Sacred Circles & The Modern Witch’s Guide to American Tribal Style Belly Dance

I experienced my first coven not among witches, but among dancers.

In swirling, hypnotic circles, they connected in the eyes with seemingly psychic awareness of one another. Moving smoothly and with a steady grace, they morphed from one languid, surreal movement to the next, signaling to each other with a silent language of eyes and fingertips.

Like orchids whirling weightless in a funnel cloud, they swung around their jewel-toned layer skirts in quick, light circles, snapping their hips to the syncopated tremble of brass.

Watching them, I felt myself caught in a waking trance.

Unable to resist the momentum of their collective current, I let them sweep me into the dance with them, instinctively following them from one turn of the circle to the next.

The clamoring sound of ten thousand pairs of zills clashed around me in bright explosions of light and sound.

dancer ats

Several years down the path of my belly dance journey, and many years after my first steps down the path of my interfaith journey, I found myself chatting over Turkish coffee with a self-styled pagan gypsy about what she called “the art of moving meditation.” We stumbled on the subject of dance as meditation, and, in particular, our mutual affection for belly dance as an outlet for spiritual expression.

She excitedly told me about a style she recently tried in New York called American Tribal Style (ATS).

Struggling to describe what about this type of belly dance appealed to her spiritual life, she kept coming back to the words “meditative” and “sisterhood.”

Still practicing as a solitary witch with no coven, the ideas of blending meditation, dance and group empowerment intrigued me.

I decided to experiment. I wanted to see if this dance style might help me in my quest to blend dance with my spiritual life.

I agreed to go with my friend to one of these classes, but only to watch.

That night, I arrived early.

Studio lights washed over the room with electric warmth. Standing on the dark edges, I watched shyly from a quiet corner.

Breathless dancers began to buzz through the door, chased by rush hour traffic and trailing behind them long strands of windswept dark hair.  They pulled on skin-tight dance slippers, chattering like songbirds in lilting, warm voices.

But at the appointed hour, a thick stillness wound through the dancers as the room quieted.

I held my breath. I waited.  And all at once, they started to dance . . .

Many years later, during what I thought to be an unrelated fit of inspiration, I made up my mind to feature in my blog some kind of retreat.

But I wanted something not exclusively geared towards pagans—something “pagan friendly” but not something every pagan blog already features annually.

I also wanted something in a location I’d never been to before, something to open up new neural pathways and clear my mind with the fresh perspective of a new landscape.

After comparing several options (like the lantern festival in Arizona!), I tripped across a website for something called Sacred Circles, an ATS dance retreat held annually on a remote Michigan campground near the dreamy shores of Lake Huron.

It marked all the boxes on my checklist:  I’d never seen the pure wilderness of Michigan.  Plus, dancing with bunch of total strangers in the middle of the woods for an entire weekend forced me way, way outside my comfort zone.

After 18 months of the stay-at-home mom experience, outside my comfort zone was exactly where I needed to be.

I contacted the event planner, booked my plane ticket to Detroit and rented a car, pushing myself beyond the point of no return almost immediately.

In particular, I hoped to get a chance to meet some other pagans and ask them whether they also made the connection between this mysterious, ethereal dance and their experiences with covens or power raising.

To my delight, the event planner pointed out that one of the dance workshop instructors just finished priestess training.  She encouraged me to meet up with her.

On faith, I flew to Detroit.  Driving my rented car on a two hour journey through the Michigan countryside and to the edges of wilderness—-or as far as this city girl generally ventures, anyway.

In my GPS, I vested utter faith.  “”Destination, on the right.”

Making my way on winding path through the storybook thicket of evergreens, I felt quite like a naive fairy tale character about to be snatched by a wolf.

As the waning moon rose over the dusk, the little woodland cottages steeped with the giddy, anxious energy of an outdoor backstage on opening night.

My roommates came from diverse backgrounds.   I stayed with a flamenco dancer, a former arts & entertainment journalist, and an inner city librarian.   Most of them taught dance at home and had encyclopedic knowledge of their genres.  I ended up learning as much staying in the dorms as I learned in the workshops.

