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Nightswimming

For whatever reason, this time of year, I get nostalgic for my youth. My early adulthood. It’s the quiet nights and the return of the dark, I think. Summer is ending and so is the summer season of my life.

Last night my husband played the R.E.M. album Automatic for the People at dinner. We usually listen to 70s Lite Rock or the k.d. lang station on Pandora. But he put on that album instead. And “Nightswimming” came on. For whatever reason, I was 15 again, and taking my first swim at dusk. The sun setting, a fire near our campsite, my friends and I in the water. Sometimes splashing, sometimes quiet. I watched the stars come out floating in the water. And then changed into clothes, listened to Van Halen by the fire, and stayed up waaay too late laughing and flirting and talking shit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.

::: ::: ::: :::

|| “Nightswimming” by R.E.M. ||

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge
The moon is low tonight

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
Of recklessness and water
They cannot see me naked
These things, they go away
Replaced by everyday

Nightswimming, remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?
That bright, tight forever drum
Could not describe nightswimming

You, I thought I knew you
You I cannot judge
You, I thought you knew me
This one laughing quietly underneath my breath
Nightswimming

The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night, deserves a quiet night

::: ::: ::: :::

It’s time for a night swim again, I think. My 43 year-old self needs it. The quiet. The water. The stars. As an adult, friends have pools and waterside homes. But there’s a lake around, too. I just need to sneak in. At dusk. Nightswimming.

Love from the path,
Joanna :: xoxo

 

 

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Night, the beloved.

 

 

Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash

 

“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

 

 

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All These Paths, Leading To The Same Place

You thinkers, prisoners of what will work:
a dog ran by me in the street one night,
its path met by its feet in quick unthought,
and I stopped in a sudden Christmas, purposeless,
a miracle without a proof, soon lost.

But I still call, ‘Here, Other, Other,’ in the dark.

William Stafford, “An Epiphany”

::: ::: ::: :::

[That is one of my favorite poems by William Stafford. He was an unsung word genius.]

I read something a few weeks ago and had an epiphany. One of those moments when everything – years of practice, a fragment of metaphor, and a spark – comes together and you realize something important. I was reading a quote by Pema Chodron, a famous Buddhist nun and meditation teacher. She wrote, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”

And in the moment I read that, I suddenly understood something about my various spiritual practices over the years: they have all been about me trying to accept myself.

::: ::: ::: :::

I grew up Protestant (American Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ) and in that tradition, humans are sinful. They are full of sin because of the choice Adam and Eve made to eat from fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What that looks like in modern terms is being regularly told that I was bad everywhere but in my soul. That I was inherently ‘not good’ and ‘less than’ and ‘blackened by sin’ (and a whole bunch of other Bible verses I’ve forgotten twenty years later…). With only one exception*, I don’t believe much good comes from the Judeo-Christian spiritual path; we certainly have plenty of evidence that it causes war and hatred and I believe it stems from this basic understanding of our selves as inherently bad.

After years of being a good ‘Bible-thumper’ I left the church because the world it spoke of as inherently wrong, bad, and sinful was not the world I experienced. The world I knew was full of amazing things and people and choices. I had girlfriends who had successfully weathered abortions, read re-interpretations of Bible stories, and enjoyed a drink with a couple of gay people and those things made it awfully hard to believe what was in the Bible, and what was being preached about it, anymore. Like a lot of people, I left and headed East.

For many years I studied the Tao te Ching, having been introduced to it in a college class about Eastern literature. I found it delightfully simple and also satisfyingly deep as I spent time with the verses and ideas. There was precious little dogma, interpretation, and certainly no mention of ‘sin.’ It felt like a good place to settle. And for a few years, it was.

I travelled other paths: Paganism, Unitarianism, Shambhala Buddhism, Tantra, Witchcraft. I’ve changed paths often. I became an ordained ‘interfaith’ minister (which I’m not sure is even a thing, but I’ll talk about that at another time). I have travelled around to various paths, texts, and rituals because they served my spiritual needs at various places along my path. And also because I love to fall in love and this was a way to connect with different ‘partners’ at the table of religion and spiritual development. (Today I see that there are appropriation problems with that kind of spiritual path, but that’s for the another post, as well.)

