Grandparenting: How it Helps Us to Simplify

I’m sitting at my desk, looking out at the mountains, and thinking about speaking to more than 100 Mennonite women this Friday night at the Amigo Centre, a place I know well, not too far from Sturgis, Michigan.

The subject is Recovering Simplicity, a topic that Mennonites have grappled with for a long time and wrote many books about in the 1970s and 80s, most notably Doris Janzen Longacre’s Living More with Less.

Simplicity has never been more relevant, more necessary, in a cluttered, materialist, violent, and unpredictable world.

Grandparents may have a special role to play in challenging themselves and helping younger generations to rediscover the More With Less theme.

My last post for Not Quite Amish website was a start in my thinking in that direction. I invite you to read it here.

This photo from the post elicited more comments than the words did.

Grandma Shirley with baby Owen, 2011

We grandparents are living in the Autumn season of our lives. We see Winter ahead, and we know that we can’t take anything with us beyond that season.

We are ready to simplify. We are ready to go back to living in the Now, like we did as children.

We are ready to let go. Almost. In fits and starts.

We know that if we give our gifts to grandchildren now, those gifts will bless not only them, but ourselves and our friends.

Owen and Julia, August, 2014

When I look at these faces, and think about all the other children in the world, I think about a loving God who cares for us all and has given us ENOUGH.

I am once again inspired to find new ways to live More with Less.

Can you name one way to simplify? Let’s help each other cut down on clutter and focus on what matters most! Please share a thought below.

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Black Like Me: What I Learned by Listening to Black Voices Then and Now

Even though no black students were enrolled at Warwick High School in Lititz, Pennsylvania, 1962-1966, the years I attended, I was not completely unaware of the Civil Rights Movement.

I had Mr. Price for my American history teacher. He urged us to read about injustice and imagine what it must be like to deal with it on a daily basis. He made me feel empathy and admiration for the courageous people in the headlines — Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, James Meredith.

J. Lorell Price, history teacher with a passion for justice

J. Lorell Price, history teacher with a passion for justice

At age 15, I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and Martin Luther King’s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.

I didn’t read them because they were required in any class, I read them because Mr. Price wanted me to be aware, even though I was a Mennonite and couldn’t watch the news on television and lived a sheltered life on a farm. He understood something that poet Gwendolyn Brooks would say about the time we lived in:

The time

cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face

all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.

Because of these words of Gwendolyn Brooks, another great woman, Dr. Joanne Gabbin, of James Madison University, a poet herself and a lover of poetry, created a conference in 1994 that led to two more conferences and later a center, called Furious Flower.

Dr. Gabbin’s first impulse was to honor the elders, especially to honor the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. In 1994 she called for poetry. Last week, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, she played the role Ralph Waldo Emerson played in his famous 1844 essay “The Poet.” She called for poets:

“Now I’m calling for poets — peace poets, justice poets, love poets.

–Dr. Joanne Gabbin

And how the troops rallied to her side!

Joanne Gabbin at left. Rita Dove, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Frank X. Walker, Ishmael Reed, Elizabeth Alexander, Photo by Tina Glanzer

Joanne Gabbin at left. Rita Dove, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Frank X. Walker, Ishmael Reed, Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Komunyakaa,, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte. Photo by Tina Glanzer.

As I listened to poets, to musicians, and to critics, last week, I felt so grateful to my friend Tina Glanzer, who introduced me to Joanne Gabbin. I’ve been a Furious Flower fan ever since. I wrote this post in praise of Sonia Sanchez and after Gabbin and Nikki Giovanni organized another elder event, I also wrote about Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

I was unaware, as a teenager in the 1960′s, of the Black Arts Movement, a movement I would eventually teach. The poets who arose then created two things: words that endure and a foundation for future poets.

I’m not a poet myself, but I have a voice. I left Furious Flower 2014 determined to find better ways to use it in support of the same issues my African-American brothers and sisters face. I don’t want to be silent when my voice is needed. I’ve not forgotten this challenge from Jesus Girl Osheta. She wrote this challenge to her blogger friends who are white and who are silent on issues of race and injustice:

because you’re white, you need to talk about it.  Because you haven’t had to think about it, you need to think about it now.  Because you’re in your homogenous bubble, you need to hear my story as a black woman in America.

One of the things I learned from Mr. Price in 1964 is that white people can play a part in the creation of a more just society when they educate themselves and speak out. Memoir writers, black and white, who lived through the sixties, can reflect upon the meaning of their location in that time and help to increase understanding today when we face the legacy of racism in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and wherever we live ourselves.