Initially, I dreaded the idea of sleeping on dorm mattresses and sharing a bathroom with total strangers.  I know, I’m sorry.  The hospitality industry spoiled me.  I like hotels.  I like little soap cakes and extra pillows and somewhere to get a dry martini, you dig?

Most of all, I liked privacy.

But after only a few hours of no internet access and a dead phone with no bars, I realized I hadn’t had this much privacy in years.  No texts, no social media, no television.

It was wonderful.

Also, for the first time in 20 years, I remembered the simple joy of the slumber party.  I long ago forgot the phenomenon of “instant friendship” that negotiating sleeping space with new people seems to foster.

Two nights on a campground in friendship is worth at least ten coffee dates.

Just before the rosy dusk swept over the horizon, I went for a walk to still my nerves after the long drive, a plane trip and 2 cups of coffee (the event planners wisely made it available 24 hours a day.  I not-so-wisely drank it 24 hours a day).  Swinging open my cabin door, I set out down the path, stopping short on the wood plank stairs that led down to the edge of the water.

In the commotion of dance costumes, workshops and world-renowned belly dance instructors, I wanted to stop and appreciate the simple, natural beauty of the place I found myself in.

lake huron

The lake adorns the shores of Camp Cavell  with a charming pebble beach.  As a minimalist pagan parent, I avoid bringing home typical souvenirs from tourist shops.  But I like to take back natural treasures from different parts of the world to show my child where I went.  A few of the pebbles from this beach came home with me for the altar.

(More on altars for toddlers soon!)

pebble beach

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Night fell.  Beneath a blackened sky streaked with starlight, I started back up the path in plenty of time for the evening show.  But I found myself rushing in at the last moment after I stopped to stare dumbfounded at something invisible to me for a very long time in my mostly urban life:  The Milky Way.

I hurried along towards the lodge.  Beneath their twirling umbrellas and bundled in a swath of jewel-tone veils, a few stray performers emerged from the woods, darting between the trees like psychedelic forest sprites.

Entering the cozy warmth of the lodge, the sweet, heady smell of cedar and autumn pine rolled over me.  I wondered about the first ancient people who thought to tie the needles in a bundle and burn it in the temple as an offering.

Something about this place felt like a temple.

Finding a seat near the middle, I listened to the host’s opening remarks and waited with everyone else for the lights to go down.

With the suddenness of a wildfire, dancers burst into the room, filling it with a raging joy that pressed against the walls.

A troupe called Twisted Gypsy emerged from behind the rafters.  As the drum beat gathered momentum, their full, layered skirts quivered.  I searched the beaded and bejeweled dancers for Jen McDonald and finally spotted her among them.

The baroque stage lights cut hard shadows across her face.

I met Jen earlier that day.  She taught a dance formation to the group that swirled in a spiral pattern.  Standing at the front of the class with supernatural, eclectic beauty, I imagined Jen emerging from the surreal blue waters of Huron like the Lady of the Lake.

As she walked the class through this interesting and unique blocking pattern, I thought about the meaning of the spiral shape in ancient European paganism and imagined the dancers (of every age group, from their early twenties to dancers in their sixties or possibly older) moving through it as a metaphor for the winding path of life.

After class, I approached Jen to interview her about perspective on dance and how it fit into her spiritual life.

In fact, everyone here seemed to have an easy way with newcomers.

Jen is a seeker.  I related to her journey.  Leading me through her years of eclectic spiritual experience, from the tutelage of indigenous American tribes to meditation-fueled visions to her recent training with a group of Isis worshipers (a modern revival of ancient Egyptian goddess devotion), she talked to me over lunch at the mess hall like we’d long been old friends.

Watching her troupe dance that night, I felt her draw energy from her mystical roots, alternately taking the lead and relinquishing it to the other members of her group.

Again, I they reminded of my first coven.

Moving as though mesmerized by each other, they broke off in circles, swirling in little whirlpools.

I felt the energy of the power they raised together hovering over the little lodge, electrifying the air with an ionized charge.

tribal dancers

dancer ats

By Sunday morning, the rains washed in, and prepared to return to my life of Beltway traffic and coffee shops and Etsy and Montessori mommy-and-me groups.

