For the Creatives

paintingThis post is to offer encouragement to my fellow creatives who are struggling with the various emotions that result from being confined.

It is different for everyone, but for some artists I’ve been talking with, this suspension of movement has a hidden positive side. The reduction in constant contact seems to be a pleasant respite for some. Despite the anxiety of an uncertain income, some of my creative friends are reporting that they are finding themselves pretty productive without the hustle and bustle of daily life demands. Long hours in the studio or at the writing desk are possible in the absence of many typical daily interruptions.

Other artistic friends that  I’ve spoken with report that they are chafing at the separation from friends, family and routine. Cabin fever is setting in and along with that a variety of unpleasant emotions that impede their ability to get into the studio or out in nature to create. Without the flow of ideas stimulated by in-person contact, their muse slowly dries up and they are faced with a creative block.

I fall somewhere in the moderate middle. I am loving the quiet and the solitude to work without interruption. On the other hand, I sure could use a good hug! I seem to have a strong impulse right now to remain connected in my community of artists and to know that they are well, so I’ve been reaching out to talk in person with artist and musician friends by phone, by Facebook and video chat. We are supporting one another in new and different ways and appreciating one another crafts even more than ever.

It’s such a conundrum. We have the ironic ability to save the world by sitting on our couch… keeping others safe by keeping a distance. But maybe we could contribute more expansively by sitting at our desk or in our studio and using this time of stillness to create.  Maybe we can retain our purpose but adjust our practice? And what is our purpose as artists right now? Is art even relevant?

I have long believed that the purpose of all art forms is to make us think. That goes for visual art, graphic art, music, writing, etc. Neither the art form nor the technical skills of the artist matter whatsoever. It is the creative expression that matters- that indefinable process of contemplation that calls the artist to the drawing board. The introspection and tuning into our inner lives and emotions are what counts right now.

Let’s ask ourselves a couple of questions. How can we use our creative expression to bring comfort, compassion and joy to those who are suffering. How will you share your art to uplift our people and our country through its time of crisis? What new thought can you share, what song will you write? What poem will call out to our people to unite, ignite and incite for good?

Here’s a great example of how sharing your art can ripple. Thank you to Bruce and Cheryl who shared one of Bruce’s paintings with me on Facebook yesterday. Looking at the beautiful piece sparked a focus for my meditation this morning. The mantra I paired with Bruce’s landscape study was Peace Like a River. Peace like a River is a chant song that is very meaningful to my friend Rosie and when she sees the painting on my Facebook page, I am sure she will hear that song in her soul. It has played in my head since we sang it at her Mark’s funeral service all those many years ago. We humans find comfort in connection. Art connects and surely has an important role right now.

A second example: just last night we joined two young Massachusetts singer-songwriters on Facebook live while they shared a few songs from their upcoming album. Their lyrics and soothing harmonies brought us comfort and a respite from the usual evening television routine. They reminded us  “don’t fan the flames of other people’s fears” and that “being good isn’t a contest”.  I slept well and woke refreshed and ready to get to work on this blog post after listening to Mark and Raianne’s heartfelt work.

https://markmandevilleraiannerichards.bandcamp.com/

And our dear friend and author Larry Butler is offering his entire collection of books for free right now. We need ideas that are informed, intelligent and outside of the box.  Here is Larry’s invitation to take advantage of his generous offer.

“During this trying time we may become so bored at home that we’re reading books we might not touch under normal circumstances. For the duration, I am making the library of e-books I’ve written available to anybody who wants them free of charge. This includes you, your family, and your friends too. The books deal with the issues of economic inequality and public policy, with special emphasis on debunking popular myths. Send an e-mail to techcfo@yahoo.com and specify the title(s) you want to receive, and the format you prefer to read. The link takes you to my Webpage where you’ll find a brief description of each title.”

This time of enforced quiet is a gift to the creatives that we must use wisely. We must be still and look inward to touch all of the emotion that fuels our art. When we come through the fire we will explode into a new world of creative expression that will inspire the universe. I am so sure of it.

Why? Just Why?

It’s pretty insane out there right now. Grocery stores are emptying out at an alarming rate. People are hoarding goods and services are shutting down. Extreme religious and political opinions are circulating on social media right along with unreliable information.  The challenge for us all is to resist being the critic and embrace being a force for good.

We will all be affected in significant ways. But we still have comparative abundance. It’s time to be sure that our abundance is shared equitably and that each and every person, business, church, school and non-profit organization looks outward and forward for creative ways to take care of each other. And if you can find the humor in any of this, please do so. It can’t hurt to have a chuckle at ourselves while we get through this all together.

Here are some events from the past few days that have made me ask, “Why? Just why?”
Just why #1: Water

I went to the store and there is no water on the shelves. I don’t understand why there is no water since I haven’t seen that the virus is threatening our water supply and my tap still seems to work. So, why are we hoarding water? At least I still have half a bottle of gin. I’d be happy to share it if you want to come over. Please bring the tonic. The store was out of that too.

I do need to buy distilled water for Arnie’s CPAP machine. Without that machine, his life is in grave danger. Mind you, the danger is not from the device, but from me. If we have to go back to his bone-rattling snoring every night because the machine won’t work, I will lose my Girl Scout cookies.

As a backup precaution, I plan to order one of the supersize My Pillows just in case I have to smother him myself. That’s if I can even get a supersize My Pillow. Maybe people are hoarding them too?

Just why #2 Toilet Paper
People seem to be struggling with the existential question of how they will live when the toilet paper runs out. Maybe this is how we will die; constipated because we are afraid to use the potty without cupboards and closets full of paper in reserve. But do we need advanced wiping technology? Our ancestors’ age-old struggles to find creative ways to clean up their nether regions should give us an appreciation of the Golden Age of Wiping that we are enjoying in 2020. We have left behind (no pun intended) sticks, leaves, stones, used newspapers and the Sears catalog. If the empty shelves are any indication, we are now 100% splinter-free and deathly afraid to go back.

