Archives for posts with tag: JRR Tolkein

I was invited to CS Lewis old home not long after arriving here in Oxford. After only a matter of days, really. For tea. Just a small, private group of Lewis fans. And I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

Cole set it up for us. He lived there at the Kilns last year. So he still had the connections to make this happen. And after hearing Jen & Steve would be here on the day of the tea, he made sure to let me know they were welcome to join us as well. Great guy.

Monday: The lion guy, tea at the Kilns & a formal dinner

I’ve been surprised to find that CS Lewis isn’t a bigger deal here in Oxford. Being where he lived and taught and wrote for so many years. I’ve brought up his name as the reason why I’m here to several people, and, on a couple occasions, I’ve been met with faces that looked like they had no idea what I was talking about. Not every time, but on more than one occasion.

One person thought I was talking about Lewis Carroll. The author of Alice in Wonderland. Carroll also studied here at Oxford. At Christ Church. He was a brilliant mathematician, apparently. I’m sure they were scratching their head on that one for a while, trying to figure out how Lewis Carroll would make me want to study Theology.

I don’t know, maybe it seems funny to some people. You can almost see the look on their face. Almost as if to ask, “Wait, the lion guy, right? The one who wrote about the kids who went into the wardrobe? That one? That’s why you’re here?”

Yep, that’s the one. But I never actually read the Narnia series. I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I have a terribly limited amount of time to read and a massive list of books I’d like to read. And so when I do finally find time for it, I want to read something a bit more meaty. I want a big steak. I don’t have much room for dessert on my plate.

No, for me, Lewis is the man who, in Mere Christianity, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You don’t have to feel like a fool for believing this stuff.” And that was the first time I ever felt that way. The first time I ever read him. During my sophomore year of college. My first time around.

Lewis took a logical approach to dig through the beliefs of the Christian faith. Using analogies and reason to talk about things like whether Christ was just a man or something more. And that was so foreign to me. That approach.

As I read through his pages, I found myself encouraged, that I didn’t have to leave my reasoning at the door to approach this stuff. The stuff of the faith. In fact, I felt like he encouraged me to dig into the faith in a way I never had before. For he’s the one who put my hand in the hand of the Lord’s and said with a smile, “Go for it. Go the whole way, and don’t feel like you have to apologize for it.”

And as I did, I felt my relationship with Christ grow deeper. I felt my faith open up and awake in a way it never had before. Probably because it was the first time I felt like I could put both feet in. And, ever since then, I’ve wanted to help others do the same.

Tea at the Kilns

Jen, Steve and I took a bus to the Kilns on Monday afternoon. It was a short ride from Oxford’s city center. Maybe 15 minutes.

Jen spotted the sign as soon as we got off the bus for the Kilns, letting us know we were in the right spot.

We walked down a short lane and, sure enough, there was Lewis’ old home. Just as Cole’s directions had explained. A smallish cottage. Surrounded by trees and a garden. Just peeking out from behind the greenery.

Two small signs identify the home. One on the top left corner reads, “The Kilns.”

The second, a small blue plaque, the same style found on Tolkein’s house across the street from where we’re living, tells the dates Lewis lived here.

A small black cab was parked in front of the house when we arrived. Walking up, we saw Walter Hooper get out.

Walter was Lewis’ secretary before he passed away. They had been in touch for many years before that. Sharing letters back and forth across the Atlantic. Walter moved here shortly before Lewis died, and he’s been here in Oxford ever since. Writing. About Lewis, mostly.

I first met Walter at a CS Lewis lecture here at Oxford. Shortly after arriving. He was incredibly nice. And soft-spoken. He told me he’d have to have me over for tea at some point. I was pretty excited to hear he’d be joining us for tea on this afternoon, as I knew he’d have plenty of stories for us.

“Walter, hi,” I said with a smile as we approached. I held my hand out to greet him.

“Ryan Pemberton. We met at the Lewis lecture a few weeks back.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said in his soft-spoken voice. “Nice to see you again, Ryan.”

I introduced Walter to Jen and Steve. I told him how they had just arrived a few days earlier, and that they’d be joining us for tea.

He greeted them. Warmly. Like he was genuinely happy to meet them. And then he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small journal. The same small journal he pulled out when I met him before.