All of these spiritual paths were most definitely about me finding pieces of myself inside those traditions, texts, ideas, theologies, and metaphors. But my epiphany is that my most important paths have been about self-acceptance.

 

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

 

I’ve meditated for close to 20 years. I’ve used various forms, but mostly breath meditation (although I have used more sensual sub-genres of breath meditation at different times). For many years, I used the RAIN method, where you Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identify with whatever thoughts or feelings you have during meditation. But it was in reading Pema Chodron’s words about befriending ourselves in meditation that I really came to understand its purpose was far more soft than I had been experiencing it. It was about accepting myself, the totality of myself. To be who we are, in compassionate acceptance of ourself- whatever that self may be experiencing. Meditation was about completely accepting myself internally.

I’ve mentioned before that I am a practicing witch (the intensity depends on the day and the person, though- heh). And magic has been something I have been playing with for a long time, as well. My magic mostly involves words: rituals, prayers, handmade soliloquies spoken into the void. Only recently have I taken instruction in the more modern facets of witchery. And the one thing I learned there is that good magic involves self-acceptance. Magic that does what you want it to do involves acknowledging the totality of all that you are in the world: sinner and saint, angel and demon, mother and whore. I can be good, very, very good. And I can also be wicked. If I pretend to only be light and love, my magic sputters and doesn’t get very far. But if I acknowledge and accept all that I am, my magic is far more powerful. Magic, of course, is about how we are in the world and how the world reacts to us and our desires, to our energy and our vibe. And so magic has been about accepting myself as a human in the world, moving from internal to external.

Tantra has been something I’ve only picked up in the last five years or so, and it was most definitely about accepting myself and my sexual needs and desires. In some ways, this website has been partially about spiritually bypassing my sexual desires and needs – and Tantra is one way to both accept and bypass sexual darkness. I can’t say this blog has been entirely about bypassing, because I have certainly shared my pain and frustration and growth here, as well. But Tantra has been about self-acceptance inside of relationship, especially intimate relationship. Tantra is about the balance and alchemy of masculine and feminine (not the same as ‘male’ and ‘female,’ please remember). And my path inside of Tantra has been about accepting and balancing not just the masculine and feminine within myself, but also the dark and the light. I can be the most fun, delightful, loving sexual partner, and I can also want to live out dark fantasies (starting with having an affair, which I used to want desperately. Also remember that what is ‘dark’ is different for each person; my personal ‘dark’ might bore the fuck out of someone else). Tantra has been about accepting myself inside of intimate relationship.

Beyond each of these paths – to accept myself internally, to accept myself as part of the world, and to accept myself inside of partnership – there is something else I find incredibly valuable: Western psychology. (I am most familiar with Western psychology, but other modalities of healing the psyche are equally useful and valid. I have used food, prayer, movement, and many other tools to heal myself and others; I am for ‘whatever works’ to heal people.) Most of us wrestle with some piece of ourselves that feels ‘broken.’ And perhaps we do have ‘broken’ pieces inside us. When we do, psychological tools are often useful in helping people heal (again, I am a firm believer in using what works, even if that isn’t in the professional literature). Our brokenness is often not our fault (trauma is rarely something we do to ourselves), but we are responsible for healing our brokenness once we know about it.

Knowing about our brokenness is key to self-acceptance, I believe. But we must also know that sometimes our dark, our ‘bad,’ our ‘shadow’ isn’t brokenness- it is just a part of us that needs awareness and acceptance. The same awareness and acceptance we give to the parts of us we are pleased with or that are accepted in public.

