All the Feels

It’s Sunday, mid-day on a cold, rainy London afternoon. I’m sitting in an old armchair, sipping tea, peering into the street and I’m overcome with all the feels: joy, resilience, blessings, friendship, authenticity, growth, abundance, savoring.

This morning I took some time for myself to stroll the leaf-covered, cobblestone streets of Chelsea Mews and happened upon all the things that make me warm: cafes, bookstores, health food stores, outdoor markets, pastry shops, bars. I’ve written all day. I’ve tackled some hard things. I’ve done some reading. Some research. I’ve put the skeleton of my book project together. I’ve reconnected with another warm soul, which brings me backs to blessings. I’ve found myself in a gorgeous flat with an endless supply of tea candles. It doesn’t get much better.

In the last few years, more often that any other time in my life, I find myself living more in the moment and appreciating that which I’m so lucky for. Mostly people. Mostly experiences. And most of all, the freedom to be me. The freedom to be traversing this life alone, and yet not so alone.

Just like The Lady in Comus which we saw at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a small theater where performances happen under candlelight, I make no apologies for my own freedom. I make no apologies for carving my own path. For learning to say no. For taking time to assess. I will not be any man’s (or anyone’s) toy or piece of clay to mold. “Beauty is nature’s brag” after all.  This trip was a reward in my mind, yet I had no idea just how rewarding it would be.

I’ve embraced spontaneity and ditching the schedule. I’ve embraced knowing that when the words come we pay attention and when they don’t we don’t try so hard to chase them. Mostly, I’ve realized – thanks to a late-night chat with Hananah Banana- that sometimes the people that make the biggest impacts in our life are the people that can’t answer all the questions about us. And there’s beauty in that.

I’m blessed with an amazing network of family and friends. And I’m blessed with writer friends-which are slightly different. They are among the most authentic friendships I have. My writer friends can’t tell you my middle name, my favorite color, or the details of my day-to-day life, but what they can tell you is that they float in and out with ease and they genuinely know me. There’s a certain kinship and vulnerability in this lifestyle that yields compassion, and I’m grateful for my tribe (you know who you are). We’ve been to war together.

So, as the rain taps the balcony outside, I’m going to disappear into more poems. More tea. Then wine. I’m going to shut the rest of the world out. And take a moment to savor.

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London, 2016

I’m not a spontaneous person. “Strategic” is one of my top 5 leadership skills. But late this summer I decided to buck tradition and during a somewhat random online conversation with my dear friend from Dubai, Hananah Zaheer, we expressed some interest about doing things a little differently. About creating what we needed in this moment of time for our craft. A mere 48 hours later I had booked a flight to London, trusting that the all important details of lodging and what not would work themselves out along the way.

Here I am the week of departure, and I am thrilled at the reminder that sometimes going against your instinct and going without a plan allows room for the unexpected, the unknown and the marvelous to take shape. Noted.

This trip holds a lot of weight. It’s a fresh start in a lot of ways; it’s reward for three years of struggle, sacrifice and rebuilding; it’s a safe space to do the hard work and bring what’s been hiding to the page; it’s a time to reconnect with a fellow spirit who is navigating the same tough waters of a writer’s life; it’s creating something to fill a gap that was seen and doing it with someone I adore.

As much as I love travel, my body typically rejects it. I get “emotional” one week out (check); I usually get ill two days before departure; I will have a panic attack as the plane takes off after worrying for hours about a snafu in said plans. But, I know I’ve traversed much worse. And I know that any strict pattern can be redesigned.

In light of fresh starts and celebrations, I’ve decided to arm myself with the things that will course correct my “typical” experience. I have my healing stones set aside and cleared, I have set my intentions, I have surrounded myself with wise people who reinforce for me the greatness that is living one’s life and not witnessing it.

And with all that said, I’ve packed too many shoes and can’t stand to part with them. That will remain the same evidently.

Here’s to growing up even when you’re grown up.


New Poem up at The Deaf Poets Society

Thank you to Sarah Katz and crew at The Deaf Poets Society for giving this poem a home. If you’d like to hear me read it (in my best bronchitis voice) or at least hear the cute tapping of dog paws on wood floor in the background check it out below.

http://www.deafpoetssociety.com


Embracing Compassion, Poolside

Written: Summer 2016, poolside. Posted: now, much later.

