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Renee Dubeau

Creative Nonfiction & Inspirational Shit

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inspiration

Where did “You Are Important” come from?

I live in an affluent little bubble in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. The poverty and hunger here are well hidden, tucked away behind strip malls and subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and swimming pools. But, if you pay attention, you’ll see it. Panhandling is forbidden in suburbia, so you have to look beyond street corners and exit ramps to find our homeless and hungry. Or, sometimes, you don’t have to go looking. Sometimes, they jump right out at you. That’s what happened to me.

I was working for a large health care company as a claims adjuster. I was a single mom with two teenagers at home, and often started my work day before the sun came up. There was a Starbucks on my way to work, where I stopped frequently before my six o’clock shift started. I thought nothing of the five dollar coconut milk latte I enjoyed several days week— a necessary luxury to begin my long day of staring at spreadsheets and medical claims. That’s where I saw him.

I was sitting in the drive-through waiting to order my much needed cup of motivation when I noticed one lonely car in the strip mall parking lot. All of the stores were closed, and would be for hours. Maybe that’s why it looked so strange there, all alone, in the well-lit space between the Starbucks and the Bed Bath and Beyond. It wasn’t the typical car you see in that particular part of town. It was older, and showed more wear.

As I examined the little, red car in the early-morning-empty-lot, I found that the driver of the vehicle was reclined in the front seat, asleep. It was strange. Not something you see every day. But, certainly, he had chosen a safe place to rest. I assumed he was a traveler who had pulled off the nearby interstate for a nap. That is, until the next time I saw him there in the same spot, sleeping in the rain a few days later.

On the third occasion I saw this stranger sleeping in his little red car, he had the driver’s side door propped open, his bare foot extended out onto the ground below him. That was the morning I made an agreement with myself: If I was going to take my privileged ass through that drive through for another latte, I had to bring him breakfast.

I had an appointment one morning, and was driving to the office late when I remembered the stranger. This was the perfect day to make good on my agreement. I drove by to see if he was there, and my heart jumped at the sight of his little red car. I drove across the street to  McDonald’s and ordered a little bit of everything. I had no idea what this man might like for breakfast, or how he took his coffee, or if he drank coffee at all. When I returned with a bag of breakfast foods, coffee and juice he was awake, sitting up in the front seat. I pulled up next to him, gathered the items, and got out of my car.

I was suddenly nervous. I felt my heart speeding up with each step I took toward his driver side door. I quickly noticed that his car was full from floor board to ceiling with clothing, blankets, trash and all kinds of things. He was talking on a cell phone when I knocked on his window.

“Um, just a second,” he said, placing his phone on the pile of items in the passenger seat. He was a young man, maybe in his twenties. He had dark hair, dark features, kind eyes. 

“Good morning! I brought you some breakfast.” I said, extending the bag and cardboard cup holder toward him.

“Thank you so much!” He took the items from my now trembling hands. “You are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you. What made you want to do this today?”

The honest answer to his question was guilt. I felt guilty sitting in that drive through every day waiting for my coffee while he slept in his car. I felt guilty for having the luxury of my latte habit, and the comfort of the bed I had just left to go to my job that afforded me a life that did not necessitate things like sleeping in my car in a well-lit strip mall parking lot. Probably, this stemmed from my deeper guilt of leaving my family behind in rural Michigan to go make a better life for myself, and being mostly absent from their daily struggles. It was like survivor’s guilt. I could’ve been the one sleeping in my car, but by some miracle, I wasn’t. I had more than I needed, and felt compelled to share my good fortune with this young stranger.

When I opened my mouth to speak, guilt was not on the list of things that came out. The words that fell from my lips were as much a surprise to me as they were to him.

“I want you to know that you are important, and your life matters. People care about you— even some you’ve never met. So, you have to take good care of yourself. Ok?”

“I don’t know how to thank you…”

“You don’t need to thank me. Just pay it forward someday.”

“I will. I promise. Thank you so much for breakfast. This is really nice.”

“You’re very welcome. Have a great day,” I said, turning to get back in my car.

I felt the lump in my throat growing. Where did that come from? By the time I closed my car door tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“You are important. Your life matters. People care about you- even some you’ve never met. Take good care of yourself.” I repeated the message.

