How do I choose to be here?

“What led me to this place?” and “How do I choose to be here?” are a pair of questions that I make a practice of asking myself regularly.  

I identified them many years ago in a conversation with two friends who were holding space for me as I talked through my tendency to self-blame when I found myself facing mis-alignment between my real and ideal lives. 

At the time, I was stuck in a bad pattern of overfilling my schedule with things that weren’t actually top priorities. This left me short on time and resulted in me either ignoring my own needs or feeling less present than I wanted to be in some parts of my life. 

“What led me to this place?” and “How do I choose to be here?” replaced my ‘go to’ self-judgment-laced question at the time of, “What is wrong with you, Val?” 

What led me to this place?

The problem with my “What is wrong with you?” approach wasn’t just that it made me feel worse about my decisions and myself as a human being. It also failed to push me to see the larger constellation of factors that led to a mis-alignment between my real and my ideal lives. 

“What led me to this place?” gives me grace to see things like the fact that I’m often operating with imperfect information when I plan my days and weeks. I’m asked for “a couple hours of my time” by someone who may be way off on their estimation of how long a given task takes. 

This question also invites me into considering the systems and structures at play. It lets me see how my social location as a woman, as a person of colour, and as a family member of people with serious mental illness and addiction may have infiltrated my scheduling decisions with ‘people pleasing.’ 

“What led me to this place?” even creates space for gentle accountability. It allows me to laugh at ‘yesterday Val’ who optimistically (but hilariously) thought she would be able to have a decent catch up call with a friend in the 45 minutes between a workout and a board meeting. It reminds me that I should overestimate how much time I need for social connection given its importance to me. 

How do I choose to be here?

“How do I choose to be here?” reconnects me to my agency around not just how to handle the current moment of mis-alignment but possible future, similar moments as well. 

It balances the grace of seeing the many factors (some I had control over, some I did not) that led me to the moment I find myself in with the ownership I get to take for how I show up in it.

“How do I choose to be here” opens me up to the reality of options. 

In an overfull day or week, I can cancel or reschedule commitments for which I no longer have capacity. Thinking bigger picture, I can develop a practice of saying “I’ll get back to you” before making commitments. Then, I can check my schedule before saying “Yes.” I can honour that a “No” or an “Another time” feel better to me than later changing plans.

Photo by 2H Media on Unsplash

What moment are you in right now?

What moment are you in right now that might benefit from the practice of working through this pair of questions? 

I myself am in a moment of having the opposite problem to the one I used to have. 

My schedule has more openings than usual these days.

A major reason is the choice I made to get small in some parts of life so I could play big in how I showed up for family members facing illness over the last year.

Thanks to some good news recently, I’m now in a place to change this. 

I’m ready to re-align grounded in my practice of reflecting on “What led me to this place?” and “How do I choose to be here?” 

If you have any neat opportunities for me to consider as I do this, please get in touch!

And, yes, for those who have asked, season two of the Life Without Us podcast is definitely something I’m aiming to make space for soon!

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Community nourishment

Last June I sent out a call for community nourishment to a small group of friends in Toronto.

It started like this: “Hi friends. Since my mom’s diagnosis with osteosarcoma, followed by a life-saving below-the-knee amputation, and, now, chemotherapy, a number of folks have asked me if there’s anything they can do to help. ‘Community nourishment’ is my answer.”

The relationship between community and food

Much has been said about the special relationship between community and food. In the latest episode of my podcast, Life Without Us, my good friend and guest Natalie Bay captures it well when she says, “I always find that sitting down and sharing a meal with people, breaking bread, is the best way to connect.”

A blue bowl filled with red fideo soup and garnished with green chopped cilantro sits above and to the right of a large white plate filled with two cheese quesadillas and a serving of guacamole garnished with lime wedges. The table underneath is red.
Fideo soup, guacamole, and cheese quesadillas. Photo provided by Natalie Bay.

The last year and half of pandemic public health protections have made this pathway to community and connection much harder to access than usual for most of us. 