I’ve never been much of a sunbather. I’m best described as fair, pale, translucent, so the sun’s rays have never been nice to me. However, after moving into my new complex this spring I decided to take advantage of this benefit I had been given and spend a mere 45mins every other day lounging poolside, increasing my Vitamin D intake and decompressing from what each day held.

One particular afternoon, the sky was overcast, the crowd at the pool was small, and I was reading Ed Hirsch’s book “Gabriel.” I’ve returned to this book multiple times to relive the experience of engaging with it which includes everything on the spectrum of fear and compassion to grief and resiliency. I’m sure that book, swimming in the back of my mind, informed my reaction to the following scene.

I was reading when I heard wailing from a nearby child, adorned in floaties and sunscreen, who was being placed in “timeout” by his mother. He had thrown a sand pail into the pool, splashing everyone. “We do not throw things,” she said. His mom escorted him to a corner, near a holly bush and told him to stay there. “We do not throw things.” As he stood there sobbing, at either his disobedience or the concept of standing in a corner or being torn from his mother’s arms, he began sobbing deeper, turning moans into wails, long strings of vowels: “mooooooommmmyyyyyyyyy.” Over and over. “We do not throw things,” and all the while I knew that quite often as humans, we did in fact throw things.

In that exact moment, I wanted to hold him. I wanted to console him in a way I have never wanted to console a child. And when I say I have never wanted to console a child, it’s an authentic statement. Some call it a lacking. I call it a general disinterest. But in this moment, I wanted for this child to call for me in a way that reminded of my capacity for compassion and consolation. This is not say I have changed my mind after 39 years and want kids. This is to say I had arrived at a place where I longed to console another human who was suffering. I’m pretty sure “Gabriel” brought me to that space. And I’m thankful for that.

I used to tell an old lover of mine, “Tell me something good.” As if I needed to desperately to hear something good whispered into my ears. It was a begging of sorts. A yearning for something that would make me feel what I felt this day as I watched that child learn the lesson, “We do not throw things.” When for me, the lesson was “we do not throw things away.”


The Easter Message: Straight from an 11-year Old

I was texting with a dear friend the other day who recently moved away, and we began talking about her recent move, my upcoming move, and this Easter’s message. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been aware of the messages the universe was sending me. I would’ve moved through the moments, too fearful to really embrace them.

Yesterday, as I was coming home from a day of errands I passed my neighbor’s two daughters whom I often pass as I’m walking inside from the parking lot.  One is 11 and one is five. As I walked by them, the five-year old said to her sister, “She’s so cute.” I chuckled at a five-year old saying a 38 year-old woman was “cute.” Her older sister said, “Yeah, she is. I like her.” I’ve never had much of a conversation with these two other than occasional smiles or “Hello’s” in passing.

A few moments later as I let the dogs out on the porch she was outside and came over to my fence, leaned on it and said, “You live alone, right?

“I do.

That is so cool. I mean you get to come and go as you please. You don’t have to answer to anyone. And you get to dress so cute. When I grow up I want to live alone with two little dogs too.”

What I wanted to say was, “Girlfriend, you have no idea the shit storm I had to go through to answer to no one.” Realizing that’s highly inappropriate to say to an 11-year old, I simply said, “You can do whatever you want when you’re older.”

I felt I had done my very small part in the way of liberating a young girl. Years ago I would have ignored this interaction, but now, I realize that the universe sends us moments and more importantly people to send us the messages we need to hear, to give validation of where we are and the path we’re going down. I didn’t necessarily feel I needed any validation in the choices and realities of the last few years, but I did appreciate the moment for what it was. I appreciated realizing that this Easter, my new beginning was being pointed out for me by an 11-year old. She was indeed a gift.

With my upcoming move, I find myself finalizing the purge of things from the past and rebuilding with new intentions, new visions, new furniture! I’m one who is normally resistant to the urge of buying home goods for the sake of buying home goods. My towels don’t need to match and I don’t need a gallery wall because Pinterest says it’s cool. When I was negotiating why I had this sudden urge to nest in my new home, I asked and my friend texted back and said, “It’s happiness that does that. It used to be too quiet, too still in your home to feel truly at home there. You’ve done the heart work and now you’re creating a space where you can live intentionally.”

