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 I first wrote this piece for my Facebook friends in 2010 and it showed up in my “Memories” today, right on the heels of a conversation I had with a colleague yesterday about the increase in numbers of young women we see in our psychotherapy practices who are suffering from weight, food, and body image issues. I’ve decided it’s time to share it on my blog:

Like so many women, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my body all of my life and until fairly recently, it’s been weighted pretty heavily on the hate side, no pun intended. Even as a pre-teen I especially despised my legs. Why did I have these lumpy, cellulite laden thighs when it seemed that all the other girls had smooth, shapely limbs that looked great in the requisite cut offs of the seventies? You wouldn’t catch me dead in a pair of shorts.

I was always a pretty girl and most of the positive attention I received, even as a little girl, was centered on my looks. I learned early on how to work that angle, becoming an expert flirt and using it to my every advantage. But like so many women, in order to maintain what I perceived to be my primary value, I also had to learn a whole series of disordered eating patterns as well as the habit of obsessive exercise. Thin was in and what I assumed was most desirable, but it took considerable effort to make a body that naturally wanted to be a ripe pear look more like a string bean.

Unfortunately, no amount of exercise or dieting could change my skin. Genetics dictated that I seem to be sadly lacking in whatever it is that makes one’s skin elastic. Where some folks’ insides seem to be housed in fabulous new spandex, my epidermis more resembles cotton; soft to the touch but easily stretched and little ability to snap back into its original shape.

After carrying and nursing two beautiful babies, even after I twice fought my way back to my pre-pregnant weight, the skin on my belly was left hanging like a cowl necked sweater. If I lay on my back, my once perky and swollen breasts completely disappeared into my arm pits. The stretch marks on my abdomen that once resembled a quickly drawn local map transformed into a full blown, detailed atlas. No matter how taut I kept the muscle underneath, the battered skin that had housed and fed my children just continued to fall, making the southward journey with increased speed as every year passed.

I spent my forties wrestling with the question of how I might move into the inevitable aging process in a graceful way given our youth, beauty, and thin obsessed world. Dr. Kubler-Ross wrote a famous book about the 5 stages of grief that people go through when they learn that they have a terminal illness. The stages are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Well, life is terminal and aging can make one face that truth and as I approached and turned 50, I watched myself cycling through these stages.

  1. Denial: I bought a push-up bra and always dressed in ways that covered the worst bits of skin.
  2. Bargaining: I continued to obsess over every morsel of food that passed my lips in order to fight against those extra pounds that would result from the slowing metabolism of aging and menopause.
  3. Anger: I raged against this culture that so values thinness and youth and smooth young skin, constantly furious at myself for continuing to buy into it even with all my awareness of the issues.
  4. Depression: yes.
  5. Acceptance: Over time, thankfully I find I’m having more and more. (and as I’m now pushing 60 I’ve finally, gratefully, landed in acceptance!)

All I have to do is think about my two amazing children, now adults and both living vibrant, full lives of their own, to know that my sagging skin is a small price to pay for bringing them into the world. They are the greatest source of the joy and meaning my life holds. And my heart breaks when I witness them, each in their own struggle to love and accept their bodies given our sad and deeply damaging cultural expectations. I want to be a power of example of a woman who can accept and love herself just as she is.

So I want to set an intention and share it with you all right now. I ask you to join with me in any part of this intention that fits for you.
Today, I will embrace and love my body JUST AS IT IS. I’ll remember with pride that my breasts and belly sag because I chose to nourish my beloved children. I’ll eat what I enjoy and focus on being healthy as opposed to thin. I’ll see the increasing wrinkles on my face as signs of wisdom and lines of laughter and joy. I’ll wear what I like and what’s comfortable, even if it’s not particularly flattering. I’ll continue to age with panache and grace!

Yes, I’ll wear my bikini with pride but it’s still pretty unlikely you’ll ever see me in a pair of shorts!

 

The Jordon Porco Foundation is a wonderful organization whose mission is to prevent suicide, promote mental health, and create a message of hope for young adults. I was thrilled to be asked to write a guest blog for them. You can read my post here.

