Radical Renewal: You, Your people, Your Planet

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Posted by: Sara on Wednesday, November 24, 2010.

It is Friday afternoon and the deadlines are looming. My 3rd grader, Sam will be getting off the bus at 3:15. Get him and then his twin sister who goes to a different school and is at a friend’s 20 minutes to the west. We’ve just completed our weekly finance meeting and I’m a bit down. How can we make as much money as we are blessed to, and still be in the red every month? Doesn’t seem like we buy stuff or are extravagant. Still. . . .where to earn more revenue or cut expenses? There are 136 new Emails in my inbox and another 55 that “red flagged” urgent to be read. My “to do” list is down to 11 items, but each could be half day project. The kids’ birthday is next month and I want to book the public skating rink. I called but no return. The vacuum’s busted again and dog hair’s all over the floor. There is a mountain of laundry clean, but still to be folded. And the kids school papers are strewn all over the kitchen counter. Who’s got a field trip next week? Oh yeah Maya and they need a swim suit and permission. Sam’s school is looking for volunteers for the holiday book fair. I’ve done it the past couple of years but need to look at my calendar to see when I can this year. The school called to ask if we’re donating books to the fund-raiser this Thursday night. And Christine called from the Neighborhood emergency committee to see if we’d be captains again this year. In case of mid-winder ice out and power failure, like last year, they’ve set up a town citizen’s action group to take care of each other. I’m leading a "Women in Power" five day weekend later in the month and there are a ton of Emails and voicemails from my co-leaders and staff each with “urgent” messages to reply to. As one of the founders, I’m expected to weigh in with my opinion on every last detail and frankly I don’t care. Then two weeks later I’m teaching “Leaders for a New Climate” workshop at MIT. It’s a new one that I’ve created with a trusted and wonderful colleague. But his standards are high as are the expectations of the participants and the venue so I want it to be impeccable. There are PowerPoint slide presentations to prepare and the design to review and marketing outreach to be done. All with a sense of humor of course. Right after that is my Dad’s 90th birthday and of course there are gala celebrations there. My sister in law is preparing a tribute for him and has asked us to write our fondest memories. I can’t think of any right now, but I know I’ll come up with something and have to. After the MIT gig I guess. On top of it, I’ll be leading a chanting service on Shabbat just before Halloween. I love doing these and I have a wonderful co-leader. But she and I have a process where we check in with each other in advance of the weekend to identify themes of the service and choose chants with the “medicine” to address those themes. Felicia and I need to be in touch.

It’s 2:15. One hour before I have to pick up the kids. What’s highest priority??

Maya wants to be "Elphaba" from the Broadway play, Wicked and she insists that I go as Elphaba’s nemesis, Glinda. This means that we have to find a blond curly wig for me, a wand and a poufy skirt. Between three friends who have this garb, I think I can pull it off. Somewhere between my Dad’s 90th and the MIT gig.

I go to grab a late lunch, hungry now and notice the “experiments” in the frigerator. That is science experiments of the anti-biotic mold penicillin variety. But I’m not Jonas Salk and I just want to get the damn mold out of the frig before it takes over. As I’m scraping green hummus by hand into the compost, I grumble to myself, “how come I’m the only one who ever sees the experiments??” But then I remember that my husband Joe is the guy that goes to the recycling and trash dump in our town every Tues so I can’t really complain. He does a lot around the place.

Expecting guests for dinner tonight so I get the oven going at 425 and prep two chickens from our neighbor’s farm to roast. Add potatoes and onions and garlic, olive oil and soy and lemon and rosemary it will be pretty good. Indeed my African American friend Marsia gave me the highest compliment on tasting this version once, “Sara, you don’t make White folks chicken.”

Back to the office now with my apron still on. Which of the Emails are highest priority? I don’t even try to check Facebook. That will just bum me out with too many messages to respond to there. Hey I’m a child of the 60s. Indeed I turn 50 today. I grew up in life before voicemail, Email, cell phones, internet, Facebook, Google, twitter, fax machines, answering machines, texts, smart phones, iPods and iPads. How did we survive? I was raised in a culture where you could physically respond to mail and phone calls in a given day. The pace was human and that was the expectation. So I’ve internalized the standard that it’s polite and honorable to get right back to people who contact me. But now the exponential growth of electrons freely traveling math of it makes that impossible. No one can do it. Yet my inner Martha Stewart Yankee raised, well-mannered person wants me to.

