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QUINTESSENCE

Review: Anita Brookner's HOTEL DU LAC

The day seemed interminable, yet neither was in a hurry to have done with it. It seemed to both of them in their separate ways that only the possession of this day held worse days at bay, that, for each of them, the seriousness of their respective predicaments had so far been material for satire or for ridicule or even for amusement. But that the characters who had furnished that satire or that amusement were now taking on a disturbing life of their own, were revealing capacities for command or caprice that threatened, although in a very obscure or oblique way, their own marginal existence. We both came here to get other people out of trouble, thought Edith; no one considered our hopes and wishes. Yet hopes and wishes are what should be proclaimed, most strenuously proclaimed, if anyone is to be jolted into the necessity of taking note of them, let alone the obligation to fulfill them… All I learned I learned from Father. Think again, Edith. You have made a false equation. This is when character tells. Sad precepts of a lost faith.
- from "Hotel du Lac," by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, published in 1984, won Great Britain's Booker Prize in 1986, nearly twenty years ago. Materialism, Feminism, careerism, explicit film and writing defined the 1980s - a tumultuous time of "-isms" and their vocal, adamant defenders. Yet Hotel du Lac, written in that period, is a novel of another era, a self-contained, wrly observed bridge between the defined roles and mannerisms of Austen's literary women and the depressed self-definition of Doris Lessing's heroines. In this "no woman's land" between independence of means and thinking and social expectation and the demands of good character, Brookner gives us a woman named Edith Hope, whose last name anchors the trenchant theme of the novel. Edith is a successful romance novelist writing under a pen name who is herself awkward and unsuccessful at love. She finds herself caught in a scandal of her own inept making and forced to seek refuge in a grand but out of the way old European hotel. A hotel occupied by those who in eccentric and unpredictable ways are also refugees from their lives. It is here, dwelling on her options, that Edith is forced to confront what she really feels about love.

I found myself drawn in and occasionally at odds with this novel. Brookner's mannered language is what now might be deemed "overwritten." A contemporary critic might declaim such studied writing inserts itself between the reader and the narrative. Brookner's language colors and slows the narrative, deliberatively. Words such as inimical, penumbra, hitherto, veritable, estimable, propensity, etc., put us firmly in the thoughts of a woman of the nineteenth century, yet Edith Hope is very much living the life of an independent woman of the twentieth. Therein lies the root of the "wrong equation" Edith makes of love and what a woman is entitled to want, to hope for; her dawning awareness of the "sad precepts of a lost faith."

This novel is perhaps the perfect ironic anti-romance romantic novel. The observations and humor are fine; cutting, yet objectively drawn as Edith considers her situation and that of the (primarily) women around her, the elegant lost souls of the Hotel du Lac. Each guest in some way has made her or his own bittersweet pact with love - from the material and indulgent to the rebellious or marginalized. The novel's delicately observed truths about human relationships are centuries old. It is Edith who reminds us of this, even as she herself must decide what history she will choose.

Brookner adeptly lures the reader irrevocably into this novel of quiet desperation. A pattern occurs in the narrative, until it becomes obvious what the heroine thinks may not be true (Edith, you have made a wrong equation), or the predicted outcome is not the outcome at all. And so it with complete pleasure that Hotel du Lac ends on a gesture of rebellion. Edith may not know how to find what she seeks, but finally, she knows what is right for her. I found myself wondering at the novel's end how many of us like Edith live a century behind ourselves. Raised in our grandparents's or parents's value systems, influenced by the books and mythologies and manners of earlier times, perhaps like Edith it takes a turning point to force us forward. To leave behind a life inhabiting the expectations of others and define our own lives.
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Tree Called Life

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

- e.e.cummings

This poem by e.e. cummings was part of my own wedding ceremony, shared at sunrise on the crater's edge of Haleakala on Maui. These words capture for me the enduring, burrowing, all encompassing interiority of hearts in love. The supple binding and integration of identities and lives. The way in which love becomes us. Or perhaps it is how we become our love; the way we live in love.

