What Tears Do: A Conversation with Heather Christle

Heather Christle is the author of the poetry collections The Difficult Farm; The Trees The Trees, which won the Believer Poetry Award; What Is Amazing; and Heliopause. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, London Review of Books, Poetry, and many other journals. She teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. The Crying Book is her first book of nonfiction.


Sanna Wani: Can I tell you something? I’m—I’m very nervous for this interview! [Laughs]

Heather Christle: Oh, can I do anything to help with that? I have been in that position and it’s uncomfortable.

SW: Yes, it is, it is—but it comes from a happy place too. I’m so nervous because I love your work so much and I’ve been reading your words for a long time.

HC: Well, I don’t know if this helps—but the work and I are different creatures. And the work is better than I am, I think. I hope. So I’m my own weirdo.

SW: Right. That’s always good to remember.

HC: But I’m happy to know that the poems have been with you and that there has been time over which they have unfolded. I love that. It’s such a gift when you get to be with poems over a long stretch of time.

SW: It really is. Last night, my friend put on this movie and, after we watched it, he told us about what it meant for him to grow up with that movie and I just—I think it’s an important movie to him and yes, I think I’ve been very grateful in a similar way to your poems.

HC: I’ve thought about that so much—the things that come into your life at a certain point. Usually in some kind of early adulthood or in your teenage years. They’re so formational and so many things end up constellating around them for the rest of your life. There’s something just so crucial about those texts, those films, those poems that you encounter at that age.

Some of them are in The Crying Book for me, like the Jack Spicer, the “no sound but the pointing of a finger.” I was a little bit older, in my early twenties and in college. But I feel like once that piece had anchored itself in my body, all sorts of other things later would know where to go.

SW: I was wondering if you might share the last thing that made you cry?

HC: [Laughs] I’ve been crying so much! But gladly for me, for the most part, not out of a sense of despair but out of being moved. Because I just moved—literally—I just moved to Atlanta for a new job at Emory University. You know how orientations can feel pretty institutional and lacking in spirit. But I just haven’t found that to be the case here at all! I keep encountering these beautiful people who are so full of hope for what education can do and so full of belief in the power of our work as teachers and as researchers. To help be part of change in the world. The first speaker at the faculty orientation quoted Toni Morrison speaking about the responsibility we have in our positions of power to continue this work.

I think that they’re tears of gratitude that I’m shedding. I feel so, so lucky to be here. I keep thinking about the poems my students are about to write: I’m teaching an Intro to Poetry class and I have this feeling that they’re just hovering on the other side of coming into being, you know? Like there’s a very thin membrane between the present moment and the poems that will be. That, too, I’m finding tremendously exciting and moving and brings a little bit of tears to my eyes, even now.

SW: It sounds like is everyone is inviting in possibility, in a priming and an excitement over continuing to create together. It sounds like the job and space that you’ve entered is so oriented towards hope.

HC: I think a lot of that is the particular people who are here. The other poets are Jericho Brown and Robyn Schiff. Both of them feel like people who are pretty radically invested in hope and joy and recognition of the need for the world to change.

SW: What is one piece of the book—maybe a fact, story, myth or idiom of crying—that returns often to you lately? Feels like it hovers near you?

HC: I like the way that you’re using space to think about it. Let me think for a moment. Because there are some things that I know I like to tell people about—but this is different. This is what is hovering near.

SW: If it helps, I could offer you the one that’s hovering near me lately?

HC: Oh, sure. Yeah!

SW: Towards the end of the book—the passage where you’re talking about work and the work of poets. You compare the work of poetry to digging holes. You finish the passage by responding to the question “Why is your hole not filled with light?” with “Sir, it is a hole.” [Laughs] I love it so much. I’ve shared it with all my friends.

HC: Oh, that’s marvelous! I love it when that happens. Because I feel like that means that that sentence is going on a field trip with you. It spent a long time with me in my notebook and then on my computer and then in these proofs. But it’s always been strapped in and now you are taking it out into the world in a way that it gets to encounter all kinds of other people and experiences, spaces and ideas. And I think that’s glorious. That makes me so happy.

SW: I’m glad. I love that sentence so much.

