Tag: Intention

22Oct

Scriptwriting for Gremlins

I began keeping a daily journal the day I turned ten. My first entry includes a list of my birthday presents and the phrase, “I had been waiting for years to turn ten.” (Now that I have a ten-year-old of my own, I love that age even more if that’s possible.) In my teens, I had to add companion journals for all of the photographs, letters, and printed-off Jack Handey quotes that I wanted to preserve, and by the time I left for college, I was scribbling off several pages of my deepest thoughts each night before bed. After I got married, my journaling habits shifted somewhat, and I now write almost exclusively on the computer. I still have my old diaries though, a whole shelf of glittery or pop art or fur-bound books in various stages of disintegration. They are some of my most treasured possessions. They are also the most distressing objects in my life.

I cannot read far in any of my journals without face planting into sadness or shame. Between the difficult circumstances of my childhood and the misguided, often unlikable person that I could be, my past does not make for light reading. I usually only delve back into those handwritten accounts when I’m trying to fact-check. That’s exactly what I was doing several months ago, hunting for some info from my early teenage journals, when one particular page grew arms and jabbed a cattle prod into my neck. I’m still stunned and smoking slightly from what I read.

There on the page, in my own childhood cursive, is the nearly verbatim dialogue that I hear in my mind today when struggling to write, reconnect with someone, or just generally exist: 

People might think that you’re a great person, but you’re not; you’ve just conned them into thinking so.
Those who really know you know that you’re an ogre, black-hearted and evil.
You have no character.
You are ugly.
All of your achievements are based on lies; you are the dumbest person on earth.
You are lacking any softness or empathy. You cannot relate to human beings.
Your presence in others’ lives is slowly murdering them.
You are not capable of communicating properly.
You will never, ever have any real relationships.
You have no potential.
Any difficulties you are going through are exclusively your fault.
You are a disappointment.

All of my adult life, I’ve attributed these sentiments to creative gremlins or badly managed neuroses. When I haven’t had the strength to fight them off, I’ve accepted them as the voice of truth. What I learned from my journal, however, was that they used to have a real live human voice. Those sentences that I wrote down at age fifteen were spoken to me, repeatedly over the course of years, by someone I trusted.

I’d completely forgotten.

Recently, a friend (hi, Jeff!) shared the following quote by Mothering Magazine editor Peggy O’Mara: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” If I weren’t reeling from discovering that very fact in my journal pages, I might have dismissed the quote as fatalistic. I’m still not prepared to believe that every word from a parent figure gets internalized and rescripted as inner monologue, but I now know how deeply a recurring childhood message can be absorbed. The indictments I received growing up are as much a part of my mental landscape as are the resolutions I’ve made in adulthood.

While I don’t enjoy remembering those saw-toothed words being jabbed into my developing ears, I feel like my perspective has been outfitted with a whole new defensive strategy. It is much, much easier to fight back against inner voices that have a clear outside origin. Rather than swinging blindly at my own brain, I can stare down the source of the problem and remind it that it has no jurisdiction here. Not anymore.

I’m also grateful for the reminder to voice my fondness for my girls as intentionally as I go about the other day-to-days of parenting. When they run up against struggles in their adult lives, I want their minds to have ready access to the truth that they are capable, brave, and so valuable that their mom needed every day of their childhoods to tell them so. We’re not a deep-conversations-every-hour kind of family. However, I believe that the small encouragements I sprinkle into their days can add up to the kind of inner script that will blast shame back to last century:

People might think that you’re a great person, but those who really know you will be certain of the fact.
You are as human as they come, and your imperfections will help you relate all the better to the imperfect humans around you.
You are luminous and altogether lovely.
Your achievements do not define you, but each one is a testament to what you can do.
You are capable of deep love.
Your presence in the world is a gift to the rest of us.
Never stop cultivating the unique ways in which you express yourself.
You have the kindness and determination to sustain lasting relationships.
When you are going through difficulties, reach out. You are worthy of help.
You are a joy.