Poet Marilyn Nelson inspired me with her poetic memoir method. She read poems from the same time period I covered in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

I felt so grateful to sit at the feet of the great African-American poets of our time.

But I don’t want to just sit. I want to stand up also.

When I go back to the box in the basement, searching for myself in the 1960s, I hope I will find evidence of my little piece of participation in the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements. But regardless of what I find from the past, I want to be accountable to the present and future. I want racism to end. And I want to begin with myself.

Do you have memories of the Civil Rights period?  An African-American poet you want to honor? Please use the space below to do so!

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Taking a Turn Toward the Sixties, Mennonite Memoir Style


That’s the year I heard the gravel crunch in the driveway of our Pennsylvania farm as my parents drove me and a few worldly possessions to Eastern Mennonite College.

Today I’m suddenly curious about the world I lived in then and alert to the many other windows to the past currently online. Today I’ll share two visitations from the past that struck me this week.

The 1964 Worlds’ Fair

Two years earlier New York City had hosted a world’s fair full of optimism for the future (to listen to the fascinating Planet Money program, click the link).

The diarama of an undersea hotel from the 1964 World's Fair, from NPR Planet Money website

The diarama of an undersea hotel from the 1964 World's Fair, from NPR Planet Money website

The makers of the 1964 world’s fair envisioned themselves as working on a project of historic significance. They tried to see past the twentieth century to project the kind of world we live in today. They saw undersea hotels, but were more entranced by Selectric typewriters than by computers. They overlooked the major social issues about to sweep the country — Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. It was a Jetson view of the future based on a Pat Boone image of the present.

Cover art for The Pat Boone Fan Club

Cover art for The Pat Boone Fan Club -- link to Amazon below

Pat Boone: Icon for an “Anglo-Saxon Jew”

Sue William Silverman, one of my writing teachers at the Bear River Writers Workshop a few years ago, has written a fabulous memoir that unfortunately still sits on the table next to my bed. But I know I’ll read it because of this blog post and this quotation from The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (American Lives):

Even though I’m now an adult, Pat Boone still reminds me of those innocent all-American teenage summers at Palisades Park, Bermuda shorts and girls in shirtwaist dresses, corner drugstores, pearly nail polish, prom corsages, rain-scented lilacs, chenille bedspreads and chiffon scarves, jukebox rock and roll spilling across humid evenings…. He is Ivory soap, grape popsicles, screened porches at the Jersey shore, bathing suits hung to dry, the smell of must and mildew tempered by sun and salt. He is a boardwalk Ferris wheel, its spinning lights filling dark spaces between stars. He remains all the things that, as you age, you miss—the memory of this past smelling sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July….

These vivid images from the 1960s dazzled me, too. They were part of the “glittering world” I wanted to learn more about when I went to college. I was curious about a lot more than these things, but I had not escaped their influence.

When I finally read this book, will I feel like an Anglo-Saxon Swiss-German Mennonite? Stay tuned. I’ll report back.

Were the mid-1960′s a time of innocence and optimism for you? Do they “smell sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July” now? Did they as you lived them? Do tell!

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Building “THIS”: How an Online Course Has Inspired Me to Continue Blogging

A confession.

After blogging for six years, I sometimes wonder if it is time to let go. Float away past the ether . . .

Free pin: hot air balloon

Free pin: hot air balloon

Instead of blogging, I could take photography and painting classes that are part of the “road not taken” I want to travel.

And speaking of travel, there’s that long bucket list.

Finally, there’s the mission of preparing for death and helping others do the same.

But I’m not yet ready to give up blogging as I continue my search. That’s why I decided last week to see how much memoir I might still have inside as I explore the Box in the Basement. I wasn’t being coy. Should I write a sequel to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World?

Your comments on that post were so helpful! They help me to stay open in this place of indecision and exploration, waiting on the new call. That’s hard for an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale. :-)

My job right now is to dwell in possibilities.

That phrase from Emily Dickinson means more to me now because I’m “taking” the class called Modern and Contemporary Poetry. It’s a MOOC — a massive open online course — taught at the University of Pennsylvania to thousands of students throughout the world.

It’s an amazing experience and not what I expected. It’s actually intimate. The professor, Al Filreis, not only loves his subject, he has a wonderful collaborative pedagogy and a huge heart. He’s as selective as Emily Dickinson and as inclusive as Walt Whitman. He transforms the lives of many students.

Professor Al Filreis, leading the online class "ModPo" with his student assistants

Professor Al Filreis, leading the online class "ModPo" with his student assistants.

Two poems from that class are helping me right now.

