Kingston and Kondo and Seeing Stuff

There once was a woman who thought about stuff

A constant refrain which made her life tough

The treasures, the dross

To keep or to toss

Indecisive and waffling, enough was enough!

So … hmmm …

I’m fairly certain that limericks are pretty much inexcusable. All I can say is that this is what happens when someone (Sarah 🙂 ) points out that I started the year with a haiku and followed with a pun … does that sound like a dare to anyone else?

Moving right along —

I’m at least six months — perhaps even a year — late to this party …

Nevertheless …

After being on the library’s waiting list since July, I *finally* — in November —read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

Although I am decidedly not a fan of self-help books, I do have a bit of a weakness for books that discuss “stuff”, a fascination which began many years ago, when I happened upon Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui.

Originally published in Great Britain in 1998; this is a copy of the first U.S. edition published in 1999.

When I first read this book I was a mother to two very young children. I was struggling just a bit with day-to-day life, and Kingston’s claim that clutter could cause a person to feel anxious came as an Aha! lightbulb-revelation. Now, Kingston’s writings aren’t perfect — her tone is a bit self-congratulatory, there’s a fair amount of woo to get past, and there’s a chapter on colon cleansing (yes, you read that right!) which likely makes some people squeamish — but it is a book that has, for me, stood the test of time. Some of Kingston’s words — these, for example:

You are connected to everything you own by fine strands of energy

— resonate just as strongly with me today as they did when I first read the book, even if I do have to take what she means literally in a strictly figurative sense.

So when the buzz began about Marie Kondo’s tidying book, I was fairly anxious to read it.

(But clearly not *so* anxious that I was willing to spend $15 in order to buy it!)

To begin with, I have to say I feel a fair measure of pity for Ms. Kondo. She clearly had childhood issues, which I, unfortunately, can relate to. As a child, I too, felt the comfort that could come from setting physical objects to rights, and would often come home from school and embark on tasks such as the completely voluntary — unasked-for, even — spring cleaning of my mother’s spice cupboard. I would at this point say, Pot? Meet Kettle… but the young Ms. Kondo was WAY more obsessed about it than I ever was. (So … hmmm … Spoon? Meet Kettle … ?)

Empathy aside, this book has left me feeling very conflicted, and as much as I don’t want to say it —

(if you can’t say anything kind, don’t say anything at all...)

— I had a really hard time liking this woman. I know it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that her cautionary tales — getting rid of other people’s stuff, and guilting siblings into taking her cast-off belongings — were part of her early practices, and that in telling us about them she is merely painting a picture of what not to do, that she doesn’t do them now. But still… Even when she was an adult, and already working in a professional capacity, her judgement seemed a bit off: telling a client she could tidy up by offloading stuff to her mother’s house for indefinite storage? Quite honestly, the word spoiled comes to mind, a descriptor that struck me as befitting both her and her clients.

I also got bogged down in semantics: the use of the term “garbage” when referring to the stuff that she’s encouraging people to get rid of. Are her clients actually throwing everything that doesn’t spark joy into the dump? Are there no charity or thrift stores in Japan?

On the flip side, her advice to use the boxes and bins one already has kicking around the house was a breath of fresh air, and her folding methods are probably bang-on: my ten year-old son’s drawer is still neat and tidy, months after I re-organized it and file-folded his t-shirts. And, her assessment of professional organizers as hoarders? Yes, thank-you, Ms. Kondo: there’s a bit of truth you don’t often hear.

Kondo’s claim-to-fame is, of course, the whole sparking joy thing … and to that I say, okay, sure, yes, in an ideal world, we would and should all live surrounded by only those things that we love, by only those things that spark joy. But … I can’t help feeling this is such a privileged, upper-middle class, first-world, consumeristic metre-stick by which to measure our belongings.

In the first place, it’s a method that really only works for those people who have both the time and the money to assess and possibly replace each and every object which doesn’t make the cut.