“I’m just going to put your names down here,” he said. “And look who that is,” as he opened the page to my name.

Walter told us how he had lived here for several years. With Lewis’ brother, after he passed away. He told us how Lewis and his brother bought the home for £2,000. And how Tolkein had encouraged them to buy the property next to the house for an additional £200, but they didn’t have the money.

He told me how Lewis and his brother used to go for walks. Around the lake behind their house. Behind the Kilns.

“Would you like to go see it?” he asked. It sounded like a trick question to me.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told him, with big eyes. So we headed up the hill, toward the lake. The muddy trail squishing beneath our shoes as we walked.

We came to the top of the hill and all of a sudden it opened up into a tree lined lake. Leaves were falling from the trees. Swirling round and round before landing on the surface of the lake. Into a pool of ripples. Ducks floated softly by. It was beautiful.

Walter told me how Lewis used to love swimming here. In the lake. And I thought that was so funny. I guess I never pictured Lewis as a swimmer. Probably because I never pictured him without a pipe in his mouth.

Walter told me some more stories as we walked. Stopping to point out a brick bench that overlooked the lake. Telling me about how the area used to be. About how much it had been developed since those days. About all the new homes. About how it looked before. In that soft-spoken voice you could listen to for hours.

We made our way back down the hill. Along the muddy trail. Back toward the Kilns. Knowing tea would soon be ready.

Rhona (my Greek professor) and her husband arrived just as we did. On their bikes. They were joining us for tea as well. They both looked winded from the ride. But happy to be there. They both wore wide smiles.

Rhona’s husband, Chris, is the dean of Christ Church here at Oxford. Pretty big time position. But he was super down to earth. Just as Cole had described. Great guy to talk to.

After introductions, we made our way into the house. For a tour. And for tea.

The first room we came to was the living room. A desk set just below the window on one wall. While two bookshelves sat on either side of the fireplace on another wall. A couch and a couple chairs rounded out the room. Several photos hung on the wall. Of Lewis. And of his wife. Joy.

Walter pointed to one of Lewis and told me that was the last day he was ever photographed. And that he (Walter) had taken the photo.

I looked over the books on the shelves. Not the originals that were there during Lewis’ day, but lots of his books. Lots of very early editions. I took an early edition copy of Screwtape Letters from the shelf and flipped open to the first few pages. “To JRR Tolkein,” it read.

The shelf held some books about Lewis, as well. Including this one by Walter.


We continued our tour. Making our way into what has been setup as a library. It was a garage before. Now it holds books. Lewis’ original signed marriage license to Joy. Memorabilia from when the movie Shadowlands was filmed. And the original Eagle & Child sign, which Walter managed to get from the restaurant and donate to the Kilns.

We were talking about Lewis’ writing. Walter and I. About how he managed to do what the Theologians of his day couldn’t. About the way in which he managed to pair logic and reason with wonderful analogies to paint a clear picture of the rather complex points of the faith.

“That’s where his intellect and imagination really came into play,” Walter said. “It was the perfect combination.”

Walter told Steve he must hear some great Theology from me. I shook my head, sheepishly.

Steve told Walter I was actually quite the writer myself.

I told Walter I felt like there was an opportunity. To reach people of my generation. With the things of the faith. In a format they’d want to pick up and read. He told me he agreed, as we made our way back to the front of the house for tea. He told me he thought that’s something we needed to do. And it made me smile, knowing we were on the same page.

“This is an official English tea,” Rhona told us with a smile as Jen took a seat beside her.

It was amazing. Fresh scones. Still warm. Jam. Lemon curd cream. Biscuits (cookies). Cucumber sandwiches (no, I had never heard of them, neither). And, of course, tea.

We ate and talked. And laughed. I sat between Jen and Walter. Steve sat across from us. Walter told Jen I was the nicest guy he’d ever met. And that he hoped to be as nice as me someday. Took me completely off guard. I laughed.

I told Walter about how Steve had printed off my writing and made it into a book for my birthday a couple summers ago. His eyes got big behind his glasses. He told me he’d love to read it some time.

We enjoyed our scones. I took a second. Layering on the sweet berry jam.

And then I remembered that I had an extra copy of my book in my bag, beside the door. I grabbed it and handed it to Walter, apologizing for its condition after being in my bag for so long. It was pretty beaten up.

