Earth is the only planet in our solar system to contain fire. Lightning strikes somewhere along its surface about a hundred times every second, and I’m tired of being struck by it. I’ve had enough of romances that ignite with a flash only to burn out quickly and disappear in the sky.

Fire is both a menace and a necessity. It can be unpredictable, it can be undiscriminating, it can be unkind, but without exception, fire transforms what it touches. It seems like the trick is to get a good fire going, and then keep it going… without it going out of control.

That’s quite a delicate trick—one I have yet to master.

I have spent years seeking the comfort of warmth, but unfortunately I don’t yet know how to keep from getting burned. So I have begun to research the history of fire on our planet in the hope that it might teach me something about myself. And men. And God. And love. And war. I wonder, for instance, how it is that we humans are, like fire, simultaneously the most constructive force on the planet and the most destructive. And I wonder how to make peace with this duality: what to let burn and what to keep from burning.

Apparently it wasn’t until humans learned to control fire and harness its energy that civilization began to make significant progress. Control the fire. Harness the energy. I, too, am trying to make progress. But being a woman is hard. Somehow I inherently knew it would be because even as a child, I fought it off with every passing year. Tomboys are encouraged and celebrated in childhood, and I didn’t want to let go of mine.

My father didn’t help the process. When I was nine, he called me to come in from the river after a long day of swimming. I curled up into his lap, cold and shivering, and he tugged at the front of my one-piece bathing suit. “You’re getting bumples,” he said.

I drew the towel around me to barricade his unwelcome eyes from my developing breasts, and he laughed. It was a menacing laugh that burned into me and left an impression so deep that now, decades later, I still hate him for it.

Despite my distress, I continued to develop all the outward signs of being a woman, and those things gained the attentions of men. I don’t recall the exact moment I decided to use them, these womanly pieces of myself, but use them I did. Eventually. Since then I am reluctant to count the lovers I’ve had; I can only confess that I did not see a year with any of them. Now, in retrospect, it seems to me that I attract men because of my intellect, my wit, my independence, and my fiery world perspective. Then I drive them away with my intellect, my wit, my independence, and my fiery world perspective. In the midst of those two events, I have offered up my body as a sacrifice: like me for how I seduce you rather than for who I am.

Following each break up, it would generally take at least a year for the tears to stop and for me to take back possession of my Self. But Marc has helped me set a New World Record: six months. Marc is the one who told me he didn’t want a relationship that consumed him as much as ours did. He said that he thought about me too much, that I was interrupting his work and his sleep and his ability to function productively. Six months later I received a postcard in the mail with a beautiful woman lifting herself out of the pool, all breast and teeth. On the back of the card in Marc’s messy scrawl was written, “Meet my new wife.”

Control the fire. Harness the energy.

The truth is, I’m disappointed in men. It seems to me that my most nourishing moments of communication and love and partnership and intimacy have not been with men but with women. One woman in particular. If it’s true that our friends mirror aspects of ourselves, then I am not at all who I think I am. I’m better.

Lauren is the kind of woman I hated on sight for being everything I am not: gorgeous, elegant, sexy, and every inch of her graced with a femininity that overwhelms a room. Maybe we became friends because I wanted to be just like her. When we first met, I would sit next to her and study her clothing, the way she moved, how she used her hands in conversation. The trouble was that sitting next to her only highlighted my inadequacies at being a woman. Thankfully, it didn’t impact our friendship. Now, more than ten years into it, Lauren has become the embodiment of the divine feminine, and in moments of indecision I ask myself, What would Lauren do? It’s become such an overriding mantra that I want to wear its symbol as a proclamation, a red woven bracelet with the letters WWLD in white.

