Letting Go of God

Translations of this material:

into Italian: Translation of "Letting Go of God". Translation is not started yet.
Submitted for translation by giuli 18.12.2013
into Russian: Отходя от Бога. 99% translated in draft. Almost done, let's finish it!
Submitted for translation by temp_2010 12.03.2012

Text

1. THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS

On September 10th, the morning of my seventh birthday, I came downstairs to the kitchen where my mother was washing the dishes and my father was reading the paper. And I presented myself to them in the doorway. And they said, "Hey, happy birthday!" And I said, "I'm seven!" And my father smiled and said, "Well, you know what that means don't you?" And I said, "Yeah, that I'm going to have a party and a cake and get a lot of presents?" And my dad said, "Well, yes. But more importantly, being seven means that you've reached the Age of Reason and you're now capable of committing any and all sins against God and Man."

Now I had heard that phrase, "Age of Reason" before. Sister Mary Kevin had been bandying it about my second grade class at school; but when she said it, the phrase seemed all caught up in the excitement of our preparations for First Communion and First Confession. And everybody knew that was really all about the white dress and white veil. And anyway, I hadn't really paid all that much attention to that phrase: Age of Reason.

So I said, "Yeah, yeah. Age of Reason. What does that mean again?" And my dad said, "Well, we believe, in the Catholic Church, that God knows that little kids don't know the difference between right and wrong, but when you're seven, you're old enough to know better. So, you've grown up and reached the Age of Reason. And now God will start keeping notes on you, and begin your permanent record."

And I said, "Oh." Wait a minute, you mean all that time up till today, all that time that I was so good, God didn't notice it?"

And my mom said, "Well I noticed it!" And I thought, "How could I have not have known this before? How could it not have sunk in, what they'd been telling me? All that being good and no real credit for it. And worst of all, how could I not have realized this very important information until the very day that it was, basically, useless to me?"

So I said, "Well, mom and dad, what about Santa Claus? I mean Santa Claus knows if you're naughty or nice, right?" And my dad said, "Yeah. But honey, I think that's technically just between Thanksgiving and Christmas." And my mother said, "Oh Bob, stop it. Let's just tell her. I mean, she's seven. Julie, there is no Santa Claus."

Now this was actually not that upsetting to me. My parents had this whole elaborate story about Santa Claus, how they had talked to Santa himself and agreed that instead of Santa delivering our presents over the night of Christmas Eve, like he did for every other family, who got to open their surprises first thing Christmas morning, our family would give Santa more time. Santa would come to our house while we were at 9:00 High Mass on Christmas morning, but only if all us kids did not make a fuss.

Which made me very suspicious. It was pretty obvious that it was really our parents giving us the presents. I mean, my dad had a very distinctive wrapping style and my mother's handwriting was so close to Santa's. Plus, why would Santa save time by having to loop back to our house after he had gone to everybody else's?

There was only one obvious conclusion to reach from this mountain of evidence. Our family was too strange and weird for even Santa Claus to come visit. And my poor parents were trying to protect us from the embarrassment, this humiliation of rejection by Santa, who was jolly, but let's face it, also very judgmental.

So, to find out that there was no Santa Claus at all was actually sort of a relief. I left the kitchen not really in shock about Santa, but rather, I was just dumbfounded about how I could have missed that whole Age of Reason thing. It was too late for me. But maybe I could help someone else, someone who could use the information. They had to fit two criteria: They had to be old enough to be able to understand the whole concept of the Age of Reason. And, not yet seven.

The answer was clear: my brother Bill. He was six!

Well, I finally found Bill about a block away from our house at this public school playground. It was Saturday and he was all by himself, just kicking a ball against this brick wall. I ran up to him and said, "Bill, I just realized that the Age Of Reason starts when you turn seven and then you're capable of committing any and all sins against God and Man." And Bill said, "So?" And I said, "So, you're six. You still have a whole year to do anything you want to and God won't notice it!" And Bill said, "So?" And I said, "So!? So, everything!" And I turned and ran, so angry with him. But when I got to the top of these steps, I turned dramatically and said, "Oh by the way, Bill, there is no Santa Claus."