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It is human nature to direct all our energy to feeling better. We have been taught to believe that pain equals danger and our survival instinct is to do whatever it takes to avoid pain. Our systems, both internal and external, are geared toward getting us away from pain as quickly as possible and the strategies we use are myriad and incredibly clever and often totally unconscious.

I sometimes wish I could be as blissfully unaware as so many seem to be but, leading up to and in the aftermath of the election, I’ve been watching myself cycle through my own go-to ways of avoiding and relieving pain. Even as I write this now, I see how I’m using the attempt to order my thoughts and feelings in writing, along with the idea of sharing it with you, as an attempt to feel better. Sure, I hope something I say might also help you but primarily I’m seeking relief from my own suffering.

I’m suffering because I’m sad and afraid. I’m afraid because I am a Jewish woman, mother of a gay daughter, and a friend and ally to many people of various already marginalized groups. I’m a professional therapist who sits daily with the pain of sexual assault survivors and victims of domestic violence. Today I see a world where instead of moving toward a more loving and healing understanding of differences, so many seem to be ignoring, if not inviting, the growing atmosphere of hate and intolerance.

I’m heartbroken that we now live in a country where because of the presidential campaign and its result, many people feel as if permission has been granted to attack women, people of color, LGBTQs, Jews, or Islamics. I do not believe that everyone who voted republican is a perpetrator, but it’s scary and sad to know how many people continue to ignore or deny that this is happening with even greater frequency than it already was. I am terrified and grief stricken that so many people appear to place their fear of their own financial insecurity before the basic rights to human dignity for all people.

I’ve been bouncing all over the place in my thoughts, feelings, and actions but really I know that I just have different parts of me that have differing ideas of how best to protect me from drowning in the fear and sadness that seems to be threatening to overwhelm me. These protectors believe that if I fall into the fear and grief I cannot survive. These parts of me are afraid that those feelings will kill me or that a suicidal part may take me out because for someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, suicide is the final solution; the ultimate protective strategy to avoid the pain of living.

It’s hard enough to keep awareness and sort through my own internal system’s struggles with how best to handle the truly terrifying state of our world today so witnessing with awareness and holding compassion for everyone else’s ways of managing their pain has been extremely challenging for me. In the context of my work, I can hold that space fairly easily and open heartedly but beyond that, my tolerance for people’s various strategies for trying to help themselves feel better has been fairly low. Even though I myself have been engaging to some degree in everything from trying to focus on the positive and what good can come, to self-righteous anger and needing to take immediate action, to rehashing what happened and what should have happened, plus more than a small dose of Netflix and chocolate cake, I’m having a hard time witnessing everyone else doing any of these things. I keep saying I’m going to stay off of Facebook, but then I go back, hoping to see something that helps me to feel better.

Fortunately, I have a big part of me that knows that I can actually tolerate the fear and the grief. This part of me knows that if I welcome it in and just sit with it for a while, allow the tears and the shaking to come, I will not die or want to kill myself. In fact, I will begin to heal more quickly and be better able to be fully present in whatever life brings next. But I still have many parts of me that don’t know this and I’m watching as these parts do their best to keep me from feeling the depths of the despair that threatens to take over.

What I really want is just a little space to allow myself to feel the pain. Feel the fear. Feel the sadness. Cry. Don’t be all wise or inspiring or impassioned. I want to be with some folks and sit Shiva for the world. I’ve tried to find that space for myself but it’s been hard to find people to share that with. It’s too hard to just be in the grief of what we have lost and the terror of what’s coming next. People don’t want to do it.

There’s lots of outrage and organizing; plenty of discussion about next steps happening, protesting and letter writing. I applaud that and I understand how it helps people to feel better when they jump into much needed action. But I’m not ready for that. I need to just feel what I’m feeling, even though it hurts.

If this resonates for you, I encourage you to gather and make a space for grief. Put the organizing and action planning aside for just a moment. Get off Facebook and get into someone’s living room. Find a place to share food, to pray, light candles, cry, dance and sing together. Let’s honor the sadness and the fear, acknowledge the cycle of life and then, from that place of healing, go forth and stand for what you believe in.