20Mar

Snapshot From the Tangle

I’ve written before about my inability to grasp cause and effect, due in particular to my early view of God as a cross between Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Jabba the Hutt. If you grow up under the jurisdiction of an almighty micromanaging gangster, of course you’re going to have trouble correlating your decisions with their outcomes. (“What flavor of ice cream would you like?” “God only knows…”) I’ve been considering another factor in my powerless-but-responsible mindset lately though, and if “overwhelm” were a noun, that’s what it would be.

I’ve been going through a rough personal patch for several months now—unexplained health issues, mental and emotional shut-downs, never enough internal resources to go around. Dan keeps assuring me that I don’t have to apologize for the efforts we’ve put into finding a solution, that my wellness is a priority. Here’s where the overwhelm comes in, however. When I try to puzzle out the calibration of mind, body, and soul, all I see is a tangle of interconnected Christmas lights. Miles of them. They loop around every facet of my daily life, stretch far into the past, and disappear above the rafters of my consciousness, and you might as well ask me to solve differential equations in my head as to find the one burned-out bulb.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the possible culprits I’ve come up with:

  • Undiagnosed food sensitivities or allergies (If you say “coffee,” I will hurt you)
  • Airborne pollution
  • Stress for All The Reasons
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • A curse from the stoplight gypsy
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • An undiscovered source of mold
  • Disturbances in The Force
  • Thin-skinned-ness
  • Spiritual dysfunctions of all kinds
  • Those unpronounceable chemicals on cereal boxes
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Delayed onset culture shock
  • Recurring trauma from events in the past
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Some medical mystery solvable only by House, M.D.
  • Chronic worrywart syndrome
  • GMOs
  • Lack of gumption
  • Karmic retribution
  • Mental decline due to compulsive Facebook scrolling
  • Unresolved relational issues
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Not enough exercise/sleep/security/time/confidence/fun/self-discipline/sunlight/peanut butter cups/[basically just insert anything here]
  • General inadequacy of being

More mornings than I’d like to admit, I look at myself in the mirror, think “Oh no, not her again,” and then slump through my day as if I’ve been sentenced to an eternal three-legged-race with Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar

I’m simply not up to troubleshooting the infinitesimal connections that make up a holistic self. How do others do it? Where do they find the internal wherewithal to dive into the tangle and emerge with a clear map of their wiring? I’m always left slightly utterly in awe when a friend tells me she’s suffering from adrenal fatigue or mold poisoning or (if she’s Italian) ailment of the liver. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if I have a liver much less how it’s affecting my overall sense of self.

This is the kind of post that I struggle to finish because I want to tuck the ends neatly in on themselves and say That’s that. I like solutions and “once upon a time”s and big-picture perspectives with proper story arcs in place. At the same time, I know how much of life takes place in the tangled betweens, how staking a claim in uncertainty helps us live it with intention. I know that writing this aloud may very well mean the difference between fearing overwhelm or greeting it as plot development. I know that an in-process self is one of the most generous gifts a person can give the world.

I’m trying to remember that it can be a gift to myself as well.

I’m taking life much more slowly these days, partly out of necessity and partly because I trust the loved ones who keep waving stop signs in my face. I’ve been putting green stuff into my breakfast smoothies and grinning my cheeks off (take that as you will) at Zumba and experimenting with anti-anxiety supplements. I’m veeerrrry slowly unclenching my grip on expectations for productivity, and even though letting goals slip through my fingers looks like the opposite of progress, it feels like sanity. None of this is helping me identify the burned out light bulb, mind you. I’m still eyeball-deep in snarls of theory and inconclusive medical tests, and I sort of wonder if I’m doomed to spend my life as a delicate wilting blossom of bafflement. I’m here though, in the heart of the tangle, learning and growing and claiming each small choice and effect as a badge of honor. As a gift.

image source

5Jan

Resolution for the Un-Invincible

In college, I used to stay up all night so often that four a.m. almost lost its filter of delirium. Sometimes I’d put my favorite Ben Folds Five album on repeat while I caught up on work. Other times I stayed up for the pleasure of ambling down lamplit paths with a friend in the deep Texas hush. In retrospect, I can’t figure out if I’m glad that I befriended the night back when my only real responsibility was keeping up my grade point average or if I want to shake some sense into that college girl who didn’t recognize her perpetual exhaustion for what it was.

