My Bird Today Promises a Story
By Dan O’BrienOctober 30, 2023
Belief, however fantastic, begets its consequence in action.
—Marguerite Young, Angel in the Forest
A symbol is real. My symbol as I write these words is a bird, probably our first symbol. Birds were everywhere this morning as I walked the dog, swooping in and flitting out of my path, my past, my possible future; as I contemplated this essay, how to approach it; as I sit at my desk now and wonder, after so many years plying my so-called craft, whether I know something or not much: a bird hops onto the ledge. A dark-eyed junco (I searched for it online). Mundane. Close to the windowpane, it does not fly away—not right away.
But what does it mean, this symbol of a bird? Freedom? Hope? Wisdom? Seemingly infinite interpretations exist for seemingly infinite birds: the dove, the hummingbird. The crow. But my bird today promises a story, or a story in the form of an essay that I have the privilege—because I am improbably alive—to attempt.
The bird can be cliché, I know. Poems about birds. Angels, etc. And I know that my uncle, my mother’s brother, was schizophrenic. Maybe I am out of my mind to believe a bird has meaning. Maybe I am similarly delusional to write for the airy, insubstantial arena of the theater, where as playwrights we invite strangers to believe in the reality of our words, the meaning of our birds. Improbably, we do it anyway. Every play, then, is an act of faith.
During my nine months of treatment for stage 4 cancer, I wore the same hat every day. Chemotherapy for colon cancer only thins the hair; I’d been assured I would never acquire that bone-chilling symbol of the cancer patient’s plight: the purely bald head. Still, I wanted to cover myself—out of shame? A protective measure, surely. Against daunting odds, a friend had survived esophageal cancer, and he gave me the hat he had worn during his treatment—for luck, he said: a white baseball cap with the red emblem of a Trojan warrior, the mascot of his alma mater, USC, where he’d studied film.
Because I had studied theater, and had lived in New York City in my formative young adulthood, I was used to wearing black (though never the black turtleneck: too on-the-nose). Why black, exactly, aside from peer pressure? Had I been, in the words of Masha in Chekhov’s The Seagull, at such a young age already “in mourning for my life”? And for what aspects of it? A troubled childhood? The inevitability that I would never earn any kind of living as a playwright-poet-whatever? I had written about many “dark” subjects, and I found myself fearing that a morbid and pessimistic disposition had somehow caused the cancer. This was magical thinking, I was aware, but during treatment I found, unsurprisingly, that all I wanted now was lightness, optimism, survival. And survival equaled the white hat.
The symbol stitched into the hat was apropos as well, and helpful: this warrior like a red splotch in the white fabric, like the blood and gruesomer fluids that stained my bandages as I recuperated from various surgeries and procedures; red like blood infused with the medicinal molecules galloping throughout my internal topography from follicle to capillary. When I finished treatment at Christmas with no evidence of disease, I threw the hat away because it reminded me of my trauma and felt like bad luck now.
My first symbol was the cross. Suspended high above the altar in St. John’s Church in Larchmont, New York—it entranced me. What on earth could it possibly mean? Maybe the problem was mathematical: the cross looked like a plus sign, in a way. With a handle like a ladle. Was the priest somehow spooning us—our worries and our wishes—into the universal equation of faith? One Sunday after Morning Prayer, as we descended the church’s slick stone steps, I shared my theory with my mother: the cross’s horizontal line represented our brief mortal lives, and the long vertical line stretching high and low was symbolic of eternity in either heaven or hell. “My son,” my mother prophesied, as if impressed and dismayed at once, “you will be a poet.”
But before I wrote anything, much less a poem, I believed. I pored over my Children’s Bible—dare I say it?—religiously. (I wouldn’t read the New Testament before bed, though; the Crucifixion was too gruesome, the Resurrection too eerie.) I reveled in the Good Book’s symbology: the bush that burns without consumption; the body as bread and blood as wine; the lamb, the locust, the dove.