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We must not lose hope. We must believe that we are having labor pains and it hurts like hell and sounds like murder but ends with the birth of something amazing and new.

ON THE 2016 ELECTION

When my daughter was growing
inside me, my belly big as a boat
barely navigating the narrow waterways
of life, I remember the terror
and joy I felt from her amphibious
flutters, tiny feet and hands
that seemed to swim upstream,
deeper into the dark of my womb,
as if she knew that soon
she would have to face the vast landscape
of our magnificent, mutilated world

where wars blaze like late summer wildfires
whipping in the wind and we wander
lonely, so many homeless, hungry, fighting
to survive beneath the dark canopy
of an endless sky of stars so bright
we cry out in awe to see one fall.

When my water broke, the flood
tide of life’s liquor pooling at my feet,
I bellowed like a wild animal caught;
howled as I fought to expand
into each agonizing contraction,
the tender skin tearing jagged
and wide, a bloody new avenue from
inside me to this spectacular earth.

I cradled the tiny babe, spilled
out with that last push, still slippery
and shining from the swim. Drinking
in the deep blue of her new eyes
I listened to her crying voice
raised in greeting
and in protest
of all that would follow.

Penny Field

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Today’s big news is that Britain votes to leave the European Union. My first reaction: Where is my opportunity to vote to leave the things that I no longer want to participate in? Sometimes I think I would like to separate myself from almost everything happening in the world today. I know this thought is rooted in fear; of course I want to just escape everything that scares me. I suppose I could leave Facebook, as I am so often tempted to do. At least then I wouldn’t constantly and instantaneously have in my face every little piece of horrible news (true or not) when I’m simply hoping to see something that will make me feel a little closer to my many beloveds who live far away; but I’d miss all those adorable cat memes.

I understand how terrified people are and that it is a survival instinct to do whatever most quickly allays the fear from anything that seems to be a threat. Anger, denial, greed, blame, and sticking with those who are just like you can seem like the way to security. Separatism can feel safer than anything else. I get it. But still it is horrifyingly shocking to see such a surge in blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, violence, poverty, and corruption in the world today.

The truth is, I have been struggling deeply with what to do with the feelings I have about the state of the world and people’s reactions to it. I feel myself slipping into my own private pool of despair and I’m paddling like mad not to drown. I can get caught in the downward spiral of berating myself for not being more of an activist and getting out there in the world in some kind of major way to “be the change I want to see.” I can think that my way of being an ally to the marginalized and downtrodden or the individual work I do sitting with people in pain somehow isn’t enough. I often worry that I lack the wisdom to know the difference between what I must have the serenity to accept and what I must have the courage to change.

I could get on a soap box about the media or our political system and how we’ve all been bought and sold etc.  I could also go on about the psychology of fear and human nature. But so many other people sell those suds much more articulately than I ever could and I really don’t want to feed into the focus on how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket; in fact, I’m desperately grasping for anything that gets me out of that basket even for a moment.

I am finding that I need to make a conscious effort to attend to what is good and beautiful in the world. I can notice how the late afternoon sunlight is dancing with the shadows on the leaves of the maple outside my window and how my whole house (yes! I have a home!) smells deliciously of the garlic I’m roasting for the dinner I’ll soon share with my beloved. I don’t really want to leave this life, no matter how scary it is, so as the poet Adam Zagajewski tells me, I must try to praise the mutilated world. I need to ignore the screaming sirens of scary news between the picture of my friends’ vacations and new born babies instead of leaving Facebook because I need those connections. And I need those videos of laughing babies.

