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How to Remember You’re Alive

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One way to appreciate virtually any moment of your life is to pretend that the whole thing is already over.

Your life came and went a long time ago, but for some reason you’ve just been sent back to this random moment, here in this office chair, or in line at Home Depot.

It isn’t clear why you’ve been sent back. Maybe it was a cosmic accounting error, or a boon from a playful God. All you know is that you’re here again, walking the earth, having been inexplicably returned to the temporary and mysterious state of Being Alive.

Any moment will do for this experiment. In fact, the more mundane the moment, the more profound the effect. You might find yourself, in this instance, pushing a cart through the frozen foods aisle. Or maybe you’re seated in front of a bowl of cereal at the speckled Formica breakfast table you bought on Craigslist. Or you’re carrying a bag of recycling down the back stairwell on a muggy night. It’s definitely your life though, and at least for now, you get to be alive again.

When you view life as something you’re returning to — rather than something that has never not been happening — it feels like the gift it perhaps always should. It’s just so damn interesting to be alive and experiencing things, and choosing what to do during those experiences.

Seeing life as the curious and rare condition it is gives even ordinary events the character of a brilliant film. An oblong rectangle of sunlight on the table flutters with the shadows of leaves. While you fold laundry, your phone lights up: a friend texting you a cheesy pun she knows you will appreciate. A short-lived party of bubbles appears and disappears when you fill a glass of water from the tap. A thin mist pours from the open freezer display onto your sandaled feet. It’s all spectacular, just because it’s happening, and once it’s over you would greatly miss it if you could. So why not miss it now? Or at least understand why you would.

The state of Being Alive also comes with a rich and distinct sense of possibility. You can make any number of interesting things happen by sheer will. You can scrawl sentences on a scrap of paper that will trigger certain thoughts later, for you or someone else. You can touch a few buttons on your phone and be speaking to any of a hundred people you know, and whatever is said would change each other’s day, or life, in some way. You could clean the house this afternoon, or leave it messy, and each option would give a different shape to the evening.

Can you believe that this condition – of being in the world, of feeling stuff and doing stuff — was once happening all the time? Remember being able to open windows and pet dogs and wash your hands in warm water? What an amazing time that was. No matter what happened, whether life was decidedly going “well” or not, it was always so eventful, and you got to decide what to do in each moment of it.

It’s all over, of course, which is too bad. You didn’t realize at the time how small a window it was, and you can’t believe you spent a lot of it complaining. However, for right now at least, for some reason, you’re back. You have at least this moment to enjoy being alive. There may be more coming afterward, but you can’t count on that. Not this time anyway.

Except in moments of extreme emotional tilt, this exercise always seems to work. I can almost always, when I think of it, choose to see the current moment as a certain kind of an unexpected gift — a long-awaited return to the most interesting thing ever, which is being alive.

It works because if it were true – you really had just been sent back to the realm of the living — chances are you really would think it’s unutterably great to be here, even if you didn’t the first time. By mentally jumping out of life and then back in, it becomes clear that the experience of being alive really is a profoundly interesting thing, and we can live with an ongoing awareness of that. That few seconds of contemplation reframes virtually any moment as the best thing that can happen: you, enjoying a rich pocket of Being Alive Right Now, amidst a vast universe that is almost entirely not that.

At least, it becomes interesting when you’re aware that there’s no reason any of this should necessarily be the case. There will not always be things happening. You will not always have the ability to experience the world and respond how you please. But – by the grace of whoever — you do right now. Whatever the metaphysics of it really is, the point is that the window is small, and if you’re in it right now, that should probably be regarded as a profoundly lucky thing, whether it’s your first time here or you’ve been sent back for another tour.

However, because the window is open continuously until it’s closed for good, it’s hard to feel the luckiness of being alive while life is still happening. This is one way to contact that sense of good fortune reliably — see the moment as an inexplicable return to the wild and spectacular condition of Being Alive, which was once so abundant you forgot to appreciate it. This experience you’re having right now, of being here in a body, experiencing the world and choosing how to respond — is gone, and by the Law of Joni Mitchell, you only now know what you had.