Now, with a name like mine, you might think I had been raised a Catholic, as my father had been, but he was outright hostile toward the Holy Roman Church by the time I arrived on the scene. His school had been IHM, initials that did not, in fact, stand for Immaculate Heart of Mary, he would helpfully explain to his children, but rather “Institute for Helpless Morons,” and we would titter in the backseat at such brazen sacrilege. There were the usual intimations of sadistic nuns and pedophilic priests, but really it was a ruthlessly antisocial mentality that had long ago extinguished any religious affinity in my father. I was raised in an Episcopal church (when we went to church, which was occasionally) that was comfortable with the reality of symbols. In Sunday school, I learned that the Virgin Birth might have been symbolic, and the Resurrection too. What mattered was what these symbols meant.
I don’t mean to imply that, as a child, I was in any way immune to literalism. I believed that a man named Jesus was the son of God and had been raised from the dead, and that an afterlife (and a beforelife—why not?) existed somewhere. Angels were real: late at night in my bed, listening through the wall to my parents fighting, I sometimes imagined—or felt, or believed I felt—an angel comforting me like God does in Psalm 91: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” For a while, I could see an angel, lurking in the crevice of a lightning-struck oak at the back of our backyard. The vision was unsettling: a murky face, but the angel’s pin-bright, unswerving eyes were trained always on me.
When I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder at the age of 12, I realized that symbols were everywhere and potentially lethal. I avoided the edges of floor tiles, and cracks in the sidewalk. The fibers of a carpet on a staircase had to be left compressed by my tread in this direction and not the other. If I failed at these tasks (and many, many others), I knew with an inexplicable certainty that my loved ones and I would find ourselves in gravest danger. I didn’t know what form that danger might take: car crash, cancer, nuclear annihilation. And I had no idea why floor tiles and carpet fibers were so hazardous. These objects and actions were obviously symbolic, so my remedies were likewise. If I stepped on a crack, I could counteract my error by flipping a light switch nine times. If I traversed the carpeted staircase incorrectly, then there was nothing to do but turn around and start all over again.
Moral scrupulosity was another facet of my OCD. I was perpetually sinning in behavior and/or thought, so I was perpetually praying, or aiming to do so, in these mostly rote run-on sentences of my own devising, in which I would beg forgiveness for this or that behavior and/or thought, for sins past and present and sins yet to come (for none of us can ever outrun our sin; the Bible taught me that). I knew the words and phrases of my prayers were themselves symbolic, supernaturally imbued verbiage meant to subtract threat from my world. Maybe symbols were mathematical after all.
And hypochondria too, because viruses and bacteria are every bit as invisible as sinful thoughts. I washed my hands so frequently that the skin cracked like a dry riverbed, and the cracks bled. I scrubbed with the fastidiousness of the zealot: three lathers and three rinses, each rinse lasting three Mississippis. And I would feel clean and safe—until I touched anything, that is.
Eventually, my mother noticed. She pulled my hands apart when she saw that I was praying. She told me I was washing because I was trying to cleanse the trauma of my older brother’s attempted suicide. I was incredulous. I could not for the life of me understand how these tormenting thoughts and toilsome behaviors had anything whatsoever to do with the recent Tuesday afternoon in February when I witnessed my brother, moments after he’d jumped from our attic window, stumbling around the side of our house covered in snow, trembling and confused, while the neighborhood crows cawed raucously in the bare branches of the dogwood and the deep shadows of the evergreens. My mother explained that my distress was manifesting itself symbolically and that these symbols contained, retained, and only fitfully revealed the hidden emotion—in a sense, the meaning—of my trauma. She informed me that I felt guilty (guilty of what?), or—a slightly more believable assertion—that my subconscious mind (whatever that was) was trying to exert control over my body and my environment because I could not control what was happening to my brother and my family. She invoked Lady Macbeth and psychoanalysis and I was all the more perplexed, but I went to the library and sat down to read.
By high school, I was a devout believer in psychology. I wasn’t undergoing any kind of psychoanalysis; my mother didn’t want her children burdened with the “stigma of mental illness,” as she often put it. But reading about psychology had a profound effect on me; it felt realer than religion—so real it was almost scientific. I still went to church now and then, here and there, with my Catholic girlfriend, for instance, but the symbols and rituals of worship had lost their reality. Church was cozy but boring, like a museum, or a musty revival of Shakespeare.
