Archive for June, 2018

I am Not Rome

amywink June 26th, 2018

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. John 14: 27

A friend of mine, with whom I engage in deeply satisfying theological talk, declared recently during a discussion of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, “I am Rome” as a way of illustrating his sense of his own privilege and personal history growing up in Dallas. I laughed. I continue to be amused by this description, partly because “I am Rome” is so brilliantly appropriate and while I do not think of him as Rome, that is often now exactly the thing I need to remember when we talk. But the idea of Rome–as the culture of social and economic privilege, the culture of what is “right”, the correct dream for everyone, the key to “success”–can be deeply seductive because Rome looks like a good life, a powerful life. It looks “right”. Claiming Roman citizenship, as the Apostle Paul did, protected a person from persecution (until it didn’t). One might be protected from being different even as one searches for a way to change Rome; one might even eventually use Rome to change Rome.

In recent weeks, I have been trying to comprehend the new direction my life is heading. Now that my immediate grief has subsided, now that I am rested and awake again to discovery and to understanding my own sense of who I am, I am deciding what I want to do with my time and my life now, what joys I will follow, what I am now being asked to do in the world. I did not have an idea about this part of my life, much less any plan for it, partly because it seemed like I wouldn’t ever get here and partly because I am still astonished that I am here. I am not a person who enjoys change but I have learned to change because that is what my life has been–that is what life is–even though I would prefer it remain stable, my life is changing. As Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently explained, “There is no fixed point in the Cosmos. All of nature is in motion.” Last spring, I noticed I was getting a little bored with my restful life, not unhappily bored, just enough to notice and I asked myself “Is this it? If this is it, I am okay, but I am not sure this is all for me to do.” I decided to let myself be bored because it had been so long since I had the luxury of boredom. I left the question hanging in the air, waited, and eventually forgot I’d wondered so dangerously out loud and honestly. Until an answer arrived “No, there’s more and you are only now half awake.”

I did not understand how true that was until I started writing again in the fall after I decided to take a risk (I had learned not to take risks) and accept the invitation to join the Disciple Fast-Track class forming at First. The invitation came at a moment when I had just decided not to follow an old idea of my future (and to leave behind most of the baggage that came with that old idea) but I had no idea where I was going and I really never would have thought, when I was taking that first step, that I’d actually be heading in the completely correct direction toward the life I had always wanted, one I thought I would never get. Inspired by our theological talk and Biblical reading, I started writing. Suddenly, I was a writer again and I was writing nearly every day, after not writing anything creative for a long time, almost a decade. Kathleen Norris described a similar experience when she described how the regular devotional pace of monastic life lead to an extremely creative period in her life; how the poetry just poured out of her during that time.

It was the same for me. I started writing poetry, and though I had written a few poems at the beginning of 2017, I can also describe this experience as poetry pouring out of me. And I let it. I didn’t even ask any questions about what was happening. I just wrote. By the end of the fall, and the close of the Old Testament Disciple study, I had written more poems in the 12 weeks than I had written in all my previous years combined. I wrote more essays, which I had also stopped writing, partly because I had not been able to think deeply. Suddenly, writing was no longer difficult, no longer a struggle, partly because I had the time and I was no longer completely exhausted, but mostly because some thing in me had opened and I was felt compelled to speak. I never expected (or even thought to expect) that the members of my Disciple class would be the most brilliant writing group I had ever had, though I did say at the start that maybe the class might make me a better writer. I never expected that First United Methodist Church would be the creative partner I needed for the return to my creating life (I do think Stacey would be amused and think it only right that the role she filled could only be refilled by an entire congregation of people). While I was surprised, I didn’t think that any of this was wrong. I felt a lot more like “Oh. I had no idea. Oh. ” I paid attention and I put together an entire book.

It was unsettling. Lovely, but unsettling, as if I was swept up in some thing much larger than myself that had moved me into the creative life I had wanted, the creative life I was meant to have. There was nothing between myself and the person I was meant to be any longer. I was reminded again how unconventional my life was. Can a poet ever be Rome?

I paid attention. I kept writing. I became a writer, finally, because all of me came together to write. All of me was suddenly present. It was an experience I recognized but one that had been extraordinarily rare. Suddenly and wondrously, I was completely present and writing. Someone asked me, when I tried to explain, “but you’ve written before?” and while that’s true, all I could reply was “Not like this, not at all like this.”