 

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Just why #3 Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip
Ladies, we grew up being told to keep a stiff upper lip. But ponder this. What if the stores run out of razors? What if postmenopausal women everywhere are not able to shave their upper lip? They will practice social distancing willingly rather than risk the humiliation of five o’clock shadow. And if the still-fertile generation of women cannot get razors because you are hoarding them, the birth rate will plummet and the human race will not survive. Evidently, this is a clear and present danger because the store was out of razors.

hairy lady pic

 

Just why #4 Anxiety Induced Distraction
I’m so distracted trying to keep up with the latest news. Now, I can’t find my glasses. I put them somewhere this morning when I was busy trying to decide what to take care of first. Looking for them is an exercise in futility anyway. I can’t see the glasses without the glasses.

'I've lost my glasses and can't look for them until I find them.'

I was distracted because I was distracted with trying to set reasonable priorities. Should I go out to hunt and gather for water? Should I rip off rationed sections of toilet paper and hide the rest from Arnie so it will last longer? Should I go to the computer and develop an algorithm for how long my last two pink disposable razors should last a woman of my advanced age before I succumb to The Shadow? If I can scientifically predict how long two single blade razors can last, I can ration the number of shaves per week.  Information is power.

Arnie helped me look for the glasses. We searched for twenty minutes and tore the house apart with no luck. I didn’t want to buy a new pair because I blew my monthly budget of Clorox wipes, canned vegetables and dry pasta. The glasses were in this house somewhere and the dog didn’t look guilty. I just needed to find them. While I was putting away all of the pre-apocalyptic grocery supplies in plastic tubs and reminiscing about my Dad’s 1950’s nuclear bomb shelter, I leaned over and the glasses fell off my head where they had been all along.

But let’s get real. These are not signs of some catastrophic end of days. Stop all the nonsense tribulation talk on social media. You are scaring yourself and vulnerable others too. The buying frenzy, while troubling and morally questionable, is predictable human behavior in response to uncertainty and anxiety. Stop adding to it. While we are not in control of events, we are in control of how we respond to them. And now is an opportunity to exert some self-control and adjust how we are thinking about our present circumstances.

Now is an opportunity to find new ways in which to change our behavior and conserve on products that we overuse anyway? We are amid a wake-up call to live more lightly and take less for granted. It could be that this is a warning call to change our behavior and tread more reverently on our Earth and on each other.

Today, I will pack two bags. In them, I will put a jar of spaghetti sauce that is cooking in the crockpot, a loaf of banana bread, a roll of toilet paper and a roll of paper towels. Then I will walk over and ask my two elderly neighbors if they are all set. Since we are likely headed towards being cooped up in the house in self-quarantined for a period of time, I’ll remind them that we both have charming front porches to sit and visit on. This will be an excellent time to get to know one another in a deeper more meaningful way.

This is not the end. Let’s make this where we begin.

Where is Wicca’s Fairy Now?

Yesterday, we said good-bye to our dear little Wicca. Every dog that we love is extraordinary to our hearts and Wicca was no exception. She was a wise and scrappy street survivor, a graduate of the Pinellas County Humane Society and she had the magic. Blessed with a Budda nature, she was joyful and kind. This upbeat, funny old soul was the love of our lives for all of her nineteen and a half years. She was also the boss of us.

Putting grief and loss in perspective is different for all of us. We all have to move through it at our own pace and in our own way.  Runners run, carpenters pound nails and writers write. Recently, I submitted a story to a short fiction contest. This morning the story seems to have new meaning and re-reading it gave me a bit of perspective and a smile. I’d like to share it with you as we begin a new day with gratitude for the moment that Wicca entered our lives and every day that we had with her after that.

 

