Prison is a State of Mind…

Posts tagged ‘inmate education’

When Silence Says it All

I wonder. Do we really need to use so many words to express ourselves or interpret our world?  The question comes to mind as I sit comfortably in a corner chair at the neighborhood coffee shop.  My otherwise peaceful time away from the office is thwarted by my inability to tune out the roar of mindless chatter; people exchanging one set of words for another and most not hearing a word the other is saying.

As I glance up from the screen of my new Mac Book, which is not quite as intuitive as the ads proclaim, it appears as if people are talking, but no one is really listening. They all appear to be on a sort of anticipatory pause waiting for a break in the words so they might cram their words into the open space. It’s more like an intricately timed overlapping of words between sips of overpriced hot water dripped over coffee beans.  From the chair I claim as temporarily mine, it seems as if words are what link us together, connect us, keep us tethered together in some superficial illusion of mutual understanding.

I suppose it is true, words are inescapable in this world where if it is not verbalized, texted, or tweeted it probably does not exist.  I take that back.  I popped into a drop-in massage studio last week and the Thai-looking petite woman who earned $45 an hour for working the knots out of my shoulders did not initiate the lobbying of comments or questions. Maybe she understood any conversation would have been forgotten as soon as the next client walked through the door. Or, maybe she didn’t speak English.  Whatever the reason, it was a sweet reprieve, not to hear words for a full 50 minutes.  Attempting to maximize the experience, I did my best to banish words from my thoughts during that blissful, wordless moment in time. It was truly a glorious escape from the almighty word.

I have been giving serious consideration to living a year of my life in silence. You read that right.  Not speaking for an entire year.  Saying nothing for a full 365 days.  As I seek deeper levels of a spiritual existence while doing my time on our lovely little planet Earth, it seems as if words frequently obstruct the spiritual journey, or, at the very least, slow down its progress.  Absence of words, then, may provide me with a rare opportunity to truly listen to the world around me. It might help me figure out a few lingering issues about life’s purpose and how best to serve others during my tenure here.

Can you imagine how you might perceive your world if you could truly observe all of its nuances while relieved of the obligation of adding your own commentary?  I wonder if those things that consume your thoughts would remain important if you did not empower them with a few paragraphs of opinion.

Listening is most certainly underrated.  Most individuals applaud the skilled wordsmith and orator.  We elect officials by their choice of words, not by a record of their deeds.  We marry and divorce due to words, not on the development of relationships that withstand harsh words.  We buy in to words telling us what we need to own, plunging our families and our entire nation into debt from which we must struggle to recover.

We are missing the fact that the true value of the life experience is found in carefully listening, and paying attention to the words chosen by others.  Listening permits us to learn, to assess and to experience the words of others.  When we speak, we tell the world a great deal about us, like turning over our hand in a critical poker game.  With our word choice, we reveal our limitations, our weaknesses, our preferences, our educational level as well as our interests and desires.  When we listen, however, we can observe and learn those things in others.  The person who speaks is exposed, in a way.  And their intentions will eventually surface if we let them chatter long enough.  Interestingly enough, the person who remains silent is in the optimal place of learning, able to take in all the information and eventually make the most powerful decision.

I remember the first time I instructed an entire module of female inmates held in the Los Angeles County Jail that I wanted them to be completely silent, not to say a word, not utter a peep for 24 hours.  I did this because there was a heightened amount of gossip ripping and the fabric of the therapeutic work I was doing with the women.  Rather than attempt to hold back the tidal wave of cross talk, I silenced them.  That night, as I closed the day with the closing of my eyes, I wondered how my students were doing, wordless for 24 hours, some wordless for the first time in their lives.

The following morning when I entered the silent module I received the requisite reports of minor infractions of “Coach Taylor’s Law,” but I was more surprised by what was shared after all the violations were reported. A majority of the women were grateful, grateful they were relieved of the obligation of communication. They told me they loved the silence, welcomed the disconnection for a period.  It gave them time to reflect on their life choices, to think, to meditate, and to pray.

As for my own life, I have maintained silence for a full 72 hour period when completing my ordination as an Interfaith Minister.  I chose 72 hours of silence simply because I did not want to engage in superfluous conversations. I did not want the distraction of words that may have gotten in the way of my ability to focus on my ordination and my commitment to helping people find internal freedom, regardless of where they awake each morning.

