On Ageing Gratefully…

 

I think one of the biggest challenges for those of us in our fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond, is that we don’t have easily-relatable role models for this stage of our lives. No matter how much we may respect and admire our parents and their generation, the World has changed hugely in the last twenty or thirty years, and how they approached their fifties onwards is different to how, for example, I am approaching mine. The Internet was just a bit late for my own parents, who view it with suspicion and bewilderment. Doubtless when I’m in my 70s and 80s there will be technological advances which I will find similarly perplexing, but right now I don’t want to get left behind!

My current, pet peeve: Anti-ageing. Because it makes “ageing” something bad that requires an oppositional prefix; think anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-social. Whereas ageing is an inevitable, natural, albeit challenging, process. The prospect of becoming older and less able, more vulnerable to loss and decline is frightening, but what about the alternative?

At the weekend I read about a woman who I met just once earlier this year. She is a good few years younger than me. She has a young family. She has just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. The prognosis is not good. And when I read about her, I made one of those easily-forgotten pledges to value every day – but not just to be thankful for each day, but to be grateful for the opportunity to get older; to age. Of course, I know that I will forget. When I have a “down” day, or when at some point the barbs of old age cut deeper, I, too, will complain and have moments of self-pity, but that’s the price we humans pay for the capacity to self-reflect.

The French talk about age in a different way. Literally. Where I would say “I am 56”, my French counterpart would say “I have 56”. The verbs are different, and I don’t think it is simply about syntax. To say “I am 56” makes my age a number that defines me, but to say “I have 56” can transform it into an indicator of achievement (or endurance).

I’ve been watching the fourth series of Grace and Frankie on Netflix. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women who have become reluctant housemates, following the latent ‘coming out’ and subsequent marriage, of their husbands. Whilst the earlier series focussed on the situational comedy of this unlikely pairing (Fonda and Tomlin), the latest is a poignant portrayal of the vulnerability of older age, as the characters negotiate a path through fear, loss and the changing perceptions of others.

It reminded me of the oft-quoted words of Bette Davis “Old age is no place for sissies” – but at least if we manage to get there, we know it’s by dint of a whole heap of experience. And, of course, a lot of luck. Perhaps what this also means is that we have been, and are, very resourceful. Maybe, more than preceding generations, we have the opportunity (and resources) to break the mould, kick over the traces, think outside the box, or whatever individualist, non-conformist, latent hell-raising, survivalist sentiment fits.

In a few months I will have 57 years. This. Is my Game Face.

Concorde and Me

Its been a while since my last post and this one is a longer read, and a bit more personal.

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In 1973 the iconic supersonic aircraft, known as Concorde, with its long, aerodynamically efficient, nose-cone, made its first transatlantic flight, carrying VIPs and journalists from Washington to Orly (Paris) in only 3 hours and 32 minutes. I know this, not because I am interested in aeronautical history, but because the excitement generated in the newspapers, and on TV and radio held my 12-year-old-self in thrall to the possibilities of a new age. It also, I believed then, became the emblem for everything that was wrong with me.

The eldest daughter of three children, I grew up in a small rural village in England. It’s remoteness and the lack of pre-school provision meant that my early years were spent largely in the company of adults. Indeed, I remember during my first days at primary school, being perplexed by the proximity of so many small humans and terrified at the prospect of a noisy, feral and dangerous activity, known innocuously as “playtime”. I preferred to stay indoors and “help the teacher”.

Gradually, the experience of school became more familiar and I did well in the classroom, whilst continuing to struggle with the social dimension. My School Reports from back then repeatedly urged me to “be more confident”; to “engage more enthusiastically” and to “spend less time in solitary activities”. However, I have no recollection of any helpful interventions to support me in achieving those aims; I simply felt it as criticism.

By the time I transferred to Secondary School in the September of 1972, I was not friendless exactly, but my relationships were “casual”. I had none of the hand-holding, cant-wait-to-see-you-tomorrow-closeness that I observed amongst the other girls, and I quickly developed a defensive scorn for their giddy intimacy and matchy-matchy hair ribbons. My hair was short and devoid of adornment, and my clothes, beautifully-tailored, but homemade, encapsulated the “difference” that threatened any hope of tribal inclusion.