It’s exhausting. Psychic dissonance. Brain overload. CAN’T do it all! Come on Ms Feminist super working mom, you know the literature says don’t try to do it all, the idea that you could have power and love and home and prosperity was a myth. Don’t perpetrate that one on yourself. Yet I still do. We still do. June Cleaver meet Carly Fiorina meet Hillary Clinton, here I come.

3:15 PM and the Emails are still flying in. I can stretch to 3:18 and still make the bus. But if I miss it, they’ll send Sam back to school another 45 minute ride and that’s humiliating for him and me. Don’t push too hard, Sara. One more Email only . . .

I throw a leash on the dog (he hasn’t been out since morning) and race up the hill. Our driveway is at about a 45 degree angle up for 200 yards and arrive breathless just as the bus pulls up with Sam. All smiles and 8 year-old enthusiasm about his day.

“Mom can you grab my back pack?” he asks while simultaneously tossing it at me.  “I want to run down the hill?

“Sure hon.”

I’m thinking maybe I can fire off the answers to Drew – my MIT colleagues – inquiries before I go get Maya because as it is Friday afternoon. Sundown is my deadline.

Because thank G-d at sundown, in my family, we unplug. And here comes sanity, Sabbath is almost upon us.

“Unplug?” you ask incredulous. “From cell phones and the internet and iPods and the home phone and . . .?”

“Yup, exactly.”

“But how do you stay connected to people?”

“Ironically, after 20 years of this weekly practice, I think I can safely say that my connection to people improves.”

So here’s my story of practicing Sabbath, which in my family we do in the Jewish tradition so I’ll call it by its Hebrew name, “Shabbat.”

Shabbat is a wisdom tradition that depending on when you think the bible was written, goes back somewhere between 2000 and 3500 years. Indeed there it is as one of the Ten Commandments, “Honor the 7th day and keep it holy.” For in six days G-d created the world and on the 7th day G-d rested. Personally, I take the G-d thing as a metaphor and see myself and all of us as Co-Creators in the ongoing unfolding of life. But I think this ancient idea – no matter what its origin -- of taking one day out of seven off is pretty brilliant. And though the tradition has come down to us through a hundred generations, I’d say it’s needed today more than ever. Witness our lives of ever-expanding to do lists and electronic messages. Enough to put any one of us on an exponentially accelerating trajectory of action till we’re moving at such an in-human pace that we spin off into the ether. Where to we get a break to come home to ourselves? On Shabbat.

I’m going to give you the Jewish structures and rituals that go with this time, but you can adapt them, as Linda is with her family to any faith, agnostic or secular tradition that you are comfortable with. As one teacher I know says, “The Muslims have Friday, the Jews have Saturday, the Christians have Sunday and so in the World to Come, we all get a three day weekend.” Note the template and then make it yours. Do it on a Tuesday if you like, but just take a break – for 25, that’s right, 25 hours.

“No way,” you say, “not possible.”

Well check this out.

The Dalai Lama invited a delegation of a dozen Rabbis to come visit him. Since the Chinese had made him and his people refugees from their home-land in Tibet, he wanted them to answer the question, “How have you been able to sustain your tradition in 2000 years of exile from your land and your holy temples.” When one of the Rabbis spoke of the Shabbat practice, the Dalai Lama responded incredulous, “You mean you have a 25 hour meditation built into every week?” Yup.

First, it’s important to have a shift of mind about the Shabbat practices. They are not punitive prohibitions, “Thou shalt not text, thou shalt not Email, thou shalt not shop at the mall.” They are an invitation to stop doing so that you can simply be in enjoyment of the fruits of creation. We lean into the radical concept that for this day, creation is already perfect and there is nothing to do to improve it. Believe me, tomorrow we will be all about improving it big time, but for today, it is perfect. We breath, we drink water, we walk in the woods, we hug our children, we take time to listen to their questions, we take a nap and dream. We live in the present. It is all good and there is nothing to fix. Not even my husband who won’t clean out the experiments.

