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Thoughts on “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

I’ve had my eye on this trilogy for a while. Everyone I know who has read Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy has raved about it. I’m just always hesitant to commit to a trilogy. But at last, I bought the first book and read it, and I have to say that it certainly lived up to all the hype.

Basically, Grossman takes aspects from some of the best fantasy books and weaves together a tale that is unique, yet seems familiar. I had impressions of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. But there is also a modern edginess to the book, which works well in my opinion.

There is a lot that can be explored in this text—addiction, power, corruption, escapism—just to name a few. But since brevity is the soul of wit, I’m just going to focus this post on the topics of magic and the multiverse.

Early in the book, Quentin enters a school of magic, and one of the professors offers an interesting definition of magic.

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world.”

(p. 48)

This definition resembles Aleister Crowley’s, which states that magick is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” And as Quentin continues his studies, he learns that the actual practice of magic is quite difficult, and is not something that comes easily, which is how magic is often depicted in books.

One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he had read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation—or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble—you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words—and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture—just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe—well, there really was no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.

Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned that there was more to it than that.

(pp. 148 – 149)

As a writer, I understand that words are just symbols intended to represent aspects of our reality. Which is why I was intrigued by a passage that asserts that magic somehow dissolves the boundaries that exist between language and reality, that it merges the symbol and that which the symbol represents into a single form.

“But somehow in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

(pp. 216 – 217)

After graduating the school of magic, one of the young magicians, Penny, discovers a way to access parallel dimensions of reality, or what theoretical physics would call the multiverse. He terms this portal to the other dimensions the City (also Neitherlands), which seems like a type of matrix that allows one to pass from one reality to another. Penny goes on to explain to his friends what this means to our limited view of reality.

“The thing is, the more I study it, the more I think it’s exactly the opposite—that our world has much less substance than the City, and what we experience as reality is really just a footnote to what goes on there. An epiphenomenon.”

(p. 250)

Penny proposes exploring an alternate world (Fillory), which was described in a book that the other young magicians had all read. Quentin is reluctant, but Penny pushes the issue, stressing that the exploration of hidden dimensions is truly the greatest quest that humans can embark upon.

“So what?” Penny stood up. “So. What. So what if Fillory doesn’t work out? Which it will? So we end up somewhere else. It’s another world, Quentin. It’s a million other worlds. The Neitherlands are the place where the worlds meet! Who knows what other imaginary universes might turn out to be real? All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse! Once I marked off a hundred squares straight in one direction and never saw the edge of this place. We could explore for the rest of our lives and never begin to map it all. This is it, Quentin! It’s the new frontier, the challenge of our generation and the next fifty generations after that!”

(p. 260)

As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes existing beyond our current scope of perception, and just maybe, ancient mystical arts once provided glimpses of these hidden realms. It certainly warrants further exploration. If we dismiss ideas and potential knowledge because they conflict with our present paradigms, we are doing so at our own risk.

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“The Sporto: Tales from the Rock Mecca of South Florida” by C. Rich

So I discovered this book by chance while doing some online research for information about the Hollywood Sportatorium, nicknamed The Sporto. My other blog, The Stub Collection, is where I post scanned images of my old concert ticket stubs, along with my memories of the shows. Having grown up in South Florida in the 70s and 80s, I ended up seeing quite a few great shows at the Sporto, including Eric Clapton with Muddy Waters, Elton John, Roger Waters, Robert Plant, The Firm (w Jimmy Page), Deep Purple, Yes, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath with Van Halen, just to name a few.

So as I was looking for quotes and images relating to the Sportatorium, I discovered this book, and my interest was piqued. I shared the info with some of my friends, a few of whom were quicker to acquire and read the book than I was. I was promptly informed that the book was terrible. My friend Miriam told me not to waste my money and that she would send me her copy (which she did). My friend Jim said the writing was so bad it was like reading a 5th grader’s book report. These critiques were pretty harsh. Yet, when the package from Miriam arrived, I was compelled to read the book. I have to say, this is one of the worst books I have ever read, even worse than Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac (which I hated). Thankfully, the book is very short (less than 100 pages) with large font, so it was essentially like reading a long magazine article.

