Trellised or tied down?

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If you’ve ever seen a tree of a certain age, a gangly teenage tree, that has been previously supported by stakes but now has a tight ring squeezing ’round the trunk where the gardener forgot to remove the support straps, you’ve seen the difference between a rhythm/rule and a schedule. I never could really parse the difference for many years. Within the homeschool community you might also hear words like block scheduling or looping, too. The Schole women (Sarah Mackenzie, Pam Barnhill, and Mystie Winkler) have done such good work in helping homeschooling mamas find rhythms and routines that ease. Take your pick- there’s probably some time management theory you’ve heard of that you really like but, upon applying it to your own life and family, find it not to be as useful as you expected.

The problem with any of these very lovely and useful ideas is that we so very often try to “whole hog” apply them within our lives instead of picking and choosing the best gems and leaving the rest according to our family’s unique needs. A Rule helps us clarify what will be helpful and what won’t. Does this go inside the fence or outside of it? As I said in my last post, the idea of a rule by the very name sounds very oppressive- something that shackles. What I have discovered, however, is the exact opposite. Far from being a didactic, one-size-must-fit-all-approach, a rule is as unique as the person that follows it. In a monastery, no two rules are alike- for how would all the myriad needs of the monastery be met if the inhabitants only did the same things? (And, let’s be honest- how boring!)

So how do we tell the difference then, between what works and brings life and what does not? How can we tell a good support from something that ties us down and restricts us?

The tree, when young, most definitely needs the strong supports to help it form strong and true growth patterns and not be easily knocked by the wind. At a certain stage of growth, however, those supports must be removed or they will choke the tree, preventing it from further proper growth. Certain plants in the garden must be trellised and trained from the very beginning, like tomatoes. As tomatoes mature, the sheer abundance of fruit and weight of the plant requires that it have a trellised support to assist it in doing the work a tomato does- without it, the plants often collapse and the fruit rots on the vine because the nutrients have been cut off.

I think, as mothers and as women, we are both the tree and the tomato depending on seasons and needs.

As peculiar as this sounds, I believe home care chores like laundry, the kitchen, the bathrooms and the like are a tree situation. Yes, when you first enter a marriage or a new home, there is absolutely a need for a strong support, a schedule that reminds you what should be done and when. It shouldn’t ever be a thoughtless following of a list though-it should fit the home you’re in, the people that are present, the abilities and needs of each. But like the tree, there should come a point where home care becomes so instinctual (and thought-less) that a need to consult a schedule diminishes entirely. Signs that your support have become oppressive and are triggering perfectionist shut down? When you’re doing far more than is realistic in a day. When you’re following an idea or list that doesn’t fit your family or needs and you’re doing ridiculously piddly stuff like scrubbing baseboards with toothbrushes because the book or the list tells you to, every week. (For the record, mine get wiped down maybe twice a year.) Each house is different. Our main bathroom has to get cleaned far more often than most people’s would because of Josiah’s needs. Certain rooms get much more trashed much more quickly than others. When I finally realized that I needed to make a home care schedule work for me and not the other way around, caring for my home stopped overwhelming me. It took a bit of thought and trial and error to find the sweet spot, but I did eventually. Now we carry on easily, and the children can often move through a whole day’s chores without being reminded or nagged, because we all know what comes next.

There are other aspects that lean strongly towards a tomato’s needs. Homeschooling and meal planning are two great examples of where I will always need steady support in order to function in my vocation well; I will quickly collapse under the weight of the needs in both areas if my trellis is not in working order. I am quick to point out here that my trellis and your trellis look different, automatically. You do not have Celiacs children. I do. You may not be homeschooling six. I am. So what I need and what you might need are completely different, but we probably both need a steady support in certain areas. What’s interesting to me here is the uncomfortable truth that when I start to get overwhelmed, downtrodden, and my perfectionist is rearing her ugly head- nine times out of ten, I have been leaning too far from the trellis- I have not been disciplined in following the systems that I know bring life and order. I have skipped one too many planning sessions and now find myself lost as the kids sit down to the table for their lessons. Too many skipped errand days and suddenly I’m crying in front of the pantry at four thirty realizing that there is nothing to make for dinner. (This is far more catastrophic for us than most- there is no cheap quick fix for us with our gluten free needs. No running out for a pizza. While it’s available, the cost is far beyond our pocket.) In order for me to bear good, healthy fruit in these areas, I have to stay supported and trellised.