And in the second place, while I can see how joy could be a very useful determiner for clothing, say, or for books, or items of decor, isn’t joy rather a silly way to assess* a garlic press or a spatula or a wrench? Surely, in and amongst our belongings there’s room for pure function? Whatever happened to utility and making-do and deciding to live with good-enough? I would argue there’s a certain beauty to be found in all that, as well as in the ability (or determination) to say, Yeah, it doesn’t spark joy, but who the hell cares? I’ll seek my joy elsewhere, thank you very much.

(Are you thinking, methinks the lady doth protest too much about this whole joy-sparking thing? If so, you’d be right. The fact is, I want a nice home just as much as the next person, and I actually have a very finely-tuned aesthetic sense: I can immediately see what I love, what I don’t, what “goes” with what, and how things could be improved … in other words, I see all the stuff; I care about all the stuff … but the thing is, I don’t want to!).

Sigh.

Lastly, there’s the part of the book where (according to Goodreads reviews) she seems to lose a lot of people: her propensity to anthropomorphize objects, and to attach feelings to stuff. She even goes so far as to thank things for their service!

Oh. My. Gosh.

That’s just crazytalk!

I mean …

Um …

Gulp … yes, well …

As completely whackadoodle as it sounds, I have to confess this is a concept I *totally* get.

Because — as a person who sees all the stuff — I have, on numerous occasions, thanked inanimate objects for their service.

There was a stove, for example. A pair of sandals. A blanket.

And then there was a bowl, the smallest of a set of three I purchased just before my husband and I got married 25 years ago:

And then there were two …

These bowls were the first “household” item I bought, and if ever a set of mixing bowls could spark joy, then my goodness, it was these. Made in Portugal, purchased at a delightful little kitchen shop, the perfect sizes for all my needs … So when the smallest one broke a dozen-or-so years ago, I nearly cried. And I distinctly remember, as I placed the pieces in the garbage, saying the words out loud: Thank you, Small Blue Bowl; you were a good bowl, and I’m really going to miss you.

Ridiculous?

Perhaps.

But I wonder if, in our consumeristic and disposable — and warming — world, this is actually part of the solution.

Maybe we should all be thanking our stuff for the service it provides. Not because, as Ms. Kondo suggests, our stuff is capable of emotion and will have hurt feelings if we don’t acknowledge its hard work, but rather because perhaps, by taking that small action, we would all start to really and truly see the objects in our lives. And perhaps, if we all actually saw the objects in our lives, we’d also be forced to acknowledge the fact that stuff isn’t made from thin air, and that it doesn’t just miraculously appear on store shelves for us to buy buy buy without thought.

Like these Christmas crackers, making a curtain call from my last post:

Hey, did I already mention that these Christmas crackers travelled 14,000 freaking km (9000 miles) to get to Ontario?!

I wonder … were any of the people who purchased — or merely had the pleasure of pulling apart — these Christmas crackers *actually* thankful for their hat, their joke, and their unique gift (and their 30-odd seconds of fun)?

Maybe Marie Kondo is onto something with her thanking shtick.


*Apparently, Kondo’s second book (Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up) addresses the inherent problem that comes when using joy as a determiner to assess things that are utilitarian in nature. Sarah, who has read the new book, points out that “… Kondo acknowledges her ridiculousness. It’s a big part of her insight about finding joy in what’s useful (a really important principle, but one that I think could be more explicitly stated in the book)”. I wonder whether those fans who have followed her methods to a T will now be royally ticked off as they re-purchase tools they’ve summarily tossed. I will have to wait approximately six months to read this for myself; I’m number 11 on the library’s waiting list.

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10 thoughts on “Kingston and Kondo and Seeing Stuff

    1. When I returned the book to the library (after speeding through it in two days) I couldn’t help but feeling happy/vindicated that I had stuck to my frugal guns and hadn’t bought it!

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  1. I’m on my lunch break, so not much time, but as I was reading through my blog roll, I came across something on one that I thought of when I first read through this post this morning, and now I want to point you to two posts there, so there.

