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Embracing death as an ally may be the most important thing you can do to live a full, happy life.

Embracing death as an ally may be the most important thing you can do to live a full, happy life.

A friend of mine recently heard these words from his doctor and has been living his last few months on this earth in this body. He is only 71 years old so he is not old, in fact he is only 13 years older than I am. I know him because although he lives in a house now, he has been a vandweller and still spends many months each year on wheels. He wrote a very interesting article for cheaprvliving about living in a vehicle and afterwards we became friends and our paths have crossed often in the last 5 years. He is a wonderful guy who has lived an amazing life to it’s fullest. Learning of his diagnosis brought the topic of death right to the forefront of my mind. For a very long time now, death has been a very important subject to me; in fact I consider it a life-changing topic that I guide my life by.
What about you, how would you feel if you heard a doctor say those words to you? Have you ever given death any thought? Our society so greatly fears and hates death that most of us do everything we can to insulate ourselves from it and pretend that it isn’t real and we are immune from it. I believe that is a tremendously unhealthy way to live and can lead to a sad and unhappy life, or at least I know it did for me.

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”  ~Mark Twain

Nearly every primitive culture had a rite of passage for adolescent children where they went through some kind of near-death or painful experience before they were seen as adults and accepted as full members of adult society (see this site for 25 extreme examples of that: warning: some of them are truly horrible and not to be admired). Unfortunately, we no longer embrace death and look it straight in the face as most of our predecessors did; we do just the opposite; we hide from it and pretend it isn’t there and won’t happen to us. The result is the fear of death slowly creeps into every area of our lives and we live in terror of anything that may cause us discomfort and death. A life lived in fear is a truly miserable life; it was for me.

“Fear was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it.”  ~Bill Wilson

I believe most of modern societies problems can be traced back to a wrong relationship with death. We should  embrace it and allow it to be the motivating factor to live a full and happy life every single day that we have. But instead we cower in fear and hide from it doing everything we can to keep it far away from us. The result is that we don’t fully embrace life because doing so brings us closer to death or discomfort, our sworn enemies and source of our fears.
I lived my whole life in fear and because of that I was never happy. In fact by the time I was in my 40s I had concluded I was not happy and never would be happy. My only goal was to keep my unhappiness to a minimum and endure through life as best I could. I went through a very miserable mid-life crisis that forced me to make some changes. I found a spiritual program that promised to truly, deeply change my life. Because I was desperate to change I threw myself into it with my whole heart. During the process of following their path the day came when I came face-to-face with my own death. I totally imagined and visualized what it would be like to die just like to was literally happening to me. During my time in that program, my life totally changed, it performed an honest miracle in my life and I attribute much of that change to coming to grips with a healthy relationship with death.
In that program we were encouraged to study and find a religious path we could follow. I never adopted any one but instead I try to draw the best from each. The two that influence me most are Zen Buddhism and Native American spirituality, specifically the Lakota Sioux. Interestingly, they both place a heavy emphasis on embracing death as a part of life (your’ll find a link to both in just a minute). I’ve tried to follow their example by living every day of my life, and making all my decisions with my death in mind. It has been a North Star that I guide the ship of my life by.

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one. Let us deprive death of its strangeness,   let us frequent it,   let us get used to it,   let us have nothing more often in mind than death … we do not know where death awaits us so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom … a man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”   ~Montaigne

This is the attitude I always try to maintain toward my death:

  • I constantly try to bear in mind the Lakota saying attributed to Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn “Today is a Good Day to Die!”
  • My death is much closer than I think and all the living I want to do, I need to do now. Tomorrow is not guaranteed!
  • My life and my death will determine my future lives so I try to live and behave with as much compassion and empathy as I can every day.
  • When I die, and people hear of my death, I want as many people as possible to say to themselves, “I’m sorry to hear he’s gone, he was one of the good ones.” And as few as possible to say, “Good riddance!”

