Introduction by Corine Gatti

Excerpt courtesy of ALGONQUIN BOOKS

Author Alice Hoffman wrote Survival Lessons to inspire women to overcome any battle, enjoy the small things in life like mastering Julia Child’s secret to boiling a perfect egg, to whipping up their favorite recipe. Hoffman, in her first non-fiction work, encourages women to appreciate and enjoy life on the journey as she did battling breast cancer. Oh, and more thing…eat plenty of chocolate!  Make sure you read her brownie recipe!

Choose Your Friends

When you have a dinner party only invite people you want to talk to. Invite those you’ve always wanted to know. If I could, I would invite the Brontës and Edgar Allan Poe. They would be my first choices for dinner guests. I would want to know about their minds and his life. I would also want to invite Emily Dickinson, even though it is said that at some point she only spoke to callers through her bedroom door. That makes me love her all the more because I often feel exactly the same and want to hide away. She took to covering the windows in her bedroom, so she would feel safe, but she also went into the woods and collected hundreds of specimens of wildflowers. Since it is impossible to invite great, dead writers, invite alive young people. Girls with pink hair who have big dreams. Young men who plan to change the world. Children who get into trouble at school because they have too much energy and too many ideas. People in the middle of their lives are so busy working, buying things, and trying to pay their mortgages that they often don’t have time to spend dreaming out loud. Your friends’ children may now seem more interesting than their parents. It may come as a complete surprise when they are the ones who take time to visit, who view you without judgment even though you have lost your hair and your eyebrows. They ask questions other people are too polite to bring up: Did you love her? Does it hurt? Are you afraid of what happens next?

I also found myself drawn to older people. I asked them, How did it feel to see yourself change on the outside and look entirely different? I began to talk to neighbors in their eighties and nineties, people who had previously been nothing more than nodding acquaintances. I discovered what interesting lives they’d led and how much they had to say. Once I slowed down and took the time to ask questions, I realized they had a thousand and one stories. I threw a party for my mother’s birthday, inviting both her friends and mine. We had tea in an old New England inn. It was the last birthday my mother celebrated. We didn’t know that, but we had an idea that might be true. We didn’t count calories or glasses of wine. One of the younger women asked if there was anything the older women wished they’d done when they were younger and had more energy and time. The older women all agreed upon the answer: They wished they had traveled the world. But more importantly, they wished they’d fallen in love more often. Don’t hold back! they told us. Live right now! Make time for old friends.

Get a group of your favorite people together and rent a room at a hotel. Order room service, watch movies, dance until the management starts to get complaints from other guests. Go to a spa together or make pizza from scratch. Tell someone how much he means to you. Don’t hold back!  Throw your arms around somebody right now. The truth is, some of your closest friends may disappear during your most difficult times. These people have their own history and traumas; they may not be able to deal with yours. They may belong to the before. I still mourn the loss of certain people, friends who didn’t call after my diagnosis, who were too afraid to come to the hospital or visit me on my worst days. I was hurt. I felt abandoned. Looking back on it, I wish I had let them go more easily. If people aren’t there for you now, when you really need them, they never will be, and it’s time to move on. You’ll be amazed by how many new friends you have in the after. They’ll be the ones who aren’t afraid of sorrow, who know we can’t avoid it. The best we can do is face it together.

Maclin’s Brownies Recipe

Melt 9 ounces of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate bits over hot water (double boiler!) with 1 stick butter cut into pieces. Beat 2 eggs with b⁄c cup white sugar until thick. Add b⁄c cup white flour, sifted with b⁄e teaspoon salt and b⁄c teaspoon baking powder. Add the chocolate mixture and 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 cup (or less if you prefer) of walnut bits. Pour batter into 8" x 8" greased pan. Mix about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar with 1 teaspoon of melted butter and dot the top of the brownies. Bake at 375° for about 20 minutes, sometimes longer. Test with a toothpick. Cool on a rack after baking. When brownies have cooled, sprinkle with powdered sugar (you may use a doily set over brownies if you prefer a sugar pattern).

Note from Alice: Here is a warning: Maclin’s brownies will not appear to be perfect. They will sink in the middle. The top will crack. You’ll want to throw them out. Don’t. They will be everything they should be and more. They are perfect inside, which is even better than merely looking good. Soon you’ll find yourself copying this recipe onto index cards to give to people you love, as Maclin did for me.

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