All the while I was reading psychology, I was also reading literature (and the boundary between these genres seemed indistinct to me at best). The symbology of Freud and Jung and others was helping me come to grips with novels and poems and plays. I tried writing myself, thereby psychoanalyzing myself, and it worked somewhat: my obsessive-compulsive symptoms receded. I was relieved. I was decoding the meaning of my subconscious mind. But my writing wasn’t analytical; I found I had to write half-consciously—half-awake, if you will—in order to derive any therapeutic benefit. In this way, the process of writing remained otherworldly in terms of its source; the voice wasn’t mine entirely—I was its conduit. And poems especially felt inspired, like prayer: the symbolic language of metaphor and simile, repetition and incantatory music, the secret wisdom that sound and sense contained, retained, and only fitfully revealed. I saw symbolic meaning in just about every word and combination of words, and as a result, my juvenilia was almost as baroque and prolific (and impenetrable) as the word salad of a schizophrenic. My mother, whose brother had first exhibited symptoms of the disease at my age, must have been terrified.
Literature was functioning for me in those days like the ichthys, the line drawing of the fish that early Christians etched into trees, doors, the stone walls of catacombs—a coded expression of their faith, and an invitation to other believers to gather. My writing was just this sort of fish: I sought to tell the truth about my brother, and my family, and myself; to write honestly without being caught, without the hook of parental persecution. I was seeking a community, a new family.
“Why would you write this?” my mother would ask when she had read what I had written, when she’d cracked my code. “Why would you choose to put something this dark into words?”
I believed I had no choice. And I had no choice because I believed: if I write this story or poem or play infallibly, then I will be safe. Those I love will be safe. All psychic pain—perhaps all physical pain—will be forestalled, cured, redeemed.
But this is an essay about writing plays—at least it’s meant to be, at least in part. As we all know—instinctively, doubtlessly—a symbol is an object, an image, an action that accommodates and communicates an idea, a belief, an emotion. Onstage, there are symbols of setting (the tangible, constructed set, but also the play’s matrix of culture and history), symbols of character (props, costumes, and behaviors), and symbols of action (conflicts and events). In every instance, a symbol isn’t—or shouldn’t be—the playwright’s literary ornament, an illustration of the play’s thematic subject; a living symbol onstage is personal, a character’s talisman, neurosis, or premonition.
Symbols of setting make visible the external forces that impinge upon characters and shape their stories. For example, the polyurethane-upholstered chair in which I sat for many months receiving infusions through a needle clicked into a port embedded beneath the soft skin of my inner bicep. The chair was two chairs in one: the electric chair or, when severely reclined, a gurney for lethal injections; and an upper-class seat on some transoceanic flight to an exotic locale—maybe a destination as exotic as survival. The chemo chair was firstly furniture: something literal and in its way everyday was happening here. But the chair’s symbolic implications lingered, simultaneously unnerving and encouraging. The hangar-like space in which I received my infusions was full of these chairs, lining all four long walls, each chair framed with sliding curtains, and in each semi-discrete cubicle sat individuals of every age, race, gender, etc. The chemo chair in this context could be understood as a symbol of a culture in which cancer is an epidemic, the consequence of a natural environment poisoned by generations of rampant capitalism. Therefore, cancer as a rite of passage—a leveler.
Costumes and props often symbolize a character’s traits and values. We know this offstage: what we wear and the objects we use are functional, of course, but they may also indicate our identity and our potential for conflict—extrapersonal, interpersonal, and inner conflict when the symbol implies a divided self. In addition to my white hat, I invariably wore during treatment the loose clothing that makes examinations and procedures easier to negotiate. I left my sneakers loosely laced so that my hands, numb and fumbling from chemo-induced neuropathy, could slide them on and off without too much difficulty. One degree removed from pajamas, this was a costume of the modern invalid. And of course the symbolism of the hospital gown: the emasculation of its likeness to a shift or nightgown, the embarrassing vulnerability of its flapping backside, the whitish fabric like a pre-shroud, or like a sheet thrown over a ghost-in-training. Makeup design is an element of costume design, and scars were once common markers onstage for villains and those with histories of moral injury. After my first surgery, after my lower abdomen had been opened like a slasher film, the livid scar left behind seemed to symbolize my horror, my sense of loss, the ongoing threat to my life. I kept my shirt on at the beach. As the years passed, the scar grew paler, the nerves reconnecting; grass grew over the bomb site. My scar is now a symbol of tentative survival. I take my shirt off at the beach. As for props, one of my more New-Agey friends had given me a rose quartz crystal—to aid in my healing, she said—and I brought it with me to the hospital, held it, handled its rough edges like the beads of a rosary. I didn’t “believe” in crystals per se, but I was more than willing to give almost anything a try.