Having this epiphany about self-acceptance and realizing I’ve been on quite the search for it has brought me a lot of excitement and calm in the last couple of weeks. If what I have been looking for is self-acceptance, there is no need for a spiritual path. Learning to accept and love myself is the path. So, all this time, I was just looking for pathways and guidance to leave behind the belief that I was bad and sinful and dirty and begin to trust in the whole of myself. Yes, there are broken bits that need fixing and healing, but there are also parts that are simply waiting for me to accept them, because they aren’t broken, they’re just judged.

And, of course, the great joke from Life is that this is the gift I most easily give other people: acceptance. Whatever darkness you feel or fear, I will listen to it and love it and accept it, without judgement. It’s so easy to give others the medicine we most need. (And so I am also a giant cliche. But, I think we already knew that.)

I will definitely continue with meditation, magic, and Tantra, but now I know what they are in service to, and where to place my energy. I suppose self-acceptance is my path now. I am grateful for the strange and varied path that got me to this place, and I feel a deep sense of grace in knowing I’m not ‘sinful’ anymore. Jung was so right about acknowledging our darkness rather than hiding from it, there is both power and grace in that acknowledgement.

I love you, beautiful people. And I want you to know you’re good, even when you’re bad.
Big love,
Joanna :: xoxo

 

*I believe that spiritual paths are suitable to different levels of psychological and spiritual development. And Christianity, as it is practiced in the West today can be useful to people who need a benevolent (hopefully loving) and also parental-style experience of god. For instance, people who are in recovery. Having a god that both loves you, wants you to do well, and will punish you if you don’t can keep people with addiction issues on the straight-and-narrow. But that’s about the only place I’ve seen it be as useful as it can be; many other places Judeo-Christian concepts and interpretations have caused a lot of fear, shame, and depravity. There are folks who are stripping off the parental piece of Christianity and evolving it into something more accepting and, honestly, Christ-like. People like John Pavolvitz and Nadia Bolz-Weber. But this article on Satanists also gives me hope.

 

 

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Some things about grief. And love.

Off and on for most of this week, there has been a song playing in my head. It’s “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. It’s a song about missing someone who has died and how the belief that they live on (in heaven, in this case) brings comfort and a hope for eternal reunion.

Now, admittedly, I have been listening to a bit more Mariah Carey than usual. She’s been a reminder of Spring to me this year (also, my entire summer fashion aesthetic stems from her clothes in this video). But this is different. This song has been invading my head. It’s not like it just shows up out of the blue. It’s more like the song is insistent- it shows up and I can’t quite get it to go away. I try to think of another song, but this one comes back.

This isn’t a weird thing for me, in some ways. I have strange ‘gifts’. I can find lost things for people I care about. My Dad once asked for help finding a ring of my mother’s. I could see the ring and told him what the surroundings were like- dark, green, soft. He found it in his green truck, in a small, velvety pocket. I’ve ‘found’ other things- important pieces of clothing, lost papers, old mementos. (I sometimes wonder if I am attracted to people, or they are attracted to me, because some part of them is lost and I know how to find it again.)

I’m not sure how I came by this gift. I have looked at being empathic, being highly sensitive, being intuitive, and being slightly psychic. My spiritual guide says I’m a highly sensitive person, instead of empathic. I suppose it doesn’t matter what the label is, I still can do the thing.

Another thing this ‘gift’ does is it sometimes pushes back at me. It’s like I have a very wide, sensitive net around me and sometimes I can simply listen to what’s going on in the strings, but sometimes things get caught in it. Like this song.

Now, I don’t think this is some kind of direct revelation, a la The Bible. I think it’s simply my psyche taking in some information from the ethereal web and translating it into something I identify with. So, somewhere, someone I know is probably dealing with grief right now. Maybe they have experienced grief lately, maybe they are just surrounded by it. I don’t know. I also don’t know who it is- I’m connected to lots of people emotionally and I’m not sensitive enough to know who it is specifically (believe me, I wish I could know sometimes. At least then I could tell people to watch out for X or help them deal with Y). But whoever you are, this is for you.

