Summers Up To Nature

Summers Up To Nature

By Melanie Rock


What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread.


“You’ll love sleep-away camp. I promise,” my mother said. “There’s not enough to do around here once school’s over. I’ll be teaching the first month of summer session. You’ll have a much better time in the country. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

I don’t recall the anxiety I must have had, knowing I would be separated from my mother for four weeks. I don’t remember feeling unloved or rejected. But at five years old, I’m sure I had some serious reservations about going to sleep-away camp.

My mother grew up in the country, on an anarchist commune outside of Peekskill, New York. Raised among radical intellectuals, artists, and activists in a rustic atmosphere, the natural world was the backdrop of her rich childhood memories. It was important to her that she get her urban child “up to nature” whenever possible. So it was decided: the summer I was to turn six, I would be spared a month of babysitter days stuck in our Bronx apartment.

My mother chose a Jewish Y camp in the Adirondaks for my first sleep-away adventure, which didn’t strike me as strange, because I knew that we were technically Jewish. My mother was brought up by a Jewish family, after her own Jewish mother died very young. According to Jewish law, the maternal bloodline makes us Jewish. But I didn’t think of us as really Jewish. We were atheists. At home and at school, I was taught to respect all religious traditions with equal weight, without subscribing to any one in particular. It didn’t occur to me that camp would be any different. I trusted my mother’s plan. But she had read the brochure. The one that described the weekly Shabbat services.

As instructed, we packed “four nice white shirts” along with the shorts, halter tops, bathing suits and towels, underpants, and ankle socks with my name tags sewn in, and shipped them ahead in an old trunk. At camp, everything got shoved into cubbies except the white shirts, which were hung on hangers in the bunk closet. And everyone noticed that my shirts were too fancy. My mother and I had failed to grasp the conservative formality of “nice white shirts.” Unlike the plain shirts the other girls brought, mine had lace bits and pearly buttons, which stood out along with the rest of me.

I was one of the youngest kids at camp. And one of the very few black ones. A couple of dark-skinned girls stayed in much older bunks, way out of my reach. Surrounded by friends their own age, they seemed unaffected by the fact that their beaded braids and dark complexions made them different. On that first Friday night, those older black girls knew what to do for Shabbat. They seemed right at home. I watched and wondered, while I fumbled through the pre-dinner service in my nice white shirt. Four weeks of Fridays, with the unfamiliar rituals of challah bread and candles, and prayers to God in a foreign tongue. I mumbled along, hoping no one would single me out to light the candles or break the bread. I was sure they all noticed: I was that new little black girl who obviously isn’t Jewish.

I don’t recall any specific unkindness or mistreatment. And I don’t remember having made any friends there, either. What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts, in the soft glow of candlelight, praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread. And that lonely feeling of wanting to fit in and not knowing how to shed the Outsider skin.

I was afraid to tell my mother. She had her own outsider stories. I was haunted by the thought of her growing up without her mother. And the hardships of her Depression-era childhood, living with a foster family while her father labored in the city. She was ostracized in high school, labeled “dirty Jew” and “Communist”—names that meant she didn’t belong. She got teary when she shared those memories with me. So I pretended the Shabbat services at camp were no big deal.

But she must have recognized my ambivalence about the place. She readily accepted my suggestion that we try something different the following year, and we rented a bungalow in the Catskills and spent our days together. The next summer, we discovered (and I went to) Blueberry Cove Camp, a small, artsy, back-to-nature summer camp in Maine. It was the ideal respite from the noise of the city and the structured school year. Blueberry Cove became my summertime home away from home, filled with friends from all over, who came back year after year, like I did. We ran around barefoot, embraced our mandatory farm chores, and swam in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. We connected with the earth, and the animals, and developed a common empathy for the natural world and each other. Our differences didn’t matter there.

My mother, confident that I was happy and secure, was able to spend her summers traveling, or teaching part-time if she so chose. Summertime offered her a break from the stress of single-parenthood.

And I got Maine. Shoeless, godless, and free.

As the biracial mother of two brown girls, Melanie Rock writes about identity, race, and multiculturalism from a parenting perspective as well as her own childhood memories. Raised in New York City, she now lives and works in the Lower Hudson Valley.


