Category Archives: integrity

Words to a Dying Cat: On Buddhist Right Speech vs. Quaker Testimony of Integrity

Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

It was time. Kosette was 18 days shy of her 18th birthday, but though her chronic health conditions (kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure) appeared stable, new symptoms had manifested that strongly suggested she had a brain tumor behind one of her eyes. We’d watched Kosette’s behavior, likely due to the suspected brain tumor, deteriorate over the last two days. We’d watched her suffer from anxiety–from fear of being left alone, but not wanting us to touch or pet her. We knew that, if she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, we would choose to euthanize her to end suffering. The appointment was scheduled for 5:30. At 5:10, it was time to load Kosette into a carrier and drive her to the vet, possibly for the last time.

Where before loading her into a carrier was easy and she would be relaxed the whole drive (and at the vet’s office), this time was different. She was confused and alarmed and fought us as we gently but firmly pushed her into the carrier. What used to be a calm, routine occurrence for her was now terrifying, as if this had never happened before. She was frantic and crying. Once in the car, she cried out in panic the entire drive to the vet.

Attempting to calm her, I told her repeatedly in the car, “It’s okay. It’s okay, Kosette. It’s okay.” 

I don’t know if it helped at all, but I had to try. My husband, who was driving, said nothing.

Later–after she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and we had made the decision to put her down (read more about Kosette here)–I asked my husband why he had said nothing.

“Because it wasn’t okay. We were taking her to the vet to put her down.”


Over a year later, this exchange has stuck with me, not just because of the sorrow of the moment, but because of how this exchange illustrates an apparent disagreement between my Quaker and Buddhist faiths.

Quakerism has a Testimony of Integrity; we Quakers have a reputation as truth-tellers:

“To Friends, the concept of integrity includes personal wholeness and consistency as well as honesty and fair dealings. From personal and inward integrity flow the outward signs of integrity, which include honesty and fairness. It is not only about telling the truth – it is applying ultimate truth to each situation. For example, Friends (Quakers) believe that integrity requires avoiding statements that are technically true but misleading.” from Wikipedia/Testimony of Integrity

For Quakers, telling the truth–the whole truth–is important. It is part of why I identify as a Quaker, because this act of being truthful–always–is an important part of why I am and has guided my behavior for as long as I can remember.

While Buddhism has a practice of Right Speech, this practice differences significantly from the Quaker Testimony of Integrity; in that Right Speech usually requires telling the truth, but not always:

“Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, ‘I was just telling the truth.’ It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is ‘Right’ in both form and content.”
from “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Since becoming both a Buddhist and a Quaker, this discrepancy between my two faiths has remained a constant inner conflict. When presented with a challenging conversation in which I am forced to respond in a way that will have notable consequences depending on how much of the truth I reveal or how I choose to deflect the truth, I am pulled in two directions: do I answer always with the full truth of what I know and how I understand it, even if such an answer is likely to result in increased suffering or harm; or do I find a way to answer that may not reveal the entire truth as I understand it, but seems likely to result in a lessening of suffering or at least preventing the suffering that telling the whole truth would have resulted in?

In those words I uttered to Kosette–“It’s okay”–I knew it was not okay. I knew we were likely taking her to the vet to put her down. There is nothing that is okay about having to make that decision. But in that moment, I knew that–for me, at least–what was more important than telling the truth was saying something that could possibly relieve Kosette’s suffering and calm her down. “It’s okay” was what I would usually say to her when she was upset and I’m trying to calm her down. At that moment, I chose Right Speech over Integrity.

My husband, who is neither Quaker nor Buddhist but whose ethics usually accord with my own, chose to say nothing because he would not lie to her. And I also suspect it was easier for him at that heart-breaking moment to say nothing instead of saying something he knew in his core to be a lie.

Would I make the same choice if it had been a person I was speaking to instead of a cat? Reflecting back on that day, I believe both of us made the right decision, because both of us acted out of love for Kosette.