Before you go, yeah, yeah, that’s all nice and all, but my life is crazy, I work, etc., let me stop you right there. You know what our life looks like right now. With all the hospital visits, the doctor’s appointments, the back and forth- and the sheer irregularity of it all- we never really know from one week to the next what we’ll be facing. It is nutty, to say the least. I get how crazy it can be. Absolutely. I’m telling you- if you’re willing to be faithful in this one area, it will relieve so much of the crazy-making for you. The decision fatigue, the overwhelmed feeling- they will disappear. The rest of your life might still be absolutely crazy and unpredictable, but you’ll have a pocket of peace to slip into within the midst of it all.

I can’t really hold to any predictable pattern in most areas in a way that I could say to you, yes, we loop in our homeschool scheduling. We use this list for our home-care needs. That’s not so much because we don’t, but because it changes so quickly. When things are normal we tend to have a sort of block setup for homeschool lessons. As soon as hospital stuff starts to ratchet up, our lessons take on a looping schedule, picking up wherever we left off the day before. At the worst points when things have grown too crazy or difficult, they drop to a bare bones schedule. The common thread, the trellis, underlying our learning is simply that we value it and we will always make time for it in some way, shape, or form, every day. It requires a lot of forethought on my end over the weekends to assess what is the best fit for our needs that week, but it is something I absolutely commit to because it is important to me and to my family. I’ve found this year that the farthest interval I can go is two weeks of planning, and so I’ve committed to that interval. Originally, I had planned by terms.

The same can be said for any aspect of my home in many ways. According to my rule, I know what things are most important for me given the challenges I face during a particular week. As soon as I get a chance, I will bring the laundry current, clean our main bathroom, and reset our refrigerator and pantry. This is our bare bones. On a semi-normal week, I follow my general rhythm of a deep cleaned kitchen, a swept dining room and living room, both bathrooms cleaned, laundry done every day, and, if I’m lucky, some of our second and third floor spaces swept. On a normal week, each day has an area (mondays-kitchen, tuesdays- dining room/living room, etc) in which each space has a dedicated 30 minutes to an hour of care given it. On these days, the kitchen gets a proper scrub down- the stove eyes and cupboards get wiped down, the windows cleared of smears, the refrigerator and pantry get cleaned and straightened and the meal plan made for the week. I often shop on Mondays, and I often do a lot of cooking and baking ahead on those days when we have a truly quiet and normal week. It doesn’t always happen that way, but that is the rhythm I listen for and work towards as much as I can.

What I’ve found is that the more I can commit to our full, normal rhythm, the more it pays dividends on the really awful, crazy, wacky weeks that are completely beyond our control. If I’ve been following my Rule closely in the weeks leading up to a hospital visit, chances are things do not fall off the rails near as much. Sometimes I know a hospital stay is coming and I can plan ahead on each week- making a bit more to freeze in the kitchen, for example, on the designated day. I hit harder and faster some deeper projects that I might have taken more slowly if I didn’t know whackadoodle was around the corner, accelerating our cleaning schedule so that we basically leave for the hospital with the house in vacation condition and all the meals ready and planned for.

As I’m sure you can see, if I began to hold to just one particular schedule, one particular theory, I’d be absolutely sunk. The chains of all I could not do given our family life right now would slap pinching hard around my wrists and ankles. I’d drown under the weight of my (perceived) failure. Leaning into the freedom of my Rule, I can do what I can when I can, to the best of my abilities, and pay no mind to external pressures that might otherwise enslave me. As I said before, this takes time and discipline, but the dividends paid are priceless.

Bloom where you’re planted…

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On Instagram the other day, I shared that I was re-reading A Mother’s Rule of Life by Holly Pierlot while waiting at park. A friend asked what, on the surface, was a simple, probing, question.

I’ve been wondering if I should read that. I can’t decide if it would be validating or fuel for my perfectionist fire. But you liked it?