My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

By Catherine Onyemelukwe

IBOPeace Corps training had not prepared me for motherhood. It wasn’t intended to. My marriage and motherhood in Nigeria were unexpected by-products of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for two years. I met my husband halfway through my second year in the Peace Corps.

We married a year later, and had our first child a year after that. Clem is Ibo, one of the three major tribes in Nigeria, and I am a white American. Our first child was a boy with skin of a lovely light caramel color. He had tight black curls and dark eyes. We settled in Lagos, the capital.

We had talked about names before he was born. “You know the custom is that my father will give the baby his name,” Clem said.

I agreed, as long as I could supply a middle name. So a week after our son was born, I opened the telegram that arrived from Clem’s father. There was the selected name—Chinakueze.

“I know that Chi means God, ku is to grow, and eze is king,” I said, handing Clem the telegram. “But God grows kings?”

“A name isn’t necessarily a literal translation,” Clem said. I could tell that he was grappling with his father’s intention behind this long name. “I see what it is,” he said suddenly. “God is the one who creates kings. I like it.”

“It’s a mouthful,” I said. “Whatever are we going to call him?”

“Why not the whole name, Chi-nakueze?”

“Five syllables for the first name, and another five for his surname? I think that’s a heavy burden for a small boy.”

Within two days we had shortened it to Chinaku. I added the middle name Danforth, my mother’s maiden name and my middle one. “He can use Dan as a nickname when he’s older if he wants,” I said.

Clem called his parents to tell them we liked the name. A few minutes into the call, he turned to me. “My father says we should come for a naming ceremony.”

“A naming ceremony? Is that like a christening?” I said, looking up from the baby in my arms to watch Clem.

“You’ll see,” Clem said. Turning back to the phone, he said, “I think we can come next weekend?” He looked at me to see me nod my head in agreement. I was being pulled deeper and deeper into Clem’s Ibo culture, and I loved it.

I had been to his village, 300 miles from the capital, Lagos, only once, and just for a couple of hours. Now we would spend two nights there, with no electricity and no running water. Although I was thrilled with the traditions, I wasn’t sure how I would manage with a three-week-old baby. But I had help. Clem’s cousin Rosa, age 12, had come to stay with us before the baby was born. She and I were communicating better every day, as I improved my Ibo language skill and she mastered English.

It was already dark when we arrived on the next Friday evening. Clem’s mother, whom I had learned to call Mama, had gas lanterns lit for us and dinner of pounded yam and egusi soup, my favorite, ready.

The ceremony would take place on Saturday afternoon and evening. The whole clan had been invited, so there would be 70 or 80 people. We had to provide a feast.

“Do I need to help prepare the food?” I asked Mama in my faltering Ibo.

“No,” she assured me. “The ndi nutaru di, the women married into the family, will cook.” Ejike, Clem’s oldest uncle and the patriarch, had already slaughtered the goat when we arrived. I caught the pungent smell from the next compound where it was suspended over a fire to burn off its hair. After that it would be cut up and added to the dishes for the next day.

Before we went to bed, I went over to thank the seven women who had begun cooking. They stirred the contents of huge iron pots set on tripods over open fires. I took the baby with me. I had seen two of the women each married to one of Clem’s uncles on my brief visit 18 months earlier, but had not spoken to them or even seen the others who were helping.

“Dalu. Thank you,” I said to one and then another. They were dressed for cooking, in wrappers—six feet of cotton cloth tied at the waist—and blouses that looked well-used. One woman had her baby tied on her back with an extra piece of cloth.

“Nno, nwunye Clement, welcome, Clement’s wife,” they said. Obele reached out to take the baby, holding him so the others could see. “O maka, he’s good-looking,” a younger woman said, and the others chorused their agreement. I thought their boisterous voices would wake him, but he slept on. With their warm greetings and obvious joy at seeing my baby, I felt close to them. I was now part of the extended family and I belonged here.

A few minutes later, I took Chinaku back to our house. Our bedroom faced the compound where the women were cooking. Well into the night I could hear them singing and talking. The aroma of the cooking goat meat was much more pleasant than the burning hair had been.

