The Power of a Life Well Lived

with Sky Bergman,

Filmmaker and Professor Emeritus of Photography and Video, Cal Poly State University

This week on the Art of Aging, host Rev. Beth Long-Higgins chats with Sky Bergman, an award-winning photographer and filmmaker, about her documentary “Lives Well Lived.” The film celebrates the experiences of adults aged 75 to 100, highlighting their resilience, humor, and wisdom. Inspired by her centenarian grandmother, Sky interviewed 40 seniors over four years, capturing 3,000 years of collective experience. The film has sparked intergenerational projects and discussions on ageism, showing the power of storytelling to bridge generational divides and inspire respect for the elderly. Sky and Beth discuss many topics during the show on intergenerational connection, the importance of listening, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Sky’s Motivation Behind the Film (2:35)
  • Stories of Resilience and Wisdom (5:45)
  • Intergenerational Connections (9:48)
  • The Impact of Lived Experience (16:44)
  • The Power of Everyday People’s Stories (20:42)
  • Listening to People’s Stories (22:07)
  • Mochitsuki Ceremony (24:21)
  • Intergenerational Work (26:29)
  • Abundant Aging Questions for Sky (27:29)
  • Connecting with Sky and final remarks (32:23)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  00:07

Hello and welcome to the Art of Aging part of the Abundant Aging Podcast Series from United Church Homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage and inspire all to age with abundance. 

Today, I am pleased to welcome Sky Bergman who is not just a very accomplished award winning photographer, but she’s also an amazing filmmaker with her first finished feature documentary lives well lived now airing on PBS lives well lived celebrates the incredible wit and wisdom of adults 75 to 100 years old who are living their lives to the fullest, encompassing over 3000 years of experience. 40 people share their secrets and insights to living a meaningful life. Their intimate memories and inspiring personal histories will make you laugh, perhaps cry but mostly inspire you. Sky also has two short films about intergenerational connections currently on the film circuit and a new feature in development. Mochitsuki which explores the ancient tradition of preparing mochi to celebrate the Japanese New Year. This will air on PBS as part of the Asian American month in May 2025. 

Sky was recently named a CoGenerated Innovation Fellow joining an impressive group of 14 other social entrepreneurs with CoGenerational Solutions to today’s biggest problems. Her fine art photography work is included in permanent collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Her commercial work has appeared on book covers for Random House and Farrar, Strauss Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., and magazine spreads in Smithsonian, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Reader’s Digest, and Archaeology Odyssey. Sky Bergman was the former Chair of the Art and Design Department at Cal Poly State University, in San Luis Obispo, California and is currently teaching part-time as a Professor Emeritus of  Photography and Video where she has been teaching since 1995.

Welcome sky, thank you, I’m tired just listening to that bio. I feel like I need to take a breath or take a drink of water.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  02:35

Just a reminder that this podcast series is sponsored by United Church Home, Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging. To learn more about the center, including our annual symposium in October, you can visit So first of all, congratulations on the release of your film. And I know that was several years ago because I attended a workshop when I was first coming out at a young age. And I was just struck by hearing you talk about the film. And it’s great. I know that it’s really kind of miraculous that however many years later this has been this fellas is still having an impact, probably beyond your wildest imaginations when you first started on this project. So why don’t you tell us? What was the thing that motivated you to first pick up the camera? And not the still photography, but the video camera to start on this project?

Sky Bergman  03:36

Yeah, so thank you for that. And it’s so nice that we have that connection from years ago at the Leading Age conference. And I think my dad was actually presenting with me at that particular conference, which was really lovely. He was a geriatric physician, and certainly helped shape my life quite a bit as well and the things that I admired and appreciated in him and what he did. 