Now, I didn't know it at the time, but I was actually not turning seven on September 10th.

For my thirteenth birthday I planned a slumber party with all of my girlfriends. But a couple of weeks before hand, my mother took me aside and said, "I need to speak to you privately. September 10th is not your birthday. It's October 10th."And I said, "What?" And she said, "Listen, the cut-off date to start Kindergarten was September 15th. So, I told them that your birthday was September 10th and then I wasn't sure that you weren't just going to go blab it all over the place, so I started to tell you your birthday was September 10th. But, Julie, you were so ready to start school, honey, you were so ready!"

I thought about it, and when I was four, I was already the oldest of four children, and my mom even had another child to come. So what I think she, understandably, really meant was that, "She was so ready, she was so ready." Then she said, "Don't worry, Julie, every year on October 10th when it was your birthday, but you didn't realize it, I made sure you ate a piece of cake that day." Which was comforting, but troubling. My mother had been celebrating my birthday with me, without me.

What was so upsetting about this piece of information was not that I was going to have to change the date of my slumber party with all of my girlfriends. What was most upsetting was that this meant I was not a Virgo. I had a huge Virgo poster in my bedroom. And I read my horoscope every single day and it was so totally me! And this meant that I was a Libra?

So I took the bus downtown to get the new Libra poster. The Virgo poster was a picture of a beautiful woman with really long hair, sort of lounging by some water. But the Libra poster was just a huge scale. This was around the time that I started filling out, physically, and I was filling out a lot more than some other girls, and frankly, the whole idea that my astrological sign was a scale just seemed ominous and depressing. But I got the new Libra poster and I started to read my new Libra horoscope. Which I was astonished to find was also totally me!

It wasn't until years later, looking back on this whole Age of Reason, change-of-birthday thing that it dawned on me. I wasn't turning seven when I thought I turned seven. I actually had a whole other month to do anything I wanted to before God started keeping tabs on me. Oh, life can be so unfair!

EXODUS

2. The Mormon Boys Arrive

Not too long ago, two Mormon missionaries came to my door. I live just off a main thoroughfare in Los Angeles, and my block is a natural beginning for people peddling things door to door. Sometimes I get little old ladies from the Seventh Day Adventist Church showing me pictures of heaven. And sometimes I get teenagers who promise me that they won't join a gang and just start robbing people if I only buy some magazine subscriptions from them. So, normally I just ignore the doorbell. But on this day, I answered.

And there stood two boys, each about 19, in white, starched, short-sleeved shirts. And they had little nametags that identified them as official representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And they said they had a message for me. From God.

I said, "A message for me, from God?" And they said, "Yes."

Now, I was raised in the Pacific Northwest around a lot of Mormons and y'know, I've dated them, and worked with them, but I never really knew the doctrine or what they said to people when they were out on a mission. And I guess I was a little curious. So I said, "Well, please come in." And they looked really happy because I don't think that happens to them all that often. And I sat them down and I got them glasses of water and after our niceties, I said, "Okay, I'm ready for my message from God."

But they had a question, instead. Which threw me a little. I thought it would be more like a pitch at a studio and I would hear their story and then if I were interested I would have my people call their people or something. But, apparently this was going to be interactive. And they said, "Do you believe that God loves you with all his heart?"

And I thought, "Well, of course I believe in God. But, I don't like that word 'heart' because that anthropomorphizes God, and I don't like the word 'his' either, because that sexualizes God." But then, I didn't want to argue semantics with these boys, so after a very long uncomfortable pause, I said, "Yes. Yes, I do. I feel very loved."

And they looked at each other and smiled, like, that was the right answer. And then they said, "Do you believe that we're all brothers and sisters on this planet?" And I said, "Yes, I do. Yes, I do." And I was so relieved that it was a question that I could answer so quickly. And they said, "Well, then we have a story to tell you."

And they told me this story all about this guy named Lehi who lived in Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Now, apparently in Jerusalem, in 600 B.C. everyone was completely bad and evil, every single one of them: man, woman, child, infant, fetus. And God said to Lehi, "Put your family on a boat and I will lead you out of here." And God did lead them. He led them to America.

