Photo by Claire Buck

I grew up in a little brown house on the far outskirts of the suburbs that surround Rochester, New York. In the summer, I’d run barefoot through the pines that bordered our half-acre of land and pluck fresh cherry tomatoes from our backyard garden. In the winter, lake-snow drifts would sweep across the cornfield across the street and pile up beside our driveway, and my younger brothers and I would tunnel into them to make hidden caves. When I was ten, we moved fifteen minutes away into a bigger house that sat on seven acres of lawn and grassy trails and woods that had sprung up on old farmland. My world expanded alongside my growing imagination, and I’d spend hours wandering the banks of the creek that ran along our land, building tiny houses for fairies in the hollows of rotted stumps or fashioning bows and arrows out of twine and springy branches. Immersed in the stories of Narnia and other fantasy tales, I always half-believed that any arch of vines or any grove of trees might be the hidden gateway to another world.

Why do I mention any of this? As I wrestle with questions of identity, belonging, and purpose, I keep returning to the idea of place. The concept that the specific spaces we inhabit have the power to form us as individuals is one many of my favorite writers have recognized. For instance, fiction writer and social critic Wendell Berry writes:

For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place.

Wendell Berry, “Jefferson Lecture” (speech, 2012), National Endowment for the Humanities,

For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place.[1]

This kind of deep engagement with the physical and fictional places to which I belonged as a young girl shaped my enduring affection for both the particularities of the natural world and the possibilities of fictional ones. I can hardly consider the question of what I live for without first grounding it in the consideration of where I live.

The summer after I graduated high school, my family and I packed up the car with all my luggage and drove north of Buffalo, through Canada, and across the span of Michigan to my new home on Hope College’s campus. During that first year of college, it seemed like whenever I told someone where I was from, they would want to know why I ended up here in a tiny town in Michigan more than three hundred miles from home. At the time, I was excited to move several states away from the place where I grew up. I had lived on the edges of the same city since I was born, and I was also eager to put some literal distance between myself and a high school experience that had often been lonely for me as a sensitive and introverted teenager. When Hope gave me enough scholarship money that I could afford to attend, I was quick to accept their offer of admission. As far as I could tell, going to college so far away would offer an adventure, a chance to reshape my identity, and a push to grow up apart from the support of my parents. In many ways, I was right: college has provided me all of those opportunities and more that I never even anticipated. What I didn’t realize, though, and what took me a long time to acknowledge to myself, was that the whole experience left me feeling uprooted.

I remember a moment in my freshman year when my best friend from high school sent me a new song by a group of my favorite female indie/folk singers called “Ketchum, ID.” Alone in my dorm room, I listened to the lyrics of the chorus:

I am never anywhere

Anywhere I go

When I’m home I’m never there

Long enough to know.

boygenius, “Ketchum, ID,” on boygenius, Matador Records, 2018. Lyrics available via Genius at

For the first time in months, I let myself cry. Was it just homesickness? Maybe, but it felt deeper than that. I felt not just far from my family, but disconnected from myself. I was longing for community, but too shy to let myself be more fully known. Surrounded by a crowd of competitive and high-achieving students, I was neglecting my physical needs for rest and nutrition. I was tired and isolated and running on three or four cups of Phelps Hall coffee a day. If I was honest with myself, I knew the way I was living benefitted nobody. At the same time, my desire to set myself apart as a qualified student and prove my worth through my academic achievement was intense and consuming.

At some point in that year, I remember listening to a political science lecture that mentioned the concept of “transhumanism”: the prideful postmodern impulse to transcend the limitations of our bodies whether through technology, self-denial, or some combination of both. Later, in the dining hall, I joked to my friend that maybe I was a transhumanist, as I poured my fourth cup of coffee of the day to compensate for my constant sleep deprivation. I didn’t realize at the time how right I was. While I never would have admitted it, I thought deep down that I could ignore the reality of my embodied self in the pursuit of my goals. While that might seem like a noble and magnanimous impulse, it was ultimately a selfish one. My unwillingness to acknowledge that I was a finite and imperfect individual stemmed from a spirit of arrogance, not self-sacrifice. In the end, my worn-out body forced me to confront the damage I was doing to myself when I sank into a depressive episode over the summer after my freshman year. The process of healing became also a process of reconstruction as I worked toward the reordering of my life into more sustainable patterns.