The one saviour of School was Lunch Time Clubs. My terror of the playtime free-for-all had not abated, so I now filled as many lunchtimes as possible with activities which, at best, I enjoyed, and at worst, provided a controlled environment with an adult in some kind of supervisory capacity.

I was a diligent student, excelling in some subjects and scraping by in others, but what I hated was the pushing and shoving, the tripping-up, the biting-back-tears-because-your-ankle-had-been-stamped-on, the stealing of ties and the brutal unkindness of it all.

I felt my own sufferings deeply, but, as if that wasn’t enough, I empathised acutely with the misery of others. I felt horror and shame when a heavily-pregnant French teacher was reduced to tears by the rampant behaviour of a group of boys in my class and my heart leapt into my mouth when a small boy was pushed down a concrete staircase by his much larger tormentor. I hated it when these victims cried, but I hated it even more when they didn’t; when they somehow stayed their tears, swallowed-down their pain and humiliation and, with a soul-sickening effort, pretended like it didn’t matter.

All this was the stressful yet tedious backdrop to my more pressing concern: My feeling of not “fitting in”; and this lent a detachment, an observer-like quality to my daily experience. However, I felt conflicted, because whilst I didn’t want to be a part of some aspects of this community, neither did I want to be isolated from all of it. My relationships with other kids were still tenuous at best, and each return to school after a holiday would bring the worry that those friendships (did I dare call them that?) would have evaporated and I would find myself, again, alone.

I thought long and hard, and worried at my predicament like a stymied terrier. I tried to figure out why I was isolated, and saw that the girls deemed to be the prettiest were never short of friends and would-be friends. Whilst I didn’t aspire to that level of desirability, I desperately wanted to find some tier in the social hierarchy where I could fit in and be accepted. It puzzled me that this seemed so difficult and at length, after abandoning many other hypotheses, I came to the only conclusion left standing. I wasn’t just different; there was something wrong with me. I just didn’t know what it was.

And then Concorde happened. In those days before the National Curriculum, a big scientific or engineering development was the answer to a teacher’s prayer. Physics, Maths, History, English, French, Drama – any and every subject grabbed onto the coattails of supersonic travel and euphorically surfed the zeitgeist. Newspaper cuttings were pasted, sci-fi novels were analysed, the (new) French teacher plumbed the depths of Anglo-French liaison, and in music we heard Deodato’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”. A lot. And in the midst of all of this, boys in my class began pointing at me, laughing, and shouting “Concorde!”. Momentarily mystified, I took what I thought was the line of least resistance, and laughed too. Awkwardly. Until one of them, sensing my confusion and jumping on it with a gleeful ruthlessness, yelled (to the screaming delight of his mates) “IT’S YOUR NOSE!”

I know now that, when we experience extreme difficulty, threat, or humiliation, we have the capacity to dissociate; to psychologically remove ourselves from what is actually happening. When I think back to that experience, I predominantly remember a feeling of calm clarity. The feeling of separateness, so often a source of anguish to me, was, for a brief moment, my saviour and I felt strangely indestructible.

Of course, that feeling didn’t last, but a sense of clarity, of understanding, remained. With their unkind taunts, those boys (and the girls who laughed along with them) had solved the mystery. I now knew what it was that made me different, what it was that made me unpopular, and made friendships so difficult. When I looked in the mirror that night, I could see that it had, literally, been staring me in the face. It was my nose.

I had always known that I didn’t have a little button-nose (many of my family have noses that are on the “prominent” side of the nasal scale), but now I could see that I had a huge, long, unattractive, crooked nose that, I had to admit, did closely resemble the distinctive front end of the aircraft, and it dominated my entire face. In fact, my awful nose would be the first, and only, thing that anyone would ever notice about me, and from that day, for far too long, it became the focus of all my unhappiness and self-loathing.

When I entered the world of work, I was hugely relieved to be out of a school environment. However, that didn’t stop me from believing that people were still noticing my awful nose; it just wasn’t office etiquette to shout about it across the photocopier.