I paid attention. I tried to explain to those who had no idea why I was astonished or so happy.

I was open and I was the self I had always wanted to be, the person I had been working toward, the person I had set aside because I had other things I had to do, the person I thought I’d never get to be again. What had been in the way was no longer there. And I understood, with some horror, how very bored I had been. There is nothing quite like being fully engaged to reveal how very dulled I had become.

I paid attention, and almost without noticing, I was much further down the path into my next life than I expected, and I was surprised by where I was heading because in all the yes I was feeling, there was abruptly a new ask, a very different kind of “yes”, a quiet but arresting “oh, by the way, and also this.”

And. Also. This.

I stop.

And Rome catches me, whispering old fears I still carry deep within me, and those fears erase the “and”, cloak the “yes” in convention because I am asked to be something I haven’t the vaguest notion of how to be, except that it seems also a thing that I have always been, just newly defined. I am limited by my conventional understanding and doubt floods me even as I try to reconcile what I know to be true with what I am being asked to recognize is true. The safety of conventional understanding is also the danger of it and while I know this, I also suddenly lose that understanding in my confusion. While I have tried to live conventionally before, that life has never been mine, even if I hoped for convention (because that would seem safe) at some moments. My recurring nightmare of being offered a conventional life that I cannot afford to turn down speaks to my deeper understanding of who I am. I am not Rome.

But the voice of Rome, the voice of culture, the voice of convention, is seductive in ways that are confusing. The voice that encourages us to be who we really are is slowly drowned out by the voices that say “here is the one way.” Even as I am being asked to expand who I understand myself to be, (the “And. Also. This.“) I am faced with pressure to narrow “and” to “only” some of which is my own making and some of which is well-intended advice from friends, advice I have sought but which I find myself (annoyingly to myself and I’m sure to them as well) only able to answer at this time, “no, not that.” or “I don’t know” or “all I know is this” in very very vague terms as this writer loses her language, her means of being in and understanding the world. In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, Emerson wrote there are “voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the [humanity] of every one if its members . . . It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

At this moment right now, I am without a name for what I am supposed to do, the customary understanding seems not exactly right and every time I press against those conventional ideas, I know it isn’t right even though I would love to know the end point toward which I am currently headed. All I know now is the direction I move will open if it’s right, and it may only open one step at a time because I can only take one step at a time. As a wise friend recently counseled, “You will know.” When I am quiet, I know this and I remind myself “follow what you love” to learn my newest direction. I remember I am a writer and what I do next must also support that. But, it is so easy to forget, so easy to want everything to be clear before it can be clear. So easy to want to be Rome, even though I am not Rome.

When I learned to drive, I started with no experience, not even riding experience. I learned from the very beginning and I learned how to have good hands, soft hands. For those who do not work with horses, it seems that we use our hands to steer by force, as if the strength in our arms might actually move a horse’s entire body. But what we are doing is counter-intuitive, softening the hands so the horse seeks contact with his mouth through the bit and reins. It is not the goal of a good driver to force a horse by pressure into moving, but to ask a horse to respond to the soft pressure guiding him where to go. This was very hard to learn and it is possible to use a severe bit and hard hands to move a horse but that is not good driving. Luckily, Will was forgiving and easy to drive. When I started driving my mare Blessing, I had to learn how to lighten my hands even more, so soft was her mouth, so sensitive to the slightest movement of my fingers. Sensitive to a fault, my trainer said, and slowly brought us both along. I don’t think she was speaking only of the mare. Blessing refused to listen to hard pressure so becoming stronger, using a heavier bit only made for arguments I would never win. We frustrated each other even as we wanted to work together.

