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Family Matters

How do you find out about your ancestors?

Thirteen asked me a few days ago about her heritage. How would she, she wanted to know, go about drawing a family tree? We talked a little bit about the family members who have completed genealogy studies—and then I asked her: what’s your interest? “I just want to know where I come from.”

Hers is a good and fundamental need to know. In part, I’m certain, she’s hoping there’s an exotic ancestor or a drop or two of royal blood in our past. And I suppose, if just about anyone traced back far enough, there would be both princes and pirates in some part of the family bloodline.

Our ancestry is mostly European, mostly western, with one significant branch of the family arriving just about the turn of the last century from Lebanon. My light-haired, blue-eyed children don’t look it, but they are one-eighth Lebanese.

My extended family isn’t awfully close and those drops of blood meant little when I was growing up. I had no bloodline connection to my most interactive grandparent, Norma Bourjaily, nor to my Aunt Eileen, married to my father’s younger brother—my Unca Paul (—for sixty-six years. But this remarkable woman, a tiny dynamo, was a relative life force in my world. It is her life I remember today, celebrating her memory in light of her death late last month.

Unca Paul & Aunt Eileen, taken by another wonderful relative, Uncle Hale.

Unca Paul & Aunt Eileen, taken by another wonderful relative, Uncle Hale.

My Aunt was 96 when she died—the math reveals that I met her for the first time when she was my age today, 50. It was my first visit to their big house full of treasures in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but it would not be nearly the last. My Aunt and Uncle lived halfway from our Iowa home to the East Coast; so, they were the logical stopover any time we drove East. As a college student I was guilty of calling just a day or two before I would be arriving, of bringing friends or—once—a springer spaniel with me with even less notice, and of arriving late and leaving early. Nonetheless, with steadfast good humor, my Aunt always had a freshly made bed, clean towels, and a delicious meal awaiting my arrival. In the mornings, after our visit and breakfast, she would bustle around her kitchen in order to send me off with extras—a banana and a muffin, a bottle of water, a baggie of trail mix. If my adult cousins were in town, they would be summoned for my visit. Each time I would promise that the next time I’d stay longer or arrive at a decent hour. And off I would go, destined to repeat the pattern over and over.

My Aunt’s care packages sometimes included treasures: family photos; gifts for the folks at home; and once, the Pre-Columbian figure my blood paternal grandmother, a woman I never met but from whom I inherited both writing and yoga, wore around her neck for years. In my current mood of clearing out, I ponder especially the items that I will keep for my children. The most important, I believe, are the things that will connect them to their history, a sense of who they are. So although it’s not a piece I can picture myself wearing, the stone woman sticks alongside copies for each of them of my grandmother’s book. I am especially grateful to my Aunt for sharing this little figure with me.

Remembering—the kind of time travel our minds allow—is another gift. My Aunt, long before her mental acuity was compromised, had memory slips when she talked. Stretching for a word but not wanting to stall in the middle of a thought, she would replace the word with a charming little hmmm or the phrase “kind of thing.” If the word truly escaped her, she would put these together, “It’s a hmmm kind of thing.” And somehow, I like to think because we were related, I would always know precisely what she was talking about.

It felt odd to me to miss posting on the last full super moon, when there was a lunar eclipse no less. Driving my mother in the convertible to see easily the eclipse, conveniently timed in the 9pm hour, I saw neighbors out watching. The moon is my favorite rock, and that night it felt really good to celebrate its majesty in community with so many people. And somehow it was okay skipping that particular post, just as it feels really good now to sit across from Sixteen at a coffee shop, writing in celebration of my dear departed Aunt and a whole new cycle of the moon. Happy new moon—on our way to the Hunter’s or Travel moon. Thanks, as ever, for sharing the journey with me, Rxo


Birthday Mala

Birthday Mala
What's better than a question mark!?

What’s better than a question mark!?

Who’s sending you all of these?

My first Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) in nearly three months was Sunday, July 12, eight weeks after hand surgery on the index finger knuckle of my left hand (please see and I was warm from thirty easy minutes on my treadmill, my hand tender and still puffy. I took myself through Surya Namaskar (a salute to the sun), ten straightforward poses that might be taught in an intro to yoga class. I took myself through a second. When I completed the third, I thought of BKS Iyengar, who told my teacher: three poses make a practice. Three rounds of Surya Namaskar. In spite of the uncertainty and pain in my hand, I felt really good, ready for my day.