    I hear you on the idea that having only things you love seems like something coming from a position of privilege, but I don’t know that it has to be. I recently read this post (http://www.assortmentblog.com/assortment/2016/01/keeping-house.html) from Assortment, and it really spoke to me. She does not advocate throwing out all the useful things that don’t bring joy, but she does say that if you’re going to be buying some kind of household tool/supply, why not buy one that is beautiful to you–which, so often, is one that is meant to last, which really is about values you hold dear. And this idea is one I keep running into. Just yesterday saw a story about the idea of things we buy once in a lifetime (I think I linked to it in the comments to Sarah’s last post).

    And the other post I saw on Assortment just now was all about knitting (http://www.assortmentblog.com/assortment/2016/01/i-was-young-when-i-learned-middle-school-age-im-guessing-was-the-time-i-first-wove-yarn-with-knitting-needles-before.html) and it’s full of beautiful images.

    At any rate, anything that can make housecleaning more joyful is something I’m interested in. 🙂 And for what it’s worth, I’m so glad you took the time to sort out your thoughts on this and share them. I loved the writing here.

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    1. LOVE LOVE LOVE the keeping house post you linked to! Her thoughts on having beautiful tools are exactly the same as ones I’ve had: IF you are buying something, it SHOULD be something you love (so it gives you just that little bit of pleasure/joy when you use the thing), and as well, it should be something that’s well-made and durable (so it stands the test of time (the once-in-a-lifetime idea, precisely)). The only problem I see in this is when we ourselves are not the ones choosing/buying the items, or if we don’t have the resources to be able to get the things we absolutely love, or if we bought what we loved but our tastes have changed or we’ve happened across something better. As I was writing this post, I was taking a hard look around my house, and there are SO MANY things — items which I use everyday — which don’t spark joy. And I considered adding a bit into the post about a few of these things, but the post was getting too wordy, so I didn’t. (Quite honestly, I could probably do a dozen “I was given this and it doesn’t spark joy, but what the heck it works so I’m not going to toss it” type-posts” 😉 ). So it’s this scenario, I think, that is the sticking point for me. If we already have X and it’s not EVER going to wear out (plastic dustpan and broom, I’m looking at you!) should we then buy the new version? Sarah said (in this post http://becoming-gezellig.blogspot.ca/2015/12/my-home-this-season-december-2015.html ): “But one of the downsides is the way that minimalism can actually make us more focused on material things.” I know that minimalism and the KonMarie method are not necessarily one and the same, but I think that Sarah’s statement actually holds truth for both. When we take the time to look closely at every single object in our lives, there are bound to be quite a few for which we suddenly say, Hmmm, here I’ve been using this thing all along, and I never really noticed before, but I don’t really love this. And from then on in, every time you use the item, you might experience just a slight edge of dissatisfaction… All that being said, I am ALL FOR making housecleaning joyful!!

      Thank you, Rita, for your very kind words about my writing. You wouldn’t have known this, but I really needed them today! (And I so enjoyed the knitting post as well — you’re right, it IS a post full of beautiful images, and a lovely story to boot 🙂 ).

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  2. Well, I’m sure there is an aspect of privilege to the whole thing. But I’m not sure–which is why I like exploring these ideas. When I did Project 333 a few years ago, I realized how much I’d approached clothing from a scarcity point of view. That was all about the many years in which I didn’t have many resources for clothing. I developed a settling/making-do mindset when it came to clothes, which, paradoxically, resulted in me being more wasteful when my resources increased a little. I had so much crap in my closet that I’d bought because it was such a bargain, or because someone had given it to me, or because I needed some something right now and it was almost right. Or because I didn’t really like anything in my closet–which was due in part, of course, to having no idea what I really liked because I’d never focused on thinking about what gave me pleasure. What I’m saying is, the mindset I developed meant I ended up wasting the resources I had. Because it felt like there was never enough, I’d buy two cheap things (mostly because they were cheap) that I’d get rid of after a year, rather than one beautiful, joy-sparking thing that could last me several.

