Wednesday, March 1, 2017

week 71 75 77 - listening to history : fire & water

I took a walk shortly after the first snow, just after the first week of November 2016.  A date I hope I won't have cause to remember.

It was so bright and blank that day that it reminded me of my great-great-great grandmother, Eliza Chapman Gadd, a refugee from religious persecution in England, who went snowblind from staring at the snow as she walked her weary way from the end of the railroad in Iowa City, pushing and pulling a handcart, to the end of the Mormon trail in the promised valley -- in the valleys where I am now.

My new home, not much north of the place I was born.   So close, it's almost a return after long wanderings across this nation's wide horizons to my first earthly home.  A place for me to bring something new to life I hope.  Here, so near to the place my ancestress Eliza midwifed over 2000 babies into their earthly existence, washing them, swaddling them snugly and watching over their first suckling at their tired mothers' breasts, tiny stomachs filling with pale mother's milk.  When one grateful father was ashamed because he had no way to pay her the midwifing fee, my great-great-great grandmother reached over and plucked an egg from the bowl on the table and said, "No need to worry.  I'm writing you down as Paid in Full."

What generous thing of my own can I write down in this blank landscape?

The whiteness of everything around me -- the sky, the snow, my own eyes filled with all this whiteness.

I had been here in the summer and again in the fall and knew this valley for a place of refuge -- its clusters of houses in three tiny towns, green fields nestled beneath the cool blue slopes, creeks and rivers like silver parentheses around each separate settlement, the running water coming to pool together to fill the smooth sheen of reservoir -- a lake where families splashed and fishermen rowed out to the quiet center, while motor boats weaved around dragging their white skirts, and sailboats glided  before the wind.  This living water that makes this mountain valley lively and also keeps the city in the valley below us alive.

But the first half of this November, in this new climate,  after that snowfall, everything seemed changed.  The cold white sky above the cold white ground, marked only by bare branches and blank rock.  I couldn't see any way in.

And as November turned to December, my newsfeed filled with stories of the bombing of the town where Father Abraham entertained angels disguised as strangers, feeding them with the most innocent food:  Aleppo from Arabic حَلَبَ ‎(ḥalaba, “gave out milk”) is now burning.  For years I have been reading about archaeologists and Victorian explorers and present-day journalists and round-the-world bicyclists who if they can only reach Aleppo, will be safe.  And now Aleppo is fallen in flames beneath its own president's bombs.  That far news felt too close to home.

I signed up to volunteer with a refugee aid committee, but there was a waiting list until spring.  And then our own president banned refugees, in particular those coming from Aleppo.  And I couldn't think of what to do, except to keep walking each day around the edges of the lake -- this water reserved and kept ready up here in the mountains for the dry season to come.

When I was a child growing up down in those dry valleys we didn't play cowboys and Indians.  We played cowboys and cowboys, which ended with everyone dead.

We showed we had died by lying down on the ground with our tongues sticking out.  Our eyes were supposed to be closed, that was the rule, but we always left a glitter of light flickering between our lashes so we could keep an eye on each other and be the first to spring up in the imminent resurrection and resumption of hostilities.

Later, when my brothers and I had learned more, the game we played was Hiding from Nazis.  No one was ever the Nazi.  We hid behind trees and crawled behind stands of tall grass.  We walked very carefully, laying down one foot and then another as soundlessly as the autumn leaves allowed.  We curled into dark corners, peering around tree trunks, watching the path.  We listened very hard, so hard it sometimes seemed we heard things coming.

I think now this was as close as we could get to the game we couldn't comfortably play - Running from the Mob.  That was something our Mormon pioneer ancestors had done and was the root (I always knew this, though I couldn't bear to say it aloud) of my childhood fear of fire and later fear of fear.

I still have that childhood book of mine with the picture of a family fleeing their farm set afire by the mobs. I keep it on my shelves, unopened, never looking until a few weeks ago, at a picture I once pored over, memorizing its lurid landscape so well I could (and did) walk there in my dreams.  I have never read this book to my children or suggested they make it their own.

I wanted for them our hearthside fire to be a source of comfort, an emoticon of safety and cheer.  Not the fear I faced down every time my parents laid a fire to warm our Christmas faces.  Not the fascinated terror I felt peering over the side of my grandmother's pottery kiln where my awkward bowls and her graceful vases, painted in muddy glazes, would become both breakable and beautiful, glazes turned glassy, brilliant and bright and the vessels themselves water-tight.

