Books that save my life

 

My first ever book present I've got
My first book present I've ever got

When I was a fifth grader, my English teacher gave me a book as a present because I scored the highest in the class. The title was Keluarga Bahagia by Arswendo Atmowiloto. The story was simple, but profound enough for a 9 year-old me. It was about a working-class family who tried to stick together in the face of economy adversity and miserable fate (I had no idea if I was given this genre on purpose or not). I vaguely remember that I was amazed by Bonang, the eldest son of the family, who is stubborn, tough, and idealistic. But what I still have fresh in my mind is that the sensation after I devoured the book. I felt elevated and accompanied. And receiving such a present which made me feel that way was beyond my gratitude. 

It had ignited something in me.


My family was not particularly fancy about education, let alone reading. To them, education is a pathway to get a better life which is practically half true. But they have no idea that education without curiosity and hunger of knowledge is just like an empty shell. Even so, this is understandable if you’re struggling in most of your life making ends meet. For them books were considered tertiary necessity. As a result, they never asked me to read. They just told me to graduate and pass the exams. If swallowing a juice of burn book would do that, they would never object. For this matter I must eternally thank my eldest sibling for cultivating my passion in reading. He used to berate me for not reading a book at my pastime. When I got into my first year at junior high, he was about to graduate senior high school. He often brought lots of philosophical and literature books from his school to home and asked me to read what he had read. We were about six years different in age, but he always perceived me as an equal discussion partner. 

My eldest sibling was pretty much an intelligent student, yet rebellious. The headmaster once pushed him to skip two years of classes because he learned faster than the rest of his friends. After senior high school, he went to study Indonesian Literature and philosophy at a local university. He didn’t like being dictated and found his passion on what he chose for his study.

As the first kid in our family who bear the responsibility for being educated, he wanted his siblings to also feel his excitement. It was a good motivation, although in the other side I didn’t feel the excitement as he did. I mean, I took a book only as a pastime killer while his life was literally around books. His writings were also published on newspaper and magazine. No wonder later he also started pushing me to write. This is why he used to make a list of books and asked me to read them all and made a synopsis of each book. As if my homework wasn’t enough to occupy my leisure time. As time went by, I got used to his influences and enjoyed his books preference. I also found my sanctuary of freedom and imagination from reading books and therapeutic exercise from writing.

Disclaimer, I wouldn’t self-claim as a bookworm because I am not. Books have become an integral part of my journey to befriend the wallowing this life's absurdity. It’s part of my coping mechanism. There are times I feel excruciatingly painful about my life and worldview, but books give me deep stem of solace and water it with knowledge. I feel the book authors have tried to reconnect with the readers through life experiences and emotional vibrations. And sometimes I caught the connection. There are also times I feel despondent, but books give me an ounce of hope to make me keep going. Even a minuscule amount of hope is enough to make me keep going. When I feel terribly lost and perplexed, books crack me open into new possibilities. I am not exaggerating that books literally save my life. It's just lots of books shaped my perspective into who and what I am today, and I would never belittle their meaning in my life and its survivability. I really appreciate all writers and authors who are willing to genuinely extend their emotion to the readers. And without belittle every book that holds its own significance to their authors as a child to their parents, I want to single out seven books that I couldn’t live without. These books have saved me mentally from my darkest hours and pulled me up from the pit of despair and encouraged me to find back the strength I had lost.

Here we go.

7. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (translated into Bahasa Indonesia. 2005. Mizan Pustaka: Bandung).

When did I first read this? I first read this book in Bahasa Indonesia when I was in junior high. My eldest brother referred this book to me and insisted so that I finished it in a week. He promised me that the book was worthy of late-night reading. Within a week I had read this book twice. I read it before I went to sleep. I read it on public transportation. I read it on my school breaks. This book had succeeded in absorbing my time and energy and made me lose track of time. Years later I bought the original copy in English to trace back the feeling once flooded me long time ago.