I was sure that something bigger than me had spoken those words. I was so shaken by it, I forgot one very important thing: I didn’t ask the kind stranger for his name- the one way for me to really acknowledge his existence, his humanity- and I forgot to ask. I made another agreement with myself- next time I would bring him a meal and ask his name.

I looked for my friend in the little red car every time I stopped for coffee after that day, but I never saw him again. I never had the opportunity to ask his name or bring him another hot breakfast, but our relationship was far from over.

On my way to the Starbucks, when I looked for the little red car each morning, I had to drive by a large construction site. At first, I thought it was going to be another strip mall. I watched all the trees vanish from the lot, which made me infinitely sad as I thought about all the little creatures who were pushed out of their homes. When the  building began to take shape it was massive- definitely not a strip mall. Then, a sign went up, advertising a new mega church. If there was anything we needed even less than another stupid strip mall, it was another stupid mega church.

I googled the church and found that it came with a price tag of twenty-two million dollars. Less than two miles away from the twenty-two million dollar mega church was the parking lot where the young man in the red car slept. The juxtaposition of these things infuriated me so much, I had to write about it.

I had been blogging for my own personal entertainment for several years. I had just started a little series on my blog called “Buddha Girl in Jesus Town” where I  talked about my personal spiritual journey, and how strange it was to live in the Bible Belt as someone who does not identify as Christian. I began writing a piece I thought I would add to the series, called, “Why Mega Churches are Mega Bullshit”.

As an existentialist, I am always looking for purpose and meaning. As I wrote about the new twenty-two million dollar mega church, I was filled with indignation. I could not fathom how an organization that was supposed to be based on the teachings of Jesus could justify building an arena to honor him— something he would not have wanted according to the teachings in the new testament— instead of feeding our hungry, and housing our homeless. It was a shining example of the kind of superficial, misguided, self-serving hypocrisy I had come to expect from modern Christianity- and the epitome of everything I hate about organized religion.

In the article, I broke down twenty-two million dollars into the number of meals our local homeless shelter could provide. I truly believe this would have pleased Jesus, who taught on hillsides and in the marketplaces, and did not need a temple to make himself look important. As I finished my little rant, I felt a nudge. It was a gentle, familiar push. I had been flirting  with the idea of sending my work out to actual publications for some time. Before clicking the “publish” button on my WordPress site, I went to Elephant Journal’s homepage to read their submission requirements, again.

The toned-down-a-bit version of my piece, “What Mega Churches are Missing” became my first published article on Elephant Journal. When the editor sent me my published link, she said, “This is great writing. I can’t wait to see more from you. Congratulations!”

I cried tears of joy for about three days after the article went live, as people read it, sent me notes, commented, and shared it all over social media. The article was read over five thousand times, and even people who identified as Christian reached out to tell me how much my words resonated with them.

This opened the door to my writing career.

 Over the next 3 years, I would go on to publish more than one hundred articles. My face was added to the Elephant Journal homepage as a Featured Author, and stayed there until I decided to branch out and send my work to other publications. I self published my first book on Amazon- a collection of short stories from my first little blog, Dysfunction Diaries.

That first article about the man in the red car and the bullshit church changed my life in ways I never imagined. It gave me the opportunity to share my personal story. I wrote about mental illness, sexual abuse, feminism, parenting, relationships, and all kinds of current events. I wrote about all the things you’re supposed to avoid in conversation- religion, politics, sex and death. I wrote little love notes to people I had never met, reminding them how perfectly wonderful they are.

I was amazed at the ripple effect that happened as I shared my story. Strangers reached out to tell me how much my words helped them. People who had carried their painful family secrets their whole lives shared those secrets with me. For the first time, I saw the purpose for my suffering, and how sharing my painful past could help other people. I watched as people I loved began to open and share their own stories, many of them even started blogs, and some began submitting their work to Elephant Journal. I felt incredibly humbled and grateful to be part of each journey that intersected mine.

Sometimes, I wonder if the man in a little red car was an angel, sent here to help me find my voice, purpose and power. Sometimes, I wish I could share with him how my life changed after meeting him. Sometimes, I wonder what became of him, and send love into the universe with wishes for his comfort, peace and prosperity.