(In English, a basic sun salutation starts standing tall. Lift your arms and fold all the way forward, lift your torso to a flat back, your hands sliding up your shins, bring your hands back to the floor and step or hop back to plank (top of a pushup), then lower your heart to the floor. Lift that heart in a small backbend. Soften out and lift your hips to an upside down V, that’s downward facing dog, the pose from which I was restricted both pre- and post surgery (no weight-bearing on my hand). Step or hop forward, create the half lift, soften back to forward fold and sweep your hands to the sky, coming back to mountain pose standing straight and tall, hands at your sides.)

The next day, I walked again on my treadmill, and then again I did three more sun salutations. And three more the day after that. I was feeling shaky in my plank, lowering my heart to the floor meant dropping to my knees first, and I could barely hold downward facing dog, the pain making my hand wobble. But I couldn’t get over how good this simple practice made me feel—centered and thoughtful, able to scoop my cat onto my shoulders (she waits for me right outside the door of the room where my treadmill is) and head up to cheerfully greet the day.

I consulted the calendar and realized I had gotten lucky. By the time I had started it was less than fifty days before my fiftieth birthday, so I couldn’t complete a challenge like fifty yoga poses in fifty days. But with the right math, there was enough time for a Mala. Mala is the Sanskrit for garland, and the traditional practice is 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar (albeit with more jumping and ramped up versions of my plank and backbend). My calendar showed that three-per-day six-days-a-week would get me to the Friday before my birthday. It seemed an auspicious way to move toward that big five-oh and rehabilitate my hand all at the same time.

What started out choppy and challenging became smoother. I added in a hop. I lowered down more easily each day. I was re-gathering strength and flexibility. I started to practice more fully with my yoga classes, too, encouraging my body to move in ways that were at once familiar and refreshing. I felt, too, some of the benefits of the “yoga marathon,” what we sometimes call the 108 practice when it’s performed all at once time. My daily practice was connecting my days, which often feel disjointed, giving them a comforting unity. The challenge to complete the Mala was all that kept me going at first, but soon I found the practice so compelling that the few times I did not get up and go right to my treadmill, I made the time later in the day.

At the end of the fourth week, four postcards arrived in my mailbox. They were each different, colorful and wonderful art, each addressed in lively different colored markers, each decorated in the part where you’d write a note with a two-inch letter. H, A, P, and P arrived all in a clump, and I set them next to my bed with an unconfirmed suspicion about who the sender might be.

The next day came Y, and it was time to share the goodness. I arrayed the postcards, picture side up, for each of my family members. Then I flipped them one by one, spelling out H-A-P-P-Y. Indeed, this gift was making me exceedingly happy. I posed with the Y for my Facebook profile picture, sharing my excitement with my online world.

When 5 and –th appeared next, Thirteen helped me put up a string in our kitchen where I attached the letters that had come so far. Each day I got excited about checking the mail; each day there was a new delight or a new mystery—where was T, what would come after the comma—unfolded.

In the basement in the mornings, I kept to my Mala; upstairs in the afternoons I hung more postcards on my garland.

The last week of my Surya Namaskar practice I started counting down in my head—only eighteen more, then fifteen, twelve, nine … I thought at nine about polishing them off in one go—I have done 108 in one session a number of times—but decided it was more important to stick to the pattern I had set for myself. After not quite six weeks I could reliably lower down from my toes, jump into plank, and lift from my backbend to downward facing dog without lowering through the middle. Still, three sun salutations felt measured and right, a practice I had and could sustain, even if afterwards I sometimes worked in another pose.

The final N of my name arrived two days before my birthday. A package came, too, from the number one suspect. The N postcard announced that it wasn’t the end, in tiny letters scrunched to the side of my address. What could be left?

My fiftieth birthday was a Sunday. I woke at nearly my normal too-early time; the house was dark and quiet. I thought about turning over and going back to sleep, but something urged me out of bed. I soft-footed my way down to the treadmill, realized that I couldn’t lie to it and punched in 50 when it asked my age, walked for 35 minutes at 3.8 mph and a 1.5% grade, walked my cool down, peeled off my socks and stepped onto my mat. Lifting my hands over my head, I folded to the earth. Three rounds of Surya Namaskar and I was on my way upstairs, a new garland and a new half-century ahead of me.

