We’ve all had bad stretches in our lives, from days when we wish we’d never gotten out of bed to years when we’re especially happy to celebrate the start of a New Year to come. During rough times, research has proven that remembering good things can boost our mood and improve our outlook.
An article I just read in Nautilus magazine, The Lasting Power of Good Memories, highlights that as we age we tend to remember good times. You may have found that somewhat annoying in an older relative who keeps reliving the same experiences when they’re talking to you, but I can tell you from personal experience that once your body stops working as well as it did and all kinds of health issues dominate your life, you hang on to the good memories to remind you that life has been better.
The key, though, is to make those good memories in the first place. I see a lot of people just coast through life, carrying on through the days without making high points to offset the lows. Everyone should have something they really love doing, whether it’s a hobby, a sport they like to play, places they’ve travelled to, or even just having wonderful gatherings with friends or family.
As per the article, research has shown that “recalling happy moments triggers reward circuitry in the brain”, and that retrieving positive memories improved the test subjects’ moods. Researchers also found that the subjects who were recalling good memories, when put under stress (submerging their hands in ice water for the test), had much smaller rises in cortisol, the stress hormone, than those who even thought of neutral memories (neither good nor bad).
So rather than pooh-poohing nostalgia, let’s embrace it as the built-in stress-reliever technique that we humans are fortunate enough to have. (Maybe animals do too, but we may never be able to figure that out.)
During the pandemic lockdowns, quite a few friends and family asked my hubby and me if we were stressed about not being able to travel – we’re usually going several places every year, even as weekend jaunts. Everyone seemed stymied that we were barely bothered. But we had lots of good memories of past trips to carry us through and allow us to chill about being stuck at home. That’s not to stay that we didn’t make small trips within our own province, exploring places we’d never bothered to go to in the past, and that it wasn’t very nice to get away for a few days – even we got some cabin fever.
We also engaged in some home renovations, like most people, and made good use of our back yard, as well as any public nature spots that were open. Two of our favourite memories from that time period, when our government was advising everyone to stay separate for the different holidays are:
having my brother and his girlfriend over for Thanksgiving dinner outside. They felt more at ease that way, just going inside to use our bathroom as needed, and we got lucky with the weather, which was mild enough to eat out on the patio. We decorated our patio table, cooked the turkey in an infrared fryer, ate amid the yellow leaves drifting down from our linden tree, and had coffee and dessert next to a new patio firepit we’d bought for the purpose
sharing a Christmas picnic with our nieces and nephews on a chilly day warmed by a fire, which we built in the picnic spot’s public barbecue. We made a big thermos of hot chocolate spiked with maple cream liquor, ate beef stew that we heated in our (luckily portable) infrared fryer, and made the most of a brief window that we could all safely spend together.
My hubby and I have travelled around the world, and have many special memories that we reminisce about, and often laugh about. Many of them you’ve read about in this blog already. Those are the good memories we’ve made; yours might be different but equally precious. Just ensure that you make them, and continue to make them as time goes on, because during difficult times we need to remember that we can still have good experiences, that they aren’t all relegated to the past.
All photos are by me and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus
“I live in the space of thankfulness – and for that, I have been rewarded a million times over. I started out giving thanks for small things, and the more thankful I became, the more my bounty increased. That’s because – for sure – what you focus on expands. When you focus on the goodness in life, you create more of it.” Oprah
How many days have you had in the past couple of years where you don’t want to look at the news?
I read it online most mornings just to keep an eye on the state of the world, and mostly my little corner of it. When it becomes overwhelming, I’ll take a news-free day (or two) to decompress.
The pandemic has turned our world upside down, but we have so many things to be grateful for. This past Tuesday, September 21 was World Gratitude Day, and this week’s post is dedicated to the healing power of acknowledging and appreciating the good things in our lives, even the tiny ones.
You may already practice gratitude, but if you’ve only heard of it and thought it was bogus, I can tell you from personal experience that it works.
For the last few years in which I was working at a Monday-to-Friday job, it became harder and harder to get up in the mornings, achy and tired from the fibromyalgia, and push myself into a functional state. One particularly dreary morning I decided to try saying aloud five things that I was grateful for – anything I could think of off the top of my head. I was grateful for having a decent job with a pension, for a great hubby, for a car that was running well…I don’t remember them all, but by the end of my little recital I did actually feel better.