HC: It made me laugh when I first wrote it. Because it’s about trying not to be too self-important. I take poetry very seriously. It’s at the center of my life. But life is funny. There is so much about it that is strange. The thing I am most grateful to poetry for is to be alert to the possibilities of any feeling in any moment. So, part of what that passage talks about is when people come to poetry with a very specific idea in mind about the things that it must do. The feelings that it must invoke. And working against that to say, It’s a hole. It’s a hole, buddy.

SW: It’s a hole!

HC: And that’s not to demean it or diminish it! Holes are fascinating. If you dig a hole, you can discover all kinds of things. Things that are brought there by creatures, that were left there by people long ago. There’s so much in a hole.

SW: Sorry, I took us off on another little field trip. But the part of the book that is hovering near you lately?

HC: Oh, right! Yes…I think a lot about the thickness of tears and that emotional tears have a different chemical composition than tears shed from irritants. They have a higher protein content, which increases the viscosity and the thickness of the tears. This makes them fall more slowly, which increases the chance that they’ll be seen. That whatever message they are meant to transmit will be received.

I find myself increasingly—when I encounter tears in the real world—thinking, what’s the message that those tears are trying to transmit? Sometimes the tears are transmitting a message that the person crying may not be fully aware of or in control of. Then a person who is witnessing this has to attend to both things. Attend to the message of the tears and attend to the consciousness and awareness of the person. I think a lot about that message and I think a lot about, well, what are the tears doing? What are they making happen in this space, in this room right now? Are they making a greater intimacy possible than could have occurred before the tears began to fall? Are they creating a kind of bond of solidarity? Are they calling attention away from something else that actually is the thing to attend to?

I’ve been imagining all of the possible future conversations I’ll be having around this book and worrying sometimes that people will ask me to either launch a defense of crying or condemn crying. What I really want to inhabit is a space of attending to these questions, the question of what are the tears doing. And then where do I fit into that? And I might not. I might not fit into it at all.

SW: Are there further hopes and dreams you have for how the book might be approached? For how you hope it to be read, as it heads into the world?

HC: I hope that it’s a book that can be a portal to a lot of other books. I feel like it’s a memoir of my reading in many ways. There was a lot of reading that I did for this work. I think that it brings together some different things that are not regularly in conversation. So I hope that readers find some previously unknown thing to them that they can go off and explore.

I wrote a craft essay about some of the process for writing this book. One of the things that I talk about there, which I hold close, is Virginia Woolf writing about moments of being. She writes in a short memoir piece, “A Sketch of the Past,” about looking at a flower. This is a memory from her childhood and she has the sudden realization that the thing that was the flower was actually the stem, the flower itself, the roots, the soil. All of that was the flower. Part earth, part flower. Having that whole sense of that being an immense realization, you know? Being again in that form of alertness to the world and its possibilities. I don’t know which moments in the book will make something like that occur for people but I hope that I’ve arranged things in such a way that there is the pattern of the book that should, I hope, have a kind of sense wholeness to it—not completeness but wholeness—where there is enough room, where people can enter and find spaces in which they can make their own moments of being, make their own associations to the text and how that space feels. It is that alertness, that particular kind of attention that’s so—it’s satisfying. It’s a feeling of satisfaction.

SW: Wow…

HC: That might be a bit grandiose though. [Laughs]

SW: I think a bit of grandiose is always helpful. Hopeful. I feel like creating this book for you was like creating a space. Oftentimes in the book, I remember you refer to paragraphs as rooms and how you’re looking for the door—how you leave prepositions at the end of sentences because you’re leaving a way out for the reader. You want this to be a space where they can move freely in. In this attention to mapping, or even to architecture, if you had to make an exhibition space for this book—or turn it from a book into a visual, performance art or alternate artistic space—what would you do? How would you do that?

HC: Oh, there’s something that we’re actually going to make happen! In Portland at Powell’s, when we launch the book. So the original idea for the book—and I mention this in the author’s note—I was just wondering, what would it look like if I had a map of every place I’ve ever cried? And then—I don’t say this in the author’s note—but it would be terrible! It would be a map of the basic locations of my life, it wouldn’t actually reveal anything. But if you start to engage with the idea of where you cry and make it communal, make room for other people—leave room for people to speak to the last place that they cried with as much specificity or opacity as they desire—then you can begin to create a dynamic map made of words.