I said, "America? From Jerusalem to America by boat in 600 B.C.?" And they said, "Yes." Then they told me how Lehi and his descendants reproduced and reproduced and over the course of 600 years, there were two great races of them: the Nephites and the Lamanites. And the Nephites were totally, totally good, each and every one of them, and the Lamanites were totally bad and evil, every single one of them, just bad to the bone.

Then, after Jesus died on the cross for our sins, on his way up to heaven, he stopped by America and visited the Nephites. And he told them that if they all remained totally, totally good, each and every one of them, they would win the war against the evil Lamanites. But apparently somebody blew it, and the Lamanites were able to kill all the Nephites.

All but one guy, this guy named Mormon, who managed to survive by hiding in the woods. And he made sure this whole story was written down in reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics chiseled onto gold plates, which he then buried near Palmyra, New York.

Well, I was so into this story, I was just on the edge of my seat. I said, "What happened to the Lamanites?" And they said, "Well, they became our Native Americans here in the U.S." And I said, "So you believe the Native Americans are descended from a people who were totally evil?" And they said, "Yes."

Then they told me how this guy named Joseph Smith found those buried gold plates, right in his backyard! And he also found a magic stone back there, that he put into his hat and then buried his face into and this allowed him to translate the gold plates from the reformed Egyptian into English.

Well, at this point I just wanted to give these two boys some advice about their pitch. I wanted to say, "Okay, don't start with this story. I mean, even the Scientologists know to start with a personality test before they start telling people all about Xenu, the evil intergalactic overlord.

Well, then they said, "Do you believe that God speaks to us through his righteous prophets?" And I said, "No I don't." Because I was sort of upset about this Lamanites story and this crazy golden plate story. But the truth was, I hadn't really thought this through. So I back peddled a little bit and said, "Well, what do you mean by righteous, exactly? And what do you mean by prophets? Like, could the prophets be women?" And they said, "No." And I said, "Why? And they said, "Well, it's because God gave women a gift that is so spectacular, it is so wonderful, that the only gift he had left over to give men, was the gift of prophesy."

"What is this wonderful gift God gave women?" I wondered. Maybe their greater ability to cooperate and adapt? Women's longer life span? That fact that women tend to be much less violent than men?

But no, it was not any of these gifts. They said, "It's her ability to bear children."

I said, "Oh come on. Even if women tried to have a baby every single year from the time they were 15 to the time they were 45, assuming that they didn't die from exhaustion, it still seems like some women would have some time left over to hear the word of God." And they said, "No."

Well, then they didn't look so fresh faced and cute to me anymore. But they had more to say. They said, "Well we also believe that if you're a Mormon, and if you're in good standing with the Church, when you die, you get to go to heaven and be with your family for all eternity." And I said, "Oh dear. That wouldn't be such a good incentive for me." And they said, "Oh. Well, we also believe that when you go to heaven, you get your body restored to you in its best original state. Like, if you'd lost a leg? Well, you'd get it back. Or if you'd gone blind, you could see."

I said, "Oh. Now, I don't have a uterus because I had cancer a few years ago. So does this mean that if I went to heaven I would get my old uterus back?" And they said, "Yeah." And I said, "I don't want it back! I'm happy without it! Gosh, what if you had a nose job, and you liked it? Would God force you to get your old nose back?"

Well, then they gave me the Book of Mormon and they told me to read this chapter and that chapter and they said they'd come back someday and check in on me and I think I said something like, "Please don't hurry." Or maybe it was just, "Please don't." And they were gone.

3. My Religious History In A Nutshell

Okay. So, I initially felt really superior to these boys, and smug in my more conventional faith. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I had to be honest with myself. If someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the very first time, and they said, "We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us. And she had a baby and that's the son of God." I would have thought that was equally ridiculous. I'm just so used to that story.

So I couldn't let myself feel condescending towards these boys. But the question they asked me when they first arrived really stuck in my head. "Did I believe that God loved me with all his heart?" Because, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about that question. Now, if they'd asked me, "Do you feel that God loves you with all his heart?" That would have been much different. I would have instantly answered, "Yes. Yes. I feel it all the time. I feel God's love when I'm hurt and confused and I feel consoled and cared for. I take shelter in God's love when I don't understand why tragedy hits. And, I feel God's love when I look with gratitude at all the beauty I see."

