An Unexpected Message

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I brought a sweet little book home from the library sale last month called A Short Guide to  Happy Life, by Anna Quindlen.

I figured I’d give it a quick read and then pass it on as a gift. It’s a bite-sized book filled with stop-and-smell-the-roses type advice geared mostly toward young graduates, but it could easily be for all ages.

Quindlen is a former New York Times columnist turned gifted novelist so I was curious (but admittedly doubtful) if she had anything to say that I hadn’t heard before. I also wondered how she would shine her “writer’s light” on the same old list of “dos and don’ts” that humans like me have so much difficulty practicing in our busy daily lives.

Quindlen’s a mother, too. What sage advice did she most want to pass on to her children? I bet it’s the same advice I’d like to give mine.

The book sat unopened in my home office for a few weeks until one afternoon I decided to crack it open and thumb through it. I gasped at the first words I read.

To my surprise, the biggest lesson in this book was not from the author, but on the blank cover page of this second-hand copy. There, I found an inscription: a heartfelt note from a mother who’d bought the book for her son, Andrew, in 2005.

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Obviously, I don’t know anything about this mom or her son or their relationship. There’s a whole unknown story behind these two short sentences, and it widens with Andrew’s heartbreaking response.  That’s the part I whited out above. Here’s the page in full…

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Ooh, that stings, huh?

Did Andrew give the book back to his mom after he wrote this? Was Andrew OK? Was Mom OK? Were they having a normal disagreement like moms and teens (I’m assuming Andrew was a teen) do or were there deeper issues?

Granted, I don’t know if Andrew’s inscription is legitimate or not. The book could have been donated and picked up at Goodwill by some smart ass who thought it would be funny to add a fictional note.

But true or not for Andrew and his mom, they hit certainly hit home for some families, especially in the hard times we all have.

Perhaps there’s no such thing as a short guide to a happy life. As much as we hope a sweet little book we brought home from the library will solve our problems, it won’t. We may pick up a nugget of inspiration and carry it with us for awhile. I think that’s all Andrew’s mom was hoping for, but Andrew didn’t want it and that’s OK.

Don’t “they” always say life doesn’t come with an instruction manual? Writer after writer tries to write one. Parent after parent tries to impart one. Great teachers try to inspire one. Faith leaders try to instill one. Sometimes it works; more often not. Personal experience is the best guide.

I hope Andrew found his happy life. Mom, too.

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Cover page inscription aside, Quindlen did write a sweet book. Here are just a few bits I liked:

  • “… show up. … listen. … try to laugh.”
  • Get a life “in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines.”
  • “Find people you love, and who love you…it is work.”

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