Silence is the subtle, and rarely used key to internal freedom. Silence empowers us to turn within for the answers to life’s questions, which are where powerful and life-changing answers reside.

What will I find if I choose a full year of wordless observation of life and the living?  What might happen within my heart and soul if I am not required to verbalize my experience?  Will my life experience be diminished or enhanced if I am unable to label them with a combination of A-Z letters?  What will happen to my feelings and my human emotions?  Emotions often inspire, or require, a litany of words to maintain their strength. Will human emotion diminish in the absence of the word?  Will I be able to hold on to anger if I am not permitted to verbalize my frustration to others? Or will I just LET GO of those experiences that are exacerbated through giving them value through words?

A blind man learns to listen with heightened acuity in the absence of his sight.  A deaf woman learns to watch with keen attention in the absence of hearing.  I wonder.  How will food taste if meals are held in silence rather than hastily inhaled during a chat-fest social occasion?  At the close of the 365th day in the absence of words, will there be a heightened reverence for the words I will first utter?

I will likely choose to live a full year in silence.  Most likely, it will not be this coming year as I am releasing another GOGI book called “How To GOGI” and this book needs my strong voice so it will find it’s way into the hearts and minds of men, women, and children who wish to learn the simple tools to aid them in their efforts to make positive decisions in their lives.

I wonder if anyone in Starbucks has observed my silence. Or am I the invisible the lady in the corner occasionally looking up at the duos and trios huddled over tiny tables?  It seems to me the consumers filling the seats in the coffee shop struggle for connection, struggle to be heard, to be understood, loved and appreciated.  Could they comprehend the concept that their words are actually the very reason their goal remains out of reach?  What might happen if they all chose to be silent, a giant flash mob of silence across our country for a few minutes.  Would the window of opportunity remain open enough for them to actually feel connected in a more powerful, wordless way?

I am coming to appreciate the underutilized power found in empty space; the void.  The void is found in the absence of the spoken word.  It seems as if within the emptiness, the void, in the absence of words, there is ample space for creation to occur.  It is within the void of word that we can engage in the creation of a meaningful connection, of lasting change, of the underutilized potential of the human mind.

Oftentimes we rush to fill the void with words. That is why I wonder what may happen if filling the void with words is not an option for a full year.  I am likely to choose a year of silence in the near future.  Until then, I will begin to practice.  Maybe it is a good time to speak a little less, maybe choose my words more carefully. Maybe it is a good time for our entire nation to speak a little less and listen a little more.

WHAT IF we slowed down the pace of our commentary?  WHAT IF we didn’t rush to fill the silence with hastily chosen words?  WHAT IF we listened for a deeper communication?  Maybe, just maybe, it is within the void, in the absence of words, we find the kind of life that defies all verbal explanation.  Could it be that silence says it all?

Volunteerism: A Most Powerful Anti-Depressant

Forget the overcrowded waiting room of the family physician, the most powerful anti-depressant may be found right beyond your own back door.

Life is Unfair and Uncertain

Life rarely reveals itself as consistent with our goals, dreams, or expectations. For most of us, there is a fork in the road which we feel powerless to avoid. For me, it was the telephone call I received after placing the final Christmas ornament on the tree. My husband would not be coming home for Christmas. This was not because he could not come home; it was because he was choosing no to come home so he might follow his heart and start a new life with a new woman.

With that call I realized my toddler daughter, in her fluffy pink footie PJ’s, and I would be spending the first of many Christmas holidays alone.

The Not-So-Perfect Picture

The shock of that news still reverberates through my life.  What had I done wrong? What signs of discontent did I miss? His meals were always cooked. His laundry? Done. His daughter was always greeting him at the door with open arms, and his bed was always warm.

What, I asked, was so wrong with our life? Depression can creep up on you like sunburn after a long day at the beach, or it can hit you like a bolt of lightning which has no mercy on any living cell in your body. Mine was the latter.

For nearly a decade after my husband’s overnight departure from my life, I struggled with the poverty which came from having focused on being a good wife and a mother; both jobs which didn’t offer a paycheck. Torn between knowing I wanted to be with my daughter to feed her mind and soul with good fuel and needing to pay the $60.00 electric bill, my depression ran deep.