I don’t know if she meant to type “heart” work or “hard” work but both are applicable here. The days of surviving and struggling, digging out and rebuilding are over. The moments of new beginnings, refreshing, reviving are here. I have a bottle of Champagne that’s collected dust for a year in the back of my kitchen cabinet. Friday, as the moving truck pulls away, and I sit in the middle of my new beginning, I plan on popping open that bottle and toasting to a fresh start.

It has been a transformational year that has brought me new friends, new visions, new energy, and I’m grateful for all the strong women in my life that have held me up, nurtured me, applauded me along the way. There’s power in a tribe.

 


Brain Rest: The Hero’s Journey

To be clear, I do not fancy myself a hero. I am simply drawing a correlation between the experience of brain rest and Joseph Campbell’s, 12-step Hero’s Journey. I believe myself to be somewhere between stages 7-9.

In my own experience, brain rest is a journey of simultaneous torture and enlightenment. Brain rest = physical and cognitive rest in order to focus the brain’s energy towards healing as opposed to other cognitive functions. This means “completely withdrawing from any metabolically demanding activities that aggravate symptoms of a concussion.”

In everyday terms: no television, no computer, no telephone/texting, no caffeine, no alcohol, and wait for it…no reading. What’s really left after that? I’ll tell you: eating, showering, sleeping. And the fine art of staring at the ceiling. That’s what’s left.

I’m not much for disclosing medical experiences to the masses. In fact I’m the person that tells her parents days before heart surgery that it’s happening. I’m a silent and private processor when it comes to matters of the body. However, what I learned and experienced in these past few weeks is worth mentioning, worth sharing.

——

Two weeks of brain rest means you need to actually rest. I realized quickly I don’t know how to do this exactly. This is why I don’t take vacations. The transition to relax is far too hard. This is why a sick day from work is never a day to rest but a day to get all the “other stuff” accomplished. I kept strategizing about how to spend my time over these next two weeks more productively. Lying around and resting seemed, well, wasteful.

I haven’t stopped and appreciated the opportunity to be entirely still, to be with myself for quite sometime. I’ve been too busy fighting and healing and charging ahead over the past year and there are times when fate intervenes and what seems like the most inconvenient of happenings actually brings you to a place you’ve needed to visit for awhile. That place, in this instance, was rest.

On a Scale of 1 to 10

From the moment the accident happened every doctor, every physical therapist, every concussion specialist, has asked me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Here’s what: this is a horrible marker for pain. Especially for someone with a head injury because what’s a 5 today feels like an 8 tomorrow or vice versa, and really I’m diagnosed “confused” so how credible am I? It’s all arbitrary. And now, everything is operating on a scale of 1 to 10.

How bad do I want McDonald’s today? Eh…6. How much do I miss coffee? 10!  To assign such specificity and labeling to a feeling, to the category of pain, is intriguing to me. (This is what one thinks about while staring at the ceiling for two weeks).

Getting Creative

I steamed every item of clothing I own. Even the t-shirts. That didn’t cause me pain and it was what I considered “mindless” work so why not. It ate up a day. One day out of 14.

Then, I listened to every CD from Poetry Speaks. I listened to podcasts. I began a love affair with meditations on youtube. I found the settings feature on my computer that would read articles to me. I used the voice recorder to record any notes/thoughts/poetry ideas that I had since it was not comfortable to write them down. In between all of this, I ran the gamut of emotions and the scales titled heavily towards the negative ones.

Thanks to the urging of a great friend (thanks CVB!) I learned to embrace the opportunity. I was granted permission to turn off my mind, to remove myself from social media, email, the phone. I was allowed to be still. And more importantly, I was allowed to heal, from that which got me in this situation and all that came before it.

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Up and Down

When one is still and resting, it’s inevitable to become slightly emotional along the way. To think of all the things you’ve avoided or suppressed. To reevaluate your place and your participation in this world. I forgave myself for mistakes and shortcomings. I celebrated myself for persevering. I thought about all the people past and present that have found their way into the fabric of me and took time to be present with the memories and experiences. And I felt richer for that time. I worked on answering the questions of what I want and what’s next.