I wanted my children to walk out into the world without enemies -- except the ones they made and could unmake themselves -- not carrying the history of our ancestors so weighty on their tender backs.  So I resisted telling them the story of my great-great-great grandmother Anne Jewell Rowley who begged her husband to stay inside their tidy farmhouse in Worcestershire, England, when a muttering crowd of neighbors gathered around outside:
They were noisy and troublesome. William started for the door to quiet them down and I begged him not to go, but he said, "Why Ann, they are people I have known all my life, they are my neighbors and I'm sure they'll listen to reason." He opened the door and was immediately seized and beaten up severely.
Mobs do not listen to reason.  That is what I have learned from my family history.

When I tried to write about this before, my darling Fritz dissuaded me, suggesting it was not good to make root-space for fear; not safe to give rope to the hangmen who always are still out there, hating; not smart to parade my weakness in this very public square.

And so, back then, nearly seven years ago,  in the place of one picture I gave another.  For fiery curtains blowing wildly from a window in a storm of smoke --

-- I gave you a bit of fabric, draggling sadly through a broken pane on a wet day.  It was close enough to the pictogram of my fear.

But damped down.

The way I damp down always, making myself more watery.  Not just through these past seven years, but for longer, for as long as I can remember.  It's the way I face fear, schooling myself to turn more and more reflective and cool, allowing for depths and darkness, but making no room for the flame with its dangerous brilliance, its painful fervor, the appealing threat of conflagration.

There is a wisdom to water, I wrote one autumn afternoon long ago, staring through the windows of the university library, looking up from some record of ancient hates and present scholarly squabble.

It wasn't a good poem, but that central pool has held untroubled sway within the clearing of my mind for all this time.

Silence is silver.  Courage is gold.  I thought I had enough precious mettle to face this out for once.
But I have sat on this post for four six weeks, writing and rewriting.

And erasing what I've written.  Every time I come back to try to write this particular post I end up with my own silence.  I can talk about the silence but I can't talk through it.


Here's the thing.  I'm not afraid of fire anymore but I am afraid of the danger we can do to one other. The danger we do.

How anyone who has been born a baby into this world, who has looked at feathers and petals and the scales of butterfly wings with a child's eyes, can bear to twist and smash and burn the flesh of another who was also born a baby into this world and also looked at starry skies and danced before the wind.

How is it neighbors can turn on neighbors?

I have a many-greats grandfather, Joseph Towne from Topsfield, Massachusetts, all three of whose sisters -- Rebecca, Mary, and Sarah -- were accused in the Salem witch trials.

Rebecca was 18 when her little brother was born.  A few brothers next and then came Mary who was only five years older than my great+grandfather Joseph.  Like all their older siblings, Mary was born in Great Yarmouth, twenty miles out of Norwich, England.  Shortly after her birth, the family immigrated to the Massachusetts colony.  The first children of the family born on American soil were Sarah and then a year later my forefather Joseph.

When the mass hysteria of Salem first began to swirl, its first victims were outsiders: a homeless woman,  then a dark-skinned slave, then a woman who dressed oddly and rarely attended church.  But it didn't stop with them.  Next came Martha Corey, a churchwoman of good reputation who had expressed skepticism about the accusations and was soon accused herself.  And with her, Joseph's oldest sister Rebecca Nurse, a grandmother now who had a reputation for piety and benevolence, as well as standing in the community as the wife of a prosperous landowner.  But by that time the excitement of the mob had engulfed all reasonable thought.

The trial of Rebecca Nurse
Joseph's youngest sister Sarah, who would have been one of his closest playmates growing up, was now an upright Salem matron -- widowed and remarried.  Sarah was so outraged when their frail 71-year-old sister Rebecca was arrested that she stood up in the middle of the minister's sermon against Rebecca the next Sunday.  She couldn't bear to sit and listen to her sister being smeared  as a traitor "in the midst of the body of Christ" and "how close the devil had gotten to the heart of the church."   Having heard enough, Sarah marched out, slamming the church door behind her.

Fifty-four year old Sarah Cloyce was arrested the next day.