But Sacred Circles reminded me once again of the immeasurable joy of dance, of connecting with other women, and the power of leaving technology behind for a few days to dwell on the natural beauty of a wild country not yet lost to cell phone towers.

Blessed be.

 

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Belly Dance for Pagans: The Art of the Goddess

Sometimes slow and sensual, sometimes upbeat and rhythmic, the mesmerizing art of belly dance continues to captivate me a full 10 years after I first discovered it.

I want to talk a little bit about what belly dance offers the modern pagan in particular, and why taking up this dance style compliments neopagan spirituality so well.

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Belly dance celebrates the divine nature of womanhood.  While many dance communities place high value on youth and specific body types, belly dance respects the beauty in every stage of life. Although the “triple goddess” theme is not a concept in belly dance, it’s easy to see the correlation between belly dance’s respect for the sacred feminine in all its forms, from young girlhood to full pregnancy and even well into the crone years.

Belly dance is perfect for covens.   Raising energy with belly dance in a circle is super fun!  Try “passing” the energy from one person to another, like a “wave” at a baseball game, but with shimmies or hip circles.

Belly dance is perfect for solitaries.  Belly dance is performed in groups (as in American Tribal Style), but it is also a solo art.  Solitary practitioners benefit from the opportunity to develop a unique belly dance style and have something to share at festivals or private parties.

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Belly dance is culturally eclectic.  While many people commonly believe that belly dance originates in the Middle East, no one actually knows from where what we call “belly dance” today descended.  Modern belly dance may incorporate flavors of hip hop, ballet, Bollywood or African dance.  This openness to enrichment of the belly dance vocabulary makes it uniquely adaptable.  Egyptian witch?  Try an Egyptian style belly dance.  I’ve even seen blends of belly dance with Celtic dance or Thai.

The belly dance community is generally pretty damn welcoming.   No one will whisper about you showing up to a halfa in a midriff just because you don’t have Kate Middleton’s stomach.

You’ll find a lot of pagans.  Especially in the tribal belly dance community.  It won’t take you long to run into a few “of your own.”

You’ll probably dig the wardrobe.  Chances are, there’s already something in your closet you can wear to a belly dance party or class.  I don’t know why there’s so much overlap but . . . there is.

Well, there you have it.  A few of the many reasons to make this the year you learn a beautiful new form of expression.  Blessed be!

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My Spiritual Approach to Post-Pregnancy Weight Loss

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I am from the “weight loss generation” in the US.  Bombarded by advertisements for quick-solution weight loss, glossy pages in print magazines of impossibly thin women and the idea that appearances supersede inner harmony with the mind and the body, the pursuit of perfection became big business as children of the 80s and 90s grew up.

Undoing all that damage to our relationships with our bodies proves almost impossible 20 or 30 years later.

Personally, I’ve never been overweight, but I’ve never been happy with my body, either.  And I know I’m in good company.  Lots of people, especially women, average women, but even women who meet most Western beauty standards, feel as I do.

Without missing a beat, I look in the mirror daily, swiftly ticking off everything I hate about what I see.

Thin hair, scarred skin, weird bone structure, crooked teeth, wide hips, little breasts.  The list goes on and on.

Pregnancy made this ritual especially excruciating.  I counted every new stretch mark, every pound, every dimple of cellulite.  I looked at images “pretty pregnant” women—the ones with perfect, round little bumps, smooth skin all the way to delivery, most of them ten or more years younger than me (“Why did I wait so long to do this?  I’ll never bounce back at my age!”)

But crossing over from Maid to Mother gives me a new perspective on my body.   To see it as sacred, the ultimate temple to be maintained with devotion instead of daily assault and emotional self-abuse suddenly seems much kinder and justly grateful for what blessings it bestows on me.

The time arrives now for me to aid my body in postpartum healing—which is not the same thing as restoring it to its pre-pregnancy status, but to embrace all its new features, nurturing it as it is now.

I believe that all meaningful journeys in life begin in the spirit.