Photographs were the worst thing. From my teenage years onwards, I avoided having my photograph taken if at all possible and, as I got older, I would usually manage to position myself behind the camera, rather than in front of it. When a photograph couldn’t be avoided, I tried to position myself full-face, to reduce the potential for any inadvertent profile shots. It saddens me, now, to remember how much it preoccupied me at weddings, birthdays and other important celebrations.

Now in my twenties, I had begun researching cosmetic surgery. I had amassed a small collection of glossy brochures from private clinics, detailing their payment plans, and seemingly miraculous transformations. Back in the 1980s it was possible to get some cosmetic procedures on the NHS, but the idea of convincing my gruff GP that my nose was the cause of psychological trauma, filled me with shame, and so, I resolved that, when I had enough money, I would pay for the nose of my dreams. However, as it often does, life took over. My daughter was born and then my son, and my focus shifted to the all-encompassing demands and joys of raising of a family.

As my children grew, I retrained as a psychotherapist and part of my training requirement was to enter therapy myself. Over what turned out to be an extended period, I explored and came to terms with many things about my life and myself. I understood much more about my childhood experiences and came to see that my nose was not responsible for the bullying I had experienced. At the time, finding some fault within me, had been my twelve-year-old-self’s way of coping, and of internalising my feelings. I could now see that I, and my nose, had not been to blame and, in time, I came to accept (indeed, to like) myself and my nose.

As I now happily stood before a camera, I also looked at other people’s noses through a more reliable lens, and I was fascinated by the infinite variety of shapes, sizes and angles. Conversely, the media brought to my attention the many celebrities who sported a “ski jump” nose, which seemed to rob their face of character and individuality and I felt relieved that I hadn’t gone down a similar route. In all, I was content with my nose, but more importantly, I was happy in my own skin.

And then Life threw me a curved ball.

Fast forward a few years and, at the age of 56, I was seated in a chair in the surgery of an ENT Consultant. I had been referred, having for some while experienced difficulty breathing through my nose. This made sleep difficult (and noisy), and had also begun to cause migraine-like pains in my forehead and face. After a detailed examination and MRI scan, my Consultant explained that I had a deviation of the septum and of the external structure of the nose. The solution, if I decided it was something I wanted to pursue, was an operation called a Septorhinoplasty. In layperson’s terms, it is a hybrid procedure, where a septoplasty straightens the partition that divides the nostrils, and a rhinoplasty realigns the cartilage and bone that form the external shape of the nose. The functional purpose would be to improve my breathing, whilst it would also be possible to make some aesthetic changes, given that my nose would, in any case, have to be reshaped.

I needed to go away and think about this. I went home, made a cup of tea, switched on my laptop and began my research with characteristic thoroughness. I Googled the procedure, I Googled the surgeon, I watched the procedure on YouTube, I read and watched personal accounts (including the ones that had gone wrong), I studied Before and After images and I looked in the mirror. A lot. My relationship with my nose had been a challenging one and, now that we had reached a place of happy equilibrium, did I really want to change things? However, I couldn’t deny that being able to breathe more freely and eliminating pain and persistent sinus problems would be a big advantage. And, perhaps, having a straighter, slightly shorter nose might be fun?

Having talked it over, at length with Mr. F, I made my decision. I have become a curious person and, generally, if I decide to walk away from something, I like to be able to do so without subsequent recourse to “what if?” and in this case, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do that. So, taking many factors into account, I decided to go ahead, and the procedure was scheduled. After two further meetings with my surgeon, to discuss expectations, we agreed on a conservative approach – and, yes, I took photographs with me. Lots of photographs.

I am writing this two months post-surgery and I have been warned that the swelling can take up to a year to completely subside and it will only be then that I will be able to finally assess the functional success of the procedure. In this respect, the jury is still out, although initial indications are good. However, the sinus and facial pain is no more, and for that alone I am very grateful.

Aesthetically, I am delighted with the result! It is a subtle and skilful rendering. Yes, my nose is considerably straighter, and some of the length has gone, but it still looks like “my” nose. Perhaps the most remarkable (and unexpected) thing is that, whereas my face has always been tensioned towards my nose, it is now much more relaxed. My top lip, which had a distinct upward pull, now has a softer line. So far, no one has said “Your nose looks different”, but they have said “You look really well”.