Tomorrow I am leaving for a fabulous wedding in Austin, a gala barn dance. We are celebrating the marriage of the first child of my dearest friend Patricia. Patricia and I met in the basketball stands of our daughters's school, cheering on our girls on the JV team. We hit it off like chocolate and nuts, and hung together as we raised our children through the highs and lows of middle school, high school, the college applications marathon, and on through dating, career starts, and graduations (two college senior sons left to go). And now her amazing eldest, having taken the bar exam, is marrying her true love and fellow lawyer (and operatic baritone) under the old oaks of Austin. I am looking over my favorite vintage wines, thinking of our years as friends, as parents, choosing one to bring down with me for the two of us to share over a private celebratory moment this weekend. This is the first of our children to marry and it is hard to describe the huge feeling in my chest as I think of this.

Love, celebrated in the ceremony of a wedding, marks a transition: hingeing the world of both child and parent.
"the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life"

The families we ourselves began to build so idealistically decades ago divide and double, branch and flower. The child steps away and toward the future, laying the foundation stone of a family of his or her own. Beginning independent life with someone they love. It is a moment of long-anticipated arrival - the threshold of true adulthood - embracing the responsibilities of partnership, parenting, life. And to the parents that have nurtured, guided, suffered, celebrated, and loved their children to this threshold? A sweet, nuanced emotional collision. Swells of accomplishment, great joy, and the twinged melancholy of missing the "days our children were little." Yes. I believe this moment needs a good - no great - old wine. Also something nuanced, complex. Satisfying, but the wish for that half glass more.

I will lift my glass this weekend to you, my friend. To your glowing, gorgeous daughter.
To us. To the glorious years as parents that bond us.
And finally to parents the world over, as they kiss their children and see them through a thousand doors.
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Monday Morning, Late Summer

Priest Lake moonrise

MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.

- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

The opening of the chest, the heart chakra - literally opening to the deep breathing and calm rhythms of a lengthy period on break - profoundly affects the mind as well as the body. When we step out of the box, the stress-filled, demanding, unrelenting responsibilities of the 24/7, the break from routine can begin the restoration of the soul. As an observer of my own fifty decades of living, the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in the 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. The irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling all seem to have disappeared along with party-lines and land lines. We are "on" and plugged-in every moment of the day: pinged by messages, expanding lists of to-dos, global information, and social media even when we sleep.

Small wonder we find peace walking in the silence of tall cedars, lulled to sleep by lapping waves on the lake shore, listening to the creak of wind in the trees, bird call in the quiet dawn. Thoreau was a relentless champion of "disconnect and rediscover" for the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to watch my family, traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle, slowly adapt to first making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, to eventually, mournfully, accepting there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake, to at last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched. Withdrawal from the digital world was both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in a pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, ever so slowly releasing its grip, to be replaced by long naps sunning on beach towels on a gently rolling dock, acoustic jazz guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table, delving into not just a chapter but an entire book, board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire and mellow whiskey.

We learned the nurturing quality of quiet. The sweet richness of intimate conversation. Walking the mountains, taking in the whole of life.

We disappear to the cabin every year, coming from wherever we are in the four corners of the world, from whatever education, work, or travel schedules occupy us, ready to find our way back to ourselves. To recharge in the power of tranquility, the open spaces of daydreams, sunny contentment, the deep truthful night and undisturbed sleep. We reconnect not just within, but together. And when the last spider is slapped with a sandal and tossed out the door, when the last huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drenched in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs, we pack up our beach chairs and book bags and return to the world.

Halfway down the road to civilization the electronics buried in our duffles ping on, buzzing and downloading in a bursting hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.
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In August

Huckleberries
SWIMMING, ONE DAY IN AUGUST
It is time now, I said,
for the deepening and quieting of the spirit
among the flux of happenings.

Something had pestered me so much
I thought my heart would break.
I mean, the mechanical part.

I went down in the afternoon
to the sea
which held me, until I grew easy.

About tomorrow, who knows anything.
Except that it will be time, again,
for the deepening and quieting of the spirit.

- Mary Oliver

Tomorrow I head north to a cabin on Luby Bay, to the remote tranquil beauty of Priest Lake, Idaho - a long, deep, cold water lake surrounded by the forested Selkirk Mountains. The northernmost tip of Priest Lake narrows to a shallow canoe and kayak thoroughfare that connects to a pristine unsettled upper lake. We hike every year through the spice trees along the shores of the thoroughfare to picnic by the upper lake, picking huckleberries, basking in the wisdom of the wilderness and its quiet. For me, this is the week that restores the soul; the place and time, as Mary Oliver writes so beautifully, for the "deepening and quieting of the spirit."