This seems especially true when on sets out to alter the body through discipline and conscious effort.

My plan is not to count calories, track minutes of exercise, or otherwise live a regimented life style, but to see things differently, change my attitudes and bring my child up with a healthy understanding of the mind/body connection.

Everyone’s ideal journey differs, but the following ideas are thoughts I’d like to adopt to replace old attitudes ingrained by mass marketing and pop culture.

1.  I’m going for a daily walk with the baby because it’s as good for my mind and soul as it is for my body.  Making exercise a chore is the fastest way to give up on it.  The freedom to walk, ride a bike or run in a natural setting is a profound gift.  Even if you live in the city, walking among people and appreciating the sights, sounds and smells of your surroundings brings tremendous mental clarity. I intend to look forward to my time outside.

2.  Food is either poison, or it is medicinal.  There really isn’t any gray area.  When I look at nutrition this way, it becomes much easier to make good choices.  We like to make diets complicated—or rather, the for-profit weight loss industry does.  I’m not going to get into a big debate about the morality of food with respect to meat and animal products, but setting that aside, I am of the personal opinion that natural is best.  The more natural, the better.   That’s what I’m going for.

3.  Yoga just feels good.  There really isn’t anything to dread about exercise if you enjoy it.  For me, yoga is a perfect integration of the mind, body & spirit, all of which it emphasizes beautifully.  The goal of harmonizing one’s body with one’s mind and spirit inspires me.

4.  Belly dance is a celebration of womanhood.  Long ago, I chose belly dance as a way to express myself and condition my body to align with my soul.  Focusing on developing it further seems especially appropriate during and after childbirth, when the power and beauty of womanhood expresses itself so profoundly.

5.  Water is life-giving.  There is nothing “boring” about drinking water.  Water is an element, it sustains life all over the planet, and it is the only fluid necessary to sustain my life.   I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with juice or coffee or tea, but just as food either nurtures or poisons you, fluids either flush you of toxins, or cleanse you of them.

So that’s it.  That’s my plan.  I’ll let you know how it’s going a few months from now.  Wish me luck!

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Beltane Glamour Spell for Beauty

It’s that time of year again!

Every spring, I post new beauty rituals for Beltane, a sabbat traditionally associated with feminine beauty, enchantment and romantic attraction.

may day beauty spell

For this one, you will need:

*pastel colored piece of ribbon
*a white pillar candle
*a handful of dried lavender
*some rose oil
*A carving knife
*lighter or matches
*Vase full of spring flowers (ideally, some that you have picked yourself)
*a flattering photo of yourself

1.  On the day of Beltane, choose a sunny spot to work in.  Mark the circle with your fresh spring flowers walking in a clockwise fashion.

2.  Sit comfortably in the center of your circle, placing the pillar candle directly in the center.

3.  With your carving knife, etch a symbol of beauty in the base.  The image of a swan if you are artsy and good with carving, or simply the word “beauty” both work fine.

4.  Anoint the candle with rose oil.  Rose oil has ancient associations with feminine beauty and enchantment.

5.  Wind the ribbon around the pillar candle as you would a May Pole.

Beltane Beauty Candle

6.  Charge the candle any way you like.  You might chant something clever or simply imagine the divine light of Aphrodite glowing from within the candle.

7.  Close the circle by gathering the wild flowers in a counterclockwise manner.

8.  Place the candle on top of your photo on your altar or someplace near where you get ready in the morning, like the bathroom vanity or a dressing table.

9.  Surround the base of the candle with dried lavender.  I used some dried lavender stems from last year’s garden, but you can use the loose variety you’d find in any herb shop.

dried lavender bundle

10.  Light the candle every morning, say a small affirmation and let it burn while you go about your morning dressing routine.

11.  Don’t forget to extinguish the candle!!!  Never leave it burning unattended, and watch for flaring.

Check out last year’s Goddess Bath Ritual and this Summer Beauty Spell for other beauty spell ideas.

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Queen of Hearts: A Love Spell

It’s Valentine’s Day, but it is also the middle of the pagan festival Lupercalia, which is associated with ancient fertility rites.