That was four years ago, and the words are still with me. I still make bags to keep in my car for our local homeless population with hand warmers, toiletries, snacks and a note card with “YOU ARE IMPORTANT” written in big, bold letters. Sometimes, when handed a bag of treats with this message inside, grown men put a hand to their chest and ask, “Me?” It brings me to tears every time, and I say, “Yes. You.”

I thought I was delivering a gift to someone in need that fateful morning. As it turns out, I was the one receiving a gift. This work is my way of paying forward the incredible inspiration and healing that began that day. 

You Are Important is now the working title for my current work in progress. It’s a book about how to overcome our circumstances and create a life we love. It all begins with realizing that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we deserve to have all the things we might think are outside of our reach. But, it’s more than just a book- it’s a call to action. It’s a little push to get uncomfortable and look at the things we may be avoiding so we can resolve them once and for all. It’s a reminder that we get to choose who we will be in this life, and create our experiences through the things we do every day. It’s my challenge to everyone who’s ready; to live authentically, leave our excuses behind, and become who we were born to be.

Most of all, You Are Important is a message of hope and universal love. Our worth is not determined by our bank accounts, job titles, clothing, zip codes, or any other earthly measure. Our worth is inherient. We don’t need to earn, prove or beg for it. It’s woven into the fabric of who we are. We are important because we exist- all of us. When we begin to look at ourselves as worthy, we open up to new ideas and opportunities. When we recognize that all humans are worthy, we might begin to see people differently- we might even treat them differently.

As I work to complete this project, and seek publishing opportunities, I’ll be sharing some little nuggets here to get us thinking about how to make our lives, and the whole wide world around us, even more amazing. Please, join me.

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Kids are Resilient, and Unicorns are Real.

My kids are incredible humans. They’ve been through a lot in their lives, which has shaped them into kind, compassionate, wise young people. My son and I were up late the other night talking about relationships, when he said something amazing to me.

“I don’t want to settle, mom. I see how happy you and Matt are, and I want that kind of love. I want to wait for something like that.”

His sweet words brought tears to my eyes, and I realized that he has watched me come full circle.

My kids had a front row seat for some of the worst years of my life. One of my greatest regrets as a mother was that I stayed in a toxic, broken marriage for many years longer than I should have. I was weak, depressed, lonely, disengaged, and hopeless. I felt trapped. Lost. I wasted precious years believing that I deserved to be miserable, and wore my wedding ring like shackles, all the while believing that I was doing something good for my kids. I didn’t want them to be from a broken home, then I realized that it was even worse for them to be living in one.

I hated the example I set for my kids. Having grown up in a home full of dysfunction and abuse, I knew that unhappy parents couldn’t raise happy kids. I really wanted to give them the healthy, happy home I wished for all my life. I wanted to give them the mother I needed when I was small. I wanted to model a healthy, loving, supportive marriage for them.

Instead, I allowed things to happen in our home that never should have. I avoided our problems, just like my mother did, just like I always said I wouldn’t. I was little more than a doormat for most of their childhood, unable to stand up for myself or for them.

I felt like a failure.

When I finally left his father, my son was twelve. He watched me twist in the wind, hollow and afraid. I thought leaving would be the key to my happiness. I didn’t know that just beyond our picket fence was the wilderness I would have to wander through to find a version of myself I could stand to look at in the mirror.

My kids watched me claw my way through returning to the workforce after nearly a decade of being a stay at home mom. They watched me pull myself out of the pit of my own self-loathing, go to therapy, and learn how to love myself, express my emotions in healthy ways, and find my voice. They watched me become empowered, confident, and free. Magically, we all began to heal and adjust to our new normal as a family of three.

Mid-metamorphosis, I took an intentional year of celibacy and solitude. I put a ring on my own finger, and I dated myself. I spoiled myself rotten with little gifts. I bought fresh flowers every week to keep on my kitchen table. I tried new things, met new people, traveled alone, took myself out for solo movie nights, and fancy dinners in pretty places. I took all the time, attention, energy, and love that I would have poured into a relationship, and poured them into myself . I got to know myself without the expectations and opinions of others, and let go of years of pain. I discovered interests and talents I didn’t know I had. I started building the life I wanted to live with intention and purpose, instead of letting life happen to me.