That’s what makes Natalie’s story of pandemic shared meals all the more inspiring. It started with her texting friends about her ‘boring’ plans to cook macaroni and cheese with the leftovers in her fridge during Toronto’s first lockdown. Now, over a year later, she’s had several days during the pandemic where she had to remind herself she didn’t need to clean her place for dinner guests, even though she did have plans to dine with friends that night. 

When I sent out my call for community nourishment, it was exactly this faux dining with friends energy I was craving. 

Our society’s obsession with independence

My ask to my community went on as follows: 

“I’m planning to be in Toronto for a few days every three weeks for my mom’s next five chemo treatments, which go until early October. Should it work for any of you to cook some extra food for me and my family while I’m there, I’d really appreciate it. You can drop it off at my folks’ place if that works, or, I can even pick it up if transportation is a barrier. Bonus: we’d get to see each other, which I’d really benefit from.”

The response to my email was immediate and beautiful. Since sending out my call, every three Mondays I’ve eaten community care for supper, and while each time my dad says, “we’ve already got food we can eat,” we’ve both appreciated that in the midst of our many layers of caregiving there are friends out there caring for us, too. 

It wasn’t easy for me to send out my call for community nourishment. First, I needed to realize that this was what I needed. Then, I had to navigate the shame of asking for help. This is a challenge that, I promise you, even the most practiced of community builders struggles with given our society’s obsession with independence. 

I was aided in both steps by a caring friend who sent a delicious cheese and crudité platter to our home in Ottawa last spring when she heard about what was going on with my mom. That weekend, my partner and I got to cook less, and it felt easier to do the things we needed to do to care for our family and ourselves, and even though we didn’t *need* it . . . it felt amazing to have received. 

Cooking with Nat

Natalie is one of several friends who has contributed to my community nourishment ask this summer. She is also, as you’ll hear in the podcast episode when you listen to it, a very talented community builder and cook. 

She kindly offered to share two of the recipes from the meal you get to experience her and her ‘Cooking with Nat’ community members prepare on the podcast. 

Community nourishment

I hope that if you find time to try any of these recipes you’ll give some thought to who you might cook some extra soup for to drop off the next day.

Or, if you’re in need of some support yourself, I hope you might consider sending this post to some of your community members and asking them if they think cooking this or another dish for you is a way they might show up for you in the next while.  

There’s been a lot written about self-care. As a Latinx woman of colour, as a partner, daughter, mom, sister, friend, business owner, and more, I agree: practicing self care is radical and necessary.

It’s not enough, though. We also need to care for each other. Community nourishment, whether in the form of actual food or another offering, is something we all need to feel full.

Fideo soup
  1. Grate 2 roma tomatoes using the large holes of a box grater.
  2. Grate 1 to 2 cloves of garlic using the small holes of the same grater. 
  3. Over medium heat, toast 1/2 cup of fideo noodles in a tablespoon of olive oil until deep brown in colour.  (You can also use broken angel hair pasta).
  4. Add tomatoes and garlic, and approximately 4 cups of chicken broth. 
  5. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
  6. Serve with a wedge of lime.
  1. Finely chop cilantro, jalapeño and onion.
  2. Add about 1 tbs of each to a mortar and pestle and crush them with a pinch of salt until they form a paste. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, try using your cutting board with a heavy object like a rolling pin).
  3. Add 1 avocado, break it up with a spoon, and mix it to coat it with the paste. 
  4. Add lime to taste.

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We need more “us”: the hope of community

The expression “many hands make light work” is one of my favourites. It perfectly describes both the decrease in individual work that the help of an extra person (or several) can create, as well as the feeling of ease we experience when we help each other tackle big things. It is also one of the most well received of all the reasons I give people for one of my deepest held beliefs — we need more “us” in our lives. 

Pandemic loneliness and isolation

We need more “us” and the hope of community are ideas I’m thinking a lot about right now as we grapple with how to navigate our second year and third wave of the pandemic. 

Yes, because in the absence of our “us,” many of us are struggling. We see this in parents raising young ones without help from their communities. We see this in senior citizens lacking the support and information that might help get them to a vaccine appointment. We see this in folks missing not just their closest community members but the emotional support of those more casual acquaintances from our pre-pandemic lives. 

