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SharingPoets Discussion Starters January - November '22

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

SharingPoets discussion starter Jan 2022
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SharingPoets for January 2022

A few years ago our poetry group had a practice of reading one small chapter from Thomas Moore’s “Original Self.” The author made his mark with the best seller “Care of the Soul” (1992). The theme of the importance of taking notice of the soul in daily life was startlingly fresh to the general public. “Original Self” could be seen as a notebook for someone concerned about learning what the soul needs and why. An early chapter was titled, “Honor the Seasons of Nature and the Rhythms of your Life.” January is a good time to do exactly that.

Named for the Roman god of thresholds and transitions, the month of January is filled with opportunities to look back and to look forward. Yes, the various assessments of the past year of the world, our lives, our finances are opportunities.

Moore makes the point that the moral imperative of “being present to life” is not exactly what the soul is craving:

The soul exists in cycles of time, full of repetition, and it has equal portions of flowing temporality and static eternity. Responsive to the soul, we may easily drift out of literal life several times a day to revisit people and places of the past or to imagine the future. These visitations are entirely different from the ego’s anxious attempts to resolve the past or control the future.

The next step is to uncover a poem buried in the many times you have made connections in the past or future this January. I’m looking forward to your sharing of poetry and creative ideas! Just hit “reply all” on this email…we have added a few members this month. Thank you.

Fr Tom

SharingPoets discussion starter February 2022
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SharingPoets for February 2022

Another saying in Thomas Moore’s “Original Self” is Live simply, But be Complicated. Often poetry can be deceptively simple in the words used, but knotty and revelatory beneath the surface. This is why the reader of poetry must slow down and read a passage again and again…or plough through difficult verses while reserving judgment and analysis, just simply reading the words as they appear on the page. Sometimes the line breaks will be informative, but sometimes they will add more complexity.

Jennifer Packer, who currently has a show at the Whitney, began painting flowers suddenly. She did not know why, usually her subject was the human figure. Coded into her gathered blossoms are feelings of joy or melancholy, swiftness or deliberation. As in painting, so in poetry, a deepening occurs when the viewer must work to imagine what is going on, just beneath the surface.

Take this poem that pictures something ordinary, but ends with a reflection on what to make of the news of the day:

There's a patch of old snow in a corner That I should have guessed Was a blow-away paper the rain Had brought to rest. It is speckled with grime as if Small print overspread it, The news of a day I've forgotten -- If I ever read it. Robert Frost

This month we might consider writing something that looks deceptively simple but carries a surprise inside.

If you are interested in hearing the fine artists Jennifer Packer speak about her work, register for the upcoming zoom before February 16th:

I look forward to reading any and all of your poems and welcome your comments!

Fr Tom

SharingPoets discussion starter April 2022
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SharingPoets for April 2022

First of all, happy poetry month!

I recently watched the two-part video “In Search of Walt Whitman” ( also on YouTube). It is a wonderful evocation of the poet’s artistic evolution as well as showing the depth of emotion he was able to wring from what seems common phrases. His talent was not connected to the poetry writing of his day. One critic reviewing the very first edition of “Leaves of Grass” (which included only 12 poems) was convinced Whitman had undergone a mystical experience in order to write the way he did.

Scholars have discovered that experience in Whitman’s poem “Reminiscence”:

When the snows had melted, and the Fifth Month

grass was growing,

Up this sea-shore, in some briers,

Two guests from Alabama—two together,

And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with


And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,

And every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest,

silent, with bright eyes,

And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never

disturbing them,

Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

And then another poem, “A Word Out of the Sea,” completes the thought:

A man—yet by these tears a little boy again,

Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,

I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and here-


Taking all hints to use them—but swiftly leaping

beyond them,

A reminiscence sing.

Whitman saw himself as uniting the various people in America and communing their joys and sorrows. In other words he had both visionary poetic ideas as well poignant emotional ones.

The website offers a close reading of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that shows how a description of a ferry crossing turns into much more than that by the poem's end. You can download the Reading Guide for the description at

Let’s honor Walt Whitman during National Poetry Month and follow his example of “translating” the birdsong in our own experience so that others can hear it and understand!

Fr Tom

SharingPoets discussion starter May 2022
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SharingPoets for May 2022

Recently, I caught a documentary on W. S. Merwin on PBS. “To Plant a Tree” was one of the last videos of this influential poet and he reminisced about one of his mentors, the scholar-poet John Berryman. The older man was a bit gruff and curmudgeonly, but he had a great passion to impart precise bits of wisdom to the sensitive Merwin. Years after his encounters with Berryman, Merwin composed his poem as a tribute to an imperfect buy uncannily wise teacher. In the video, Merwin reads his poem with delight:

Arrogance has its place in a young poet…why point out a thing twice …prepare for much rejection of your work and…you can never be sure anything you write is any good at all.