He asked me to sign it for him, and I told him I’d have to get him another copy. That I felt horrible giving him such a rough-looking copy. But that he was welcome to borrow this copy for as long as he’d like. That it’d mean so much to have him read it.

We wrapped up our tea and had a quick tour around the rest of the home. Stopping in Lewis’ bedroom. And his old study. And it felt so unreal. All of it. Like I was in some sort of a dream.

We had taken the bus to the Kilns. And we were planning on taking it home. But Walter suggested we join him in his cab. That it could drop us off after dropping him off at Mass. So we took him up on it. And we crammed into the back of the cab. The three of us. Jen, Steve and I. Thanking Cole for everything before we left. Before the black cab pulled away from the Kilns. I couldn’t have been happier.

Formal Dinner

We made it back home with just enough time to change. I had signed us up for the formal dinner at Harris Manchester that evening. I was excited for Jen and Steve to be able to enjoy it.

It was a formal dinner. Suit and tie for me. And my gown. I had asked one of the ladies in the Administration office what the appropriate attire was for guests earlier that day. She told me they should dress smart. Jen and Steve were having fun with that one.

“Does this look smart enough, d’ya think?” they’d ask.

We walked the 30 minutes or so to the college in the cool night air. And we made it just in time.

Arlosh Hall is beautiful. With high, vaulted ceilings and portraits along the walls. And I love it. All of it. The formality of it. Everyone standing behind their chair, waiting for the Principal to enter. Followed by the rest of the faculty. Then a short prayer and everyone’s seated. It was great to share all of it with Jen and Steve.

Apparently it was an exchange night. With another college. I had no idea. We sat next to a girl from Poland. She was from the other college. I can’t remember the name just now. But she was nice. Funny. And definitely a talker. Have only met great people from Poland. All three of them.

Lamb was on the menu for the evening. I’m not usually a fan of lamb. It usually tastes too much like lamb, I suppose. But it was great this night. Served with a light gravy sauce.

I told Jen I didn’t usually like lamb, but that this was great.

And instantly I could tell Jen didn’t know it was lamb. Her eyes lifting from her plate. She didn’t like the idea of eating lamb, apparently. I had no problem with it.

TuesdaySteve’s last night in Oxford

We went to an Irish pub by the name of O’Neill’s for Steve’s last night here. And it was great. The place had lots of dark wood. The bar. The tables. On the columns and the ceiling.

And the food was great. At least I thought so. Steve and I ordered the burgers. He wasn’t terribly happy with his. I loved mine. Thought about ordering one for the road. Jen ordered the fish and chips. I ate her smashed peas, as she is simply not a fan of peas. And I’m not a fan of letting good food go to waste.

We had a great time catching up one last time before Steve left. He told us about a weird dream he had had the night before. That apparently Jane had asked him to be their butler. And that he agreed.

He told us how he had to wear a tuxedo, and wait at the door for us to arrive. To open the door for us. With a towel over one of his arms. In stereotypical butler fashion.

“And I was so mad at you,” he told me. “I wanted to punch you.”

“Why? Because you had to open the door for me?”

“That and you had a British accent.”

I erupted into laughter.

We stopped into G&D’s for some ice cream on the way home. A nice treat for the walk home.

Steve finished packing when we got home. Tucking away the last of his things. Showing me some of the gifts he had picked up for friends back home. And he told me he had picked up a couple of things for me, handing me a bag.

I wasn’t expecting anything. I asked him if I could open it now or if I needed to wait. He told me to go ahead. So I did.

And I was speechless when I did. He had gone to St. Phillip’s. A used bookstore here in Oxford. Where Jen bought me a first edition copy of Broadcast Talks (which later became Mere Christianity) last summer. As a birthday gift. And he had picked up several early edition copies of Lewis works for me, including a first edition copy of Surprised by Joy.

I was speechless.

The last book in the pile. Or the one at the bottom, rather. That’s a book Walter Hooper put together. It’s a book of letters between CS Lewis and his best friend Arthur Greeves. It’s a first edition. I told you this guy’s an incredible friend.

He also got me a scarf. So I could look more Oxford. I’ve really been enjoying it.

