These are columns from Cathleen’s regular gigs at Religion News Service and Sojourners Magazine. GODSTUFF posts from Jan 2010 and before also include her weekly columns from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Reb Zalman Has Gone Home


Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal and Spiritual Eldering Movements. Rabbi of my rabbis. At the Aspen Peace Conference in November 2008. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

News just reached me that Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement and my rabbi’s rabbi) died this morning in Colorado.

He was a magnificent human being, one whose light and wisdom and grace shaped the lives of two of the most important people in mine: Rabbi Allen Secher and Rebbetzin Ina Albert.

Several years ago, I spent a few magical days with Reb Zalman in Aspen and celebrated Shabbas with him at a Peace Conference — a ritual he invited all to participate in, as was his way, including an imam who was also in attendance at the conference. It was one of the more consciously transcendent experiences of my life, for which I ever will be grateful to the Rebbe.

May God comfort those who knew him best, and may his light and love emanate forever.

We transmit our wisdom to future generations.  This process not only seeds the future, but crowns an elder’s life with worth and nobility.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Learn more about Reb Zalman and his legacy HERE.


Reb Zalman and Imam Mohammed at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.


Reb Zalman giving Shabbas challah to Imam Mohammed Bashar Arafat at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.


Shabbas wine and candles at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.

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‘The Immigrant’ lands close to home

My grandmother, Nellie Brady Page, circa 1925.

My grandmother, Nellie Brady Page, circa 1925.

When she was 20 years old, she traveled from her home in Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan, Ireland, to Liverpool, England, where she purchased a second-class ticket and boarded The Baltic ocean liner.

Eleven days later, on Dec. 19, 1920, she arrived at New York’s Ellis Island, alone, with $20 in her pocket.

Her given name was Ellen Brady and she went by “Nellie,” but on his manifest, the immigration clerk recorded her first name as “Ellie.”

She was my grandmother.

It was the date stamp that flashed across the screen as The Immigrant, the splendid new film from director James Gray, began that caused a catch in the back of my throat:  “Ellis Island, New York. January 1921.”

That was just a few weeks after my grandmother arrived at the busy immigration station in New York Harbor.

The coincidence brought tears to my eyes and dredged up an emotions I didn’t realize I had throughout the rest of the nearly two-hour film.

[WARNING: some spoilers ahead.]

The Immigrant stars (and was written for) Marion Cotillard in the eponymous role as Ewa Cybulski, a young, single émigrée who sails with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to New York from their native Poland. When the sisters arrive at Ellis Island, Magda, who is suffering from some sort of respiratory ailment, is quarantined and separated from Ewa, who is, subsequently, threatened with deportation for being a woman of “low morals.”

We suspect otherwise, but it isn’t until much later in the film that we learn Ewa didn’t sell her body on the journey to New York; rather she was raped by men on board the ship that spirited her to a new land of opportunity.

Immigration officials tell Ewa they’ve heard about what she had “done” on the ship as she sailed to the United States. They told her that the address of her relatives — an aunt and uncle who had settled in Brooklyn — didn’t exist; that there was no one to greet her, she was unwanted, and would have to return to Poland.

Ewa is “rescued” by Bruno (played by the magnificent Joaquin Phoenix), a charming man who claims he represents an immigrants aid organization. Bruno manages (via an established bribe racket to funnel vulnerable women his way) to get Ewa off of Ellis and into Manhattan island, where he offers her a place to stay and work as a seamstress.

She is wary of Bruno and with good cause. Soon enough, with ample promises of helping her raise the money to release Magda from the hospital on Ellis Island, rather than sewing clothes Bruno casts Ewa in his racy vaudeville show (playing a relatively demure, fully clothed Statue of Liberty among a cast of topless “immigrants” from “exotic” lands), and, eventually, pressures her into prostitution.


Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) in a production still from “The Immigrant.”

Despite her wide, dark eyes and slight frame, Ewa is neither weak nor naive. She is, however, thanks to the men (and a few women) determined to exploit her from the moment she stepped onto the boat in Poland, desperate. Bruno and others prey on her desperation and she knows it.

But what choice does she have?

She is a young, unmarried woman; alone, poor, and “undocumented.” She risks arrest and deportation if she seeks help from authorities, who may not be able (or willing) to offer any tangible assistance. Ewa chooses what she believes is the lesser evil, realizing that she has no “good” choice to make.

Enter Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka “Orlando the Magician” (and Bruno’s cousin), who takes an immediate shine to Ewa, offering her a rose when he performs for inmates at Ellis Island while she is detained there.