But I started this film project really out of the love of my grandmother. And when she was 96, she came to visit me for the first time from Florida to California. And she was an amazing cook. And like any other amazing cook didn’t write her recipes down. And so I thought, well, I better film her because otherwise those recipes are going to be lost. And I loved hearing her voice and her gestures as she was making the food. And I went back with her when she was turning 100 for her big 100 birthday party. And she was still working out of the gym. By the way, she didn’t start working out until she was 80. So it’s never too late to start something new, even working out at the gym. And anyway, thankfully I filmed her because she was such an inspiration to me when I feel like I don’t want to work out or do yoga, I think of my grandmother doing her little exercise routine and I get my but gear and do mine. And so thankfully I had a mic on her and I just said to her kind of as a throwaway comment “Hey, Grandma, can you give me some words of wisdom.” And she said things like, be kind and live life to the limits. And I just thought, you know, I was looking at approaching fifty at that point in my life and looking for positive role models of aging, and just not seeing them out there in the media. Everything that I saw was all the things that you could do to avoid aging, using anti aging creams, or everything against aging. The other things that I saw in the media were all the negative aspects of aging, never the positive aspects of aging. And I thought I have in my own family, this wonderful role model of how to age in a beautiful way and I know there are other people out there like my grandmother, who are living very full and meaningful lives, and that’s who I want to model the rest of my life around. So I started on a quest to meet those people and ended up spending four years interviewing 40 People with a collective life experience of 3000 years and putting the film together. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

What are some of the stories just briefly, and don’t go through all 40. But the people that you interviewed that really have a place in your heart? 

Sky Bergman

Well, I mean, there’s a number of them, of course. I love to say that my grandmother gave me the greatest gift, which is the gift of 40 new grandparents. I have stayed in touch with all these people, some of whom have passed away, but what a gift it was to have been able to know them and have them in my life. And each and every one of them gave me a unique perspective and an unique outlook on life. I think if I had to say a particular thing that I learned, really what I would say is that there were three things that all the people that I interviewed had in common. One was having a sense of purpose. And I think that’s true, no matter what age we are, I think that our sense of purpose maybe changes over time, especially like retirement age is certainly a time when our sense of purpose changes. But at many different points in our lives, we have a different sense of purpose. And I think the second thing was that they all had a good support system, whether it was family or friends. And lastly, they really have this attitude of a glass is half full, rather than half empty. And I think that has helped me get through some tough times. I think about Evy Justesen whom I interviewed who read Victor Frankel’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which was very important in her life. And her takeaway from that was that there’s so many times in our lives when we can’t control the things that are happening around us, but what we can control is our attitude about how we deal with those things. And I think that that piece of advice and wisdom has certainly helped me at times when I’m frustrated, or during the pandemic, when there was nothing any of us could do to change that. But what I could change was my attitude about how I dealt with that. I think those things have stuck with me for sure. 


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

We encourage people in a variety of ways to identify who their abundant aging influencers are. Who are the people around us that influence us to age abundantly? And usually, I tell people you don’t need you don’t need a lot, just one or two. But I think you have the longest list, affording so. So Luke GitHub prize for that. So remind me when did the film come out? Which year was that? 


Sky Bergman

The film came out in film festivals in 2017, and then we released it theatrically in 2018. And then I did a lot of community and educational screenings, and conferences, which is where we met. And then it came out on PBS and 2021. And it’s still airing on PBS and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, and Kanopy. If you have a library card, you can probably see through Kanopy.


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  08:47

So the fact that this film has lasted this long, is pretty extraordinary. It’s making an impact. It’s making some waves, what would you say are some of the new partnerships that have come about for you from this film?


Sky Bergman  09:06

Yeah, well, I think one of the reasons that it’s resonating with people is that it’s an evergreen film. And I think that everyone wants to know how we can age better. But also, we’ve been doing a lot of intergenerational work in the film. I really feel like connecting generations is one of the most important things we can be doing in our world in society right now. And so we have been using the film as a catalyst to connect generations showing the film to older adults and students. And then they do a project during the quarter or semester, depending on the university or high school that they’re working with, where they use questions that I formulated for the Lives Well Lived film that I used in all of my interviews. That’s a starting point, because I think the hardest part about getting to know somebody is figuring out how to start having a conversation. So this just opens up that door for the conversation to happen. The students are asking questions, the older adults are asking questions, so they get to know each other. It’s not just one way, its a bilateral conversation. And then at the end of their time together, the students do a big presentation about what they learned and what their takeaways were and how their views on aging have changed. I love to say that we are combating the stereotypes of ageism, which also goes in both directions, one story and one connection at a time. 