What is it about? Into the Wild published in 1996 retells the non-fiction story of Chris McCandless who was fed-up with the society he had lived in. Jon Krakauer wrote this book based on a 1993 magazine article that he wrote retracing the steps of Christopher McCandless. Christopher McCandless was a restless young man who broke free from the demanding society through immersing himself in the wilderness. However, he was found dead in a bus in Alaska in 1992 due to starvation and food poisoning after several years spent travelling across the United States. It was obvious that at such a young age Chris McCandless left his stable life to find some enlightenment. Here is the best favorite part of the book:

“The fact that I survived my Alaska adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance; had I not returned from the Stikine Ice Cap in 1977, people would have been quick to say of me – as they now way of him -  that I had a death wish. Eighteen years after the event, I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and an appalling innocence, certainly; but I wasn’t suicidal.

At the stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn’t yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who’d entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. I couldn’t resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.

In my case – and, I believe, in the case of Chris McCandless – that was a very different thing from wanting to die.”

(Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild, pg. 169-170)

How does it affect me? This book left a 15-year-old me speechless. I once used to feel that we were living in a society that demanded us to run in a rat race for fulfilling the desired, standardized lifestyle and homogenous achievements. We were mostly raised to meet people’s expectation. This book had ignited inexplicable affection to liberate myself from this societal ankle bracelet. It nurtured my inclination to wander in nature and wilderness and burnt something within me that piled up the voraciousness in reading books by Soe Hok Gie, Aldo Leopold, Arnes Naess, Gola Gong, Jules Verne, John Muir, David Wallace-Wells, and Bill Bryson.

I have respect for Chris McCandless who chose to live bravely and whose life was worth living. I was obsessed with the freedom that he attempted to obtain. I adored his courage to make non-mainstream decisions. I envied his willingness and determination to take risks. He tried to break the societal chain by owning his own life and venturing out in the nature. It has impacts to me since then. I learned to control my urge to get validation from society. Instead of voluntarily walking into social trophy competition, I learned to walk my life to my own path.

 

6. Wild by Cheryl Strayed. 2013.

When did I first read it? I read it in early 2015 when I nearly gave up my thesis. At time I was doing my research thesis and I felt overwhelmed by the scope of it. I was still working as a journalist and felt tremendously exhausted by juggling between studying and working. I kept asking myself why I had chosen that topic as my research and why I had to go extra miles to finish my degree. I clearly remember that I have had enough of my thesis for six consecutive months which made me decide to take a full month to get away from my thesis and recharge my energy. I went to Malang and while there I was browsing around at a local bookstore and voila, I found this book. It caught my eyes as the shopkeeper recommended this book that had been adapted into a movie (the movie was also beautifully detoxifying).

What is it about? The book is a memoir about Cheryl Strayed who at 22 years old lost her mother. While grasping in the reality of her mother’s death, she also felt losing herself in it. Her family scattered, her own marriage was gradually destroyed, and she found herself in the drug and sex addiction that dragged her far from her strongest self. Four years later, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. She went to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – and she did it alone without prior experience or training.

Here is my favorite page:

“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but this whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness – hadn’t even understood how vas a mile could be – until each mile was beheld at walking speed.”

(Cheryl Strayed, Wild, pg. 119)

How does it affect me? Significantly. In context of self-discovery journey, I learned to acknowledge that women have been struggling much more than men in this patriarchal society. Cheryl’s mother was in an abusive relationship with her husband and it affected Cheryl as well. When her mother died, her world was tearing apart. Mother usually plays a center in gluing family together. Losing the only figure in the family is impacting the entire family members in an unbelievable way.

Somehow, I felt the same connection. I felt incredibly close with my grandma. So, when she passed away, my half of me went dead with her. My whole life suddenly became emptier and purposeless. My grief was bottled up and mixed with rage, anger, disappointment, and any other emotions I had once neglected.

This book had accompanied me during my field study for nearly six months in the biggest national park in East Java. When I was bored and between breaks, I flipped between pages and tried to reiterate the meaning of being alone in the wilderness: to rediscover who I am. This book was like a close friend that helps me immerse in the nature. When I walked into the woods, my thoughts flooded my head, memories that still linger appear more vividly, hope that wants to burn surges gradually, and the presence I once really long for slowly grows stronger. This book has pushed me strongly to fall into the pit of self-acceptance and forgiveness.