Over the six months that I had grieved the loss of Marc, Lauren never once lost patience with me. She never rolled her eyes at my incessant flood of tears and the nonsensical spinning of my thoughts. She never let a phone call go unreturned. And she never judged how slowly and clumsily I pulled myself back together. When Marc’s postcard arrived, I sent out the signal flare once again and phoned her immediately. I crammed the glossy postcard into my purse and rocketed over to our favorite Santa Monica restaurant, the 17th Street Café. The waitress showed us to our regular table near the wall, and as I pulled out my chair, I announced, “I’m not crying in here tonight.”

I didn’t make it a habit of crying in restaurants but as a result of Marc I had shed tears in uncomfortably public places.

“Is that a new shirt?” she asked.

“Yeah. I was looking for something for my brother’s birthday. This was in the sales rack, and you know how I love a nice, big, sloppy men’s shirt to hide behind.” I was swimming in the thing, all the while taking note of how Lauren’s top accentuated her shape.

“It’s a good color for you,” she said.

“I thought so, too. I’m just a little concerned that if I ever go out again, I may show up wearing better men’s clothing than my date.” And with that, I burst into tears. I sat there at the table near the wall and I cried.

Lauren smiled and touched my arm. “You are so beautiful when you cry.”

I rolled my eyes, self-conscious. “I hope everyone else in here thinks so, too.”

“No one’s even noticing.”

I wanted to blow my nose but the napkins were cloth. “Oh God, I hate this. I hate him!” I pulled out the damn postcard. “This! This is what he married?! And here’s the best part: I’m still fantasizing about getting back together because I don’t believe it. Here it is, this is his handwriting, and I don’t believe it for a second.” I let out a heavy, audible breath. “How can all these opposite thoughts exist at the same time? Yesterday I was totally over him, and today I want to have his children.”

With no more fuel for my tirade, I wilted into the chair, shoulders stooped, hands limp, head hanging lifeless. “I’m pathetic. I pretend I’m such a strong person but I have no control over my emotions.”

Lauren took a long drink of water and set the glass down carefully. Drops of condensation raced for the tablecloth. “I used to have a button that said, ‘It comes from tolerating contradictions.’” She let that take root a moment before continuing. “It’s head-spinning allowing two emotional extremes to sit next to each other. But I have to believe that one is serving the other. We can’t accept only the light and turn away from the darkness. We don’t get to say, ‘I’m not going to be like this.’ Because it won’t go away.”

She moved her glass to the side of the table and smoothed the water-ringed cloth underneath it. “And so the only choice is to sit here and feel all the chaos, all the confusion, and all the contradictions.” Her fingers tapped out each beat. “Maybe if we give ourselves permission to be all these things at once, then we’re more available to be fully conscious.”

I watched her palms turn upward, cupped into a receptive bowl, a womb. Still, I bit my lip and shook my head. “You know, at a certain point, all this spiritual ideology is just bullshit. Look, I’d love to be able to get totally one with God, and be in a state of divine peace all the time. But God doesn’t curl up with me at night. I’ve already heard it all. My pain comes from the fact that I’m resisting this. If I could just accept it, I wouldn’t hurt so much. Well, I don’t really want to be a meditating monk on the mountaintop. So the question is: do I want God or do I want Marc? And today, as ludicrous as this clearly is, I want the guy.” I swallowed hard. “And being unable to stop makes me feel so ashamed.”

Lauren’s warm eyes embraced me. “How could loving someone to the degree that you love Marc ever make you feel ashamed?”

I wiped my face on the napkin and stared at the surrounding tables, all of them filled with people who were engaged in their own lives and not noticing the pain in mine. I couldn’t meet Lauren’s eyes. “Because loving someone this stupid makes me feel needy and pathetic.”

“And so closing your heart and being invulnerable makes you feel strong?”