The complete garland--so beautiful I can't bear to take it down!

The complete garland–so beautiful I can’t bear to take it down!

The day after my birthday, the final postcard, an exclamation mark composed of books, arrived. In tiny print on two of the books, the masterpiece is signed, “Love from, Diana.” Thank you, thank you to the Lady with the Magic Van—your magic extends far beyond your vehicle. I love the way my birthday Malas linked the time before and the time after. Just like the phases of the moon bring me back to you, dear reader, at the same time they move us all forward. Happy full sturgeon moon, Rxo

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

How was your trip?

The Big Apple Circus is a one-ring spectacular famed for taking excellent care of their animal and human performers. When Thirteen and Sixteen were just about Two and barely Five, we drove from our urban home in Bethesda to rural Maryland where the circus was performing in their tent, erected in a vast field. It was a late-afternoon into the evening performance and I remember the worries: would they stay awake? Was it too much money to spend on tickets for people so young? Would they enjoy the performance? Would the clowns scare them? What would they eat for dinner? About half-way through the evening, when Five was sitting on his father’s lap and Two was on mine, so that each of them could see better over the heads in front of us, they were leaning forward, eyes wide, completely absorbed. Tears sprang to my eyes and I thought, sometimes, sometimes as a parent you get to get it completely right.

Intrepid travelers

Intrepid travelers

I felt the same way over and over again touring Spain with my teenagers this summer. Two weeks took us to Madrid, Córdoba,

Sixteen and Thirteen at the Alhambra

Sixteen and Thirteen at the Alhambra

Granada, Barcelona, Valencia, and back to Madrid. We marveled at some of the most visited tourism sites in Spain, including the Alhambra and the Sagrada Familia, and enjoyed the markets, the grocery stores, and hanging laundry on the line out of our apartment window. We learned about hotel rooms where you have to insert the key card in the slot just inside the door to make the electricity work and sometimes struggled to find wifi as reliable as that which we are used to. We rode in taxis, buses, trains, shuttles, and even a Spanish airplane, and we walked in the surprise summer heat wave so much that Sixteen came home five pounds lighter in spite of eating every wonderful thing imaginable and ice cream nearly every afternoon around five or six. (My treat was sangria, almost every night with dinner. Yum.)

There were speed bumps, naturally, like the flight to Madrid that left Atlanta nearly five hours late, in part because Sixteen was held at the gate while the Delta employees struggled to figure out what had become of his suitcase. We each took our turns feeling grumpy and out of sorts, and there were a few scary what-will-we-eat moments, like the free tapa that was a dish of batter-fried fish, complete with their heads. But most of the time the trip was charmed, and even things that might try our patience around home, like waiting in line nearly two hours for train tickets, became interesting as we considered how we would ask for what we wanted in Spanish when it was our turn.rowing

We stayed in apartments in Madrid and Barcelona. In Madrid, especially, it made us feel like locals, on the residential side of the most beautiful Parque del Retiro, where Sixteen ably rowed us around the lake and a turn around any corner brought us to another glorious fountain.



The cathedral in Córdoba and the Alhambra in Granada were inspiring. But the flamenco trio we lucked into in Córdoba and the sales women in the tourist shop who knocked a few Euro cents off Thirteen’s purchase when they saw she was paying herself were the delights we couldn’t anticipate, just enjoy as they occurred. It was with real pleasure, too, that we navigated the country without a car of our own, settling in to read and write and daydream or nap during our journeys from place to place.

It’s been forty years since I saw Barcelona. In the taxi from the airport I was stunned—the joyful creativity of the architecture clicked into place, the landscape of my dreams making sense after all these years. Top that with sitting in the café where Picasso sat with his friends, and I couldn’t have been any happier.

Picasso was here!

Picasso was here!

If it was hard to leave Barcelona, it was with pure bliss that we splashed in the Mediterranean Sea. And the day following may have been the most charmed of all—back to Madrid by train, the perfect paella, twentieth-century art at the Sofia Reina museum, and an upgrade on our birthday-gift last-night rooms at the Airport Hilton to the elegant and massive Presidential Suite.