Rather than focusing on the negative, which would be easy, I figured I would say what I did like about the book, and that was the nostalgia. Having lived in South Florida, and knowing the types of people who frequented the infamous Sporto, I could relate to some of Rich’s musings. The crappy acoustics, the god-awful traffic, the riots, the indulgence, all of the things that made rock and roll what it was in those years of decadence. For someone who never experienced a concert at the Sportatorium, this book would be a complete waste, but for those of us who have memories of the venue, there will be fragments that will cause you to nod your head and say, “Oh yeah, I remember that.”

The problem with living in a world where anyone can publish a book is that, well, anyone can publish a book. For those of you thinking about self-publication, I would offer a word of advice—hire an editor. You will avoid obvious grammatical problems, typos, and incorrect information. And let’s face it, even T.S. Eliot benefitted from Ezra Pound’s editorial expertise.

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Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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“Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm” by Thich Nhat Hanh

So I finished reading this book about a week ago, and today, the day I am writing my draft post, is the day after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had picked this book for a book club which I started, for which tonight is the first gathering and we will be discussing this book. Anyway, I selected this book because it seemed important and relevant to the current paradigm, which is a fear-focused society. When I read the blurb from the back cover, I knew that this was a timely book to read.

Fear has countless faces: from the fear of failure to worries about everyday life, from financial or environmental uncertainties to the universal despair we all experience when faced by the loss of a friend or loved one. Even when surrounded by all the conditions for happiness, life can feel incomplete when fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future. While we all experience fear, it is possible to learn how to avoid having our lives shaped and driven by it. In these pages, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a timeless path for living fearlessly.

There is such a wealth of wisdom in this short book. I took a lot of notes when I was reading through it. While I can’t cover everything here, I will share some of the passages that stood out for me.

We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.

(p. 4)

This is so true. Fear is essentially the disease of “what if.” We look at our past and see what went wrong, and then we look to the future and worry about whether these things will happen again, or if something worse will occur. Our obsession with the past and future causes us to lose touch with the present, which is truly all we really have. The past is gone, and the future is uncertain. Therefore, being present in the now is the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed by fear.

If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our fears, we will suffer, and the seed of fear in us will grow stronger. But when we are mindful, we use the energy of mindfulness to embrace our fear. Every time fear is embraced by mindfulness, the energy of fear decreases before going back down to the depths of our consciousness as a seed.

(p. 38)

As with everything, if you feed it and nurture it, it will grow. This is also true with fear. The more we feed our fears, the more fearful we become. It is really simple, but unfortunately not that easy. When in the grip of fear, it is difficult to step back, take a breath, accept that you are fearful, and then shift focus to the present, recognizing that at this moment, that which we fear is not an actuality. Something else to keep in mind, prolonged fear often leads to anger and/or despair, both of which are very dangerous mental states. For that reason, it is really important to address fear when it arises, and to do so in a healthy and positive way.

Everyone feels very much the same. Our planet is beset by so much danger. There’s so much violence and suffering in the world. If you allow the plague of helplessness to overwhelm you, you’ll go insane. You want to do something—first of all to survive, and then to help reduce the suffering. And we’ve seen, just as the Buddha saw, that is we don’t have a sangha, we can’t do very much. So we come together and we stick to the sangha through thick and thin, because we know that there is no way out of this situation except with a sangha.

(p. 122)

A sangha is, for all intents and purposes, a community. So what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying here is that being involved in community is the best way for us to deal with our collective fear and suffering. Isolation only breeds more fear. When we separate ourselves from our neighbors and our communities, we begin to look at people as “others,” and become suspicious of them. This leads to fear, which only deepens our isolation. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by open communication, acceptance, and community.

This book is a quick read (only 164 pages). I highly recommend reading it. Even if the ideas are already familiar to you, it is good to reinforce them.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!