I am taking a sack of books with me (yes, actual print books, bright and beckoning in their artistic jackets) and I thought I would share with you my mixed fiction, poetry, and nonfiction reading for the week:
"& Sons" by David Gilbert
"The Love affairs of Nataniel P." by Adelle Waldman
"The Examined Life" by Stephen Grosz
"First, Do No Harm," by Lisa Belkin
"Long Life, Poems & Essays" by Mary Oliver
"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer
"Beautiful Day," by Elin Hilderbrand

Who knows how far through these treasures I'll get between swimming in the lake, hiking the trails, basking on the beach...but trust me, I will be reading, feet propped on the porch rail in the shade of the cedars, glass of wine in hand. It will be lovely to sail into seas of new thinking. At ease.

See all of you in a week or so.
En Vacance
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Lean In, Sometimes

Throughout my childhood, my parents emphasized the importance of pursuing a meaningful life. Dinner discussions often centered on social injustice and those fighting to make the world a better place. As a child, I never thought about what I wanted to be, but I thought a lot about what I wanted to do. As sappy as it sounds, I hoped to change the world.
- Sheryl Sandberg, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead"

I read Sheryl Sandberg's "call to battle" memoir awhile ago. It has taken me time to process the mixed emotions her book, co written with Nell Scovell, raised in my thinking. I am a midlife feminist and older than Sandberg, so much of what she has to say (and liberally quotes throughout her book) is old hat. Inequalities in pay, in support available to single parent families, in shared domestic duties in double income families, in the availability of decent childcare, maternity leave policies, balancing the child-bearing years with promotion ladders... All very familiar. And frankly, after all these post-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem decades, disheartening to admit such issues continue to burden the plate of the working woman in America.

Sandberg grew up, as she says, wanting to make a difference. Not to be, but to do. Others have pointed out, and Sandberg herself admits, it is easy to say "give your ambitions a full go" if your family also has the financial resources to deploy meeting the twin demands of childcare and running a household. A good deal of Sandberg's story comes across as lucky girl cheerleading. "Heh, don't envy me, be me!" Women are always choosing how to change the world - a pot roast at a time (Julia Child), refining radium (Marie Curie), writing a child's first book (Beatrix Potter), rallying a nation in dire straits (Margaret Thatcher), and on the list goes. Artists, scientists, teachers. Women who work at life within the circumstances they are dealt. That Sandberg leveraged a stable advantaged upbringing and education (Harvard) into a position in the ranks of corporate leadership should not amaze. Nor do most of us hem and haw over whether to leave one stellar job for another. Sometimes what is big is changing a nursing shift from day to night to sit at the breakfast table with your preschool child and make school lunch. To those to whom much is given, much is expected, as the saying goes.

The real nugget of trouble exposed by Sandberg's book is her acknowledgment embracing "the committed career" remains relevant for the twenty-first century woman. As it was twenty, forty, sixty years ago, a meaningful home life/parenting commitment still butts heads with the high demand promotion years in a successful career. Women are still splitting themselves in pieces to cover the bases. To have children while they are still fertile and somehow put in the necessary after hours to make partner. To make ends meet as a single parent and build a family life in the limited hours of the day. While some may feel accomplished in some areas, none feel satisfied in all. Sandberg's children are still too young to let her know how it's working out for them; she remains happily buffered by abundant personal resources from the exigencies in the average woman's life that shift choice from the personal to the essential.

I believe women should give themselves as wholly as possible to what they believe in, to the lives they intend to lead, to the families and careers they desire to build. I just know from my experience and that of my mentors and friends that such choices rarely easily cohabitate. Commitments demand attention from women, as Mary Catherine Bateson wrote in her seminal work, "Composing a Life," sequentially. We move through phases of life and phases of work that intuitively correspond to our reality as women. There may be phases of single childlessness when we earn educations and build careers, a period or two where family - from children to aging parents - take precedence. We dodge and weave our way through choices and commitments, composing a life unique as a necklace of handcrafted beads, each bead something of ourselves then and when.

The real value in Sandberg's book for me was her rallying cry to continue what generations of women before us began - the push for true economic equality between the sexes. Until expectations for men and women and career versus family are crafted on equal terms, we create liabilities and roadblocks for both sexes in seeking fulfilling lives as individuals and in families. "Lean In" is not so much the takeaway for me from Sandberg's book as the subtle importance of "freedom of choice." Until every woman has the education, support, and resources needed to build the life she wants, we have work to do.