The longer I live, the more I pull away from the idea that speaking the entire truth all the time is always the right thing to do. In an ideal world, there would be no need to ever mince words or stretch the truth or tell a “white lie”. But this world is not an ideal one. And relationships between people are so much more complicated than the relationships I have with cats.

For example, a person may choose to tell me something in confidence that I promise not to share or let others know about. If later, someone asks me a question that I know the answer to, but answering truthfully would break my promise, what is the best way to respond? If I refuse to answer when the person knows I can answer, that often will indicate one way or another the answer I am trying to avoid revealing. And to lie outright, well, that is not an action I usually consider as an option. Telling the truth as I understand it is, and has always been, important to me. People who know me well know that I will tell you the truth if you ask for it and if I can do so in a way that’s not harmful to others or to you.

And yet, I remember what happened with Kosette that night. When it comes down to it, comforting her (as best as I could) was more important to me than sticking to my ethical rules. When it comes down to it, behaving in a way that reduces suffering as best as I can is more important to me than following a strict set of rules. When it comes down it, I care more about the being I’m interacting with–person or cat–than about notions of integrity or Right Speech.

Because ultimately, what is most important to me is not notions, but actions. How can I speak in such a way that reduces suffering? How can I respond to that of God in this person by my words and actions?

Every moment is different. Every person (or cat!) is different. All I can do is try to approach each moment mindfully and be aware of how my actions may reduce or increase suffering and try to behave in such a way that will reduce suffering instead of increasing it.

And I will fail. I will tell a dying cat that it is okay when it’s not in an almost-certainly futile attempt to relieve her suffering. I will say or write words that will harm people. I will make mistakes.

But I will keep trying.

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Moving On…

I just sent the following email to the leader of the Bible listening/study group I wrote about in in this post:

I’ve had a growing sense of discomfort about attending the Bible listening group on Tuesdays for a few weeks now. It’s finally crystallized to the point where I can voice the source of that discomfort.

I’m not a Christian.

At least, not in the sense that you all are. I don’t believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, Jesus’s divinity, or his bodily resurrection… and I don’t believe this is a failing that needs to be fixed. I do believe in his teachings and do my best to follow them, but the most I could say is that I’m ethically Christian, but not religiously.

I feel that not only would it be dishonest for me to continue attending, but I worry it could also be harmful to the group. I worry that honestly expressing my faith could make others in the group uncomfortable about expressing theirs. And I don’t want that, not at all.

I really respect you all and what the group does. I’ve enjoyed the fellowship and getting to know all of you. And I’ve especially enjoyed the opportunity to see [friend] every week and am hesitant to give that up; however, I feel that my leading to attend the group has ended.

I wish you all well and will continue praying for each of you every night. Please feel free to share this email with the group.

Leadings are strange sometimes. You think you know where they’re going to take you, and you end up somewhere completely different. I’ve been struggling with the “Am I a Christian?” question for a number of years now. I keep coming up with answers, but the question keeps returning. I won’t promise that this is the last time I’ll post on here about this question, but the sense of… relief I have now, after sending that email, is palpable. The weight has been removed from my shoulders.

I can move on now. To what, I don’t know. I will wait until that weight returns, that sense of urgency… that sense of being led returns. And then, I will follow that leading as best as I can and try to remember that only God knows why.

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Integrity and Right Speech

The slogan I pulled for today is:

“I take up the way of speaking truthfully.”

which was one of my Precept vows.

As a Quaker, we have a Testimony of Integrity that has its roots in Jesus’s command to “let your yea be yea and your nay be nay”. This is a testimony I’ve always felt strongly about and have practiced since I was a child, though I didn’t know about Quakerism back then. I’ve always prided myself on my honesty: I’m the type of person who, when accidentally buying a gift card with 2 envelopes, will be uncomfortable until I’m able to return the extra envelope to the shelf (true story: I felt a huge sense of relief when I was finally able to put the extra envelope back in the store).