In court, Sarah attacked her accusers, "Oh you are grievous liars!" She was smart enough to petition the court to allow her to show evidence of her innocence.  She petitioned the court to exclude the ghosty arguments of spectral evidence.  She was denied over and over.

And then it wasn't long before people remembered the rumors arising from a neighborhood quarrel twenty years before, rumors that the Towne sisters' mother Joanna Blessing Towne might actually be a witch because she had defended a drunken clergyman against her son Joseph's outraged in-laws.

Yes, that's the same Joseph who is my forefather and his in-laws are as much my own line as his innocent sisters: the cousins and aunts and uncles of Joseph's wife, my many-greats grandmother Phebe Perkins Towne.

Less than two weeks after Sarah's arrest, Joseph's middle sister Mary, who was 58, was also arrested. Mary remained calm and dignified in court, but nevertheless was bound in shackles and sent to jail.

My family history teaches me that neither stomping and slamming nor calm dignity will necessarily save you.

"The Towne Sisters" in Salem's Wax Museum.  Plaster statue depicting Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Easty, and Sarah Towne Cloyse, wearing shackles.

I've wondered what Joseph did when all three of his sisters were in prison, accused of witchcraft.

At Rebecca's trial, thirty-nine members of the community signed a petition in her favor, testifying to her innocence and her excellent character, including one of the men who had first brought the accusation.  But Joseph's name wasn't on the petition.

Maybe it was too dangerous?  However, Rebecca's brother-in-law Peter Cloyce had signed.

Maybe it would have done no good, as son of a rumored witch and brother to three accused?

Maybe there was bad blood between the sisters and their brothers' families? After all, not only were my Joseph's in-laws, the Perkinses and Goulds and Putnams, enthusiastic witch-hunters, but also the granddaughter (another Rebecca, named for the great aunt who would later be first accused) of another (at this point deceased) Towne brother John was one of the afflicted girls who accused both her great-aunts Mary and Sarah.

In any case, the petition and Rebecca's repeated insistence of her innocence failed to bring about her release.

Feelings ran so high that even though Rebecca's jury came back with a "Not guilty," they were sent back by the judge to reconsider how poor half-deaf Rebecca, her good ear turned away, had sat like stone when asked if she had consorted with the devil.

Obviously guilty, said the judge.  I picture his fat pouting lower lip, the shine of saliva.  His pious upcast eyes.

Joseph was 53, not much older than I am now, when his oldest sister Rebecca was hanged.

Here's something else I've learned from my family history:  the protections of the law we live under are a treasure to be guarded:
Many protections that modern defendants take for granted were lacking in Salem: accused witches had no legal counsel, could not have witnesses testify under oath on their behalf, and had no formal avenues of appeal. Defendants could, however, speak for themselves, produce evidence, and cross-examine their accusers. The degree to which defendants in Salem were able to take advantage of their modest protections varied considerably, depending on their own acuteness and their influence in the community.
And these distant great-aunts of mine were certainly acute, even if it did them little good personally.

After Rebecca's hanging, both Mary and Sarah were stuck in prison, when suddenly Mary was released and her family believed she had been saved.  Two days later though, just as suddenly, she was re-accused and at the second trial was condemned to death.

Waiting on death's row, past all hope for herself she wrote a petition:
I Petition to your honours not for my own life for I know I must die and my appointed time is sett but the Lord he knowes it is that if it be possible no more Innocent blood may be shed which undoubtidly cannot be Avoyded In the way and course you goe in
Mary Easty, calm and dignified to the end, suggested practical and reasonable ways the judges could check the validity of the accusations:
that no more Innocent blood be shed I would humbly begg of you that your honors would be plesed to examine theis Afflicted Persons strictly and keep them apart some time and Likewise to try some of these confesing wichis I being confident there is severall of them has belyed themselves and others as will appeare if not in this wor[l]d I am sure in the world to come whither I am now agoing

Mary's saintly demeanor at the gallows along with her moving petition were instrumental in stemming the mob's bloodlust and are credited with turning the tide:
“Hers is an expression of submission without servility. It is a statement of one person’s faith that New England can still be saved from itself.” 
But I wish there had been more people in my family at that point in history like Sarah's second husband, Peter Cloyce, a "rough and tumble woodsman" who, unlike the husbands of her sisters,  "did more then just gape at their 'witch' wives in amazement at the trials."  