Fairy Riders

by Barbara Wentzell Jaquith
3/13/2020

My grandfather Aiden was generally considered strange. Not by me because I loved him, but by everyone else who knew him. Granny loved him too even though I think she was real hard on him. She did not much like it when he filled our heads with Irish stuff, and she let him know when to shut up with the old stories.
At the foot of his bed, he kept a fiddle and bow in a beat-up steamer trunk and a big bible that he didn’t take out as often as the fiddle. There was a handwritten list of relatives from Dublin on a yellow piece of paper folded in the bible, two striped cotton shirts, one yellow silk neckerchief with blue flowers and a waistcoat. A smelly old pair of work shoes and a brown hat had some sort of meaning to him. Tucked in the brim of the hat was a faded picture of a black and white border collie in a crouched position, eyeing a small flock of ragged sheep. On the back of the photo it said Da and Trusty 1890 in shaky cursive handwriting. One time he pulled the hat and shoes out and showed me hiding pockets where he brought money over on the boat when he came to America. He kept all these treasures in that trunk, but his stories were kept safe in his head.
Granny got especially mad when Grampy Aiden mentioned fairies. She said Irish people stick out enough without him calling any extra attention to us. When he told stories, she would tell him to shut it and slam kitchen cupboard doors. So, he mostly shut it around her.
But some things just have to come out of a person or they fester. That’s how it was with the stories. Grampy used them as a healing ointment. Whenever we skinned a knee, Granny pulled out the stinging mecuricome and swabbed it on while we howled. But Grampy’s cure was better received. He had a way of speaking when he was story-telling that was like a balm. He spoke his stories with a soothing lilt that turned our minds in a direction. He knew the hard part of healing is figuring how to let go of the pain and move on.
I was a real little boy when my parents got dead in the crash and Grampy’s farm collie was my crying pillow. His soft brown fur sopped up tears real well and he lay down beside me as a buffer from Granny’s own grief and rage. We called him Ben. At the time, I didn’t know about the fairies. We were out in the garden the day that Grampy told me about them. I think he conjured a story for me because Ben had just got sick and died too and I was feeling real empty.
My Grandfather Aiden’s hands are so big that he takes a second helping of soil when he digs spring carrots in the garden. He takes the time to loosen the roots with a trowel before he yanks them up by their green lacy tops. Then he knocks them hard against his overalls to get the dirt off. He’s big, but his hands are always easy when he passes me one. They are still warm from the sun and crunchy from the winter’s underground rest.
The day Grampy told me about the fairies, he didn’t look up from the row. He just started talking right out of nowhere. “Do you know about fairies, son?”
“I know Granny says there aren’t any.”
“Granny hasn’t seen them because Granny doesn’t believe, so they stay shy and hard to see around her. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They are travelers and only go where they feel welcome and useful. When I light the cook stove in Granny’s kitchen and a puff of smoke escapes, that’s fairy smoke signals. You just have to be still and understand that they are there so you are not alone. Fairies are there to help you.”
“Are they here right now?”
You will now there are fairies about when the breeze blows on your face. When the sun casts a play of light through the leaves, that’s a sure sign of fairies. See the dandelion seeds blowing over there in the field? Those are fairy letting us know that they are near.”
I like the stories even if my grandmother doesn’t like him talking to us about that sort of thing. Maybe she’s got a point when she says that talk about banshees and fairies and second sight is not suitable for little kids. But how would I learn that it’s not just us alone in this garden and in this world if Grampy didn’t teach me that kind of Irish stuff? Because of him, I know that you don’t swat an insect buzzing around your head until you’re sure it’s an insect. Bugs and fairies look pretty much alike until you can get up close, and it’s hard to get close to a fairy.
“ I want to see a fairy for real.”
“You have to spot them when they pause to take notice of something.”
“When’s that?”
“There is one thing that will cause fairies to pause and take notice every time. Fairies know when a new puppy gets born.”
“How do you know this?”
“Big men know about small things.”
“Will I ever see one?”
“Maybe, but until you do, it’s a mystery and you just need to believe. Let’s go sit in the shade under the tree and I’ll tell you a story about dogs and fairies. Not a word to your grandmother. This is a story for you and me.”
Grampy set the trowel point down in the dirt, brushed off his pants and headed over to the shady spot. Easing down onto the grass and settling into a comfortable position with a wince, he took up a story about fairies and dogs.
“You’re most likely to see a fairy around dogs because fairies hitch a ride on the dogs back whenever their wings need a rest. You can’t always see them, but you know they are along for a ride when the dog sits down and lifts a hind leg to scratch. You think its fleas, but that’s not it. When a dog scratches, it’s because there’s a fairy rider on his neck and it tickles where she is holding on.”
“Ben used to scratch a lot but I never saw no fairies.”
“That’s because you didn’t know about them then. But they were always there. Remember when he would stop and just look sideways like something invisible was buzzing around his head? That was his fairy talking to him. Or, when he chased his tail? His fairy was playing with him. The fairy riders chose a puppy that they like and then they stay with that dog all of his life.”
“When did Ben get his rider?”
“When a new puppy takes its first breath, a fairy hears its tiny cry and she hurries to welcome the new life. This is how it begins. When the puppy is ten days old, its eyes open on the world for the first time. The fairy gets all tearful when her puppy looks into its mother’s eyes for the first time. She watches and cheers when it loses its first tooth. When the puppy is a month old, he stands up to play with his brothers and sisters. They wobble about, fall right down and roll over on their backs. Fairies riders giggle when puppies learn to play. It’s like riding a clumsy elephant that keeps falling and getting up again.”
Grampy pulled up a long blade of wild wheat. He ran his fingers down it, shucking off the golden seeds at the top and letting them fall. He tied the pliant reed in a neat bow while we just sat quietly for a minute before he took up the story again.
“One day, a new family comes to take the puppy home with them. The fairy has to watch over things very carefully at the time when her puppy leaves its mother. When the puppy finds just the right human, the fairies clap their hands and laugh right out loud.”
“Grampy, you know Gramma is going to be mad that you are telling me Irish stuff.”
“Well, she would if she found out, but she’s not going to is she?”
“Nope, she’s not. Tell me more.”
Grampy shifted his weight and went on. “The riders go along on all their dog’s adventures. They work in the field, protect homes and heal broken human hearts. People don’t even know they are there, sleeping in the ruff of an old collie. Remember how Ben’s coat used to glisten in the sun? That sparkle was his fairy’s wings. Through all of Ben’s life, his fairy rider was right there with him holding on for dear life even when he ran around in the meadow or went swimming in the creek. And then one day, Ben’s fairy noticed he was slowing down. His step wasn’t quite as spry. His legs were stiff and getting up off the ground was hard.
“Like you, Grampy?”
“Yes, son, just like me.”
“Ben got slow Grampy. One day he just laid there and he couldn’t get up at all.”
“Yes, he did. And when that happened to Ben, his fairy was there. Just as he was falling asleep, she climbed up close to Ben’s soft ear and whispered something. If you were very close by and very quiet yourself, you might have heard it, son.”
“What did she whisper?”
“Well, when it’s time for a dog to leave us, the riders all say the same thing. It’s a gift they whisper like a prayer to old dogs.”
Ben’s fairy said, “Good and gentle creature, you have been my companion through rising suns and falling moons. You have kept me warm in the field and safe on the mountain when you brought in the sheep. It has been an honor to be your rider and guardian, but I sense now that you are tired and can carry me no more in this life. I know that you must go. I bid you quiet passage and thank you for allowing me to be your companion for all this time and especially at the time of your leave-taking. Now, do not stay for me, but go in peace as you must.”
“And that’s how he left?”
“That’s how he left.”
“Where is Ben’s fairy now?”
Grampy Aiden looked right at me then and he seemed to be smiling deep into the well of my sadness. “Even though Ben had to go, his fairy still had work to do, so she wiped off a tear, turned and flew away. You see, she had just heard a new puppy’s cry in the distance and she had to be off to meet him. Her job was to pick out a new puppy and be his new rider.”
My grandfather, slowly got to his feet and bent over to rub his knees for a moment. “Now, go get washed up, son. We need to visit the farm next door. They have some new collie pups and one’s meant to be yours.
“Oh, Grampy, thank you! How will I know which one is meant to be mine?”
“Big men know about small things.”

 

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Companions for the Journey

The arduous work of bringing a book to market is done and I am just now looking up from the mire to begin a new writing direction.  The piles of drafts and editors’ notes are organized and filed away. The desk surface is neatened up. New ideas are percolating and I am working with the good writing team around me to identify the perfect next project. In the interim, I’ll get a few blogs off and hope that they find you all happy, healthy and doing good things.

Someone recently asked me how writers start a new project? Do they just sit down at the keyboard and start writing? It’s different for everyone, but for me, getting outside on a trail shakes out the cobwebs. Creative thoughts are always there, but there is often a lid holding them in the pot.  The lid consists of all of the necessary daily details that keep us too busy to open up our best thoughts and find insight.  John Muir said, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.” Being in nature relaxes my mind and loosens up my creativity.