But there may be times when telling the truth can be harmful:

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept.
“The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

For example, my grandmere (grandmother) is old, traditional, Catholic, and English isn’t her first language. She grew up in a location where the only Christians were Catholics, and the only other religions were Muslim, Jewish, and Druze. Those 4 religions encompass her entire understanding of religion, and she, while a wonderful person, is neither smart enough to understand how Quakerism is different from Catholicism and yet still Christian (I consider Quakerism a Christian religion even though one can be Quaker and not Christian), nor is my French quite good enough to explain the differences adequately under such circumstances. When I first joined my Quaker Meeting, I attempted to explain to Grandmere about my new faith, because I felt it would be dishonest not to do so. This effort led to a lot of confusion and frustration.

But now, I don’t try to explain the differences. When she says things like, “God be with you”, I reply, “And with you, too, Grandmere”, even though I know that her understanding of God is different than mine. I focus on what we have in common–our faith in God, that we are both very committed to our faith–instead of worrying about whether she really understands how my faith is different from hers.

I don’t feel this is dishonest or an affront to my Integrity. Instead, I feel that this approach speaks to the Truth my Grandmere and I share.

There are other times, too, when I can see the truth in a situation, but know that the person I’m speaking to is not at a place where they can hear the truth and that telling the truth when a person is unable to hear it can be harmful. Instead, I try to nudge that person gently towards the truth, step by step, with the hope that one day, he or she will be ready to accept it.

Have any of you had similar experiences?

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Gifts from Unexpected People

I’ve been a bit depressed this week about my JRA (Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). I saw my rheumatologist on Wednesday, and he confirmed what I’ve been suspecting: that my jaw joints are swollen. This means that I have to wear anti-inflammatory patches over my jaw joints on my face. Very fashionable, as you can imagine. After the appointment, I went to have my hands x-rayed. As my hands were getting x-rayed, I was struck by their deformities and it hit me: these are not the hands I had even 5 years ago. And that sounds stupid in a way, seeing as how I’ve had two hand surgeries in the last 2 years, so obviously these hands are different than the ones I had even 2 years ago. But what was really striking me was my finger deformities: how much worse they’ve gotten. The fingers I’ve been ignoring and trying not to think about because there are no good surgical options for fingers. The fingers I’ve been pretending have been stable all this time and haven’t been getting worse–it’s just been my wrist or thumb problems that have been causing my pain.

This led me to be pretty depressed and to resurrect a long-hidden feeling I’ve had that my body is a time-bomb and that one day all that will be left of me is disability and pain.

I still have that fear. I will always have that fear. But last night, I received a gift from a phone call.

My stepsister called me to ask how I deal with being in constant pain. Considering my emotional state those last few days, I found the question deeply ironic and more than a bit darkly humorous. “She’s asking me how I deal with it now? This is such a cosmic joke!” But I made the decision about a year ago to try to be honest and open with everyone I talk to, and I kept it. I answered her honestly, that right now I wasn’t dealing well with it and that I’m still in the process of figuring out the answer. But as I was talking, I remembered something I figured out months ago and had forgotten. So I shared it with her.

“When I start hurting, I have this tendency to panic, to feel like the pain is never going to end. And, rationally, I know that’s not likely, but that’s my fear. But a while ago, I realized that even if the pain I’m currently in never goes away, I don’t have to deal with all of that pain right now. The only pain I have to deal with right now is the actual pain that I’m in right now.”

She wasn’t the only one that needed to hear that. I did, too. So today, though physically I’m worse than I was yesterday, I’m emotionally better, because I’ve remembered that there is another way to deal with my health issues than the cycle of avoidance and depression I’ve been stuck in.

All I have to deal with today is how I’m feeling today. And that’s so much less of a burden than trying to deal with how I fear I might be feeling forever.

So, thank you, Alex, for calling me last night.

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Uneven Footing

I’ve had a lot percolating in my mind recently. I wanted things to settle, to develop into a more definite shape, before saying anything on here. But I am starting to think that maybe the murkiness is the message.

