to step up my parenting instead of retreating inside. And something remarkable happened, after months of all of us struggling with the changes, the challenges, the isolation, and the uncertainty, I noticed personal growth inside of our home.

Summer brought heat, sprinklers, frozen treats, and endless hours together to fill in any way we could think up. It also brought dialogue about why we wear masks and who we are protecting. Why we have given up certain opportunities to practice human awareness – the concept of tikkun olam, our part in caring and protecting the world. It brought on conversation about skin color, about systemic hate, about privilege, about standing up, about accountability and kindness and goodness in both large and small scales.

Summer days are hot and our heads hurt with weary happy heat by the time the sky glows pink. The kids fall asleep happy. They thank me. They tell me today was such a great day. And yet there are still times I am feeling totally gutted. As if I have hollowed all of myself out for them to grab and take with greedy fingers. I think of how far we likely are from our old normal. How long it may be until I can see my parents in California. How school may not arrive in the fall the way we want it to. How masked faces are the new face of human interaction. I think these things and I want to crawl into my bed, lay my head down and hibernate until a miracle solution is found.  But then I put on my T-shirt.

The words printed on the tshirt: Tough as a mother. My grey t-shirt, unassuming, unremarkable – feels like a superhero’s cape. I pull it over my head, slip my arms through the holes, and holler for my girls: I am ready to start our day. I feel invincible. It seems inconsequential, almost absurd, that this shirt would have any influence over me. In no time it will be sweat stained, snot marked, sticky from melted popsicles. It will get thrown into a laundry shoot with little consideration after late summer dark finally blankets the sky and the last daughter has crawled into bed. Yet, it validates me. This shirt from the internet, it fuels me.

I am one tough mother. I did it. I am still doing it. Did I get through every day with grace and dignity? At first, no, definitely no. There was yelling. There was crying on cold kitchen floors as a baby gently poked me. There was hiding in bathrooms and there was anxiety ridden nights where I never fell asleep because the dread of the mundanity that morning would bring kept me awake until the first mommy! of the day clawed open my heavy eyelids. But four months have passed and I’m not rough around the edges anymore. I’m undoubtedly tougher. There is still so much summer ahead without any of our usual summer luxuries and indulgences. There is still a fast-approaching school year with so many unknowns. I have given up so much of myself for these four girls, and I likely will be giving up so much more. But I am at peace with that. I am braver and stronger than I’ve ever been and as this virus continues to rage on, as our country sets out to do so much work that needs to be done, I want my kids to reflect back one day on this time of their lives and think, we made it through ok, because we had one tough mother

Talya Jankovits’s work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Hevria, Lilith, Literary Mama, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Citron Review among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart prize. Her poem, A Woman of Valor, is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters..

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Chronic Illness, Guest Posts, pandemic

What Doesn’t Kill You Still Sucks: HIV & COVID-19

August 28, 2020
covid

By Martina Clark

The last time I went outside it was March. March 2020, I believe, but who actually knows. Time has become the intellectual equivalent of holding water in your hand.

Like most of us, I’m under ‘stay-at-home’ rules during this pandemic. I live in Brooklyn, NY which has had approximately the same number of cases of COVID-19–and twice as many deaths–as all of Canada.

Like too many of us, I’ve also been under quarantine. It is almost certain that I have contracted COVID-19, although I can’t confirm this with 100% certainty because it is nearly impossible to be tested for the virus. The only viable way to get a test is to go to a hospital. On the off chance I have some other illness with identical symptoms, the last place I want to go is to an Emergency Room filled with people who are already ill. I don’t want to expose myself further. I don’t want to get on public transportation to travel. And I certainly don’t want to add to the burden of overwhelmed health care workers just for a test.

I’m about three weeks into this journey and I count my blessings every day that I’ve had a ‘mild’ case which, from my experience, presented as such:

  1. Fatigue. Extreme fatigue. Early on in this global health crisis, I joked that my ‘quarantine adaptive gene’ was strong because I’m quite happy to stay home and am never bored. But being lazy is not the same as fatigue and this virus made it nearly impossible to get out of bed many days, and the smallest of tasks wore me out. I’m slowly getting back to normal, but I still need more sleep than usual.
  2. Body aches. Again, I’m not a super sporty person, but walking up and down a flight of stairs is normally not a challenge. With this virus, however, one flight of stairs–up or down, not even both directions–felt like I’d done a thousand squats, run a marathon, and been poked with needles all at the same time.
  3. Chest pain. This is the part that lingers but, mercifully, with lessening intensity. In the first week of illness, I felt as if I had claws inside my rib cage. I’ve had bronchitis and I’ve had shingles. This was more painful than both combined. Today, three weeks later, it only feels like a Shrek-sized creature is squeezing my chest. Tightly. It hurts more if I sit too long. It particularly hurts in the morning when I wake up. But it is better. Much better.
  4. Nausea. Motion sickness on steroids. I choose to believe that whatever creature was clawing inside my chest was also making sardine milkshakes for fun. The worst was waking up to the nausea, although going to sleep with it wasn’t much fun either. During the day, it would sometimes abate, but not for long. It also lingers but is much milder than before.
  5. Headaches. I thought I’d been spared the headaches, until I wasn’t. They hit me quickly and like a brick. I’ve only ever had one migraine, but this was reminiscent of that experience, although without the light-sensitivity. Thankfully, those were neither constant nor lingering.
  6. Sore throat. Similarly, I thought I’d missed this symptom, but it joined my COVID entourage in the third week. It is not unbearable, but it is unpleasant. But I can swallow and breathe so I count myself lucky.
  7. Dry cough. The least annoying and, luckily, the least severe. I’ve definitely had worse coughs in my life, but this remains worth noting, as it is a regular reminder that I’m still not over this virus which is still working its way through after three weeks.
  8. Fever. Apparently, I’m a bit cold blooded because my temperature never topped 99º.
  9. Loss of smell or taste. Never happened. The litter box still needs regular cleaning.
  10. Shortness of breath. I count every lucky star in the sky that I never experienced any shortness of breath. My breathing has been shallow, and still is, but I’ve never struggled for air. I am so very lucky.

But this is not my first virus rodeo. The real kicker in this story is that this year marks the fact that I’ve been living with HIV for half my life, 28 years to be exact. I sincerely believed I’d served my time with life-threatening viruses but, apparently, the universe thought otherwise. I followed the guidelines, socially distanced, washed my hands, sanitized surfaces, and used face coverings before they were cool, but I still got exposed.

Most likely I was at higher risk because I have HIV. On the other hand, I’m wondering if I managed to avoid a worse case because I already take antiretroviral medications for HIV. I don’t know, nobody does. My doctor said that they are designing trials to study COVID-19 in people with HIV so perhaps they’ll be able to, one day, find out. I will gladly volunteer to be studied, as I have with WIHS, a natural history study of women living with HIV for the past 25+ years. My nephew calls me a ‘living resource’ which makes me proud and gives my survival that much more purpose.

Last week my doctor told me I was cleared to go outside, like actually outdoors, but I haven’t yet. Each day I look out the window and think, maybe tomorrow. I have amazing neighbors who shop for me when needed.

I have an extraordinary crew of siblings and niblings who check on me, send fruit baskets and cards, and offer to do grocery runs on my behalf and then drop and dash, leaving the goods at my doorstep.

My partner, by chance, was away visiting family–and is now stuck in another state–so I have not had the added burden of worrying about putting him at risk during my quarantine. Thanks to FaceTime we’re connected several times a day so although I am alone physically, I am far from lonely. It may sound strange, but I am grateful he is not in New York right now to experience this catastrophic chaos or the incessant wailing of ambulance sirens.

Friends check on me, my doctor checks on me, family check on me, and my beautiful cat, Sangha, reminds me that she is still in charge and needs more snacks. She snuggles with me and provides feline contact. She’s a tiny warm body, but she still counts.

And, surprisingly, (or maybe not) I feel far less alone than I did when coping with my diagnosis for HIV. We don’t know much about COVID-19, but this pandemic has hit like a tsunami. The numbers are staggering and horrific, but I know I am–tragically–not alone. 

With HIV, however, I’d never seen another woman with HIV–that I knew of–and so I felt I was on my own. I wasn’t, but that was how it felt. Today we are building on the experience and knowledge borne from the response to HIV and AIDS. While it is a reminder that we didn’t act quickly enough in the 1980s and 1990s to that pandemic, it is, at the same time, gratifying to know that all of the work that has been done by activists and scientists, and others, has not been for naught.

I’m so blessed that my story continues to transition to a happy ending, yet so very sad not everyone else is as lucky. My heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as to HIV and AIDS and all of the other awful fatal causes. Stay home if you can. Stay safe as best you can and know that you are not alone.

Martina Clark teaches writing for CUNY, but previously worked for more than 20 years as an HIV educator for the United Nations system, notably for UNAIDS, UNICEF, and UN Peacekeeping. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. Martina lives in Brooklyn, NY, but will forever be a Californian.

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