This morning, I headed over to a local hiking trail with my four-legged hiking buddy  Journey. We headed into the woods to explore a new trail for a couple of hours. On this blue-sky day,  she and I walked beside the marsh that is coming alive with birds just arriving from their migration. The spring birds are coming back to Georgia now and it is musical in the woods.  They are very busy gathering twigs and grasses for nests and calling to prospective mates. Spring here generally runs from March to May, but the first stirrings of spring are in February.  This morning we saw a few gnatcatchers and vireos.  Louisiana waterthrushes are also arriving early and were singing along the water’s edge. A long red-winged blackbird added a spot of color and we could hear a woodpecker in the distance. The American robins are back and building their nests and mourning doves are working on their spindly stick nests.

Journey is fine company today as we walk along together. We start out doing mindful walking (1) and she selflessly slows her pace to match mine. I am seeking insights that cannot come with a hurried pace. Does this sentient being also gain insight too when she slows with me to make careful observations? I think so.

I love the challenge of mindful walking with this dog. Journey comes from a long line of herding dogs who are born and bred to work at a tireless pace. Entlebucher Mountain Dogs are muscled, intelligent cow dogs who need a job to be happy. Her brain is wired to move boundlessly and take control, so it does amaze me that she has the capacity to think insightfully and adjust her pace to the old lady that she ended up with as her life partner.  Since she has no herd, Journey’s job is taking care of her people and she takes it seriously. She and I work together to balance her play and work energy with a variety of introspective endeavors so that she can do that job well. Yes, I teach mindfulness to my dog. Or, rather, we practice it together.

This morning, we practice mindful walking on the trail. We take a few moments before heading out to touch the earth and feel our bodies. Starting out, she lies down, belly in the dirt and I bend down, placing my hand on the ground beside her. It is still chilled from the February night. Next, we both stand, relaxing into that simple posture.

“We have nothing to do and nowhere we have to go, Journey. We are just here.”

As we move forward, we notice the sensation of our feet and legs moving, the pressure on our soles and the stretch and bending of our toes. I pause, bend down and touch her feet, picking them up one at a time. “Those are your beautiful toes.” She looks up at me and back at her feet showing me the soulful whites of her eyes. She seems to understand that I am asking her to pause and notice something.  We walk forward again with our four paws and two boots in constant and steady contact with the earth as I recite a walking mantra, a thought worth repeating, to her.

“Be still, Journey, easy be. Gently go, gently go. Be still Journey, easy be.  Gently go, gently go. Be still Journey, easy be. Gently go, gently go ” 

Later in the hike, we walk more briskly and I talk with her as I dictate notes to use to write with later. Capturing observations on the smartphone allows me to preserve the essence of the moment for later reflection and writing. Having a process streamlines the endeavor and eliminates any concerns about whether or not I’ll remember it later. Speaking those observations out loud keeps Journey tuned in to the fact that we are walking together and not having a separate experience.

When Journey and I walk together, we meet each other in the middle. She accommodates my arthritic knees that regulate our hiking pace and I acknowledge that she has a young dog’s need to sniff, explore and play.

We take turns being as one in the woods,  entwined as human and dog in an age-old bond.

It is a dance of accommodation, of mutual give and take on this walk today. She moves a measured distance ahead, turns and then trots back to allow me to hold her harness up the rocky hill. She leans into the harness and pulls hard to assist me with the momentum needed to climb up for the view.  Descending the other side, she walks slowly beside me, steadying me on the slippery gravel underfoot. My companion and I are tethered less by the harness and more by the relationship we have.

The gravel crunches under my hiking boots while she walks on silent pads. She’s stealthy, but try as I might, I make too much noise in the woods. Sometimes we stop and sit to hear the voices of the forest. I take her cue and sniff the air too. What is the musty mushroom smell? Is it the lichen that is greening up everywhere that has an earthy odor. There is a hint of a skunk who was startled in the night. The woods feed our senses.

We help each other. I am the human with the driver’s license, so I drive us to the trailhead. I plan some favorite snacks and water to take along and she helps me to slackpack by carrying the weight in her backpack. I help her avoid the fallen prickly seed pods on the trail and we both watch for snakes.

Journey keeps a keen eye out for the cooperheads that are waking from their winter’s rest. They are still sluggish, but awake and cranky enough to object to being disturbed. We live on a creek and Journey has encountered snakes often enough to be on alert. Her nose goes constantly, and her eyes scan the trail ahead. Her alert is unmistakable. She stops, freezes and fixates at a point on the trail where I can see nothing at all. She steps in front of me, blocking my path until I can locate what she is pointing out. And there it is, just off the side of the path ahead, in a sun-soaking curled copper circle. I reassure her and we move carefully in a wide berth around this fellow-creature who was there first and means us no harm as long as we pay proper respect.

Today is precious. The sunshine sinks into our winter skin, a welcome interlude before the rain that will come surely tomorrow. If not literally, the sunshine will fade into another of life’s challenges and we will be better equipped to cope by having made this walk today, We are refreshed, renewed.  In a moment of trail kindness, another hiker offers to take our pictures together and this one moment will someday be a precious memory of a  young dog and an old woman who were companions for the Journey.

(1) https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-meditate-thich-nhat-hanh-on-walking-meditation/

 

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I’ll Have What She’s Having

Image result for pine grove furnace

                                    Image result for pine grove furnace
Pine Grove Furnace State Park proved to be an interesting stop along the way for us on many levels. Winding up a steep incline and around sharp bends the approach to the park penetrates a dense pine forest. The Appalachian Trail runs right through the park and thru hikers are everywhere this time of year, getting an early start on their goal of reaching Mt Katahdin in Maine before the fall/winter weather sets in. The road was narrow and the visibility is limited, keeping Arnie tightly focused behind the wheel and me clutching the hand grip.