I am on uneven footing. Nothing significant in my life has changed recently, but I’ve been unable to find a consistent schedule during the day and have been unable to attend Meeting for Worship regularly. Both of these have contributed to my current state of discomfort. I feel distanced from my Meeting, and from God. I doubt my ability to discern accurately leadings from my old addiction to drama. I worry that I’ve turned into the kind of person who can only see the bad in things and not the good.

I worry that it’s been my interaction with my Meeting over the last year that has led me to this.

I am still not sure of how much to say on here and what I should hold back and keep for private until God bonks me on the head and says, “ENOUGH! I told you to SPEAK, didn’t I? That was the leading you were given! Why have you not been faithful?”

And that’s the crux of it: I was given a leading to speak up:

I am, quite simply, being called to speak. I am being called to break the silence that smothers my Meeting with regards to non-heterosexual people, loves, sexuality, and even faith. I am being called to stand up and challenge heterosexism whenever and wherever I see it.

I am being called to honor silence when used in worship, but to reject silence when it is oppressive. I am called to respect the comfort levels of other people, but only when they do not deny a part of my being.

from here.

Have I been faithful? Have I been faithful? No. I’ve stayed silent out of fear of being ostracized in my Meeting and in one of my Meeting committees. I’ve stayed silent out of fear of being called a “trouble maker” again. I’ve stayed silent because I don’t want to lose my Meeting, and yet I feel it slipping further and further away from me the longer my voice is silenced by fear.

Here is what I feel: I feel decay within my Meeting. I feel that we’ve made our old Meetinghouses into sacred places, thus reducing the sacredness of the ordinary. I feel that we’ve fallen into the trap of worshiping silence instead of worshiping the Divine. I feel that we care more about maintaining the current status quo–not rocking the boat–more than we care about following leadings given to us by God. I feel that most of us are too busy with our own lives to truly want to do the work required to find unity: we want the unity without the work; what we get is consensus.

This is what I see. This is what I feel. But what I am being called to do with this, I don’t know. I wrote my Meeting a letter last spring that raised related, but different, concerns. The letter was handed to Overseers, who thanked me for the letter but didn’t believe my concerns were valid. That wasn’t exactly what was said, of course, but that is what their lack of action told me.

And thus, I am on uneven footing. The ground beneath me changes with each step. I feel like I’m floundering. And I can’t help but wonder: what if I am the problem? What if I’m making mountains out of molehills? What if they are right to disregard my concerns? And if I thought I was following a leading, how can I learn to trust my discernment again? How can I learn to trust God again, when following this leading (see here) has caused me so much pain and despair?

And yet, how can I say no?

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Clearness

One of the reasons I haven’t posted much in the last month is that I requested a Clearness Committee partially about the purpose of this blog. The meeting was yesterday. I still don’t have clearness about whether this blog should be used for ministry only or as a means of spiritual journaling, where I vent my questions and share my thoughts.

But the heart of this Clearness Committee was about my concern about the state of the Meeting with regards to gay marriage. This concern has two parts: first, I am concerned that where the Meeting is makes us not as welcoming as we should be to GLBTQ people; second, I am concerned about the damage done to the Meeting during the stage of conflict that led up to our current position and that time alone won’t adequately heal these wounds. (For the record, our position is that a gay couple can have a commitment ceremony with individual members taking that commitment under their care.)

Without going into too much detail about the inner workings of my Monthly Meeting, I discovered during the Clearness Committee meeting yesterday that even just defining what the letters GLBTQ stand for can be seen as stirring up controversy. This discovery occurred after the statement was made that I would have been treated exactly the same by the Meeting if my life partner had been a woman instead of a man; and that the Meeting has no problem welcoming GLBTQ people specifically. I asked: “How can our Meeting be truly welcoming to people when we can’t even discuss what their letter stands for?”

If we are so uncomfortable discussing sexuality that even the most general information can be seen as controversial, how can this not affect how we treat people who challenge our perceptions of “normal” sexuality and gender?

This saddens me greatly, because I had hoped that my Meeting was past this. And it saddens me to know that there must be people who don’t or won’t feel as welcome as everyone else in my Meeting community.