What we’re going to do at the launch is to invite people to write down the last place they cried. It could be really specific. It could be the bathtub. Or it could be, you know, Omaha. Those will all be anonymous and we’re going to project the answers onto the wall throughout the event. Then we’ll begin to build this physical sense of the spaces where tears have fallen.

SW: You get to decide how much space your crying takes up. It’s a bathtub or it’s all of Omaha. It’s up to you.

HC: It would be impossible for a map, as one might understand it, to represent the shifts in scale the way that language can. So often writers get bogged down in what words fail to do or cannot do and it gives me joy sometimes to highlight the wonders of what words are able to do.

SW: How do you think geography pairs to language in the book? The book spans many places—so many cities and countries and terrains. What is the potential of this spanning and intersection to you? In describing and in being in those places?

HC: There are places that I go to in the book for research purposes. I go to the Philadelphia College of Physicians Library to look at the papers of Silas Weir Mitchell. I go to Albany to visit my friend Bill’s grave. I don’t talk about this in the book, but I did go to the Rose Library last summer to be with the papers of Lucille Clifton. I went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst archives to be with the papers of [W. E. B.] Du Bois. So, lots of archival spaces. I definitely, in writing this book, developed lots and lots of ideas about archives, about emotions in archives, crying in libraries, and that sort of thing.

But then there are other spaces that I didn’t have the resources to get to in person. I didn’t get to go to the crying hotel in Japan. I didn’t make it to the weeping rock in Turkey. But I wanted to touch upon these places I was encountering through books and through reading. Not to try to be complete it’s not as if every country in the world is represented in this book—but I think again to touch upon these encounters as the ideas began to speak to one another.

SW: The Lucille Clifton poem you included in the book was written in response to a deeply racist letter to W. E. B. DuBois from Alvin Borgquist, a graduate student studying crying at Clark University in 1905. You reveal the relationship between tears and racial violence and their role in upholding white supremacy. I remember particularly the sentence “I don’t want to redeem those tears” in a passage discussing the role of white women’s tears in racial violence.

When did you realize this would be an aspect of the book? How did you want to approach your privilege in that conversation? What drove you, what worried you?

HC: I think you can hear one of the worries in there: I’m a white woman writing a book about crying. I could imagine people thinking this was going to be some sort of vindication of all tears and the right of everyone to cry in every instance. That sentence speaks to some of that fear.

I began really seriously working on this book around the time of Black Lives Matter, when it was really coming into full-flourishing. A lot of writing and important discussions were happening on white women’s tears and the role that they play in racist violence. It was also around the time that the woman who falsely accused Emmett Till of flirting with her came forward and admitted she had lied. This was all present in the moment of working on this book…and I mean, honestly, you can’t get far in reading about crying without having the question of race come up. It just does. As it does in just about any subject because it is a way that so many actions and institutions and histories are organized. It felt necessary not to turn away from that.

I did a lot of reading and writing that’s not in the book. I’m glad that I took five years to write it. I think I learned a lot along the way and was glad for the time to do it. And I was glad for the people who were willing to talk things through with me.

SW: So much of yourself and your life is pressed into the book. How do you think your idea of what research is has shifted?

HC: When I first started writing the book, I did not imagine that there would be as much of my own life in it. I think that happens to people fairly frequently. [Laughs]

The way that I work, the way that I compose, is very much about association and about seeing the links between things: the sometimes unexpected patterns and overlaps that emerge as you begin to pay attention to something. More and more, I found that in order for all of the connections to properly become apparent to a reader, I would have to put myself in there because I was a part of that network of associations.

SW: I really appreciated how the line between you as the researcher and the subject erodes. There was a productive vulnerability in that to me. I remember—I think you were gardening? And it was the podcast with the audio clip from Champ where you wrote, “I thought myself a researcher, when I was just a weeping subject.”

HC: In that moment, I was humbled. Even though I knew I was listening to a lecture on emotional elicitation techniques, the emotions still got elicited! It’s helpful to know that one can have this burgeoning, intellectual, analytical understanding of how things work and that they can also still work. Or you realize that we’re still being configured by these forces and in learning more about the configuration, it’s helpful to recognize the ways in which you the person learning is also entwined.

SW: I like the word entwined.

HC: Yeah! Yeah. I want to look up the etymology of twine now. Can I?