I’ve done this many times over the years, and my impression is that it’s like a reset button, breaking you out of a mental loop that keeps replaying everything that’s bugging you – which, if you think about it, is both non-productive and depressing. If you pay attention to how you’re feeling when you’re in one of these loops, you’ll notice that your dissatisfaction keeps building until it poisons the entire day. How much better to snap yourself out of it and keep moving forward?
Studies have shown that practicing gratitude will lower your stress level, which benefits your immune system. it will improve your self-esteem (tell that severe inner critic which exists in all of us to just shove it!), improve your sociability (which your boss will appreciate), and help you sleep better (now that you’re not grumbling and beating yourself up). Concrete physical benefits include greater cardiovascular health and lower rates of inflammation. Life serves up both good and bad, but understanding how to mentally balance them will improve your resilience.
On days when gratitude is hard to summon, find other ways to break the cycle. My favourite method is to go out into nature and let the trees, the wind, the birds all wash away my frustration and resentment. I’m so grateful to live on such an amazing planet, with so much beauty to look at:
World Gratitude Day was developed in 1965, out of a conversation at a Thanksgiving Day dinner in the meditation room of the United Nations building. A spiritual leader named Sri Chinmoy suggested a day of thanks that the entire world could celebrate.
If you’re uncertain on how to start, you may want to check out Gratefulness.org, a wonderful and thoughtful place to learn more and even participate in a global community. I particularly recommend watching the 5-minute “A Grateful Day” video on their World Gratitude Day page. It’s a beautiful and profound statement on why we should be grateful to be alive.
All photos are by me and all rights are reserved. E Jurus
I’ve been working through a marketing book about honing your message, and one of the questions the book asked its readers was ‘What ticks you off more than anything?’
I had to think about that for a few minutes, since I have a number of pet peeves, like everyone. Eventually one thing particularly came to mind: people who always refuse things.
I’ll readily admit that my hubby and I are more adventurous than just about anyone we know personally. There’s very little we’ll say “no” to, whether it’s a new restaurant, a new activity, a new place to visit.
My mother-in-law said to us once, as we took her to a favourite restaurant in Toronto whose entrance was located down a back alley: “Where do you find these places?”
Well, I explained, a couple of years previously we’d arranged tickets to a theatre performance of Argentinian tango, and we thought it would be fun to have a themed dinner beforehand. I found a book on all the ethnic restaurants in the city, then looked up all the Latin or Spanish restaurants and picked one. It was a fortuitous choice and we’d been going there ever since. Best sangria ever!
In our house we have a standing rule: guests can’t refuse food without at least trying it. (Before they come over I always check on any food issues first, of course.) Once tasted, if someone doesn’t like the dish they certainly don’t have to finish it, but that rarely happens. Most food is delicious if it’s made well, and even if someone’s tried out a dish in a restaurant, that’s not a guarantee that they’ve had a good version of it.
All of us have likes and dislikes, as the interesting individuals we are, but so many people seem to have a much bigger negative list than positive.
Such a narrow little world they create for themselves. They won’t even give something new a chance, and really, how do you know if you’ll like something otherwise?
People who look for perfection and absolute order will always be disappointed. Half the fun of doing anything is being surprised by it – the random roadside café on a trip that served great food, the movie you didn’t expect much from that turned into great entertainment, an outfit that looked blah on the hanger but amazingly good when you tried it on (just bought one of those the other day, as a matter of fact 😊 )
Imperfection makes things interesting. Possibly our all-time favourite golf course is in rural Tennessee. It’s not upscale by any means – it could certainly use a little TLC around some of the greens – but the layout is spectacular and adventurous between and across two flowing rivers, and both times we’ve played there’s hardly been anyone else there. We love it so much that each time we travel down there we make a point of seeking it out.
Our favourite eateries tend to be family-run ethnic restaurants with really great, unpretentious food that feels like you’re eating at their home.
On trips we like to get away from our hotel and wander the streets in town to see what’s there – a great shop on a small street in Paris that had shelves and shelves of inks and writing instruments; food trucks along the harbour in Papeete, Tahiti, where we had fantastic small plates under awnings in the pouring rain; a shaman shop in Cuzco, Peru where I bought a cool carved and feathered gourd rattle.