I’m also thinking about how we need more “us” because it is abundantly clear that the pandemic exacerbated isolation and shone a spotlight on loneliness. However, it is also clear that it didn’t invent them; and that its end won’t eliminate them.

We need to do that.

The hope of community

It feels good to be connected, to take care of each other, to share resources, to be seen and accepted by others as your full self, to be part of something bigger than you  . . . to be part of an “us.”

Yet, pandemic aside, a lot of North American society is designed to keep us apart. 

We’re told that success is growing up and getting a job that allows you to make enough money to live on your own. Or, if you happen to find one person with whom you want to live and be partners (and possibly procreate) that’s also cool. Anything else is generally considered a compromise. 

Workplaces talk a lot about the value of teamwork and collaboration, but they recruit, negotiate pay, and promote us as individuals. 

This pandemic started with a rallying cry of “we’re all in this together;” but, it became quickly clear that this was not true. Even worse, we saw the ways in which some would use the pandemic to further entrench gaps like those that exist at the intersections of race, gender, and income; and to spread hate

We need more “us.” Much of our society is designed for division. So, how do we fix it? How do we embrace the hope of community? 

Let’s figure it out together

I don’t have all the answers.

I do have my own experiences of opening up my life to more “us.” You can read about some of those experiences (and listen and watch) with a quick search of my name and the word “house” on the internet.

Five cohouse residents in a hammock under a headline about six unrelated adults living in community.
Above: screenshot from CBC Tapestry. Author Valery Navarrete is second from left.

I also have the last year of reflections after moving cities and shifting my relationship to my communities right at the start of the pandemic.

Most importantly, though, and in keeping with the focus on “us,” I have a passion for talking about the need for answers with as many people as possible. People who have their own insights from their own experiences with the presence or absence of “us” in their lives.

Because it’s one thing for me to say we need more “us,” and another for each of us to figure out how to go out there and co-create it. 

That’s why this spring I’m launching Life Without Us: a podcast that shares stories about living in and nourishing community to inspire more of us to have more “us” in our lives. 

You can check out the trailer here, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe on your favourite platform, or sign up below to get episodes and other updates sent to your inbox. 

Life Without Us is a platform for collaboration. So, please send questions, suggestions for guests, co-hosts, and topics, as well as other feedback to us here or on via our Instagram @lifewithoutuspod

The first episode of season one drops next Tuesday April 6. Stay tuned for new episodes every Tuesday this spring!

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Any way you slice it, there are only so many hours

Picture a pie.

Any pie.

A fruit pie. A quiche. A pizza pie. 

Not hungry? Okay. Picture a pie chart. Just, please, for me, choose some fun colours. Make it a joyful pie chart. 

A pie with one slice cut out and served to represent that there are only so many hours in a day.
Photo by Dilyara Garifullina on Unsplash

Now, imagine cutting your pie into 24 slices and serving up eight of those slices (just over a quarter of your pie). Those are for sleep (give or take, we don’t all have the same sleep needs). 

Now serve two more slices. Those are for eating, purchasing and preparing food, washing dishes, brushing your teeth, going to the bathroom, showering . . . in other words, your basic human needs. This will vary depending on who you are, so add in a few more slices if needed. 

Okay, you have about half a pie left. If you sit your half pie for today next to those for each day of a seven day week, you have 84 slices, or, three and a half pies left.

To whom or what do you serve those remaining slices?

Who do you serve first?

Are you signed up for 40 hours a week of paid employment? Okay, there goes one pie and three quarters. 

Do you work out for 30 minutes four times a week? That’s two more slices. (Also, good for you! Serving ourselves first is hard for a lot of us to do.) 

You have about 42 slices left. 

Do you read the news? Are you no different than many of us and do you spend more time on screens (social media, TV, streaming services, games) than you’d like?

Okay, 30 slices left. 

That’s not so bad. Those 30 slices are not likely evenly divided between your seven days; but, if they were, you’d have four slices, or hours, unaccounted for each day. Time to read a book. Go for a walk. Call a friend or family member. Practice a hobby.

Wait, do you have kids? Are you a caregiver to someone? Have you got volunteer commitments? Are the constantly changing pandemic public health measures getting you down and you’re coping with endless hours of screen time each day? 