After Mary's hanging in September and as every legal maneuver failed,  
"Peter did the only intelligent thing as the shadow of the hangman’s rope drew near in the new round of trials of January 1693. He broke Sarah out of jail and fled south"
until the madness of her neighbors began to clear and the charges against her were dismissed.  Sarah and Peter had no surviving children and she spent her remaining years working to exonerate the names of her sisters.  I want to hug that rough Peter Cloyce and to pile up roses in the lap of this fierce and faithful ancestress of mine.

But where was my grandfather Joseph (not to mention his wife, my grandmother Phebe) in all this?

Was he afraid or was he complacent?
Was he one of the bloodthirsty mob?
Was she?

The possibility of the mob being within our own hearth and home, within our own hearts is another thing I have learned from my family history.

I only know that Joseph lived until 1713 in the same town he had been born in, Topsfield, just outside of Salem.  

I only know that "a brother of Sarah Cloyce" helped pay the bond to release William Hobbs who had been accused and imprisoned at the same time as Joseph's sisters.

William Hobbs'  daughter Abigail had been one of the first accusers, one of the most vehement against Goody Nurse, Goody Cloyce, and Goodwife Easty, before she became one of the accused herself.  William Hobbs' wife Deliverance was also later accused and had confessed ("belyed" herself as Joseph's sister Mary had described it in her petition) in a desperate attempt to win her own deliverance from assassination by mob madness.

But I don't know if the bond-paying brother of Sarah's was a shamefaced or grieving Joseph.
Or not.  

I hope it was.

As I've walked through snowy streets this winter, as I've plowed through news reports and Facebook posts, I've thought of these stories, the ways mobs have shaped the stories of my family.  I've been listening to the world around me as hard as I can hear.

And what I've heard in the months since November 2016 is rockets and collapsing buildings in ancient cities of refuge, the anxious gabble of voices I don't understand as babies are dug out of the rubble.  I've heard posturing and plosives, sneers from high places, denials, fictional facts, and reasons why no one is responsible.  Bomb threats to Jewish community centers, Heil shouted by blond men in fancy hotel conference rooms in my nation's capitol.  Broad brush recriminations. The wailing of children held in detention at airports, jingling handcuffs on third-graders, chanting in the streets, a boastful cruelty that seems to stamp everything with the mob's fury. Hardworking mothers rounded up when they go grocery shopping and others hiding at home for fear of deportation. Children who can't sleep at night because their fathers were taken from their homes while they slept.  And closer to home, close to my heart, friends and neighbors crying out against each other, blame and anger beginning to swirl.

But I have also heard voices that call me to reflect, to keep cool. To be like water, like Mary Easty, submitting but not servile, persistent in reasonable petition.

And I have heard voices speak with fire, calling me to stand up like Sarah Cloyce, stomping out, calling out all grievous liars.

I feel the call to let fire and water speak together.  I keep thinking about the small miracles of these opposing powers working together: the nourishing broths simmered, the river-clay pots burned watertight in the kiln, swords melted and remade as plowshares to open up the good earth heavy with heaven's rain.

Monday, January 16, 2017

52 questions | Why my name?

a continuation of  52 questions | name game?

Mary Luella, Marilyn, Janice
My mother named me for the women of her family.  For her sisters Marilyn and Janice and her beloved grandmother Mary Luella and for Mary Luella's mother Mary Ann.  When I sign my name or say it, or hear others call me by that name, I hear those other names echoing in it.  And perhaps that is why my mother chose to name me so.   

I remember (did you ever do this?) lying on my bed when I was supposed to be taking a nap and saying my name over and over to myself, thinking about the boundaries my name laid out for me.  Who I could be.  What I had in me.  Where I could choose to be going.

Janice with my mother
Maybe I would be like Janice, good and gentle and very smart, who listened, who bent down with her soft eyes to talk right to people's faces and who sent tiny little letters in the mail that were barely big enough to hold a stamp.  She had a silvery-warm voice that made people calm and she became a pediatrician which probably was what all older sisters did, also she laughed with her lips together which was a skill I would sometimes try to practice to see how it was done. She lived in Bowling Green with a wooden screen door that slammed satisfyingly and  outside there were fireflies and the soft sense of rain all summer long and then she moved to Seattle which seemed like a very nice idea because there she had raspberries growing over a wooden fence near her house and a dirt road nearby with daisies and her bearlike bearded husband barbecued salmon while her interesting, soft-spoken children read Superman comic books that told the original backstory on the planet of Krypton.  