    I did not go out and rid my home (including closets) of everything I felt meh about. Because then I’d be naked with no place to sit. But I have gotten rid of things I really don’t like, and I’m now much more mindful about what I do bring in. I really do ask myself if it makes me happy. If there’s only a small cost difference between something serviceable and something I truly like, I try to choose the thing I truly like. (I’ve had to consciously unlearn that I should get the cheaper thing always.) If it’s something I likely to never buy again in my lifetime, I now try to get the best one I can afford. Because as you said, what I truly feel worst about is discarding (or wanting to discard) something that is still good but that I just don’t like for some reason. All of this has helped me understand much more about what I like and why. So, for all of these things I’m rambling about here, I’m grateful for Kon Marie and minimalist writers I’ve read. I think we all have feelings about and relationships to things, whether we recognize them or not. Those writers have gotten me to be more conscious of mine, so that they have become healthier.

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    1. “I think we all have feelings about and relationships to things, whether we recognize them or not.” I think this is a really important point to make, and one that (IMO) Kingston does a far better job of exploring than Kondo does. So, regarding your clothes and your experience with Project 333, Kingston likely would have said that it’s important for you to recognize that your “almost-right” or “really wrong” clothing was affecting how you feel; that in effect, by buying stuff like that you were effectively telling yourself that that was all you were worth. She advises just what you said: when you can afford it, you should buy quality over quantity. For non-clothing items, Kingston talks about things that are either loved or useful (and used frequently) having positive energy, and things that are not used or loved (or which have uneasy associations (a gift from an ex, for example)) having stagnant or negative energy, and that you will feel better and function better when you are surrounded by the former and minimize the latter.

      I think the thing that I still wrestle with in all of this (and why I’ll likely never replace my plastic dustpan and broom with one of the gorgeous made-in-Germany wood/metal ones I’ve seen in Winners (TJ Maxx)) is self-abnegation, which I don’t AT ALL mean in a harsh religious way (as in, I don’t feel I am a worthless and base human being who doesn’t deserve nice things). I have an achingly strong sense of “I am just one person out of billions on this earth” which leads to the reflection, “who the heck do I think I am that I need a pretty broom to sweep the house when my old one is fine and some people don’t even have brooms?”. This is, unfortunately, simply how my mind operates, so if I were to replace my dustpan and broom this would actually likely bring me LESS joy. (I do hope I’m not coming off as self-sacrificing and holier-than-thou, because that’s not my intent at all).

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  3. I’m so glad to read this post, Marian, and I agree with Rita’s thoughts about your writing. Also the limerick cracked me up! (And thank you for the shout-out. 🙂 )

    I love those mixing bowls — beautiful to begin with and even more beautiful with use. And it might sound weird, but I love the missing little one too.

    I’m kind of amazed to hear that you felt a kinship to Kondo because of your own unsolicited tidying as a child. I had assumed Kondo was sui generis! But that’s fascinating. I do think that there are some folks who soothe their anxiety by getting rid of stuff and others who soothe it by accumulating stuff or keeping stuff “just in case.” (I am a very anxious person and probably on the latter side of things so please don’t take that as a criticism of you.) It’s just that society/culture as a whole encourages accumulation and consumption, so it’s the discarders who may seem out of step, when really a lot of us are dealing with something similar, to one degree or another.

    I was thinking more about that line from my previous blog post that you referred to, about how minimalism can make us more focused on material things, not less. Now I wonder if maybe that is a good thing after all. In the sense that as consumers, we often don’t pay much attention to our things/don’t treat them with respect and reverence/think of them as disposable. So, when I undertake this decluttering extravaganza and find myself thinking “well that isn’t perfect, I’d like to get rid of it and get something better,” and then feel like kind of a jerk about that — well, that’s basically what I’ve been doing, in a less concentrated fashion, all along.

    I agree with you though that there’s something very privileged about the whole KonMari phenomenon. I’m not sure there’s a way around that. It just is what it is. But I do think that the attitude towards possessions that she is advocating is something that our society, and especially the more privileged members in it (very much myself included), badly needs. And from a purely capitalist point of view, if consumers with buying power start demanding good stuff that will spark lasting joy…that can’t be bad, can it?