Unlike the rest of the people she’s met since her arrival in New York, Emil doesn’t want her body. But he still wants something.

Both Bruno and Emil want Ewa, for different reasons, none of them entirely good. Their lust to possess the winsome émigrée sparks familial rivalry and tensions that end badly for all involved.

There is ample pathos, tragedy, and small victories in The Immigrant, but I’d stop short of calling it a “melodrama,” as more than a few other critics have chosen to do. Director Gray, who says Ewa’s story was inspired in part by old family photos taken by his grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, demonstrates restraint in this stellar period piece and doesn’t go for the easy extra squeeze of drama or emotion when so many others would.

The tale he tells struck a deeply truthful chord in me, even if my own grandmother’s fate was somewhat less tragic than Ewa’s.

When The Baltic pulled into port at Ellis Island in late December 1920, Nellie disembarked, made her way to the immigration inspector, answered his 29 questions, and walked into the Great Hall to find her older sister, Rose — who had herself arrived at Ellis Island in 1913, married, and settled in New Jersey — waiting for her.

She moved to New York City, where she had other siblings, and eventually settled in working-class Stamford, Connecticut. Nellie worked as a domestic for a wealthy family; and soon met, fell in love with, and married my grandfather, Francis Page, himself an orphan of immigrant parents from Ireland and England.

My grandparents - Francis Page and Nellie Brady - on their wedding day.

My grandparents – Francis Page and Nellie Brady – on their wedding day.

Poppy Page worked for the railroad — in a job that had him outside in the fresh air he required after having been mustard-gassed during World War I — and Nellie bore him four children.

My mother, Helen, was Nellie’s middle child. And when my mother was three, my grandmother died during labor with her fourth child, a girl named Elizabeth, who passed away shortly after she was born.

Nellie’s story is tragic, and she endured hardship as an immigrant. But not to the extent that Ewa did, and not in the way far too many immigrants still do today.

Ellis Island, which at the time of Ewa’s and my grandmother’s arrivals processed an estimated 5,000 immigrants each day, closed in 1954. The immigration process in the 21st century is much different from what it was in 1921. There are many more hoops to jump through as well as far more oversight with accompanying checks and balances. At least that’s the plan.

My son is an immigrant. He arrived in the United States from his native Malawi 103 years after his great-grandfather from Italy; 105 years after his great-grandmother from Italy; and he became a citizen 90 years after his Irish great-grandmother, Nellie, first set foot on Ellis Island.

When we arrived as a family at Los Angeles International Airport, with our legally adopted son and an official dossier of supporting paperwork from the state department, we had to wait for hours with other immigrants from Asia, South America, eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East until we could let him our boy into the arms of his chosen uncle in the arrivals hall.Our clerical delay was a minor inconvenience and a tiny taste of the hardships Ewa and millions of other immigrants endured.

“When you see Uncle Dave, that’s when you’re officially a U.S. citizen,” I told my son.

I’ll never forget the leap he took and how David caught him mid-air, hugged him to his chest, and said, “Welcome home, buddy.”

Safe. Secure. A citizen with all the rights with which I was born; the rights that immigrant grandparents came to this nation to secure for us.

In 2014, nearly a century after Ewa and Magda arrived on our shores, immigrants remain easy targets for corruption and exploitation, whether they are forced into prostitution or modern-day slavery, paid less than a living wage or less than their non-immigrant coworkers, or face more subtle intimidation and discrimination from employers, schools, landlords, neighbors, and even the government (local and federal).

Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Emil aka "Orlando the Magician" (Jeremy Renner) in "The Immigrant."

Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Emil aka “Orlando the Magician” (Jeremy Renner) in “The Immigrant.”

The Immigrant stands as a reminder that, while we have come so far in this nation of immigrants, we have still farther to go to live up to the promise of Emma Lazarus’ poem inscribed beneath the broken chains on the pedestal where Lady Liberty stands in New York Harbor:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”










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The Poem That Inspired Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’

(Left to right) Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on the set of NOAH, from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises. N-19090

(Left to right) Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on the set of NOAH, from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises.

Last week in a piece that ran in The Atlantic, I interviewed Noah director Darren Aronofsky about the spiritual message, import, and inspiration behind his epic reimagining of the ancient biblical story. You can read that interview in full HERE.

During our conversation, Aronofsky talked about a prose-poem he’d written as a 13-year-old seventh grader in Brooklyn that was inspired by the Noah story and launched him on his career path as a writer. He recently discovered the actual poem in a box of childhood mementos while searching for baseball cards for his seven-year-old son.

Today, Darren’s representatives shared a PDF of his ‘The Dove’ poem, which you can see below, followed by its transcription.