Damn. We’re starting to run out of pie . . . 

A small thing everyone can start right away

Here’s the thing: any way you slice it, there are only so many hours in a day. 

Here’s another thing: you can absolutely choose to sleep less, order out more, and put in place a plan to reduce your screen time. 

There will still only be so many hours, and I find those of us who struggle to fit it all in often have things waiting in the wings for a cancelation. 

I spend a lot of my time as a strategist and coach helping individuals and organizations choose priorities and stay aligned to them to better manage that reality. 

If you or your team want help with that, please give me a shout. Sometimes it’s about doing less, and sometimes it’s about doing differently — bringing consciousness to how you’re using your slices is often an important first step. Either way, it helps to have a trusted outsider work with you to unpack your decisions.  

Also, here’s a small thing everyone can start doing right away. 

Start doubling up. 

Feed two birds with one pie slice. 

You want to catch up with a friend, but your paid employment hours are making it hard to find time. What if you set up a virtual co-working date? Give yourselves two slices of pie. Chat a bit at the beginning, work for a slice or a slice and half, and chat for a bit at the end. 

You want to spend quality time with your kids, but those school lunches aren’t going to make themselves. What if you all agreed to make lunches together? (Of course, this won’t work with every kid, but is there some other double up that might?)

Can doubling up help you?

Okay. Now it’s your turn. How might you double up on an hour of streaming and exercise? Or cooking and (audio book) reading?

Look. I get it. A lot of us are tired. This pandemic is putting tremendous pressure on us, many of us are grieving huge losses, and this just may not be a time to look at optimizing your pie. If that’s where you’re at, bookmark this for your future self and ignore me for now.  

Also, if there’s an activity you use to process or get lost in, do not mess with that. Maybe, for you, cooking is meditative. It doesn’t need an audio book added to it. 

If you do have energy to test out a double up, though, I’d love to hear how it goes. Especially if you figure out a good double up for hair care. My curls take several slices a week to manage and I’d love to find a perfect pairing for those hours.  

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One day at a time

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Why daily practices are the key to lasting change

I doubt I’ll be the last person you’ll hear this from.

For many of you, I’m not the first.

Yet it bears repeating: how you spend your days determines your results at the end of each week, month, year, and so on. 

This is not a call to cancel long-term goal setting or an attempt to overburden your days.

It’s a simple prompt to remind us that daily practices are key if we want to nudge into reality any aspirations, goals, words for the year, or visions we identify for ourselves or our teams.

Schedule dedicated time

Are you committed to getting yourself and your team more on top of your deadlines? Dedicate 10 minutes, twice a day to reviewing and prioritizing your to do list with an app like Trello.

Want to feel more “flow” in your writing this year? Block off time time for a daily free writing session.

Looking for ways to use your privilege to support anti-racism in your workplace? At the end of each day, write down any experiences you had where the voices of Black and Indigenous folks and other people of colour were missing or ignored. Once a week, write down something you might do to help end that erasure.

Of course, not everything we do is daily. 

It’s also the case for many of us that if we try to put in place too many new practices at a time (pretty much any number higher than one), we will likely fail to turn them into ongoing habits.

The point is, big things need to be broken down into smaller pieces, and we need to give those smaller pieces some dedicated space to take root before we try to plant more seeds. 

When we follow this process, it quickly becomes clear why daily practices are the key to lasting change.

Start now

So, what big thing are you most fired up about right now? Not three big things, not even two . . . what is your most important thing? (And, yes, supporting your mental health through year two of this pandemic absolutely counts!) 

Got it? Now, what’s a daily or at most weekly practice you will commit to doing to move it forward?

Me? I want more connection and community in my work days.

I live somewhere under a “stay at home” order; but, my partner’s in-person job is deemed essential and while our daughter is currently doing virtual school between her two houses, we’re hopeful in-person school will resume soon.

So, I’m on my own for two to three work days a week temporarily and eventually I’ll go back to all five.

As someone who used to work in an office with a team and used to live with five other people in a co-house, that is too much solo time. 

Join me

So what’s my new practice? 