Whichever one you happen to be celebrating, it’s the perfect time for love spells!

Today, I am going to show you a simple love spell using a plain old deck of cards.

Did you know that ordinary playing cards are actually based on the Tarot?  All of the cards in a playing deck have corresponding cards in the Tarot (although not all Tarot cards are represented in a playing deck, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Today, we will be working with the Queen of Hearts.

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In the Tarot deck, the Queen of Hearts is represented by the Queen of Cups, who is associated with love, infatuation and emotional intuition.  We won’t be setting it on fire or anything, so feel free to use any deck, it won’t be ruined.

In addition to this card, you will need:

*A photo of yourself or a lock of hair
*A handful of dried or fresh roses
*Two pink candles
*A piece of rose quartz
*rose oil

1.  Place Your photo underneath the Queen of Cups on the altar.

2.  Carve your name and birth date on one candle, and a question mark on the other (or, if you are in a relationship already, carve the name of your significant other to bless the relationship for a deeper bond).  Go to town.  Really mark it up deep.

3.  Anoint the candles with rose oil.

4.  Surround the Queen of Cups with the dried or fresh roses as an offering.

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5.  Place a piece of rose quartz on top of the area where the Queen’s heart would be.

easy love spell

7.  Place the pink candles on either side of the card.  For the next seven nights, light the candles for a few minutes and focus on embodying the Queen of Hearts.

Queen of Hearts
From my Alice in Wonderland series: The Queen of Hearts

Chang’e: Chinese Goddess of the Moon

Being the last full moon of the harvest season, I thought this would be a great time to talk about Chang’e, an important Chinese moon goddess.  Chang’e is the focus of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon festival, which just passed in late September.  Participating in the festival is fun alternative to a typical Sabbat celebration, but just learning about different moon goddesses from around the world can be a nice way to enrich your own practice.

The Legend of Chang’e

There are many versions of the following folktale.  Below is my retelling of the most common translation, but if you know another version, by all means, share it!

Long before the oldest memory of the oldest man on earth, ten suns burned in the sky.  But the light of heaven was too powerful for life on earth, causing the plants and people to whither and die.

A masterful archer named Hou Yi was sent down to save humanity.  He heroically shot down nine of the suns, leaving one to light the world and bring the heat of life.

In reward for his courageous deed, Jade the Emperor, ruler of the sky, bestowed upon the hero an elixir of everlasting immortality.  But the archer Hou Yi loved his beautiful wife, Chang’e, too deeply to bear eternity without her.

As Yi’s fame grew like the only remaining sun that shined down, he was sought as a teacher for his wisdom and skill.

Little did he suspect that one of his students, Fengmeng, concealed a cold jealously  in his heart for Yi.

One day, Yi left his wife, Chang’e, at home while he went hunting.

His treacherous and poisoned drove Fengmeng into a rage.  He stormed into the house of Yi and demanded that his wife give up the elixir.  But in her loyalty, she refused.  Knowing she could never overpower Fengmeng, who was of strong mind and body, she knew realized that drinking the precious potion herself was the only way not to relinquish it to her kind husband’s enemy.

Rising up, up, up into the eternal sky, she finally settled on the moon, where she still looks over the Earth.

In his devastated grief at the loss of his beloved wife, Yi spent his life honoring her altar with flowers and cake.

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Moon Magic

I love the beautiful world of Chinese pagan folklore, and I am especially fond of the legend of Chang’e, who holds a special place in my heart as a moon goddess.

Chang’e is said to bestow her worshipers with charm and beauty.

Since this is “her” time of year, I thought I’d share with you an adapted beauty spell that honors this goddess.

You will need:
*1 white candle
*small bundle of flowers (any will do)
*carving knife
*lighter or matches
*a bottle of perfume (something with floral or oriental overtones is especially nice)
*print out of the traditional Chinese symbol of Chang’e, the moon or beauty (see Google Translate)
*a small cupcake (or if you really want to go all out, make a traditional moon cake)
*a lantern or tea candles for light.