Keeping a quiet calm state of mind when we are on roadways like this is a challenge for me. Intrusive thoughts involving loud metal crashing noises keep popping into my mind. Instead of breathing, I alternate between gasping for air and holding my breath. All that mindfulness practice flies right out the window exactly as I imagine we all will do upon impact. In my mind, there is a speeding vehicle approaching around every blind corner. I visualize feathers flying about the cab of the truck as Cracker the bird bounces about in my imaginary crash scene. My little dog jostles around the confines of her travel cage. An active imagination is a gift for a writer unless she’s on a road like this and on this drive, my imagination was playing havoc with my nerves. And my nervous system is directly connected to my mouth. Odd incomprehensible noises escape when I am this tense on a ridiculously dangerous back road. Ohhhhhh, gaaaadd, sheeeeet, ohno ohno ohno, umumumum”, I moan in horror! I have Passenger Induced Tourette’s Syndrome, a not so imaginary condition that causes me to utter obscenities that I don’t use on a normal daily basis when I am the riding on a road such as this. Today, I am sure I am simply going to die in anonymity on this awful back road.

The route approaching this park should have been a forewarning. From the time we left the highway, the width of the pavement gradually narrowed down while the ditches along the sides deepened. At the actual entrance to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the road narrowed to a ribbon that was barely passable for two vehicles and I now had a growing sense of unease. Our camper is pretty long, especially when you add the length of the truck. And they don’t turn together on a dime, but rather need time and space to react. The truck and trailer are like an old married couple communicating in their own way. The truck says, “We need to turn here and now.” and the trailer simply ignores it for a few minutes and when it’s good and ready to respond, it begins to make the turn.

As we made the tight turn into the campground area itself, it became clear that the designer of this place was a serious tree lover. While it is woodsy and beautiful to look at, not one tree was cleared unnecessarily, making for a very tight entry into each and every individual campsite. Just to add to the challenge, boulders had been placed at the entry corner of each campsite by that perverse tree hugging campground designer who wanted to be sure that no Pine tree was injured by vehicles. There were no pull through sites, something that we always request when making reservations as opposed to back in sites which are much more difficult even under ideal circumstances. Every site at Pine Grove Furnace required backing in with little room for error. The pit of my stomach began to tighten.

Winding carefully through the campground towards our site, we counted up from site #1 to site # 24 and thus far, I had not seen anything I thought that we could navigate into. And then, there it was, the magic # 25; a narrow gap between two enormous trees, flanked by boulders on either side of the entrance. I closed my eyes trying to get a mental picture of the angles and adjustments that would be necessary to cram us into this impossible space moving in reverse. I was the fat lady looking down at the airplane seat knowing that there was going to be a massive squeeze factor involved if this was going to have any chance of working. Yes, I should have bought two seats for this flight!

At this point, I need to remind everyone that, as a traveling couple, Arnie and I have a distinct division of skills and talents. Arnie drives forward and I do all of the backing up. Being big believers in playing to our individual strengths, we divide our labor according to what we are best at. My nerves get the better of me driving on the highways with the big rigs, making me a menace on the road. And Arnie is challenged when it comes to the intricacies of moving a vehicle with a hitch in reverse. While he struggles with left vs right, for some inexplicable reason, it comes natural to me, probably because I can wipe my mind clean for a short time and operate on pure fear and intuition. I think it comes from raising four kids, which also involves a large share of pure fear and intuition. But between us, we have a full skill set, so that’s all that counts.

When we pull up to a campsite with Arnie at the wheel, we stop the truck and switch. I get behind the wheel while he gives directions for backing into the site and aligning us with the water, sewer and electric hook ups. Most of his directions I ignore. Because as I indicated he’s not strong with the left/right thing. We apologize after the fact for anything we said while backing up the camper. Sometimes we back right in with no issues and other times we are a spectacle. Today, I was pretty sure there was no way to avoid being a spectacle. So I felt little confidence when I said to Arnie, “I will try this, but there’s pretty much no way we are getting into that spot.”

I climbed into my big black stallion of a truck and placed my hands firmly on the wheel. Just like a rodeo rider in those few seconds before the gate opens, I said a quiet prayer, took a deep breath and said to Arnie, “Okay, let’s go.” “Okay, said the parrot from the backseat.” “Shut up you feathered idiot.”, I replied in a thoughtless attempt to relieve a little tension by verbally abusing a helpless animal.

Back and forth, back and forth with small adjustments I eased the camper in reverse through the obstacle course. “Zen mind”, I chanted trying not to notice how close the trees were. When the anxiety arose, I tried to notice and name it without succumbing to it. “It’s only a thought.”, I reminded myself several times. But was more than a thought, it was a really large boulder. Arnie gave me patient encouragement. Finally, after holding up traffic for twenty minutes and itching backwards at a painfully slow pace, I was surprised to find that we were in. I could feel the relief wash over me as I leaned out the window to look at Arnie with gratitude that once again we had prevailed over a challenge by working together. “Am I close enough to the hook-ups?”, I asked. It seemed like slow motion as he turned around to check and then back to me with a bit of a sheepish look on his face. “ Oh-oh, there’s no hook ups on this site.”, he said quietly.

No hook-ups? Boondocking, camping without access to water, sewer or electric hook-ups, is a perfectly acceptable practice for most folks but we travel with a tropical bird who is somewhat fragile and susceptible to cold. We cannot be without electricity to keep him warm enough. We looked at each other, sharing this very special Oh Crap moment. Perhaps we should have looked to check on that before we went to all this trouble, but we were tired, hungry and road weary after days of rain along this trip and we missed an important detail. We won’t blame Arnie who made the reservation and walked the site while I backed up. What would be the point of placing blame? Nothing, so we won’t blame Arnie. No point in blaming Arnie. Nope, none. None at all.

Just then, along comes a Fairy Godfather by the name of Ron the Campground Host. Ron has a big grin and a helpful heart. He spied us standing at the site pondering our options and walked up, saying those magic words, “Wouldn’t you folks rather have a site with electricity?”. Turns out that he had one site for one night. One night was all we needed and we were so grateful! But now, I would have to park this rig, all of over again in yet another tricky space. Oh why not? It went pretty well the first time. I can do it again, especially for electricity to keep us warm and make coffee!