We had a great time with Steve here. Both Jen and I. It meant so much for him to fly out here, so Jen didn’t have to make the tripe alone. To show her around town. So she didn’t have to experience it all on her own while I was in class.

It was tough seeing him go after such a great week. And we miss having him here, for sure.

My only consolation? A date night with my wife. Pizza and Die Hard. I have an amazing wife.

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I was really afraid I was going to sleep in this morning. By accident. It would’ve made the third time since I’ve arrived, and I knew I couldn’t chance it. Today was the day of our Matriculation. Which basically means it’s the day each of the college’s new students are recognized as official members of Oxford University. It’s a pretty big deal. And I really didn’t want to miss it.

I woke up a half hour before my alarm went off. I considered getting up, but I just laid there for a bit. Until my alarm finally beckoned me out of my warm bed.

Prom Matriculation photos, by Jane

I grabbed some breakfast, skyped with Jen (briefly), then it was time to get ready. Quick shave, shower and I was putting on my full sub-fusc (Oxford’s term for their formal attire). Sub-fusc consists of a black gown (the men’s is longer and has sleeves), a mortar board, and a bow tie (or a black ribbon for the ladies). This is worn over a full suit.

I had to be at Harris Manchester for registration by 9:15, and I had a 25 minute walk ahead of me, but I stopped in to say good morning to Jane on my way out. And to see if she’d mind snapping a couple photos of me.

“Knock, knock,” I said as I knocked on the door, making myself known.

“Oh, hello. Ryan?” Jane called from the kitchen. Their home was warm, and the air smelled like bacon. It looked like Jane was cleaning up from breakfast when I found her.

“Big day today!” She said with a smile when she saw me. I asked if she’d mind taking a few photos before I made my way to college.

“Of course. Here, lets go by the front door,” she said. “That’s a nice spot.”

It was kind of funny getting my pictures taken by Jane, but I knew I’d want them. And I knew other people would enjoy seeing them. Kinda felt like she was sending me off to prom, though. If I wore a bowtie to prom. Like Ben.

I thanked Jane for taking some photos. I told her my Mom would really appreciate it.

“Okay, great. Let’s get one with your cap on now, shall we?” Jane encouraged me in that warm, British accent of hers.

I gave Jane a hug before leaving. It surprised me. I did it without even thinking. I think I was just excited. She didn’t seem to mind.

Cole told me last night the English aren’t big huggers. “They shake hands in England,” he told me. Apparently he found that out the hard way.

Also, before leaving, Jane asked me if I realized the house across the street from us is where The Lord of The Rings was written.

“Really? Wow… No, I had no idea,” I told her.

Sure enough.

Notice the small blue sign at the top of the above photo.

I really shouldn’t be surprised by things like this anymore. It seems like every day someone says something astounding about something that’s found here in Oxford. But I’m still blown away by it. Every time.

Tolkein lived just across the street from us. . .who knew.

Harris Manchester for Registration

I was worried my walk to Harris Manchester was going to be a pain. In my full sub-fusc. I was worried about showing up a sweaty mess. But it wasn’t bad at all, actually. It was a sunny, but cool morning. Which made it perfect. It was a really pretty walk, too.

I passed a number of people heading away from the university in their full sub-fusc. They must’ve had an earlier service. I was glad ours wasn’t until 10:50. With so many colleges at the university, they have to stair-step their Matriculation ceremonies, just to get everyone through.

I arrived at the college a little early. So I sent a few e-mails. And I scanned over the photo board. To remind myself of a few names. I’m horrible with names, so this thing really is a life saver.

Can you spot me?… How about now?

Still no? Okay…one more try.

I can just picture Jen reading this, shaking her head and saying, “What a dork…”

I had a look at the staff photo board as well, and I was shocked to notice the head chef (“Caterer”) here at Harris Manchester, the one I’ve been referring to as Steven, is actually named David. Whoops…

Now I’m trying to remember if I’ve called him “Steven” to his face.

After a bit of waiting, I made my way to the Old Dining Hall to register. I was happy to see there wasn’t much of a line.

Judith Nisbet, the academic administrator, was sitting at the far side of the room behind a table with a list of names in front of her. Checking names off as people checked in.

“Principal Ralph Waller,” I said firmly as I approached the table.