What’s more, I didn’t have a marketable or a powerful resume of employment successes. Yes, I had graduated from college, but I would need to start at the bottom, at a minimum wage job paying $8.00 as a store cashier, or something. The biggest downside to entry-level work, I quickly realized, was the negative cash flow it would create. The local babysitter in the building was charging $7.00 an hour. Coupled with travel time and taxes, I would be in the red about $3.00 per hour if I went to work.

The Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Fast forward through sleepless nights and renting out bedrooms to pay the rent for the better part of a decade which was marked by debilitating depression and a clenched jaw, in my late 30’s I was becoming somewhat of a positive example to others who struggled with single parenthood. More often than not, I could give some sound advice on how to navigate through the ex’s most current wife, or the inconveniences of renting out bedroom #2 in a 2 bedroom apartment, or the resourcefulness of buying whole milk and mixing it with water to make my own version of skim milk at ½ the price.

I found a pamphlet posted on a community board while I was searching for any form of possible employment. The United Way offered a form of brief therapy for those struggling with loss or confusion. I was, undoubtedly both lost and confused. Their sliding scale rates determined that my 50 minute weekly sessions would cost me $5.00, and even that was a bit of a stretch for my nonexistent budget.

The value of the therapy sessions was felt immediately and the long-term benefits remain. The intern/therapist tasked with making my world livable suggested I explore continuing my education, that school loans might make it possible for me to gain an education which could offer some career options.

“Go back to school? At MY age?” I asked.

The Oldest Student

When I first walked into the classroom filled with eager faces, the students all grew silent and turned toward me. It was only later that I realized they assumed I was the professor, not a fellow student. Yes, I was, by far, the oldest student. And Psychology is not exactly the most career-direct degree. In fact, when I chose psychology it was with little understanding of any career options which might emerge once the Master’s Degree certificate was in hand.

All I knew was that I was getting pretty good at guerrilla warfare against the challenges of single parenthood and deadbeat daddies and my experience oftentimes helped others not feel so badly about their situation. This, in a weird way, helped lift my depression, if only slightly.

Psychology became the route I choose. Pepperdine University School of Education and Psychology became the institution of choice because it was close to my home, which meant less babysitting expenses. FAFSA loans secured, I turned over my mind and my money hoping that an institution of higher learning might help alleviate the heavy cloud hovering over my every move.

Extra Credit Prison Tour

It was an optional classroom activity offered by Professor Laurie Schollkopf, the university’s resident Drug and Alcohol Treatment professor that changed my life. The classroom of 30+ students was invited to tour the Federal Corrections Institution at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California.

The timing of the tour was perfect, as all my activities were navigated around my daughter’s pick up and drop off schedule. My daughter would still be in school and I had sufficient time to complete the tour and pick her up without worrying about who would get her or how to pay for the babysitter.

I signed up.

No Hostage is Rescued

The first time visiting a prison is jarring, even for the most logically minded individual who knows they will be “released” at the end of the tour. Maybe the most jarring part is that one bold-face line on the release form which states that in the event that you are taken hostage there will be no effort to trade your life for the release of an inmate. Basically, if you are taken hostage, you are on your own.

I signed on the dotted line and was patted down, wanded with a metal detector, and walked shoeless through the even-bigger metal detector. After the heavy doors slammed and the reverberation silenced throughout my body, what happened next could only be described as my very own little miracle.

Our tour group of students was led out onto the “yard,” which is the open space between housing structures containing thousands of men who had broken the laws sufficiently to land them as residents of the taxpayer-funded block buildings. When my eyes lifted from the concrete slab flooring onto the yard, it was as if the cloud was lifted and I felt an odd sense of comfort.

The prison walls and the men walking from one side of the yard to the next resembled how I felt inside. I, too, was trapped, in prison, and struggling in a quicksand of complications from which I could not find freedom.

Finding Freedom Inside Prison

That day was the first day I remember a genuine smile coming from deep within my heart and soul. I didn’t know what my career would be, but I knew I would be working with prisoners. They were, after all, a walking and talking emanation of my most inner feelings. We were both in prison. My prison was in my mind; their prison was one of the physical body. I wanted to help them find an internal freedom for which I had struggled for more than a decade. I had a hunch, that in being of service to them, that I, too, might find some peace in my life.