It’s really easy to have an ism about another group, whether it’s racism or ageism, it doesn’t matter. It’s like that though until you know somebody from that other group, and then they are no longer the other. They are your friend and those stereotypical beliefs, they go by the wayside. And so the more that we can connect generations, the better our world is going to be. 


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

Yeah, absolutely. It is amazing to me, when I talk to other people who work with older adults, you know, What compelled you to get into this work? And how many of them say it’s because of the relationship they have with a grandparent, you know, just like you with your grandma. And we also know that because of the mobility of families, that there are a lot of people, a lot of kids, a lot of youth, young adults who do not have access, do not have grandparents close by or don’t have the art in their lives at all, and how important it is. You know, wouldn’t it be great if everybody had 40 additional grandparents, who could help teach us how to live wisely. And I also think it’s, you know, a lovely thing, when you meet someone of a different generation who’s not related to you, and you see that you can develop friendships, that those are that those can be really deep and impactful, and meaningful. 


Sky Bergman 

I would say that one of the things that was a common theme at the end of that these big wrap parties at the end of this intergenerational project that we’ve been working on is that the students and the older adults realize that they have far more in common than their differences, and really the only differences age. That’s so lovely to see. And I think we’re dealing with older adults and students, both of whom are in that generation where they are experiencing social isolation and loneliness, and to bring those two groups together to combat that, in addition to combating the stereotypes of ageism is such a lovely gift. We did this project during the pandemic, we still work with Senior Planet, but that was the only way we could do the project was working digitally and virtually, and one of the students during the wrap party said this was a first new friend that he had made during the pandemic. And I thought how lovely is that? That first new friend during the pandemic was an older adult through this project. And I think that it just opens the doors for those kinds of friendships and those kinds of connections to happen. And to your point that even if people do have grandparents, many times, they’re separated by so many miles, that they don’t really get to know them, and you just call them on the phone or zoom in. And it’s not the same thing as being there in person. 


And just as a little aside, one of them, I always tried to take a student with me when I was interviewing the people for my film, mostly so that they would get to know you know what was going on and to see how I worked and to learn about this process. And I had a student that was with me one day when I was interviewing Lucky Loiue. And for those of you that haven’t seen the film Lucky Louie is a lovely darling, Italian man who made fresh mozzarella is everyday for his daughter’s deli and very talkative loquacious and funny.  When we finished doing the interview my student assistant and I went out to lunch, James was his name. And James said to me, “Wow, I didn’t know that other older people could talk so much.” And I was kind of floored by that response. But I asked him, “Well, do you have an older adult in your life?” And he said, “Yeah, I have a grandfather. But you know, we’re not together that often. So I don’t really have a relationship with him.” But it was right around Thanksgiving, and he was getting ready to go to a big family Thanksgiving, and his grandfather was going to be there. And I said, I want you to take these questions that we just asked Lucky Louie and I want you to ask those of your grandfather. And he came back from that trip, and he was just beaming from ear to ear because I think both he and his grandfather wanted to have a relationship, but they just didn’t even know where to start the conversation. And having the set of questions just allowed for the conversation to flow. The questions are on my website, anyone can use them, so if you have an older adult in your life, or if you if you are an older adult and you have a young person in your life, and you just haven’t had that way of opening up the conversation, maybe do this as just a fun kind of exercise to get to know each other, ask each other questions. Then, that might open those doors of communication, because it’s really beautiful what comes out of that.


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  15:05

Absolutely. I’ve seen research along the way that says that, you know, younger young adults want to have relationships with older adults, but they just don’t know where to find, or how to begin the conversation. So yeah, through a program that we’ve done before we’ve had college students come into one of our senior living communities, and I likewise have questions on the table that they ask around about their eating. And it’s really interesting to see the faces of both generations lined up as they hear the responses that the others are suggesting. One of the things for me that I love about working with older adults is to see their connections to their lived experience in history. How does sharing their lived experience build bridges? You know, several of the folks who interviewed are Holocaust survivors, or were, you know, alive in their lives were significantly uprooted and affected during World War Two. How do younger generations see with the same kind of awe that maybe I do when I hear these stories?