Last week on a Friday night celebration where we welcome the Shabbat with big feasts we were at a friend’s in Colorado. They were also celebrating my 50th (yikes) birthday and so friends had made a chocolate cake, a pumpkin pie, an apple strudel and a bunch of cookies. Sam who had eaten nothing but bread and butter for dinner piled his plate high with one of each. A mother looked at me sideways, “You're going to let him eat all that sugar???”

“Here’s how it goes in my house,” I say paraphrasing the holy text, “Six days thou shalt discipline and mold thy children with all thy might, but the seventh day is the Sabbath and thou shalt give it a rest.” I get one day free of disciplining them. It’s totally liberating. For all of us.

As is the practice of letting go of my entire to do list. Atlas will have to hold the world up by himself for the next 25 hours while I’m gone.


We welcome the Shabbat on Friday night after sundown with several rituals. Through literally 1,000 repetitions, I’ve learned the power of adopting practices and doing them consistently over time. Some of the rituals are ancient and some are our contemporary interpretation. Our intention is to capture the essence of the meaning of the rituals, not follow them to the letter of the law.

There is something about this repetition that our kids love. They live in a world that is constantly changing, moving at pace. When I grew up in the 60s families sat down to dinner every night together. Now that is ever more rare with both parents working, kids in a zillion extra curricular activities, eternal traveling soccer, evening meetings, the ever-present internet and exponentially growing “smart” electronics. You know the scene of a family of 5 “together” all heads down in their iPhones and Blackberries. Where’s the face to face, heart to heart contact. With us it’s Fri night and Saturday and our kids thrive on it. “I love Shabbat,” Maya says. They like the fact that they get our un-divided focus and attention. Like water to a cactus. There is some deep safety in the consistency of the ritual. No matter what craziness is going on during the week, they can count on us lighting candles and feasting together on Friday night.

The official start of the holiday is at sundown (more or less; the tradition is 18 minutes before, we get there as soon as we can) when we welcome the Shabbat by lighting two or more white candles. But actually the preparations have begun earlier in the day. I bake the traditional Hallah bread and begin the dough after the kids are on the bus in the morning. Now you don’t have to do this and don’t be intimidated by it. I am far from suzi home-maker and never baked a thing in my life. Did Shabbat weekly for about 15 years before I started this practice. But I’ve found that there is something very grounding and satisfying about kneading that dough, creating something from scratch that will fill the house up with a scrumptious aroma and fill our bellies with hot bread made with love. Throw a little butter on there straight from the oven and it’s heavenly. For those of us who make our living typing Emails and working on healing the world, there is very little that brings immediate gratification of a job well done. Making bread does. But I digress. . . During the day at work, I know that I’m heading towards the Shabbat sundown deadline. So I finish up whatever I can and I communicate with colleagues on my progress. If it’s not done, I commit to getting it out in the following week. We both know where we stand. Same with friends and small to dos like making the kids’ dentist appointments. I either finish them up on Friday or make a plan for the following week. Cuz by sundown it’s all going to be done.

People who have worked with me over the years know this rhythm and give it great respect in my experience. If you want to get Sara, it’s by Sundown Friday or you’ll see her Monday morning (cuz once Shabbat’s over, and I see that life in commerce survived without me for a day, I usually have the courage to hang out with kids or friends on Sunday). The world does not come to an end. We are all OK.

We clean the house sometime in the afternoon. Now remember I’m not Suzy H, so this is no deep clean. But at least the mountain of school papers that’s manifest miraculously since last Friday is reviewed and removed; the laundry gets picked up off the floor, dog’s chewed stuffed animal remains too, dishes put away, refrigerator experiments out, etc. There is a semblance of order and calm that descends on the space and it soothes my nerves.

I cook the one big feast I make in the week. This does much to assuage my guilt that I’m not creating Martha Stewart-esque feasts all week long. (Hey I’m working at those 136 Emails!). I roast two big chickens, make greens, soup, salad, bread, veggies whatever. Cuz see these are going to last for the next three meals when it’s Shabbat, I’m resting and there’s no cooking! Its’ really made with love and abundance and there’s always plenty. Usually we host another family or a bunch of guests and I like to feed them.