TRY TO PRAISE THE MUTILATED WORLD  (Adam Zagajewski )

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
One of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion waited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtains fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
And the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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A few months ago I glanced up at one of the many TV sets scattered around my gym to see a woman on QVC selling a line of “fashion clothing.” The pants on offer were an elastic waist, large pocketed polyester blend model that came in a rainbow of lively colors, as well as faux dungaree material, and whose length allowed for possible oncoming floods and insured the wearer need never worry about tripping on them. And, of course, there were also an array of loose flowered tunics and complimentary vests for mixing and matching on offer.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the memory of cleaning out my mother’s closet after she died last year. I found myself crying, right there on my yoga mat in the health club, recalling bagging up her countless pairs of ankle length, elastic waisted pants. I felt such grief in that moment, thinking of my Mom and her later in life wardrobe. When exactly had she made the shift from stylish, well-tailored outfits to what I could only think of as Old Lady Clothes? And why?

In that moment, I swore to myself that I would never ever dress that way. I would wear pants with a real waist band, zippers and buttons until they were patting dirt on my face. I would be the fashion forward forever woman who ages with grace and beauty, holding on to my personal style of the perfect balance of form, function, and comfort. My daughters would never feel the sadness of carting off bags of my old lady duds to the Goodwill, I vowed. In fact, they’ll want my clothes for themselves when I’m gone.

The next weekend I went to visit my in-laws in Rochster, NY. I don’t go with my husband all that often but my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s; I know that there is a limit to the time when she will still know who I am so I suffered the 6-hour car ride. There is still a brilliant, highly social, intensely judgmental person somewhere behind her ever more confused eyes but she can no longer place herself in time or keep a thread of conversation on a straight seam. A published author, she has heartbreakingly lost the ability to read, although she carries a book and an old New Yorker magazine with her at all times.

I spent a lot of our visit helping her in the bathroom. She has mostly forgotten how to use the toilet (thank heavens for Depends!) and she is befuddled by buttons and zippers. Once fit and trim, most of her clothes are uncomfortably tight on her widening frame. To avoid her confusion, we discovered that she often sleeps in her clothes and wears the same outfit until her 3-day-a-week aide arrives to give her a shower and help her change. Over the weekend, I dressed and undressed her just as I did for my little girls thirty years ago. “Arms up!” as I lifted her shirt over her head and grabbing hold of a foot or a hand to guide it through the appropriate sleeve.

It was clear, at the very least, she needed new clothes; ones that fit comfortably and were simpler for her to navigate. That QVC line flashed in my head and suddenly I understood my own mother’s choice of apparel. While her dementia was mild, her arthritis and degenerative disc disease was not. Of course at some point she would choose clothing that saved her aching fingers from the intricate work of buttons and zippers and felt comfortable on her pain ridden body. What hubris for me to imagine that I could somehow choose to avoid the need for ease in my own fashion choices if I’m lucky enough to reach my elder years!

Growing old is no picnic although it usually beats the alternative. It’s especially arduous in the youth and beauty obsessed culture we live in. It’s hard enough to manage the increasing aches and pains and the decline of sharp sight and wit as the years wear and tear at our bodies. Add in the insult that gravity takes on the flesh and the extra pounds that tend to accumulate as time passes and it’s a painful equation. I’ve decided that the best formula for my own fortunate advance towards old age is a combination of regular exercise, a healthy diet, and a large dose of acceptance, even if it eventually means accepting a closet full of Old Lady Clothes for me.

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It’s been a long time. Apologies to those of you who have been anxiously awaiting my next post (right.) After five years I’m imagining you thought I must of died. Or given up writing all together. Of course, there’s nothing possible in between those two choices that might have accounted for my disappearance on WordPress, right?

Yes, many things have happened in my life in the time since my last post. I have traveled to Europe, the Middle East, and across the US. I have been to Burning Man.  I have seen my mother through several years of dementia and remained by her side until her death last winter. I have watched my daughters grow into fascinating, deep-thinking, completely financially independent (!) women out in the world following their own bliss. And I have sat for thousands of hours with people in pain and held them in compassion (and I hope with great skill) in my private psychotherapy practice.  Life has been full.

You might be wondering, as I have many times, “Why not write about those experiences?” Didn’t I promise that I’d be sharing stories here to help uplift my readers and that I would challenge myself to do it even though I’m sure I have nothing new or Earth shattering to say? How did I so quickly renege on my commitment to blog about progress, not perfection?  I do have so many things to say about what I continue to learn in the very rich life that I lead.