I finally looked at her. I knew what she was getting at but wisdom goes out the window when your heart is broken. “Yes,” I said. “Strength to me feels like I ought to be able to shut it all off. Being so vulnerable, it makes me feel powerless and out of control. And I don’t like it.” I scraped my tears off on the sleeve of my new shirt. “I don’t think I know who I am anymore. Talk about contradictions, I’ve got these two sides that don’t link up at all. There’s the confident, aggressive, masculine part of myself—and you know what? The truth is, I’ve always felt so much more comfortable there, being a boy, wearing boy’s clothes, and conquering the world. Because what’s the girl in me doing? She’s bleeding emotionally all over the place, and I can’t believe I haven’t stopped yet. It’s embarrassing. Wanting to be desired makes me feel weak and stupid.”

Lauren smiled. “Oh, sweetheart, don’t you see? It’s not that you’re not feminine, it’s that you don’t ever honor your femininity.”

My chest began to burn with an overwhelming shame. I dropped my head and covered my face.

“I don’t care if you were a tomboy when you were a kid,” she continued. “I don’t care how you dress or that you’re good at sports or that you wear comfortable shoes. The truth is: your emotional process and everything else about you is inherently feminine. And you’ve been protecting it so ferociously for so long that you don’t even know it’s there.”

My body heaved as I tried desperately to catch my breath. I kept taking in air but couldn’t get it to go back out.

My God, could she be right? How could I have never known this?

I don’t think I realized until just that moment how much I had resented and rejected everything feminine about myself. In fact, if she was right, I had been ignoring my very essence. Suddenly it seemed clear that in order to feel truly whole it would be necessary to reconcile my internal fragments. The boy in me would have to make room for the girl, and the girl would have to finally claim her space.

Lauren reached over and touched my cheek. I couldn’t bear to meet her beautiful, loving eyes. “And I know, with every cell in my body,” she said softly, “that some day very soon you’re going to be attracted to a man who wants to protect you and cherish you and make love to you instead of diminish you.”

I keep going back to this moment in my mind, running it over and over like a cherished, classic movie. I don’t have home movies of my childhood. If I did, for the first one, instead of seeing myself as a bruised and bloodied infant being pulled from my mother’s womb, I would see Lauren’s hands, cupped, holding this new seed of me at the moment of my rebirth.

The day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Twenty-nine days before, a train pulled into St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and I stepped from it filled with fear and anticipation. The crisp air and the late night blizzard welcomed me with the hint of what was to come. Now, with more than 525 miles on my feet, it was hard to imagine that my journey was over, and I was heading home. Outside my hotel, I stared at the cobblestones winding their pathways through Santiago. I nodded in gratitude to the power and history, to my safe arrival, to my accomplishment; then I turned and walked away, perhaps never to return.

SantiagoIn the bus depot, I bought an English-language Newsweek thinking it might help pass the time—8 hours to Madrid. I flipped through pages that were filled with glossy photos, the likes of which I’d not seen for one long, otherworldly month. And the nature of them, at once so normal and commonplace, was now oddly pornographic. There was an in-your-face, desire-building aspect to them that repelled me—sickened me even—and made me long for the boring vistas of the Camino I’d been so eager to leave.

I flipped to an article on new ways to pamper yourself: taking sleeping pills to help with jet lag and sending luggage through a service to avoid airport baggage. Slam. Suddenly, here was the world in all its glorious absurdity. Here were lines of people and all of their energies and personalities; here were sounds blasting from all directions; and here was pollution, both mental and environmental. No wonder I’d found bliss on the Camino. I didn’t have to contend with any of this. I didn’t compare myself to anyone. There was no emphasis on appearance. There was no sense of lack, at least for things outside of basic necessities. It was so simple. It was freedom—unencumbered freedom—a letting go that was more powerful and more profound than I had even realized.

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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 27, 2005
Day 28: Santiago

Easter Sunday in Santiago. I was surprised to awaken early after a sleep that was neither hard nor long. I would have expected my body to automatically reset itself to rest mode instead of walk mode. It didn’t, and since there was a thriving city outside my window (and ond I thankfully didn’t have to lug a bag through), I sprang to my feet knowing I could discover the city as slowly as I pleased.