Benches borrowed from the nearby Anglican Church were put in place in front of the house on Saturday morning. At 3:00 in the afternoon I nursed Chinaku and dressed him in his blue cotton kimono with embroidered flowers. I changed into the fanciest item in my wardrobe, a fitted dress of woven Akwete cloth in blue, green, and red, which barely fit my recently pregnant body. I re-applied lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara which had faded after the day in the heat. Clem wore his suit trousers with a loose paisley-print shirt. Around 4:00 pm people started to gather. Clem and I had seats of honor with Clem’s parents and uncles in front of the house. Mama wore her best wrap- per, a blue print with matching blouse and head tie. Papa was dignified in his long gown of the same fabric. He had added a felt cap of dark blue and a walking stick.

When the space in front of the house was full, Ejike stood up. “Ndi be anyi, kwenu, my people, rejoice.” The guests shouted, “Kwenu.” He turned to his left, then his right, with the same greeting. Each time the response was louder and Chinaku began crying. I rocked him in my arms. “Don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

I knew breaking kola was the first major agenda item of any Ibo event. Ejike reached down and took one of the kola nuts from the plate in front of him. “With this kola I offer thanks to our ancestors,” he said in Ibo as he held up the kola for everyone to see.

“The ancestors have honored us by making our son Clement a chief engineer. They honored us by giving him a wife from America. Now they have blessed us with a son.”

He broke the kola nut he’d been holding into three pieces, took one himself, and placed the rest on the plate. Then he called several young men to carry the other trays of kola nuts to pass to everyone present, men first, then the women. When everyone had a piece, jugs of palm wine and bottles of Star beer were brought out and served. Most men had their own calabash gourds with them. Some, I suspected, had started their drinking earlier in the day. Chinaku stopped crying.

After the drinking was well underway, Ejike took Chinaku from me and held him up before the crowd.

“I have given this child the name Chinakueze.” He poured a libation of palm wine on the ground. “I consulted the Dibia who said the ancestors approve.”

The baby was handed around to all the senior men. Then the women took turns holding him. He was passed back to me as the women brought out and served the food. After everyone had eaten their fill of jollof rice, garri, pounded cassava and okra soup, a men’s dance troupe performed, accompanied by drums, the high-pitched wooden Ibo flute, and maracas. Then the women, the same group who had cooked and served the food, began to dance.

“Bia, gba egwu. Come dance with us.” They pulled me up. Clem held out his arms to take the baby as I rose and joined the circle. I found it easy to follow their steps and after a minute, lost my embarrassment and enjoyed the music, the movement, and the feeling of belonging. This was, after all, my group—the women married into the Onyemelukwe family. The crowd ap- plauded, Clem most of all, as I sat down, sweating and dusty.

The stub of Chinaku’s umbilical cord had fallen off when he was two weeks old. Clem had told me to save it and bring it along for the ceremony. Now Papa asked me to bring it to him.

“I bury this cord which binds Chinakueze to Nanka, to our compound, and to our people forever,” he said. “Whenever he returns he will know that he belongs here. When he is away, he will always know that part of him is here.” He placed the cord in the small hole that had been dug earlier. I felt an incredible surge of emotion for the family that had embraced me so warmly.?I returned to Lagos the next day, leaving a tiny part of my son behind in his father’s village. Would he feel this connection? I knew that I did; it was now my village, too.

Author’s Note: This story is from chapter 6 of Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad, my memoir of my twenty-four years in Africa. The story about my son’s name and naming ceremony is one example of how I was drawn into a culture completely different from the one I knew growing up in the U.S. It reflects my embrace of the Ibo culture not only for my children, but for myself as well. In August 2013 my husband and I took the umbilical cord of our newest grandchild and buried it in the village, as we’d done with our son’s so many years ago.

Catherine Onyemelukwe and her husband now live in Westport, CT. Their children live in London, Philadelphia, and Lagos, Nigeria. Another selection from her memoir is forthcoming in the anthology Love on the Road.