I still have to remind myself that the skinned-knee tenderness at the front of my emotions in the week following New Year’s Eve is fatigue, not inadequacy. It’s so easy to underestimate my need for rest. I see it clearly in my daughters, the link between sleep-deprival and total personal fragmentation, but my perspective blurs when I look at myself. Even all these years into adulthood, a part of me still insists on believing that grown-ups are superheroes.

If I were to adopt any one resolution this January, it would be this: to approach bedtime with mindfulness and gratitude instead of careless disregard.

This isn’t an easy one (though what resolution ever is?). There’s something prowling and nocturnal in my makeup, and the thinner the hours stretch, the easier it is for me to believe myself invincible. Time loses its price tag. I see the dark and the quiet as valuables that someone has left out on the curb, and I have to fight every thrifty, curious instinct in me to leave them be, to declare the day sufficient unto itself.

Right now, though, I’ve cleared enough of the post-holiday fatigue to remember just how smoothly the gears of life slip into place when I’ve gotten enough rest. This seems too basic and obvious a point to bother writing out until I consider how often I neglect it. Sometimes the simple truths of our biology are the hardest to approach with reverence or even acceptance. Thus the resolution: to end my days with gentle determination, to respect my own need to recharge, and to treasure sleep as if it were my greatest asset in 2015.

Because, in some ways, it is.


How about you? Any self-care strategies you’re focusing on in the new year?

31Dec

New Year’s in 2D

Traditionally, New Year’s Eve is personified as an old man with a pocket watch, but this day strikes me more as a teenager, awkward in orange vest and bowtie, manning a bin of disposable 3D glasses. There are plenty of pairs to go around and the promise of a year in review once we put them on. Inevitably, though, the red and blue cellophane lenses are wrinkled and the paper frames keep sliding down our noses and our visions have trouble adjusting to the depth and scope of what we’re seeing. Or is it just me?

I’m struggling to hold the entirety of 2014 in my gaze right now. As much as I treasure perspective and closure, I can’t seem to zoom out enough to get the shape of the year—all its triumphs and frustrations and the few big changes uncapping like matryoshka dolls to reveal an infinity of smaller ones. This is how it is every New Year’s Eve. My mind is still licking red and green sugar off its fingers and trying to remember what I used to do with myself before Christmas came to town.

I used to write. I know this much. I used to wake up in the morning with a thousand ideas straining against the confines of whatever responsible, grown-uppish tasks were scheduled for the day. I recently asked a friend looking into graduate programs (hi, K!) what kind of writing she was hoping to do, and she answered, “all of it.” I know exactly how she feels. The desire to make art out of inklings only gets stronger with time.

There’s the desire for community as well—to cultivate it always more, to live in our neighborhood and our church and our city as people invested in the outcomes. I did better at this in October and November, but I also ended up flat in bed with my breath clenched tight around a runaway heartbeat. I need to learn to do smaller more deeply.

There are so many other bits of myself, past, present, and future, bobbing around my periphery, indistinguishable from one another in 3D. Trying to pin down the nuances of this past year keeps pulling me straight into the next on the same threads of hope, and I wonder if that’s all New Year’s Eve should be after all—a surge of forward momentum, a hello.

Real live snowflakes are waltzing around my window right now (a once-every-two-years kind of sight here in central Italy), and tenderloin is roasting for a low-key evening with friends. The girls are in the next room chatting in the vein of sisters who will never, ever run out of things to say to each other. Dan is cooking lunch; glory be. My fingers are typing out the rust, and a whole new year is waiting in the wings, and it’s enough. My year doesn’t have to be processed in reverse to be complete. Sometime in the future I’ll look back and see the perimeter of 2014 backlit clearly by hindsight, but it doesn’t need to happen today, whatever the kid with the bin of disposable glasses says.

Here’s to the hope-threads stretching ahead, to every bright possibility we’ll be toasting at midnight. Welcome, 2015!

Merry Christmas 2014(And however you celebrate, happiest of holidays from the four of us!)

1Dec

Open-Source Parenting: Advent

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Christmas season tends to barrel into me somewhere around mid-November and then plummet me toward December 25th strewing intentionality, budgeting, and more than a small percentage of my joy in its wake. I resolved to find a way off the Polar Express this year—to reclaim giving without all the slapdash spending, to create a magical holiday for my girls without piling presents to the ceiling, to keep the twinkle lights in our souls lit all month long rather than building up to one big event (and the subsequent crash).