On the face of it, Merwin should have been discouraged. Instead he was energized. Why? The passion for poetry shines through everything Berryman told him. And the action advised by Berryman – to literally go to a corner and pray to the Muse – rings true in its daring and dedication. (The poem is at the end of this email and is also attached.)

This month, why not deepen your belief in the unique power of poetry to express what otherwise cannot be said.

Poetic Opportunities

Online book discussion “Chilean Poet” video May 17

Award-winning Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra discusses his new novel, Chilean Poet, about poetry and the many ways we build families, with New Yorker writer Rivka Galchen. Zambra researched and wrote this novel during his 2015–16 fellowship at the Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars.

Podcasts of “essential” poets

Listen to Donald Hall's 2006 selection of classic American poets reading from their work. These recordings are being made available as the result of a collaboration between US and UK poet laureates Donald Hall and Andrew Motion.


We had our inaugural zoom meeting in April. So far nine members of SharingPoets have joined. All are welcome. The next zoom is set for Monday, May 23rd at 7:30pm. Please email me if you would like to get a link (

Here’s Merwin’s poem on his mentor John Berryman:


I will tell you what he told me

in the years just after the war

as we then called

the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said

you can do that when you're older

lose it too soon and you may

merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested

changing the usual order

of the same words in a line of verse

why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse

get down on my knees and pray

right there in the corner and he

said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard

and the drink but he was deep

in tides of his own through which he sailed

chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for

much older than I was he was in his thirties

he snapped down his nose with an accent

I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me

to paper my wall with rejection slips

his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled

with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence

that permitted everything and transmuted it

in poetry was passion

passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don't write

W.S. Merwin, "Berryman" from Migration. Copyright © 2005 by W.S. Merwin, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Source: Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)

SharingPoets Discussion starter June 2022
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SharingPoets for June 2022

In April, the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine was asked what place this art and craft had in American life. She replied she saw poetry as related to visual art, but also to philosophy and history. Writing a poem makes a claim: we are all part of a deep well. Often we live on its surface, but on occasion one of us dives deep. A good poem opens the reader up or sets the reader off in a fresh direction. The Guggenheim Museum is hoping for these outcomes in naming Taylor Johnson as its first poet-in-residence. I see poetry collaboration in contemporary dance. Recently, Walt Whitman’s “Unseen Buds” was read during a performance by the Stephen Petronio Company:

UNSEEN buds, infinite, hidden well,

Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or cubic inch,

Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,

Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping;

Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,

(On earth and in the sea—the universe—the stars there in the heavens,)

Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless,

And waiting ever more, forever more behind.

Likewise, Amanda Gorman suddenly appeared with a poem on the Opinion page of the New York Times. When the hurting gets cosmic, often a poem appears to embrace everyone at once:

Hymn for the Hurting

Everything hurts, Our hearts shadowed and strange, Minds made muddied and mute. We carry tragedy, terrifying and true. And yet none of it is new; We knew it as home, As horror, As heritage. Even our children Cannot be children, Cannot be.

Everything hurts. It’s a hard time to be alive, And even harder to stay that way. We’re burdened to live out these days, While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.

This alarm is how we know We must be altered — That we must differ or die, That we must triumph or try. Thus while hate cannot be terminated, It can be transformed Into a love that lets us live.

May we not just grieve, but give: May we not just ache, but act; May our signed right to bear arms Never blind our sight from shared harm; May we choose our children over chaos. May another innocent never be lost.

Maybe everything hurts, Our hearts shadowed & strange. But only when everything hurts May everything change.

I hope this summer brings you many opportunities for poetry-writing. In August and September, I’ll be re-visiting my favorite spots in Rome, maybe a poem will follow!

Fr. Tom

SharingPoets for July 2022
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SharingPoets for July 2022

This summer, I am finishing Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (twice as long as “War and Peace,” just 150 pages to go!) so I offer an excerpt from the more philosophical final volume of the work. In it Proust works at answering the question, “How do the best writers write?”

You might say his entire book is about a writer who will only begin his life’s work, when he finally answers that question. The Narrator (a thinly disguised Proust) eventually sees that the best writers recognize the “genius” of intuition, which causes them to make allusions to their past life that are surprisingly fresh and seem to come not from logic or intelligence, but from their spirit, a thing beyond their control, but also a thing they can avoid or look away from.