So, in forward gear again, Arnie pulled the truck out and headed gingerly down the road to the new campsite with me muttering from the passenger seat something about the next one will surely be easier after the practice run I just executed. But the universe does not operate with fairness and the new site appeared to have all of the unique challenges of the first one with one significant addition. Now I had an audience. In the adjoining campsite, there sat three men in lawn chairs under the canopy of a huge toy hauler camper. They had obviously had no problem backing in and were all settled in with a roaring campfire already blazing to ward off the chill. Turkey season in Pennsylvania started the next day and these guys were in full regalia, camo jackets, hats, etc. Add to the camouflage trio, in the site across from us was an older lady overseeing a small tyke on a tricycle. With a booming Grandma voice she cautioned him, “Watch out. Stay right here. It’s a lady backing that up.” The stage had been set for some serious performance anxiety. I was on stage and the audience was expecting a performance to critique.

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Now I truly believe that this moment was karmic payback for all of the times we have pulled up chairs and spied on the dynamics of couples putting up tents for the first time or attempting to park a brand spanking new camper. It’s high entertainment. Now I know what you are thinking: that’s not very nice. But we’ve all done it. You know you have, at some time in your life, been guilty of rubbernecking at some spectacle. Watching people set up camp under trying circumstances is great rubbernecking. All campers can relate and it’s hysterical to watch and listen in. I knew exactly what these three guys were thinking; this is going to be good. They unapologetically stood up to rearrange and position their chairs for a full view.

Let’s just say backing in the second site was an encore experience, an excruciating instant replay of the first time, this time with an evolving pinched nerve in my neck from cranking around to note how crazy close the camper was to the pine tree on the left. I was acutely aware of the peanut gallery while struggling to squeeze into the second too small site of the day. Time seemed suspended while I maneuvered the truck and camper carefully back and forth between the bushes, boulders and trees.

After several attempts and another twenty minutes of adjusting the coupled vehicles by inches at a time, the camper finally slipped backwards into the site at an acceptable angle and it was even close enough to hook up the electric! I leaned out the open window and yelled back to Arnie, “ Is it over? Are we okay now?” “Okay” came the response from Cracker in the back seat. I looked over at the mighty hunters and grinned. Hopping out of the truck, I stood tall facing them and said, “Show’s over boys! Back to the beer!” They laughed and gave me the thumbs up.

Later one of them came over to chat and shared with me that he thought I did just fine and that if I had needed help, he knew I would have asked. That was nice, but I probably would have only asked for help if I had backed over my husband. Backing up that camper gives me a feeling of empowerment and competence. I earned the nickname of Large Marge for a reason and I claim it with pride. In the big scheme of things, there are skills that are far more important and valuable than backing up a camper. This is a small thing compared to the life changing skills that some people perform on a daily basis. Like brain surgery or peace negotiations. But when I hoist myself up into the truck and prepare to shift into reverse I do feel like I am representing all of the sisters who thought they couldn’t do something because it’s a man thing. Each time, no matter how long it takes me, I feel as if I accomplished something solid and validating. Everyone needs something that makes them claim their worth and backing up a camper seems to be mine! I am woman, hear that engine roar. Or, something like that.

Later that day, Arnie and I took a ride into one of our very favorite little towns along the trip North. Milford, Pennsylvania is quaint and dear. The streets are lined with nice shops run by local artisans, trendy cafes and great restaurants. It is a throwback kind of town with a laid back feel. One shopkeeper told us that it is a day or weekend trip escape for folks who need a break from the city. They come and stay at one of the inns and sit out on the porch for dinner, watching the world pass by at a quieter pace. We especially love the serenity of the porch at 203 Broad where we are establishing a tradition of stopping off for a bite to eat, a drink and porch time as we near the end of our grueling Northern trip each year. The fare is vegetarian, the service warm and friendly and on this particular day, it was a perfect way to wind down from our parking experience at Pine Grove Furnace park just a couple of hours prior.

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So imagine our surprise when we heard the unmistakable roar of Harley Davidson coming up Main Street disturbing the peace. Right in front of the peaceful porch where we were unwinding with an afternoon drink, three huge bikes carrying four black leather encased people pulled in to one parking spot. One couple pulled in smoothly, performed that bone rumbling exercise of gunning the motor a couple of times, parked and dismounted. A second fellow did the same thing, gracefully angling his mount into the space, shutting down the rumbling engine and athletically swinging a leg over his bike. The third rider pulled in but had to do some maneuvering to fit into the space left. She pulled in and then eased it back and forth several times. Unsatisfied, she moved it to the next space shifting the bike back and forth to find her perfect sweet spot. She sat with the motor running for a moment and then shut it down.

Of course we were watching it all. So was everyone on the porch. It’s that rubbernecking thing. The turkey hunters watched us backing the camper in and now here we are watching the bikers backing their Harley’s in. It’s voyeuristic entertainment and we cannot help ourselves. Every head on the porch was turned and all eyes were on the beautiful girl with the long legs and the black biker boots. From under her black reflective helmet, kinky blonde hair protruded in wind-blown wisps.

The single male rider took off his leather jacket revealing a crisp long-sleeved white shirt. I imagine these folks were some of those escapees from the city, riding their expensive bikes out into the country on a beautiful warm day. The single guy rider walked over to the girl and took either side of her helmet in his hands. He seductively unbuckled it, slid it gently off and set it on the ground. Everyone on the porch took a collective breath as he tilted her head back and planted a long romance novel kiss on her. Among the many other things going through my mind was the thought, “Doesn’t her neck hurt?” When the amorous couple finally came up for air, the porch audience breathed a collective sigh. We continued to stare spell-bound while he helped her dismount her bike and then strode up the stairs onto the porch, big black boots making a thudding statement. They chose a table and sat down. Of course, they were speaking French. They ordered coffee and pastries and every other diner on the porch was thinking, “I’ll have what she’s having please.”

This was just surreal. And the irony is not lost on me. I back up a thirty-four foot camper attached to a giant pick up truck fifty yards into an unbelievably small space in the woods and I get a token, “Good job Babe”, from my husband who is hooking up the sewer.” This stunning young woman with the chic raised-with-wolves look backed a motorcycle two feet into a spacious large parking space and she gets practically consummated on Main Street. I mentioned this to Arnie. He looked confused or perhaps he was yet to fully recover his senses from what he had just witnessed.