I wanted to drive her. I wanted to be good enough. And I pressed myself hard to be good enough, yet I didn’t exactly know what we needed until I stopped pushing against what I thought I needed to do. I waited and thought instead about a different way to connect. I knew my limitations and I knew her needs, so I looked for the softest bit I could find. If I could not lighten my hands enough, I needed a bit that helped us communicate. I ended up with a riding bit, a French Link snaffle, a bit designed for horses with a low palate, with a large copper lozenge in the middle. It wasn’t a driving bit and it was entirely non-traditional, but with that light bit and my soft-enough hands, Blessing and I could drive together. Eventually, I also learned that if I took off my leather gloves (as is not allowed in competition or advised at home), we could drive even better. She listens and responds to the softest hands I can muster, the lightest squeeze of the fingers. She is a challenge to drive because I must always be mindful of our light connection but when we are together on our drives, we are present to each other and moving together with only the slight pressure of my hands. She is always looking for me and I am always reaching for her.

I was once asked why I drive her in a snaffle, by someone one who thought she needed stronger handling and a more severe bit to be made to obey, someone who seemed to think of horses as machines. I only explained that this was the bit that she liked, that I liked. I knew my mare. She wasn’t going to obey my hands if they were heavy. I looked for the way for us to work together because I wanted to work with her, not against her. We simply needed to listen for each other. She wanted to work with me, not against me. My wise trainer knew all of this. She also knew I would figure it out.

Right now, I am thinking of this lesson with Blessing as I think about the yoke I am accepting, the light burden I am being asked to carry. I am asked to understand “and also this” not as a limitation, but an additional understanding to the self that I am, an additional element in the creation of my fully human self that will enable me to do the work that I am meant to do in the world, even if I do not yet have a name for what that is. I am being asked to explore, to be curious, to learn, to keep going, not as a single-minded pursuit of one thing, but as a growing experience of who I am continually becoming. And I am being asked, not Rome, to bring everything that I am to this call because the work I am meant to do is also seeking me.

Dear Texas

amywink June 18th, 2018

Dear Texas,

I hope this letter finds you because I have been looking for you. I would write to my elected representatives, except they do not want to hear from me because they do not want to think of me as Texas and so my deep roots– my 6 generations of heritage in this state and my ancestry that goes back to before the Texas Revolution ( I can claim membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Daughters of the American Revolution too)– are being ignored because others want to claim ‘Texas’ for their political gain. But I assure you, I am also Texas and I know a few things about Texas that don’t get a lot of press.

Right now, our larger US culture thinks of Texas in terrible ways. I don’t think I need to tell you what they are. Just look around at what people say about Texas these days. The word has become synonymous with crazy and I suspect there is some truth in that statement. This has made us somewhat defensive. But what worries me most is that Texas has become a word that also implies “mean” and “small.”

How did this happen? How did our state, with a personality so large and welcoming, become so mean and small-minded? Is it really that way, or is that just what we are being asked to believe? Last week, I sat with someone who ranted about Texas after a terrible experience with an individual in Health and Human Services. He kept saying “well, that’s Texas. ” I kept saying “But I’m Texas and I find that horrible and wrong.” And it is horrible and wrong.

I grant you that we have our problematic history–what mature state does not?– and we have participated in some pretty ghastly events that we are only beginning to accept. But like all people who have lived a long time in a changing culture (or all people in one big crazy family), we can all look at our past and find horrible things to point out, things we need to look into deeply, things we might regret or be ashamed of, things that make us really uncomfortable about who we are and who we have been. I do not mean to make a list of these things in this letter even though we really need to talk about that some time.

My purpose in this letter, Texas, is to find the other part of our shared history, to look for the better angels of our nature, which have spoken to us in difficult moments and made us stand up and say “Wait, that’s not right. That’s not what we do.” Even if this contradicts some historical fact, it doesn’t mean we can’t say it and mean it at this moment in time.

I am talking to you, Texas, because I know you can lead. I have seen it. It is the thing that gives me hope because I know that those of us with deep roots here know that it is still up to us to lead. Perhaps we can think of ourselves as approaching a kind of identity crisis, perhaps akin to a mid-life change, in which we look around at the life we are leading and think, this is not what we want. This is now how we want to be known. Where do we draw our line in the sand–and those of you who were required to take 2 years of Texas history know where that comes from, right? I know lines in the sand can be dangerous things. But I think they can also be valuable things that make us stand up on the right side but we have to ask the right question.

Is the question before us about standing our ground and ripping children from the arms of parents who have arrived asking for help?

Is that even the side of the line we would want to be on?

What did Jesus say when he drew something in the sand between a woman and her accusers?