When I emerged from my chrysalis of self-care, I was a completely different person.

I didn’t think I would ever get married again. I was prepared for a long happy life with a herd of shelter cats in our modest home with a small library in it. I think in our culture we assume sometimes that single people are lonely. I was never lonely. I was active, engaged in a community of wonderful friends, volunteering, practicing yoga, dancing, becoming a published author, advancing in my career, and going on all kinds of adventures. I was finally happy- happy with myself, and happy by myself. The last thing I wanted was to fall down another rabbit hole to hell and end up in another miserable marriage.

But, then, I met Matt. As hard as I tried to analyze and over analyze everything he said to find the lies, there weren’t any. He was genuine and kind. When he made a promise, he kept it. When he said he would do something he did it. When he said he would be somewhere, he always showed up. It was super weird. I had never seen anything like it.

Matt is the quintessential Southern gentleman. As it turns out, chivalry is not dead. He opens doors, he pulls out chairs, he holds a strong arm across my chest when the car comes to a sudden stop, he treats people with respect and goes out of his way to help when there is a need, he calls me Beautiful like it’s my name. He’s an amazing dad to his daughters, and has become a huge part of my kids’ lives as well.

As our relationship grew deeper and we peeled back the layers of our lives and began to mesh them together, I realized that I had waited my whole life for him. He is the gentle, loving father I wished for as a little girl. He is the attentive, affectionate, sweet, supportive man that I wished for all the years my soul atrophied in the hands of a man who couldn’t love me. I had lived my whole life believing that my expectations were unrealistic– that kind, loving, honest men didn’t exist. Then, I met Matt, who is basically a unicorn, and my wishes came true.

I can honestly say that my relationship with Matt is the first healthy relationship I’ve ever had with a man. We come to the table as equals, we communicate effectively, we support each other in everything we do, we work hard together, and oh my gods do we play. Life is fun, and exciting, and we just seem to get better and better together. I never thought I would get married again, until I saw how wonderful a marriage could be if you find the right partner and invest the time and attention it takes to cultivate a happy life together.

I still regret that I wasted so many years being unhappy, and that I wasn’t fully present for my kids. I wish I had given them the best of me, and a better example. But, I am so grateful that they got to watch me fight for my life and become the woman I was born to be. I’m grateful that with my husband-to-be, I can show them an example of a strong, healthy marriage now. Truly, knowing that my son finds our relationship worthy of emulation is an honor. It makes me feel like I finally got things right.

I’ve heard children of divorce say that they will never get married, because they don’t want to live through the hell they watched their parents suffer, or put their own children through the pain that comes from unraveling a family unit. It makes my heart happy to know that my children are resilient, and that our divorce didn’t destroy their desire to find love and make families of their own someday.

In 78 days, my sweet son will walk me down the aisle, where Matt will be waiting with our daughters. Matt’s dad will read some pretty words, and tell us to exchange rings, and we will promise to love and cherish each other until we are parted by death. I will make that promise and mean it with my whole heart. Because, if life has taught me anything, it’s that unicorns are real, and when you find one you keep it and take really good care of it. Marriage can be tricky, and life is never certain, but when you have a partner who is willing to get in the trenches with you and help you find your way back out, you do everything you can to meet them with the same level of compassion and commitment.

It is my hope and wish that seeing the changes in me, and the contrast of my life today as compared to a decade ago will help my children find their own unicorns out in the world. (I’m pretty sure my daughter already has.)

I want them to love themselves enough to enjoy their own company until their perfect partner arrives to elevate them and take them to that next level of happiness and fulfillment in their lives. I want them to experience honest, unconditional love and mutual respect. I want to continue to show them what a happy, healthy marriage looks like, and how to work with their partners to make all of their dreams come true.

I’m grateful for every experience that brought me to this place in my life, where finally, I feel like I’m giving my kids an example I can be proud of. I hope that if nothing else, they can look at my life and see how powerful it is to invest in yourself and make necessary changes. When we do the work to become our best selves, we attract the right people to help us continue growing and evolving. And when we find that perfect partner, literally anything is possible- there are no dreams too big when you find your unicorn.