Recommended introduction to the aim of °In Search of Lost Time° --

I welcome your comments and poetry of all kinds. You can send them out to the group or send it to me for sharing ( Maybe there is “Ah Ha” moment waiting to be put in a poem…

Fr. Tom

Excerpt from “In Search of Lost Time” – The Proustian Moment

The scene: Years later, again in Paris, the Narrator goes to a party at the house of the Prince de Guermantes. On the way he sees Charlus, now a mere shell of his former self, being helped by Jupien. The paving stones at the Guermantes house inspire another incident of involuntary memory for the Narrator, quickly followed by two more. Inside, while waiting in the library, he discerns their meaning: by putting him in contact with both the past and present, the impressions allow him to gain a vantage point outside time, affording a glimpse of the true nature of things. He realizes his whole life has prepared him for the mission of describing events as fully revealed, and (finally) resolves to begin writing. From Wikipedia

°Reviewing the painful reflections of which I have just been speaking, I had entered the courtyard of the Guermantes’ mansion and in my distraction I had not noticed an approaching carriage; at the call of the link-man I had barely time to draw quickly to one side, and in stepping backwards I stumbled against some unevenly placed paving stones behind which there was a coach-house. As I recovered myself, one of my feet stepped on a flagstone lower than the one next it. In that instant all my discouragement disappeared and I was possessed by the same felicity which at different moments of my life had given me the view of trees which seemed familiar to me during the drive round Balbec, the view of the belfries of Martinville, the savour of the madeleine dipped in my tea and so many other sensations of which I have spoken and which Vinteuil’s last works had seemed to synthesize. As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts were dissipated…I entered the Guermantes’ mansion, because we always allow our inner needs to give way to the part we are apparently called upon to play and that day mine was to be a guest. On reaching the first floor a footman requested me to enter a small boudoir-library adjoining a buffet until the piece then being played had come to an end, the Princesse having given orders that the doors should not be opened during the performance. At that very instant a second premonition occurred to reinforce the one which the uneven paving-stones had given me and to exhort me to persevere in my task. The servant in his ineffectual efforts not to make a noise had knocked a spoon against a plate. The same sort of felicity which the uneven paving-stones had given me invaded my being; this time my sensation was quite different, being that of great heat accompanied by the smell of smoke tempered by the fresh air of a surrounding forest and I realized that what appeared so pleasant was the identical group of trees I had found so tiresome to observe and describe when I was uncorking a bottle of beer in the railway carriage and, in a sort of bewilderment, I believed for the moment, until I had collected myself, so similar was the sound of the spoon against the plate to that of the hammer of a railway employee who was doing something to the wheel of the carriage while the train was at a standstill facing the group of trees, that I was now actually there…I believed that the servant had just opened the window upon the shore and that everything invited me to go downstairs and walk along the sea-wall at high tide, the napkin upon which I was wiping my mouth had exactly the same kind of starchiness as that which I had attempted with so much difficulty to dry myself before the window the first day of my arrival at Balbec and within the folds of which, now, in that library of the Guermantes mansion, a green-blue ocean spread its plumage like the tail of a peacock. And I did not merely rejoice in those colours, but in that whole instant which produced them, an instant towards which a feeling of fatigue or sadness had prevented my ever experiencing at Balbec but which now, pure, disincarnated and freed from the imperfections of exterior perceptions, filled me with joy…the most simple act or gesture remains enclosed as though in a thousand jars of which each would be filled with things of different colours, odours and temperature, not to mention that those vases placed at intervals during the growing years throughout which we ceaselessly change, if only in a dream or in thought, are situated at completely different levels and produce the impression of strangely varying climates. It is true that these changes have occurred to us without our being aware of them, but the distance between the memory which suddenly returns and our present personality as similarly between two memories of different years and places, is so great that it would suffice, apart from their specific uniqueness, to make comparison between them impossible. Yes, if a memory, thanks to forgetfulness, has been unable to construct any tie, to forge any link between itself and the present, if it has remained in its own place, of its own date, if it has kept its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or on the peak of a mountain, it makes us suddenly breath an air new to us just because it is an air we have formerly breathed, an air purer than that the pots have vainly called Paradisiacal, which offers that deep sense of renewal only because it had been breathed before, inasmuch as the true paradises are paradises we have lost.