“Pppfffff… Please. I know who the Principal is!” she said loudly. “If I didn’t, I’d be senile. Even more so than I already am.”

We had a bit of time before the Matriculation ceremony actually began. Which made for plenty of photo opportunities around the college. More than you could ever likely want to see.

Tim bought an SD card for his camera just before coming. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right size, which meant he was without a camera for the day.

I felt bad for him. I told him I’d e-mail him a copy to share with his family back home.

This one’s of Wee Ming and I. Wee is originally from Malaysia, but he’s been working in New York for the past several years. In banking. Great guy. He had a Temper Trap shirt on the first time I met him, so I knew he was legit.

Thankfully, it was a gorgeous day here. Made the waiting around not so bad. And great for photos.

From left, here’s Wee Ming (Malaysia), Tim (Singapore), Harry (Germany, I believe), myself and Alex (England), in the Harris Manchester courtyard.

This one was taken in front of the Principal’s residence, at Harris Manchester College. It’s a gorgeous building, and he has a really nice fountain in front. From left, we have Tarik (England), Edward (Singapore), myself, Harry and Wee Ming.

After 30 minutes or so of our impromptu photo shoot, we were beckoned to the college entrance. It was time to head off for Matriculation.

Matriculation Ceremony

The Matriculation ceremony was being held in the Exam Schools building. It’s the building where your final exams are held, oddly enough. Lectures and classes are also held in the building. It’s really a beautiful building. Huge. And just a short walk from Harris Manchester.

I talked with Tarik on the way to the ceremony. I mentioned Tarik here previously, but he’s a great guy. Genuinely kind. Soft-spoken. Very smiley. Really bright. And we’ve had some good conversations on philosophy and theology already.

Tarik was previously “in Medicine,” which is his way of saying he is a doctor who has stepped away from practicing. He decided to return to school to study Theology. He’s interested in Medical Ethics.

I asked Tarik if his family was going to be at the ceremony today to celebrate, as I knew he was from here in England.

“Well, no. You see, I haven’t exactly told them I’m here at Oxford.”

“What?…” I asked, totally baffled by his words.

“Yeeeaaahhh,” he said, dragging out his “yeah” as he does. “I’m not sure how pleased they’re going to be when they found out I left a great job in medicine to go study Theology.”

“So they think you’re still practicing?”

“Yeeeaaahhh,” he said with a sly smile, and just a hint of guilt.

“Wow… do you talk with them often?” I asked.

“Oh yeah. I am going to see them tomorrow.”

I laughed out loud.

“Wow.”

I told Tarik I was initially nervous to tell my family about wanting to apply to Oxford. About wanting to leave a great job. To study Theology. I told him I was particularly nervous for what my Dad the engineer would think. Not because he’s not supportive, but just because I did have a great job, and because Theology is quite different than Engineering. But I told him my Dad had actually been one of the greatest supporters of us in this change. And that maybe he’d be pleasantly surprised as well.

I’m not sure he was convinced.

As we came up to the Exam Schools, we immediately knew we were in the right spot.

There was a fairly large group of people on one side of the road taking pictures. Family of the students. Family isn’t actually allowed into the building during the ceremony. They take this ceremony pretty seriously here, and it’s reserved for students.

The students who must’ve been matriculated immediately before us were pouring out of the building as we approached the Exam Schools. Loads and loads of them. All dressed in their sub-fusc.

Like I said, it was a pretty serious deal getting in. You can see police guiding traffic and keeping the parents with cameras at bay in this next shot.

Eventually, we made our way into the building, and we were lined up and asked to wait for things to begin. Quite a few students were crowded into the room before things actually got started. We were asked not to take photos, but I snapped this one to get a sense of how full this room was.

Once all the students had entered, some faculty began lining up in front of the central chair located on the right of the above shot.

The University’s Vice Chancellor, who would be leading the service then entered. Just in front of him was a woman with a gold scepter. She stepped off to the side of the stage as he took his place, tipping his hat to the faculty as he took his place.

He began by speaking in Latin. I was worried the entire thing was going to be in Latin. It was not. He made a great speech, actually. He told us we were joining a very elite group of academics who had gone before us this day, as well as those who would come after us. And that that was something we should be proud of. He told us we would be expected to work very hard while we were here, and to contribute to the realm of academia in our given field. He told us we wouldn’t leave the same people we were when we arrived here.