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Raising Children in an Interracial Family

Raising Children in an Interracial Family

By Bethany Pinto

This is the second post What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

image-2“What are we thinking?” She must have asked him in the quiet of the night. They were finally alone after the excitement of the news they had received earlier that day. The social worker had called and confirmed they got a baby girl! Their sleeping three-year-old was beside herself with excitement when she heard she would have a little sister soon. She was singing and jumping around all day. They’d called everyone, overjoyed with the news that before the end of the year, they’d be parents again. “Who are we to think we can do this?” she asked again. After all, it was 1976. It was a small town in middle America, and the baby girl was Black.

“I thought you said you wanted another baby?” he asked her, gazing at the top of her head in the crook of his arm. A single warm tear, laden with an overwhelming, full and present love.  “More than anything,” she responded quietly. “Then we don’t need to think. All we need to do is feel our way through this. We’ll know what to do.” Daddy kissed Mommy’s head and sealed our fate.

*   *   * 

Now it is 2013 and we are living happily as an interracial family. My niece and nephew are lily white with red hair. I proudly display their pictures on my Facebook page and they tell their classmates their aunty is a Black person. My other nephews are biracial, like my brother, and my own little man looks Puerto Rican, thanks to me and his daddy’s multi-ethnic backgrounds. Yup, Mom and Dad have a beautiful and colorful family portrait of grandbabies they are more than willing and quite eager to share with the world!  What they must have gone through in the mid-70s, consciously choosing to raise Black children in a time when interracial couples and babies were not always accepted in society. They must have known what they were facing. Blacks and Whites were not getting along, or just barely tolerating each other’s cultures at best. Some of our family—on both sides—tried to discourage them from adopting us. And I know that some people turned their backs on these two determined young school teachers—neither of whom had much exposure to the Black community—who both believed love was more powerful than cultural boundaries. How did they manage to raise two biracial kids and one White child together in the same family in the 70’s and 80’s?

Mom and Dad refused to make color an issue. They dressed me and my (blond, blue-eyed) sister alike for pictures. Whenever people stared at us, my sister would encourage me to smile and give a friendly hi. And when people in our small town asked my mom whose kids she was watching, she would proudly say we were her babies!

I was quite aware I was Black from a very young age so my parents never had a problem telling me I was adopted. My mom helped me explore my natural curiosity about the Black culture. She exposed me to such books as Alex Haley’s Roots (which I read the summer before 7th grade) and Autobiography of Malcolm X. She bought us African masks and sculptures and made sure my sister and I played with both black and white baby dolls. When I went away to college, I tried pigs feet for the first time, I learned the Black National Anthem (okay, I don’t actually know it—but I learned of its existence for the first time), and started greasing my scalp. Instead of playing the victim or focusing on the negative, my parents taught all three of us to be loving and accepting of others (including ourselves) despite our differences.

While I can see now what my parents took on by choosing this lifestyle, I was confused about my cultural identity throughout my childhood. Our small town seemed like a realistic representation of American diversity at that time: predominately White with smaller numbers of the Black, Spanish and Asian populations. I went to school with mostly White kids and by high school, my group of close friends nicknamed ourselves the United Colors of Benetton after the diverse models shown in the clothing company’s ads. My best friends were Chinese, White, Jewish, Iranian, Korean and I was biracial.  I felt most comfortable with these girls because I didn’t feel totally “in” with either the all white crowd or the all black crowd. I never felt Black enough to meet the Black kids’ approval; and the White “popular clique” was never going to fully accept me as one of them (one particular comment I heard in high school that I’ve never forgotten, from one of the cute popular White boys was, “You know, you’re really pretty—for a Black girl.”)

I had a lot of issues feeling ashamed of being half and half. On the one hand, I didn’t know what it was like to be Black American any more than I knew what it was like to be Italian or Chinese. I didn’t identify with the culture or the people. At best my knowledge came from what I saw on tv—hip hop music and Black athletes or an occasional fashion trend. But I didn’t know how to be Black American. And, at the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

My parents encouraged me to never deny being Black. Yet, as a teenager and young adult, I couldn’t get the Black thing right.  Even worse, I felt I was betraying the Black culture, and all the rich history and pride that went along with it.  But even when I would act “White” I couldn’t allow myself to completely embrace it.  How did that make any sense?  I went away to college feeling embarrassed to be from a small White town, from a White family and have so few Black friends.  Where was my place?  Who was I meant to be?