My path was unique to me and so each of you is going to have to follow your own path to a right relationship with death. Fortunately, I don’t think you have to do any of the extreme things primitive cultures did, I believe you can do it right with two simple steps. 1) Begin to contemplate and meditate on your death in a way that works for you. 2) Begin to take actions that defy your fears and make you happy right now. Lt’s look at how to do those two things.
1) Start thinking about your death by meditating on and contemplating it on a daily basis. A simple way to include it in your life, is every time you have to make a decision, think about how it will impact your death, will it make your death “better?” Before you can do that you have to know what a “Good Death”  or a “Bad Death” will look like. Start now to spend time thinking about what will be a good death for you? What do you want friends and family to say when you die? What can you do today to make that happen?
But it’s important that your goal should never be to delay your death (because TODAY is a good day to die, right!?). Your only goal should be to enhance it, to make it a better, more meaningful death. For example, make healthy choices not because you are afraid to die but because to die at 95 in an avalanche climbing a mountain is a preferable, more glorious death than to die of cancer, wasting away in a hospital bed at 65.
This is actually a large part of Buddhism and is something we can all learn from them no matter what your religious beliefs or non-beliefs. The Buddha considered meditating on death, the Supreme form of meditation.
“Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme,
Of all mindfulness meditations,
That on death is supreme.”  ~Buddha
 I highly recommend you study this page to see how the Buddhists do it:

It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.   ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

2) Take actions to defy your fear, and make your death better! Knowing and understanding death isn’t enough, you must take steps every day to live this moment to it’s fullness, like it was the only one you have! We need to stop delaying happiness for an imaginary future, instead grabbing life with all the energy you have right now. You only have so much time to love, to be kind, to have fun, to have adventures. Fill each day with as much positive energy as you possibly can.

“I would rather be ashes than dust!  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The function of a man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. “   ~Jack London

And that means acting like “Today is a Good Day to Die!” There will never be a batter day today than right now because I have lived a full and complete life. For an outstanding explanation of what those words meant to Crazy Horse, I strongly encourage you to take the time to read this page:

Live, so you do not have to look back and say: ‘God, how I have wasted my life.’   ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

If you learn something from this post, then you make my friends death a little more meaningful and glorious, and for that I am grateful.

“I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing, 
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.” 
~Dawna Markova”


  1. Canine

    Part of my life is volunteering. Giving back is important and fulfilling to me. I had wondered what I could do that could keep making society better after I’ve gone. This thought turned to action by me gathering signatures for a petition for ballot. I repeated those efforts a few years later with another petition for ballot, and this time I was a regional manager. Both of those ballots became bills which became law thus effectively redressing a governmental grievance. Both laws are still in effect and continue to make the state I live in a better place.
    I didn’t make some fantastic, individual effort that changed the world. I did my part along with many others and we made a difference. Now when I die, that part of me will live on.
    My philosophy in life is to make a place better than it was when I leave- or at a very minimum don’t make it worse. That makes my life in a large way meaningful. It also makes death not so scary because I lived. Not in an absolute selfish way, but in part a giving way.

    • Bob

      Thanks Canine, that is very wise!

  2. Bill from NC

    Hey Bob I have been told twice by the doctors that I only had a 5-10 % chance of living. I am ready but I am also living every day!!!
    Also my friend I launched!!! Been on the road two days and headed for Quartzite$!! Thanks for your helpful forum and advise!!!

    • Bob

      Bill how wonderful that you have beaten the odds and that you’ve started a whole new life!! Hopefully the bet time of your life is just ahead!

  3. Al Christensen

    One of the biggest disservices Western religion inflicted on humanity is the idea that it’s okay your life sucks because you’ll get a perfect one after you die.

    • HoboHounds

      Western religion serves its purpose quite well though. No matter what it has inflicted on humanity it sure does a great job keeping people right where they belong. Mission accomplished.

      • Bob

        HoboHounds, I’m forced to agree with you, religion is the Prozac of the people!

    • Bob

      Al, I have to agree! All too often religion is just a tool to control people. My guess is it starts out good and noble but over the centuries it gets twisted and distorted and becomes something very different.