What experiences we would have missed if we always looked for the posh and controlled! We’d never have met a group of school girls at a temple in Bangkok who asked if they could practice their English with us, or the little alpaca who wanted to have a taste of my hubby’s pant leg in Peru, or have rattled through the crazy dusty truck ride to find the local camel market in southern Egypt.
We’d have never had a Yorkshire barkeep explain what a “vicar’s collar” is (a poured beer with too much foamy head on it), or spent an evening on the banks of the Nile singing Egyptian folk songs with the boat crew, or even discussed our subsidized health system in Canada with an interested waiter in New Orleans.
Stop saying “no” to the unfamiliar, or the less-than-perfect. Approach everything with curiosity and an open mind, and you’ll never be bored. The world is full of fascinating things to explore, if you’re only willing enough to enjoy them exactly as they are.
A year ago around this time my hubby and I were finalizing our September trip to Ireland, and I was looking forward to taking lots of photos for this blog. A year ago we weren’t all living the pages of a science fiction novel.
We never know where life is going to take us, do we?
While we wait out this odd limbo we’re in, we think about what ‘afterward’ is going to look like. No one knows what the future will be, so to my mind let’s make the most of the unexpected time we have on our hands in the present.
Here in Ontario home renovations are booming – all those projects people have been wanting to get to but never had enough time.
There’s a bonanza of flowers and plants at one of our local nurseries, rows and rows of gorgeous colour and texture to explore like a yard sale in the Garden of Eden. I could have wandered through there for hours, but I wanted to get home with my treasures: a glorious flame-red canna lily to plant next to our moody purple smoke bush, and a vibrant pot garden.
I have very little skill as a gardener (didn’t get my mother’s green-thumb gene), but I love plants and I needed to add these two bursts of energy to the front of our house. I needed to add some brightness to what feels like a faded version of our world these days.
This is a great time to stretch yourself, to discover new things. In the ‘afterwards’, things will have shifted. I suspect we’ll be labelling things as “pre-“ or “post-“ COVID, and like any major upheaval the most successful survivors will be the ones who were most adaptable.
You’ve probably seen a TV show about the rambunctious troops of macaque monkeys that have taken over the city of Jaipur in India. National Geographic produced two entertaining series about these hardy little survivors called Monkey Thieves. The macaques and their rivals, the grey langurs, have been driven out of their normal wild habitat by the expanding human population, but they’re making the most of their new city homes. Macaques are extraordinarily adaptable – clever and resourceful, they’re willing to eat just about anything and sleep almost anywhere. Rather than dying out, they’re thriving in Indian cities to the point of becoming nuisances.
Koala bears, by contrast, are critically endangered. They eat only eucalyptus leaves, and of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, they’ll only feed from a tiny percentage. We humans have backed them into an ecological corner which they may not survive.
So this is a great time to, like the wily macaques, explore and find out what you can make use of. Try things you might not have considered before – who knows what you might find you like and are even pretty good at.
Early into our home ownership, as a young married couple in a bad economy (mortgage rates were as high as 18%) we couldn’t afford much in the way of Christmas decorations. I saw a beautiful grapevine wreath in a store that I just couldn’t swing, but we had a home-crafting store called White Rose that carried all the basics, and I thought that maybe I could make my own wreath for a fraction of the cost. I had no idea what I was doing – no inkling of things like glue guns, even – but my version turned out just as pretty as the store-made version, much to my surprise. Making my own holiday florals has been a passion of mine ever since – I hunt through different sources to put together very personalized wreaths and table arrangements to compliment our house colour scheme, and tweak them as I find interesting new objects I’d like to add or swap in. I did actually sell custom-made creations for a while, which was fun but not my ultimate goal so I didn’t keep it up.
One of the things that did stick professionally was photography. During a summer job while I was in university that involved mapping a local conservation area for visitor use, I was asked to take some photos and put together a promotional brochure – not my forte as a biology major, but my brother had loaned me one of his cameras and I got some good photos of a Great Blue Heron on the edge of one of the ponds. I never had ambitions of becoming a professional, but over the years I’ve taken photos for a real estate agent, the college I worked at, and of course thousands of travel photos that allowed us to show the rest of the world to our non-travelling friends and family. I love to take photos that capture all the cool little parts of a place that are rarely portrayed in the destination marketing, all the personal experiences that have brought a place alive for us.