Regarding the symbolism of behavior, we have already touched upon Lady Macbeth. Any repetitive behavior may tell the audience much of what they need to know about a character’s inner conflicts. Actors are familiar with the difference between revelatory and indicatory behavior, however; both are symbolic but the latter is usually hackwork. A woman waiting at the hospital while her partner is undergoing surgery, checking and rechecking her phone for the time or for texts—this is a gesture that indicates anxiety and impatience but doesn’t necessarily mean much symbolically. In contrast, the revelatory gesture is caused by conflict, is idiosyncratic and allusive. When I woke up from my colon resection, and for many months after, I discovered that I was rubbing my thigh over and over; self-soothing, I suppose, but I was also holding myself together, as it were, remolding the sundered clay. Psychology and mythology propose that the thigh is a symbol of sexual virility, or athleticism and vitality anyway, and I didn’t know if there would be any of that in my future—if I would have a future. The revelatory gesture in a play will surprise the audience—will surprise the character too—while conveying its subverbal meaning.
A character’s symbolic action is another matter altogether. While behavior tends to be static or reactive, a character’s action is motivated by desire and need. Early in my treatment, I went to see an acupuncturist. I’d never been before. During our intake conversation, the acupuncturist commented casually that, in her opinion, colon cancer is caused by a person “holding onto anger.” For her, cancer was the symbolic action of an unhappy body. My symbolic action in response was to release my anger: I asked her to explain children with leukemia; I told her she was peddling “medieval bullshit” and stormed out of her office. I didn’t pursue any non-evidence-based treatments after that.
The action of a play—the braided actions of the disparate characters that comprise a play’s central conflict—may be symbolic of archetypal conflicts: between doctor and patient, between illness and wellness. And the climactic shifts in the circumstances of these conflicts often take place as symbolic events. On the last day of treatment, after a final dose of drugs or radiation, many patients partake in the tradition of ringing a brass bell on the wall of the infusion center. This action evokes the maritime: the battered ship of the body drifting into harbor. Also a bar or pub at the ringing of last call. Also funeral bells, and weddings.
This is how a symbol lives: without explanation, without a singular, simplistic interpretation. When I think of a particularly complex and consequential symbol, I think of Paul Watson, the Canadian war reporter I’ve written about for more than a decade now. He won the Pulitzer Prize for a photograph of the desecrated body of a US Army Ranger in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. The photo was shocking in its display of rage and violence, and shocking in that it made plain the reality of a faraway military intervention that most Americans knew nothing about. But the photo was—and is—profoundly disturbing for another reason: it is a lynching. The soldier is white and the crowd is Black, and the photo no doubt made many Americans feel as if they were complicit in an atrocity that was symbolically reminiscent of our nation’s worst sins. The symbol was frightening and guilt-inducing, and it resulted in the US’s withdrawal from Somalia—and a foreign policy that failed to engage preemptively with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the years leading up to 9/11. At the time, the interpretation of Watson’s photo as a racially reversed lynching was rarely articulated in the press. Like any living symbol, in the world and on the stage, its core meaning is reticent, even taboo.
A warning: playwrights can lose themselves in symbols, caring too much about what their plays mean. One of my earliest plays suffered from this form of exuberance. The artwork for its premier production was a collage of the play’s numerous symbols: a key, the sea, hands folded in prayer … I had unintentionally set an intellectual task for my audience. But I had provided too many self-aware, unambiguous, and therefore dishonest symbols, and in the end the play was pretentious and confusing, a manifestation of my artistic insecurity.
My adolescent self-education in psychology, not to mention the flagrantly religious features of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, taught me that faith can be, for many, a desperate flight from despair. No atheists in foxholes, that sort of thing—or in the words of Robert Graves, describing life in the corpse- and rat-riddled trenches of the Western Front: “Pessimism made everyone superstitious, and I found myself believing in signs of the most trivial nature.” In chaos we seek out signs and symbols—indeed, they seem to seek us out; we wear our amulets, pocket our charms, perform our symbolic actions (hand-washing, churchgoing) in order to feel that we have a hand in authoring our life’s story. As a young man, I thought I had faith all figured out. I considered myself an agnostic, maybe even an atheist.