Sky Bergman  16:20

I think it’s one thing to read about history in a book and another thing to hear a firsthand account of somebody who’s actually lived through it. There’s nothing like hearing that firsthand account, to tie you to that event. I mean, in the film, one of the people that I interviewed was Susie Eto Bauman, who is a Japanese American who was incarcerated during World War Two. She talks about that moment in history, and it’s one thing to read that over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated, but another thing to hear it from a very personal perspective of what it was like to be ripped out of their home, to have to pack up one suitcase to have two kids that you’re holding, because they’re so young in your hands. And all you can think about packing is diapers for them. That story, you connect with it in a very different way. So I think what better way to learn about history than those first hand accounts? I think that’s really important. 


The other comment that I get from students is that they realize when they hear about the resilience of the people and what they went through, they realize that they can get through some tough times as well. I think that really helps people to resonate with the stories in that way that it will help them get through some of the tougher times. 


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 

What would you say that that’s the through line between the stories in one of the underlying messages from through the film? 


Sky Bergman

Well, I think one of the things that I tried to do when I was looking at each person that I featured was to look for a word of wisdom, because that’s how I started the whole project, to look for a moment of resilience, and then also to look for a moment where there’s humor and levity. I remember Marion Wolff,, she was a Holocaust survivor. She made it out of Germany and Austria on the first Kindertransport out of Vienna, Austria. And she talked about how having humor in her life really helped her through some of the tough times. So I think those three things were things that I was looking for in the threads that connected all the stories. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

I think this is one of the things that I remember, from the workshop when you were talking about the making of this film, people would say to you, oh, you’re doing this film you should meet. You know, they would kind of direct you to someone and tell us about it. Am I forgetting her name, the yoga instructor. 

Sky Bergman

I wanted to interview somebody that I do the hot yoga, and I had wanted to interview somebody that did the hot yoga. And so I was introduced to this woman who did the hot yoga and was in her 80s and amazing and that was originally why wanted to interview her and I did a lot of research on her name. By the way, her name was Emmy Cleves. And she then proceeded to tell me this whole other story about her survival during World War Two. And so I tell people, you have an idea of what you want to do, but remain adaptable and flexible and let the interview take its course. Because when she talked about her time, she was trying to escape with her mom, they were on a train platform and her mom was on the train, she was handing up stuff to her mom on the train. And all of a sudden the whistle blew, the doors closed and the train took off. And she was left at the age of 15, standing on a train platform and didn’t know she’d ever see her mom again, in the middle of a war. She was lucky that she was taken in by a German school teacher during the war, but she was left by herself. And you just think, Oh, my God, I went down to interview her because of her connection to yoga and mine. But in the end, it was really the story that emerged that was far more important than her story of resilience during World War Two. She was amazing. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

One of the things I really appreciate about the film, and yeah, is that there are times when in the culture, we hear stories of folks who are in their 80s, 90s and 100. And they’re lifted up things that they’re doing with their life, or compared to what I assume younger folks should do. And, you know, the fact that I for instance, that she does hot yoga. The reality is, she’s been doing yoga for since she was in her 30s, or 40s. Yeah, she’d been doing it for many years. Yeah. Yeah. And that these really are stories of everyday people. And they’re not necessarily out, you know, jumping out of planes right now, but I just really appreciate that, that, that you’ve kind of taken that approach and helped them to identify their everyday life. 