 

 

 

Photo credit: PxHere

 

 

 

 

 

How to Fight for Your Life.

When someone is critically injured, or is diagnosed with a serious illness, we often say that person is “fighting for their life”. As a healthcare worker, and hospice volunteer, I’ve watched many people fight these brutal battles. Whether a heart attack, cancer diagnosis, or a serious accident, patients have some common things they do while preparing to fight for their lives.

First, they assemble their teams. Or as we say in the South, we circle our wagons. We get our crew together, because, this is not a fight we can win by ourselves. No. We need help. So, we call our insurance company and find out what we can depend on them for. We research and find the best doctors, the most renowned hospitals, the most sought after  specialists. We make friends with the nurses, the pharmacist, the kind lady who delivers our meals. We gather our friends and family, and though it breaks their hearts a little bit to see us hurting and afraid, they suit up for battle. They will be our strength, our translators, and probably our sanity for as long as it takes to walk away from what are likely some of our worst days ever.

Once the team is all in place, and loved ones have gathered at ground zero, the planning begins. It’s time to make a treatment plan. We trust our doctors, the experts, to lead this process. We trust our intuition to tell us if they are on the right track. We get second opinions, third opinions whatever it takes until we feel comfortable.

We disobey our doctor and go to the internet. We Google our condition and read all the internet horror stories we can stomach. We look at the pictures. We can never un-see these awful pictures. Why did we go to Google after our doctor specifically said, “Hey, do yourself a favor and don’t consult Dr. Google.”?

Well… we can’t not go to Google. Google knows things, and what we need now is information, education, reassurance. And, we need to see those terrifying  pictures. We’re preparing. Planning. We can’t take anymore surprises. It’s time to go to war. We need all the help we can get.

When our team is in place, we’ve learned all we can, and a treatment plan is complete, the battle has only just begun. Now is the time to find out what you’re made of. Maybe, you begin chemotherapy, and quickly understand what people mean when they say that the treatment is worse than the disease. Maybe, you go to surgery to have your body cut apart and stapled back together. Maybe, you learn to walk again, talk again, how to swallow and speak. This is the dirty work. The nitty-gritty, gut wrenching chore of fighting through the pain, fear, set backs and sometimes unbelievably slow process of healing.

This is when your team is your lifeline. They make sure your needs are met. They don’t let you suffer alone. They’re right there in the trenches sharing your struggles, and marveling at your strength. They hold your hand, and your hair. They remind you how utterly capable you are. And when you sleep, they lean on each other. They cry. They pray. They take turns sitting at your bedside while the others run errands, and try to get some rest before their next shift of bedside watch.

Sometimes, things go exactly as planned. Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes your victory is swift and sweet. Sometimes, it’s hard fought and bitter ’til the end. Sometimes, we have to surrender to what is, and accept defeat. Win or lose, this fight changes us. We begin to look at our life in a new way. A line of demarcation is indelibly drawn, neatly compartmentalizing our life into the things that happened before the event that changed everything, and everything that happened after.

Before the cancer.

After the car accident.

Before the stroke.

After open heart surgery.

Somewhere along this road, something really important happens: We finally start getting our shit together.

We reprioritize everything. We get focused on what’s most important. Facing our mortality, being vulnerable and needing support, feeling weak and afraid– these are huge motivators for rethinking all of our life choices.

In the days and weeks that follow, we become masters of self-care. We are forced to listen to our bodies and examine every single thing that goes into them. We may give up our bad habits, our favorite foods, anything that stands between us and our healing. Because, we know without a doubt that we would trade anything in the world for the healthy body we probably took for granted right up until this terrible thing happened. We wouldn’t trade any number of pizzas, bottles of wine, or packs of cigarettes <insert applicable vice here> for the opportunity to have our health and wholeness restored.

Usually, we begin to focus on relationships. We find a new appreciation for our team, for all the things they sacrifice to take care of us when we need them most, for the ways they encourage us, support us, keep us laughing, and sneak us in our favorite take out, even if the nurse says, “no”. We know who our real friends are now. They are the ones who didn’t run when shit got difficult. They stayed, they loved us through it, and we cannot wait to return every single favor just as soon as life allows us the chance.