When you’re in Santiago on Easter Sunday, shouldn’t you attend mass? That’s what I thought, so I retraced my steps to the cathedral and slipped into the back. I bowed my head reverently and dipped my fingers into the Holy water. It was a gesture that felt foreign after so long, but I was happy to receive whatever blessings I could. I stood silently listening to the echoes of the priest, my eyes circling over the sea of parishioners. I tottered from foot to foot, bored and uneasy. I didn’t really belong. Or, perhaps more honestly, I didn’t want to belong. My only real agenda was to look for Simon in all those faces. He wasn’t there.

I sunk my hands into my pockets, and my fingers found the tiny crystal I’d carried with me across the world. I’d gotten it at the beginning of my journey in New York; it was laying on the pedestal of the St. Francis statue at St. John the Divine cathedral. I hadn’t brought it with me for any real purpose other than I found it, and I took it with me. It seemed appropriate that I leave it across the universe in St. James’ cathedral in Santiago. I looked for a good spot, one that had a chance of permanence, and my mind flashed on the water fountain outside: it was perfect. After a few more minutes of listening to the drone of the priest, I made a beeline for the exit. At the fountain, I bowed my head and dropped my crystal into it.

It felt odd not having any place to go—no destination on the map ahead of me. My journey was complete. I didn’t feel let down any more, but I also didn’t feel any sense of euphoria. Or even pride of accomplishment. Maybe I’d had so many thoughts and feelings as I walked that when the walking was finished, there was nothing left. Emptiness.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 26, 2005
Day 27: Arca to Santiago, 20.7 km/12.9 m

I woke up in my beautiful haven in Arca do Pino to hear rain pounding the pavement outside. Rain. I pulled back the curtain, and sure enough, the sky was seething. I gathered up my waterproof gear and wondered whether I should start building an ark.

My last day on the trail would prove to be just as challenging as my first. I had started my journey by slogging through thigh-high snow, and I was ending it by traversing a monsoon.

The first few miles took me through forested land that was simply magical through the veil of rainwater and foggy mist. I could hear only the patter of the rain, a symphony, along with my feet, slurping with each step as rivers of mud rushed to fill the indent of my footprints. It was beautiful, soulful music to accompany my quietude.

under the bridge
What began as a patter soon grew to drumbeats, and just when I thought the rain couldn’t pound any harder, it did. It was downright Biblical, making my trek to Portomarin look like arid terrain. And, truth be told, as the hours passed, this Spanish water torture was starting to get to me. At just under 13 miles, this was one of my shortest travel days, but the road seemed so endless and arduous in the unyielding flood. I kept telling myself that I was almost there. I kept coaxing my feet to carry me forward, which they did, under duress. They were so ready for rest. So ready.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 25, 2005
Day 26: Melide to Arca, 34.5 km/21.4 m

fountainIn the morning, I found myself waiting by the fountain for Martin. Of course I’d be waiting for Martin—I only half believed that he’d really show. I decided I would spare 15 minutes, and I struggled through every second trying not to be angry for not getting an earlier start.

When it began to sprinkle, I abandoned my post and went in search of coffee, all the while questioning why I had agreed to walk another day with Martin and Nick. Was it because the day goes faster and there’s more laughter? Was it the security blanket of men and language? I liked Martin, very much, but I suspected that our moment had passed. We were certainly not going to have conversations of any real depth with Nick around, and I felt the growing need to enter Santiago on my own. Martin was undoubtedly going to grow into a caring, thoughtful, soulful man. For now, there was still a boy in him, and that boy exhibited very age-appropriate behavior.