I used to see my limitations as a cage that I could escape, but now I recognize they are more like a trellis that scaffolds a growing vine, or like the strict structure that forms the backdrop of a sonnet’s richly beautiful reflections. My need for nutrition invites me to delight in the sensory experience of making good food or to gather in community with friends around a meal. My need for rest helps me to cultivate a posture of humility and gentleness toward myself as well as everyone I meet. All of the ways in which I can’t be fully self-sustaining offer me the chance to abandon my individualistic illusions and turn toward the better way of interdependency and communion with others. I’ll acknowledge this is so much easier said than done. As I’m writing this right now, my desk is scattered with stacks of papers, my calendar is packed with obligations, and I’m struggling to balance the pressures of eighteen credits, work, and multiple student organizations. At times, I want to abandon it all and run away to start a farm in rural New England or dedicate myself to isolated contemplation like one of the medieval Christian mystics. Still, I believe my calling lies along what the ancient Greeks and later the Anglican church called the “via media”: the middle way that straddles the tension between extremes. Neither indulging in behaviors of destructive self-neglect, nor withdrawing to tend only to my own concerns, I can press into the communities I inhabit and the relationships I value with intentional compassion.

At eighteen, I thought I lived for the affirmation of having my performance recognized, whether in school, in the workplace, or in any of the organizations to which I belonged. I have since come to realize life holds so much more for me. While I do live for my responsibilities as a student and my future career as a physician, I also live for the quiet walks I take around the neighborhoods of Holland. I live for the soups I cook with friends on Friday evenings, the small-but-satisfying tasks of daily living that I do for the woman with cerebral palsy whom I help on weekends, the fresh snowfall of the present and the promise of  tulips to come, and the creek that still trickles through the backyard woods of my childhood home. I live in what my pastor at Pillar Church calls the space between the “now and the not yet,” the knowledge that the world is not right but the hope that it will one day be restored to its intended glory in ways our minds and hearts can scarcely imagine. If my years of drifting and disconnectedness have taught me anything, it’s the value and the joy of committing my life to the particular people and places to whom I belong.

One of the ways in which I’ve been re-forming my way of being into more life-affirming patterns has to do with the journey of reckoning with my religious background. When I was recently asked, “What would you die for?” an old story I was taught in my childhood church came to mind. Like a lot of kids who grew up attending youth groups, I encountered the story of Cassie Bernall in a slightly-traumatic talk on the true cost of being a Christian. According to what I was told, during the horrific mass shooting at the Columbine High School in 1999, the perpetrator put a gun to Cassie’s head and asked her if she believed in God. When she said yes, she was fatally shot. Her death inspired a bestselling book, songs, and countless sermons in which young people like me were asked whether, if the gun were to our own heads, our answers would be the same. The question haunted me. I would lie awake at night trying to imagine the cold metal of a gun barrel pressed to my head and wondering what I would do. Would I say yes? Would I be too overcome with fear to stand by my convictions? Did my faith matter enough to me that I was willing to die for it?

Now that I’m older, I can step back from these questions and recognize that they — like so many of my questions about God as a young believer — were grounded in a spirit of fear. For an anxious girl, faith often felt like just another realm of rules and dangers I had to navigate in order to avoid punishment. That’s not to say my experience of being raised in the church wasn’t deeply good at times. The body of Christ showed up in beautiful ways at Hope Lutheran, the church my family attended for most of my childhood, and the stories of Scripture captured and expanded my developing imagination. Still, my beliefs were tangled up with all kinds of worries: the existential terror of where I would spend eternity, legalistic concerns about sin, and my ever-present uncertainty about the status of my soul. Although the doctrine of grace was an integral part of the teachings that were presented to me, the language of shame was easier to internalize.