 

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

 

When I was in college, I worked at a nursing home as CNA and I saw people die. I sat with them at the moments before, during, and after their death. I washed the warm and cooled bodies of people after they passed. The first time scared the shit out of me. Every time after I volunteered, because I knew I would be gentle and patient, where others had not been.

I have seen the moment of death be full of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, fight. I have also seen the moment of death be full of acceptance, calm, love, relaxation, strength, and curiosity. Please do not equate the ‘good’ moments of death with ease. Difficult dying can still bring peaceful moments. People who die by suicide are some of the strongest people I have known (they misguidedly think that their death will be a relief for themselves and others, which, of course, it isn’t). [It would be misguided of me to not say this: if you are considering suicide, please take the time to call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. And please consider these stories from people who survived jumping from the Golden Gate bridge; their difficulties became workable and so can yours.]

One thing that was clear at all the deaths I have been a part of is that the moment after, the moment when the brain is quiet and the lungs no longer expand or contract, is a very peaceful moment. It is a relaxation of everything. The final breathing out that lets everything go. It’s over and everything can begin to settle and unfold. It is the end of life, but the beginning of death, which is a very peaceful (and active) process.

There are belief systems which state that what we say or think at the moment of our death impacts our karma in the next life. Other belief systems state that our souls are whisked away to some other place in another plane of existence after death. Of course, other belief systems state that we go nowhere, simply returning to dust and dirt. Based on my experiences, I am a firm believer in the First Law of Thermodynamics: that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. I believe we get transformed when we die. (I do believe in reincarnation- there is simply too much evidence for it- but I think the remembrance of past lives is a rarity.)

All of this is to set the ground to point towards grief. Because there are many kinds of death in this life, not just the ones involving the loss of physical life. And they all involve transformation. I believe grief is the work of transformation for those who are left behind.

Despite the model of the Five Stages of Grief, we all know that grief is anything but linear. Grief is something that may grab us when death first arrives. Or it may sit quietly near us and just…exist…for a good long time. Sometimes grief dissipates quickly, like an insect bite that heals quickly. And sometimes grief is a deep, heavy burden to bear that almost refuses to budge (this seems to be most true when grief opens the door for longer-term depression). Grief has its own way, its own time, its own color and rhythm and intensity. For each death, grief is its own dance. For some, this dance is haggard and horrible. For others it is difficult, but graceful. It depends on what our hearts have the resiliency to deal with.

One definition of grief that I love comes from Susan Piver who wrote The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. She wrote that grief is love with no target. Our love, whatever it may look like, leaves us and roams around the places inside us, inside our life, where we used to connect with someone or something that has died. And because it ricochets, it touches us, over and over again.

This idea has comforted me greatly for the seasons of grief in my own life. I have also experienced that grief tends to come and go, sometimes arriving quite unexpectedly. My grief for a great grandmother who died when I was seven only returned to be fully felt when I was 15. Every year when I see snapdragons I have a ‘ping’ of grief for my grandfather’s death. A friend only grieved for her grandmother after her dog and rabbit died in the same week. For some, grief is a box they carry in their heart, always. For others, it is a cloud that comes to sit with them on important days and anniversaries. In my experience, grief does tend to dissipate with the years, the weight is not as heavy. But it also never quite goes away. It can heal, but the scar is still something we can run our fingers over, even if it does not hold the pain of the open wound.

Whoever you are out there, the one who has connected with me in such a way that your song of grief pings back to me, I want you to know this: grief is normal. It is also strange. And it is a journey only you can walk through, but you should not always walk alone. Let those who love you carry you sometimes- you don’t have to tell them the whole story, just let them comfort you and support you (make sure they are not stuck in their own grief, because this can drag you both down). Grief can heal, but it will also likely sting in places you never expected. It’s okay to feel the sting; feeling it is the only way to get through it. Grief is also a way to see how much we loved the other person, experience, idea, dream, whatever. Try to love the love. It is what’s best about you and your relationship with the one who passed.