But since they asked me this question with the word "believe" in it, somehow it was all different. Because I wasn't exactly sure if I believed what I so clearly felt.

Okay, my religious history in a nutshell. I was raised Catholic and for me, it was, all in all, a good experience. I know we can't stop reading about all of the horrific and abusive experiences that people have had growing up in the Catholic Church recently in the papers. But for me, it was mostly wonderful. I always felt lucky to be a Catholic.

My parents were both from Catholic families that went as far back as anyone knew on either side. My parents both went to all Catholic schools: grade school, high school, and college. Then my father even went to Catholic law school.

My father told us kids that when he was in high school, the Jesuits separated out some of the boys, and they were on this separate advanced track and he studied Latin for four years and Greek for three years. And out of the 15 of his special, special group, 11 of them became Jesuit priests themselves. When my father told us kids this story, we thought, "He's gotta be like this genius who was being groomed for the priesthood. But lucky for us, he chose to get married instead." When I was old enough, my father introduced me to his favorite writers, which he pointed out were Catholic writers: G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor. They were in a club that we were in too and I felt lucky and privileged.

4. I Wish I Were A Nun

I think my favorite time to be a Catholic was in high school. My first two years of high school, I went to an all-girls high school taught primarily by nuns. And I befriended one sister in particular, Sister Antonella. And she often invited me to the convent for dinner. And maybe because it was such a contrast to my home life at the time, I mean, I was the eldest of five children in a very busy Irish Catholic home, but for me the life of the nuns just seemed like heaven.

The convent was really quiet and calm, and the women were dedicated to the education of their students. And dinner discussion centered on theological debate, or what I thought was theological debate. Maybe they just talked about a poem that everyone liked. But it was just so civilized.

I don't know, the convent seemed like books and incense and rosary beads and meditation and like, rationality. The sisters lived in an Order, but they sure seemed to have their lives "in order" as well.

Now, my adult-self knows that I am definitely romanticizing these nuns, but in the seven or so times that I ate dinner over there, and in almost all my personal dealings with them, that's how I remember it.

I became a little bit of a nun-o-phile. My favorite show as a kid was "The Flying Nun." I watched all the nun movies with relish: "Song of Bernadette," "The Singing Nun." After watching "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," I took the confirmation name "Clare" because I, like St. Clare, was in love with St. Francis. I memorized "The Trouble With Angels" and "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" and I secretly wished that I were Haley Mills and I practiced saying, "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea."

Naturally, I wanted to be a nun myself for a little while in high school.

And I confessed my dream to Sister Antonella. And she told me that the Church didn't really allow girls as young as me to enter the convent. But she could arrange for me to spend the weekend at another convent to see if I liked it.

This other convent was not like the convent at Mary Cliff. The nuns just lived in a house in a regular old neighborhood. And they just wore jeans and plaid shirts and they played guitar and sang "Kumbaya," and like, helped the poor and the sick. And I didn't want any of that hippy kind of nun life.

I wanted a habit and a cell and I wanted to flog myself and wear a hair shirt. And I wanted a Gregorian chant wafting through the halls, the halls that I would walk down right next to the wall, because to walk in the middle of the hallway was to be arrogant.

I wanted to be silent and make all of those hand signals during meals that the contemplative nuns made that meant, "more salt" and "thank you for the salt." And I wanted my long, thick hair to be cut off abruptly like Audrey Hepburn in "A Nun's Story," and then I wanted to prostrate myself before the cross.

But it wasn't just the type of convent that was a problem. There were also boys.

I was way into boys. Even though, for a while, I really did think it could be me and Jesus together forever. I had this picture of Jesus in my bedroom. And he had this shag haircut and these big, beseeching, totally understanding eyes and a sexy beard. I will confess to you that that Jesus helped me discover the pleasures of my own body. Believe me, he was cute. He was not this Jesus. He was this Jesus.