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Thoughts on “The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

As I read this poem, I felt like I was in a graveyard, where restless spirits were moving amid the leafless trees, gliding between gravestones. This is classic American gothic romanticism. It’s impossible to read this and not sense the “rustle through the unquiet Heaven.”

One of the first things that struck me about this poem is its connection to Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Considering this, the speaker of the poem may be experiencing fear and dread at the thought of his mortality. He feels that, like the people buried in the cemetery, that he may die any day, unexpectedly, and become nothing more than a nameless stone, completely forgotten by later generations.

In addition to a fear of death, I also get a sense that the speaker is mourning a personal loss. There is some memory that is tormenting the person. The restless spirits represent memories that refuse to sleep quietly in his psyche. While the speaker does not provide any tangible clues as to who it is that is troubling his mind, I suspect that it is the loss of a loved one, probably a lover.

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My 1000th Blog Post! – “King Lear” by William Shakespeare: An Exploration on Aging

Before I delve into my thoughts on Lear, I want to say thank you to all of you who have followed me, shared your comments, and encouraged me to continue with the blog. My goal is to keep writing for as long as there is interest.

Now, on to King Lear.

So I have read this play numerous times, and for me, it is right up there with Hamlet. There is so much depth in this text, and so much that could be explored. But considering that I am past middle age, the issues on aging were what struck me deepest during this reading.

In this play, both Lear and Gloucester suffer because they are old. There are two main forms of age-related suffering: suffering caused by bad decisions resulting from mental decline associated with old age, and suffering as a result of abuse from younger people who view the elderly as hindrances to their personal advancement.

Very early in the play, Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril recognize that their father is exhibiting signs of senility.

Goneril:

You see how full of changes his age is; the
observation we have made of it hath not been
little: he always loved our sister most; and
with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off
appears too grossly.

Regan:

‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.

Goneril:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

(Act I. scene i)

There is the archetype of the wise old man, but as Lear’s fool rightly points out, not all people who are advanced in years possess wisdom. Wisdom is gained during your younger years; but if you fail to seek wisdom in your youth, then you become a foolish old man.

Fool:

If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time.

King Lear:

How’s that?

Fool:

Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
been wise.

(Act I, scene v)

Regan starts to show her resentment against having to care for her father. As is often the case, when a parent ages and begins to require assistance, all the baggage, resentment, and anger from the past begin to surface (note that Regan is an anagram for anger).

O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong’d her, sir.

(Act II, scene iv)

One of the most powerful and symbolic scenes in the play is when Lear is cast out must face the storm.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

(Act III, scene ii)

The storm symbolizes Lear’s own inner turmoil, as well as the constant pounding of life’s challenges that eventually wear a person down. As he relives his mistakes, regret breeds a storm of chaos in his mind, which can no longer make sense of what is happening around him. He feels his last frail hold on sanity beginning to slip.

The tendency of the young to usurp power from the elderly is most clearly expressed through the character of Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son.

This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses; no less than all:
The younger rises when the old doth fall.

(Act III, scene iii)

This is still a part of our society. We all like to think we hold reverence for the elderly, but the fact is that neglect and abuse of the old is rampant. In addition, there is the subtle and insidious elder abuse which manifests as ageism in the workplace. Older workers are routinely passed over in favor of younger candidates, which only adds to the feelings of uselessness and despair that sadly accompany aging all too often.

When Lear is finally reunited with his Cordelia, his estranged daughter who he cast out, he realizes that he is nothing more than a foolish old man, and he humbles himself to ask forgiveness, because there is nothing worse than spending your last days bearing the weight of regret.

You must bear with me:
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.

(Act IV, scene vii)

Finally, after his wits are restored, Lear gains the true wisdom that comes with age. He begins to understand what is truly important in life: family, relationships, and simple pleasures.

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

(Act V, scene iii)

The play concludes with some advice which all of us should heed.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(Act V, scene iii)

We should never postpone speaking that which is in our hearts, especially to those who are dear to us. Because one day soon, before we expect it, we will be old, and the time to express our love for others will have passed. Do not allow fear or appearances to prevent you from telling someone how you feel. Missed opportunities are rarely retrieved.

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