This photo of a pair of stuffed faux llamas decorated in all their finery in the artsy little city of Arequipa in Peru is one of my personal favourites. Arequipa is one of the coolest places in Peru but most tours unfortunately skip it. It’s full of culture and colour, though, as well as delicious food, an amazing convent complex that’s a small city on its own, and even the famous Ice Maiden herself, found at the top of Andes a few years ago. (More about Arequipa in an upcoming post!)
One of the biggest changes to my life occurred after I decided to get over my fear of public speaking. It has empowered me and transformed my life in ways I would never have foreseen.
Burdened with one of the most common fears people have, I was able to practice avoidance strategy until I began working at our local college and found myself having to say things in meetings. I absolutely dreaded even introducing myself. After a while, though, I got tired of dodging opportunities. One of the vice-presidents at the college had started up a chapter of Toastmasters and an acquaintance of mine who was already a member recommended that I join. Finally I got up the nerve to do it, although I lurked silently in a back corner of the meeting room for weeks. The members were kind enough to give me that space – otherwise I probably would have bolted in the first few minutes.
Eventually I started working on the speaking projects and got used to getting up in front of the room with the entire group of members focused on me alone. I wasn’t a natural by any means and I had to work hard at learning the basic skills, but I achieved my primary goal, to be able to say something in a meeting without freezing like a deer in headlights.
About two years into the program I was unexpectedly contacted by our local public library to come and do a presentation about Kenya – they’d seen some media about a trip that I’d run to Kenya for the college. My first instinct was to duck out of it, but I’d joined Toastmasters for a reason and I wanted to take this next small step. I was still pretty novice and quite nervous, but I had great photos and stories from the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience, something that I would have laughed at skeptically just a handful of years before that. When some of the attendees came up to chat with me afterward and told me that I was a good storyteller, I jumped a hurdle I’d never banked on.
I’ve done many talks for the library and other organizations since then. One of my favourite stories: all the while that I was doing a later presentation about Peru and Bolivia, a fellow at the far end of the front row was tapping into his cell phone. He wasn’t disturbing anyone, so I left it alone – all the other attendees seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. During Q&A at the end of the talk, I assumed that he’d be the first to bug out, but he startled me by asking if the remote temple of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes would be accessible from the town of Copacabana, which he was going to visit in a few months. I’d only included a handful of photos from the site in my presentation, as the brief finale of our trip on the way to our end destination of La Paz, but they’d made such an impression on him that on the spot he decided to see Tiwanaku himself.
When you can get up to talk to people and have a personal impact on their lives, that’s an amazing feeling. By the time I’d served on our regional board and also on the international team that developed the updated Toastmasters program in the past decade, I’d become a different person – comfortable in any situation, confident, well-spoken even in a pinch. Pushing myself to overcome the fear has opened a lot of doors and taken my life in so many new directions.
Dare to imagine what else you could be. Most people have time on their hands now, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out something different. Even if those different things don’t become your passion, at the very least they’ll have expanded your skill base, and in the best-case scenario they may send you on your own amazing journey to a new post-COVID life.
In the meantime, they’ll also serve as a multi-purpose way to pass the time, especially to take your mind off the news. At a virtual photography conference I attended last month, one of the speakers, Caroline Jensen (a Sony Artisan), talked about “Stress Relief in Your Own Backyard” through macro photography. This technique of focusing in on the close-up details of a flower, a butterfly, or any other pieces of nature, keeps you completely absorbed in the moment for hours at a time. She even recommends it as a way to help children cope with their own anxiety.
It opens up a new world in the familiar places we’re all currently restricted to. I live near the Welland Canal, and walking alongside to watch a fascinating ore freighter chug by the other day, I spotted a variety of pretty wildflowers growing along the banks, small enough that most walkers probably passed them by. Great practice for a photographer though 😊
Nature is one of our best sources of therapy during challenging times, and for the most part it’s free to access, especially if you don’t happen to have a back yard of your own to spend placid time in. On any walk in your local woods, you might spot a bright little chipmunk, or admire the sculptural forms of a fallen tree.