While I didn’t understand it at the time, now, as an adult, I recognize the discrimination my parents faced during our childhood. Whenever I would ask why people were looking at us, my mom would tell me they were staring at us because of my beauty.

My family accepts me.

I’ve become a Black girl because of the freedom my parents have given me to explore my culture and the unconditional acceptance of my lifestyle choices through my adult years.

I’ve become a White girl because of my own acceptance of all the love and happiness I’ve experienced as part of the culture.

I’ve become biracial. And I will always embrace my White as well as my Black heritage. Thanks to the colorblind love that led a young White couple to act in enormous faith, I’ve grown up to learn that we’re all one, created in God’s image. If I can replicate this quality from my parents, then I will be all right. Because I’ll finally understand, better yet, live, their example. And that means so much to me.

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Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms

Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms


Biracial ArtBy the time our daughter was ready for preschool (well, the toddler room), I’d had three kids in school for a good long time. So, all those applications and the thick ream of required school forms were nothing new. Checking the box that delineates our daughter as “Biracial” rather than the “Caucasian” box I’m accustomed to marking with my pen—that was strange.

Strange because while I don’t forget she’s adopted, in another way, I do. She’s a family member, ours, mine, whatever you will—and I don’t think about how adoption might distinguish her from her siblings or us as we go about our lives. That fact doesn’t really matter in our daily lives, but then of course, on the page, in that little box, there it is, the reminder of this complicated difference.

I say complicated because I don’t know quite what it all means—or will mean to her. Her birth father, a man we’ve never met and aren’t all that likely to meet is Jamaican. He’s the reason I check the box. As she gets older you can “see” her ethnicity a little more, but you can also “see” her as a white girl with a somewhat darker complexion. In this way, her status as an adopted child is less obvious than some of her friends, the ones who are African American with blue-eyed white mom or Vietnamese with blond white moms. But at whatever remove the Jamaican family members are, she still has rights to this heritage.

And what do I know about Jamaican culture? The short answer is not all that much. It has to be more than what I have at the ready: some Jamaican friends and some reggae CD’s.

I’m still trying to figure out how to introduce all of this to her. She knows her birth mom and family; they are her white family. And at five, the notion of birth or first mom remains pretty emotionally confusing. She grapples with it by intermittently remembering that she came from another tummy and thinking (hoping?) she came from mine. This is complicated by the fact that I grew up mistaken as Mexican, Eskimo, Asian and even Italian. She’s grown up with many people certain she resembles me more than the sons to whom I gave birth. It would all be confusing no matter what, but the particular way we blend together takes away one obvious reason to discuss how we landed together. In any case, we have a steep learning and feeling curve ahead. I don’t exactly know how we ensure that adoption and ethnicity are concepts she really “gets.” I am confident we’ve already laid the groundwork on the adoption front at least and on the basic notion that all skin colors are good (the basic preschool lines). I trust we will be able to help her have room and support to feel her feelings about all of it and explore as she wants and needs to do.

Identity will be an issue in all kinds of ways over time. For example, the role of race in college admissions is not static (and thus, with a going-into-kindergartner I have no idea where it’ll be 13 years from now). I read somewhere I can’t find (I’ve Googled, unsuccessfully, a bunch) an article that said some colleges measure race in different ways and an adopted person of color with white parents might not be considered the same way someone else’s minority status might be. There are articles that mention how Asian can be a disadvantage at some schools and some applicants choose to leave that off their college applications if they are biracial, just as some biracial people will mark black versus biracial or Caucasian. All that lies far ahead, though.

The thing about the forms right now is that my response has more to do with me than with her. To check the minority status box—the one that put her higher on the preschool’s priority list—again speaks to our privilege, collectively, the adoptive parents’ privilege. As white people (if the adoptive parents are, as is mostly the case in our preschool) we have enough advantages—economic and social—to place ourselves into the position to adopt—and so it’s from privilege that we adopt children of color. That could complicate how you see yourself, right?