Perhaps it is strange that all this should come from a Mariah Carey song being stuck in my head this Spring. But perhaps not. Because even as I write this, there are petals falling from the trees in my back yard, already dead and dying. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. And all we can do is be glad to be alive, living through all of it.

Big love to you all, most especially to those who grieve,
Joanna :: xoxo

 

 

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Lessons in Love + Desire

Or, what I learned from this last Mercury in Retrograde. (If you want some good info on Mercury in Retrograde, please check this post from The Tarot Lady. Her tarot and astrology info is informative, funny, and practical.)

Over the years, and over the course of many relationships, I have come to believe that the heart is a house with many rooms. For me, there is a floor for friendships, another for family, and, of course, an entire floor (or maybe a wing) for romantic relationships. The first room on that floor belongs to a blonde name Mark who I fell for in 6th grade. I felt so giggly and silly and could barely do anything but smile when I saw him in class. We moved to a new city at Christmas that year, so I don’t know what became of him. But he was my first real crush.

There are probably 8 or 10 more rooms on the romantic floor. Wait, let me count…it’s 16. Damn. Sixteen rooms between my first crush and the room where I hold the relationship with my husband. Not all of those other rooms were relationships, but they all helped me learn something about being in romantic relationships.

Each room is unique, of course. Each one has a particular shape and size. Some have a lot of stuff in them. Some are almost bare. Some are dark. Some are almost forgotten. But they are rooms with memories and feelings and experiences, and I can visit them if I need to. Lately, I’ve found myself revisiting the earliest rooms on the romantic floor because my son is starting to notice girls and watch his peers begin to date. I’m having to remember those times in my own adolescence so I can (hopefully) help him navigate them better.

For most people, the rooms on the romantic floor of their heart house stop at the one where the relationship that eventually lead to their marriage exists. I will talk about that as part of this journey, but I want to talk about the two rooms that came after my marriage relationship room.

The first room was gorgeous and sexy- dark red paint, four poster bed, silk sheets, red velvet curtains, black lace, chaise lounge, candles everywhere, closed curtains, and plenty of dark corners for dark deeds. It was a room almost entirely full of passion. It is the room where I desired the man who I was attracted to during the Sex Surge (when my libido went way up and I basically could not stop thinking about sex all day- it was fun and horrible). All the desires and fantasies and stupid things I did, said, and wrote live in that room.

This is how the room started out, anyhow. If you go look at it today, it’s very different. There are burn marks on the floor and walls from emotional bombs I set off myself. There are water marks on the walls from the inches of tears of frustration I cried. The curtains are open now, there’s nothing on the walls. The bed is a shambles, desperately broken; I took an axe to it so I could finally leave. There is a photo book with the important memories that I can flip through, when I need to. I learned a lot in that room- about sex, desire, passion, fear- and it took me forever to finally leave it. It took so much strength and practice and pain and energy, but I did it- because I knew my life, my heart, and my soul would be better for it. [I was not so much addicted to him, because he just wasn’t around, as I was addicted to desire and hope. And weaning yourself off emotions can take a lot of effort.]

The room after that is very small. It’s full of windows and white curtains and the sun shines right through so the light almost looks yellow. There is only one thing in the room: a simple bed with white sheets, pillows, comfy blankets. And while desire lived in this room, too, it was much simpler and a lot more infatuation than passion. I took the lessons from the passionate room and learned to leave this one faster. Not to say I didn’t make a bit of a mess along the way (messes are for learning!), but I got out much faster and much easier. I still sometimes visit this room – it’s really quite lovely and calming. (I realized the other day that it is what I was envisioning when I first began to feel into my Wild Heart stage.)

The men I was attracted to in these rooms still walk by and throw virtual pebbles at the window, which is fine. I send them metta.

 

Photo by Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

 

The guy from the sunshine room is the interesting one because there was almost a possibility of an affair with him. Maybe. Almost. Sorta. (I’m quite sure he thought about it.) And I wanted one- after years, I wanted one again. And this is where Mercury in Retrograde set me down and had a good, long talk with me.