If you’d like to try out some macro photography yourself, you can find Caroline’s Quick Start guide here, along with some of her wonderful examples.
I’d like to leave you with a great short TED talk, just a little less than 10 minutes, that was mentioned during the photography conference. Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned photographer who’s spent his career taking time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, and what a magical gift it is to watch them do their thing. His talk includes wise words from a Benedictine monk that, although the talk was done in 2011, couldn’t be more applicable to our present confusion and uncertainty. It’s about how to appreciate nature and the world around us, and to take comfort in each day as the gift that it is.
I had something different planned for today’s post, but I saw a link to an article in an excellent newsletter I receive by email called The Red Thread Swipe File by Tamsen Webster, and I had to read it, and then respond to it.
The article is written by Eric Kaplan, a thought piece on the loss of his dog and how we deal with grief. He asked for suggestions to be sent to his Twitter account, but since I’m not on Twitter I felt I wanted to blog about it, having had to euthanize our own two dogs when they got old and terminally ill 16 years ago.
The fact that my hubby and I have never been able to get more dogs even after all that time will tell you something about how deeply we felt their loss, so to Eric I would first say: my heart goes out to you.
Losing a beloved pet, or any great loss, is quite literally heart-breaking – you feel as though your heart has torn open and will never be whole again.
For all that, though, it was such a gift to have our dogs in our lives and I wouldn’t take that experience back for anything.
We learned a lot from our dogs. Their acceptance of life as it unfolds – their resilience in dealing with every illness that arose, from arthritis to heart problems, while still happily enjoying everyday’s simple pleasures – helped us to work our way through our grief at losing them.
For everyone, like Eric, who’s struggled with the paradox of trying to enjoy the highs of life amid so many lows, maybe this will help a little:
One of the things I’ve realized over several decades of existence is that life is going to throw sorrow at us no matter what we do, no matter how much we might suppress feelings of joy in case they jinx something.
The only way to balance out the lows is to enjoy the highs for the gift that they are.
I’ve had fibromyalgia for many years, and the good days are rare, so I have learned to the most of them! With enough self-care, there are not too many bad days. Mostly I have so-so days that are pretty livable. I can be like our dogs and make the most of every day.
As humans our initial reaction to misfortune is anger – understandably – but eventually, to cope and move forward, we have to reach a state of acceptance and look at how to manage things long-term. Animals, although we can’t know exactly what they’re thinking, seem to go straight to acceptance and change management. While they absolutely feel pain, sadness and fear, like we do, the next beautiful moment that comes along for them is embraced unreservedly. Watching a dog give its entire being over to rolling around in the grass, or chasing a Frisbee across a lawn, is a lesson in mindfulness.
Eric, I hope this blog finds its way to you (@ericlinuskaplan). Please carry on your dog’s legacy of how to live in the moment. It’s a good way to go on.
Doesn’t it sometimes seem like the coronavirus is Mother Nature’s twisted April Fool’s prank? Well, if so, She didn’t end it after 12pm, the customary cutoff time, so according to tradition we may call Her the Fool for that.
Media opinion was divided as to whether April Fool’s should have been celebrated this year. CNN even pontificated about pranks during the “global cloud of human suffering”. Seriously? How is that description going to help my state of mind? I’m well aware of how many people have been affected by the pandemic, but we need some relief from the grim barrage of information!
We need to be able to stay as calm as possible while time passes tucked away in our little corners of the earth. And that means controlling what we can control, like creating an atmosphere of fun as often as possible to counterbalance the news.
Go for a walk in your neighbourhood, and be mindful – in the moment. I went for a walk this afternoon. The sun was shining in a bright blue, cloudless sky with a slight cool breeze on my face. I was tempted to let my mind wander, but I steered it back to enjoying the signs of life and Spring around me.
I could hear wind chimes tinkling melodically in the breeze in someone’s back yard. I saw a red-tailed hawk drifting lazily overhead while a bright red cardinal sang melodies in a tree I was passing; spotted tiny, cheery white crocus blooming at the base of a front-yard tree; watched buds emerging into the mild air. A fellow was out walking his dog while he scrolled through messages on his cell phone; I’m certain he missed all these things. Take the time to notice and appreciate all the bits of life as you walk – these things keep us grounded in daily reality during the surrealness of life right now. They show us that life is going onward and that every day brings us closer to the eventual end of the pandemic.