I’m going to start hosting a virtual co-working drop-in on Tuesdays from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm. 

The first 15 minutes I’ll lead a quick practice to share our goals for the session. We’ll then do two 25 minute blocks of work with a 5 minute break in between (two pomodoros, for those familiar). The last 20 minutes will be some optional social connection (if you want to keep working solo, you can sign off and go for it, no hard feelings.)

Interested in joining me? Sign up here to get the link emailed to you. All are welcome! 

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We need ritual

In the month of November, 520 people died of COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada.

One of them was my Tia Delia. 

This is not a story about her passing. This is a story about her living. About the ways she lived, and will always, in me.

Keele and Eglinton

My father immigrated from Ecuador in 1969. He said goodbye to nine siblings, a widowed mother, and dozens of other family members in search of new opportunities in Canada. With him he brought a few words of English, a couple of hundred dollars in savings, a deep well of courage, and the suitcase in his hands.

Seven years later, my tia (aunt) was our only family member to ever follow. They both ended up settled in Toronto but only my dad went on to have children. 

My Tia Delia’s presence is a constant fixture of my childhood memories.

There she is giving me and my brothers candies that she brought us back from a trip home to Ecuador. That’s her teaching us how to play card games like roba montón and quinze in Spanish. I can close my eyes and see her waving goodbye to me from the big picture window at the end of the hallway in her five story walk up apartment building at Keele and Eglinton like it was yesterday. I never wanted to leave. She made it easier with this goodbye ritual.

Cultural connection

My tia was a huge part of my connection to my Ecuadorian culture. She is the reason I know how to make Pristiños and tortillas de papa, traditional Ecuadorian foods. Up until the pandemic lockdown when I was cut off from visiting her in her long-term care home she was the only person I still spoke to in (my broken) Spanish. 

Of course, my dad also plays a major role in my cultural connection. However, my tia held onto language and traditions in ways he couldn’t as a dad to three Canadian-born children and husband to my Canadian-born mom. 

Of all the Ecuadorian traditions I’m familiar with, el Año Viejo is one of my favourites. It involves the ritual of burning the “Old Year” at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In the days leading up to it, the streets of many Ecuadorian cities and towns are filled with small and large Año Viejos (“Old Year” dolls) made of papier-mâché and other materials. 

Año Viejo 2014 in Quito, Ecuador

My family and I have never burned an Año Viejo here in Canada but I’ve taken part twice while visiting family in Ecuador. Those memories are woven with great care into the fabric of my identity as an Ecuadorian. The burning of the old to release and let go. The creation of space into which to invite hope and renewal. 

Letting go

We need ritual. It connects us to our people, and to ourselves. 

There is such a thing as bad ritual, of course. When it’s forced, or forces you to give up a part of who you are, it can be negative. 

At its best, though, ritual holds us in our goodbyes and ushers us into joy as we stand in the doorways of new beginnings.  

To help stop the spread of COVID-19, millions of people around the world have agreed to miss out on important traditions and rituals in 2020. 

I deeply appreciate these cancelations. As someone who has worked for fifteen years in the health sector, as someone who has sobbed uncontrollably at not having been able to be present with my tia in her passing, and as someone who understands deeply just how important ritual is to us as humans: you have my deep thanks. 

As a grieving niece who has not been able to gather with my family to honour my tia’s passing: you also have my worry. These cancelations save lives; and, we need ritual.

Finding hope

I find hope in the creativity of those trying to embrace the pandemic as an invitation to reimagine tradition and ritual. Those who ask themselves, “how might we find new ways to collectively (but distantly) release and renew?”

I’ve witnessed Passover dinners shared over video instead of a communal table. I’ve learned of in-person workplace holiday traditions replaced by decorating-at-a-distance contests with employers sending team members personal gingerbread making kits. I was delighted to receive an invite to my first ever online New Year’s Eve celebration this week.   

How have you and your communities embraced creativity in your call to tradition and ritual? 

Inspired by the ritual of Año Viejo, New Year’s as a time of release and renewal is deeply important to me. This year, the call to mark it, to create rituals that will help me to make ashes of my grief and draw me closer to my roots, is stronger than ever.   

