Finding Grace in Beautiful Places (Revisited)

In a piece I recommend you reading @ the reliably awesome Rumpus, writer Amber Sparks, a non-believer, discusses matters of faith, spirituality and art (check it here).

The piece is entitled “Seeking Grace in Strange Places”, and I think that title is fine. I do find it curious, being a recalcitrant agnostic myself, that Sparks would consider writing (especially poetry) a “strange” place to seek grace. For at least two reasons. One, I think writing (in particular, Art in general) is not only not a strange place, it’s the ideal place. Second, this sentiment presupposes (and I’m not deliberately picking on Sparks or even trying to quibble over semantics) that, say, a church is not a strange place. Indeed, one could counter, with minimal snark and maximum truth, that there are many things strange about looking for –much less hoping or claiming to find– grace, or God, in a building designated for that purpose. For starters, it’s a sanctioned endeavor, turning the transmission of spiritual release into an act approved by a professional, like taking medication that a doctor prescribed. (I’ve written about the adminstration of the so-called Holy Spirit from the hands of our earthly middle-men, here.) And then, of course, it’s a cliché, although Faith-with-a-capital-F obliges a certain tolerance for clichés.

My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here and where we’re going –amongst other concerns– and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all. So, getting that out of the way right up front, I think the following paragraph is a succinct enough distillation of where my head is at in matters of “The Faith Question”:

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

But let me be clear, I can –and do– appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged –and inspired– by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned –or prompted– by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this Spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles and cathedrals. Both of the pictures above were taken during this journey. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.

And certainly some of our best composers (and poets, as Sparks ably illustrates in her piece) have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain.

Bach, 1727:

Coltrane, 1964:

(Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.)

And, quite possibly, my favorite instance of (literal) biblical text utilized to articulate some very profound and secular concerns, courtesy of The Great One:

As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

Booker Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both of which capture the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing.

The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

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Finding Grace in Beautiful Places

In a piece I recommend you reading @ the reliably awesome Rumpus, writer Amber Sparks, a non-believer, discusses matters of faith, spirituality and art (check it here).

The piece is entitled “Seeking Grace in Strange Places”, and I think that title is fine. I do find it curious, being a recalcitrant agnostic myself, that Sparks would consider writing (especially poetry) a “strange” place to seek grace. For at least two reasons. One, I think writing (in particular, Art in general) is not only not a strange place, it’s the ideal place. Second, this sentiment presupposes (and I’m not deliberately picking on Sparks or even trying to quibble over semantics) that, say, a church is not a strange place. Indeed, one could counter, with minimal snark and maximum truth, that there are many things strange about looking for –much less hoping or claiming to find– grace, or God, in a building designated for that purpose. For starters, it’s a sanctioned endeavor, turning the transmission of spiritual release into an act approved by a professional, like taking medication that a doctor prescribed. (I’ve written about the adminstration of the so-called Holy Spirit from the hands of our earthly middle-men, here.) And then, of course, it’s a cliché, although Faith-with-a-capital-F obliges a certain tolerance for clichés.

My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here and where we’re going –amongst other concerns– and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all. So, getting that out of the way right up front, I think the following paragraph is a succinct enough distillation of where my head is at in matters of “The Faith Question”:

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

But let me be clear, I can –and do– appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged –and inspired– by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned –or prompted– by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this Spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles and cathedrals. Both of the pictures above were taken during this journey. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.

And certainly some of our best composers (and poets, as Sparks ably illustrates in her piece) have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain.

Bach, 1727:

Coltrane, 1964:

(Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.)

And, quite possibly, my favorite instance of (literal) biblical text utilized to articulate some very profound and secular concerns, courtesy of The Great One:

As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

Booker Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both of which capture the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing.

The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

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August 26, 2002: Nine Ways of Looking at Nine Years

I had the opportunity to deliver the eulogy at my mother’s funeral (which, incredibly, occurred only a few months after this photo was taken, at my cousin’s wedding in June 2002). I remembered her as fondly as I could which was easy to do; I tried to convey what she meant to me, which was difficult. Everything that is good about me is because of my mother. That was the line I used to open and close my remarks, and looking back, I still reckon it’s the most succinct way of illustrating the role she played–and continues to play–in my life. I tried to steer away from sentiment that was self-absorbed (this was an occasion to remember and celebrate my mother’s life, not how it affected me) or to unintentionally overlook the loved ones gathered whose lives she touched in so many indelible ways (or to give my old man, my boy, inadvertent short-shrift by ostensibly giving his wife all the credit for the heavy lifting he had also done), but as the chosen speaker, her only son, it was my opportunity, and obligation, to pay her the ultimate compliment. It was the most honest and appropriate thing I could do. Here was the crux of my comments, then and my feelings, now: by raising me the way she did, she was instinctively preparing me for when she was no longer around, even if that ended up happening a hell of a lot sooner than any of us could stand.