Cheryl Strayed has shown herself that everyone who has lost their ways can find their way back. And I second that. In the end I kept going and finished my thesis and partly because of this book that kept me motivated. I also started to deepen my liking for backpacking alone after reading this.

Being alone is fine, really. That’s why in 2017 when I thought I had lost myself during my trip in Australia, I asked people at home to send this book to where I resided that time in Darwin. Not because I couldn’t afford to buy another copy, simply because I had lots of markings and writings on the book to remind me of my own self-resilience. And I can attest to anyone that nature indeed helps people heal.

 

5.  Essays and Aphorism by Arthur Schopenhauer. Selected by R. J. Hollingdale. 1970.

When did I first read it? I read this book in 2014 when I was still living in the Netherlands. I was introduced to Schopenhauer’s works when I attended a philosophy course. Yes, I skipped my mandatory classes and attended another class irrelevant with my course. Then, I tried to borrow all his works at university library and decided to buy one at a local bookstore because apparently two weeks were not sufficient for me to completely absorb even just one book.

What is it about? Essays and Aphorisms is a selection of assorted cookies you like, mostly depicting the taste of humanity locked in a struggle beyond good and evil which highlights that each individual is absolutely free within a Godless world, in which art, morality, and self-awareness are our only salvation. It ranges from On the Suffering of the World, On the Vanity of Existence, On Suicide, On Women, even On Psychology and Religion. It’s originally selected from his writings that he gave name Parerga and Paralipomena which aims to introduce the reader unfamiliar with the splendors and miseries of German metaphysics as reflected in the mirror of the author’s life.

These selected writings possess the notion that human action is determined not by reason, but by will which he referred to the blind and irrational desire for physical existence.

A page that chokes my throat:

“Our existence has no foundation on which to rest except the transient present. Thus, its form is essentially unceasing motion, without any possibility of that repose switch we continually strive. It resembles the course of a man running down the mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on; or a pole balanced on the tip of the finger; or a planet which would fall into it suns if it ever ceased to plunge irresistibly forward. Thus, existence is typified by unrest. In such a world, where no stability of any kind, no enduring state is possible, where everything is involved in restless change and confusion and keeps itself on its tightrope only by continually striding forward – in such a world, happiness is not so much as to be thought of.”

(Schopenhauer, On The Vanity of Existence, pg. 52)

How does it affect me? I perceive myself as a pessimistic person with a tinge of hope. When I was still an undergraduate student, I was exposed to various philosophers’ works, but only on the surface. None of them was Schopenhauer’s either. Reading Schopenhauer’s works have amplified that side of me I never understood. I should emphasize that he has consequentially influenced my worldview since long time ago.

Because it is a selection of assorted cookies that you like, you can pick any cookies of whatever mood you’re currently feeling. When you’re in the mood for laughing your sufferance, you go pick On the Suffering of the World, or On the Vanity of Existence. When you want to dissect your misogynistic parenting childhood, you go pick On Women (although I’m sure enough he wasn’t a feminist, but he treated all women the same). When you have time only for yourself, you go pick On Thinking for Yourself.

The thing I like the most about this book is that it leads you to your self-acceptance without subjugating to his major notions. I know this sounds impossible because when we get influenced by someone, we will take at least a minuscule part of his notion into our subconsciousness. But he let that go. It’s like if you dislike the taste of the cookies he created, you’re always allowed to create your own cookies with your modification and alteration.