    It’s funny, lots of people seem to get really hung up on the whole “sparks joy” business, but I didn’t have that experience. Partly because I know what she means in a literal sense (there are certain objects that I can touch and actually feel them radiating my fondness), and partly because I just decided that the idea could sometimes be taken figuratively instead. I do think her second book is much more about what “sparks joy” means and how to recognize it, and it very much advocates finding joy in usefulness etc. I think a lot of Westerners tend to think of “sparks joy” in an aesthetic sense, and certainly my own tendencies lie in that direction as well. But I don’t think that’s the only meaning. She never explicitly refers to this but it makes me think of another Japanese concept, wabi-sabi, which is all about finding joy in impermanence and imperfection. Your mixing bowls are such a perfect example of that, right? And maybe also some of those “I was given this and it’s not what I would have chosen but what the heck it works” items too?

    Ok, sorry for the epic comment! But this was a really thought-provoking post and well worth the wait. 🙂

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    1. I have to begin by admitting I’m really quite relieved the limerick gave you a laugh — I was 90% certain that you would *get* (or perhaps even share!) my off-the-wall humour, but the remaining 10% of me was just a bit worried a limerick was just *way* too weird!

      Please don’t EVER apologize for writing an epic comment, Sarah! The fact that I’ve written something that warrants an epic comment…? That’s my raison d’être for blogging! AND, I am acutely aware of how much time and effort it takes to write epic comments … so I’m both very happy and very grateful when others are willing to take the time to take part in discussions like this (especially when the epic comment is written by a kindred spirit such as yourself 🙂 ). (I might change my mind on this when my first troll shows up 😉 ).

      I nearly always learn something from your comments or posts (in other words, I had to look up sui generis 😉 ). My anxiety is unfortunately of the Jekyll and Hyde variety: clutter makes my anxiety go through the roof, so the less stuff around the better. But conversely (perversely, really) Mr. Justin Case is a very vocal dweller inside my head, so I actually have a very hard time getting rid of things. I wonder sometimes if the people who advocate for a “get rid of everything” approach to life are the same people who’ve never faced privation or fear or trauma. I’ve heard that the older generations who went through the Depression or the wars have a tough time giving things away, and I also recently read (but can’t remember where) that those people who suffer from PTSD also tend to be “hangers-on” when it comes to stuff. (Not that I’m claiming to have PTSD, but it’s maybe one more piece of the puzzle that’s come from my less-than-idyllic childhood). Kingston, in her clutter/feng shui book says something along the lines of “if you keep too much stuff around, of the just-in-case variety, you’re sending a message to the universe that you don’t trust it to provide”. To which I say, Hell no, I don’t trust in the universe to provide! The way that I try to deal with these two competing factions is to bring AS LITTLE into the house as possible, because once a thing is here it is WAY too hard to let it go! (It would also help enormously if I didn’t have such a penchant for dystopian fiction. The just-in-case side of my brain is fed by books like The City of Ember series (by Jeanne DuPrau; a children’s series, not the best writing, but (for me) a fascinating premise) — I really feel like one day I’ll say, Well, I just *knew* that sleeper would come in handy!).

      I think that your statement of “minimalism can make us more focused on material things” can most definitely be seen as a good thing. If, as you said, it causes people to be more aware of their stuff and the end result is that they buy less crap and more good quality items then it is most definitely a win (for the environment; I’m not so sure it’s a win for the economy, which I admit worries me as well).

      Your “it just is what it is” comment about privilege and KonMarie really is bang-on, but it’s something I do have a hard time accepting — my husband and I have conversations of this nature all the time, with me posing completely idealistic BUT WHY? questions and him saying, because that’s just how it is 😦 .

      So I (of course!) had to look up wabi-sabi as well! It makes me just a bit sad that I didn’t write this post last spring, because one of my brothers-in-law (who came to visit for my husband’s 50th birthday in May) lives in Japan; I would have loved to have had a long conversation with him about this concept, which strikes me as such a beautiful counterpoint to what I have witnessed (vicariously, via my brother-in-law and his Japanese wife and daughter) of the Japanese culture of consumerism (and I acknowledge that it’s highly unfair of me to paint all Japanese with the same brush, but the tone of Kondo’s book certainly was in keeping with that, unfortunately). As to my mixing bowls … they *are* a perfect example of this concept … they are extremely beat-up at this stage, with the largest having a crack running all the way down one side (making its use almost fool-hardy (according to my husband, who says that one should be tossed. (NO!!)), and really, they don’t even meet MY aesthetic of beauty anymore, but every.single.time I make cookies (with the medium bowl) I think of my daughter at two, standing on a stool and reaching up to stir, and me bringing the bowl down to her level … now that’s joy 🙂 .