Sky Bergman

I made a very conscious decision when I was doing this project that I wanted it to be everyday people that I wanted it to be somebody that could be your neighbor, your grandparent, your aunt, your uncle, that it wasn’t some film star or somebody that, you know, everybody knew, because I didn’t want it to be oh, well, they can live that kind of life, because they have a lot of money, or they have a lot of fame or whatever I wanted to be just everyday people that you could potentially know. And also most of the people that I interviewed were pretty close to home in San Luis Obispo. Not all of them, but a lot of them. And I would venture to say that everyone has an amazing story to tell if we just take the time to listen, we don’t often do that. And it’s amazing the stories that people have to share if we just take the time to listen to them. And I think one of the things that I learned from my dad, as I said, he was a geriatric physician and ran a number of nursing homes and went into geriatric medicine from the time that he got out of school, which 50 years ago was not a normal course of action. But I was always amazed, he would come home with all these amazing stories from his patients, because he took the time to actually listen, and most of us are so busy getting from point A to point B, or now we’re on our phones, that we don’t take the time to really spend quality time with people. And he would always say in his practice, it was more much more about 80% listening 20% tests because it was the things that people were not necessarily telling him that they were seeing in their body language or the other stories that they were telling. And I think that I learned that from him. And I’m forever grateful for that empathy and understanding that you just have to really sit with people for a while and let the stories unfold. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  23:56So you grew up absorbing this countercultural vision of what aging was from your dad, and yeah, you know, I don’t know if he sees this as a part of his legacy. But  that’s an important link, I think, to your understanding and doing this. So tell me about Mochitsuki, the film that you’re doing because this is another intergenerational story

Sky Bergman  24:07

for sure. Yeah. So the Mochitsuki film, it started out because one of the people in the lives who live film that I mentioned Susie Otto Bauman, her family gets together every year, the week between Christmas and New Year’s and does a ceremony called Mochitsuki and if any of you have ever had mochi, probably from like Costco or Trader Joe’s, they have mochi ice cream, but the mochi ceremonies is true mochi where they take rice and they count it with mallets until it’s smooth, and they make these mochi balls and it’s really about the family gathering together all different generations to pass that down. And I love that because for me the best wisdom came when my grandmother and I were in the kitchen cooking together. So the passing down to the wisdom and the stories and I do feel like in the Mochitsuki film you see a quite a bit of that but it’s also about the Japanese American experience as told through this Mochitsuki ceremony that was done even in the toughest of times, and they still do it today. I just was at a Mochitsuki down in Irvine, which is south of Los Angeles, where there were 2500 people at this farm called Tanaka Farms. And it was lovely to see all the generations coming together to celebrate in this wonderful way by pounding the rice and making these wonderful mochi balls. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  25:22

So it seems to me that maybe one of the ways that you come through this experience is an even greater commitment to the intergenerational conversations and experiences. And and I would imagine, that’s part of the reason why you’re, you’re, you’re part of the CoGenerate Innovation Fellow designation, because that organization is so committed to intergenerational. 

Sky Bergman  25:46

Oh, yeah, everything that I do has some component of intergenerational work. I mean, the other film that I’m working on is called the Prime Time band. And it’s all about people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who are part of a band in Santa Barbara, that are 75 people strong, that played instruments early in life, and then put them away in the middle of their lives. And now they’re coming back to their instruments, and they rehearse every Tuesday and perform throughout the county. But a number of those people are also part of a group called the Music Van, where they literally have a van full of instruments. And they go into third grade classrooms and introduce eight year olds to instruments, many of whom for the first time, because many of them have never touched an instrument before. And I love that cycle of people who are coming back to music later in life, and then paying it forward by sharing their love of instruments and music to eight year olds to get them excited about maybe playing an instrument or just even being somebody that loves listening to music. It’s just such a wonderful cycle. So I see everything, every bit of work that I do at this point is going to have that intergenerational twist to it. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  26:55

Well, and you’re in the middle of this, the intergenerational conversations between your grandmother and your father and you and then to the generations that follows you’re embodying energetic the power of intergenerational. So as we come to the end of our podcast, you’ve been warned that we asked three questions of all of our guests. But before I do that, do you want to share how listeners can find you are being in touch with you if they’re interested in more information about any of these projects?