For a state that was once described as “crawling with ants and Methodists,” I hope we understand what is being asked now.

We have in our state a longstanding rivalry between the University of Texas and Texas A&M. It is often the subject of good-natured ribbing between the “liberal arts” University in Austin (the blue dot in the red state) and College Station, where God and Country reign. We do have mixed marriages in our state and I myself earned both my graduate degrees at A&M after growing up in Austin. My brother went to the University of Texas. While the students I had at A&M were challenging–often prepared to be insulted by their professors, determined not to learn new things while at college– what I also found there was a kind of generous spirit to do what was right, as long as right was clear, Aggies always did the right thing. Not everyone I know saw this and it wasn’t always there all the time because of course, human beings are a complicated bunch but I saw it and I have seen it emerge in public life. It is something I think of as Texas character and something I hope to see rise again at this moment.

In 1999, when the Aggie Bonfire collapsed and students were killed, University of Texas students did not celebrate. They stopped and helped. We all grieved and mourned. People died and were seriously injured. We listened to the better angels of our nature. We helped.

In 2005, when Katrina hit and devastated Louisiana and Houston took in took in thousands of refugees (that’s people seeking refuge), some argued we should take in those from Louisiana because they didn’t belong in our state (yeah, that’s racism if you didn’t notice); One of my own students said in class “don’t you think they should stay where they belong?” and I replied “There is no them, there is only us.”

And I watched Rick Perry, of all people, stand up and say we would take people in because that was the right thing to do. And New Orleans came to Texas and Texas let them in.

Last year, when Harvey devastated the coast and Houston, everyone who could help came to help. And Louisiana came to Texas. Some people tried to divide us by saying “Liberals hated” those who came to help. What a bunch of nonsense. This Texan cannot think any such thing about one person getting a bass boat out and helping someone out of rising water.

And this year, when Austin was being bombed, our Governor, who so often castigates Austin, managed to find the better angel in his nature and work with our Mayor, Steve Adler, and all the police and law enforcement officials managed to set aside their pettiness and work together, as Texans.

And yet, there was the suggestion, as if from a serpent’s lips: Do not help each other. Do not accept help from each other. Say the other deserved it. Hate each other. Despise each other.

Except, we have eaten from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and now we know evil when we see it and when we are watching children stolen from their parents and warehoused alone, with rules that outlaw human contact, we are looking right into evil and it is being conducted in our name. We may very well have chosen poorly in earlier times, but we do not have to choose poorly now. So I am calling on you, Texas, to rise and lead like Texas.

I’m sorry to have gone on so long, Texas. I just wanted you to know I was looking for you and believe that you are out there somewhere. I hope this reaches you and finds you standing up on the right side of this line, defending what is right against what is evil.

Always,

Your Daughter.

Eucharist

amywink June 15th, 2018

In the feather snowfall
of her sudden kill,
I am interrupted
by this hawk of my
morning’s contemplation,
who appearing, to my surprise
and wonder, arrived to share
this communion from the trees,
as remnants of
beautiful death drift
on the air,
down sinking
in the light

Her gaze holds mine
and we see each other,
perhaps she daring
me to move,
or just contemplating
my presence
before deciding
I am of no consequence
or danger she turns
her attention
and together we rest,
feasting in each other’s company.

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.

_____________________________________________________________________

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A Landscape of Indifference

amywink June 12th, 2018

As much as I would like to say that my escape from my first academic job lead directly into happiness, my second academic job at a small university in Kansas, came with troubles of its own. My friend Sheryl had indeed saved me by contacting her friend, the department chair, and he hired me to replace an outgoing faculty member so in the summer of 1999, I made my way, with the help of my BFF Kristi, into the heartland and out of Texas.

And it was beautiful. I left behind the tall pines of East Texas, my garden, and my darling house, and moved to Emporia, in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, 45 miles south of Topeka. The town was picturesque, a postcard for Midwestern Americana. It looked like home.