I went into the Clearness Committee meeting with one question first in my mind: what am I being called to do? It had become clear that my concern was not something I should lay down: because I’ve tried that in the past and it just keeps coming back. By the end of the meeting, I didn’t feel I had the clearness I’d been seeking. But it came to me last night, as I was trying to process what happened during the Clearness Committee meeting, that I do know what I’m being called to do and to say that I don’t know is just an excuse to give me the option to choose not to do it.

I am, quite simply, being called to speak. I am being called to break the silence that smothers my Meeting with regards to non-heterosexual people, loves, sexuality, and even faith. I am being called to stand up and challenge heterosexism whenever and wherever I see it.

I am being called to honor silence when used in worship, but to reject silence when it is oppressive. I am called to respect the comfort levels of other people, but only when they do not deny a part of my being.

I would prefer to keep silent. Anyone who knows my history well knows that I would rather be the one solving a conflict than stirring one up. By speaking up about an issue that will make others uncomfortable, I risk being called or thought of as an attention seeker, a troublemaker, or a drama queen. I am none of those things.

I’ve been struggling with the testimony of Integrity for a while. The only way I can truly live my life with Integrity is by speaking up when being silent would be denying part of who I am. I have to admit, though, that I am terrified.

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Quaker Queeries

After some thought, I’ve decided to join Brad of William Penn House as an author for his new blog, Quaker Queeries. We are hoping that this blog will be a place where different perspectives of sexuality and Quakerism will be brought forth, where a good conversation can be had about sexuality and how it relates to Quakerism. If any of you are interested in also being an author, let me know.

Today, I put up my first post. Joining this blog doesn’t mean that I’ll stop talking about my sexuality here; what it likely means is that I’ll talk about how my sexuality affects my personal faith here and how it affects my relationship with the RSOF on that blog.

Being a bisexual Quaker often challenges my notion of our Testimony of Integrity. I am a bisexual, and I am not ashamed to admit it when it comes up in conversation; but the truth is that it never comes up in conversation at all. Because I am married to a man, the assumption is that I’m straight. This leads me to the awkward question:

Am I violating our Testimony of Integrity by allowing people to believe something about me that isn’t true?

And then an even more awkward question follows if I answer yes:

How do I honor our Testimony of Integrity and correct people’s assumptions about me?

from here.

Also, I went to see the documentary for the Bible tells me so with a friend on Tuesday. I highly recommend this movie to everyone, especially people who are Christian and struggling with sexuality issues. This movie affected me so much that I’m not even really ready to talk about it. My thoughts are still jumbled. I hope to have something about it at some point…

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Testimonies

I think it is easier for me to live out our Quaker testimonies vicariously, through the works of other people (i.e., by donating to charities), than it is for me actually to live my live according to those testimonies. This is something I’ve been trying to work on recently, with varying degrees of effort.

First, the Testimony of Integrity. This one has got to be the hardest testimony of all of them; because before one can live a life of true integrity, honesty, and openness, one must first know who one is. And then, having found out who one is, one must figure out a way to share that with the world without starting unnecessary conflict (which would be against our Testimony of Peace). This Testimony is the hardest one for me to follow, partly because I’m bisexual in truth, but heterosexual in appearance. My Monthly Meeting was nearly torn apart several years ago, before I started attending, by a gay couple who wanted to be married under the care of the Meeting.

But today is National Coming Out Day. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered the Human Rights Campaign’s “Coming Out Kit”, expecting a pamphlet or two, receiving dozens of pamphlets, a small poster, bumper stickers, even balloons! I checked with the Testimonies and Concerns committee about whether it’d be alright for me to leave the extra pamphlets and bumper stickers and such in the common room; they said it’d be fine, just announce it after Meeting for Worship.

I was so nervous about leaving these pamphlets in our common room that I decided to put them there before Meeting for Worship, hoping that would allow me time to worship instead of worry. (Instead, I spent a good bit of time worrying about what exactly I was going to say and trying to remind myself to let go and let the Holy Spirit guide me.) I made the announcement without incident; now I’m worried that the pamphlets might have been removed by Meeting for Worship this Sunday.