And then I got too busy to do much of anything about it.

That’s how it goes, doesn’t it? Idealism and real life rarely play nicely, especially when children are thrown in the mix. However, that’s where grace comes in.

Grace for ourselves for not having it all together.
Grace for our kiddos for unPinterestifying our charming family projects in about two seconds flat.
Grace for holidays that go according to plan exactly zero percent of the time.
Grace for me for sharing this advent activities list with you the day advent begins instead of sometime, you know, when it might have been useful. (Hi, 2015 readers!)

I put together this list of family activities this morning with inspiration from my friends Andrea and Adriel, plus my own Elf-esque love of sugar. I tried to make it a healthy (figuratively speaking here) mix of fun and meaningful activities, and there are more than twenty-four options so we’ll have a buffer in case December gets a little unruly on us. Most of them take less than half an hour out of the day. Also, all of these activities except for the first two are free or nearly so.

I’m doing nothing fancier with this list than printing it off on a sheet of Christmas stationery so we can read over it as a family and choose which activity we’d like to do every day of December. We plan to do this in connection with reading a chapter each day from The Jesus Storybook Bible, a gorgeously written children’s Bible that focuses each story on Jesus. (Even if you don’t have kids, this book is a gem.) And… that’s it! Christmasy magic without a zillion trips to the store.

If you’re interested in doing something similar, I’m sharing what I came up with below. Feel free to tweak it, wreck it, truss it up in tinsel, or use it as a springboard for an original list of your own. The idea is to make December meaningful for our kids without losing hours of sleep or shelling out big bucks.

Ready? Here you go:

An Advent Activities List for Designated Magic-Makers

  • Pack a shoebox online for Operation Christmas Child ($25)
  • Sponsor a child through Help One Now ($40/month) and write an introduction letter to him or her
  • Go through old toys and games to give some away to a shelter for battered women and children
  • Make Christmas cards to send to great-grandparents
  • Fill an extra grocery bag when we shop to give to someone who needs it
  • Make a pinecone bird feeder to hang outside for the birds
  • Have a Christmas music dance party in our living room
  • Take a family walk around downtown to look at Christmas lights and get a treat
  • Make hot cocoa
  • Offer to help someone with a task they don’t want to do
  • Go on a Christmas shopping date with Mom
  • Put on our best Scrooge faces and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol together
  • Make Christmas cards to send to grandparents
  • Invite a friend over to play for the afternoon
  • Read I Spy Christmas or Snowmen at Christmas (or another hidden picture book) together
  • Make a Christmas card for friends who just moved away
  • Go to the local animal refuge to play with the dogs and cats
  • Wrap Christmas presents with Dad
  • Make almond bark pretzels and share some with our neighbors
  • Babysit a friend’s baby so the mom can go do some shopping alone
  • Play a Christmas piano concert for relatives on Skype
  • Write a letter to Jesus thanking him for all the gifts we’ve received throughout the year
  • Make origami star ornaments
  • Look up how they celebrate Christmas in other countries
  • Watch Elf (with plenty of sugary treats, of course!)
  • Write a letter to troops stationed away from home
  • Put on our Santa hats and read Christmas stories on the sofa
  • Write little love notes to each other and put them in our stockings
  • Make edible Christmas wreaths
  • Rewrite the words to a Christmas carol for fun

Your turn! What would you add to the list? Do you have any tried-and-true tips for making December special without stress? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

 

12Nov

Stop This Train

I don’t know how it goes down in your neck of the woods, but the Polar Express has a habit of showing up around here nearly two months ahead of schedule. It tends to barrel into me around the first of November, all twinkle lights and full steam ahead, which is patently unfair. After all, autumn only recently got herself settled in. Mr. Skinnybones, our happy Halloween skeleton, is still hanging in the doorway with whatever accessories the girls have draped over him for the day. I’m only just beginning to turn my mind toward turkey and communal gratitude. You can’t stop a locomotive though, and once it hits, I’m along for the slap-dash race toward Christmas.

