...in the eyes of her oldest friends and colleagues and extended family, she wasn't a painfully thin seventy-five-year-old gray haired woman dying of cancer- she was a grade school class president, the young friend you gossiped with, a date or double date, someone to share a tent with in Darfur, a fellow election monitor in Bosnia, a mentor, a teacher you'd laughed within a classroom or a faculty lounge, or the board member you'd groaned with after a contentious meeting
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One of Mom's favorite passages from Gilead was: "This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?
In Gilead, the narrator's friend's son describes himself not as an atheist but in "state of categorical unbelief." He says, "I don't even believe God doesn't exist, if you see what I mean." I pointed this passage out to Mom and said it closely matched my own views-I just didn't think about religion.
Of course you could do more - you can always do more, and you should do more - but still, the important things is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that's all you can do. Too many people use the excuse that they don't think they can do enough, so they decide they don't have to to do anything. There's never a good excuse for not doing anything - even if it's just to sign something, or send a small contribution, or invite a newly settled refugee family over for Thanksgiving.
It's cruelty that gets to me. Still, it's important to read about cruelty. 'Why is it important?' Because when you read about it, it's easier to recognize. That was always the hardest thing in the refugee camps-to hear the stories of the people who had been raped or mutilated or forced to watch a parent or a sister or a child be raped or killed. It's very hard to come face-to-face with such cruelty. But people can be cruel in lots of ways, some very subtle. I think that's why we all need to read about it. I think that's one of the amazing things about Tennessee Williams's plays. He was so attuned to cruelty-the way Stanley treats Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. It starts with asides and looks and put-downs. There are so many great examples from Shakespeare-when Goneril torments King Lear or the way Iago speaks to Othello. And what I love about Dickens is the way he presents all types of cruelty. You need to learn to recognize these things right from the start. Evil almost always starts with small cruelties.
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I think women should have choices and should be able to do what they like, and I think it's a great choice to stay at home and raise kids, just as it's a great choice to have a career. But I don't entirely approve of people who get advanced degrees and then decide to stay at home. I think if society gives you the gift of one of those educations and you take a spot in a very competitive institution, then you should do something with that education to help others... But I also don't approve of working parents who look down on stay-at-home mothers and think they smother their children. Working parents are every bit as capable of spoiling children as ones who don't work - maybe even more so when they indulge their kids out of guilt. The best think anyone can teach their children is the obligation we all have toward each other - and no one has a monopoly on teaching that.
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If our family was an airline, Mom was the hub and we were the spokes. You rarely went anywhere nonstop; you went via Mom, who directed the traffic flow and determined the priorities: which family member was cleared for takeoff or landing. Even my father was not immune to Mom's scheduling, though he was given more leeway than the rest of us.
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It is not by regretting what is irreparable that true work is to be done, but by making the best of what we are. It is not by complaining that we have not the right tools, but by using well the tools we have. What we are, and where we are is God's providential arrangement - God's doing, though it may be man's misdoing; and the manly and the wise way is to look your disadvantages in the face, and see what can be made our of them.
She felt whatever emotions she felt, but feeling was never a useful substitute for doing, and she never let the former get in the way of the latter. If anything, she used her emotions to motivate her and help her concentrate. The emphasis for her was always on doing what needed to be done.
What I suddenly understood was that a thank-you note isn't the price you pay for receiving a gift, as so many children think it is, a kind of minimum tribute or toll, but an opportunity to count your blessings. And gratitude isn't what you give in exchange for something; it's what you feel when you are blessed--blessed to have family and friends who care about you, and who want to see you happy. Hence the joy from thanking.
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One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality. Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind. But printed books have body, presence. Sure, sometimes they'll elude you by hiding in improbable places... But at other times they'll confront you, and you'll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn't thought about in weeks or years. I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They may make me feel, but I can't feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it.
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As a reader, you're often inside one or more character heads, so you know what they're feeling, even if they can't exactly say it, or they say it so obliquely that the other characters don't catch it. Readers are frequently reminded of the gulf between what people say and what they mean, and such moments prod us to become more attuned to gesture, tone, and language.
We all owe everyone for everything that happens in our lives. But it's not owing like a debt to one person--it's really that we owe everyone for everything. Our whole lives can change in an instant--so each person that keeps that from happening, no matter how small a role they play, is also responsible for all of it. Just by giving friendship and love, you keep the people around you from giving up--and each expression of friendship or love may be the one that makes all the difference.
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With FIVE DAYS, Douglas Kennedy has crafted a brilliant meditation on regret, fidelity, family, and second chances that will have you breathlessly turning pages to find out what happened in the past and what will happen next. At once heartbreaking and hopeful, it is a powerful new work of fiction by an internationally acclaimed writer at the height of his powers.
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