We planned and saved for this trip for two years. To work for such a trip, enjoy it fully and then arrive home is to set the last period on a chapter. That is, all except the telling about it afterwards and the distilling of all that we learned—the gifts of travel. These include the valuable lesson of setting a goal and making it happen; the intrigue of being plunged into a foreign culture and noting the similarities and differences; the opening the door on the world to my children; the contrast of a technological developmental arc that’s different from the one we’re used to; and the opportunity to be completely present, somewhere new and unknown. Here at home, it almost seems like a fantasy already.

Back home on my treadmill, confused like a newborn about day and night by jetlag, I rubbed my eyes, not comprehending how it was that the credits for the show that I had just finished could be in Spanish. Were my electronics playing tricks on me? I noticed the same phenomenon the next day and it was then I realized that no, it was not a trick. Those Spanish credits rolled every time, right at the end of the broadcast, but I had never watched all the way to the end before. And at that moment I realized that bright eyes, eyes that can see the familiar in new light, are among the greatest gifts of travel, alongside renewed and replenished hope for the future and my faith that all will be well.

My hand is healing, and it felt great not to drag my computer around Spain, but it’s wonderful to be writing again. Thanks for your understanding that life’s events mandated a break from OverneathItAll. Full and new moons have come and gone since I last posted, but the crescent moon hung huge and low in the western sky last night and I’m celebrating summer along with you. Thank you, as ever, for sharing a bit of my journey. Namaste, Rxo

... paella!

… paella!

Salad, Sangria ...

Salad, Sangria …

Gaudi, oh how did you ever think of this?

Gaudi, oh how did you ever think of this?

One of the soaring windows of the Sagrada Familia

One of the soaring windows of the Sagrada Familia

The Alhambra

The Alhambra

Parco del Retiro

Parco del Retiro

Wicked Good

Wicked Good

Well, we can’t all come and go by bubble. Whose invention was that, the Wizard’s?

From the moment our feet first stepped onto the street labeled Broadway, Twelve’s eyes were enormous. When she’s excited she makes a noise at that register that causes dogs to bark, which might be recorded as “Squeeee,” except the squ- is silent. Her pace quickened and her grip on my arm tightened. “I’m on Broadway. I’m actually on Broadway and going to see a real Broadway show.”

Our seats in the Gershwin Theater were three escalators up. There isn’t much of a lobby in most Broadway Theaters I’ve been to, and while this one isn’t an exception, it is the largest house in all of Broadway, with 1933 seats. When we arrived at ours in the first balcony, just high enough that we could see the splendor of everything, nearly every other seat was full. A mechanical dragon with glowing red eyes spread its wings across the top of the curtain, hanging over the audience, and the curtain, with the Emerald City shimmering green at the center of the map wavered ever so slightly. When that same curtain rose revealing Munchkinland, Twelve’s jaw dropped.

Wicked is a perfect musical for a girls’ weekend in New York. With its strong messages about friendship and sisterhood and animal sanctity and what it means to be different and that the real story isn’t always what it seems, it kept us on the edges of our seats from beginning to end. We loved the monkeys that really flew, the dragon that came to life at dramatic moments, the smoke, the voices, the orchestra, the lights, and the tidy allusions to the original Wizard of Oz story that Twelve will dance in here in Des Moines in just two weeks’ time. But perhaps my favorite line (aside from the spiteful, It seems the artichoke is steamed) came when Glinda questions the very green Elphaba about her broomstick. Elphaba hurls back, “Well we can’t all come and go by bubble.”

And while it’s true that we travel neither by enormous shimmery soap bubbles as sets down the movie Glinda to the awe of the munchkins nor by mechanical clockwork pendulum spewing bubbles as brought our matinee Glinda to the stage, when Elphaba spat those words at her friend I thought to myself, yes, we sort of can.
Because my trip to New York with Twelve was such a charmed experience that we might as well have been traveling by bubble. Cozy together we visited friends on Long Island and then tucked into the Brooklyn apartment of a friend of thirty-five years. Gretchen and I were put together by our fathers, colleagues in the English Department at the University of Arizona. And while we both resisted the notion that we could be set up as friends, from the moment we met we were the best of buddies. All these years later we have both those early ties and an evolution of our friendship that we cherish. To my unending delight, my peeps love Gretchen as much as I do and vice versa, so she made her own version of Squeee when I floated the idea of a spring break trip to see her.