  4. Openspaceman

    I wonder when technology advances to the point that the average person will know when their time is up…far in advance or not so far in advance.
    What will insurance companies do when everyone has a pre-existing condition…which is an approximate time of death.

    • Bob

      Openspaceman as medicine advances we face all kinds of new ethical dilemmas we never even considered before. And it is just going to get worse.

  5. Patrick

    In today society, the word death is a dirty word that people rarely think about what it means. If they contemplate on the meaning of death, I think there will be less conflict in the world. Death is reminding me to live my life according to my own principle of “self culture”.

    • Bob

      Patrick, very wise!

  6. Calvin R

    Bob, your posting is searching and fearless. I hope it inspires people by disrupting their slumbers. This brought to my mind a lyric from a Neil Young song. He says, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” I have a depressive tendency, and depression can be seen as accelerated rusting. Remembering that line always reminds me of my need to live rather than await death. Incidentally, Wikipedia compares that to a statement by President Millard Fillmore, who said, “It is better to wear out than to rust out.” I cannot say it any better than that.

    • Bob

      That’s so true Calvin!

  7. Beth

    Ha! I’ve got a post coming up tomorrow about just this idea: remembering that death is coming makes life all the sweeter.

    • Bob

      Beth, you know what they say a out great minds!

  8. Karen Abbe

    Well Bob, not only do I not RUN from death, I face it head on every day. It’s no longer an abstract concept for me. Less than a week after I left Quartzsite RTR, I found myself in a doctor’s office learning I had a broken vertebrae — been broken since October, but I didn’t know it — I just though it hurt an awful lot. An MRI and a CAT scan later revealed a cancer that started in my pancreas, spread to my liver, both lungs, then grew into my spine breaking the vertebrae. That was more than just a little shock, as I knew my body didn’t feel right for a while, but while at RTR, I had no idea really what was going on, and why I didn’t feel like my regular happy self. Life can take strange turns Bob, and fortunately I have lived my life so far pursuing my dreams. Every day I find happiness in little things too, and I’m writing every day on my Facebook page, so friends will know what’s going on, and can chime in whenever they want to. My postings are helping me share the little victories I can win every day. There’s only palliative care for me, as it spread too far to be cured now — so I’m now in hospice care, living with my family, which has actually turned out to be a wonderful thing. I wake up each day, happy to be alive — and hopefully I have a few great months left. Anyway, take care, and keep living your dreams — you’ve inspired many people. Karen

    • Lois

      Karen, you inspire me with your willingness to face your current life-path head-on, with grace and with joy for each day you wake up to. Big hugs from me to you!
      — Lois
      (I think I was parked near you at RTR – I have a white Montero pulling a little vintage trailer.)

      • Karen Abbe

        Lois — thank you — I just read your blog, and will start following it. There are so many fine travelers and I love to hear about their adventures — that’s one of the things that bums me out, knowing that everyone is out having fun and going places, without me! 🙁 I got to see some places in my travels, but really, had only just begun to scratch the surface. Never did get to Alaska, that’s a major bummer. I tried to add my Facebook page link on my comment, but I don’t think it worked — people can send a friend request to ‘Abbe.Kitty’ if they want. Take care, Karen

        • Lois

          Karen, I just sent you a friend request on FB. Thank you for your candidness… I can’t even begin to imagine but I appreciate you! Have a good evening!

    • Bob

      Karen, I’m left speechless, there are no words that can think of that can help you. It’s one thing to embrace a philosophical idea but it is an entirely different situation to hear those words actually said to you. I wish you the very best on your journey and I’m sure you are very grateful for every chance you took and risk that you embraced.
      I have no idea what is on the other side of death but I believe with all my heart it is GOOD. You will become an example I use to encourage other people to live their fullest life RIGHT NOW, and your life will live on in that way.
      Would you consider sharing a link to your Facebook page so we could share your journey with you? We will completely understand if this is far too personnel and intimate a time to share with the world and is for close friends and family only.
      No mater how alone you may feel, you are loved.