So, do I wish I had had my nose altered back then, in the days when I blamed it for so much of my unhappiness? Really, hand on heart, no.

I’m glad I came to like my “original” nose, and to understand the real reasons for my unhappiness, for which my poor nose was scapegoated. And now, I can enjoy my “revised” nose in the same way that I might enjoy a good hair cut… although, of course, it is much more permanent than a hair cut, so perhaps a tattoo is a better but still inadequate analogy. Whilst I am enjoying it, I don’t expect it to change my life, although once I would have believed it could. It will not make me more popular; it will not make me more successful, intelligent, kind or funny, but I’m tempted to think that my less-tense, softer face perhaps better fits the person I have become.

Singing for my Psyche 🎶

IMG_2863Last week I stood up with 26 other women in a rather lovely local church, drew breath, and began to sing.

This was the inaugural performance of our women’s choir, “Stamford Sings!” and we were letting our family and friends see and hear some of what we get up to at our weekly sessions on Wednesday evenings. Just formed in the Spring of this year, we have learned new songs and increased our vocal confidence whilst meeting new people, forming friendships and challenging sometimes long-held fears and apprehensions.

The physical and psychological benefits of collective music-making are well-documented and include reducing stress, blood-pressure and anxiety; improving cognitive function and social integration (and addressing problems associated with loneliness and isolation). Stumbling upon a recent article, I also discovered that singing activates the vagus nerve, (the longest nerve in the autonomous system) which has the effect of applying the brakes to our stress response. Group singing, it seems, intensifies that effect on the individual.

Of course, performing can itself be stressful and, depending on our character and personality, takes us out of our comfort zone to a greater or lesser degree. Whilst it’s scary, it’s only by edging out of our comfort zone that it expands, and enables us to discover, both individually and collectively, resources we didn’t know we had. This experience of risk – of shared vulnerability – can create an environment where we are less defensive, more open and empathic, and where strong bonds can forge.

The heritage of group singing is found in mining and seafaring communities, and of course in slavery, where stress, uncertainty, oppression, and all too often tragedy, were woven deep into the collective conscious. Where words and music could give a shared expression to sorrow, resilience, gratitude, joy, and hope.

Our choir’s renditions of songs ranging from Gospel to Disney, via Manilow, aren’t tonally perfect or lyrically spotless, but they are a wonderful vehicle for a group of women to come together once a week and forget about the workplace targets to be met, the school lunches to be packed, the family squabbles to be resolved and the relationships to be tended. For that short interlude in our busy lives, we can put aside our sundry preoccupations and lose ourselves in potent words, and a banging good tune!

Home Again. The Holiday Snaps.

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Back at home, suitcases have been unpacked, clothes have been washed and the all-important photographs have been viewed, labelled and culled. If, like me, you can remember when the height of photographic profligacy was slipping a 36-exposure colour film into your Kodak Instamatic, you will marvel at the sheer quantity of digital images that bounce onto the screen.

I remember, at 17, and on my first ‘real’ trip abroad – by land to Turkey – obsessively checking the little window on my camera, which showed how many shots I’d taken. I would then calculate the number of days left, so that I could ration the remainder accordingly.

This was long before “selfies”. Back then, if you wanted to capture yourself on film without resorting to tripods and timers, you would have to hand your precious camera to a total stranger and hope they didn’t blow the shot with a clumsy finger over the lens. Or worse! Accidentally press the shutter-button twice and waste one of the valuable frames earmarked for Venice the day-after-tomorrow.

Then there was the nail-biting process of extracting the film cartridge from the camera. First (and most importantly) the “rewind” button had to be located and activated. Then the whirring/clicking sound would start as the little motor moved your treasured memories to their safe place on the other side of the spool. Holding the camera to your ear, you would anxiously wait for the whirring/clicking to stop, which would indicate a successful rewind. But, if the whirring/clicking continued, mocking you with its persistence, then you would have to face the possibility of abject loss and failure, because “something would have gone wrong inside”. Sometimes, in my haste, I overlooked the “rewind” part of the process altogether and ruined a film by opening the back of the camera with the film exposed. Disaster.