Whether on the subway or in the snow that fell in earnest on New York City on the first day of spring, at tea at Alice’s Tea Cup or having a mini-hand spa at Soapology, connecting with still more friends in an Irish pub or stepping out to purchase green bagels and finding ourselves cheering for a St. Patrick’s Day parade, it felt to me exactly like we were coming and going by bubble. Some moments we pursued specific plans, others we floated along, from one mystical land to another. But it wasn’t the Wizard’s invention that moved us from place to place and it wasn’t limited to spring break magic … the bubble I traverse the world in is a bubble of love.

Pictures from the trip follow below. The new moon rose when we were enjoying New York on the spring equinox complete with several inches of wet, slushy snow. Nonetheless, spring IS springing, even though it may not always be in the most obvious manner. Happy Spring wherever you are & whatever your weather. As ever, thank you for reading, Rxoxo

Our mad tea party at Alice's Tea Cup

Our mad tea party at Alice’s Tea Cup

central park snow

Central Park forsythia & snow

we used to drink soda and eat pizza

My lovely friend–our beverage choices have changed a little from the old day when soda was a treat.

black and white cookie

The best black & white cookie in Manhattan!


We found McNulty’s, the shop from which my mother has been ordering her tea and coffee for sixty years.

soapology spa

At Soapology we had a mini-hand spa.

soapology workers

The Soapology women. On the left, a Russian lyric soprano. On the right, an Israeli software engineer.

green bagel

A green bagel–another first!

Letting Go

How’s your week?

I am so lucky, I thought as I watched Vicki kick off her shoes near the coatrack, tossing her how ya doin’ question at me. Every day at the studio I see people walk through the door, happy to be headed for their yoga mats. We exchange greetings and inquire, really ask, how things are. Regulars I see two and three times in a week follow the events in my life as I follow theirs. “How’s your week?” might be followed by a catch-up question about one of my children, the status of my car repair, or a query about last weekend’s guest instructor at the studio. In return I hear details about vacations and irascible bosses and family drama. I ask practice-related questions, too, and so I learn about aches that are healing and check in with mommas-to-be as their bellies swell.

We head up the ramp into the studio and I routinely invite students to leave behind their distractions, their to-do lists, their worries, their lives. For the time on the mat we focus on the lift of the arch in the feet, the extension from fingertip to fingertip, the breath flowing easily in and out. The studio is designed to hold space for the practice with little to fixate upon and a wide-open ceiling. Practice is the time, I say over and over, to let go.

Vairagya, the Sanskrit word for nonattachment, is one half of a pair of essential principles of yoga; the other is Abhyasa, or practice. Taken together, practice leads you in the right direction, while nonattachment keeps you from getting distracted by or stuck to pains and pleasures along the way. Persevere to let go; let go to persevere.

When Vicki asked me about my week, I was closing my laptop, giving up on finishing a message I was working to write before the first few people arrived for class. Maybe I sighed a little, and I said, “just can’t seem to get one thing good and finished this week.”

Vicki looked at me and replied, “They say that not finishing things is one of our biggest stress producers.”

“That explains a lot,” I laughed. Later I found myself thinking about what she said.

Not finishing things—a thought, a letter, an editing job, a household chore, a to-do list of errands—does stress me out. I can be deep in thought or trying to remember everything I need for the day and Eleven or Fourteen will launch into something very important to them and completely unrelated to whatever it is I’m thinking about. I try to be present for them, to bear witness, but sometimes they’re being goofy and utterly random. Friday morning, I was backing the car down the drive in something of a morning rush to drop Fourteen for before-school band practice, Eleven started to detail her Christmas shopping plan. Fourteen was talking about String Theory. I just wanted to know where my telephone was.

Fourteen deposited at school, Eleven and I went to Panera for breakfast. Settled in our usual booth, Eleven with a book and two muffies and me with an egg and cheese on a multi-grain bagel and my laptop open, I looked at Eleven and said, “I can’t put my mind on my phone.”