I’m sure anyone who has lost a parent (or heaven forbid, a child) can understand that when this happens it becomes a line of demarcation: your life before and your life after. It doesn’t mean nothing is ever the same or that you never get past it (everything is the same and you get past it except for the fact that nothing is ever the same and you never get past it. You don’t want to).

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically and anyone who knows me understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I feel obliged to share some of these observations. Indeed, for me this is much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.

Please talk about me when I’m gone.

This is the implicit title of any work of art; a desire to have those thoughts and feelings articulated, read, understand, appreciated. More, it’s the unspoken message of any individual life: we hope to be discussed, loved and celebrated after we’re gone. Mostly, we do not wish to be quickly or easily forgotten.

***

How do you get over the loss?

That was the question I asked an old girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. To cancer, of course. “You don’t,” she said. It’s just as awful as you’d imagine, she did not say. She did not have to; because you can’t imagine and you don’t want to imagine. How could you imagine? And, oddly enough, that succinct, painfully honest answer was more comforting than it sounded. In a way, when you think about it (does everyone think about it? Are some people able to avoid thinking about it?) there is an unexpected salve in that sentiment: you don’t get over it. Or, by not getting over it, that is how you survive it. It becomes part of you, and it is henceforth an inviolable aspect of your existence, like a chronic condition you inherit or develop along the way and manage as best you can.

This is important, because as Americans, we tend to think in terms of explanations and equations: how do I solve this riddle? We tend to inquire: how long until it’s okay again? I can handle the pain (I think) if I know how to endure it. Once you get your mind around the notion that the pain never goes away, it is, strangely enough, easier to incorporate into your life. You keep reading, you keep eating, you keep sleeping, you keep loving, you keep mourning and you never stop remembering. And, above all, you keep living.

***

It always waits until after you are asleep.

Memories. Not the unyielding, excruciating moments near the end, but the better times. Or even worse, the arbitrary moments in life that dig in deep, long before the mind has discarded them.

In the dark, afraid to close your eyes now, afraid of the not-quite-nothingness that awaits you there. Like a boy, again. Afraid of the dark; afraid to close your eyes.

Too much like death?

No. It was too much like life.

Sleep and death can each prolong peacefulness. The quiet, uncomplicated ability to forget suffering and self. Awake: I think, therefore I am, you think.

You can’t find an explanation for how you came to be here, but there has to be a story. There is always a story. (There is a dark space between what you can tell others and what you will only tell yourself, and that is Truth. And there is a darker space that contains the things you cannot even tell yourself; those things speak their own language—in dreams, memories and mistakes—so you try to make sense of them any way you can, and that is Art.)

Here is the story: everything had played out pretty much according to everyone’s expectations. It all more or less happened the way you had envisioned it would. You had plenty of time—all those anxious days, all those empty hours—to imagine how it would unwind. And after the long wait and eventual end of it, there was the afterward, the first day of the rest of your lives. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall, or half-recall, the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction.

We made it.

Yes, you thought: the hard part was over.

No, you knew: it was too soon to say that.

Okay. At least the worst part was behind you. It had taken five years: from first surgery until the day after, almost exactly five years. It had taken more than any of you could give. It had taken more than any of you could bear to give up. Now, (you hoped), all you had to do was somehow go about the business of living. Just live our lives, you thought.

The worst, (you knew), was over.

No, that’s not the truth.

The worst was only beginning?

No, not that either.

Only this: you had the rest of your lives to live.

You can’t go home again, someone once wrote.

And they were wrong.

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave. Or, leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you. And certainly you can’t be the only grown child who returns often—in dreams, in memories and, of course, in your mind, you must confess: earnestly, often—to the old streets that you came to outgrow the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers.

Remembering: immeasurable moments, IVs and all the unpleasant things you can’t force yourself to forget. Bad days, worse days, glimpses of serenity and then grief; a flash focus of forced perspective: This too shall pass. Then, inevitably, earlier times: you recall when doctors and dentists handled us with bare hands. Still living, then, in a past the future had not crept up on, a time when the truth was believable, because the only lies that children can tell get told to escape tiny troubles they’ve created.

***

I’m scared, you said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.”

And you did know it. You believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight year old knows that is irrational, even if he could not explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, you did not say, because how can an eight year old articulate a concept he can’t quite understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it becomes established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you do not know and a sensation you cannot yet communicate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said.