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  4. You and Rita both have the best comment sections…it is like getting two blog posts in one.

    After two years of reading all I can about minimalism and sort of kind of trying to practice minimalism, I have come to realize that I have certain classes of things that I am happy to be minimalist about, and certain things I am not. I have tossed tons of kitchen dishes and bath towels and tchotchkes. Small, cluttery things that are easily replaced–no problem, donate it.

    Furniture and textiles, on the other hand, I have regretted donating. That set of shield back chairs I gave to my sister because I already had two sets of dining chairs? I wish I had them back. The muddy-toned Pottery Barn peacock curtains and chocolate brown dhurrie rug I gave to a friend two years ago because brown no longer “sparks joy” in me? I wish I had kept it, as they would have looked very nice in this soul-sucking beige rental we are currently in. Even those uncomfortable tolix chairs I just sold for pennies on the dollar I could have repurposed while reorganizing the second dining room/playroom. (Sigh.) I have told my husband that what I really need is a storage unit for furniture I am not using but might use again in the future.

    I feel like I could only be a minimalist if my house burned down and I were starting from zero.

    I do think there is value in thanking your goods for their services. For a long time I kept old things that my mom has given me (that should have been thrown out in 1983) out of guilt. After reading the book I gave a bunch of them thanks for their service, and gave them all to Goodwill. I also stopped giving any things I don’t want to family members–I do agree that it is basically handing off a problem you don’t want onto someone else.

    I enjoy hearing your thoughts on using less and repurposing!

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    1. Ah, the first bit you said made my morning, Lisa! I love the fact that I (somehow!) have readers who are interested (and are willing to take the time) in having discussions like this … and that of course includes you 🙂 ! Thank you!

      I am very much a fickle minimalist as well. And I too, have given away things that I have later regretted. Some of these regrets are things that my daughter could have used this year (as she’s now living in a house just off her university campus). Other things are “raw materials” (so to speak) for crafty ideas that unfortunately came just a bit too late. Some things that I haven’t yet given away, but feel I should (because the amounts I’m keeping are seriously bordering on crazylady) are things that I feel too sentimental over (kids’ stuff, mainly) — in other words, stuff I imagine I will regret tossing!

      I too have done a TON of reading about minimalism, and while I do crave minimalistic spaces (and have made some really good strides in that direction) I can’t quite shake the thought that minimalism is somewhat borne from an expectation of abundance and easy availability (The Minimalists’ 20/20 rule, for example — that one can buy whatever one “needs” for less than $20 and in less than 20 minutes). This leads into a whole other area of discussion though: needs versus wants; society “today” versus societies of the not-so-distant past in which scarcity was a real and constant danger (which inevitably leads, in my mind, to thoughts of “what does the future hold”, which then becomes a paralyzing Well, I’d better not get rid of ANYTHING then! (So let’s not go there! 😉 ))

      I think when a person has moved as much as YOU have (I can’t remember the number, but holy crows I was blown away when you talked about it on your blog) or as much as WE have (not nearly as many times as you, but still…) then you might always, necessarily, have the NEXT house in mind even as you’re setting up the current one. Let’s face it, furnishings are expensive, which makes it really hard sometimes —the “not knowing” means you might possibly be storing something in your basement indefinitely, or if you choose to give it away because all-the-stuff is just-too-much you could very well find yourself on the move again very shortly! (But the thought of paying X dollars per month to rent a storage unit? That’s a difficult pill to swallow too!)

      I have been passed a LOT of things by my MIL — and I too, kept them for the longest time, out of feelings of guilt, or out of feelings of “I may need that someday” … it’s felt really good to finally let most of those things go. (And our last move put us out of driving range, so when my in-laws come to visit they no longer have the “luxury” of packing their trunk with their cast-offs, which has been a huge relief for me!)

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