There’s something about the season of Lent that tends to bring these fears to the forefront. Friends talk about what they’re giving up, and I wonder if I’m undisciplined because I haven’t chosen to make some sort of sacrifice. Pastors spend their sermons reminding congregants of their need for atonement, and I feel the weight of my own wrongdoings more acutely than usual. This Lent, though, something has been different. I’m surrounded by a community who has helped me to challenge my fundamental distrust in the unreserved goodness of God. I’m leaning into gentler ways of being — not just in the context of Christianity, but in every area of my life. Most importantly, I’m starting the work of reconstructing not just a faith for which I would die, but a faith that forms the way I live.

For me, a crucial part of that reconstructive process involves reframing the practices I once associated with guilt in light of love. On Ash Wednesday, I participated in the old ritual of the imposition of ashes as a pastor murmured the familiar words: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” At one point in my life, that phrase would have sent me down a spiral of distress about my own mortality, the filth of my sins, and the terror of eternal condemnation. This year, what was on my mind as I made my way to the altar was an idea from a devotional by Western Seminary professor Chuck DeGroat that my pastor lent to me earlier that month. He writes:

From the dust we came. From the ground we arose. And into this dusty earth God breathed his life-giving Spirit, animating us and lifting us and ennobling us into ambassadorship as his image-bearers. But our origins are humble, nevertheless. We are humus, of the earth, the humble ones.

Chuck DeGroat, Falling into Goodness: Lenten Reflections (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 7.

From the dust we came. From the ground we arose. And into this dusty earth God breathed his life-giving Spirit, animating us and lifting us and ennobling us into ambassadorship as his image-bearers. But our origins are humble, nevertheless. We are humus, of the earth, the humble ones.[3]

Maybe the invitation to remember that we are dust is meant not to frighten us with our finitude, but to comfort us with a call to turn away from our striving and grasping and rest in the humility of our earthy origins. The smudge of ashes on my forehead means not just that I am mortal, but that I am loved in a way, I think, that’s something like the way I love the soil in my garden at the start of summer for its richness of possibilities as a fertile space where goodness might grow.

As I reconnect with the humble, earth-bound roots of my human identity, I’ve also been wrestling with the tension between denial and affirmation of my embodied self. Despite the centrality of the creation and resurrection of the body to the Christian tradition, Christian teaching has often become entangled with ideas stemming back to Greek philosophy about the duality of the spiritual and the material. For instance, attributed to Origen of Alexandria is a belief in a physical resurrection, but not one resembling our present messy human bodies. Instead, we would take the form of spheres, supposed to be the most perfect shape.[4] Besides sounding like the start of an oversimplified high-school physics problem — “a spherical person weighing fifty kilograms falls from a height of ten meters; find her terminal velocity” — there are deeper problems with an eschatology that denies the eternal importance of the flesh God formed and declared good. It might seem as though the dualism that pervaded early Christianity has no bearing on our present-day thinking, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that it does. There are echoes of it in the conflation of self-denial and holiness that compels so many believers, especially women, to treat fasting as an elaborate faith-fueled diet. It underlies the phenomenon I encountered in my political science classes known as the “Protestant work ethic,” which too often leads Christians to associate faithfulness with workaholism. I notice traces of it even in the well-intentioned youth-group lessons about purity that — inadvertently or not — taught me to view all of the desires of my flesh as a liability rather than a complex and mysterious God-ordained gift.