And you believed her. It was never enough, but it was all she could do, other than never leaving your sight. Even you could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, you finally figured out that you have to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet being aware it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. You had to experience it, get through it, and then that ineradicable fear subsided.

***

I’m so scared, she said, to anyone who was listening.

You know you were, and hoped that God was, the God who may have done this and a million other things in that austere, always unaccountable way. In the end: she feared the truth but not the reasons why awful things always happen to almost everyone. You, you envied the armor of her fear; you understood you could not even rely on those lovely lies about a God you couldn’t bring yourself to believe in.

***

You didn’t need a doctor to tell you that it was over.

On the way to no longer being, a person suffering from a terminal disease, like cancer, ceases to be themselves. It is during this time, which is hopefully as brief as possible for all involved, that family or friends (or medical staff, if they are sufficiently human) will get the message and take immediate action. The objective, you quickly ascertain, is no longer to help the person get back to being the person they were, but to help expedite—or ease—the resolution that Nature is not always interested in accommodating.

You don’t need anyone to tell you when it’s over. At a certain point you understand that the end has begun, because this is no longer your mother sitting—distracted and shaking—before you; this is instead a woman who had entered the last stage of a long, drawn-out, devastating dance with the illness she had loathed and feared more than anything else her entire adult life. She was no longer herself and she was no longer entirely with the rest of you; she was in a different place, that place some of us are obliged to go when our bodies, then our brains are assailed, inhabited by some malignant host, and we heed a primal imperative to follow that path until we arrive at the place where we no longer need to walk or cry or breathe or believe.

In the end you try to do for them what they did for you.

You watch them, filled with concern and fear, hoping that love and care can be enough. You sit there, quiet, trying to radiate what you do not feel inside—all the doubt and grief, the concern and fear. Please, you ask, just let her be peaceful; after all this, allow her to finally find peace. Looking right at her, all over her, you do what you can to provide some semblance of peace. By meditating, praying, focusing (the type of concentration that eventually brings clarity) and trying to will everything to be okay (Everything is going to be okay: this is the one promise you’ve repeated these last two weeks; a message and a mantra). Three hours. Unloading a barrage of comforting, healing thoughts and images, offering up everything that’s ever inspired you: snippets of songs (“While My Lady Sleeps” by Coltrane and “Blue Nile” by his wife Alice, and dozens of others), even fragments of poetry and prose (Ivan Illich: Death is over!; Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; Keats: When I have fears that I may cease to be; Shelley: The lone and level sands stretch far away) and finally thinking, then silently humming the first nursery rhyme I can recall hearing: Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. Then imagining it as a song, then hearing it (composing it?) as a jazz improvisation: with or without words, hearing a trumpet state the theme, then a sax, then the piano, then cymbals cascading in with a warm wash…until it takes off, soaring beyond music, beyond consciousness and somewhere else altogether.

Where was I?

Somewhere else. Out of body but in my mind? Shivering with purpose, glistening with energy and faith—faith in the energy inside, getting back to being inside this house, this situation, inside of myself. Beginning to appreciate that we can’t (shouldn’t?) try to understand everything, especially the things we seek to understand most of all. Just fear and concern becoming concentration, concentrated energy ending up on the other side as love. A soft silence, looking down at her again, like she had gone to sleep. Only more.

***

Later, after it was over, you stand alone by the lake, thinking about all you had seen, about what had happened and what was going to happen.

You look up at the uncommunicative sky and remember what you had once read, ages ago: that the light from a dead star, once it actually reached the earth, was millions of years old. At that moment, this seems to signify everything awesome and immutable, all you are capable or grasping, but neither rationalize nor reconcile. All those things there are no answers for.

You think about your life.

Silently you stand, the same child who had once looked up at the stars, scattered like breadcrumbs in the dark air, wondering if they really led to a kingdom beyond the clouds.

As always, you think about your family, your friends, all the heroes who had created art that made life more worth living, the places and feelings that comprised the pain and profundity of existence. All the questions that belonged without answers: all of this is inside. So long as you live, and made yourself remember, they never ceased to be.

You look out on the water, at your face, reflecting up into the evening, looking down and seeing the world in itself. Then the mirror implodes as you walk forward, leaving your shirt and shoes on the shore. You stride into the dark, warm water, making your way to the middle of the lake and diving deep, not stopping until your hands touch the bottom, gripping the cold marrow of murky mud.

Moments later you emerge, sucking in the air as though you had never tasted life before; as though you were breathing for the first time.

*from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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