He also wrote this:

“The life of the plants consists in simple existence: so that their enjoyment of life is a purely and absolutely subjective, torpid contentment. With the animals there enters knowledge: but it is still entirely restricted to what serves their motivation. That is why they too find complete contentment in simple existence and why it suffices to fill their entire lives; so that they can pass many hours completely inactive without feeling discontented or impatient, although they are not thinking but merely looking. Inly in the very cleverest animals such as dogs and apes do the need for activity and with that boredom, make itself felt… “

(On the Philosophy and the Intellect, pg. 127)

He talked about calming plants and lazy cats (I am no longer shading my two cat fellows whose laziness is apparently part of their true nature). If Schopenhauer were still alive, I would really befriend him or might apply as one of his disciples or apprentices (although I have so much doubt he would accept me as any of those anyway). This book had pushed me to read more philosophy books in terms of knowing myself and world around me including Nietzsche’s, Wittgenstein’s, Kierkegaard’s, Tanabe’s, Heidegger’s, Zizek’s, Feyerabend’s, etc. This book contributed largely into the foundation of my moral and philosophical worldview.

 

4. We Are Going To Die by Dr. Leah Kaminsky. 2016.

When did I first read it? In 2017 when I was on my career break backpacking in Australia. During my day-off in Darwin, I got used to stroll around its limited entertainment area. So, I randomly went inside a local bookstore and got my eyes on this book. I even asked my twitter friends to help me pick this out of three other books (which in the end I bought them all anyway).

What is it about? The title is obvious enough. We. Are. All. Going. To. Die. The title is the stark realities of death. It’s gloomy and grim with a colorful cover to cleverly camouflaging the heavy contents of the book. Strangely enough, this book is also consoling. Death is certain, but our society has come in an invisible agreement to deny talking about it as if by doing so it will go away. This book opens my eyes that through ageing we tend to crave living longer and healthier, but we in contrary find ourselves unprepared for the death of family and our end as well. Dr Kaminsky addresses this issue by sharing her story when dealing with her patients and challenges our fears of death and dying.

A page that slaps me in the face:

“We often refer to someone who dies soon after their partner as having ‘died of a broken heart’. This is also the case after the loss of a child or other person with whom a deep connection was forged during their lives. The period of intense grief experienced in the aftermath of a loved one’s death places us under extremes emotional stress. Until recently, though, little research has been focused on the actual physical effects of grieving for the loss of someone who has been very dear to us. Recent studies have begun to unveil some interesting results. One paper concluded that the circumstances of a loved one’s death play a critical role in how the grieving person’s physiology response can be enormous; heart attacks are responsible for more than half of deaths in surviving spouses and parents during the period of their intense grieving after a sudden, traumatic bereavement.”

(Kaminsky, We Are Going To Die, pg. 240)

How does it affect me? Never have I ever in my life felt depressed or had tendency to speed-forward my life to death. Maybe I was just lucky that I seemed to know how to cope with the ugliness of life. Maybe death is simply majestic enough and without my help, it is always inevitable in picking up whoever he wants. Don't get me wrong, I am fond of this beautiful/ugly life.

This book helps me rediscover my core in joy of living. It helps me cope with my pent-up grief. It is beautifully compelling and with right exercises it encourages me to embrace the fact that by facing and accepting people’s death as well as our inevitable death, I can learn to truly enjoy the present moment in a fearless and truthful way, and relearn how to fetch a genuine smile after a traumatic event in life. At the end of the day not being able to share our thoughts about mortality can lead to feelings of isolation. Therefore, the more openly we talk about death and grief caused by it, the less pain we bury.

 

3. Catatan Seorang Demonstran by Soe Hok Gie. 2005.

When did I first read it? When I was in first year of my senior high school. This book was supposed to be a present from me to my eldest brother, but he gave it back to me after finished reading it. He thought I needed it more than he did and he 100% was right about it.

What is it about? This book is a daily journal of Soe Hok Gie who a Chinese Indonesian activist opposing the dictatorships of Soekarno and Soeharto. His journal entries fall into six categories: The Activist, His Childhood, The Adolescence, The Activism, The Journals of An Activist, The Trip to United States, Politics, Party, and Love, and Finding Meaning in Life.

Here some words that keep me alive day by day:

“Bagiku ada sesuatu yang paling berharga dan hakiki dalam kehidupan” dapat mencintai, dapat iba hati, dapat merasai kedukaan”. Tanpa itu semua maka kita tidak lebih dari benda. Berhabahgialah orang yang masih mempunyai rasa cinta, yang belum sampai kehilangan benda yang paling bernilai itu. Kalau kita telah kehilangan itu maka absurd-lah hidup kita.”