I dwell in Possibility – (466)

By Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –


Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –


Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

When Al Filreis teaches”I dwell in Possibility,” he does so by using the “collective close read” approach, asking each of his students to elaborate on each word of this poem. In rapid-fire succession, they dissect the metaphor of the house in the poem. The professor flings out a few ideas of his own, including this zinger:

 ”The word ‘this’ is the most important word in the English language.”

If this truly is the most important word, than this time, this place I dwell, this occupation of waiting and being open, this is the thing itself! And writing these words, this too, is my calling.

And you, dear reader, are implicated too. You are part of THIS.

Or to say it a little differently:

Song of Myself (1892 version)

By Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Memoir sings the self, whether in the form of a blog post or a book.

My THIS  is to wait, write, and dwell, for a while.

What is your THIS? How do you spread wide your narrow hands to gather Paradise?

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Does BLUSH Have a Sequel?: The Box in the Basement

Readers have been asking if Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World has a sequel.

My honest answer is that I don’t know.

However, this box has been whispering to me. “Come look.”

The box in the basement.

From out of the stack of albums pictured below, a little voice squeaks: “Play me, Shirley, Shirley bo burley.”

The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Robert Flack and The Mennonite Hour

The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Robert Flack and The Mennonite Hour --an eclectic mix!

So, I am cautiously approaching the door to the basement.

If you come with me, you have to first open the door that leads downstairs.  This is what you’ll see:

The sign above the door used to announce the name of farm near Lititz. My mother likes alliteration.

The sign above the door used to stand across from our house in Lititz, 1960-1994.

A bookcase full of binders full of letters from my college years stands sentry in the corner of the room.

The letters home, 1966-1980's.

The letters home, 1966-1980's.

My friend and fellow Mennonite memoirist, Ted Swartz, suggested that I play with the idea of The Box in the Basement as my new blog title and just see what happens week by week as I make my trip to the underground and surface to tell stories.

I’d love to know if you like this idea. Please leave a comment below if you have your own suggestion. A simple yes or no vote would be very helpful.

And, if you have some similar treasures in your basement or attic, please tell!

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Celebrating Readers! An Invitation to Help Plan a Book Birthday Party

Can books have birthdays?

Of course! In just a few days, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World celebrates her first birthday.  I’d love to have your help to think about an appropriate way to thank readers, celebrate story, and find an excuse to indulge in cake and punch. Or more sugar cookies.

Today I have an appointment to plan an event to take place September 18 at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community at 3 p.m.

My family helped bake and package cookies to make the occasion festive.

My family helped bake and package cookies to make the occasion festive. September 19, 2013

Looking backward:

  • A year ago, several hundred people had entered the 100 Day Challenge on this website and were helping to prepare the launch.
  • The launch itself packed out Lititz Mennonite Church. We sang, reminisced celebrated and connected. Time and space melted away. More than 140 copies of BLUSH were sold.
  • Since then, I’ve traveled about 10,000 miles and given scores of book talks, sermons, retreats, and readings.
  • My publisher Herald Press lists BLUSH among its bestsellers, and, every once in a while, Amazon (Mennonite category) does also. It’s in its third printing.
  • I’ve talked to many readers kind enough to tell me how they connected to my childhood. I cherish reader letters and emails too. Sometimes readers tell me they are writing their own stories. I always encourage them.

So, as I plan with the wonderful VMRC staff people, I’d love to hear from you, too, about which of these topics you find most interesting. I’ll use the feedback in selecting the topic, and, if one of these seems of high interest, I’ll come back here to write about it. Sorry about the virtual nature of the punch and cookies, but at least they won’t cause you to gain weight!

But if you want to enjoy your own sugar cookies from a distance, here’s the old family recipe printed in BLUSH.

Possible topics:

  1. Are you glad you wrote your memoir? What have been the chief rewards/disappointments?
  2. What did you discover about yourself, or any other subject, that you didn’t know before?
  3. What have you learned about memory, truth, love, grace, anger, reconciliation — the big subjects — by writing your own story?
  4. What disciplines did you use to get the writing, editing, and marketing done?
  5. What have you learned about/from your readers?
  6. Other — please specify!

Multiple choice seems only appropriate for a September blog. Please pick one and comment below.

For you memoirists reading this, please feel free to select one of the topics above and write a few sentences about it below, thus introducing yourself and YOUR work to the readers here.

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Blog Post #500 and a Six-Year Anniversary Milestone

It all started with a gift and a milestone birthday.

Anthony's gift. Inscribed in a leather-bound journal.

Anthony's gift. Inscribed in a leather-bound journal.