It knocks the breath out of me every dang year.

I still haven’t entirely reconciled with the fact that I’m a designated magic-maker now. Nine Christmases into parenting, and I still feel like some elf somewhere should be assigned to help me turn craft supplies and cookie dough and toys encased in bulletproof plastic into a holiday experience greater than the sum of its parts. All Santa sends, however, is his train, which flips calendar pages wildly in its wake and reminds me how few shopping days are left if I want free shipping. Which of course I do. Who wouldn’t?

The thing is, I ache every year for Christmas to be both bigger and smaller than it is, and shopping is without question the part I wish were smaller. Giving, on the other hand, is my favorite. It’s the one thing about the holidays that needs no manufactured fairy dust at all in order to thrill and fulfill. There’s always a significant disconnect for me though between spending and giving, and that’s where the source of my holiday angst lies.

I realize that at this point I’m in danger of sounding like one of those soapbox speakers railing against the consumerism in our society and shaming people for buying so much as a stocking stuffer, and oh goodness no. Watching my girls open their presents on Christmas morning turns on every twinkle light in my soul. I suspect however that I am not the only parent who goes into January with far more thoughts on the money she shelled out for those gifts than on the joy of watching them opened.

Right?

My giving feels stilted by the need to accumulate. I feel trapped each year into spending however much it takes for the pile of gifts under our tree to look sufficiently impressive, and that sense of rush and scarcity and helpless forward motion starts… well, approximately a week and a half ago. I’m on the train already, but the difference this year is that I’m brainstorming an escape plan.

I’m thinking of how the girls literally skip around the grocery store when we’re filling a bag for our Nigerian friend begging outside, how they can’t wait to hand over the bread and oranges and chocolate and soup mix and wish him a happy afternoon. What if we included him in our Christmas plans? Asked him what other kinds of needs he and his roommates have and tried to meet some of them as a family?

I’m thinking of how Krista Smith is going to do daily acts of kindness with her children in December instead of going with a traditional toy- or chocolate-stuffed advent calendar. In the interest of full disclosure, we already have an advent calendar tucked in the back of the closet (both Dan and I have a weakness for all things Lego), but I love the idea of adding on an advent action as well. Mailing cards to people who might be feeling lonely, taking a plate of muffins to the single mom in our building, choosing a few toys or clothes to give away, helping babysit our friends’ newborn so they can go out for an hour on their own, checking out Momastery’s Holiday Hands listings for anything we might be able to contribute… None of it would take much time or money. Just intention.

I’m thinking of how my homegirl Erika is gifting her sons with Help One Now child sponsorships because it is going to make her boys’ hearts glow wonderland-style to know that three more Haitian children are going to have food on their tables and parents by their sides this Christmas. I know that there are so many charitable opportunities this time of year that you can’t massage your overwhelmed temples without your elbows knocking into one. In fact, I wrote several years ago about how all the needs brought to my attention every day on social media were paralyzing me, and how do you care for one cause without caring for them all and coming unhinged in the process? The truce I’ve struck since with my conscience if that one need particularly grabs me and I can do something about it, I have the freedom to do so without guilt or second-guessing. Child sponsorships are especially dear to my heart, and if we can commit the funds, I’d love to add one of these sweet faces to our Christmas morning lineup.

I’m thinking of simplicity this year. Fewer homemade cookies (sorry, local friends!) so that we can have more time to open our home to people. Fewer purchased presents so that we can have more resources for giving and less stress overall. Fewer commitments so that we can spend more time together as a family (Lego play day, anyone?). Fewer concessions to obligation so that we can make this year about celebration instead.

Any of you up for jumping the track with me?

image source

7Oct

Confessions of a Terrible Texter

This past Saturday evening, I found myself standing in the middle of the kitchen with a stick of butter in my hand and absolutely no idea what I’d intended to do with it. This was concerning to me, given that not thirty seconds before, I had opened the fridge with no clue what I was trying to retrieve from it. Apparently, I had remembered—butter!—and then forgotten again in the time it would take a competent adult human to spell a-m-n-e-s-i-a. “What am I trying to do?” I wailed to Dan, who was busy preparing dinner. He looked at me the way one might regard a self-cannibalizing pet*, equal parts concern and WTF?!