In the process of deconstructing and reckoning with these teachings, I want to be careful not to discard them entirely. I still think there’s merit in a system of belief that encourages us to pursue goals beyond simple self-gratification. I still admire the gestures of self-sacrificing love that I witnessed from the Christians I knew growing up, and in many ways I want to imitate their self-denial. Nevertheless, I find myself longing for a faith that lets me rest in the knowledge that I am beloved in all of my enfleshed humanity and not just in my spiritual striving. Lately, I’ve been returning to the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, which I once dismissed as too simplistic and sentimental but have more recently grown to appreciate. The first few lines read,

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in Dream Work (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 14.

I can’t say I’m entirely at the point of letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves, but I have been learning to reject unhelpful self-flagellation and instead lean into gratitude for the small pleasures of existence: the early-spring sunlight across my shoulders, the taste of my turmeric-ginger tea, the sound of singing to myself as I wash dishes after supper.

Through re-engaging with my fundamental conviction that our physical bodies are a gift to be nurtured rather than neglected, I’ve been returning to one of the core beliefs that drew me to medicine in the first place. I’m compelled toward becoming a physician by a desire to work not just in the realm of the intellectual and abstract, but in the concrete realities of people’s everyday needs and concerns. If, as I believe, our incarnate selves matter now and for eternity, then healing is a holy effort even though the present brokenness of creation so often frustrates our attempts to diminish suffering. I want to do this work not just for all the reasons I laid out in my personal statement — my interests in science, the satisfaction I find working in a caring profession — but because I believe, as my favorite poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”[6] Ultimately, though, I have to start with my own healing, with restoring the places where I’ve tried to sever soul and self, where I’ve pushed back against God’s mercy, and where I’ve failed to extend to myself the same tenderness I would offer freely to my dearest friends.

Photo by Claire Buck

Where does that leave me, then, and what can I say with true conviction that I believe? I believe in God the Father, who is, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”: of my body in all its intricacy, of the faces of the people I love, of mice and mountains and mitochondria. I believe in the resurrection of the body and in a new creation that will not discard but incorporate every last atom of this world into a renewed reality more glorious than we can imagine. I believe my calling now is to steward the places and tend to the people around me with generosity and grace. Would I die for that? I suppose I couldn’t be sure unless the gun were against my head. All I know is that this is the faith in which I live, the bread that sustains me, the blood in my veins, the vine into which I am inextricably ingrafted.

At the same time, even as I reflect on my calling and the way in which I want to live my life, I’m aware that my own body — along with the whole natural order — is continually heading toward entropy and decay. One of the questions we were asked to consider in the prompts for this paper is whether we consider the daily beating of our hearts as a process of living or of dying, and I’ve been thinking about it all semester without being able to come up with a solid answer. The biological reality is clear; I’ve encountered it every time I doused a petri dish with hydrogen peroxide in Dr. Chase’s biochemistry lab to induce a sped-up version of the reactions that are gradually aging each of my own cells. With each breath, I’m aware that I’m both sustaining my life and introducing the agents of oxidative damage that are ever-so-slowly unraveling my telomeres and breaking molecular bonds. While I enjoy good health now, I’m aware that there will come a point at which those destructive forces will begin to overtake my body’s regenerative abilities, and outward signs of aging will emerge.

I don’t know when that exact point is, though, because when I Googled “when do you biologically start to die,” the top search results were mental health resources and some videos featuring “stories of hope and recovery.” Apparently, the kinds of people who spend their days fretting over their eventual physical decline are not particularly happy. At any rate, I’m a better literature student than biochemist, and the stories I love most take a more balanced and hopeful view of human mortality. Over this semester, I’ve been re-reading The Lord of the Rings, along with several of Tolkien’s other works for a course on Tolkien and medieval literature. My final paper on the subject had to do with Tolkien’s handling of death as a theme throughout his fiction and elsewhere in his writing. What I found was that Tolkien embraced a perspective on death that denied neither its reality nor its bitterness, but at the same time framed it as a kind of paradoxical gift. In an epilogue of the final book in the trilogy, the king Aragorn comforts his queen from his deathbed by telling her, “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.”[7] This distinction between sorrow and despair seems particularly helpful to me as I confront my own mortality and that of my loved ones. I can acknowledge my sorrow at the losses I’ve known and those I have yet to experience, but the hope of an eternity that promises to satisfy all my longings for life to last keeps me from sliding toward despair.