      • Karen Abbe

        Bob — Hi, I sent an email to you just now — yes, people can send a Facebook friend request to ‘Abbe.Kitty’ if they want. I’m so bummed I’ll never get to see Alaska even once — wish I hadn’t waited so long, and I did have Alaska in the back of my mind for several years — let that be a lesson to others, don’t always think there will be “next year” because “next year” is not promised — there is no guarantee you get anything beyond today. Karen

        • Bob

          Karen, I am so sorry the price is so high for this lesson. It is pretty amazing that right now I know two vandwellers who are terminal.
          It just reminds to push all the harder to remind people to live for today.

  9. Elizabeth

    I’d like this quote by Erma Bombeck shared at my funeral and to know that it was true.
    Life is not a journey to the grave
    With the intention of
    Arriving safely in a pretty
    And well preserved body,
    But rather to skid in broadside,
    Thoroughly used up,
    Totally worn out,
    And loudly proclaiming,
    WOW !!!! What a ride!
    Thank you, always, for the reminder, Bob ; )

    • Bob

      You are very welcome Elizabeth, and thank you for sharing that with us!

  10. Calvin R

    That quote hits the nail on the head.

  11. Scrap Wood

    Thanks for this post Bob. I think this is your best and most timely post for me. I came here from a heads up on Lloyd Kahns blog but have been mostly sitting on my head. For me the Way is my spirit source. The ancient ones have a lot to say to us about living our lives in the 21st century. All the things the media and western religion tell us is just how to sustain the unsustainable.
    From Hsieh Ling-yun:
    Joy and sorrow come and go in turn:
    Now failure daunts us, now success cheers us.
    I prefer to be free of all this;
    Against all the world I choose Simplicity.

    • Bob

      Thanks for sharing that Scrap Wood, very profound.

  12. John Jamieson

    While I think its probably a good thing to think about death, at least once, I find it kind of depressing in a way. I’m not afraid of death at all. When death does come, I’ll be mostly disappointed that its over so soon. To paraphrase George Carlin, “I’m glad I’m nearer the end of my life than the beginning” since the world has changed so much in the last 71 years of my life that I don’t really recognize anything anymore…

    • Bob

      John, I can’t argue with you, it can be a depressing subject. I try to concentrate on the good and positive things that come from embracing it as an ally. Knowing that makes it much more bearable.

  13. Lois

    Bob, this post is spot on for me. I grew up in a family that hid death and dying under all kinds of layers of denial. When I stepped out into my own life at 17, I decided I would do my best to live each day as if it was my last, to raise my son with a sense of daily of adventure, and to embrace life, and thus death, with every cell in my being. So far so good!
    The first time I went skydiving, I talked my son into going with me (I’ve always been a tad more adventurous that he is but he did agree to go along!) and as we drove out of the driveway, we both said, at virtually the same time, “it’s a good day to die!” Thanks for the reminder that life is for living and this is the only one we get so we better step it up if we don’t want to die with regrets. You embody that for each of us who read your blog posts. Rock on!

    • Bob

      Lois, what a wonderful comment, thank you! You are a very wise woman!

  14. CAE

    Reminds of that TV show back in the old days “Run for your life” starring Ben Gazarra. What a classic

    • Bob

      CAE, that was a good one! Too bad it hasn’t come out on DVD yet. Another one i really liked was “Then Came Bronson” who was a guy who traveled full-time on a Harley Sportster but he was a good guy.
      Those were the good ole days!

      • jonthebru

        The cancellation of “Then Came Bronson” was a turning point of my media awareness. Just because I thought something was good didn’t mean it would last. I was a very young kid at the time but wanted to get a bike and ride away!

        • Bob

          Me too jonthebru, I’ve been riding every since!

          • CAE

            That was a an interesting era in TV where they actually made shows that questioned the values of society and what really mattered. Much more common in the movies than TV.