On the Mend

Meditation, juicing (it’s as close to cooking as I will get), and vacationing. These are my new focuses as I hit reset after this experience. The frustration of doing visual exercises suitable for children to build my strength back up and deeming subtle neck stretches as daily exercise are taking their toll, but I’m learning to take my time. I’m slowing down. I’m learning to be gentle with myself. And every day I’m praying that I don’t forget how to be a poet. It sounds extreme but it’s a real anxiety (again, there was a lot of time to think).

What Awaits

Stacks of books. Poems swimming around in my foggy head. Running at the Parkway again. Somehow I’ve turned into a moderately positive person with a new appreciation for the road I’ve traveled in the past 12 months and am looking forward to finding my new normal.

Can't run but I can sit and enjoy the Parkway!

Can’t run but I can sit and enjoy the Parkway!

 

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The stack of gems I bought in early July that await me.


Interview Up at The Collagist

Thank you to Matthew Olzmann and the folks over at The Collagist for asking me questions about my poem Ode to the Cortex published this summer. Thanks in advance for the read.


Bring On the Challenges

If we have ever shared a cup of coffee or exchanged more than a few conversational sentences, you are aware I’m adverse to change. As in, the actual skin on my body and my immune system succumb to the notion of change. I want to embrace the concept of change as it is after all the only constant, but the reality is that shit is damn hard to digest. As of late, I’ve been experiencing a good amount of change and of course it has me drawing correlations to the work.

With a new living space and relearning my wants and needs from this life, it also has me challenging my own comfort zone in regards to writing. After a bout of frustration with the work and ranting to Shelley once again that I was sick of it all (this happens quarterly), she tasked me: no poetry for two weeks. No reading it and no writing it. Dabble in another genre.

I thought this might be easy enough, however day two I was reading it. I had already broken the rules, but I decided she didn’t have to know that part (until now). What her task did do was reintroduce me to the joys of writing. It forced me out of my head in regards to the work and who’s reading it and who’s not and if it has merit and all that bullshit we get bogged down by on occasion. It served as a lovely reminder of why we write, why we sit down with walking pneumonia and put our last bit of energy towards the page:  the work is a part of us. It’s not a choice we make. It’s a need we have. I’ve been having fun putzing around in essays and flash fiction, and I’m remembering the fun of it all and forgetting the nagging self that is pushing for more and better and smarter.

With that, I leave you with a snippet from Richard Hugo’s “Writing Off the Subject” which I often use to begin my Creative Writing classes:

“Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing, glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page. Feel lonely? Good.”

 


Gratitude: readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Thanksgiving has always been a strange holiday for me. One that I emotionally plowed through merely to arrive quicker in front of the Christmas tree, the midst of green and red sprinkled cookies and gingerbread men, tinsel and the smell of pine. I don’t remember Thanksgiving being a very big deal by anyone around me. I remember “ringing the King” at various times for Thanksgiving dinner. It was essentially a holiday where we all reserve the right to overeat and oversleep but overall, not much going on there.

This year however, I have found myself in a constant state of gratitude. The universe has a strange way of presenting you with people right when you need them. Old friends suddenly email out of the blue because they have encountered an old letter or stumbled into a situation that brought a distant memory closer to the forefront of their mind. Neighbors unexpectedly show up to offer compassion. Friends open their doors (and sometimes rooms and definitely kitchens) and hearts to you. They call you every day and take your calls every hour. It’s as if everyone, all at once, decides to show up in a real and present way right when you need them. For these moments and the people that bring them to life, I’m most thankful.

I have been offered generosity, support and comfort. Better yet I have learned to receive it and admit that at this current time, I in fact need it.  It’s a complicated thing accepting help and it’s even messier to have to ask for it. It’s nice to be here: a state of readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. I have begun a listing of that which I’m thankful for and while it doesn’t begin to encompass it all, I feel a need to list it, out loud so those people know how truly grateful and touched I am at their love and support of me (in no particular order of course).

Nicole Wooten: for teaching me about energy and then letting me join you in teaching others about energy.