Marilyn with my mother
Or what if I could be like Marilyn, outrageously funny and never afraid, friends with everyone all over the world in all the different places that she lived, who made the light in the room brighter the moment she came in.  She could do an impression of a lighthouse and of an eggbeater and she sang better than anyone, plus she had beautiful long fingers with pretty nails.  When I was little I thought she was going to marry a tiger (Taggart) which seemed rather daring but pretty exciting.  That was the same year Santa came to visit a park near where I lived (maybe it was Highland Park) in a helicopter and tossed candy and prizes down.  I couldn't catch one which was disappointing but then she found a real elf who gave her a candy cane and she didn't eat it herself but brought it to me.  People paid her to paint murals on her walls and she also made things out of clay like dolls that weren't to play with but were old ladies sitting on a bench with stockings down around their ankles feeding birds out of the wrinkled cup of their hands.  And when she and my mother got together they would laugh so hard they would begin to cry.

Mary Luella with my mother
Maybe I couldn't do that life all the way though, because I knew was awfully quiet and got embarrassed easily, but how about Mary Luella, who was the heart of love and so everyone loved her?  She grew up in Old Mexico where it was so hot they kept their milk in a large crock inside the well and once she bent down to sip up some cream but the tip of the lavender bow on her dress dipped into the crock and she couldn't figure out how her mother knew she had stolen it.  But she became honest later though she was so poor even before they were chased back to the United States and once when she went into the big city of Colonia Juarez there was a beautiful pair of silk stockings at the store, just out on the counter without a shopkeeper standing guard.  Her friend told her they were free samples and though she didn't completely believe her she snatched a pair and took them home -- but then when she wore them to church she felt terrible and could never wear them again, which seemed a hopeful kind of story of attainable virtue that was something I could do.  On the other hand she was so industrious when she grew up and married a railroad man that she went out and swept her grassless yard every morning until she could get flowers growing and she was so clean and so good at fixing things that the landlords over and over could raise the rent much higher than she could afford to pay after she lived there just a little while.  But I thought it might be nice to learn to play the harmonica so when my grandchildren came to visit me I could sit up in bed if they were scared with my knees making a tent of the sheets and play "How Great Thou Art" with a lonely but comforting sound.

Mary Ann with her daughter Mary Luella (lower right)

And her mother Mary Ann was very brave and good at helping her mother, which I was, too.  When she was an eight-year old she and her parents and brothers and sisters pushed a handcart across the plains to their new mountain home.  Her mother whose name was Eliza became snowblind from looking at the snow for so many hours and so Mary Ann held her mother's hand and helped her walk along the path and never stopped.  She was a little girl but stubborn enough to survive even when her father died after he caught a cold while guarding their camp at night and then it became pneumonia and they had to bury him in frozen ground so hard they had to chop at it to make a hole.   I wasn't sure when I would have a chance to be exactly that brave but I did like to walk and I would like holding my mom's hand if she needed me to, all day long while we walked along and walked and walked until we came to the valley-O.

These were good names, the names of my mothers and my mother's sisters.   Names I could live into.

Mary the mother
And further back there was also Mary the mother of Jesus who was always reading books in her pictures, if she wasn't taking care of her little child.  She knew how to be quiet and though her life was hard and sometimes frightening she heard angels sing and was as brave as my grandmothers to travel as far as was needed, whenever she had to.  

Martha and her sister Mary 
And Mary Magdalene who liked learning things and didn't like to do the dishes, but Jesus loved her anyway and she loved him, too, and washed his feet with her hair and was brave enough to face the soldiers and come back with her sweet-smelling spices to take care of his body and so she got to be the first to see him walking in the garden outside his tomb.  I heard those Marys' stories, too, and they seemed to be part of my name and part of the same family whose stories I heard from my mother, snuggling under the blanket as she sat on the side of my bed or eavesdropping on her side of phone conversations with her mother or listening at the table as my mother and her sisters talked and laughed until they cried.