But by some unbelievable stroke of luck, here it is again.

***

Beach photo by S’Well

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{ 51 Comments }

Emma June 22, 2021 at 1:12 am

Timely post as I’m going to the dentist first thing tomorrow. If it can make me appreciate the dentist’s it’ll work anywhere!!

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:46 am

I try to do some kind of gratitude exercise with every sort of health care experience, even though most of them are unpleasant. I picture the alternative — me pulling my own tooth with pliers, in a medieval blacksmith’s shop or something

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Dean Wilson June 22, 2021 at 1:31 am

Absolutely. Christmas Eve 12 years ago I had a life changing Epiphany, although, at the time I didn’t realize what had taken place. After hanging up the phone in a hotel room I couldn’t afford I said to “the ethers” “I can’t live like this any more”.
Since that moment I have lived with a sense of awe not unlike the scenario you put forward. Living life for myself, on my terms, treating the world the way I would want to be treated. Well said friend!

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:50 am

I remember reading Eckhart Tolle’s first book back when it came out, and he claimed that he had learned to see ordinary life with awe all the time. He would just sit on park benches in amazement all day long. I was so skeptical that this was possible, but it’s clear to me now that it is, and I get increasingly frequent glimpses of it now.

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Natacha June 22, 2021 at 1:39 am

Wow David, you completely shifted my perspective. It’s a level up from my usual thought “it doesn’t get better than this, this moment is perfect”. Now I am going to plan to reread regularly this post, and practice this new perspective.

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:52 am

Just get used to practicing it. This moment is a second visit to life. A freebie.

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Levi Mårten June 22, 2021 at 3:01 am

Great idea as always!

I feel like your take on gratitude in combination with mindfulness brings a very unique perspective into the world. You can be mindful without gratitude, and be grateful without mindfulness (even though they probably come intertwined for most people). But the way you describe things is kind of like being mindful about your gratitude, and it clears things up a lot.

Don’t just stop and smell the flowers – be thankful that you get the chance to smell those flowers. Smell them like it is the last time you will smell flowers. But also, no pressure – you shouldn’t feel stressed out because of flowers. It is okay to just be folding laundry too, if that is what’s going on in your life right now.

Thank you for keeping on with the great content.

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:55 am

I can’t claim to be the first to try to cultivate this view, but I try to come up with ways of doing it that work for me. The “stop and smell the roses” notion is a good-intentioned one, but I think it’s too much of a cliche to really change how we operate. This works for me though. See life as a return trip. It seems to correct for the error we make when we expect life to last forever.

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Erling June 22, 2021 at 3:13 am

I read it loud for my love at the “breakfast buffet” here in Akersbakken, Oslo and it has already changed my day :) thank you

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:55 am

Aw that’s lovely. Enjoy the day :)

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Rocky June 22, 2021 at 4:18 am

Howdy David…. What a great tool to bring us back around to the realization that we are surrounded by miracles at all times ! Thanks for reminding me that watching a beautiful sunset and attempting to fold a fitted sheet are equally fascinating. I’m glad to hear your book is doing well….Keep going!

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:59 am

Folding fitted sheets is the one exception of course!

One of the problems with gratitude/appreciation material is that they tend to focus on peak experiences, beautiful places, and easy-to-enjoy moments. Life is mostly not that stuff though, so it just reinforces the idea that we have to arrange life in a certain way to be happy. We can appreciate life almost without regard to content however, if we find the right way to view it.

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Vilx- June 22, 2021 at 4:24 am

Or, alternatively: “Huh. Wait, I’m still alive…” *looks around* “Yeah, still as shitty as ever…” *sighs and continues to plod along as always* XD

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 9:59 am

I challenge you to really contemplate this scenario. Life is already over, just as you wished. Now you’re revisiting this place, as a total freebie. Not attached to anything, because everything has already been lost.