I chuckled a bit as I recognized a fellow perfectionist and then thought for a while, responding:

Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I feel like I’m a recovering perfectionist in a lot of ways. I read this about two and a half years ago, kind of in the midst of absolute nuthouse medically; I wasn’t actually homeschooling at the time…I was, as she describes, feeling like I was working three full time jobs and failing at all of them. I think what has stuck with me the most since I read it the first time *is* the freedom and peace and a release from that drive to “get it all done”. I think it’s helped that I’ve spent a lot of time with monastic types since then, too. But perhaps the most notable thing I’ve learned from both the book and the monastics is the almost ruthless need to say no. My life now looks *very* different now (much much quieter, much simpler) than it did when I first read this book. If anything it’s taught me to measure carefully how my heart/mind and our kids are feeling in the given situations. I understand so much more profoundly now that if I don’t have time to pray my schedule is messed up. I hope that helps! I’ve found it to be quite a gift but I can see how the book could also be a burden depending on your situation…

It’s a thread of thought that my mind just hasn’t let go of since.

There was a part of me that wanted to laugh and say- perfectionism? Want to rid yourself of perfectionism? Have two chronically ill kids! That’ll cure it right quick. As much as it makes me laugh to think of it, it is absolutely true. Talking to one of my favorite priests whom I hadn’t seen in awhile, I quickly summarized what had happened since he had seen us last thusly: I needed some humbling. This too, was said with a chuckle, and he laughed right along side, but we both knew the truth underneath the words. Watching a child suffer from illness- flesh of my flesh– will bring into stark relief just how little control one has on things, show you all the things you need to let go of. Chronic illness will constantly throw in your face how what you think and what you want and what you hope for just might not be in the plans for the day, week, or year. There are many moments along the way where you just survive in a sleep-deprived fog.

I would never have learned to say no, ruthlessly and without apology, to the needs and whims of the world around me had we not walked this incredibly tough road of having two children with constant (and in Elly’s case, mysterious) illness. Hospitals have a way of stripping things to bare essentials. You’re not thinking about dirty laundry or crunchy floors. You’re not thinking about who won the Super Bowl. You could care less if your home was magazine perfect- you just want your kid to be able to come home. What is truly necessary and essential will often stand out starkly to you in a way that makes you wonder why you ever wondered about it in the first place.

You realize you need to say yes far more often than you have before: yes to reading another book, mama. yes, your picture is really interesting, why don’t you tell me about it? yes, I’ll snuggle with you while we watch a movie. Yes, my dearest Beloved, I love you. How could I do this without you? Yes, I will spend this hour in prayer because I don’t know what else to do. I’m so scared, God. Have mercy on us. 

To say yes costs many a no.

No, I’m sorry, I can’t serve on that ministry in this way anymore. No, I’m sorry, we won’t be doing co-op this year. No, I will not work overtime. No, I can’t take that trip right now. No, this workload is too much. No, this is a beautiful dream, but it is not God’s timing for us right now. No, not right now. 

I’ve watched a few dreams fade to near nothingness over the past three years, and in so doing, I’ve realized what really ignites my passion. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines when there are dreams setting fire to my bones that I cannot pursue, because to say yes to the dream would mean what little emotional, physical, and mental capital our family “owns” at the moment would be spent injuriously and far too quickly. How hard it is to learn patience. I will wait till I know we have the “capital” in reserves.

Sick children have taught me to pray first, instead of last. Often, walking maze-like halls of hospital corridors turns labyrinth for prayer because there is literally nothing else you can do; to sit and wait for news will drive you half-mad. Very quickly, prayer becomes an abiding comfort- the one place you can escape into peace.

The title of Holly’s book alludes to an idea called a prayer or spiritual rule, which is part of a monastic’s main job within a monastery. Of course, they work in the kitchens or the gardens or sing in the choir or scrub the floors, but a monk or nun first and foremost is called to prayer- unceasing intercession for the world. As they join the monastery and gain strength in prayer, their Abbot or Mother will work with them to decide on a prayer rule unique to them- a set idea of prayers that they will pray each day- the number of times they might say a particular prayer, etc, what disciplines they should engage in. This is to help them in their vocation, a way to order their days. As Holly explains in her book. there is a tremendous amount of overlap between what a monk or nun do and what mothers are called to do, daily, and considers what it might be like to take on similar paths within the vocation of motherhood. It’s truly a beautiful and life giving book, and I can’t recommend it enough.