I was sixty. My tech-savvy son Anthony was approaching age thirty-two. I cashed in his “gift certificate” in the next month and started blogging — without having a clue. No pictures. Just a few random words. But I at least had a subject. The blog was called 100 Memoirs. I would read and write, and sometimes review, memoir.

And so I did. For six years. This post is number 500!

I decided to ask my Facebook friends for help in visualizing milestones. They were so creative! I got a kindergarten graduation picture, a mountain peak picture and lots of stories. I chose this picture of an actual, historic milestone to share with you. My friend Lynn Miller traveled the Camino Portuguese de Santiago and took this photo:

Milestone from the Camino Portuguese de Santiago.

Milestone from the Camino Portuguese de Santiago. Credit: Lynn Miller

The inscription reads: “MILESTONE Vilar-Guiza-Louredo. To indicate distances the Romans used poles that derive their names from the unit they measured: MILIA PASSUM (miles passed). This milestone formed the Via XIX that united the cities of Braga and Astorga, passing Lugo. It was possibly raised during the tenure of the Emperor Trajan in the beginning of the second century AD. ”

Wow. Second century. That puts six years into perspective, doesn’t it?

Here’s another offering, from photographer friend Marilyn Nolt. Can you tell what the “milestone” is?

A symbolic milestone from eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

A symbolic milestone from eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Marilyn Nolt

Marilyn describes this figure as an old solo silo in the middle of a field.

Wow. Milestones can represent much more than miles.

When I started out on this blogging journey, I didn’t know when it would end. I still don’t!

Your turn: Did either of these photos resonate with you? How and why? What milestones have you passed recently? Which ones would you like to pass?

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Carpe Diem: A Tribute to Robin Williams

When I heard the news of Robin Williams’ death on August 11, 2014, I felt it viscerally, along with so many other people around the world.

I’ve seen most of his most famous movies, but the one I thought of immediately was Dead Poet Society, a film I have often watched with English majors. The character in the film who made the greatest impression on me was Neil, the boy who takes his own life after he despairs of his parents’ lack of understanding and love. Robin Williams plays the teacher who awakens Neil’s voice as a poet only to mourn his death.

Reading Williams’ obituary through the lens of his own suicide, I went back again to the famous “Carpe Diem” passage and understood why Mr. Keating’s love for Neil comes through so clearly in the movie. Williams, who was painfully shy and went to a private school himself, must have identified with all the boys, but especially with Neil. Here’s the famous scene from the very beginning of the movie,

I think the best tribute any of us can make to Robin Williams is to Seize the Day ourselves.

My post for Not Quite Amish this week tells how a bike ride into Old Order Mennonite farm country helped me seize one day and made me think of my own epitaph.

Has any death made you more determined to live now? How?

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Three Amazing God Stories from My Self-Chosen Amtrak Writer’s Residency

When we travel, we multiply the chances that we encounter a “once in a lifetime” event that defies all odds, seemingly flying to us on wings from the universe. I like to think of these times as God moments. Or, as my sister Doris says, “God’s poetry.”

On our BookTourAnniversaryPalooza, on Amtrak, July 1-28, 2014, we had hundreds of such moments, large and small. Here’s a sampling as told through pictures and Facebook Updates:

A gobsmacker at the very end of the trip.

A gobsmacker at the very end of the trip.

In Vancouver, mid-way through our travels, one of Stuart’s former advisees at Goshen College, noticed that we were headed her direction and invited us to visit her. We found an open spot in our schedule and stood on her doorstep a few days later. She was able to express her thanks to Stuart for his essential help years ago when she felt very vulnerable as a new student in a strange culture. What a lovely evening we had as she cooked, we all conversed — and then ate. Yum!

Karen and the special meal in Vancouver

Karen and the special meal in Vancouver

I found writer Patricia Grace King because her novella Small Country (Kindle Single, 1.99) showed up in the Mennonite Bestsellers list next to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. We got acquainted online and met in Chicago while I was on my trip. We discovered many Mennonite family and institutional connections, though we had never met each other before.

Patricia Grace King, the one with the pink hair :-)

Patricia Grace King, the one with the pink hair :-)

As you read these words, Patricia is preparing for a double mastectomy operation. Chemotherapy was successful, but the operation is still necessary. I’ve been touched by Patricia’s honesty, courage, and spirit. She needs all the love and prayers she can get just now. Won’t you join me in this moment of God’s poetry and pray for Patricia as she fights for her health and wholeness?

I’m also interested in your own stories of God’s Poetry. What moments amazed you recently? Or in your travels from anytime in your life?