This year marks the culmination of a decade of volunteer service to the 2.3 million men, women and children in our nation who have abdicated the right to their physical freedom through their unlawful acts or their debilitating addiction or depression.

In total, since that first tour of a Federal Prison, I have unwaveringly volunteered more than 40 hours each week to the incarcerated individuals in prisons and jails, accepting a standard of living which most people may find embarrassing.

A Most Powerful Anti-Depressant

The most proven anti-depressant is that of being of service.  Service, in all its wide variety of forms, is the only guaranteed anti-depressant on the market today. In fact, living a life service has been the one remedy which not only lifted the cloud from my life, but has proven to provide a light at the end of the tunnel in the lives of the incarcerated. Through my service to those in prison I have, oddly, discovered my own internal freedom.

The Sweetest Pill

Volunteerism is undoubtedly the single most powerful anti-depressant available to any living human being, even those who feel they are confined to a prison from which they cannot escape. Signing up to volunteer and then putting your heart and soul into the service of others is the sweetest of life’s pills.

For those who volunteer at Getting Out by Going In, the organization I founded to empower inmates with the courage and tools to self-correct, the joy in the face of a mother who can be released from prison on a drug related offence and return to her children as a sober and sane presence in their lives makes all the sacrifices of volunteerism worth its weight in gold.

Will I Be Missed?

Earlier today photographer Amir Ali took pictures of me for materials needed to promote Getting Out by Going In as the emerging leader in providing self-corrective education for our nation’s incarcerated men, women and children. As I sat at my computer reviewing hundreds of headshots, I took a long look at the image of the woman on the screen. Rather than focus on which hair was out of place, or the telltale signs of aging around the corners of my eyes, I tried to put myself in a place one hundred years from now, as a distant relative who might stumble across my picture while researching their family lineage. I wondered what they would think about the image they saw. Would the photograph be so outdated that the viewer couldn’t see the depth of my soul or the clothing I spent so much time choosing? One hundred years from now, will the fashion be as drastically different then as it is from what my ancestors wore in 1911?

When I look at photographs, even those from twenty years ago, I spend less time looking at the individual’s face and more time musing on how goofy and awkward they appear. Their hair always looks awful and their clothing looks uncomfortable. Is that the reaction my image might conjure up in the mind of a viewer twenty years from now? Is that what will happen with your own photograph; the picture of yourself you hope will reveal the best image of you?

Each of us hopes to be remembered when it is our time to leave this earth, as if being remembered provides a link for us to linger on earth just a moment or two longer. In the big scheme of things, however, most of us get forgotten within a generation. Your grandchildren, if you have them, are likely to know very little about you and their children may know even less. Ask yourself, what do you know about your great grandfather? Which ancestor was the first to travel to America? Before that, who were your people and from where did they come? Do you know anything significant about their lives? Do you even recall the details of their struggles? Does anyone remember anything more than the general historical brush strokes defining the five or six decades they walked the earth?

The image on the computer screen before me is one of a woman in the year 2011. I see an image of a woman who has faced struggles beyond her ability and yet, somehow, she has overcome them. Will the viewer see that in my eyes? Will they know of my frustrations, my struggles, and the injustices I faced? Will they even wonder what my life was like, what I chose to do on a Saturday morning, or how great my heartbreaks have been along the way? Will they understand the poverty from which I suffered? The education I struggled so hard to obtain? The school loans which will weigh me down for another 25 years? Will anyone see that in the image?

It is inevitable that we all die. It is also inevitable that future generations believe they are so much more advanced than those previous. It is inevitable that our photographs become nothing more than something to laugh at and clothing to criticize. As we become erased from the world’s awareness within 50 years of our passing, what, then, is the importance of our life? Will it matter what car we drive? What home we call ours? The clothes we wear? Will it even matter where we awoke each morning? Will our affiliations and homeboys and neighborhood truly miss us? Who will mourn our absence? Will anyone visit our gravesite year after year?