If, by great good fortune, I managed to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls, my film would need to survive the “photos by post” service. In the 1980s these Freepost envelopes would come through the letterbox unbidden and by the fistful. Films and envelopes would have to be carefully labelled with corresponding stickers, requiring a diligence usually reserved for hospital identity tags, before being sealed in the brightly coloured packs and sent away … and then the waiting began.

The week or so that elapsed before the longed-for return of the photos could seem like an eternity. But, hey, it’s Peak Holiday Season, right? You were warned by that small-print disclaimer on the back of the envelope.

In reality, this relatively brief interlude before the glossy prints, along with negatives (for reprints) landed on the doormat, was an exercise in managed disappointment: That shot which, in my memory, encapsulated the essence of the Mediterranean with azure sea and powder blue sky, artistically shot through a bougainvillea tracery, has somehow been rendered in a much less vibrant hue. The close-up, which showed the intricacies of a tropical bloom, comes back blurry and unrecognisable. And the hilariously-posed, ecstatic group-shots reveal the sweaty faces of those afflicted by a strange sleeping sickness – with mouths gaping, and red-rimmed eyes, either staring or half-closed.

For a few days I would keep all 36 prints in their glossy wallet, in the vain hope that I would, with fresh eyes, see their “inner” beauty. Or, vainer still, that the holiday-snap-fairy would return the bright and beautiful images I was convinced I’d captured and which had somehow been lost. Eventually, I would ruthlessly dispose of the outtakes, keeping the half-dozen or so which didn’t hit the cutting room floor.

Now, with hundreds of digital images, better cameras and editing options, the chances of getting some good photos are so much better. And yet I still think that the colours I hold in my mind’s eye, the scents I’ve captured in the limbic cortex of my brain, and the feel of the warm breeze, still on my cool skin… these are the things of which memories are made.

 

 

 

A Tale of Three Sisters: Queenstown, Wellington and Christchurch.

 

(This is a blog-post from before we left New Zealand. Internet access had been a little intermittent there. Now we’re in California, it’s all-singing, all-dancing again. So here we go! And if I find I’ve gone metaphor-mad).

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Queenstown.

Of the three sisters Queenstown is the youngest. Conventionally pretty, if a little bland, she is used to getting everyone’s attention and thrives on the novelty of new acquaintance, needing continuous adoration from all-comers. Like the most popular girl in High School, she sets the trends for other, impressionable girls to follow. If you’ve not made it into her coterie of whispering confidants, you may feel desperate about your exclusion and decide to work very hard to make the grade. Alternatively, you may regard her with a certain bewilderment, silently wondering at her infamous popularity and at the devotion she seems to inspire. But of course, you will say none of this; even thinking it seems like a dark act of treachery!IMG_2835

Wellington.

Wellington, the eldest sister, is a very different character. Sassy, confident and edgy, she’s the kind of girl whose personal hygiene is a little suspect, but, hey, she absolutely knows how to have a good time. She’s a heady mix of excitement, bad habits, trashy clothes and contradiction. If you spend time with Wellington, she will probably lead you astray, encouraging you to break out and try new things, before disappearing into the night, leaving an intriguing scent of mystery in her wake.IMG_2830

Christchurch.

Christchurch is the middle child and, suffering the familiar fate of “middle children”, has always struggled to feel secure in her position. Life has been hard for Christchurch and more than once, she has been broken by her experiences. But, if you think she’s a victim, you’re missing her amazing resilience. Time and again, she marshalls her resources, recovers and reinvents herself, emerging more robust and strong, determined to withstand the challenges of the future. Little wonder, then, if at times she seems confused about who she is  IMG_2829

 

 

 

 

Reflections and Moving On.

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Today we crossed from New Zealand’s Southern Island, to the North. Exiting the Airport at Wellington a different pace, population and purpose was evident. But first, some reflections on our experience of the South Island.

Our travels took us from Christchurch on the East Coast, to Greymouth on the West Coast and then southwards to Queenstown. There are whole swathes of the South Island we didn’t even sniff.