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Ellen symons June 22, 2021 at 4:36 am

I know this, and I forget this, and you remind me of this with everything you write. Thanks, David, for keeping wonder and gratitude alive. x

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:00 am

I am working on “How to Remember to Remember You’re Alive”

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Jennifer June 22, 2021 at 6:52 am

Wow, thank you for that. I struggle with an undetermined neurologic condition and related depression, and this exercise will help a lot. Thank you very much. ❤

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:02 am

One strength of this practice is that it kinds through the problem of uncertainty. We don’t have to know where we stand with things for it to work, because it’s all a bonus anyway.

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Naome Howe June 22, 2021 at 6:53 am

Amazing piece. Written poetically and pragmatically and poignantly. The sun is now shining obliquely on my computer screen. And although my half-filled cup of coffee is now cold, it is still rich and delicious and … well, a gift to me. As is this day. This moment. Thank you David.

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:05 am

Sunlight illuminating ordinary objects works every time. It’s an almost endless source of that numinous feeling.

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Stan Harris June 22, 2021 at 6:54 am

Hi David, Thanks for the idea! I have enjoyed your writing for years and it just keeps getting better and better.

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:05 am

Hey thanks Stan. That makes me feel great :)

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Fred Brown June 22, 2021 at 7:10 am

Wonderful article to start my mourning reading routine. I will often do mental subtraction practice as part of my daily gratitude time. This is taking that to whole new level of learning to appreciate and savor the present moments even and especially for things that may seem mundane without the awareness. Thank you for this article and reminder. – Fred

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:09 am

There is something about this way of thinking — this kind of mental reframing or subtracting — that can help us overcome the instinctual aversions and adaptation that make life much less good that it could be. It’s like the rational part of the mind using matador techniques against the reptilian approach/avoid part. The Stoics were doing this stuff two thousand years ago, but there’s still so much untapped potential in it, imo

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LuAnne Holder June 22, 2021 at 7:26 am

Wonderful idea, David. This post was so vivid. It is an inspirationally fun way to view life. Thanks!

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Dan@RichLifeHabits June 22, 2021 at 7:52 am

“I can almost always, when I think of it, choose to see the current moment as a certain kind of an unexpected gift”

This is a wonderful skill that I would definitely like to learn how to do.

I also have gotten this feeling recently as things have started to open back up from the pandemic. I can “go back into work” like I used to or go into the frozen food aisle instead of doing delivery. I used to do all of these things before the pandemic and now I can do them again after not doing them for 12 months. I get that feeling you’re describing about appreciating things more not having done them for the past year.

The biggest thing is the feeling of “coming back home.” When you never leave home (because of quarantines), I get cabin fever and need some external stimulation. Now, we are crazy busy trying to make up for lost time and can’t wait “to come home”. I appreciate that feeling so much more now and value our home even more.

Great and thought-provoking post. Thanks!

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:18 am

The pandemic is doing the same thing for me too, and probably a lot of people. So many painfully ordinary things became rare or hard to do, and now we see that they’re pretty great in their own way.

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Mary Nel June 22, 2021 at 8:47 am

Wow! What a fun experiment. Funny how we all do this to an extent with the past but never apply it to the present. Shifting into that perspective just gave me such a profound sense of gratitude. Thanks for this! I will use it and prescribe it to others often.

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:19 am

Yes — we do this particularly with our own youth. We say we didn’t realize how quickly it would go. But somehow don’t see the irony in that — we’re still seeing the present in the same flippant way.

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Valerio June 22, 2021 at 10:04 am

I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but this reminds me of that scene from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel where, when asked what he likes about India, one of the characters responds “the light, the colors, the smiles, the way people see life as a privilege and not a right”.

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Elle June 22, 2021 at 10:39 am

This was almost too deep for me to handle this morning. Profound. Someone’s been cutting onions in the room. Haha. Thanks for this post.