J.H.S. 239

January 13, 1982

Aronofsky, Darren


The Dove

Evil was in the world. The laughing crowd left the foolish man and his ark filled with animals when the rain began to fall. It was hopeless. The man could not take the evil crowd with him but he was allowed to bring his good family. The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air. The ark was afloat. Until the dove returned with the leaf, evil still existed. When the rainbows reached throughout the sky the humble man and his family knew what it meant.

The animals ran and flew freely with their new born. The fog rose and the sun shone. Peace was in the air and it soon appeared all of man’s heart.

He knew evil could not be kept away for evil and war could not be destroyed but neither was it possible to destroy peace.

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.


You can read my review of Aronofsky’s Noah HERE and the transcript of my interview with his friend, collaborator, and co-writer of Noah, Ari Handel, HERE.

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@PONTIFEXCELLENT: “Nuns Are Grrreat!

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.After Mass in St. Peter’s on Feb. 2, Papa Frank spoke to the world about those leading the “consecrated life,” i.e., clergy and men/women religious. (Sunday was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which the Catholic church marks as “World Day for Consecrated Life.”

According to Catholic News Service, Papa Frank said:

“There is such a great need for their presence, which reinforces and renews the commitment to spreading the Gospel, Christian education, charity for the neediest, contemplative prayer, the human and spiritual formation of the young and families, and the commitment to justice and peace in the human family,” the pope said.

Straying from his prepared text, Pope Francis told people gathered in the square: “Think what would happen if there weren’t any sisters, if there weren’t any sisters in the hospitals, no sisters in the missions, no sisters in the schools. Think what the church would be like without sisters — no, that’s unthinkable.”

Consecrated life is a gift that moves the church forward, he said. “These women who consecrate their lives to carrying forward the message of Jesus — they’re great!”

I couldn’t agree more, Papa.

Below are a few shots of some of the thousands of sisters who gathered to celebrate Papa Frank’s inauguration mass not quite a year ago. I LOVE nuns. 

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Lord Rest His Soul

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman-1527808Perhaps the finest actor of my generation (IMHO), the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his New York City apartment.

Goddammit. Addiction is an awful disease.

My heart, and those of millions of other fans and those who knew and loved him best, felt shattered upon hearing the unexpected and tragic news.

As we mourn his death and celebrate his life, may we remember him in our prayers and especially lift up his children, Cooper, Tallulah, and Willa.

In 2005, Hoffman directed an off-Broadway production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” for which our mutual friend, Father James Martin was the “theological dramaturge.” I was writing for the Chicago Sun-Times when Fr. Jim’s book, “A Jesuit Off Broadway,” came out and wrote about it in a column recounting the choice I had to make 25 years ago or so between acting and journalism. On this incredibly sad occasion of Philip’s untimely passing, I wanted to share a bit of it with all of you. May God rest his soul and comfort all those who loved him.

Ideally at least, both acting and journalism are all about chasing, uncovering and presenting what’s true. Both vocations do that in community — be it a metro news staff or a dinner theater troupe.

Some of the similarities are vividly explored in a marvelous new book by one of my favorite priests, the Rev. James Martin, about his experience as a “theological dramaturge” for the Public Theater production of the play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” in New York two years ago.

Martin’s book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway, recounts the months he spent consulting on spiritual and biblical matters for the play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and featuring actor Sam Rockwell as Judas.

Martin, author of last year’s best-seller, My Life With the Saints, is also a journalist. A onetime Chicagoan, he is an editor at America magazine in New York. In A Jesuit Off-Broadway, he tenderly records the play’s creation process from 10 pages of dialogue to a heralded five-week sold-out run.

Far from being an outsider, the priest is quickly adopted into the sometimes hard-partying, profane and deeply spiritual ensemble of actors that included Eric Bogosian in the role of Satan.

Along the way, Martin discovered a loving camaraderie among the cast of “Judas” that most churches would envy and learned lessons about his faith and his Lord that he hadn’t anticipated. One of the most poignant comes in a conversation with Hoffman about his gentle method of directing.

“Sometimes you have to tell someone exactly what you want,” Hoffman says, “but you can’t dictate. You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise the person becomes a sort of empty shell, they end up performing in a way that’s not, well, spiritual.”

This reminds the priest of someone else.

“His approach mirrored the way Jesus preached,” Martin writes. “Much of Jesus’ preaching involves inviting his listeners to consider something new. . . . Or, to use [Hoffman's] words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not to follow was that person’s own decision.”