But then, cancer. During treatment, I was surprised by a nagging suspicion that I was undergoing a Pauline conversion. Saul, as he was known then, was a persecutor of the early Christians, and traveling one day on the road to Damascus, he was knocked from his horse by the seismic voice of Jesus, questioning him from inside the sun: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” From that day on, Paul was a Christian—some would say the Christian.
I thought: If I survive cancer, I will become devout—a monk, maybe, or a personable proselytizer. I will relinquish my artistic ego and seek to help others. (How I could help anybody with my limited skills I wasn’t quite sure: creative writing workshops for orphans? Perhaps a change of vocation was required.) I thought also: Why bargain? Why not attend church now? How can it hurt? I noticed for the first time the near-numinous glow of the cross like a beacon atop the steeple of a nearby Nazarene Church, as I shuffled around the block in the twilights after my infusions. We visited a local Catholic Church, in deference to my wife’s upbringing, and rejoiced at the spectacle of our two-year-old daughter decimating the post-service donut table. Our babysitter invited us to an evangelical church in a nightclub downtown one fine Sunday morning, where she placed her hand on my shoulder and swayed with her other hand in the air, while the young charismatic pastor—shredded jeans, sleeves of tattoos, black gauges in distended earlobes—sermonized like a TED Talk. I too raised my hand and swayed with the rhythm of the Christian rock band’s rollicking positivity.
I wondered if I might receive a visit from an angel. I’d seen Angels in America, after all—Parts One and Two—and I would have welcomed a spectacular, ceiling-shattering visitation (so long as the angel’s message was reassuring). But I would have been just as happy with a more pedestrian drop-by. One of the lovelier passages in the Old Testament, in the Book of Hebrews, exhorts us to freely “entertain strangers” for the reason that any stranger may, in actuality, be an angel in disguise. In other words, a human being is symbolic of the angelic if they deliver a message of insight and consolation, if they lend a hand.
A few weeks after my second surgery, in which a portion of my liver had been removed, many months into my treatment, I sat in a waiting room at City of Hope, a hospital in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, feeling feeble and stunned, when an old woman shuffled over and sat down beside me. She looked into my eyes: “I have been waiting to talk to this young man.” I was charmed, gratified that, after so many months of bodily depredations, I could still look like a young man to this old woman. She took my hand; her hands were warm and wrinkled around me like a net. She said: “You are going to have long days on this earth. Long days. Keep trusting.” Then, as if a mission had been accomplished, an objective realized, she stood and exited the waiting room, wishing everybody within earshot a happy Thanksgiving.
She was a tenderhearted person. She might have been a little touched. Was she a cancer patient herself? She was religious; who else would have done what she had done, and in the manner she had done it? If her faith allowed her to take the action she took with me that day, then she had at least behaved angelically. I understood her words to mean that I would not die too soon, that I would enjoy a long(er) life. She may have meant instead that I would have to endure “long days” of hardship in the weeks and months of treatment ahead—no more, no less, than an expression of encouragement. The ambiguity of her words was a little frustrating, but as a Hollywood psychic once informed me, somewhat unhelpfully: “The language of the soul is ambiguity.” When the drama of our lives presents us with a symbol, or in this case a symbolic encounter, the meaning is slippery, open to interpretation. Faith is still required.
Writing about faith is like writing about sex, and not unlike writing about the craft of writing: I fear the reader’s judgment, even their ridicule. If I write that I believe in God, I worry that I will come across as unintelligent (very possible), politically or socially conservative (I am neither). Some have read my work or seen my plays and detected my spiritual tendencies; some recoil, and some are intrigued. I have been asked for more or less God in what I write. A pious poet once told me: “You’re a believer, you just don’t know it yet.” And an actor responded to a play of mine that had baffled him: “I guess I just don’t have the God gene.” Dear reader, I confess: I guess I just do have the God gene.