WHAT IF the finest life we can live is when we focus all our attention on being of service to our immediate environment? WHAT IF our every day efforts were turned toward making wherever we are just a little more peaceful? A little more tidy? A little more friendly? WHAT IF our every day was spent in a little more prayer? Just one more minute of meditation? WHAT IF we sat up straight and walked tall with the knowledge that our life is occurring this very second, not tomorrow and not when we gain our “freedom.”
When I watched my father’s body shrink to the cancer consuming his healthy cells, I was a 24/7 witness to the slipping away of the  unimportant. The ability to drive his car, for example. When that became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When moving about hi s home with freedom and autonomy became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When sitting up in the bed became a multi-person task, he struggled but then LET GO. And toward the end, when mint chocolate chip ice-cream spoon-fed to him no longer tasted good, he LET GO of that, too. At the very end, it was only those seated by his side that mattered and, of that he had no choice but to LET GO. One by one he LET GO of all the things he had held so tightly. In those final moments I believe he came to understand that all he would be taking with him was what he created inside his head and his heart. Everything to which he had a tight grip for so many years was being left behind.

A realization we eventually face is that life goes on and memories of loved ones fade until they disappear with future generations.

Yesterday a family member asked, “When was this picture of Dad taken?”

“2008,” I replied, in full knowledge that in fifty short years no one will even know that the image to which he referred was that of my father.

Will I be missed when it is my turn to LET GO? We are all so busy with “things” we cannot take with us that it appears as if the only thing which is missing is the choice to be present in living each moment to the fullest. We are so busy trying to make our mark, gain our freedom, change the system, impress our families, reunite with loved ones, do good in the neighborhood, seek revenge, get an education, get a good job, and be the boss. We are so busy that we miss the point.

WHAT IF all these things are a distraction from the truth; that none of it matters more than how we respect and embrace this very moment of our life? WHAT IF we will not be remembered in fifty years and that is the just way it is supposed to be? WHAT IF it is not about our legacy as much as it is our willingness to be present with our current environment?

WHAT IF we stop the chatter in our brain just long enough to see the peace we can create in this exact moment? WHAT IF our mind was still enough to hear the sounds which make up our surroundings? Would we hear the laughter coming from someone in joy? Could we hear the cry of another in need? WHAT IF all the trappings of leaving a grand legacy or grabbing the most out of life or fighting for our “freedom” for twenty years is exactly what robs us of our opportunity for inner peace?

Sometimes we are so busy planning for the future that we miss the point of the entire exercise of being human. To experience life with the absence of struggle, we must slow down and find the inner peace which only comes through contributing positively to the life of the individual right next to us. When we place our attention to being an example of integrity, peace, calm demeanor, helpfulness, as well as understanding and support, then we are helping to guide the way of those with whom we come into contact.

Will you be missed when you are gone? The better question is who misses the best of us when we are not present? And, what might happen if we really paid attention to the life unfolding right under our noses? Whose life can we make just a little bit easier today through our POSITIVE THOUGHTS? Whose life can we impact with a POSITIVE WORD? What POSITIVE ACTION can we choose which might serve as an example for others to follow?

I suspect it is not so important to concern ourselves with thinking about family going out of their way to visit, or society making it easy for someone to get back on their feet. Those are thought- consuming distractions to the single most important aspect of life; when you are not being of service then the best part of you is being missed. When you are blinded by the illusion of importance of certificates or groups or politics or legal paperwork it is then that you miss the point. Ask yourself, of the people right next to you, how many lives have you made better by a simple gesture, an act of kindness? With whom did you share something without requesting something in return? Was the best part of you missed today?

In one hundred years I will be forgotten. You, too, will be forgotten. And all your friends will be forgotten. I promise you one thing; you will be missed about as much as you miss your great grandmother. But, you do not need to be missed in your life right now. When you choose to be present, the very best part of your life will not be missed by anyone.

No matter how impossible it may appear at the moment, each one of us can choose to be present in the lives of every living thing with which we come into contact. If we are not making that choice, then we are missing our finest opportunity.

As I close the computer file with the images of a woman I recognize as myself, I am reminded that with every moment I am not focusing on the present, I am missed. The fact is; images fade and lives end. The world continues to turn with an entirely new crop of humans who, with each and every generation, struggle to make their mark, all the while missing the point.

Being missed is what happens when we do not pay attention to the subtle details of our everyday life. What matters most in all our lives is not the great works we do, or the great wealth or power we accumulate, or the physical freedom for which we strive. What matters most is how keen our eye is focused on identifying and assisting those in need; those who suffer right next to us.