As sundown approaches, we change clothes, usually into white. The clothes change thing is actually pretty magical as we don’t wear anything we’ve worn during the work week. Adorn ourselves with jewels and nice smells to evoke a regal feeling. For tonight we are Queens and Kings in our realm. The white evokes purification and renewal. There have been many nights when I thought I was too exhausted to even enjoy the Sabbath meal. Then donned my queenly costume and felt totally transformed and renewed. Try it sometime.

The kids and Joe have also put on their whites or “Shabbat shirt” and are looking great. Don’t you love it when your 8 year old gets out of his sweat pants and dirty socks and puts on a tie cuz he wants to! Looking sharp we all are as we descend the steps. We put on some rocking music for the occasion and dance and sing a little. The purpose of all this is to literally change our vibration, our resonance, our frequency so we can open to a deeper level of renewal and healing.

Now come three essential rituals. There are more, but these are the basics: light the candles to bring in the light, share blessings on an over-flowing cup of wine to offer gratitude for the abundance in our lives, and then break that awesome bread together – more abundance. Our attitude shifts from what we didn’t accomplish and our fears of not having or being or doing enough, to a celebration of the abundance of creation.

During the candle lighting we “send” the light to those in need of healing around the planet and to our loved ones far away. This evokes a sense of connection; that this Shabbat gathering is for more than just us. After the blessings over the candles, in our home everybody hugs everybody – that includes all the guests who’ve never met. You might think that’s hokey, but it melts hearts super quick. Now we’re all in this together. There are songs and welcoming angels of peace and more. Then we say the blessing over wine or grape juice. We fill the cup to overflowing intentionally to signify all the goodness that is always present. And we go around the table, each one holding the cup, and sharing out loud, something we are grateful for from the week. You’d be surprised how the kids took to this from the time they could talk. They love having all eyes on them and talking about what’s good. Conversely by the way, when an adult is talking they’re expected to give that person their full attention and respect. No screwing around. They do it. Ever notice that when you focus on the goodness in your life and voice gratitude for it, your whole world view shifts? I’ve not done the science to back it up, but I bet heart rates and breathing settle, muscles relax and blood pressure goes down! I know smiles appear. Life is good. And when we all hear what others are grateful for the mood is contagious. Suddenly I don’t have to struggle, compete, crave; all I need is right here and right now.

In case there’s anything that’s blocking us from receiving the gifts of Sabbath ease we have a remedy in – of course – another ritual. We now go to hand-washing. We ask, “Is there anything we need to let go of from the week to become fully present to Shabbat time? Where, to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to share.” One person pours from a cup while another names out loud or to themselves what they need to let go of as the water is poured. I’m usually letting go of the Emails I didn’t get to by 3:15, fatigue, fear, etc. Miraculously, the stuff gets washed away with the water. Someone else dries our hands signifying that there is nothing I need to do today, but receive. My husband Joe and I have adopted another wonderful practice that we learned from Rabbis Arthur and Phyllis Ocean. We take our wedding rings off and simultaneously re-marry each other. I place the ring on Joe’s finger while he places my rings on mine. Joe jokes that this is the AA approach to marriage, “One week at a time.” But there is a sweet feeling of renewal of love and an embodied reminder of the innocence and passion we felt on our wedding day. Good medicine.

We do some more chanting and humming of tunes and then it is time to break into that mouth watering bread. The kids remove its cover and we all oooh and ahhh over the golden brown beauty. Then lift those loaves with the invitation, “Everyone touch the bread or touch someone touching the bread” so once again we’re all connected. Then after the blessing we break it with our hands and feed each other. Yum.

I’m reminded then of this story on the difference between heaven and hell. In hell there is a huge pot of rich stew. You are famished. But all you have is a super long spoon that reaches clear across to the other side of the pot. You are tantalized as you can reach the stew with your spoon, but you can’t get it to your mouth. Everyone around the massive soup bowl is in the same situation and you all starve for all eternity. In heaven: same stew, same spoons, same people. Only this time we all feed each other.

Now we get to dive into the feast as all is blessed. The conversation is lively, sometimes humorous, sometimes politics, sometimes the kids in the lead, sometimes mythic, religion; Never about work. Cause tonight all is complete and there is nothing to fix in the world.

What does Saturday look like? There are no chores, no shopping excursions, no Emails and no web-surfing. What do we do?