And yet, I had a terrible time finding a house to rent that wasn’t in such a terrible state of repair as to be dangerous. I did eventually find a house with a fenced yard (I had dogs) and I set about to make it habitable–though I never was able to keep the birds from falling out of the furnace in the basement and suddenly flying into the house and the hole in the ceiling was never patched. The young faculty helped paint the interior before my furniture arrived (3 weeks later), and I pulled up the shag carpet with the permission of the landlord (as God is my witness, I will never have carpet again) and made the place mine. I tried again to bloom where I was planted but I also knew that I was not going to be able to move again and again. My roots did not like being disturbed. I knew it was going to be was this place or no place. I held on to hope for this place but something had gone out of me and I was more reserved and wary.

That fall, the silver maple in the front yard turned such a miraculous color of golden yellow that it illuminated the entire interior of my house, which I had also painted yellow. It felt like peace.

The department chair encouraged me to teach my academic specialties, asked if I wanted to teach another women’s autobiography class, engaged me in the department. I sent my book manuscript off to the press, where it was accepted for publication. All seemed to be going “according to plan” and I continued to do all the “right things”: attend conferences, publish, teach.

Everyone said I was “on my way” to a good tenure-track position. And it did look like that because that is what everyone said was the right way to go about getting an academic job. This was the plan. This is how it happens. And yet that was no longer the way because there were far too few jobs and the old “right way” to get one had not kept up with the times. Still, everyone clung to the idea of the right way because what would it mean if that was no longer the right way?

I had no interviews that year at MLA (where everyone in Literature and Languages interviews), which was in Chicago, where I visited Stacey, and we watched 1999 turn to Y2K as Tom Brokaw kept saying “Nothing continued to happen.” Truer words were never spoken. Nothing continued to happen.

I tried to love where I was anyway. I loved the Kansas prairie. I spent a lot of time antiquing and learning the history of the area. I was very close to the route of the Overland Trail to Oregon and could go see the ruts worn there by all those who traveled West. I visited Lawrence occassionally, which was gorgeous. I tried to garden because I could suddenly plant things that would never survive in Texas. I liked the students, who were genuine and kind as one might expect in Kansas, and who found me quite exotic (just as my East Texas students had done). My classes filled and I was happy enough. I taught an Advanced Composition class focused on personal narrative and had an amazing time with the students. Two of them had essays published in the college wide publication of Best Essays, and faculty commented that personal essays usually never did get in.

I taught a wonderful class in Women’s Diaries the first summer and it was perfect, a dream class in which I was able to do the things I wanted to do with the 6 students in the seminar. I took them as a class to the Kansas Museum of History, where we toured the exhibit and had a more visceral experience of the diaries we’d read of the Overland trail–one student tried to lift the iron kettle and nearly fell over. We all understood that she’d have died on the trip. I took them all out to dinner. It was a beautiful teaching experience and one I will always cherish because I got to be the teacher I always wanted to be.

And then the department chair left for a position at another college at the end of my first year and in the midst of that change, all the welcoming faculty retreated to their offices. I became invisible.

Active hate is one thing to experience but indifference may be worse. At least with active hate, you can see your enemy clearly. It’s easy to know you exist, even as some kind of ill-conceived representative of an idea. Indifference makes a person invisible. People stopped talking with me. If they did talk with me, mostly it was to assure themselves that not thinking of me was perfectly reasonable. I heard more than once “Oh, you’ll be fine. You have a book.”

And yet, nothing continued to happen. The new chair perkily told me, standing in the door of my office, that there wouldn’t be a position for me the next year. She wasn’t sure she could even offer me summer teaching. And I was at an end. Nothing I had done made any difference and yet this was the thing I was entirely meant to do. This was the soul-work of my life and I was very good at it, gifted. I had the vita to prove my worth. And there was no help for what to do next except cursory suggestions that I “could do a lot of things” or, the fall back for everyone who can think of nothing “There’s always technical or business writing. You’ll be fine.” And they walked away.

That winter, my golden tree did not last a week as winter blew in with snow. My house did not glow with the light as the entire landscape turned grey and icy. It was an apt reflection of my internal darkness as the vision of my future faded. At Christmas, I had to wait for the temperature to rise to zero before I headed south to Austin.

I did apply for a number of other academic administration jobs, etc, and nothing continued to happen. My future went entirely black and my own light almost went out.

Only one way opened, returning home to Austin, to live with my parents for what I hoped would be as short a time as possible. I had no idea what I was walking into or what I would be doing or anything else. I just knew I had to go. And so I came home a failure in May 2001 because “home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I was 36.

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