This brings me to the Testimony of Equality. To me, this testimony says: “You are not God’s only child. You are not the only one worthy of God’s love [when I can get past my pride, I also realize that I’m not the only one receiving God’s love who does not deserve it.] You are not more important than anyone else.” A more positive way to say that would be: “You are part of God’s loving family. You are one of many who receives God’s love, regardless of if you deserve it or not. You are just as important as everyone else.” I try to live out this testimony by treating everyone with as much love and openness as I can (especially people I don’t know or who are societally different than me), and by being a kind, courteous driver. Every time I drive, I try to ask myself: am I driving in such a way that would make other drivers happy, or annoyed? Things I try to do: if I can safely move over so someone can merge onto the highway easily, I do; if someone wants to cut me off, I let them and don’t retaliate; I make left turns without causing fear or worry in people on the opposite side of the road; and I always (again, if I can safely) stop for people who want to cross the street.

The Testimony of Peace has been playing a large part in my life right now, because of what’s been going on with Jamie. To me, peace is not about avoiding conflict, but about dealing with conflict in a way that allows everyone to be who they truly are. And a large part of peace, which is often overlooked I feel by Friends (who tend to focus on things like being anti-war or our government’s aggressive foreign policies), is personal peace. How many of us can say we are at peace with our lives, with our behavior, with who we truly are? And, to take that one step further, how many of us have families who are not at peace with one another? Peace isn’t an outside-in process, but an inside-out process.

And finally, the Testimony of Simplicity. Every time I get sick or am otherwise unable to use my computer for several days, it always feel like work for me to catch up on all the websites, forums, and communities I frequent daily. I’ve made a friend from one of those communities named Ivy. Ivy is what I think of as a serious Jew. What I mean by that is that she takes her faith very, very seriously. I admire her greatly for trying to keep kosher in a world that, frankly, doesn’t make it easy financially or otherwise to do so. I admire her living up to her faith when it’d be easier for her not to. And one of the things I’ve learned about Judaism through her is that that faith has an awful lot of days of rest, reflection, and fasting. It got me to thinking: “I dedicate one hour and change to God per week. Yes, I try to keep him always in my thoughts, but most of the time I’m too busy with whatever it is I’m doing online.” So, I decided to start keeping Sundays holy again: all of Sunday, not just Meeting for Worship. I’ve made a resolution not to turn on my computer at all on Sundays. And it has been one of the best changes in my life I’ve made in a long time.

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Hope

I had a wonderful conversation with my mother-in-law on Friday, as she was driving me to my post-op appointment. Some background is necessary to appreciate how wonderful this conversation was for me: my mother-in-law is a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian who takes the Bible completely literally. We’ve spoken about religion before, but the conversation was very strained. So, here’s the conversation (paraphrased, obviously, as I wasn’t taking notes at the time):

ME: You know, one of the things I like so much about Buddhism is its focus on compassion and loving-kindness, and I think they’re very important.

MIL: I’ll be nice when I’m older.

ME: I’m starting young, I guess.

MIL: You know, Jesus also spoke about love and compassion.

ME: I know! That’s one of the things I like about Him so much!

Then I changed the subject, as I didn’t want to push my luck too far. But this is definite progress and gives me hope that maybe, one day, she’ll accept that my faith is just as valid as hers and stop waiting for me to find the “true” faith, the one that’ll get me into heaven.

It’s a long shot… but moments like this make me acknowledge that anything is possible… like holding in your hand — on the outside — the metal that’s held your tendons hostage for 7 years… or finding your cat who was lost for 4 months by word of month and hope alone…

like God existing and loving you.

Happy Father’s Day, God.

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Integrity, PS

“He who is trustworthy in the least matter is also trustworthy in the great one, and he who is dishonest in the least matter is also dishonest in the great one.” Luke, 16:10 (approx.)

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