Here’s a typical Shabbat Saturday, though they vary in the details week to week. First, I don’t jump out of bed to shower, stretch, make lunches, sign homework papers, check outlook for my schedule of the day, make lists of what has to get done. Instead, I linger in bed reading last week’s Sunday Styles, or poetry, or Sun magazine essays, or something else not about self improvement. Perhaps some inspirational text of spiritual wisdom. Then the kids come in and snuggle around 7:30 AM. They are so happy to puppy pile between me and Joe as we’re not running out. And though they are exquisitely competent readers, they bring the book that we’re reading aloud. This month it is Wicked – the inspiration for the Broadway play that Maya’s hooked on. She loves the lead character, Elphaba, who is the green-skinned “wicked” witch of the west in the original Oz story. In this tale, the official story, Elphaba is a savvy, feisty, feminist, hot-ticket fighting the fascist Wizard of Oz. And despite being Green (different from the other kids) she prevails and gets the guy in the end. It’s 400 pp and we’re reading about 10 a week on Saturdays so this is going to take a while. . . .Later we get up and make some Hallah French Toast out of last night’s home-made bread. I never make time to cook breakfast during the week so this in itself is a treat, especially with home-made maple syrup. Lounge a bit more and then we go on a “family hike.” Someplace strenuous and gorgeous. This time it’s up Bear Mountain across the street and up a steep incline following a stream. The kids at almost 9 are finally at the stage where they can beat us scrambling up the hill. It’s huff and puff, heart beating strenuous, but the reward is an expansive view to the west overlooking rolling hills up into the Green Mountains of Vermont. OK, you live in the city and you don’t have a place like this in your back yard. Walk anywhere, or ride a bike, or ski or whatever it is you do as long as you are outside in it. As Winnie the Pooh famously says, “Christopher Robin didn’t care what it was doing outside as long as he was out in it.” Let momma GAIA work her magic.

We hang out up at the top, sing some songs – the kids are able to hold a tune now – so we can do harmonies. On the way back down, the pace is easy and now’s when they’ll open up and share something surprising. Sam says, “Mom, I was annoyed when Connie took our pictures. Remember to get us to laugh she’d ask, ‘Who’s room is the messiest. Who has the silliest jokes, who’s going to pitch for the Red Sox, who’s the kindest and who’s the most compassionate.’ You always answer Maya for compassionate and kind and me for pitcher. I’m not that young anymore you know. I’m kind too.” Who’d have known my rough and tumble guy would care about this stuff. He’s got an emotional gene too. “OK honey, I hear you.” And because I’m not distracted with my "to do" list, I do.

We come home, eat some leftovers from the feast the night before – and then it’s time for my weekly ritual; the Saturday afternoon Shabbat nap! Can you imagine? I tell my guys, “What are the 3 F’s” they know the drill now, “Fire, flood, or fatality.” That’s right, unless it’s one of those three you do not bug me or risk waking momma bear from her slumber. Sometimes Joe joins me or sometimes he plays guitar. After 20 years of this practice of the Saturday afternoon nap, I think my body knows it’s coming and goes into a deep, restorative sleep. (And by the way, I notice when I don’t get it on the rare Shabbat’s when I’m with relatives, or working, or at a party, I’m cranky for the week.) I awake feeling like I’ve been on a week’s long vacation. Mood is light, open and grateful. It’s during this time on Saturday afternoon just before the sun sets that the mystic Kabbalists say you reap the true harvest of Shabbat. Your soul is at its most open. Sometimes I have surprising insights, sometimes deeper conversations with friends or family who are present, sometimes just a sense of peace. All is well.

After sunset plus three stars, we do a ritual of separation, marking the transition from Shabbat to the world of the week. There are candles and wine and spices. In the interpretation of our teacher Rabbi Shefa Gold the wine represents what was intoxicating about our Shabbat, the candles light and new insight, and the spices some sweet memory we want to take into the week. So at the beginning if this ritual we ask ourselves, “What was intoxicating, what insights, what sacred intentions do we want to bring into our week.”  Somehow, by naming these things out loud and being witnessed in them, their power does permeate the week.

“It was intoxicating soaking rays on the top of Bear Mountain and singing with you guys, when we talked about the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and then get a blessing from him, I had some new ideas about how important it is to stick with hard things until they transform. And the holiness I want to bring into the week is the love I feel for you guys and the peace that is in my heart right now.” The kids and Joe share their version.