With a cup of steaming brew in hand, I decided to pass by the refuge before heading out of town. I shouldn’t have. It would have been a far more fitting end to our journey had I ventured off on my own and left Martin to come to his senses without my judgmental eye. But no, there he was, heaped into a ball in the grass. I called to him and he stirred, harried and ragged. He explained that he’d been locked out of the refuge and had gone clubbing all night. He got in at 6 AM, slept through his alarm and awakened to an angry huéspeda kicking him out. His energy was just as offensive as his appearance. I would have preferred that he sleep off his hangover in the bushes, but he slung his bag over his shoulder and wobbled next to me, spewing all the way out of town.

I let him ramble and complain for an hour, envisioning his tirade bouncing off the force field I’d projected around myself. I didn’t love him any less; I simply no longer wanted to be consumed by his energy. When he suggested we stop in Boente for breakfast, I told him that I needed to walk the rest of the way to Santiago alone. It didn’t surprise him. His eyes softened, and I looked into them for the last time. I knew that I would cherish him always.

I continued alone on the Camino and turned back a couple minutes later. He was standing where I’d left him, watching me. We waved a sweet goodbye.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 24, 2005
Day 25: Hospital de la Cruz to Melide, 29.7 km/18.5 m

There’s really no good sleeping in a full refuge. People and their night noises kept me on edge. So at the first signs of morning, I was packed and on the move. Of course, I didn’t have a crumb of food and nothing was open yet so I decided to make a three-hour beeline to Palas del Rei for breakfast. About halfway there in the tiny village of Eirexe, a sleepy Martin appeared outside the refuge talking with a few other pilgrims. He grinned when he saw me, opened his arms and said, “I’ll take that kiss now.”

I don’t know, something about the look on his face, the cockiness, the performance in front of his friends or, quite simply, my own fear of him made my defense shields go up. I turned my head as he approached and gave him a hug.

He said he wanted to walk with me, which I was open to, but he wanted me to wait for him to shower, pack his bag and get ready. I still had more than an hour’s walk to my next meal, so I told him I’d walk slowly and he could catch up. When he did, he was jovial but distant, which was more than likely my fault. I listened to him talk about nothing for a very long time. Then I finally asked if we could address the emails, and we sunk into a real conversation. I was able to tell him that for the first two days of my time with him he was sensitive and adorable, but the more attracted to me he became, the more possessive he was. I felt claimed by him, and he got aggressive in his behavior. I was no longer able to be open with him. He listened intently and compassionately. Then he copped to it all and apologized. He agreed that the more attracted to me he became, the more his behavior changed. He said he didn’t know what to do with his feelings, that he knew he was being rude at times but couldn’t stop himself. His teasing was an attempt to deflect his fears—feelings for me he didn’t know what to do with. I liked his honesty and defenselessness. He was able to express how much he’d thought about me and his behavior toward me, and how frightened he’d been of me. It was all very beautiful.

We stopped for breakfast and sat across from each other a little like old lovers. What had transpired between us was over for me but still, the reconnection was warming and welcoming.

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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 23, 2005
Day 24: Sarria to Hospital de la Cruz, 38.1 km/23.7 m

I was eager to hit the road early after a night of too many people. I’d grown accustomed to the desolation of the Camino, to a limited selection of familiar faces, to the nothingness of the trail and the idleness of thought upon it. So now, as the number of pilgrims swelled, I was resisting their intrusion. I judged the people around me as being drawn to the novelty of the Camino not the work of it, the weariness, the unending boredom. How could you truly experience the Camino—and come face to face with either the emptiness of yourself or the fullness—if you traveled like a touring group of hikers on a weekend camping excursion?

I judged them, yes, but I also recognized that we each get the Camino we need. I just wanted mine to be less crowded. I’d also wanted it to be warmer and drier, but as I dressed, I could already hear the rain pattering the rooftop.