The other day my hubby had a package delivered from Amazon. The parcel service driver had rung our doorbell and left the box on our front stoop, but I happened to open the door just as he was rounding the front of his van. He waved at me and smiled, and I smiled, waved back and called out, “Thank you!”.
Not an unusual exchange most of the time, but I see so many people looking grim when we venture out to replenish supplies, and it was nice to share a smile that day. I know everyone’s worried and uncertain about the future, but we can brighten each other’s days by taking the time to at least smile and exchange pleasantries, even if they are given from a distance.
Since we’re all stuck at home most of the time, couples and families are under each other’s feet a lot more, and it will be easy to get irritated. So this week’s theme is frivolity, in honour of April Fool’s Day and keeping a sense of humour. It’s a way we can help each other chill out in close quarters.
The origins of April Fool’s Day are murky, but it seems to date back at least as far as the Middle Ages. According to the Museum of Hoaxes, a Flemish writer wrote a poem describing a nobleman who sent his servant on silly errands on April 1, and in 1857 citizens of London, England were fooled into going to the Tower to see an ‘annual lion-washing ceremony’.
Personally I’m not a big fan of practical jokes, although I’ve seen some pretty funny ones. The prankee, though, isn’t always amused.
April Fool’s is all about make-believe, though, isn’t it, and there are all kinds of ways to indulge in a little pretend-fun without offending anyone.
One of my preferred activities is to play board games and jigsaw puzzles. I play a killer game of backgammon, which my hubby refuses to play with me because of my admittedly uncanny ability to roll doubles. As a great alternative, though, we indulge in working on murdermystery jigsaw puzzles.
Jigsaw puzzles date back to the 18th century, and were originally pictures painted onto a piece of wood. They were then cut into pieces using a marquetry saw. The first puzzle is believed to have been created by a engraver and cartographer, John Spilsbury, in London England. It featured a map of Europe and was meant to be educational. Spilsbury called it a “dissected map”, and the idea caught on.
In the 19th century fretsaws were used to cut up the pieces, not a jigsaw, but the misnomer stuck. Eventually the puzzles began to be printed on cardboard, and became enormously popular during the Great Depression as a cheap form of entertainment that could be played at for hours – the same reason they still make a great activity during a similarly challenging time right now.
If you’ve never done a murder mystery jigsaw, let me introduce you to a whole new level of the activity! For these puzzles, the joke is a little bit on you: you don’t get to know what the picture is supposed to look like. You’re given a booklet that tells the story leading up to the murder, with clues as to what you should be looking for to put together the puzzle and solve the mystery. It’s diabolical, and engrossing.
You need a large dedicated surface and patience to put these together – they’re not solved in one or even a few sittings. My hubby and I took three weeks to put the last one together, starting after New Year’s when we got home from a holiday trip, and then on weekends and after work into late January.
Our strategy is to assemble all the edge pieces, just like a regular jigsaw, and then sort the remaining pieces into trays based on colour and surface pattern. Very slowly, with many adjustments and fiddling, patterns begin to emerge and the final story takes shape. Sometimes you step away for a day with frustration and a sore back, only to have an idea pop into your head – damn, I think I know where that piece goes! – and you’re back at it again. There’s a compulsion to solve these complex puzzles, and the mystery they portray.
Think of all the ways you can have fun with some make-believe. People have had ‘Christmas in July’ parties and Caribbean parties in the winter for ages, after all. How about a Pirate party, or an Alice in Wonderland tea? You can while away quite a few hours planning them out, putting up decorations, making delicious food, getting dressed up. Let your hair down, take some photos, and have a blast. In fact, I’d love for you to share a photo with me once you’re done!
If you’re a year-round Halloween person, if autumn is your favourite season, or you’re just looking forward to the fall when hopefully life will have returned more-or-less to normal, make something pumpkin-flavoured. Turn out the lights and light some candles, put on one of the movies I listed in my October blog, or another favourite creepy movie, and enjoy a little catharsis with the pretend-chills.
And a bonus for you, a background image I’ve created that you can download for free to keep on your computer screen to help keep things in perspective. Next week: The Skies of Africa, Part 2: Khwai.
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