Another place in literature where I find a perspective on death that feels both peaceful and true is in John Donne’s beautiful sermon on the interconnectedness of mankind. He urges his congregants to remember that when the tolling of church bells signals the passing of someone in their community, this loss is an invitation to let themselves be drawn closer to one another and to God. He writes the famous lines,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, “Seventeenth Meditation,” in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, together with Death’s Duel (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,, 1959), 108-109.

Humans are meant to bear the bitterness of death not in self-protective isolation, but in relationship with one another. When we allow ourselves to be “involved in mankind,” we open ourselves to the rich experience of carrying one another’s burdens, and in the process, watching our grief be transformed into the sacred space in which we encounter God.

Ironically, one of my favorite songs in high school was Simon and Garfunkel’s song, whose refrain flips Donne’s lines to claim, “I am a rock, I am an island.”[9] For much of my life, I thought the goal of maturity was to become as independent as possible. I took pride in my singleness as friends paired up in relationships and found satisfaction in my emotional self-reliance. I thought that as long as I had “my books and my poetry to protect me,”[10] as the song goes, I would be fine. It was far easier to convince myself that I never had a need for intimacy in the first place than to recognize that need and acknowledge the extent to which it was unmet. However, as I’ve grown and let myself gradually become more vulnerable in friendships and even — terrifyingly — in romantic relationships, I’ve realized the extent to which Donne was right. Although my fearful inclination is to withdraw and establish tight boundaries around every tender area of my heart that might be wounded, we were made for lives of connection and interdependence. My faith invites me to look up from the solitude of hiding away with my books and my poetry — delightful as they might be — and engage more closely with our collective story that is unfolding now and into eternity. In this story, as Donne says, “God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”[11] Even though the most anxious parts of me recoil from that kind of radical interconnectedness, at the core of my being, I anticipate it with joy.

A strong part of the draw of medicine for me is that it is an inherently community-oriented profession. Physicians have the privilege of being entrusted with some of the most intimate parts of their patients’ lives and stories. Recently, I had the opportunity to shadow a family medicine doctor for a few hours, and I was struck by the extent to which so many of her conversations with patients dealt with issues that were only peripherally related to their medical conditions. Patients wanted her advice about the management of their diabetes, but they also wanted to know what she thought about a disagreement with a difficult family member or whether their fatigue had more to do with sadness than with any specific medical condition. Even a simple investigation into a family’s medical history turned into a process of unearthing loss and grappling with unresolved grief. As she tended everything from a sore spot on a foot to the sorrow that had arisen around Mother’s Day for a woman whose mother had recently passed, it seemed to me that her role embodied what it means to be “involved in mankind.” I expect that as much as I’ll enjoy dealing with the kind of scientific puzzles that got me excited about medicine in the first place, I’ll also find satisfaction in all of the quieter, less flashy tasks — bandaging small hurts, offering a word of reassurance to a frightened patient, taking a moment to learn a small piece of a person’s story.

Another one of the ways I want to continue practicing a posture of attention and care in the world is through my writing. Ever since I started scratching down stories and poems as a young girl, writing has been an outlet for personal expression and reflection, but also a way to honor and name all that surprises, moves, grieves, or delights me in the world. In particular, the discipline of creating poetry helps me to resist my tendency to hide away in my own head and forces me to engage closely with the people and places that surround me. I don’t know exactly where writing will fit into my life after graduation, but I know I want it to be part of the way I nurture my inner life even as I move on toward more practical pursuits. I know it won’t be easy — all the voices of self-doubt that tell me my art is a waste of time have quieted during my years of college, but they haven’t gone away entirely. Still, I’m taking small steps. A close friend from college and I have set up a shared Google folder where we can collect and comment on each other’s poems throughout the year that we’re both home. For us, writing will continue to be a point of connection and a facilitator of friendship across the hundreds of miles that separate us.