(Soe Hok Gie, Catatan Seorang Demonstran, pg. 91)

How does it affect me? This book essentially helped me find who I am now. The quintessential lesson this book has taught me is to keep on writing. I have no audacity to compare my journal entries with him. Absolutely no, mine is mostly rubbish. But it keeps me track of my experiences and emotions. We also share the same affinity in wilderness and nature, so more or less I felt some connection when reading his entries. This book has saved my life from useless life quotidian and solidified my bravery in venturing the unknown. Well, Soe Hok Gie had a complicated relationship and it has proven well that he was also a functioning human being. This is also depicted on his writings. This book also unlocked my door into reading books by Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and many more.


2. La Tahzan by DR. ‘Aidh al-Qarni. 2003.

When did I first read it? When I was in junior high school, I saw my mom crying reading this. When I asked her what she was reading, she gave this book to me. I thought it was odd. The title is a literal meaning of don't be sad, but my mom was clearly pouring her tears. It piqued my interest to also read the book rigth away.

What is it about? This book is very consoling and heart-warming. It is rooted in the commandments of Allah SWT and the Sunnah. It is full of practical advice on how to replace sadness with a pragmatic and ultimately satisfying Islamic outlook on life.  

“Pain is not always a negative force and it is not something that you should always hate. At times a person benefits when he feels pain. You might remember that, at times when you felt a lot of pain, you sincerely supplicated and remembered Allah. When he is studying, the student often feels the pangs of heavy burden, sometimes perhaps the burden of monotony, yet he eventually leaves this stage of life a scholar. He felt burdened with pain at the beginning, but he shined at the end. The aches and pangs of passion, the poverty and the scorn of others, the frustration and anger at injustices – these al cause the poet to write flowing and captivating verses. This is because he himself feels pain in his heart, in his nerves, and in his blood, and as a result he is able to infuse the same emotions, via his work, into the hearts of theirs. How many painful experiences did the best writers have to undergo, experiences that inspired brilliant works, works that posterity continues to enjoy and benefit from today.

The student who lives the life of comfort and repose and who is not stung by hardships, or who has never been afflicted with calamity will be an unproductive, lazy, and lethargic person.”

(DR. ‘Aidh al-Qarni, La Tahzan, pg. 80)

 

How does it affect me? I remember when I was in senior high school, I was hit by existential crisis and felt an intense epistemological turmoil. I questioned my existence as I pondered how my significance could matter. I reached out to people who only belittled my restlessness due to my age. At time I read this book over and over, but only considered it as religious motivational quotes. It didn’t reach out to me. My questions were buried deeply as I was occupied with daily activities.

Ten years later during my living in the Netherlands. My mom reticently slipped this book into my luggage (she later confessed to me she was afraid of me getting some exposed into some atheistic thoughts). I read it over, but still didn’t comprehend. To think about it now, I realized that it was me who hadn’t had the plugins to decipher the meaning in that book. I simply wasn’t there yet to understand the book.

Time went by and I met lots of people that had contributed to help me answering my questions both implicitly and explicitly. It started to shed a light during my backpacking in Australia. I met this guy who was living poorly due to his disability. He was a refuge from a country that was in incessant war. He moved to Australia for a better living. Despite his disability, he still worked finely and admitted that he was happy. He stated that everything is destined as it is meant to be. He never got angry why God made him that way. I mistakenly saw this as a complacency, while I understood later that his action was an action of soaring gratitude.

Then it took me back in 2014 when I was in Paris. I wasn’t living long there, but I met lots of believers who instilled so much meaning into my life. One day I needed to go back to the Netherlands because the university exam started soon. I panicked and tried to book tickets to go back to Amsterdam. But I realized my money wasn’t enough. So, I tried cheap busses, but they were sold out. I went to the closest train station and it was also fully booked. I almost cried. But then this gentleman came over and asked what my problem was. I told him everything, and he just patted me on my back while saying, “Have faith.”