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Sharon Hanna June 22, 2021 at 11:06 am

Oh WOW David. It immediately got forwarded to a few people and they loved it. Kind of reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut but it was you. Sunday I drove to the botanical garden where I work and noticed that the boulevard was blooming with millions of buttercups (that ‘annoying weed’, ha). Barry White was blasting on my speakers. The experience was of total 100% bliss. It didn’t last but that’s completely fine! More of those await. Or not, it’s fine. OK I’ve been meditating (daily as soon as I wake up) every single day now for about three months. That has made a huge difference. I’d say “you could or should” write a novel but who cares about novels. Being content and appreciative of most moments – much more worthwhile. Yes the Eckhart Tolle thing where he sat on the bench. I never quite got it but…considering he’d come from a super intellectual place – yeah.

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Kim June 22, 2021 at 11:27 am

David, thank you. I’ve been in a funk lately and not feeling gratitude for much. I cried as I read this post, as I realized I’d just sat down next to an open window with a cool breeze wafting across my face, and yet I was focusing on the chainsaw that has been droning nonstop in my neighbor’s yard for four days. Now I’m re-focusing on the luxury of this cooler weather, and realizing that the chainsaw has to stop sometime…. (It does, right?!)

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David Cain June 23, 2021 at 10:00 am

Even the chainsaw might not be so bad if you zoom out enough. If you were to come back to life to an ordinary moment, and again hear the sounds of people working on an ordinary summer day, it might be a welcome scene, even including the sound of power tools.

William Irvine talks a lot about a “last time meditation,” where you imagine that the experience you’re having might be happening for the last time. Looked at in that light, even things like mowing the lawn or emptying the dishwasher can seem wonderful. Here’s a link to him talking about it, with the relevant passage highlighted.

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Gail June 22, 2021 at 3:17 pm

Thank you for this wonderful post. It reminds me of a difficult time in my life when things seemed to be at a standstill. I took up a practise of saying to myself each morning “something amazing is going to happen today”. I paid attention driving to work, serving students, stopping at the library on the way home. And as you might suspect, each day WAS filled with awe inspiring moments that I needed to acknowledge!

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Eliza June 22, 2021 at 8:28 pm

David, I experienced this phenomenon this morning. I didn’t purposely summon it; it quietly overtook me by surprise. A completely mundane moment and it momentarily took my breath away. You are wise beyond your years. Thank you for sharing this.

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Rodrigo Borba June 22, 2021 at 8:58 pm

Well… f*ck.
That’s one of the reasons I came back often to read some of your texts.
This one hit me hard.

Thank you, David.

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Joe June 22, 2021 at 9:42 pm

Thanks David, this post spoke to me deeply and reminded me that I died in 2016. Unofficially, of course. All my life I’d fought with my tendency to catatrophize my stress and anxiety. One evening in 2016 I stopped resisting. Instead I indulged my fears and accepted all my worst imaginings as inevitable – failing at projects, losing friends and family, succumbing to health issues, and finally, dying.

Lying there in my bedroom “dead” was a strange phenomenon. Concerns about personal vanity and health issues seemed so trivial to someone who was no longer alive. What remained was a deep regret that I would no longer be around to help my children, my wife, and my friends. Plus I’d never found the time to learn to paint with watercolors. Fortunately, I was/am still alive and since that evening I’ve been consciously acting on those regrets and living a bit more irreverently.

When I’m in the middle of a rough patrch I remind myself that I died back 2016 and it brings me around to a place of gratitude and clarity. You guys are the only ones I’ve ever told this to.

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David Cain June 23, 2021 at 10:13 am

I have bumped into that theme in a number of ways over the years — of “dying to the present” in this way. It is so powerful. It breaks all the attachments, if only for a moment, which are what makes life hard.

Here’s one:

https://www.raptitude.com/2019/08/how-to-see-things-as-they-are/

{ Reply }

Manpreet June 23, 2021 at 1:59 am

Beautiful and thought-provoking. Thank you for this.