*We once had a hamster named Pickle who gnawed his own leg to smithereens. Better, I suppose, than our mouse Minnie who, despite her chummy name, ate her two little terrarium-mates one weekend when we were out of town. We don’t have the best track record with rodents.

Brownies. I was making brownies. I couldn’t seem to hold that thought still in my focus for longer than twenty seconds though. After re-finding my place in the recipe, I deposited the butter in a double boiler and then looked around the kitchen feeling lost and fragmented. All I really wanted to do in that moment was pull my smartphone out of my pocket and retreat into the lull of social media streams. The impulse was so strong, so insistent and sudden and reactive, that it startled me more than my memory lapses had done. Was I really about to soothe my disengaged mind by disengaging further?

I finished baking in a kind of unsatisfied stupor.

/ / /

On Sunday afternoon, a friend texted me saying she’d noticed we weren’t at church that morning, and was everyone well? I read her text and then mentally added it to the long list of messages awaiting my reply. Of course I should have written back immediately. It would have taken a single minute of my time and then been off my mind, plus it would have communicated my very real gratitude for her concern. Texting for me, however, has always taken on a form of Gestalt psychology in which my reply is weightier than the sum of its parts—the minute of time it takes, the choice of wording, the motion of my finger on the touchscreen. Entering a conversation requires my presence.

[Cue the overwhelm.]

Text messaging. WhatsApp. Voxer. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Instagram. Each one a little universe full of people I care about, people to whom I want to give my full energy, attention, and emotional engagement. It’s not possible though, at least not considering my personality** and the creaking slowness with which my brain changes direction. I want to be present for all, but I can’t, and my extremely unhelpful coping strategy is to check out. Use social media to escape rather than engage. Let the faint interactive buzz of clicking “Like” substitute for the warmth of hard-won connection.

** ISTJ for you Myers-Briggs folks, Type 4 for you Enneagrammers. Basically, I’m an introvert who overthinks everything, including which personality test highlights this the best.

Tucking all these potential conversations away into spare pockets of my brain for later retrieval only serves to make me more fragmented, but the more fragmented I become, the more compulsively I scroll through social media in search of distraction. It’s the worst kind of loop, the kind that leaves me guilty and tired and replaces a section of my brain with Swiss cheese every time I pass “Go.”

I still haven’t replied to that text.

/ / /

Everyone and his Great Aunt Ruth knows that to make it in the online world these days, one needs to be both proficient and prolific in social media. This has a way of freezing my fingers cold on the keys.

If I can’t generate frequent snack packs of content throughout each day in addition to these slow-cooked posts, then am I in the wrong field? How are other writers able to be “on” for so long and in so many places each day without flying into a billion brittle bits?

I know the answer, of course, or at least some of its nuances. I know that personality and temperament have more of an impact on us than we often realize (more on this in an upcoming post) and that some good folks derive energy from the very things that sap mine. I know that a tremendous amount of work is often tucked into the archives of success, that diligence has its reward and its cost. I know that the sacrifices behind the scenes of others’ art might put my small concessions to shame. I also know that one size was never meant to fit all, no matter what the business experts claim.

Still, opening Twitter feels like smacking myself repeatedly in the face with a flunk card.

/ / /

I confess that while part of me feels snubbed every time a friend announces that he or she is sick of social media and wishes to get rid of it forever, another part of me completely understands. It’s not from the social media itself that I want freedom but from my own responses to it, the stress and disconnect and addiction and guilt, the impulse to self-soothe by scrolling through contacts’ photo streams, the wild-eyed withdrawal from conversation. I’d like to think that this is what my friends have meant as well—that we’re sick of the versions of ourselves we encounter when we reach for our smartphones.

This confession doesn’t come with a moral or with a list of tidy solutions. I will still be a terrible texter and a flaky Facebooker when the sun comes up tomorrow. (If you’re one of the ones waiting on a reply from me, I am sorry and can offer you contrition brownies if you come over.) Rather, this is my way of looking the beast in the eye and owning the reflection of myself I find there. It’s a truth-telling exercise. It’s a return to engagement, slow-cooker style.

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