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My Amtrak Writer’s Residency: Five Tips for Authors After 4,000 Superliner Miles

A few months ago, the online world buzzed with the news that Amtrak had decided to offer “residencies” –  a writer’s competition that offered free travel worth up to $900. Thousands applied, including me.

Amtrak arriving at the station

Amtrak train arriving at the station, East Glacier, Montana

The odds were stacked against winning, but the marketing campaign succeeded in reigniting my old dream of seeing the USA via train, a dream shared with my husband Stuart, who joined me in planning a BookTourAnniversaryPalooza. We started a long conversation about where to go, whom to see, how to have fun celebrating our 45th anniversary, which scenic vistas to look for, and, last but not least, how to arrange book talks and book signings for Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. After some research, we determined that the 30-day Rail Pass was our best option.

We’ve returned now after spending 28 days in July riding the rails. It was an amazing trip! Our best-laid plans succeeded almost flawlessly and unto them many spontaneous gifts were added. I can’t possibly describe a trip of this richness in one post. So I’ll treat different topics in the upcoming weeks. Today I just want to focus on authors and offer some tips on how to combine a book tour and a train trip.

Five Tips for Book Touring Authors

1. Travel by train only if you are prepared to move into slow time.

Don’t travel by train if you are trying to cover maximum territory in minimum days. The trains in this country are seldom efficient, so build in extra time and NEVER count on the train to deliver you to an event on the timetable printed in the schedule. Think of these verbs: meander, ponder, and tarry. These adjectives: leisurely, rhythmic, and surprising. These nouns: revery, rust, and majesty.

The landscape along the Pacific coast and through the Rocky Mountains will more than compensate. The movement from hectic to slack will take you deeper into thought and imagination, making you more open to serendipity in life and in writing.

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Superliner.

2. Budget for the trip in a way that fits your pocketbook.

To keep the costs of train travel reasonable, place the trip in the “Travel, Entertainment, and Education” tabs in your budget, not “Profit from selling books.” If you do that, you will find the expenses transform from “expensive business cost” to “reasonably priced vacation.” You and your accountant will have to figure out what, if any, tax write off applies.

We are still doing the expense documentation for the trip, but I am pleased with the results so far. I spoke to about 400 people, many of whom had not heard about my book before. I had four speaking events that paid honoraria and sold all the books I carried in my suitcase plus fifteen more my publisher shipped midway through the tour. In addition, my Amazon rankings bumped up modestly and looked like this during the days on tour:

Amazon rankings July 1-28

Amazon rankings July 1-28, the peak day was July 12, just after my visit to Third Place Books in Seattle

3. Call upon your friends and relatives for help.

Facebook and Twitter can produce amazing stories. Facebook, in particular, does something very valuable in addition to offering you a place to share (selectively — don’t overwhelm) pictures and highlights from your journeys. The search function allows you to search for “friends in Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago,” etc. What an easy way to see who you may want to see and who may want to see you.

I started planning this trip after receiving an invitation to speak in Vancouver, BC, July 13, which we then decided would be the “Anchor” location. We got serious about reserving hotels in April, and I made up a Google Doc so that Stuart and I and some of our hosts could edit the plan as it unfurled. Planning took a lot of time because it involved phone calls and emails to multiple people whenever we needed help with lodging, venues, and transportation.

Our dear, dear friends helped us so much. Sometimes we asked them and sometimes they volunteered. We tried to be low maintenance/high gratitude guests, and we were overwhelmed by generosity so many times.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

4. Document with photos, diary, receipts, and social media.

A trip like this is an investment, not only in your writing, but in your life. It has not just helped you reach a wider audience and sell some books, it gives you a rich vein of material for new writing. I bought this little pocket notebook in Santa Barbara and filled it up. It fit snugly into my little travel purse next to my passport and smart phone, the other essential tool for documentation and sharing.

The travel diary.

The travel diary.

5. If you plan to include visits to National Parks in your trip, . . .

Start reserving lodges a year in advance if possible. We were amazed that our first choice lodge in Glacier National Park was booked three months before we wanted to go. The agent suggested a year’s planning for these highly attractive locations with very short tourist seasons. Also, if you get off the train, you may want to rent a car for travel within the park. We didn’t do that and were saved by a good shuttle driver who helped us navigate successfully using his services and other public conveyances. Plus our feet! I was very glad for a good pair of hiking shoes.

I’ve just scratched the surface of all the wisdom gained from this trip. So please jump in to ask more questions. I’ll not only comment, I’ll go into more depth in future posts.

If you were going to plan your own writers residency on a train, what criteria would you set for yourself?

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