One of the ways I plan to bring creativity to this call is by hosting this workshop on January 2nd. If virtual gathering is available to you I’d love for you to join me so we can reflect and renew together. 

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What are you saying ‘No’ to?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

3 reasons every changemaker needs to start asking themselves this question

Much of my work involves facilitating people and organizations through journeys to craft compelling visions and the roadmaps to get them there.

I love inspirational language, big picture thinking, and questions that have more than one good answer.

For example: “You receive an unexpected $50K donation. There are no limits on what you can spend the money on; but, you have to spend it all within the next year. What priority do you pursue that felt previously undoable?” 

I’ve met a lot of different types of people in the health and social sectors doing all kinds of valuable and inspiring work. Very few land on an answer to this question that does not involve somehow trying to double or triple the value of this $50K boost.

Here is a not untypical response: “We’ll hire someone to solve three of our biggest roadblocks. Each should take about 6 months to address. So we will onboard our new hire really fast and make their fourth major task finding a grant that will cover their salary for a second year.” 

This answer is understandable and creative given the resource constraints of many social change organizations. However, it also looks to get around actually choosing a priority. 

Priority setting

I use a number of approaches to help people and organizations identify priorities. My favourites avoid simply zeroing in on the loudest voices or biggest pain points. We might spend some time there. However, ultimately, we explore multi-year needs and weigh factors such as feasibility, interdependencies, and vision, mission and values alignment. 

A key question I am known for asking when I work with people to do this is, “What are you saying ‘no’ to?” Apparently, I once asked it so often that a CEO I was working with joked: “We should really get you a t-shirt with that printed on it.”

I ask it a lot because I like that it prompts several really important considerations all at once. 

What asking this key question can reveal

It can help address the challenge from my above example that many who have dedicated their lives to social justice struggle with: wanting to say ‘yes’ to everything. Who among us hasn’t said some version of: “The needs we are addressing are urgent. How dare we not act yesterday?” 

Yet, you cannot say ‘yes’ to too many things at once. You risk burnout and are likely to diminish your impact if you spread yourself or your team too thinly across too many activities. As I write this we are all navigating a worldwide pandemic. It might feel like this gives you licence to ignore this consideration. In fact, it is more important now than ever.

If your ‘no,’ or ‘not now’ list is sparse and you or your team are tired, you need to take another look. 

“What are you saying ‘no’ to?” can also shine a light on the potential to place a lower priority on longer-term, more complex challenges. Many organizations are coming face-to-face with having made those kinds of choices in the past. They are recognizing that the equity they attempt to advance for their clients is something they chose to delay addressing within their own teams. 

If your vision, mission, and values speak to a more equitable society you cannot be saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to doing that work within your own organization. 

Lastly, the question, “What are you saying ‘no’ to?” can help solidify your ‘yeses.’ Your ‘no’ list should make you feel a little uncomfortable. In order to create space for priorities that are timely, feasible, interdependent with other items on your ‘yes’ list, and strongly aligned with your mission, vision and values, you will probably need to say ‘no’ to something important.

If your ‘no’ or ‘not now’ list does not include at least one item that feels like a sacrifice to put on hold, ask yourself if you’re truly clearing the runway for your most important priorities. When you make hard choices to put some activities to the side, when you are clear on what you are not doing, and why, you are better positioned for success. 

1. If your ‘no’ or ‘not now’ list is sparse and you and your team are tired, you need to take another look.

2. If your vision, mission, and values speak to a more equitable society you cannot be saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to doing that work within your own organization. 

3. If your ‘no’ or ‘not now’ list does not include at least one item that feels like a sacrifice to put on hold, ask yourself if you’re truly clearing the runway for your most important priorities.

Your path forward

Thinking big and bold about the change you want to see, and be, in the world is an exciting journey. It is also hard work! For many, it’s when you start to zero in on which steps to take first to begin to move toward your vision that the true heavy lifting begins.    

The next time you find yourself or your organization doing this kind of priority setting, try asking yourself: “What am I  saying ‘no’ to?” 

You might be surprised at how this focus on your ‘no’ helps you clarify your path forward.

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