Marilyn, my mom, Janice, their brother Dex
My mother was the middle sister and I always felt that my name was a valentine she made for the sisters she loved and had to leave to become my mother, for her grandma who died a little while before I was born.  A little birthday candle my mother shone back into the place she stepped out of when she broke out of her natal home to start the home that would be mine.  A little flower she planted beside the bridge to scent both sides of divide, saying to the mothers up ahead, "Here is another one of us," and saying to me, "Hurry.  You can catch up.  You belong here among us."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2016: a year in books

This wasn't much of a year for reading.  During the school year, work took all my time and filled all my mind.  And the moment school was out, I was either in and out of hospital rooms and arranging home health solutions for my mother-in-law, or scrubbing and repainting an old house that had to be sold, or out-of-state scouring the countryside for a new house.

When I did read it was to reread the familiars like Georgette Heyer  and Barbara Pym, which I did, over and over.  These landscapes at least hadn't changed.  Excellent Women and Less than Angels by Pym and The Grand Sophy and Frederica by Heyer are such reliable delights.  There must be a special place in heaven for the authors whose books bring such comfort in times of confusion and pain.

The few other memorable books I read this year were a comfort in other ways:

The Forest Garden Greenhouse: How to Design and Manage an Indoor Permaculture Oasis 
Jerome Osentowski, 304 pg.  
As it became increasingly clear that we would be moving to a colder climate, the idea of a greenhouse became more and more appealing.  This book has plans for building a greenhouse with a climate battery -- storing geothermal heat in the ground and letting it release into the air of the greenhouse when it gets cold.

High and Dry: Gardening with Cold-hardy Dryland Plants
Robert Nold, 420 pg.
Obviously.  I saw this book on the shelf of a local library during my house search (house search for me always includes checking out the library).  It's a bit exhausting to think of the time and money I'm going to be expending in the near future on this green-thumb habit of mine. But I do love looking at plants that will be able to survive in my new garden.

The Luck Uglies
Paul Durham, 316 pg.
I came across this book at the St Helens library while chaperoning a service project there for our Achievement Day girls. The story is fun and inventive. The later sequels don't live up to expectations, but this one was an enjoyable read.

A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman, 337 pg.
No wonder this book is on everyone's list this year.  I picked it up to read while flying out with my mother-in-law to get her settled in a new apartment and to continue looking at houses for ourselves.  This book gave me hope to continue as I followed angry Ove's climb up out of despair and into life once more.  I loved his feisty new neighbor, the very pregnant Parvaneh, especially.  And the slow unfolding of Ove's backstory made sense of his pain as a poignant counterpoint to the redemptive unknotting of the plot.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Chris Cleave, 432 pg.
Honestly, I decided to read this book because its cover reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See.  While not nearly so incandescent as that book was, this was a book of blind perseverance which I needed, as I read it the first week in my new house, facing the reality (which though not at all dire is still reality with all its attendant unbudgeability).  Unlike All the Light this novel is just usual.  The expected tropes, the expected plot twists -- though there are a few moments that still live in my memory months after the reading -- particularly the point where the beautiful main character is saved from drowning by her ambulance-nurse best friend.  Come to think of it, the friendship between Mary North and her less beautiful chainsmoking friend Hilda was far more engaging to me than either of the romances. (As was the relationship between Tom and his army buddy.) I believe I would have liked to have Hilda's story rather than Mary's and certainly I wanted to see more of the interaction between Hilda and Mary -- especially since Hilda is the only one who isn't bowled over and controlled by Mary's beauty.  But it was good to read of survival, even if soppily delivered.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand, 473 pg.
This book on the other hand is the real deal.  I had begun the book early last year and had flipped through the end (because with my level of anxiety at the time I couldn't bear to read it if it was going to end too badly) -- I should have just read the subtitle, because the bits I read at the end were sad and hard enough that I decided I couldn't bear it.  Which is just as well -- I needed it more right now, when because of an invitation to a book group I had to read it.  A great, true story of a brave man whose innate cussed courage and physical hardiness in the war are outshone only by his powerful forgiveness and embrace of peace when the war is over.  Hillenbrand is a great researcher and an even greater storyteller.
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