However, as I said above, I can see where perfectionism and the idea of a rule might just cause a tremendous road block. I read the book for the first time just as our medical nightmare was just beginning. I was reading the first half of the book while sitting in the hospital with Ellianna that first time. Of all our hospitalizations before or since, that week was the most terrifying.

It was also the biggest mess for us, logistically, financially, emotionally- of all of them, simply because we had no idea it was going to happen and we had no routine in place for basic things. The refrigerator and pantry were empty. There had been an awful winter storm the week before and our pipes had frozen; the laundry had barely begun to get caught up, if at all. Everyone had to scramble to cover the other kids, take off work. Three separate adults had to figure out the food for at least two or three days….it took my mother almost the full week to get our laundry back under control, only to have every single child get very sick with a stomach bug towards the end of Elly’s hospitalization.

I was sitting in that hospital room going, oh my word, you want me to have this set time for everything? Time to pray? Chores reasonably done every day? Are you insane? My life just turned upside down. I don’t even know what “bare basics” would look like for my family. I was absolutely hyperventilating at the thought. My INFJ, first-born mind was so wrapped up in perfectionist thoughts “I’d never be able to do this [right][perfectly][the first time]!” that I had just about talked myself out of continuing to read, let alone even trying some of her suggestions.

But…I was pretty desperate.

I stuck it out, and I tried what I could. It probably took nearly a year and a half, but by the time Josiah went into and out of the hospital five times in two months the following Spring, I had (and have) a Mother’s Rule- one that I will probably keep in similar form for many years to come. It is like night and day.

There is a tremendous amount of freedom in a Rule. It’s the whole open space of a playground inside the bounds of a fence. In a counter-intuitive way, obeying a rule- a fence- brings death to perfectionism. You know what’s important- you learn how to do it well- you learn how to do without even thinking. You make space for things that bring you joy.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about perfectionism, it tends to rear its ugly head when we are experiencing a fish out of water moment. It’s not something we’re familiar with, usually. It’s a way of being and doing that usually runs counter to our personality. Perfectionism is pride. It’s the toddler saying “I do this myself” (and not properly tying his shoe because he hasn’t quite learned and won’t allow anyone to help him.) How many times do you fall flat on your face because of your shoe-laces before you consider something new? Maybe you need velcro shoes!

As one of my friends once joked, perfectionism happens when you are a pile-er by nature but you try to file everything in color coded folders.  A perfectionist who is working against her nature would religiously keep that color coded file system for about a week. And then, little by little, the desk would get messier and messier. Till what? “I can’t do this right!” “I give up!” In contrast with an outside force, someone who has considered her personality and way of working would realize that instead of filing things, she needs to use open baskets that she can “see” at a glance. So it’s not what Real Simple recommends. Who cares? Are the bills getting paid on time? Yes. Does she know where to find important documents? Yes. Doe she know where to put paperwork when it comes in? Yes.

This is a simple example, but Holly talks you through far more complex thought processes. When forming a Rule, you’re going to learn to listen to your family’s (and your own) unique needs and temperaments and  make space accordingly.

Any time you start to feel a ‘slave’ to the Rule- newsflash– it’s not your Rule, most likely- it’s your own attitude.

My yoke is easy and my burden is light. How I used to wonder at that verse! How could this be possible? Two and a half years of following a Rule, and I’m starting to understand how it is so. I am so grateful to be relieved of the burden of perfectionism and guilt that wasn’t mine to carry in the first place. Every once in a while it tries to climb back on, but my Rule helps me to kick it to the curb. Get back outside the fence, Satan. You have no power here.