“And perhaps, if just now I thought that Bergotte had spoken falsely when he referred to the joys of spiritual life it was because I then gave the name of spiritual life to logical reasonings which had not relation with it, which, had no relations with what now existed in me – just as I found society and life wearisome because I was judging them from memories without Truth while now that a veritable moment of the past had been born again in me three separate time, I had such a desire to live…

°That book of unknown signs within me (signs in relief it seemed, for my concentrated attention, as it explored my unconscious in its search, struck against them, circled round them like a diver sounding) no one could help me read by any rule, for its reading consists in an act of creation in which no one can take our place and in which no one can collaborate. And how many turn away from writing it, how many tasks will one not assume to avoid that one! Every event, whether it was the Dreyfus affair or the war, furnished excuses to writers for not deciphering that book; they wanted to assert the triumph of Justice, to recreate the moral unity of the nation and they had no time to think of literature. But those were only excuses because either they did not possess or had ceased to possess genius, that is, instinct. For it is instinct which dictates duty and intelligence which offers pretexts for avoiding it. But excuses do not exist in art, intentions do not count there, the artist must at all times follow his instinct, which makes art the most real thing, the most austere school in life and the true last judgment. That book which is the most arduous of all to decipher is the only one which reality has dictated, the only one printed within us by reality itself. Whatever idea life has left in us, its material shape, mark of the impression it has made on us, is still the necessary pledge of its truth. The ideas formulated by the intellect have only a logical truth, a possible truth, their selection is arbitrary. Our only book is that one not made by ourselves whose characters are already imagined. It is that the ideas we formulate may not be logically right but that we do not know if they are true. Intuition alone, however tenuous its consistency, however improbable its shape, is a criterion of truth and, for that reason, deserves to be accepted by the mind because it alone is capable, if the mind can extract that truth, of bringing it to greater perfection and of giving it pleasure without alloy. Intuition for the writer is what experiment is for the learned, with the difference that in the case of the learned the work of the intelligence precedes and in the case of the writer it follows…A work in which there are theories is like an object upon which the price is marked. Further, this last only expresses a value which, in literature, is diminished by logical reasoning. We reason, that is, our mind wanders, each time our courage fails to force us to pursue an intuition through all the successive stages which end in its fixation, in the expression of its own reality. The reality that must be expressed resides, I now realized, not in the appearance of the subject but in the degree of penetration of that intuition to a depth where that appearance matters little, as symbolized by the sound of the spoon upon the plate, the stiffness of the table-napkin, which were more precious for my spiritual renewal than many humanitarian, patriotic, international conversations.”

In Search of Lost Time, Volume 7, Time Regained

Chapter 3 An Afternoon Party at the House of Princesse de Guermantes

SharingPoets for August 2022
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SharingPoets for August 2022

There’s something wonderful about trees. The first poem that comes to mind may be “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, paradoxically his entire reputation rests on this simple work, published in Poetry Magazine (1913) soon after it began. The story is that Kilmer was writing something else, then looked out his window in Mahwah, New Jersey and thought about trees. This past week the New York Times had an article about the under-appreciated mature trees in the parks of Paris. Due to their age and climate change, they may warrant a poem more than others right now.

Robert Frost is another tree-inspired poet. In °The Sound of Trees° he sees them as lifetime companions, hearing their °song° from out his window every day. In °Birches,° Frost seems to casually lapse into a revere about his lost youth while writing a detailed and tactile encounter with a clump of them. Alfred, Lord Tennyson in °The Oak° takes a similar course, advising the reader to °Live thy Life\Young and old\Like yon oak…

Bright in spring,

Living gold,


Then; and then



Gold again

All his leaves

Fall’n at length,

Look, He stands,

Trunk and bough

Naked strength.

Finally, let me introduce you to Benjamin Swett who worked at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for years documenting their collection of trees (about 700,000 --many bordering sidewalks). Read his book on specific trees and their stories: New York City of Trees to find endless information on trees planted near and far by the Department of Parks browse their tree map

Hope your summer is idyllic and that you can spend some time writing poetry under the dappled shade of an old, old tree!

I look forward to your musings on trees and other topics poetic!

Fr Tom

SharingPoets discussion starter September 2022
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SharingPoets for September 2022

My Sister, Who Died Young, Takes Up The Task

A basket of apples brown in our kitchen,

their warm scent is the scent of ripening,

and my sister, entering the room quietly,

takes a seat at the table, takes up the task

of peeling slowly away the blemished skins,

even half-rotten ones are salvaged carefully.

She makes sure to carve out the mealy flesh.

For this, I am grateful. I explain, this elegy

would love to save everything. She smiles at me,

and before long, the empty bowl she uses fills,

domed with thin slices she brushes into

the mouth of a steaming pot on the stove.

What can I do? I ask finally. Nothing,

she says, let me finish this one thing alone.