Anyway, as I grew and matured, my understanding of God also grew and matured. I mean, he really was sort of a Santa Claus at first, but then he became more abstract. I had many experiences which I considered to be religious, which confirmed my belief in God. I had religious experiences. I had a few times, maybe five or six times, felt the power of the Holy Spirit come over me and just shake me to the core. In fact, just before the Mormon boys arrived, I had my, perhaps, most visceral and profound religious experience.

You see I'd just suffered the traumatic end to a four-year relationship that I had a lot riding on. I was madly in love and he was not. I wanted us to raise children together and he did not. And then one day, he went away. And I thought I would die, but I didn't.

Night after night I was waking up, crying, barely able to breathe. It felt like a knife was being plunged into my chest. It seemed like the end of the road, my dream of being a mother had met a fatal blow. And then, one night, I woke up with the familiar pain and the shortness of breath and I could hear myself saying the words, "Heal me. Heal me." I must have been out-of-my-mind with grief.

And suddenly I felt this bright light in the room. Or maybe it was just a feeling inside me, like something burst, or released, or something. But I felt a powerful presence, a powerful force of love and transcendence. For the first time in weeks, I felt whole. I felt absolutely connected to everything. And I knew that I would be healed and that God had a plan for me and that my break up was part of my divine destiny.

The next day I was almost blushing to myself, thinking about this incident. And I felt close to God, closer than ever before. And I did feel healed. God had healed me.

So now you can sort of see how, when, a few days later, these two Mormon boys arrived on my doorstep and said that God had a message for me, why I was stopped in my tracks and actually let them in.

5. I Rededicate Myself To The Church: The O.T.

And I realized that I was kind of embarrassed that it had taken me so long to answer that simple question: did I believe that God loved me? And I thought, "How dare they walk into my house and ask me such a personal, private question so cavalierly." It made me kind of angry. But I wasn't sure if I was angry with them or with me, And I realized that I had really been getting a bit lazy about my faith. In an odd way, the Mormon boys dedication inspired me and I think I glimpsed in them, the girl inside me who wanted to be a nun: a person who is willing to go the distance in matters of faith.

So I decided I would rededicate myself to the Catholic Church. I went to several different churches and finally settled on joining one about ten miles from my house, near the ocean. It was liberal, it was big, and it had a dedicated and enthusiastic congregation.

Their Masses were wonderful, so emotional, so full of feeling. I would have to choke back tears just to say the Nicene Creed every time I went.

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And of all things seen and unseen."

I love reciting that, the voices in church all together in unison. But I wanted to say it with conviction. Not as a child who has just grown up absorbing all of these things, but with an adult's understanding, in my heart and soul, the way God says we should.

I noticed in the announcements that they offered a Bible Study class on Thursday nights and on a whim, I decided to sign up for it. Now you know, the Catholics don't really emphasize the Bible all that much. Their attitude is sort of, "Leave that book to the professionals. Don't you worry your little self with that complicated book."

But of what little I did know about the Bible, I knew there were parts I loved. Often when I felt scared or confused, I repeated the 23rd psalm, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear, because you are with me." And I felt so much better.

Now I was happy to see that the Old Testament starts out with two conflicting stories about the origin of the universe: one where Adam and Eve are created at the exact same moment. And then a second creation story in chapter two, where Adam is created first and then Eve is created out of his rib after he gets lonely. And I thought, "Wow! For all those people who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or that every single word of the Bible is true, I mean, they can't even have read the first two chapters of the Bible."

I remembered that Sister Charatina had told us in eighth grade that Genesis, Genesis was a "poem on creation." We were not to take it literally. I shared this with the Bible Study class and Father Tom, this Irish priest who was leading the class said, "That's exactly right, Julia. 'A poem on creation.' Yes. Nicely said."

But then we got to stories like Noah and the Ark. And it was kind of funny, I don't remember when I was studying this as a kid, Sister Mary Kevin highlighting the fact that Noah becomes an alcoholic after the flood. And spends all of his time passed out and naked, to the point where his sons have to back up into a room with a blanket, just to go cover him up. Cause jeez, Dad. Gawd.

I realized I'd always had the Bible served up to me piecemeal and in sections and it had been edited, severely edited. It was quite different reading it as an adult. As an adult you could begin to see the whole puzzle. As an adult, it was disturbing.