Sky Bergman  27:27

Yeah, sure. So the easiest way is to email me at, and our website is Or if your Google lives will live, it’ll be the first thing that comes up. I’m on LinkedIn, Facebook and everything else. And I always respond to emails. So please feel free to reach out.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  27:50

Great, thanks. Okay. So first question, when you think about how you have aged, what do you think has changed about you or grown with you that you really like about yourself? 

Sky Bergman  28:03

I think one of the things came from Blanche Brown, who was in my film, and she talked about living more fully in the moment and taking time just to breathe. And I do think as I’ve aged, I am more acutely aware of doing that, like with a sense of purpose, taking the time to like, go for a walk every day, I make sure I do my yoga practice every day, and I breathe in the eucalyptus leaves. And I just really try to be more present, I think I have more mindfulness than when I was younger. And I think the other thing is that I don’t care what other people think. And it takes a while to get to that point in your life. But I really just do what I love doing without worrying about what other people think. And I have learned if I am true to myself and follow my passion, that’s really all that matters. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

Yep, absolutely. So question number two is what has surprised you most as you have aged? 

Sky Bergrman

Yeah, another great question. These are great questions, by the way, I think that what has surprised me most as I age is, looking back at things that happened 20 years ago, and they seem like they just happened yesterday and how as we age, the time just goes by so much faster. My partner Jeff says, ‘Life is like a roll of toilet paper. It goes faster towards the end.’ I think there is some truth to that. I think that surprised me the most is how fast life seems to be speeding up the older that I get.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  29:32

Absolutely. I love that analogy. Okay, finally, the last question and you can’t say all forty, but is there someone that you have met or who’s been in your life that has set a good example for you and aging someone that inspires you to age well.

Sky Bergman  29:50

I mean, it would definitely have to be my grandmother because she was the inspiration for everything that I did and everything that I continue to do. I mean, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. She passed away a few years ago. And we got to share the film together on the big screen. And I would say that was the most joyous day of my life, I was smiling so hard, my cheeks literally hurt. Her adage was always to be kind, and I really have taken that to heart. When you have a choice to be kind or not, it’s always best to be kind. And so I think that she really has had the most profound impact on my life. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

Yeah, and remind me, how many years had she lived before she passed away.

Sky Bergman

She was 103 and a half. And she came out to see the film on the big screen, and from Florida to California, and she passed away six weeks later. My mom always says that she lived long enough. That was her mission, her sense of purpose at the end of her life was to really see the film on the big screen. And once she did that, she quite literally said, I’m done. And she stopped eating and drinking, there was nothing physically wrong with her. And she was gone in two days, and I was able to be there with her. And you know, that was also a gift. I just feel lucky that she lived long enough for me to really appreciate her. I always appreciated her. But, I think once my career at a certain point and my stepkids out of the house, I really couldn’t appreciate her in a different way and spend a lot of time with her. I am so grateful for that time that I had, being somebody in my late 40s, that just got to spend that precious time with my grandmother. How many people get that opportunity? Not too many. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  31:30

Exactly. And I can’t imagine, you know, when you think about 103 year lifespan, you know, if someone had told her when she was five years old, yeah, someday, your granddaughter would be picking up a handheld camera that would take moving pictures in color with sound and documenting her cooking and then it would be shown on a big screen. There’s no way she would believe that. 

Sky Bergman

Not at all. So much happened in that century of her life. It was just a remarkable period of history to live through. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

Well, thank you. Thank you, sky into our listeners who are listening to this episode of The Art of aging part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church Homes. And we want to hear from you what’s changed about you as you age that you love? What has surprised you most and how do you define abundant aging and who is your abundant aging hero? You can join us or visit us at www DOT abundant aging to share your ideas. You can also give us feedback when you visit the Ruth cross Parker Center website at and one more time Sky where can folks find you?

Sky Bergman  32:53

Yeah, the easiest thing is just Google “Lives Well Lived” but our website is

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins  32:59

Thank you so much. And I can’t wait till Mochitsuki is out. And I really didn’t know the subject of the second one that you’ve got out and primetime. I also look forward to that one as well. Yeah, thank you very much. Thanks for being with us.