While fighting for our lives, we make amends with those we’ve wronged. We ask for forgiveness. We forgive others. We mend our fences, because we have to be ready for the unthinkable, and we can’t leave any unfinished business behind. We take a good look at our lives and take an honest inventory of the person we have become. We engage in life review- revisiting our favorite memories, our most painful moments, our regrets, and maybe even that list of things we always said we wanted to do “someday”.

You know, someday.

That day in the arbitrary future when whatever perfect world scenario we’re waiting on is supposed to come to fruition. When work calms down, when the kids are bigger, when we have more money, or time, or focus, or whatever limitation we’ve imaged is keeping us from doing that thing we want to do.

When we realize that we might not get another someday, those experiences, goals, accomplishments- whatever we were putting off- might just be our motivation to keep fighting. We start doing whatever it takes to make sure we get to see the sunset in that city we always meant to visit, write that book, stick our feet in that ocean, or hold that grandbaby we just know will be on the way just as soon as the kids are ready. Whatever it is suddenly consumes us. It gives us hope, purpose, comfort.

This thing we return to on the days when we think we can’t fight anymore is there to remind us that we’re not done living yet. It becomes our touchstone.

Sadly, in our culture of chronic busyness and distraction, sometimes it takes something dramatic like a heart attack, or a car wreck to wake us up. Sometimes unthinkable things happen to make us fight for the privilege it is to exist on this earth. To remind us what’s important, or teach us how to take care of ourselves.

Life throws us all kinds of curves- they don’t have to be health scares. They can be anything that makes us turn off our autopilots, stop coasting, wake up and really get serious about creating the lives we truly desire.

My life has lots of these lines of demarcation- and moments that changed me.

I was a different person before my first child was born.

After I left my hometown.

Before my grandmother died.

After my divorce.

Before returning to the workforce after a decade at home.

After meeting my husband-to-be.

The process for major life changes is pretty much exactly like navigating a serious illness or injury. The same gathering of important people and reprioritizing everything else needs to happen. And, holding onto our touchstone reminds us why we need to do the very important, difficult, sometimes heart breaking work of tearing down our life and rebuilding it.

While fighting for the life we most desire, we need our team. They will remind us that we are utterly capable of dealing with whatever we’re going through. They will listen, they will hold our hands, they will remind us who we are, and why it’s so important to keep on keeping on the journey. They will be right there in the trenches while we gut out the hard days, and when we rise victorious, they will celebrate with us.

We need a plan. Not just dreams or goals. Actual plans that do not begin someday.

If you want to buy a house, change jobs, lose weight- whatever the practical things are you’ve been putting off- make a plan. Consult the experts, read, learn all you can about the things you want to do. Then, do them.

Do the practical things and the fun things you’ve been putting off.

Do the things you wish you could do, but fear has kept you from them.

Do the thing you would do if you knew you couldn’t fail.

Do it all. Make a plan, and do it soon, because  someday is not promised.

Our someday is today. Right now. This is when life happens. Now.

Become a master of self-care. Take all the time needed to take care of yourself, improve yourself, and make yourself the happiest, healthiest, best self you can be. Examine every single part of your life and decide what makes you better, what depletes you, what feels good, what makes you feel satisfied. Listen to your body, your intuition, your spirit. Then, adjust accordingly. Leave the job you hate. Move to that city you’ve always wanted to call home. Open the restaurant, do the open mic night, hang your art on the walls of your favorite coffee shop. That’s your touchstone. That thing- the idea of it, the feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, fulfillment that you know will come with it- that’s your motivator for rethinking all your life choices.

You see, we don’t have to be sick or injured to fight for our lives. We can fight for them everyday, through the sea of distraction, and the mountains of excuses we make to stay stuck. We can assemble our team, learn everything we need to know, make a plan, and go to war until that impossible thing we thought we might never do becomes a line of demarcation in our life.

When we look back on the time we fought for that thing, we see our courage and strength. We see how life seems to give us everything we need, right at the time when we need it most. Most of all, we see what’s really important, what makes us feel happy and safe, and how utterly capable we are to handle any challenge.

Circle your wagons. Find your touchstone. Mend your fences. Make a plan. Get in there and fight for the life you deserve.

 

Photo: Wiki Commons

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