Keeper of the home…

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It’s not a surprise to me that after an intense period of upheaval there is an almost equally intense period where everything gets cleaned or scrubbed or cooked. It’s my way of making sense of the world, putting things to order. Some of it is practical of course- things tend to fall by the wayside and need to be put to rights. But mostly, it’s my way of nurturing both myself and my family back to a more even keel. I have been expanding my repertoire in the kitchen quite a bit this go round, inspired very much by Sarah Britton’s My New Roots cookbook and her blog. A dear friend of mine gifted me her Plant Based Nutrition class and it has gone miles towards making me more comfortable in my gluten free kitchen. The artist in me simply loves all the color and texture that is the hallmark of Sarah’s recipes- and the knowledge that they’ll all taste good. We haven’t found a one of hers we haven’t liked yet. I’ve also been ever so slowly editing our belongings over a period of six months, inspired mostly by Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s just something about the way she wrote it, her question- does this bring joy? that has helped me let go of many things that no longer need to be in our home or life. The last stand, of course, is all the paper and memories. As my efforts accelerated over the last few weeks, my little studio/office space became the landing spot for all the paper. I did that intentionally- I knew it would keep the fire under my bones to finish. I am so very close now- I’ve dealt with almost all the piles you see above and have only the medical paperwork and art supplies to finish. I’m sure I’ll be done by the middle of this week, and it feels wonderful to know I have crossed the finish line.

The hazy space between…

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Our hospital adventures are ended for the moment. I wrote last week on Instagram that:

Things feel all hazy and “off” to me today. I’m struggling to process all that was learned yesterday. Josiah is running around, happy, having one of his best post-op experiences to date. Ellianna is feverish and ill and has stayed curled in my lap all morning. Josiah’s diagnosis is life-long. We know that in a year or so he might find a “new normal” with treatment, but yesterday marks this transition from “it might get better with xyz” to this being a constant presence for the rest of his life and “here’s how we help him be comfortable/as normal as possible” and I think, there’s a bit of a grieving process with that. It’s bittersweet, these things. [The things they are diagnosing for Ellianna mean] we will be waiting six weeks to two months to know for sure before they can attempt treatment. It’s overwhelming. And hard to watch. We as mamas, we just want to help them feel better and it is the worst feeling in the world to be helpless. Keep us in your prayers as we go through this adjustment. Xoxo

Now a few days out, the haze is starting to fade.

Josiah is such a monkey. And the problems he faces are almost invisible to everyone, even me, on a day like Thursday was. He has boundless energy, that one. He bounced back brilliantly from surgery and was most definitely his monkey self on Thursday. I found it a bit disconcerting honestly, as usually the day after a surgery he is quiet and cuddly. A day after they basically told us that his nerve damage was extensive and life-long; that there was nothing they could do to to heal the damage, just manage the effects. It won’t be so noticeable now, while he’s young, but as he gets older…it made me grateful all over again that we have chosen to homeschool him. Life can move on his schedule, around his needs. He was being himself that day, his happy, joyful, peaceful self, and once I got over the feelings of weird disconnect, it was almost as if he was saying out loud, “Don’t worry mama. I’ll be fine.” I was grieving for him a bit, and there was space for it; but I also caught his hopeful energy too. We’ll figure this out.

I snapped the picture of Ellianna a week or two back. The children were playing dress up and she had put on her brother’s army uniform. It just seemed fitting for my fighter of a girl. After months and months of detective work, I feel like we are finally closing in on a culprit that would explain her continued illness. They added cyclical neutropenia to the potential autoimmune hepatitis, and the blood tests that eliminate or confirm both are the same. They changed her anemia status too; it it now anemia of chronic inflammation (drain on the system), not iron-deficiency anemia (red blood cells not carrying/picking up iron), which is a wonderful improvement.

I at least know from all this that we have done our best job with her gluten free diet and supporting her from a rich whole foods/plant based approach- her body has the best tools to continue fighting, and it shows in the healthy Celiacs numbers and the anemia status being switched. That is an incredible burden off my mind. We have struggled so much to adjust to this new way of life, the incredible costs involved, (which is a whole ‘nother blog post! Why?!?), and all the while, I’ve been so troubled that we were “doing it wrong” or causing more harm than good because of my ineptitude, and it is just huge to know that we have crossed this intense milestone. It has brought peace and encouragement to keep working at it and stay the course.