Although I know some of the details about what comes next for me during my year after graduating and before (hopefully!) enrolling in medical school, there’s so much that remains unsure. I have the list of details I tell everyone who asks about my future plans: I’ll be working as a medical assistant with a team that fills staffing gaps in a variety of outpatient clinics associated with Strong Memorial Hospital in my city, working on applications, and living with my family. At the same time, I’m not confident that I’ll succeed at my new job, I have no idea what will happen once all of those applications are submitted, and I’m not sure what my relationship with my family will look like now that I’m a grown woman with her own set of opinions. If I think too long about all the worries that weigh on me, I can feel the panic start to rise in my mind and body. So lately, I’ve been leaning on the advice I heard on one of my favorite podcasts early on in the days of the pandemic: when the future frightens you and you don’t know how to move forward, don’t try to untangle every uncertainty at once — just focus on doing the next right thing.[12] For me, I think, the next right thing looks like being present with my friends in these last few days I have with them. It looks like packing up my apartment one cabinet and one tupperware drawer at a time. It looks like heading home and savoring the beauty of Rochester in early May when all the lilacs in Highland Park are in full, fragrant bloom. It looks like cooking new dishes for my family and reconnecting with old friends. Most of all, it looks like remembering that the best antidote for anxiety isn’t having all the answers but showing up with kindness and gratitude wherever I find myself.

Last week, my grandparents had a chance to visit me for a few days to see Honors Convocation and meet some of my friends and professors. Over cups of tea at my apartment on the last evening before they headed back to New York, I confessed to my grandfather some of the fears I just described. In reply, he told me about his first few years of being a Lutheran pastor and the shock of leaving the sheltered, intellectually-stimulating world of seminary for the messy, complicated realities of ministry. He and his wife were called to a church in Missouri, and he quickly discovered that all of his education and training hadn’t prepared him to understand and tend to the needs of a small, rural, and mostly poor farming community. He described watching the tractors furrow the fields around his home and feeling a sense that he was — as he put it — being “plowed under,” drawn from the lofty abstractions of theology back to the earth and deeper into humility. My experience in college has been so rich with opportunities to stretch my mind, engage in the process of research, work on exciting interdisciplinary projects, and seek creative outlets. Despite all the late nights and stressful moments, and even though my student loan provider has already started to nag me about my debt, I’m so grateful for the privilege of these four years. Now, though, I’ve reached a stage in life where I’m ready to be plowed under. I’m ready to get my hands dirty in the griefs and joys of my patients and in the ground of my vegetable garden back home. I’m ready to entangle my own story with the stories of others. I’m ready to be humbled and overturned and changed because I’ve come to realize that it’s not at the heights of success but in the soil of everyday life that I’m drawn closest to my God.

Claire Buck ’22

Claire majored in English and minored in Political Science. She is currently living in Rochester, New York. We thank Dr. Kirk Brumels (Kinesiology) for his guidance with Claire’s piece.

Table of Contents

[1] Wendell Berry, “Jefferson Lecture” (speech, 2012), National Endowment for the Humanities,

[3] Chuck DeGroat, Falling into Goodness: Lenten Reflections (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 7.

[4] Henry Chadwick suggests this view might not trace all the way back to Origen, though it has been attributed to him. For further details on this view and its source, see Henry Chadwick, “Origen, Celsus, and the Resurrection of the Body,” The Harvard Theological Review 41, no. 2 (1948): 95.

[6] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” in Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953), 51.

[7] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), 389.

[9] Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a Rock,” on Sounds of Silence, Columbia Records, 1966. Lyrics available via Genius at

[10] Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a Rock.”

[11] Donne, “Seventeenth Meditation,” 108.

[12] Jad Abumrad, “David and Dominique,” on Radiolab, podcast, May 8, 2020. Available at

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