          • Bob

            CAE, it was different time then when we were challenging virtually all our values and it even came out in TV. I’ve often wondered just what caused that huge uproar in the American psyche in the 60’s and 70’s. I think it was fear. It was such an incredibly fearful time and we literally stood at the brink of the end of mankind with the cold war, pollution, over-population and economic distress.
            Weird how it totally switched by the 80’s and 90’s to a totally “me” oriented generation. And stiil is.

  15. Lynn

    I never really thought about death until I lost my father a couple of years ago. That was really my first experience and I was surprised at my reaction. In one sense, I was glad that he went quickly and painlessly and I had my chance to say my goodbyes but most importantly were the lessons I learned at the funeral. I really think it comes down to the question of “Did you live the life you wanted to live, if you did then you go with grace; if you didn’t then you go with regret. It doesn’t matter how you choose to live your life, in a house, in a car, in a boat, on an island, in the snow…you know what I mean….was it the life you wanted to live. My father had a wonderful life, of his choosing and it was his time to go. I hope I go like that. Death is always harder on those you leave behind.
    In contrast, I had a school friend who passed recently with breast cancer and I always think of her with a bit of pity because she was not a loving person even with her children. She always felt that she didn’t get to live her life the way she wanted because she married twice and had children early and the marriages failed. She was regretful. The sorrow showed on her face over the years. Doesn’t matter how you choose to live, just make sure you are the one doing the choosing.

    • Bob

      Thanks for sharing that with us Lynn, I agree totally with your view.
      Isn’t it something that in our culture you can live your whole life and not be confronted with death until later in life. And yet that is true for most of us.

  16. John Dough

    I can’t live each day like it’s my last.
    If I did I would not go to work and pay off my mortgage. 3 years left!
    Then I can maybe do more of what I want.
    If I don’t make it, at least I died trying!

    • John Dough

      Which means 3 years to get my van ready.

      • Bob

        John, I think this is one of the most fun and exciting times of any adventure: the getting ready and prepared for it. Enjoy and savor it!

    • Bob

      John, you’re right, there has to be a balance and each person must make their own decision. But at the same time that you can’t quit your job right now I’m sure there are ways you can find to make each day better. For example, after I moved into my van and money wasn’t as tight I stopped working 40 hour a week and started working 32. That made my life so much better!!!!
      I can’t know what is good for you except I think you should find every way you can to live each day to it’s fullest.

      • John Dough

        I will tell you, your website is helping me as I live vicariously, and plot my escape from “civilization.”
        So much great info.

        • Bob

          Thanks John! I think of myself as a cartographer, mapping out escape routes from the Rat Race for people! I hope you make it!

  17. Hunter Hollingsworth

    John 10:10
    The Message (MSG)
    6-10 Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about. So he tried again. “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good—sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for—will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.

    • John Dough

      Odd that it took him more than 1492 years to spread his word to the Americas.
      Why do you think that is?

    • openspaceman

      I have no idea what this means…and I’m not tryin’ to be a smart@ss.
      Everyone has their own way of dealing with things…but I’m definitely not a sheep. I just built/moved into my van to save a few bucks and do a little traveling while I still can.

    • Bob

      Thanks Hunter.

  18. Patrick

    Contemplate death leads to inner peace, therefore peace is the highest Happiness. People understand this concept see the beauty of Earth and the people live on it. America like China, the land under the heaven and the people live on the land are the people of heaven. One die, he/she will goes to heaven. No need to for gate keeper.

    • Bob

      Thanks Patrick.

  19. Al Christensen

    I think it’s important to remember that each person is entitled to their own ideas about what constitutes a good, full, meaningful life for themselves. Your bucket list and my bucket list need not be the same. Chasing after what someone else considers the Full Life might leave me empty and dissatisfied. One of the big lessons I learned from “The Tao of Pooh” is that we each have a unique life to live, a unique niche in the cosmos, and that frustration and unhappiness come from following someone else’s path. I will be prepared to die even if I never accomplish a single thing on my bucket list. Because I’m content RIGHT NOW. And I believe that when I’m dead I won’t exist to be bummed out about the things I never got around to doing.