What are my abiding impressions? Scenic splendour at every turn. I became punch-drunk on mountain vistas and river plains; sucker-punched by forests, lakes and glaciers. And remoteness. I’m used to the model train-set that is Great Britain, where you are rarely more than an hour from an urban conurbation and less from a motorway. Where the population of the small town where I live is two-thirds that of the entire West Coast. Here, there are vast tracts of uninhabited land, interspersed with “townships” – four or five roadside properties. Where the nearest supermarket is a two-hour drive undertaken once a month. Weather-permitting.

My other abiding memory will be of the people we met:

Jill, in Christchurch, who gave us a unique insight into the impact of the earthquakes in 2010/11, and how the community has been forever changed, and is responding.

Jan, whose amazing beachfront property we stayed at in Rapahoe, and who shared her extensive knowledge of the West Coast, sending us on our way with notes and directions to “must see” places.

Neroli, at Haast, a fourth-generation West-Coaster, who regaled us with tales of her ancestors. Hardy folk from Ireland who arrived amongst the first pioneers, landing cattle from their ships, and eventually developing a particularly heavy-framed herd, which could withstand the gruelling 250 kilometre drive from field to market, without losing condition and value. The descendants of those heavy beasts can be seen in nearby pastures today.

The ranger from the Conservation Department who took time out from grass-cutting, to give us a local history lesson at the far outpost of Jackson’s Bay.

Marc, who suggested we head out of the quaint but very tourist-centric Queenstown, and drive to Glenorchy along the banks of Lake Wakatipu.

All these people generously gave of their time and local knowledge and we greatly benefited from both. They gave our brief visit a unique context through their personal experiences, reflections, and opinions. Thank you.

 

 

Green. Grey. Blue.

Green.

I have just Googled “synonyms for colour green”. If you are wondering why, let me explain that I am currently in New Zealand and, if you know this amazing island (either personally or by reputation), you will understand. Before I came here, I was told that New Zealand is similar to England. In some respects it is; the rolling hills of the East Coast are like our green and pleasant land – on speed.

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We began in Christchurch and took the Transalpine Railway across the South Island to the West Coast. The first part of the journey took us across the vast Canterbury plain, with its lush pastureland which is a green somewhere between emerald and eau de nil. As we travelled further inland, signs of human habitation become scarcer. Pasture gives way to alpine landscape as the train heads westwards and leaves the bright chlorophyll-haze of the grasslands. Still here, green dominates nature’s palette. All but the highest, snow-capped mountains are covered in shiny, fat-leaved verdant plants and trees of a slightly darker hue. On the West Coast the landscape changes again and we are in ambient rainforest, where rainwater drips from leaf to leaf. Big tree ferns reach to the sky, turning every view into a scene from Jurassic Park.

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Grey.

The Transalpine Railway travels from Christchurch on the East Coast and ends at Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island. Greymouth is aptly named. It lies at the mouth of the river, and on a dull, rainy day is…grey. Once a thriving fishing port and mining town, both industries fell victim to tragedy. Rough seas and an inhospitable harbour claimed too many fishing boats and the remainder headed for less deadly ports further along the coast, and in 2010 a disastrous explosion led to loss of life and the end of mining in the town.

Over the past seven years the life has leached out of the town, with businesses closing and people moving away. It is a sad, grey shadow of its former self.

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Blue.

Then we did one of those “bucket list” activities and took a heli-ride over the Franz Joseph glacier. I could barely contain my delight when we got allocated the front seats! And it was a fantastic experience. As we swept round and caught our first glimpse of the glacier, I was surprised that it’s not the sheet of ice that I was somehow expecting. It’s a massive (but very slow) cascade of crumbly white lumps with a distinct blue tint and it moves at a rate of four metres a day. The helicopter lands at the top of the glacier, for a unique photo-op. Advance information had told us that selfie sticks weren’t allowed and when I saw the very confined space in the helicopter, and the steep slopes at the top of the glacier, I understood why!

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The water from the ice and snow makes its way down via waterfalls to rivers and thence to the sea. That blue tint that we saw in the glacier emerges in the magical azure of the Blue Pools.

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