Then we go watch a “family movie.” Got any ideas for good ones? I’m a little tired of Sponge Bob, and How to train your dragon and the latest Adam Sandler. But the content’s not the point – the snuggling on the couch is. We’re still not texting or surfing – just being together. My sense from what they’ve shared is that this is the medicine the kids need most from us to boost their immune systems.

By Sunday morning, something miraculous has happened. The 136 Emails in the inbox don’t bug me – I’ll get to them on Monday. The deficit in the finance meeting looms less large. We’ve always been blessed with enough, now too. The thing I wanted to clear with Joe on Friday that was gnawing at me – how he never remembers to write down the names of my friends who call – doesn’t seem worth raising. Cuz we’ve had such a rich weekend together, why would that matter.

Now if all this seems too good to be true, remember a few things. 1) We’ve been doing it for 20 years. Started small with just lighting Fri night candles. 2) Yes we live in the woods, but we have a lot of city dweller friends doing similar practices. In Boston they walk down the Charles River. 3) Remember how crazy my life was on Friday afternoon? I get stressed, reactive, short tempered like anyone else. All the more reason for the Shabbat soul balm. 4) There is no perfection here, just intention to rest. Try it and see how it works for you overtime. I just got an Email (on Monday) from my friend Marianne who said, “Gene and I have been doing Shabbat on Saturdays for the last 3 weeks and we LOVE it (her caps).” I think we all know that the pace of our lives is un-sustainable. We’re hungry for a break. And when we take it, our inner guides all applaud, and bow with gratitude.
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How then does Shabbat Consciousness permeate the week? The beauty is that it does. Now you have this embodied learning that the world will still turn without you holding it up. It’s OK to go for a swim in the morning or take a little time after the kids are out to make a smoothie with your favorite stuff in it – frozen blueberries for me. And if you respond to Emails 15 minutes later, your colleagues will still love you. Maybe even more because your response will be that much more thoughtful, even wise. And it will – OMG – contain full sentences complete with periods and zero TLA (three letter acronyms!).

Do you know what this means for a card carrying recovering work-oholic like me? My dad’s famous line – “work, work, work, think later” -- fully embedded in my cells five decades later? It’s radical, counter-cultural, even subversive. We call it “radical rest” because the implications of this simple practice are revolutionary. Read on.

For the sake of the planet we seek to mend and heal, a deep impact of the practice is that we learn how satisfying it is not to buy anything. The traditional Shabbat approach is not to engage in any commerce, not because that would be evil, but because, given the perfection of creation in the moment, there is nothing we need to acquire. Take a day off from shopping for food, clothes, books, toys, vacation, electronics, sports-gear; yours, his, theirs, anybody’s. Take a day off from hearing or seeing advertisements reminding you of the things you just have to have. Take a day off from spending any money at all. Don’t get in the car to drive to the mall. For bonus points don’t get in the car at all! (Imagine the collective impact on the Green House Gas count!). You know what happens? First there’s a bit of withdrawal – like if you’ve ever kicked alcohol, or caffeine or any other addiction. The beginning takes a little discipline to move beyond our habitual patterns. But once that’s through, you’re free. A deep peace spreads within, around and through you. A peace that’s a salve to your nerves and a balm to your soul. Everything looks, feels, tastes different. It’s all good. Maybe that’s why it says, “On the 7th day G-d rested” because it was “all good, very good.”

Back to the work week: you find you have less of a desire to buy stuff just for the sake of filling some un-named hunger. Cause now you know that the best way to feed those hungers is through connection with your self, your soul, your beloveds and the great healer GAIA herself. Couple the experience that those deeper hungers are met through non-material means, with an awareness of how damaging current industrial throughput is to the planet – about 96 pounds of industrial waste created for every 4 pounds of material. So that 4 pound printer of yours really weighs 100 pounds. And you’ll really start acquiring fewer things. Credit card debt goes down, fear of going bankrupt goes down, drive to drive yourself to make more money goes down, peace of heart and mind go up, peace at home go up. Sorry George W. Bush, we’re not going shopping on the morning after 9/11. We’ve found a different kind of peace, one that happens all week long. There’s motivation to practice Shabbat again next Friday night. And from now on.

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