For example, when I read about the flood, as a kid, I didn't think about the fact that God killed everyone because he was angry, just drowned them all, because he thought they were all bad. Which you have to assume included a lot of kids, and unborn fetuses. Which I guess was okay with God.

But then I was relieved to read that God comes to Noah afterwards and he says, "Y'know the whole flood thing? It might have been a big mistake!" And he promises that he'll never do it again. And that was another surprise: God has regrets.

6. Sodom Be Gomorrah; Abraham Be Isaac

Then we got to stories like Sodom and Gomorrah. All I remembered about that story is that they were these two sinful cities, like Las Vegas and Reno or something, and God got mad and wiped them out. And Lot's wife looked back when she was told not to and she got turned into a pillar of salt.

But the nuns of my grade school didn't explain to us about what happens right before they flee. Right before they flee, Lot is visited by these two angels, who are masquerading as two men, and they come and stay overnight at his house. And this mob forms outside and they yell, "Send out those two angel-like men to us so we can have sex with them!" And Lot yells "No!" (Which I think is a basic rule of hospitality: don't give up your guests to be raped by the angry mob outside.)

But then, what does he say next? He says, "Why don't you take my daughters and rape and do what you will with them? They're virgins!"

Okay, so Lot is evil, right? How is it that the story we know about him is about his wife getting turned into a pillar of salt? Maybe that was her only way out. Maybe being a big pillar of salt is preferable to being married to Lot!

Anyway, after Lot and his two traumatized daughters flee Sodom and Gomorra, they all go up to a cave in the mountains. And during the night, Lot's two daughters get Lot drunk and then rape him. Do they do this in revenge of what their father did to them? No. The Bible says it's because there aren't any other men around. Even though, the Bible also says that they're not that far from a city named Zoar. So, I guess no men around for maybe a few miles?

And wait a minute, so Lot's two daughters just had to drug and rape somebody? And then I guess if you're their dad and you're the only one there....

Okay, I knew the Bible had nutty stories, but I thought they'd be wedged in amongst an ocean of inspiration and history. But instead, the stories just got darker and even more convoluted.

This Old Testament God makes the grizzliest tests of people's loyalty. Like when he asks Abraham to murder his son, Isaac. As a kid, we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it?

What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn't the proper answer, "No! I will not kill my child, or any child, even if it means eternal punishment in hell!"?

At the next Bible study class Father Tom reminded us, "That Isaac represents what matters to Abraham most. And that's what God asks us to give up for him."

I said, "But loving and protecting and caring for the welfare of your child is such a deep ethical, loving instinct and act. So, what if what matters to you most is your own loving behavior? Should we be willing to give up our ethics for God?"

And he said, "No! No, it's because your ethics, because your ethics IS your love and faith in God." That confused me a little bit, but I decided to just let that one go. But then, I found out that Abraham is not the only person willing to murder his own child for God. They're all over the place in the Bible.

For example, in the book of Judges, this guy named Jephtheh tells God that if he can win this battle, he will kill the first person who greets him when he comes home as a burnt offering. And who is the first person he sees? His only child, his beloved daughter, who runs up to him playing with tambourines and singing. "Hi daddy... what?"

And does God say, "No, don't kill your only child as a burnt offering to me!" Or even, "Jephtheh, who did you expect to be the first person to greet you when you came home?"

No, it appears the most important point of this story is that Jephtheh allows his beautiful daughter to go off into the woods for two months to mourn her virginity (I kept thinking, "Run! Run!") before she comes back and he kills her... by lighting her on fire.

Even if you leave aside the creepy sacrifice-your-own-offspring stories, the laws of the Old Testament were really hard to take. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are filled with archaic, just hard to imagine laws. Like if a man has sex with an animal, both the man and the animal should be killed. Which I could almost understand for the man, but the animal? Because the animal was a willing participant? Because now the animal's had the taste of human sex and won't be satisfied without it?

Or my personal favorite law in the Bible: in Deuteronomy, it says if you're a woman, married to a man, who gets into a fight with another man, and you try to help him out by grabbing onto the genitals of his opponent, the Bible says you immediately have to have your hand chopped off.

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