We are missed when we are not making our immediate surroundings more peaceful, pleasant, supportive and positive for those who find themselves in our presence. When we practice being present to those things within five feet of our reach, it is only then that our legacy is experienced in real time. Rather than ask, “will I be missed?” we can ask ourselves, “what part of life am I missing?”

What’s Your Personal Prison?

As GOGI continues to expand and earn credibility as the cost-effective and replicable solution to the failure of our jails and prisons to “correct” the behavior of 2.3 million law-breaking citizens, I am being asked to expand the GOGI message beyond prison cells into the boardrooms of our Nation’s leaders.  This coming month, as the founder of Getting Out by Going In (GOGI), I will speak to hundreds of inmates one week and have the opportunity to address an equal number of tuxedo-clad men with their sequined-adorned counterparts the following.

Speaking to prisoners is easy and natural for me.  I have done it for a decade; choosing only to speak after sufficiently listening to their needs and combining their desire for information with my studies in psychology and spirituality.  As I prepare for the task of sharing the “GOGI phenomenon” with those gathered over a chef-prepared meal delivered by underpaid waiters, the question arose in my mind, what could these very different audiences possibly have in common?

The prisoners are individuals tucked away by the courts for not playing nicely on the playground of society.  The other audience has full advantage of all that society offers and can be found tucked away in trendy vacation spots, adorned with expensive clothes and jewelry as they temporarily get  away from their finely appointed hilltop homes. How could these two audiences have anything in common? And what could I possibly say which might touch the hearts and souls of both groups of individuals?

For the answer, I consider the obvious.  Prisoners are oftentimes poor, undereducated or inadequately raised. Each of these men, women and children behind bars seek their physical freedom, as if walking beyond the wall would eliminate every problem they had ever experienced.  On the other side of society are those individuals with their physical and financial freedom intact who seek a different kind of life experience, one which they believe comes through their careers, their increasing number of possessions or prescription drugs and a 5 o’clock drink.   As diametrically opposed as they may seem, both groups of individuals are laboring with the same prison, the external search for internal freedom.

In a very real way, each of us suffers from our own self-imposed prison.  I say self-imposed because how we respond to life’s inevitable unfairness, inequity and misfortune is the determining factor in our level of personal imprisonment.  And it is through my work with tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals over the past decade, I have come to realize that prison is very much a state of mind, rather than a place, a situation, or a condition imposed upon us by any person other than ourselves.  What’s more, the personal prisons created by physically free individuals are oftentimes as debilitating as those created by someone behind bars.

The Twelve Tools of GOGI were created over the period of a decade through listening to the incarcerated; listening to their life experiences, their excuses, their reasons and eventually their resolutions to create something better for themselves and their families.  Through many pat-downs and countless trips behind the heavy prison doors, the Twelve Tools of GOGI were developed by me and the inmates to aid any individual willing to explore a new kind of freedom; GOGI’s path toward internal freedom.

The Twelve Tools of GOGI are: LET GO, FORGIVE, CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY, BOSS OF MY BRAIN, BELLY BREATHING, FIVE SECOND LIGHTSWITCH, POSITIVE THOUGHTS, POSITIVE WORDS, POSITIVE ACTIONS, WHAT IF, REALITY CHECK and ULTIMATE FREEDOM. It is through the application of these inmate-developed tools that I have personally witnessed the lasting transformation in the lives of individuals who had given up all hope of living a “normal” life.  The freedom now experienced by Teri, a GOGI Graduate and certified GOGI Coach who once lived under a freeway in a drug-induced stupor, far exceeds the illusion of freedom of some of my most financially successful private practice clients.

As I prepare to be heard by the tuxedo-filled rooms of our Nation, I realize the message I offer to the elegantly-dressed is the same message I offer individuals wearing State-issued blues.  We all seek a freedom which is only found within.  What we wear, what we drive and where we wake up each morning is insignificant if we do not have the ability to turn within to realize our freedom.

As GOGI continues to prove that even the most difficult changes are possible, it is my prayer that this positive culture, this organic self-help virus called GOGI can spread out beyond the cells of our prisons into our Nation’s board rooms as well as our children’s classrooms, creating the possibility of internal freedom in the lives of all men, women and children… incarcerated or not.

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