But despite some discrepancies in the degree of reward that this beautiful young woman and I got for our similar performances that day, here’s what I know. As women, we really need to celebrate our accomplishments at each and every season of our lives. So Biker Chick, I celebrate your bravado, your raw love of life, your confidence in your sensuality because I was once you and one day, you will be me in the wonderful and natural evolution of life and love. Flaunt it, toss it and swag it girl so that you remember this time well as you move through all the seasons of your life. Meanwhile, here’s to all the women who know how to run their own motors! And to the men who appreciate them in their own unique ways too!

J. Strom Thurmond Dam and Lake at Clarks Hill

Arnie and I were excited to visit another Army Corps of Engineers project on the Georgia/South Carolina line near Augusta. We stayed at Big Hart Campground, one of the 13 campgrounds associated with J. Strom Thurmond Dam and Lake at Clarks Hill. We absolutely loved this park! The campsites are spacious and private and nestled in a pine and hardwood forest. It was a real treat as this is real camping, none of the crowding associated with most of the private campgrounds where campers are lined up close together.

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This dam and lake is the largest of the ACOE projects east of the Mississippi River, encompassing 151,000 acres of land and water.  It is no wonder that this lake is one of the 10 most visited Corps lakes in the nation. The scenery around the project is breath-taking. We never knew the Savannah River Basin was so vast! The lake held in by this dam stretches as far as the eye can see, with dense forests along the shore. Thurmond Dam impounds a lake that stretches 40 miles up the beautiful Savannah River and 26 mile up the little River. It has nearly 1,200 miles of shoreline and is one of the largest inland bodies of water in the South. The basin is home to many species of large prey birds including Bald Eagles.

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There is a very nice Visitors Center manned on the day we visited by warm and welcoming Ranger Rhonda to greet visitors and help educate them. We learned so much about the dam,; the lake and the area.

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The dam, which was built between 1946 and 1954 is named after J. Strom Thurmond who was the longest-serving and the oldest Senator in U.S. history with 48 years of service at age 100 ! Originally, the project was to be named Clarks Hill Dam but the “s” on the end of Clarks was omitted due to a clerical error in the original Congressional Authorization and the project became Clark Hill Dam. Later, the dam was renamed Clarks Hill Dam. In 1988 Congress renamed the project to J. Strom Thurmond Dam and Lake at Clarks Hill.

The dam is an impressive sight. It is 5,680 feet long, more than 200 feet high. As you look at it, you see a concrete causeway flanked by massive earthen embankments. Along with the dam is a hydropower production facility which, one of the educational markers states, more than paid for itself in 25 years of operations. The project performs flood risk management, recreation, fish and wildlife protection, water quality, water supply and downstream navigation. Along with Rangers, staff on-site include power plant operators, electricians and mechanics who operate and maintain the facility day and night. Add biologists and volunteers who work to protect the habitat and you have a very large staff of people cooperating to provide us with electricity, flood control and recreation on public land.

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While we were camping in the area, we got an up close look at one of the major purposes of J. Strom Thurmond. During times of heavy rainfall (and we had some!) runoff waters are stored in the lake to protect thousands of downstream homes, businesses and farmlands from flooding. Thurmond Dam is the primary flood control structure along the Savannah River. From our elevated campsite, we watched the lake rise on one side of us and the contoured road dump water down a gully and into the lake. It would have been unnerving if we didn’t know that the levels are carefully monitored and adjusted as needed by ACOE personnel.

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All of that water produces electricity made by the Thurmond generators. It is pollution free energy for residential and commercial use. The generators are an awesome sight. When they are in use, each one of them produces between 52,000 and 57,000 kilowatts of electricity. One generator operating one hour produces enough electricity to power 216 average homes for an entire year!  We learned that because alternating current (AC) electricity cannot be stored, Thurmond Lake stores water to produce power when it is needed most. The Corps is the nations leading producer of hydroelectric power, providing five percent of the nation’s electricity.

And electricity is only one component of the water management of the upper Savannah River Basin. During times of drought and low water, this system provides an adequate water supply to all users through a plan called the Drought Contingency Plan. Looking at all this water, it is ee06hard to even imagine drought conditions.

Nearest and dearest to our hearts is the fact that the Corps serves to ensure the protection and enhancement of fish and wildlife at Thurmond Lake. They concentrate on habitat diversity and they improve habitat for rare, threatened or endangered species. Rangers and biologists place special emphasis on maintaining lake conditions favorable for fish spawning and survival. Especially in the spring when it rains like it has since we arrived, lake level fluctuation must be minimized to assist spawning for largemouth bass and crappie.

In the particular camping area where we stayed, we found a blend of pine forest and hardwood bottom environments. This is perfect habitat for native wildflowers which are just now greeting Spring. We were able to view white-tailed deer, wild turkey and Canada geese along with some migratory waterfowl and tons of songbirds. It was a treat to sit outside in the morning with a cup of coffee trying to identify which songbird we were hearing. We use the Cornell University’s bird identifier App called Merlin on our iphone. We had loads of fun this morning playing the call of a Carolina Wren. It attracted a nice little male who hung around calling back to our smart phone and it also got Cracker the African Grey going inside the camper.  This is a bird watchers nirvana!

We are continually amazed at the work done by the Army Corp and the quality of their facilities. Thanks to all of our Ranger friends for taking such good care of these wild and beautiful places that inspire our souls!

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US Route 1

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Today is April 22, 2018 and the drive was extraordinary. It was a classic Sunday drive along US Route 1 in Georgia. We left camp at Laura Walker State Park early, before the other campers arose and headed out to our destination of Big Hart Campground in Thomson, Ga. Big Hart is an Army Corps facility, so we were excited to visit this park. Traveling friends have highly recommended it as a beautiful well-maintained campground on a nice lake.

Driving up US Route 1, we had the road to ourselves for hours. We passed very few cars and fewer big trucks, so it was a relaxing scenic Sunday ride. We actually had to stop and check our eyes because we thought we saw grass growing up out of the cracks in the road along one section of the highway. It seems that this smooth and straight highway doesn’t get a lot of the really hard traffic because there was indeed opportunistic clumps of grass peeking through the crack right down the middle of the road!