So let me share a little about my adventures with writing over the last 5 years.  I want you to know that I’ve struggled. As I’ve in a previous post, I have a part of me that is a staunch perfectionist. And I have a part of me that loves to write. Those two parts are not friends. In fact, they are often at war with each other and the easiest way to reach detente between the two is to not write. Perhaps you can relate. Most people have different parts of themselves that are opposed. We often experience that as the feeling of, “Part of me wants this but part of me wants that.” Well part of me wants to blog, and part of me wants my writing to be perfect. Not a good match.

One of the reasons I decided to blog in the first place is that writing in a vacuum isn’t appealing. I’m not someone who will quietly fill pages and pages with poetry and prose and never feel the need to have anyone read it. And I judge myself that I’m not a “real” writer if I don’t feel like I have to write whether anyone reads or not. I want interaction. I want to be read. Like most people, I want a mirror that says, “You’re the fairest in the land!” or least, “You don’t suck.”

Recently, in an attempt to kick-start my writing again, I signed up for an online class. Each week there was a theme to write on and we shared our work with our fellow classmates and the teacher giving and receiving feedback, all in written form online.The rule generally was: only positive feedback allowed. There I was, craving the magic mirror and getting it, but also knowing that I had no chance for improving my work if I only received accolades. Quite a conundrum.

And isn’t that how it goes in life? We all want those gold stars and blue ribbons but they lose their meaning if everyone gets them every time. But after brief stint with with a writing coach who unkindly told me that my poetry was not really poetry, and mocked the poets I admire,  I’ve decided that I need to find a teacher who can give me good honest feedback on my writing but do it with kindness and compassion. The Bhudda said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I’m ready for a mentor who can say what they mean, mean what they say, but not say it mean. Meanwhile, until the teacher appears, I’ll keep writing and hope you’ll be interested enough to read.

 

Here’s a very interesting article on some of the latest research looking at the efficacy of psychotherapy. It really works.
http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/content/39/9/34.1.full

Gray January skies can be depressing!

As I look out at the cold gray skies of early January I’m thinking about all the people beginning 2011 with a renewed resolve to lose weight, eat less fat and sugar, and exercise more and I’m feeling a deep sadness. I know from my work as a therapist and also from personal experience, how unlikely most people are to follow through on New Year’s resolutions about food and weight, particularly people who live in colder climates.

It wasn’t so long ago that extra weight at this time of year was desirable and helped us to survive the winters when fresh produce was less plentiful. It was natural to eat the starchy foods of the late autumn harvests and to hunker down in front of the fire for the duration. But that was before electricity created the availability of 24 hours of simulated daylight and before our local grocery stores carried organic lettuce and fresh lemons 365 days a year. Even if we still feel the ancient pull to hibernate with our bellies full of carbs, there’s no excuse not to get to the gym after work and have a salad for dinner. In other words, no excuse for not being thin.

Almost every woman I know has been battling with food since they were teenaged girls. Most women are not naturally skinny and while not fat by any means, they don’t have the wispy-willow, blown away by a puff of wind, kind of bodies that we have been brainwashed by the media to believe are most attractive. Many women’s natural bodies always want to be at least a few pounds heavier than they want them to be and they valiantly fight skirmish after skirmish with anywhere from 2-25 lbs. And as we age, it becomes harder and harder to win these battles but most of us can’t seem to just give up the fight and accept ourselves the way we naturally are and simply enjoy eating good food.

I often wonder what life would be like if our culture didn’t value thinness so highly. If we could be considered lovely in all the various sizes and shapes our bodies naturally are as opposed to being programmed to believe that only wafer thin is truly beautiful. We all know that obesity is a growing problem in the US and I’m certainly not advocating ignoring the health risks of a serious weight issue, but there’s a wide gap between a size 0 and a health risking weight problem. And I’m not talking about people with serious food addiction, eating disorders, or survivors of sexual trauma who gain weight trying become invisible. Those are different categories and I know these are difficult issues to untangle, but here I’m talking about folks who simply enjoy delicious food but feel constantly tortured by culturally skewed body image issues.