But I am not a “good” Christian. Many—most—Christians would not consider me a Christian at all. What I believe is hazy (lazy?) and mystical: the Bible is a human and historical document, inspired and flawed like any art; there is no one true faith; I reject dogma and theology; I abhor and denounce the cloak of self-righteousness that enables the abuse of children and others within religious institutions. Since experiencing cancer, I have not rejoined the fold, any fold, probably because I was never a member of a religious community to begin with. I have written a lot in recent years about how trauma shatters identity, forcing us to reconfigure and recompose a new conception of ourselves. I still believe this, but I also believe that trauma can, in certain respects, remind us who we are, or reveal—perhaps for the first time—who we have always been.
So I pray. And I know that my prayer is childish, but as an artist I hope I have not yet put away all childish things. I believe that prayer helps; like the psychotropic medication that lessens the severity of my obsessive-compulsive symptoms, prayer clarifies the choices I make and the actions I take. If prayer does not translate into action that is helpful, in ways large or small, then it is misguided, a self-indulgent cop-out. I agree wholeheartedly with the Epistle of James: “Faith without works is dead.” And for me, like many writers who lack the talents of the activist, or the dollars of the philanthropist, my “works” are foremost what I write.
You have heard it said that the theater is like a house of worship. But I suggest that we do not suspend our disbelief as the curtain rises—we resume our belief in our capacity for compassion and progress (progress that may be psychological, spiritual, or political). We need the quasi-religious pageantry of the theater for this transference to occur: the pews of our mortifyingly uncomfortable seats, the chancel of the lighted playing space, the peace of intermission, and the recessional after the curtain has fallen and the applause died away. The actors in a play are symbols themselves, insofar as they transfigure themselves, becoming something more than who and what they believe themselves to be. Symbolism is woven into the medium itself because the theater is literally poor: what we see is never what is but what could be. The play contains symbols, yes, but the theater itself is a symbol of life.
Writing a play these days requires faith in the value of writing a play. We live in a culture—including a theater culture—that does not care much about new plays. In the past, I wasn’t disheartened by this; maybe it’s a self-martyring instinct, or a defensive rationalization, but I used to embrace the theater’s relative inconsequence as an opportunity to write freely, boldly.
But I don’t know anymore. I don’t know if what I’ve been writing lately will mean anything to a community so fractured by sociopolitical conflict, so muted and depleted by plague. My cancer-play languishes in the proverbial desk drawer. Maybe I’m old and out of fashion (if I was ever in fashion, if I was ever young). My platelet and white blood cell count has remained “borderline” since chemotherapy, and for this reason I have not seen the inside of a theater since March 2020. I write these words from deep in my cave or high in my tower (depending on my mood) in Southern California, awaiting the day when I might be able to return.
I believe that day will come. The theater is reviving, and contracting; it’s damnably unclear if the revolutions and reinventions we envisioned in the wilderness of the pandemic will lead to enduring change—dreams of diversity and inclusion; dreams of vibrant, transgressive, and pertinent new plays and musicals—but I’m more than willing to keep striving. And I pray that the practice of my writing will sustain me in my ambition.
I’d like to conclude with one last example of the ambiguity and mutability of symbols, how one symbol—that of a specific bird—has changed over the years and inspired me to act. That long-ago afternoon in February when my older brother tried to kill himself I remember only impressionistically. The snow on my brother’s back and the back of his head, in his sandy mussed hair, after he’d dropped from the attic window, seemed to indicate a blessing of some kind, a bestowal of grace; and indeed my mother told me later that day that my brother survived unharmed because “an angel caught him, and laid him out gently in the snow.”
But what I remember most vividly is the crows. They were everywhere, cawing in the bare branches of the dogwood and the deep shadows of the evergreens. At first, the crow was a symbol to me of mockery, of failure and madness and the gravity of catastrophe. But with time, I began to see the crow in another light: as a witness but also a truth-teller, indefatigably proclaiming what was seen, what was found out and now known. A boy falls from the sky and he is alive. The caw of the crow, then, is a song, a prayer, a poem, a play. And like the crow, I long to sing what I have seen, what I have found out and now know. Or what I believe I know.
Dan O’Brien is a playwright, poet, and nonfiction writer. In 2023, he published a poetry collection, Survivor’s Notebook (Acre Books);a memoir, From Scarsdale (Dalkey Archive Press); and a collection of plays, True Story: A Trilogy (Dalkey Archive Press).
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