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Consoling Broken Hearts

Isadora Duncan, Photo Credit: Arnold Genthe, 1917

In the last weeks much has happened in America that deeply wounds the heart of all of us. Even if we are distant from the terror attacks at Newtown and the Boston Marathon, from the massive explosions at West, Texas, we feel the pain of the innocent, the victims. Before there is acceptance, before there is forgiveness, there is grieving. I came across this essay from Isadora Duncan from her memoir, My Life, that speaks of inconsolable loss and what we may say or do that offers genuine companionship and solace to those grieving. Duncan lost both of her children in an accident when a taxicab in which they were riding drove off into the water and they were drowned. She then fled to her friend, Eleanora Duse, and stayed with her in Italy.

From MY LIFE

The next morning I drove out to see Duse, who was living in a rose-coloured vila behind a vineyard. She came down a vine covered walk to meet me, like a glorious angel. She took me in her arms and her wonderful eyes beamed upon me such love and tenderness that I felt just as Dante must have felt when, in the "Paradiso," he encounters the Divine Beatrice.

From then on I lived at Viareggio, finding courage from the radiance of Eleanora's eyes. She used to rock me n her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that I had not been able to bear thew society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me with forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:

"Tell me about Deirdre and Patrick," and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show her their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, "Cease to grieve," but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.


- Isadora Duncan, 1878-1927
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Just Pushing

For deLawd

people say they have a hard time
understanding how I
go on about my business
playing my Ray Charles
hollering at the kids -
seems like my Afro
cut off in some old image
would show I got a long memory
and I come from a line
of black and going on women
who got used to making it through murdered sons
and who grief kept on pushing
who fried chicken
ironed
swept off the back steps
who grief kept
for their still alive sons
for their sons coming
for their sons gone
just pushing


- Lucille Clifton

Today, the haunting notes of YoYo Ma on the cello plays in elegy, the faces and pure voices of the Boston Childrens Chorus rise in song, carrying words they barely understand but certainly feel in the gospel hymnal "To the Mountain." Today we talk about honoring our lost and commit to moving on. The voice of the cello cries "Why?" The prayer surrenders and accepts. The faces of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters turn away. And those of us who can go on, do. We rise and work, we take the children to school, we load the washing machine, chop green beans, hug our husbands and wives and kids because we know, really know, how fragile the thin thread is.

I run today through the cold bright sun. The new green limns the trees. The robin tucks the last straw into her nest. I run because I can and perhaps another cannot. I run because each day it is a gift to do so. I run for Boston, for me, for you. The thin fragile thread. I run because it is my way to pray. My heart beats "Why?"

Feet just pushing.
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What Love Is


On Friday, my husband and I are flying to Houston to attend the wedding of his middle son. It is the second wedding within a year's time, and as his sons walk through this very singular, personal, and deeply spiritual threshold into their own adulthood, it is profoundly moving for a parent to witness.

They start out small, and look where they end... Our work as parents seems to conclude as they let go of one hand and take another, cleave as Ruth said, to the hand of another. Mark 10:7-9 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Bless the beginning, release with love, and let the moment mark the years. They start out so small.

Originally posted, November 25, 2012:

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity, it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the new body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the coming...the gestating of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving in new ways of being, new shapes to the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say that living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, not perfect in process, the becoming is perfect in intent. It is perfect in joy, grounded in the earth, heavens, and self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.

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Pocket of my Mind

Wedding Day, February 18

Today would be Kenneth Alan Grunzweig's 70th birthday. If he had lived to see it. Yesterday was our 25th anniversary. Had he lived to share it with me. My favorite work of anything I have yet written or conceived, remains the memoir dedicated to Ken published by Broadway Books in 2008, simply titled, "The Geography of Love." For that's what it was, the landscape of a relationship. Ours.

Ken's charm and brilliant wit were legendary. His grace and capacity for compassion and loyalty enduring. His life remains a great teacher to the many who knew him, called him friend. I take comfort in the knowledge our children walk a path today he would be proud of. His love of life carried me on. In the same vein that I love to run, the spirit moves forward. I am grateful, every day, for the beautiful life he left me and led me through and to. He is the presence, the faith beneath the wings of my new marriage that lifts us both I believe.