Christiaan Van Bremen: for standing up with arms raised high in a white, fluffy sweater and being one of my biggest cheerleaders.

Gabrielle Schillinger: for an escape and the ability to pretend.

Darryl Yosue: for answering my calls every hour of every day and for being one of my truest friends.

Elizabeth McGolerick: (lump in my throat) for being my best friend and for being … my person.

Katy Hannah: for loving me regardless of anything and everything and never wanting to know the details; for loving me since the day I was born, literally.

James Ruiz: for being an all-around amazing soul that feeds the people around you.

Jan and Steve Addington: Duh, for everything.

Denise Duhamel: for her book “Blowout.” (This list could go on for pages, so I’ll stop here)

Todd and Heather Addington: for delivering some light during a dark time. So excited for you.

Lisa Jusino: for home. (let’s sit with that for a minute…home..thank you, you deserve a parade.)

Laura Portalupi: for the right email at the right time containing the right poem.

Stanley Plumly: for mentorship and friendship.

Kate Harrison: for being the world’s best spirit leader.

Jesse and Gary: for the salad; that salad meant everything.

Anne and Tom Welsh:  for the endless hugs and boxes and the ability to make me not feel so far away from home.

Michelle Whittaker: for being an awesome roommate that turned in to an awesome friend.

Del and John: for dinners, for hugs, for checking in and opening your home.

Shelley Puhak: for buying the drinks and continued friendship.

Corey Curran: for making me feel pretty even when I don’t.

Toni Price: for prayers and book recommendations.

 

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and hearty Thanksgiving. Sending love to you all.


The Line

The books have accumulated quite a bit of dust here at Book Dust. Layers and layers.  I’ve been in hiding, but here I am, peeking out from the protective covers that I’ve had myself buried under as of late.  I’ve been doing a lot of self examination and in the process of course I’ve discovered some correlations between my life and my work. My latest obsession: challenging my theories on the line.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of essays and articles on this topic to challenge my thinking. As someone who is largely guided by sonic qualities of a poem and the line itself, I decided to challenge my own instincts, to be a bit more vulnerable. I recently drafted a poem that was intended to document an experience with storms. Those who live in the Northern VA area know that storms here  are prominent and vicious in their destruction. Most storms are, but I do find our particular geography to be plagued with strange, beastly storms that know when your weak and strike at that exact moment. This poem came out of one of those storms.

My original intent was to build the anxiety of the speaker and the speaker’s experience with each line. As I began drafting, the poem took the shape of a longer line (shocker, I know.) The poem looked on the page just as I’d expect a poem of mine to look. Then a new thought occurred: this poem seems…unchallenged, too expected. So I took to the page (with the prompting of one of my Readers) and began challenging my instinct and re-evaluting the line based on how the breaks can add potentially more ambiguity to the poem. I’ve posted the poem’s original draft version below so you can see where the poem wanted to go.


Thoughts upon a Storm Centralized to One Block in One Neighborhood and That Block Happened to Be Mine

All the trees decided on this one night to finally give in,

to let the softness of all their years finally break them.

They fell like a parade of sound, smashing cars and roofs,

shattering windows. They did not go quietly.

 

It started mid-night. I woke to the sound of pelting against

glass and wondered what beautiful man was throwing rocks

at my window. Whose voice was going to crawl inside of me,

make my body split open like a watermelon that implodes

 

with its hissing and sucking sounds, the way it cracks itself

open and all the juices drip from the countertop onto the tile

floor, as if the watermelon suddenly couldn’t stand itself

anymore.

 

The sky surged with its light show and like a fool

I stood in front of the three-pane picture window waiting

for the gusts to break through. Hoping that kind of force

would find its way inside of me. In the dark storming of night,

 

I grabbed towels to fill the gaps around the door where water

was spilling in. I sat feeling the shutter of wind rattle wood to my spine.

Something was wrong and it was coming for me. All this destruction

occurring and I couldn’t yet see the chaos it was leaving behind.