1.  On the night of the full moon, go outside in the fresh air.

2.  Carve the Chinese character of your choice into the candle.  Use a lantern for practical light if you need it.

3.  Place the candle on the altar (or rock, or tree stump, or whatever).

4.  Surround the candle with the flowers and light it.

5.  Place the bottle of perfume in front of the altar.

6.  Raise power any way you feel like it, but focus on the energy of feminine beauty descending from the moon and into your bottle of perfume.

7.  Extinguish the candles and leave the cake as an offering to Chang’e.

8.  Whenever you want to enhance your feminine allure, spritz yourself with the charged perfume.  If you feel it needs a boost, light the candle and place the perfume in front for a little while.

Sources:
Encyclopedia Britanica
Travel China Guide
China Highlights
Shen Yun Performing Arts

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Pagan Pregnancy

It’s been almost five months since I got that second pink line, so I guess it’s about time I “came out” to the blogging world.

I am totally pregnant!

Whatever the exact moment, or series of moments, that lead me to this one, I have arrived here.  Big belly swollen, crib assembled in a half-finished nursery, books on childbirth, breastfeeding and baby’s first year stacked next to my bed, a prenatal belly dance video in my DVD player.

For modern witch, pregnancy symbolizes the special transition from Maid to Mother.

With the last months of free time and sleeping ahead of me, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the way my spiritual life shapes my perspective on pregnancy.  Here’s what I’ve found especially amazing.

My dream life is as incredible as it’s ever been.   Dreams crack open the profoundness of every day experience.  Things we give little thought to during the daylight hours are illuminated brilliantly under the moon.  For these reasons, the adept witch pays special attention to the gift of the unconscious mind.  But pregnancy dreams, for me, have been truly magical.  Never in my life have I had visions like this.  Some are deeply saddening, and some are extraordinarily uplifting.  People often talk about the chaotic emotional ups and downs of pregnancy, but the tumultuous upheaval they describe hits me most powerfully at night.

I am destined to be crunchy.  I can’t help it.  Already, my Pinterest account abounds with DIY from-scratch baby food.  Cloth diapering doesn’t look so bad to me.  Glass baby bottles and breastfeeding paraphernalia feature prominently on my registry.  I plan to wear my infant everywhere like one of those boho chicks in the long, flowery skirts.   The drawers in the nursery already contain several varieties of homemade, organic, beeswax-based diaper rash cream.  My mother thinks I’m nuts.  She swears I will give up on all of it before my kid sits up right.  Maybe I will.  But my effort to go the natural route is definitely a side effect of years of nature-based spirituality.

The “hearth and home” contains new meaning for me.   We all hear about the “nesting instinct” in pregnant women and even men facing impending fatherhood.  But this manifests differently for me as a pagan.  I sometimes stop to laugh at the absurdity of these concerns.  Where will the baby’s altar go?  What’s the best way to smudge a room without exposing a newborn to smoke or toxins?  How do I know this protection charm isn’t a choking hazard?  (The answer is: everything is a choking hazard.)

I think about rituals from a different perspective.  The traditions I developed over the years and continue to maintain around Sabbats and Esbats now inspire questions like, “How will I share this with my child?  How do I turn this into something a child will understand and appreciate?”

Pregnancy is a unique time for meditation.  The mind/body connection is powerful during pregnancy.  I know this sounds a little nutty, but I swear the baby can hear my thoughts.  Or something.  It’s hard to explain in words, but I don’t exactly know where I end and the baby begins.  I just know that for the moment, we are one, and it feels awesome.

The entire experience of pregnancy confirms to me that giving to birth to, or even adopting a baby is not essential to the mythical transition from Maid to Mother.  After all, women without children move on from Maid status at some point between 16 and menopause.  Maybe you consider marriage the turning point—or maybe you never married at all.  Maybe you just realized at some point that people no longer referred to you as a “girl,” but as a woman.  Or maybe you “gave birth” to a baby of a different kind: you wrote your first book, started a business or bought a house and turned it into a home.  The tendency of new mothers to suddenly see women without children as “lost” or “lacking something” perpetually annoyed me before I became pregnant, and it still does.

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