I came across this poem in a recent New York Times Magazine. The close observation reminded me of the careful artistry of Cezanne. The painter wanted to show the details of color we sometimes forget when we remember a scene. In the same way, the poet’s experience of his sister -- re-experienced through his poem – includes all the highlights of her making an apple pie. The effort of recording the details of his encounter can only go so far, however. Helplessly, he asks, “What can I do?” The phrase has a different meaning in hindsight: One can do nothing to bring her back to life, that must be “finished” alone.

A poem’s reach will often exceed its grasp. Does this mean it has failed? Not at all. The point is to show the limits of our efforts and the extent to which we will go to express what cannot quite be said.

Have you ever written such a poem? Please share it…or any work of poetry in your file.

Enjoy the change of season!

Fr Tom

SharingPoets discussion starter Oct 2022
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SharingPoets for October 2022

A new show (“Hear Me Now” – ‘til February 5) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art introduces the public to David Drake, better known as “Dave.” His life as a slave who became a skilled potter and a stealth poet offers a lesson in ordinary objects becoming poetic ones.

Perhaps because of the simplicity of a handmade pot, Drake’s work inspired two well-respected books for children. But for the poet, that is just the beginning. Watch this YouTube of the entire picture book, Dave the Potter (2010) by Laban Carrick Hill you will see how density, concision and damage make it the subject for adults as well.

Density because the pot the book describes is the product of an enslaved man under all the stress of that existence (Met curators tell us he lost a leg in the course of his time as a potter). Concision because the brief phrases Drake cut into the clay only hint at a wellspring of faith and joy. One phrase combines both these qualities: “Good for lard or holding fresh meat, /blest we were when peter saw the folded sheet” – recalling Acts 10:9-13 when Peter shockingly envisions a large sheet being let down, filled with non-kosher food. Finally Damage is present in the lapse of seventeen years when no words are written on pots by Dave. It is speculated that one of his owners forbade him to use his (illegal) skill of literacy.

“Etched in Clay” (2013) by Andrea Cheng is an intensely written and illustrated poetry book by a Jewish-Hungarian author with a degree in linguistics. One of her poems reads:

Someday the world will read my word etched in clay on the side of this jar and know about the shackles around our legs and the whips upon our backs. I am not afraid to write on a jar and fire it hot so my word. can never be erased (pg 63-64)

Cheng captures Dave’s fiery courage and layers that with revelations about his loss of family through their sale to others. One night he gets drunk and lays on a railroad track to cut off his leg so he will not be moved to Louisiana. This keeps him with his second wife, but makes other things more difficult. From this tragic background, consider what he writes on one of his pots:

“I wonder where is all my relation

friendship to all – and every nation.”

Density, Concision, Damage great pots and great poems and great people are made from such.

You may have something in your files or have something germinating in your mind that reveals these poetic qualities! Please share.

Curious about other epigrams from Dave? Attached to this email is a collection of them from the National Humanities Center.

Fr Tom

SharingPoets discussion starter November 2022
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SharingPoets for November 2022

When our poetry group was meeting together face-to-face, one of the books we read was Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, his extended essay on how a poet deals with his own morality. Mr. Wiman is, thankfully, still with us and still writing. Here is a poem that appeared in the April 1, 2019 New Yorker. In it, Wiman delightfully muses on what he wants to “be” and what he doesn’t. The biggest question for me comes with the last line: “to have a door” – what does it mean to want to have a door? So many answers could be given, and so many would be correct.

I hope this poem will spark others, so our Christmas emails will mix with our own poems, old and new!

I Don’t Want to Be a Spice Store

I don’t want to be a spice store. I don’t want to carry handcrafted Marseille soap, or tsampa and yak butter, or nine thousand varieties of wine. Half the shops here don’t open till noon and even the bookstore’s brined in charm. I want to be the one store that’s open all night and has nothing but necessities. Something to get a fire going and something to put one out. A place where things stay frozen and a place where they are sweet. I want to hold within myself the possibility of plugging one’s ears and easing one’s eyes; superglue for ruptures that are, one would have thought, irreparable, a whole bevy of non-toxic solutions for everyday disasters. I want to wait brightly lit and with the patience I never had as a child for my father to find me open on Christmas morning in his last-ditch, lone-wolf drive for gifts. “Light of the World” penlight, bobblehead compass, fuzzy dice. I want to hum just a little with my own emptiness at 4 a.m. To have little bells above my door. To have a door.

Christian Wiman is the author of several books, including the memoir “He Held Radical Light” and the poetry collection “Survival is a Style,” where this poem can be found.

Poetry News

If you have the time, try going to the Irish Cultural Arts Center’s 13th Poetry Festival (Dec 2-4). All events are ticketed, but the afternoon ones are free.

Fr Tom

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