Certainly, at our preschool, where minority status does give you an advantage in terms of admission, it feels like a double-dip (at least) of privilege to receive that nudge closer to admission. Our preschool is, it turns out, quite diverse (just about 50%). Its admission policies support the diversity it enjoys. I guess that when I step back from any hint of guilt I might harbor about this I can see another truth, which is the school’s diversity is good for the school. It’s good for the children of color, sure; it’s good for the white children; it’s good for the families, too. We are not the only ones: not the only ones with a biracial child; not the only ones with children via adoption or a combination of routes how our children joined the family; we’re not even the only ones with a child in high school. So, when I check that form, what I have to remember is the simple mark is really just one line; the story is much more interesting and complex. And that’s okay.

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Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity

Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity


IMG_7339_3When you adopt a baby, do you take on responsibility for fostering the child’s connection to the culture or cultures of origin your baby leaves behind to join your family? That’s often an issue upon which people take an emphatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ stance. On the ‘yes’ side you may see white parents at Saturday Chinese schools (or in our case, the local public charter Chinese immersion school). On the ‘no’ side you have parents who plead colorblindness in their households.

In a thoughtful article written by an Asian adoptee is this analysis: “Some people maintain that any cultural loss is unimportant compared to what children gain through adoption. But in both mainstream media and personal conversations about adoption, cultural and racial identity need not be pitted against a child’s right to love, safety, and security.”

In other words, to make race and adoption either/or is to oversimplify (and place burden on the child). How to foster those ties is, arguably, a better question.

It’s one I’ve been asking myself recently.

In this article, the adoptee—photo of her and her white mother circa 1983 is included—looks different than her parent. She begins the piece describing a moment when an Asian child stared at her in a restaurant and how she remembered that exact experience: the intensity identification brought, because she was isolated as a lone Asian in a very white community.

If you read about transracial adoption, how to cope with this kind of isolation is an issue that extends far past 1983. The author mentions a parent of a six-year-old wondering whether the switch from a more white to a more diverse school in Louisville, Kentucky is adaption enough for her daughter or whether a move to a more diverse town is necessary. The mother, Amy Cubbage, describes her daughter’s response to a trip to China: “We have never seen [our daughter] so at ease with herself … we underestimated her need to see where she’s from and see a place where everyone looks like her.”

Not everyone can respond by moving a family (nor would every family argue that a necessity). And not every family can travel to Asia or Africa or wherever else for a “roots” trip. And not every child wants that. What interests me about that mother’s observation of her daughter’s travels is that she (the mom) not only made the effort to expose her daughter to her cultural roots but that she noted her child’s response to that experience. Whatever the family does next happens because the parents believe they are supporting their particular child. Racial identity or exposure to diversity isn’t theoretically motivated in this case.

To move from theory into action isn’t easy. To maintain openness rather than an either/or stance, now that seems to me a delicate and complex endeavor. For my white family, the biracial daughter in our midst has her own list of particulars (and obviously, one reason either/or doesn’t work is that adoption is an entire category of particulars).

Her particulars include that she’s light (light enough to manage to look in some ways more like me than the children I gave birth to, although that, too, is a complicated notion). Her particulars include an open adoption—with her mother’s side of the family (which is to say, the white side). Her particulars include a community that’s predominantly white, but a friend cohort that is diverse and does include adopted children (African American, African, biracial, Vietnamese and Caucasian in her class or various other activities). And while we have some Jamaican friends, they are not in our daily lives. She’s never met her Jamaican family and there’s little chance she will anytime in the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to err on the “colorblind” end of the spectrum. I don’t want to hurdle into “culture” for the sake of exposure in a way that’s intrusive. The detail I return to in my mind is this one: I’ve known many families with daughters adopted from Asian countries. Of those families that offered trips or language classes and cultural immersion of some sort or another, some of the girls liked those experiences and others protested. Regardless of their responses, I’m struck by the fact that some of those girls took their Asian names. I don’t think you can erase identity. More so, I don’t think you should try. That’s my working principle. How we translate that idea into action is the interesting part.

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