Not long after that, my friend emailed me a link for cheap bus ticket that was still available for me to go back and arrive on the same day. Another thing, I wrote how I was helped by local people during the completion of my research. They always asked me to go to the mosque with them. It felt like the entire universe was in align to signal me something. No matter how hard I think it all as of a mere series of coincidences, deep down in my heart I know it wasn’t.

I have been on a journey of rediscovering the purpose of my life. I took a meandering road, sometimes a long detour. In terms of spiritualism and theism, I thought I was a nonbeliever. There was a period in my life that I intentionally drove away from what I had believed (may God forgive me). I have tried to forge a way to disconnect with everything I know. I even asked myself to unbelieve which only led me into believing more strongly. It’s ridiculously funny. After all these years, I cannot repudiate the fact that I am a firm believer and will be one for the rest of my life. Sure thing is my faith goes up and down. But of all the things I am uncertain of in my life, this is the only thing I am certain. The most intimate connection when I surrender all to Him and ask His guidance to navigate my life in a way that I have no control over.

In the end, it gradually started to make sense.

Why my mom cried even though she claimed she wasn’t sad at all? It was like feeling that surged up when I was watching sunset on the beach or savoring sunrise from the top of a mountain. When I was in the middle of soaring ocean wind breeze. When I was touched by a little, simple heartwarming gesture. I cried, but I didn’t feel any sadness at all. I was flooded with gratitude of joy and insignificance.

Don't be sad. Cry your heart out, but don't be sad.

La Tahzan Innallaha Ma'ana. Don't be sad, Allah is with us (Q.S. 9:40).

 

1. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. 2014.

When did I first read it? In 2019. I had just finished my backpacking years and got back to Indonesia for good. I started rebuilding my career through freelance works. When I was about to go for a field trip for a long time, I stopped by at Periplus in Kemang to get some books as my companion. Fascinated by its title, I included this book in my basket.

What is it about? This book is simply disturbing. In a good, healthy way. Psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk reveals how neglected trauma and unpleasant memories can be harmful to our brain and boy and disturbs our body function. He wrote five parts: The Rediscovery of Trauma, This is Your Brain on Trauma, The Minds of Children, The Imprint of Trauma, Paths to Recovery.

The book also provides many real stories of how people cope with their trauma.

Warning: this book isn’t your psychologist. If you need professional help, go see one.

A page that helps me through hard days:

“At the core of recovery is self-awareness. The most important phrases in trauma therapy are “Notice that” and “What happens next?”. Traumatized people live with seemingly unbearable sensations: They feel heartbroken and suffer from intolerable sensations in the pot of their stomach or tightness in the chest. Yet avoiding feeling these sensations in our bodies increases our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.

Body awareness puts us in touch with our inner world, the landscape of our organism. Simply noticing our annoyance, nervousness, or anxiety immediately helps us shift our perspective and opens up new options other than our automatic, habitual reactions. Mindfulness puts us in touch with the transitory nature of our feelings and perceptions. When we pay focused attention to our bodily sensations, we can recognize the ebb and flow of our emotions, and, with that, increase our control over them.

(The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, pg. 208)

How does it affect me? Tremendously. This book is a gem. I am still rereading it sometimes. Everyone has unpleasant memories, or even trauma. Some go through their lives by numbing it and being desensitized because of the unbearable pain caused by it. This book helps people navigate my memories and unrealized traumatic events. In my case this book has helped me understand part of myself I don't know before such as psychological and physical effects caused by traumatic experiences.  To deal with trauma, we need to accept first we have one. This is the basic rule of acceptance. I learned an ample of lessons from this book. It elaborates how our body and mind respond to traumas and emit emotional outburst and steps to overcome it by acknowledging it. It also explains how mindfulness can scientifically ease the trauma (along with prescribed medication).

All I can say is that this book helps you realize and feel again, that the path to recovery is owning yourself again.

 

So, to conclude this overly long post, I’m emphasizing with two sentences. First, books are my lifesavers. Second, as my English teacher would say, “Books are your true companions in seeking knowledge.”

Adios.

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