We joke in my household that I’m more of a teenager than either of my children because my phone is nearly always close to me. Texts, phone calls, social media postings, and email messages are all a part of my yoga studio world. I keep my phone next to my bed so my mother, Eighty-Nine, can phone me upstairs if she needs something. When I’m not home, Eleven or Fourteen can telephone to let me know they’ve reached home safely. And, too, my phone is a social outlet, connecting me to friends far and wide.

Complete with "Blue Dog" as painted by Eleven several years ago, my phone at hand as usual.

Complete with “Blue Dog” as painted by Eleven several years ago, my phone at hand as usual.

By the time we were back in the car and on the way to school, I was feeling alarmed that I had in fact left my phone at home. I don’t like being unreachable to my mother, my children, the Friday morning yoga teacher, the myriad of tiny matters that come up during any given day … Contemplating taking the time to return home for the phone, I found myself saying no thank you to Eleven’s generous offer to use her phone for the morning. “You can still text and make calls,” she assured me.

“Thank you, Sweetie, but it’s not the same. It won’t help if someone is trying to get in touch with me.” It’s not my phone is what I really meant. “I’ll email your grandmother and let her know I don’t have it with me today. I’ll be reconnected with it by twelve-thirty or so.” And when that happens, I thought but didn’t say to Eleven, I’ll be reattached to you by our electronic umbilical cord, a happy byproduct of giving both of my children cellular phones. “So,” I reassured us both, “I’ll be fine until then.”

After she got out of the car, I thought, how silly of me. I should have at least had her try calling my phone with hers to see if it’s in the car. She would have been helping me, and I would know if it was buried somewhere in my workbasket. As I drove along, I continued to try, without success, to remember where I had put the phone after unplugging it from the charger earlier that morning.

And then I remembered that my car would know if my phone was present. I hit the U-connect button on the steering wheel and there was the reassuring voice: “U-Connect Phone, Ready!” The phone was in the car! Happily I commanded the car to call Eleven, but I realized she’d had enough time already to stow her backpack, and with it her phone, deep in her locker. I settled for sending her a mental message to relax—she could reach me if she needed to.

At Starbucks, computer in front of me, phone and note pad to my right, I worked through my to-do list—balance the books for the studio, write a practice for Absolute Asana, an advanced class I teach once a month, make notes for a blog post I would write in the afternoon about nonattachment … how can I encourage nonattachment, I pondered, if I am ridiculously attached to my phone, my rolling phone booth of a car, my computer, my daughter?

Baffled by my own query, I flipped over to Facebook to post a message on the studio page. My attention was arrested by a status update: RIP William Weaver, Bard College. My brain derailed. The William Weaver? Did my mother know? How’d it happen? When? Well, I thought, it had to be, but it took quite a bit of searching on the Internet to confirm that the man who had died earlier in the week at the age of 90 was the man my father served with in the British Field Service in the early 1940s. Twice my family visited him in Italy and over the years we saw him in New York City. Most famously the only translator Umberto Eco would allow to touch his work, William Weaver was a man my brother and I called “Uncle.”

When I regained my equilibrium, I’d forgotten what I was doing. I felt that edge of discomfort—something left unfinished. It was time to go and my progress had been waylaid. I walked my brain back along through my list, posted the status report, finished the blog note I was making, and packed up to leave for a class. On the way to my next gig, I phoned my mother to break the news to her—preferring for her to hear it from me than discover the obituary online.

We passed the news back and forth, inspecting it, testing our memories of the man’s details, saying some of the things we always say about the literary men and women of the twentieth century that were a part of our shared past. By the end of the phone call, we were gently laughing. She asked me where I was and I told her I was passing a sushi restaurant she likes. We said goodbye and my car announced: “Phone call completed.” I smiled at the closure—together we detached from William Weaver even as we warmed to his memory. My electronics allowed us to connect to one another.

And with that it arrives: Attachment is one directional, like a one-way street. Connection moves between and among. I am attached to my phone and my car, sure, but it’s because they are the connective media between me and the stars in my universe. It’s okay to talk about and encourage nonattachment on and off the mat because we don’t have to give up connection. And when we shape time to connect to the beings and the practices we love, life is  sweeter and it becomes easier to detach from all that no longer serves.

In memory of William Weaver, and with gratitude for all of you under the full November moon. Thanks for sharing my journey, Rxo

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