When I was in the Sex Surge, part of what I learned was how to channel passion and desire into other places in my life when I couldn’t connect with the guy I was interested in. I learned how to pour it into art, dance, my kids, decorating, erotica. I also changed my marriage in terms of communication, sex, touch, sensual expression, and time away from kids (more of that, please!). I really did fix holes in my marriage and myself. I healed some old wounds and learned how to let that passionate part of myself out to play. (I’m still learning this, honestly.)

This time around, what I discovered is that sometimes there is nothing wrong with a marriage. Sometimes there is not really anything to heal, personally. Sometimes we just desire. We just get infatuated. We just want to jump into the fun of connection. For the first time, in this Mercury in retrograde, I considered the idea that I didn’t need to fight my desire or fix anything about it. Because there is nothing wrong with my marriage. And there is far less brokenness in me than before. I decided, instead of fighting my desire (coming at it perpendicular) to accept it (to run parallel with it). It’s not something I need to fight anymore, I can just let it be.

“Any energy that you deny becomes a demon for you. It becomes your inner tormentor. And you don’t get rid of your demons. You embrace them. Not indulge them, but embrace them. And if you embrace them in a way I am talking about they no longer feel like demons. They are just energies that are available to you. They are just part of this whole spectrum of what it is to be conscious and alive and present. And everything becomes joined together back again. A mature emotional life if when all the different parts of yourself emotionally are joined back together. Nothing is put outside, nothing is denied, nothing is hidden. Nothing is unacknowledged. All brought together so that it can all come together.” – Adyashanti

Of course, there are choices to make when desire comes up again (as it surely will). One thing I am learning since I have accepted my own beauty is that I am attracted to dudes with a lot of potential and a fair amount of brokenness (or emotional immaturity). That is not a standard I want to uphold in the future. (Now I know my worth. Now I know my healing is spectacular. Now I know my energy and time is worth a lot.) I can make choices around that, even in the midst of infatuation. Which actually means I probably will never have an affair, because dudes have got to be as quality as my husband. And he’s one of a kind.

Which leads me to tell you about the room our relationship grows in on the romantic floor of my heart house. It’s a huge room. We’ve been together 22 years. It has decorations and pictures from all the countries we’ve visited (and we lived in England the first year of our marriage). It’s got some bomb blasts, too, but those have been cleaned up and now plants and children and love grow there. There are tears of both pain and joy. (My engagement ring is made of pearls, which symbolize tears- I wanted all this emotion.) There is a bed with a headboard of beautiful Moroccan scroll work, rich, warm sheets, and a fireplace, a huge couch. There is light and color and so much comfort and safety I cannot tell you. There are everyday places to connect and touch and get it on. There is passion here, too- it’s the only room I’ve had 3-minute orgasms in! There is trust and joy and so many levels of intimacy and love I’m not sure I can describe them. We have worked through everything in this room. Just this morning, when I was sweaty from working out, and frightened because of a health issue, he lay down on the floor (because: ab workout) and held me as I cried. The room we have built is magical, and I want to live in it forever.

One of the most important tools I learned in the Sex Surge was to ask, “What do I think I will get or experience if I sleep with this person?” (or connect, or whatever). The answer to that question is full of gold, because we don’t need that other person (usually) to get those experiences. It’s simply that they ‘flip the switch’ for us to be or have or experience those things more easily than we can do for ourselves. The sunshine room was a place where I wanted lack of responsibility, joy, infatuation, recognition, appreciation, playfulness, laughter, relaxation, rest, and a simple kind of sensuality and pleasure. But these are all things I can give myself. They don’t require anyone else.

So, this Mercury in Retrograde taught me two important lessons: that I can align with my desire instead of fight it and that I can have what I most want without taking another lover*.

You know what this means? It’s time for a new tattoo. :o)

Big love from the trail, my people,
Joanna :: xoxo

*If you see me refer to a ‘lover’ or ‘boyfriend’ that’s my husband. He has many different roles in my life, those are just two. I mean, why limit yourself ?

 

 

 

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