SW: Of course!

HC: Merriam-Webster says the origin is from Middle English, twin. From Old English, twine, akin to Middle Dutch, twin or twine. From the Old English, twa or two. 

SW: Twin. Two.

HC: I’m thinking there ought to be more strands than two in the metaphor that I’m imagining.

SW: Sometimes just pairing two things, that can be enough. You in that moment, holding those particular strands?

HC: I think—[Laughs]—that I just get freaked out thinking I might be half of anything. That seems like way too much!

SW: Yesterday, my friends and I came across some black-eyed susans and I wondered, do they have other names? With stories I might able to trace? Like Narcissus, or Bellis perennis. And they did! Rudbeckia. But it turned out it was just one of those things where a scientist put his own name in.

HC: Oh, yeah. They do that.

SW: They do that!

HC: Plant names are so fascinating. The next book that I’m beginning to work on right now is about Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens, which are just outside London, which is also where my mother grew up. Just outside the gardens. It’s all wrapped up in how I understand identity, nationality, and various forms of imperial violence.

But I’ve been thinking a lot of plant names and what they reveal about the people who have been around them or used them or tended to them or cared for them. In the United States, there is such a huge set of names for everything. There are common English names, there are scientific names, there are indigenous names. And the common names can shift over time! It’s a really fertile site of investigation.

SW: I love being able to go on a walk and be able to name the creatures around me in one name or another. Not necessarily out of a desire for truth—clearly my cat doesn’t have a name, so names don’t have to be there—but as a way to feel connected to the place that you’re in, how you’re connected.

HC: Yeah! I’m in this new place and I’m trying to learn the names of things as rapidly as I can, of trees and plants and things. For a long time before I became a parent, I had told myself that I wasn’t allowed to have a kid until I could tell the kid the names of all the trees around us. But I didn’t manage to do that. I’m trying to catch up now.

SW: Maybe you can learn them together.

SW: In another little skedaddle to the left—

HC: You know those are my favourite things.

SW: [Laughs] Thank you for being with me in like these wanderings. You often returned to this line, I think from a Plath poem: “the moon is no door / it is a face in its own right.” Throughout the book, I felt like your relationship to nature, to animals and plants and trees, was deeply oriented towards affirming their agency. I really liked how you moved with these other creatures, how you set them up to move freely as well, in the room of this book. How has your relationship with biota—with nature and with other living creatures—evolved in your life? Why has that been important to you? Thinking about the natural world—especially right now. Not to go there—not go into—because then we’ll both start crying and that probably won’t be helpful.

HC: Though there is space for mourning. I think that we’re alive in a time that contains both grief and a need for other things. Other ways of moving through the world. But grief is one of the needs, too. Pretending that people on this planet have not long been in a state of loss is—I just can’t imagine doing that. I think that there are some people who have more recently come to the awareness of the extent of the loss and then there’s the question of who has allowed themselves to be innocent? and what have we allowed ourselves to look away from?

But I think that I’ve been pretty inspired recently by this anarchist idea of prefiguration. Whatever actions you take to move the world towards what you would hope it would be ought to prefigure the worlds that you are hoping for. Attending to biota for me is part of that prefigurative work. The beautiful world that is possible—a world that is just, a world that permits everyone to flourish—contains walks among trees. Contains time where the only task is to laugh at that really goofy caterpillar nearby. There are many other things that that future just world ought to contain as well. But those are two of them.

There’s so much that capitalism would seek to transform into capital, and happily so much of the world resists that. Attending to those moments is a way of insisting upon one’s life that is not dictated by the deadening terms of capitalism and all of its associated systems. I don’t mean to say that individual choices or the poem that you write and read are going to save the world. I know that collective action is necessary. But I think that tending to these other things can be built into that collective action as well.

SW: Tending to that joy—it feels like joy is what is in there. In those other things.

HC: Yes. And—I don’t want to anthropomorphize that which is not human. But I think that refusing to set it aside as entirely apart is also important. There’s so much separation, so much work to maintain these hard lines at which thinking stops or imagination stops, and I think in thinking past or imagining past those moments is really crucial.