I started early enough to escape the masses, and I slipped back into the comfort of my solo trek. The rain was steady and growing ever more insistent but, coupled with the fog and the clouds and the mesmerizing rhythm of my footsteps sloshing through the rolling terrain, I was overcome with gratitude for the beauty of nature and all its many expressions. I hadn’t expected it to rain too hard or too long so I’d neglected to put on my waterproof socks. That was a mistake. Because soon enough, the rain came with such ferocity that I felt like I was walking under the nozzle of a firehose.

bootsAs the hours passed without a moment’s pause, the magic drowned, and once again it was a walk of endurance. The conditions were testing both my body and my gear. I worried that the “waterproof” label on my pack was a false promise so I found shelter under a canopy of trees and secured everything first in ziplock bags, then inside plastic. My shoes of course were soaked through, and my feet were sodden. And even though my pants and jacket were still managing to shield me, they clung to me with a penetrating clamminess that made me feel drenched regardless.

After four hours, I was, quite simply, miserable.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 22, 2005
Day 23: O’Cebreiro to Sarria, 47.7 km/29.6 m

I awoke to the early morning beauty of O’Cebreiro and a stunning river of fog that trickled through the mountains. The town had marked my entrance into Galicia, and it was clear that it shared the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and Scotland. Despite being surrounded by the cutest round, stone houses with their straw rooftops and the endless shop windows advertising delightful wares, I was eager to hit the road and take advantage of what promised to be a dry day. I had a quick and nearly flat 6-mile jaunt that rose slightly to the second highest peak on the Camino, and then it was all downhill for another 20 miles or so.

My body had once again miraculously repaired itself during my 10 hours of deadened, uninterrupted sleep. I certainly hadn’t expected to put in another long day after the beating of yesterday, but the views that floated along with the river were so amazing that I couldn’t stop myself from ambling across the uncluttered countryside. The biting, bitter cold pressed into me, aided by a ferocious wind, but the absence of rain felt like a blessing. I burrowed into my coat but kept my head up, delighted.

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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 21, 2005
Day 22: Villafranca to O’Cebreiro, 32.9 km/20.4 m

I’d walked for three straight weeks, averaging nearly 20 miles a day. When my bag and I had crossed the threshold of the Villafranca refuge, we’d ambled 401.5 miles together. Otherwise, I’d carried pain, questions, boredom, songs, joy, bliss, disbelief, wonderment and more than a few men.

It’s possible that Day 22 was the turning point. Of course I didn’t think about that at the time. Maybe I didn’t even know it until years later, sitting down to write about it. But on Day 22 I discovered something else about myself—something else I hadn’t known before.

It seems that I have untapped reserves of determination.

You see, the route to O’Cebreiro wasn’t just the steepest ascent of the Camino—a grueling 5-mile climb along a forested dirt path—it was the steepest ascent of the Camino in the rain. And to be clear, it wasn’t just rain; it was driving rain that would ultimately become a bombardment of hail in swirling gale-force winds.

It began gloriously enough. The drizzle that carried me along the highway out of Villafranca singed the surrounding mountainside with a dewy glow. Patches of green earth rolled out across the landscape in a visual masterpiece. I took it all in, but I was well aware of the forecast. I knew the weather would tire me, and I didn’t feel as though I could afford a long day. So I figured that as long as I felt strong, I would run.

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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 20, 2005
Day 21: Molinaseca to Villafranca, 32.9 km/20.5 m

Like every morning, I awakened having slept amazingly hard and deep. My body had shut down to repair itself through the night and my legs, once so fragile and sore, were somehow ready for another day. I didn’t really want to leave the magical oasis of this particular refuge. The people had filled me up so fully. But of course, I said my goodbyes and set off on my own. Simon was hanging back. There were a couple of German guys his age that he’d spent the night in the refuge connecting with. It was time for each of us to have our own experiences again.

The next big town on the Camino, Ponferrada, was only a few miles away. When I arrived, I stopped for coffee at a café outside both the castle and the Basilica. It was Palm Sunday, but since there were no palm trees, and therefore no palms, people were carrying branches of all kinds. It was magically beautiful. A procession formed in the town square—people walking purposefully toward mass.

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