In the ten years since Ken's death, I have grown stronger in my conviction that all is connected, nothing truly lost, memory indelible like a scent in the air. Last night I dreamed a sweet dream of a day with McDuff, my wheaten Scottie dog, gone a year now. A loyal, funny, adoring animal, McDuff was "the true friend." Companion of the early years of grief. Alone on the pine trails, the Scottie and me. Waking from that dream of walking with Duffy, and thinking of Ken, and my mother whose birthday is this Sunday, I realized the only things that ever truly do matter are imprinted on our hearts. We live in our thoughts and our thoughts are a continuous media mix of moment and dream, memory and experience. We have only to know to love.

In honor of our Ken,

A LETTER FROM THE CARIBBEAN
by Barbara Howes

Breezeways in the tropics winnow the air,
Are ajar to its least breath
But hold back, in a feint of architecture,
The boisterous sun
Pouring down upon

The island like a cloudburst. They
Slant to loft air, they curve, they screen
The wind's wild gaiety
Which tosses palm
Branches about like a marshal's plumes.

Within this filtered, latticed
World, where spools of shadow
Form, lift and change,
The triumph of incoming air
Is that it is there,

Cooling and salving us. Louvres,
Trellises, vines -music also-
Shape the arboreal wind, make skeins
Of it, and a maze
To catch shade. The days

Are all variety, blowing;
Aswirl in a perpetual current
Of wind, shadow, sun,
I marvel at the capacity
Of memory

Which, in some deep pocket
Of my mind, preserves you whole-
As a wind is wind, as the lion-taming
Sun is sun, you are, you stay;
Nothing is lost, nothing has blown away.


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Hand-Made Words

THE POWER OF WORDS
Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!
Life is in them, and death. A word can send
The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek.
Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn
The current cold and deadly to the heart.
Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy
Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:--
A word is but a breath of passing air.

~Letitia Elizabeth Landon

There is a hilarious scene with Sarah Jessica Parker as single New Yorker Carrie Bradshaw in the "Sex in the City" HBO series that involves her waking up to a goodbye Post-It note from her boyfriend stuck to her computer. "I"m sorry," the note reads. "I just can't." And with that Carrie is left with the end of a relationship: No why, what, just an end. She spends the day asking everyone she meets, Have you heard of this? Can you believe this? What she is really thinking is, Is that all a relationship means any more- a Post-It?

Recently more than a romance ended with a text. A colleague in the publishing industry found out she was being "merged"out of a job in a mass email from corporate headquarters. Another friend interviewed by email, and then Skype, for a position across the continent. These days, entire lives are conducted through short, abbreviated, directive messaging. Dating services, job recruiting, email distributions, list serves, group texts, ccs and blind copies... all short-cuts to important points of connection. Efficient, yes. But even in our personal lives? I am reminded of Meg Ryan's character, a children's bookstore owner named Kathleen Kelly, remarking in "You've Got Mail" that she hates it when people excuse something egregious with a trite "It isn't personal." She asks, "What is it then, if not personal? It's personal to me." By her definition communication between two persons is, personal.

I find myself wondering, don't our friends and loved ones deserve a hand-made approach? Chefs know slow cooking is synonymous with savory. Diplomacy is still conducted face to face; most actual dating too. Shouldn't we savor communications regarding important news? Be willing to invest the time, share, collaborate, chat? Even when it's bad news and our role is to offer support or pick up the phone and offer a spoken hug?

I don't believe modern relationships suddenly slipped lightweight on us. Rather, I think we've shifted as a contemporary culture toward an aggravating new "bubble effect" in our personal exchanges. Abbreviated messaging that expresses itself in some combination of rushed, lazy, disengaged, or terse. Conversations take time, and connection, opening to spontaneous and intimate exchange. An investment of attention, in other words. The reason we treasure handwritten thank you notes and invitations is the exact same reason so many of us now default to email templates. Time. We can do more with less invested if we email, text, vm, DM, tweet or post to Facebook. And yet that efficiency sucks the intimacy and specialness out of our entire message. Most of us still believe that significant events - news of a death, engagements, new jobs and lost jobs, babies, trouble with the law or great awards - are all things best shared in direct conversation. The visit, the telephone call, any spontaneous back and forth expression of emotional support or delight is the very stuff that makes us communal humans want to share our news in the first place.

So my thought today is, pick up the phone. Make a coffee date. Walk down the street and spend ten minutes with an old friend. Write a long note and post it, the old fashioned way. The value of almost everything lies beyond the how or why. That smile in your voice? Hand-made.
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