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On Justin Bieber’s Annus Horribilis : My Interview with Joshua DuBois

justin crying believe

Justin sheds tears in this still from his film “Believe.”

My friend Joshua DuBois writes a column for The Daily Beast. While I haven’t talked publicly about Justin in a long while (as I mentioned earlier I felt I had nothing helpful to say) I trust Joshua as a good man with the heart of a true pastor so I agreed. I’m pleased with the result, which you can read in its entirety HERE. But thought I’d also share the answers I sent him as a few were edited for length, etc.

It’s Sunday. Let’s remember our little brother Justin and his family in prayer.


Q1. Cathleen, is Justin Bieber’s arrest and recent troubles evidence of a deeper spiritual struggle, or simply the normal behavior of a 19-year-old seeking to find his way?

A1: Joshua, I think the most honest answer I can give to this two-part question is: Yes.

Yes, Justin’s arrest and (mis)behavior of late (and I’m talking about the last 18 months or so, at least from what little we know publicly about his life and activities, much of which he’s provided himself via Twitter/Instagram and the like, as well as through video and photographs from the paparazzi, which hounds him) seems to me to be the outward manifestation of some of what’s going on with Justin spiritually.

And yes, I do think that some of this is “normal” behavior for a 19-year-old boy/man seeking to find his place, stance, and stride in the world. I have a 19-year-old nephew who is just a week younger than Justin. He’s a freshman in college and experimenting with new freedoms — most often making good, sound decisions, but sometimes not. That’s normal. When I was 19, I spent a lot of time depressed, wearing black, sleeping 14 hours a day, while listening to The Smiths and The Cure and mooning over the 19-year-old man/boy who’d broken my heart. That, too, is normal.

But what we have to remember is that Justin, while a “normal” kid in many ways, is living a life that is anything but normal. At 19, I had a $100 stipend (it may have been a lot less than that, it fact) from which I lived. Justin has more money than most small nations in the developing world. So what and how he is able to “act out” and the magnitude of his less-than-stellar decisions is a whole different ballpark. And so, then, too is the worldwide amplification of his worst public moments, the world’s access to and judgment of them, and (I would imagine) the level of his embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.

Q2. From the time you wrote “Belieber” – which quotes Justin as saying, “The success I’ve achieved…comes from God,” to today, clearly something has changed. To what do you attribute the apparent radical shifts in Justin’s character and life?

A2: I don’t necessarily agree that “clearly something has changed.” I am far from an apologist for Justin (whom I don’t know personally, just to be clear), but I think you can know and love God, be cognizant of where the blessings in your life come from, believe in the God of grace, mercy, redemption, and salvation; and still make incredibly stupid mistakes. Just because Justin is famous doesn’t make him inure to the pitfalls of being human, young, and at least occasionally idiotic.

What has changed, in my opinion, is how much we see of his misbehavior in public, and the extent to which, again publicly, we see him thumb his nose at authority and, at least in some sense, his legions of very young, very impressionable fans.

I have a 13-year-old niece who is a Belieber (aka big fan of Justin). When news of his arrest broke earlier this week, she texted her mother from school, saying, “Mommy, Justin Bieber is in jail!!!!” She clearly was heartbroken, worried about Justin, and trying to make sense of why he’d do what he apparently/allegedly did. Her mother reponded by saying, in part, “You know God loves him and this might be just how he comes back to living in a way that pleases God and tha tis much happier and healthier for him.”

I’ll add my amen to that.

I also have the sense that Justin’s parents — biological and chosen — let go of their parental responsibilities for Justin far too soon. Again, I don’t know Jeremy Bieber or Pattie Mallette (his biological parents), nor do I know Scooter Braun (his manager who has played the role of a surrogate parent for much of Justin’s career), but when a child turns 18, yes he or she is of the age of majority, but that doesn’t mean one’s job as a parent stops. In fact, the transition from boy-to-man or girl-to-woman is the time in many children’s lives when they most need a parent’s guidance and involvement, even if it’s precisely the time they want it least.

If it’s true that Jeremy Bieber was present for Justin’s Big Mistake in Miami Beach, whether he was “partying” with his son or not, the elder Bieber entered the land of Bad Parents the moment he let his child get behind the wheel of a car whilst impaired. Justin may not have been drunk, but (if police reports and the glassiness of his eyes in his mug shot are any indication) it sure looked like he was higher than Jerry Garcia at Woodstock. Jeremy Bieber is still physically larger than his eldest child. I have a teenage son who soon will be bigger than both his father and me. If we were standing there while our drunk/stoned/rolling-on-Molly/otherwise-impaired son attempted to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it (whether it was a rented Ferrari or our 22-year-old Miata) we would physically stop him, even if that mean tackling him to the ground or dragging him out of the driver’s seat, or jumping on the hood of a moving automobile. Jeremy Bieber apparently did none of those things and that’s a world-class PARENT FAIL.