And then, about 10 minutes later, we were done. And we were now officially members of the oldest University in the English speaking world. Just like that.

“So that’s all it takes, huh? Just a little Latin?” I joked to Tarik.

“Yeeeeeaaaaah…” he said, with a laugh.

We were herded back out of the Exam Schools. Like cattle. But it really is a beautiful building. I really didn’t mind that it took some time to make our way out.

The Exam Schools are full of these huge, 12-foot tall portraits in these ornate golden frames. They’re all over. It’s quite impressive.

A few minutes later and we were back in front of the Exam Schools.

Here’s a photo of Wee Ming, Tim, myself and Tarik, fully Matriculated. Full members of the University of Oxford. “For the rest of our lives,” as they reminded us. I’m not sure I could keep this one from my parents.

Felix’s Rugby Match

After a round of individual and group photos back at Harris Manchester, and a nice, celebratory lunch, I made my way back to Northmoor Road. Felix was having a rugby match at his school only a few minutes away, and I had told him I’d like to watch him play.

I’d never been to a rugby match before, and I was looking forward to it.

I had just enough time to change before it was time to go. I walked with Jane to the school. Felix goes to a school called Dragon. Not “The Dragons.” Just Dragon. It’s pretty rad.

Jane asked me about the ceremony as we walked. And she told me about her Matriculation Ceremony from years ago. Both her and Justin graduated from Oxford. They lived in London for 20 years before moving back here to Oxford, where they’ve been for the past eight years now.

There were loads of people at the school when we arrived. Much like back home on a Saturday morning. Parents watching their kids. Dressed warm, for it’s certainly been chilly out.

Justin arrived a little after we did. And he did a great job of explaining the rules to me. There are quite a few similarities with American football, but also quite a few differences.

I’m not sure what his position is called, I can’t remember, but Felix does a lot of the kicking and throwing. Basically like an American quarterback and kicker rolled into one. He’s the most important position, Justin told me matter-of-factly.

Here’s Felix kicking off.

I loved watching the game. Even though I didn’t know all the rules. It was pretty easy to pick up. And Justin as helpful. It’s just so fast-paced. It doesn’t have the stop-and-go aspect of American football. And I was blown away by the hits these little guys were taking.

Here’s a photo of the scrum (above). If you don’t know what a scrum is, it’s…well, you should probably ask someone else.

At one point, one of the larger boys tackled one of the other guys around the neck. He was asked to leave the field for a bit. Wild. These little guys are only 10 and 11 years old.

Jane asked me if I had played American football back in the states. I told her I had. She asked if we had more padding. I told her we did. I also told her that’s the only reason my Mom had allowed me to play.

Felix did a great job kicking his field goals. Or, whatever they’re called in Rugby.

Standing on the sidelines, watching the action, my mind went to Jen’s Dad, Tim. I remembered him talking about playing rugby back when he was at Western in Bellingham. I thought he’d enjoy this.

And I remembered saying goodbye to him. After living with he and Rhonda for the past year. And after many more years of just being around there. In their home. And all the great memories from there. And I began to get teary-eyed, remembering how difficult that was. And how he got emotional too, when we said goodbye. He almost never gets emotional.

The people really are amazing here, and they’ve been so wonderful to me. But every once in a while something like that comes up. I get to thinking about something from home. And I almost lose it. It’s weird. And it comes when I’m not expecting it. But it just reminds me of what an amazing family I have back home.

I had to get a hold of myself quickly. I didn’t want Jane and Justin to have to try to explain to their friends who they had just introduced me to why the American student living with them was crying at their rugby match. That would have just been embarrassing for everyone.

Dragon ended up winning. By quite a bit. 42 to 12, if I remember correctly.

After the match, both sides lined up on the field, facing each other, and they took turns shouting, “hip, hip, hooray. Hip, hip, hooray. Hip, hip, hooray.” I’m not making this up.

I congratulated Felix after the game. I told him I thought he played great. And I told him I’d see him later.

Justin and Jane are going out tonight. They asked me if I’d mind hanging out with Felix for the evening. I told them I’d love to.

In small, small ways, all of this is starting to feel more like home.

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