I keep thinking about this with prisons and with suicide. I talk a fair amount in the book about suicidal ideation and losing people to suicide. And I really admire people who do work to raise awareness and to reduce stigma, to create access to resources. Sometimes I feel like there’s this missing part of the conversation which is: how do you call a suicide hotline when you’re incarcerated? I would really love for people to really consciously practice thinking beyond the lines that have been pre-inscribed. I would like to get better at it myself.

SW: Grief cloaks so many corners of this book: the language of grief, the sounds or the shape of grief, cousins of grief, like despair. Why do you think it’s important to invite grief in? Or to write about it openly?

HC: Because it’s there. I don’t feel like I’ve invited it in. One of the things that I found myself wanting to understand a bit more of, in writing this book, was my grief for my friend Bill. Bill Cassidy, the poet. And I wanted to—it’s hard to say even that I wanted to—but the strands kept connecting, forming knots around grief.

Which is not a surprise, it’s a book about crying. But I think it comes back to my desire for there to be funny moments in the book. I think that one of the things that is so strange about crying is that it has, in a way, very little content in and of itself. It’s a lens through which all of these different emotional experiences get refracted. And grief is one of the things we often see through tears.

SW: Can I ask you a question I heard on a podcast, hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi?

HC: I love that podcast.

SW: Me too! There was a question that appeared in their episode with Diana Khoi Nguyen, which I was listening to around the same time I was reading your book. What is the best advice you’ve ever received about grief?

HC: One of the things that a grieving friend told me was that anything you do in grief is appropriate. That in the days and the weeks after a great loss, there is no judgement around whether you decide not to sleep in your bed. Whether you decide that you need to go on a walk that lasts for twelve hours. Tending to the urges that emerge in grief may not have the feeling of ritual. They maybe haven’t been done a thousand times by others—and there’s importance in that ritual as well—but I think one of the rituals of grief is tending to that strange desire that you have to do this thing that feels like it ought not to fit in grief. People talk about that a lot, right? You’re not supposed to laugh at a funeral. There are various ideas of custom and decorum. But one of the things that is interesting about grief is its lifting of decorum.

SW: You begin the book with this picture of the fortune of ugly crying, the plainness and the grossness. That was so compelling to me. Those descriptions of our bodies are so necessary.

HC: Starting with that was another one of the ways I was fighting back against what I imagined could be like an expectation of this book. If you hear that a poet is writing a book about tears? You might think that it’s gonna be pretty precious. I really wanted to disabuse people of that notion very swiftly. You could also think a poet writing a book about tears is going to be really maudlin. Starting with just the kind of gross physicality of it was a way of letting people know neither of those things were going to be the nature of this book.

It was also just fun to describe it. There are times when I cry—in the period of writing this book, when I was going through the worst of my depressions—I could cry for hours. I could cry with a kind of forcefulness that felt really extreme when it was happening. My face can become borderline unrecognizable from crying. And while it’s so horrible when it’s happening, it was then very satisfying to be able to describe it. It doesn’t make me feel better when I’m crying, it doesn’t have that kind of therapeutic value, but there is a satisfaction in saying, “Okay. That’s in words now.”

SW: There was a shift you made at the end of that first passage. You were describing, as a child, someone had said to you that crying, it makes you look like—

HC: Like a druggie. I remember exactly the classroom I was in, and it was this boy—I know exactly who it was. I don’t know what I was crying over, but I know that it was one of those moments of uncontrollable crying, which was embarrassing because I was like, what? Ten. I was a little bit of weirdo but a very good student. I so wanted to be seen by other people. So, even though he was insulting me, there was something about that moment that pleased my ten-year-old self.

SW: Kids are so cool. There is such a beautiful, imaginative resilience in children to just—take moments like that and turn them around. I have a niece who’s about seven right. She just started second grade. And last year she came back from school and someone had said to her, “Oh, your legs look like a gorilla’s!” My sister and I—we just stopped. We were in the kitchen and we just slowly turned towards her at the dining table but she was laughing. She was so pleased. She was like, “Why would I not be? Gorillas are so strong and cool and they climb trees really well and personally what I’m working on right now is climbing trees, so why would this not please me?” Kids are great. They are so good at doing that thinking beyond lines thing.

HC: Oh, what a good kid. She’s gonna be great.

SW: I think so, too.