This reminds me of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning where he says life should be lived as –
“Live as if you are living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”

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David Cain June 23, 2021 at 10:15 am

I think I’m due to reread that one!

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Sharon Hanna June 23, 2021 at 9:39 am

Driving to UBC to get my second vaccination yesterday – the lawn mower people had LEFT THE BUTTERCUPS in the middle of the boulevard! It’s as if they knew. The mowing was in wide swaths on the edges, but they left the flowers. Another goose bump moment. To even things out, got a parking ticket after the vaccination. ;-)

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Chris Spark June 24, 2021 at 9:24 am

This is a profound and beautiful exercise, which can in fact become a way of life. It resonates with the profoundest spiritual teachings–being in the world, but not of it. It initiates a detachment/separation from the world that paradoxically allows for more engagement with the world. But that engagement is a more playful one–and a more satisfying one. I have a book called “Haiku Wisdom: 101 Daily Morsels for the Spirit” (it’s on Amazon) which contains some similar tidbits:

It’s more useful to
assume all is perfect than
to be realistic.

For those asleep, the
world is a mirror. For those
awake, a window.

Putting silverware
in the drawer plays a tune
if you want it to.

To believe all’s well
isn’t to deny feelings.
It’s to see through them.

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Jon Frankle June 25, 2021 at 4:01 pm

Wonderful.

This evokes your exercise of recognizing that things might not be so, from https://www.raptitude.com/2020/02/how-to-create-gratitude/. Seeing now as if in the past (most wrenchingly, as if someone close were gone) was already so powerful! This piece widens the scope of what we should be grateful for.

Thank you.

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Nikki June 29, 2021 at 1:26 am

David, thank you for another excellent and poignant article. It reminds me of a film called About Time…have you seen it? A young man has the power to turn back time in his own life. He learns that rather than going back and changing things he regrets and trying to make his life turn out different, he simply goes back every day to live the same day again exactly as it was, but this time completely in the present. Eventually he doesn’t need to turn time back anymore as he’s learnt that its how he relates to the present that really matters.
Your article (and the film) really resonated with me! Have a great Monday,
Nikki

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Stephan July 3, 2021 at 9:52 am

Every post nails it. Profound, deeply inspiring, well written. Thank you, David!

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Dividend Power July 14, 2021 at 9:42 am

Interesting concept. Most people would do somethings differently if they went back.

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Debra July 14, 2021 at 2:58 pm

Very touching. Brings to mind Emily’s speech in “Our Town.”

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Imad July 16, 2021 at 5:48 am

This is beautiful. I’ve just rediscovered this blog and this was the first post I came across. So much of it resonates deeply with a thought I’ve been developing for a while now: that it’s just so so crazy that we are REAL. That at this moment, I’m experiencing LIFE. Immediately, I get filled with deep feelings of wonder and gratitude and sometimes I feel like I’m welling up (which is not a common occurrence for me). And I laugh when I think about just how easy it is to completely forget that. It’s funny in the way desperately searching for your phone that you believe is lost while it’s been in your hand the whole time is funny. We’re so clueless sometimes.

Thanks so much for writing this. Will definitely try it out as I lay in bed right now. How nice is it to lie in a soft cozy bed again!

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Sherel July 17, 2021 at 9:16 pm

This calls to mind the poignant scene in Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town”. The ghost of young Emily, who recently died in childbirth, longs to revisit “one ordinary unimportant day” in her life. But it doesn’t take her long to realize “Live people don’t understand.” She knows she didn’t when she was alive: “I didn’t realize all that was going on and we never noticed. Good-by, world. Good-by Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa, Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee and new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

But we can try. Sometimes we can even succeed. And as we gather moments of clarity, we can hope to get better at it. You’ve certainly helped me to get better at it, David. Thank you for your sharing your thoughts.

*Posted in error to the blog about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Picture me blushing.

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David July 25, 2021 at 9:11 am

This piece nearly made me cry.

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