I imagined my Grandparents driving along this very same route nearly 60 years ago. They traveled from New Hampshire to St. Petersburg Florida each winter for many years to be with my Aunt Lorena. I wondered if their eyes rested on the same Georgia landscape as mine did today. I wondered which of the motels or cottages they might have stopped at. They sent postcards from motels along the way and I eargerly awaited word from them about where they were. Some of these old motels and cabins are still standing, although barely today.

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Along with the remains of motels and cabins, we saw many relics of old farmsteads  along the side of the road, suggesting that there are stories to be told about the families who raised cotton and corn in this area. Right now it is cabbage season and thousands of rows were all planted and ripening up. Last year’s cotton fields are yet to be planted and stand brown, dry and ready to be tilled for this years crop. We passed through Lyons, Vidalia and a really small town called Santa Claus, Ga. I had to send a Facebook shout out to our friend, Ernie Tedrow who is a member of the Florida Real Bearded Santas. I got an authentic, “Ho Ho Ho” back in return. If you are curious to know more about real bearded Santas (and you know you are) , follow this link. Ernie is featured in the story:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/off-season-santas-photos-mary-beth-koeth_us_578693e4e4b08608d332b350

Siri is a wonderful driving companion and we frequently use the Apple phone to ask questions about what we are seeing. One stretch of road was called the L.C. Shot Strange Highway. We just had to goggle that one and see what the back story was. It seems that L.C., commonly know as Shot,  was a farmer who went into local law enforcement and then later corrections. I couldn’t find out why he was nicknamed Shot, but one can only speculate. It seems he was a huge advocate for improvements to the highway we were traveling today. There may have been a bit of self-interest involved, but for today, we will just appreciate this nice road we have to travel.

We also asked Siri to explain what all of the white gourds hanging from poles and wires are in this area. She informed us that these are bird houses for Purple Martins and are placed strategically to attract this species of bird so that they can devour insects. Evidently, Purple Martins enjoy eating huge quantities of winged insects. They love to eat mosquitoes, beetles, flies, dragonflies and moths making them a farmers friend.

There are thousands of these gourd shaped houses along the way in people’s yards and also in the fields. It makes perfect sense to use a natural solution and we wouldn’t have know this tidbit. Thanks, Siri!


Heading back North with the temperature dropping with each mile we drive, I am getting into that New England frame of mind. We look forward to seeing the Ranger team at West Hill Dam again as well as getting caught up with all of our regular visitors to the park both human and canine. We’ve missed family and friends from the area and it will be so good to see them again. We miss the openness and the friendliness of our small town New England roots where four-way stops mean someone will kindly wave you on if you have Florida plates. Maybe they are just practicing caution and self-defense based on our Florida plates, but we chose to think they are being nice.

We have kept a New Hampshire 603 area code on our phone out of sheer convenience or some might say laziness. This means we occasionally get wrong numbers from people who live in New Hampshire. These are seldom short conversations. I don’t have it in me to just say, “Wrong number.” and then hang up. That’s just not New England friendly. Besides, it’s a small state and I probably know them or their neighbor or brother or aunt or someone close. Recently I spoke with a wrong number lady from Lisbon whose ride for her dialysis appointment was running late. She called to tell her sister-in-law that she was all plowed out and ready to be picked up, but evidently telling me was just as good. After chatting for a while, we parted by agreeing that it had been a hard winter in New Hampshire and Spring would be wicked welcome. Not that I would know, living in Florida, but I didn’t have breathing room in the conversation to share that. She’s clearly been cooped up for some time and was looking forward to getting out of the house for a few hours of dialysis.

Driving along today, Arnie and I were thinking about some of the quirks that we love about being back up north for the summer and how we’ve grown fond of living in Massachusetts for part of the year. I have some deep family history in the Milford area and running through my mind is the connection between some of the people we’ve met up there and some of my own quirky family. My Father was an outgoing guy and helpful to all in need. I couldn’t help but think of him in my pondering today. He was the kind of guy who always would stop what he was doing and lend a hand to whoever needed it. He had a big personality and was known by many of his friends as Big Ed.

Dad would have loved the local hardware store we go to near our summer campsite. It reminds me of the old Grossman’s in Plymouth NH. Last summer, during my visits to this store in Uxbridge, I noticed that the local residents who shopped at Koopmans for their hardware needs were very outgoing and helpful too. Unlike Florida where you couldn’t get help in Home Depot if you fainted, Koopmans is almost a social club in comparison. In fact, it was seldom that I stopped in there but what somebody spoke up and offered me assistance whether they worked there or not. I think that’s a northern thing that is very endearing. When folks see a perplexed look on your face in the hardware store they are compelled to stop and help. Sometimes I was just trying to decide between Elmers and Gorilla glue, but inevitably someone would stop and weigh in on my decision with a story about their Uncle who glued his fingers to the handle of the wood axe by mistake with Gorilla glue. I like to benefit from the wisdom of others and I sure don’t want to glue my fingers to a wood axe. Being forewarned is a good thing.

Grossman’s Hardware Sign | Wellesley, MA

Above is Grossmans in Plymouth NH and below is Koopmans in Uxbridge, Ma

 

Koopman Lumber & Hardware Uxbridge, Massachusetts Store
My Yankee ponderings on our beautiful Southern drive this morning made me think of my Mother too. I don’t look forward to being on high alert lookout for deer while driving in Massachusetts this summer. It’s something I give no thought to in Florida and my well honed antler instinct has faded away over the years. My eyes no longer flit back and forth when driving a back road at dusk. I have to remind myself that I know many folks who have acquired the title of Deerslayer unexpectedly on those windy back roads in New England. My own Mother has bragging rights for a bear that she hit last summer while out for groceries. I would have been in hysterics, but she called Arnie to tell him she had “a little excitement”. New Englanders are stoic and my Mother took the prize on that one!

Arnie and I have lived all over the place and our inherent New England accents have sort of worn off over the years, homogenized by listening to many languages and accents and living multiculturally. But it is a strange fact that as soon as we cross the Mass line, the New England accent kicks right back in and we settle into the vernacular. So it’s back to potholes, chilly nights, campfires, flannel shirts, chowda, an evening dip in the swimming hole and those loveable funny accents. We will pack away the letter r for the summer and it will all be wicked fun. Massachusetts here we come!

 

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