This was not the case with the fence. I could see it, from the back window,

collapsed, whole sections fallen, a line of white plank and then suddenly

an infinite black whole and it made me think of my running shoes

and how now, with this fence so open, it would be a good time

 

to start running and shortly after that, I fell asleep once the clangs

of the night had muted. That next day as we all cleaned up our messes,

as men walked down the streets with their chain saws and the streets

were weighed down by plumbing trucks, tree cutting trucks,

 

power trucks, I thought of how proud you’d be that I’m doing this all

by myself. Neighbors who never spoke were sewn together by all this

destruction. Everyone was outside, cleaning twigs, scraping

mounds of debris to the curb. Push it all to the curb they’d say.

 

The lilies you like out front droop now, pounded down and scattered

from the hard rain and I think of how just yesterday they were open,

yellow, tall and just yesterday you were here and then gone so quickly,

just in time to miss this storm.


As I went back to the page, I wanted to examine adding layers of ambiguity and tension in the piece with the line breaks. The short line is something I struggle with mostly because to my ear it sounds so foreign, so truncated. However, the intention of this poem was not fully served by the long lines. In the current draft stage, the poem is operating in shorter lines opening up new possibilities that weren’t in the original draft version. I noticed the words that carried the most weight in regards to the speaker’s experience were given a line all to themselves to live and breathe and the tension and syntax of the piece began to function dramatically different. This was also a great exercise in releasing the exposition that existed in parts of the poem. The shift to a shorter line made those expository (read: unnecessary) moments more apparent at every turn. Here’s the revised version:

Thoughts Upon a Storm Centralized to One Block in One Neighborhood and That Block Happened to be Mine

They did not go
quietly. All the trees
decided on this
one night
to finally give in,
to let the softness
of all their years
break them.
They fell
like a parade
of sound, smashing
cars and roofs,
shattering
windows. It started
mid-night. I woke
to the sound of pelting
against glass,
wondered
what beautiful
man was throwing rocks
at my window,
whose voice
was going to crawl
inside of me,
make my body
split open
like a watermelon
that implodes
with its hissing
and sucking
sounds, the way
it cracks itself
open and
all the juices
drip from
the countertop
onto the floor,
as if
the watermelon
couldn’t stand itself
anymore.
The sky surged
with its light show
and like a fool
I stood
in front
of the three-pane
picture window
waiting
for the gusts
to break through.
Hoping
that kind of force
would find its way
inside
of me. In the dark
storming of night,
I grabbed towels
to fill the gaps
around the door where
water was
finding its way
inside.
The shutter
of wind
rattled wood to
my spine.
Something
was wrong
and it was coming
for me.
All this
destruction and
I couldn’t yet see
the chaos
it was leaving behind.
This was not
the case
with the fence.
I could see it,
from the back
window, collapsed,
whole sections
fallen,
a line of white
plank and suddenly
an infinite black
hole and it made me
think
of my running shoes
and how now,
with this fence
so open,
it would be
a good time to start
running.
Once the clangs
of the night had
muted, I fell
back to sleep,
sleep had waited
so patiently
all night for me.
That next day
as we all cleaned up
our messes, as men
walked down the streets
with their chainsaws
and the streets
were weighed down
by plumbing trucks,
tree cutting trucks, power
trucks, I thought
of how proud
you’d be
that I’m doing this
all by myself.
Neighbors who never
spoke were pushed
together by all this
destruction.
Everyone
was outside,
cleaning twigs, scraping
mounds of debris
to the curb. Push it
all to the curb they’d say.
The lilies
you like out front
droop now, pounded
down
and scattered
from the hard rain.
Just yesterday
they were open,
yellow, tall
and just yesterday
you were here
and then
gone
so quickly, just
in time
to miss this
storm.

This poem is still incubating, but its learning. This is a lesson I continue to learn as a poet and as a human: pushing one’s self to operate in new ways is essential to our own growth, despite how unnatural and ill-fitting the new ways may be, despite how terribly itchy or snug this sweater of change may be. The ways in which we encounter our work need to be fresh and challenging, even if it doesn’t stick. We need constant reminders to return to a process we know well and shake it up, much like we constantly review the proper way to floss at each dental visit. We have been doing it for years; we simply need to be reminded and consider trying it a different way to get different results. (Yes I just compared poetry to flossing). I’ll keep you posted on what this poem morphs into from here.


Jeffrey Levine

poetry, publishing, and mentoring

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