I wonder whether there are any people in Justin’s inner circle today who are there simply and only because they love him for who he is and not what he is. That seems to me to be the most significant shift I’ve watched from a distance in the last few years.

Q3. Some folks watch Bieber’s challenges with bemused interest, others with disgust, and others with genuine concern. What are the responsibilities of a society – and of people of faith – towards a mega-star facing this type of trouble? Do his fans enable his behavior?

A3: We have the responsibility to be kind to one another, and that responsibility extends to celebrities, too. We’re the ones who placed them on their teetering pedestals. Justin didn’t ascend his without our help. So when they tumble off, the fact that we cheer and sneer is awful, hypocritical, and deeply, sometimes savagely unkind.

As for people of faith, we should be rushing to his aid in whatever way we can, which for the vast majority of us is prayer. Pray for Justin. Pray for his family, blood and chosen. Pray for Justin’s friends. Pray for God to send Justin his Anam Cara – soul friends, the rarest and most valuable and necessary kind for any of us to have as we navigate our lives on this side of the veil.

Don’t shame Justin. Instead, let’s remind him of who he is: A beloved child of the Most High God whose love for Justin is the same as it was last week and last year and every moment since he took shape and form in his mother’s womb. There is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any less and there is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any more.

Grace isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it covers not just a multitude of sins – it covers them all. Even if you’re a celebrity. Even if you act like an entitled, spoiled brat. Even if you get drunk and pee in mop buckets, or swear like a sailor at the cop who’s arresting you for drag racing. Even if you get behind the wheel of a car drunk or stoned and you drive it and you hit someone and you kill them. God loves you. And God’s grace is still available to you. Grace is the final word and we should remind Justin of that.

Q4. How can Justin turn it around – practically, emotionally and spiritually? If you could speak with him today…what advice would you give?

A4: As a mother and a person of faith who has made myriad mistakes (some of them fairly epic) in my lifetime as a believer, I don’t think Justin can turn this around. I KNOW HE CAN TURN THIS AROUND. But in order to do that, he needs a sabbath. A long one. Out of the public eye and surrounded by or at least accompanied by someone who loves him, will be honest with him, kick his arse when he needs it, hold him while he bawls his heart out, and make him matzo ball soup. He needs time to heal (and no, I don’t think he should go to rehab – I don’t believe he’s an addict) with the help of people who can help him get healthy, whether they are therapists or clergy or friends (famous or not).

I know for a fact that several older celebrities — goodhearted people of faith who share Justin’s Christian faith and upbringing and have been in the business since they, too, were teens — have reached out to him as mentors and friends in the past, but were rebuffed. Now is the time, Justin, to let them help you. Let them accompany you through this difficult time.

Find a spiritual director or pastor or rabbi or clergy person (and please not the kind who is interested in having his or her picture taken with a pop star or asking you to endorse his or her latest book) and lean into their wisdom and care. Let them remind you of God’s promises to all of us. Also read Eugene Peterson’s “Run with the Horses.” You are a Jeremiah.

And then go away. For as long as you need to go away to get well and remember who you are and why you are here. Don’t worry about your career or the Bieber Industrial Complex. Those people got on fine before you arrived and started lining their pockets with Benjamins and they’ll be fine if (and hopefully when) you take a break for a few months or years or however long you need to be whole.

AS an artist, you break yourself open and pour yourself out. It’s like Eucharist. But you can’t share that amazing gift of Eucharist with the world if your internal well is dry.

Go fill it up. Let people help you find a way to do that. Be gentle with yourself – shame is not helpful – but neither is arrogance.

SAY YOU’RE SORRY TO YOUR FANS. Fans like my 13-year-old niece. Don’t just tell them how much they mean to you and thank them for putting you in the spotlight and giving you this life. APOLOGIZE FOR NOT BEHAVING THE WAY YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD; FOR NOT BEING YOUR HIGHEST AND BEST SELF.

And then go take care of you. Not for the sake of your career, but for the sake of your heart, mind, body, and soul.

Justin, I’m sorry for being party to the atmosphere of media pressure around you that at the very least contributed to where you are right now. Please forgive me. I don’t want to sell another copy of the book I wrote about you. I just want you to be well. And if there’s anything I can ever do to help you privately to get whole, please call on me.

Praying for you, dear brother in the One who loves both of us more than we ever could fathom.

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