    • Scrap Wood

      Well put Al. Right On

    • Bob

      All good points Al! I think we are both saying the same thing: live today to it’s fullest. I think a reminder and awareness of the shortness of life is a great motivator to do that. There is a Buddhist saying that says “If you take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” I think that is very true.

  20. Oldnavy

    Bob, my favorite quote about death comes from my patron saint Mark Twain, who experienced great tragedy in his own family, the death of two of his daughters and his beloved wife. His was a wit born of pain when he wrote,
    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” ― Mark Twain
    I also could not help but notice just how many thoughtful, revealing and caring comments were made about this topic. Thanks for uncovering the well so that we all had a chance to take a drink.

    • Bob

      Oldnavy, Twain was a remarkable man from whom I’ve learned much! He lived at a time when death was much closer and more real than it is for us. Of course none of us would go back to those days, but I think there is a loss to our souls without the intimacy of death.

  21. Patrick

    Leonard Knight is the Great American story and Truly man of heaven. God is love. Have a trip to heaven! You are why so many people in the world love America! That included me too.
    Leonard Knight Returns to Salvation Mountain

    • Bob

      Patrick, while I am not a Christian I can still admire his devotion to his god and dedicated hard work toward helping other people. He was indeed a great man and has left a great legacy.

  22. Walt

    Great post, Bob! I suspect I am one of those people living in fear. I don’t know that I’ve been afraid of dying so much as I may be afraid of living or at least afraid of trying to live and failing. As I enter my late 50s, I find I am becoming less afraid of living or at least more at peace with where I am now as I hope and plan for where I still want to go when my wife gives the word).
    A few books helped me get to that point. Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series along with his book When Everything Changes, Change Everything (which helped immensely with losing my job last year), and the Bhagavad Gita, which I am currently finishing up.
    Keep on living, Bob. Soon, I hope to be out there as well! In the meantime, I will continue to be inspired by your words.

    • Bob

      Walt, I’m so glad that age is helping to confront and understand your fears. I’m afraid that is a common trait for us humans, we ignore our inner lives as young people and as we get older we suddenly discover they are the only thing that truly counts.
      What’s important is that we begin that journey of inward self-discovery. The journey will be different for all of us as will the destination. That’s okay, it’s the journey that’s important.

  23. Douglas V

    The reason i don’t fear death, is that I may have been of service to people through life. Life doesn’t have to suck, neither does death.
    My grandmother taught us not to fear death and mourn the passing of family, but to celebrate. When my grandfather died, while we were sad, because we miss him, we celebrated because he had lived. When my grandmother died this last year, we celebrated her life, because she had lived and worked to make her part of the world better. In her 88 years, she taught many, and cared for many. She lived great and loved more. She helped teach me that I would rather stand up to fear and stand up to those that would control others.
    I have chosen to live a life of service. This way, whatever, whenever and however my death comes, both life and death have meant something.

    • Bob

      Douglas, you were very fortunate to have such a wise and caring grandmother! Instead of pretending death was an enemy or wasn’t real, she made it an ally and a friend. And that has worked to make you a better person and to bring meaning to your life and your death.
      You were very fortunate indeed!

  24. Patrick

    I am also not a Christian, but Love is God if there is God. If Love is not God, I don’t know what God is? By the way, I agreed with what you said.

    • Bob

      Thanks Patrick. When I started on my new spiritual path a friend recomended I “fire” my old “god” and find a new one. I liked that idea because my old “god” had totally failed me. He suggested I create a mental box and put all the attributes I wanted in a “god” in it and “act as if” “god” was like that. I put two things in my box, 1) Enough Love to be concerned about me and strongly wanting to help me be happy and have my best life; 2) Enough Power to be able to make it happen with my coperation.
      I did it and it worked!! Everything about my life changed and I watched literal miracles occur. To this day those are the only two things I know about the “god” I follow. And they are all I need to know.

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