SW: What do you think of the—the almost dance between birth, death, and crying? You write about crying around something as opposed to about something. In this around-ness, death seemed to circle often, but also birth. How you see that dance? Or if you see it as a dance at all, what you do see it as?

HC: I think that tears don’t have a fixed content to them other than the fact of emotion. So the tears that are shed around birth and the tears that are shed around death are certainly linked. They bring us into an awareness of—on both sides—the finiteness of human life. That there is a beginning and that there is an end.

While there are other tears—there can be tears of joy, there can be tears of fear, there can be tears of sorrow and loss—there is also within those spaces around birth and around death a sort of pure emotion. Something that is about responding to the enormity of the feeling. The momentousness of it.

SW: There’s that bit where you write about waking up in the morning and there’s this enormous feeling inside of you and you think, “I don’t know if I want to cry or go take a walk or—”

HC: Fuck someone. I think it’s cry, write a poem, or fuck someone.

SW: Yes!

HC: That’s one of the stranger things in my own experience. Sometimes it’s harder for me to identify within that framework: what is the actual desire or what is the actual feeling? But not knowing that can be okay. You make a choice. You do one of those three things.

SW: You begin your book with the author’s note and with your gratitude towards friendship. You also end the book with the acknowledgements, which includes more on friends and friendship. Throughout the book, threads of friendship keep returning. Where you are finding friendship nowadays? How do you hold friendship in your life?

HC: Oh, it holds me! Right now, your question is really well-timed because we just moved here, but we lived here about ten years ago, 2009 through 2011. There are so many beloveds here. And then new friends that we’re making and meeting. I feel so stimulated by it all that I don’t quite know what to do with myself! [Laughs] But I’m also maintaining connections with people in the place that we left and miss them and try to talk on the phone with them as much as I can. And I’m also maintaining connections with this broader network of older friends.

There’s so many things that friendship does. I often imagine things as constellations or as nets. When I am in despair, and the despair wishes me to understand nothing outside itself, remembering this among-ness, this net that I’m in, this constellation, is helpful. But then it also gives me great joy to see how these friendships are conduits for ideas and actions to travel among as well. That a book will get transmitted through these various networks, a line of a poem, an idea of something you might do in a classroom, and idea of something that you do to fight back against ICE. There are so many events and ideas that travel among these networks. I feel excited about being a node of transmission.

In this moment, when I am making so many new friends and feeling so much excitement over that, I’m grateful for the way that friendship helps me to understand time. I think about one of my oldest friends in the world. Her name is Hannah Fallon. She’s an artist and she’s marvelous and I’ve known her since preschool. We were in elementary school together, we were punks together, we went to shows together, we lived together in our early twenties, we were friends in New York. I’ve known her through so many iterations of life and I am still so regularly in touch with her. Just the other day I was at Woodruff Library at Emory and they had a collection display from their punk rock collection. It included some of Glen Friedman’s photographs and I just remembered being a punk kid in a small town, in my friend Hannah’s basement, just staring at this collection, in this book of Friedman’s photographs, looking at pictures of Bad Brains and young skateboarders, feeling such a longing to go out and be in that world and be a part of something.

I love that by being with Hannah, and by being this little network of transmission, of passing things back and forth, we could go out and hook up with a larger punk rock world. I love that I still get access to those memories and ideas through Hannah, through our ongoing friendship and our continued exchange of art and music and kindnesses.

SW: The returning of those moments. Going back to the very beginning of our conversation—thinking about my friend Terry and his relationship to that movie, how friendship and time become meaningful— together—it just. It helps me live. It helps me feel, and I’m so glad you had the chance to go that library and be with those photographs again and to be able to hold the memory of your young self with your present self. I love when that happens. I love when you feel like two of you are inside of you and you’re just able to be like, “Hey, look! We’re here and we’re doing fine.”

HC: Yes! Yes. We are really fortunate that we experience time as we do. I know that it also means that we have to cope with loss and change, but the returning of memory—the holding of those things in older hands is really…I don’t know what the adjective is. It is really.

SW: It is really! I agree.

HC: It is—I don’t know if I want to call it a blessing or a gift—but it feels fortunate.

Author photo by Christopher DeWeese.



Sanna Wani

Sanna Wani is a person and poet around Toronto. Her words are available or forthcoming in The Puritan, canthius, TIME and HOBART. She loves daisies.

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