The average woman (or man) does not even come near to today’s standard of beauty naturally. We diet and exercise, and torture ourselves trying to come as close as we can to what we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking is valued and attractive. For many, when failure to achieve the standard norm is inevitable, surrender seems the only choice and then the fat wins. But most of us fight the good fight, at least to some degree, never willing to wave the white flag but also never winning the war. When New Years rolls around (or Monday, or a significant birthday, etc.) we take up the banner again and vow to attack the fat with a vengeance, mostly to be defeated by the first offer of something scrumptious to eat.

This year, I invite you to join me in saying NO to an unreasonable resolution to be thin. Let’s support each other in accepting our bodies’ natural beauty in all the various shapes and sizes that are healthy. Let’s say NO to buying into the Western culture’s distorted message about the value of extreme thinness and YES to good health and a deep appreciation for the rich bounty that is available to us. Let’s surrender and finally win this thing!

I was in a busy shopping mall over the weekend and carols were ringing, booming down through the spectacularly shiny stars and golden ornaments hanging from every rafter, urging the masses to buy, buy, buy. Every inch of space was filled with frantic shoppers hoping to find just the right gift for everyone on their list and maybe something for themselves as well. Peace on earth was miles away and stress was running high.

I spotted a young boy, about 4 years, old darting through the crowds followed by his parents who were trying to maneuver a stroller holding a wriggling toddler. The little boy clearly had all the wonder and excitement of the season. He just knew that Santa was coming soon and there would be special treats the elves had made just for him. The loud music and sparkling lights of the mall were all part of the magic since he had no list of relatives to buy for and no bills to pay.

Suddenly he took a spill and landed flat, bursting into tears. “You’re OK!” his dad announced. As the boy continued to cry, his toddler sibling soon joined in. “Give Anna a cookie” the mom snapped at the dad. “It’s OK Billy. You’re not hurt. Do you want a cookie?” Both parents frantically rifled through their giant bag looking for sweets. These parents were convinced that cookies were the magic thing that would fix whatever it was that brought her children’s tears.

Many of us often think that cookies are the thing that will take away the pain. We eat cookies (or cake, or potato chips) when we really want a hug but one isn’t offered and we don’t know how to ask.  We do all kinds of things to avoid uncomfortable feelings. We drink alcohol, watch television, shop, over exercize, over work, gossip, or focus on trying to fix someone else. This last one is usually motivated by an inability to tolerate our own discomfort about another person’s pain. Most of us have been fans of all of these activities at one time or another but I find that none of them really work in the long run.

Life is full of things that cause painful feelings. People we love hurt us or leave us or die and we feel intense sadness and grief. Sometimes we do things we know we shouldn’t and wish we hadn’t and feel embarrassment, guilt, or shame. When things don’t happen as we hoped or expected, we feel disappointment or anger. There is war and terrorism, pollution, starvation, and injustice in the world and we feel fear. When we can’t tolerate a feeling and engage in behaviors that we think will take the pain away, we often discover that we’ve only medicated or distracted ourselves from it for awhile. Those feelings lie in wait for the next time and they incubate and grow. And often, the very things we do to try to avoid the uncomfortable feelings only result in more pain: the guilt of a drunken spree; the shame and disgust of having finished the whole chocolate cake; the embarrassment and regret of hours wasted watching MTV or reruns of ER and Friends.

Many of us are afraid to feel the pain because we think it will be overwhelming and will never go away. But it does pass and we can stand it, especially if we can seek some support while having those feelings. Tolerating the discomfort and exploring what is truly there is the way of getting through it. Hugs from our loved ones can help a lot and usually just talking about what hurts can make it feel better.

Especially in this holiday season when so many uncomfortable feelings can surface, I wish for everyone all the love and support you need and so deserve to get through this time without polishing off all the Christmas cookies yourself!

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