It is hard to wait yet another six week to two month rotation as they study the tests over time for her before they can begin treatment. She has been so sick for so long with no relief, and having to wait even longer…you feel so helpless. Her illness, too, is hidden and invisible, in its way. She overall looks better when you catch her on a good day; at the height of her cycle she looks as drawn and pale as she did at the height of her mono. I notice it every time I do the children’s seasonal clothing switch. For the last three or four times, I do no size changes for her- just exchange long sleeves for short sleeves and the like. She is still in the same clothes as she was wearing when she got sick two years ago. It is noticeable too when you see her around other five and six year olds. She is often a full head shorter and noticeably smaller. In our parish, she blends in with the three and four year olds, not the her own age group. Her illness is so intense and yet so spread out that you can almost think she’s okay until these things stare you in the face. Her blood tests certainly show the difficult truth too. Everyone freely admits that she is one sick little girl, but none of us can seem to grasp the root cause of it all.

It is hard, living in the mystery. I often second guess myself- should I let her do this or that? Will this make it worse? Generally, I trust her and her own intuition. If she feels up to running and monkeying about, I let her. I often make space for her to rest quietly when I can tell her mind and her body aren’t agreeing with one another and the shadows grow long under her eyes. Together we have learned a dance that seems to be working. I can imagine how difficult it must be for her sometimes, watching all her siblings go and go and wanting to be with them, while her body is saying no, not today. I dearly hope that we will find the root cause of all this, be able to treat it, and she return to health. Meanwhile, we wait, and we dance in the rain.

I feel like I write from the transitional space here far more often than I would like. I am coming to understand, however, that most of the journey is transition, a letting go. As parents we simultaneously train and raise our children while ever loosening the ties, so that when the time comes they fly to worlds we can’t even imagine, and so it is the same living in this hazy world of sickness and illness. I don’t know where either of them are headed any more than I know where my other four are, and all I can do, must do, is walk beside them and love them. It is enough.

(For the record, I deleted the last two posts with videos. They served their purpose at the time for those of you who wished to stay in the loop, but my introverted self can’t stand the thought of them hanging out on the blog any longer! *blush* So I am taking executive action as the creator of this here space and consigning them to the waste basket.)

Suspended…

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On a warm evening last week, a neighbor a few doors down was practicing on his drums. Whomever it was clearly had some skill- here it was jazzy, here it was crisp and martial, on it went from one style to another. Towards the end, the drums had fallen silent for a few minutes. I assumed my impromptu concert had come to an end. Just as I had given it up for gone, he began again. This time, as he played, each measure stretched out longer than the one before it. I was surprised at how simple percussion could portray sadness, and then longing. By the time he reached the very end, the tension was palpable. It was then that he did a beautiful long swirl on the cymbal, a shushed sound that felt like a flower falling from a tree or a woman twirling in her skirts. Like whispered beauty. On my ear it felt a poem.

I thought of his percussion poem as I walked the trail this weekend. The weather had snapped un-naturally cold in the middle of spring. The forest all around me looked other-worldly. Suspended animation. Green budding trees stood next to still golden, nearly ghost-like fall foliage. It felt Narnian. It felt as if Mr. Beaver was whispering covertly Aslan is on the move in my ears. The tension between the seasons was so palpable that if felt fragile, breakable. Will winter win and the buds freeze, no flowers? Or will Spring have her say and emerge beautifully triumphant? The beats stretched out, and out, and out…

Suffering so often feels like an unending winter. Barren and stripped. Desolate. Like living on a wind-swept cliff’s edge. No margin. Every choice hemmed in. Step wrong and you might fall off the end of the world. I know this in my bones, I feel the pressure of it weighing down hard. The hard crash against the drum with each new sorrow and confusion. And yet, and yet.

I know Aslan’s name. My friend wrote to me the other day”…I know the Lord to be as Lewis wrote of Aslan… ‘good but not tame’…and I believe that Christ came here in part to be with us in suffering…not ignoring, or trying to ‘explain it away’…Christ is our Light in darkness.” The way is dark, but not without hope.

I, like everyone else, want to push forward to the punch line, the sweet hallelujah, the gentle swish on the cymbal. The bursting forth of flowers, everywhere, jubilant spring. It’s hard to write about a place that has no easy answers. I want to be anywhere but here. But it is in this suspended place that I am called to be, and I must dwell here, lean into the long tension between the beats.

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