In our complicated, divided times, Kathleen Kelly is the hero we need.

Dial up to the internet and order your Starbucks: it’s You’ve Got Mail Week at All Things New. The classic rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan turns 20 on December 18. To celebrate, we’ll be reflecting on what the late 90s can teach us about love, community (both the online and offline varieties), identity, and trusting God’s plan for our lives.


I’ve long considered Kathleen Kelly to be kindred spirit. She’s a fellow bibliophile and anglophile who makes me want to move to New York City and own a children’s book store.

Yes, she is a fictional character. Yes, I may be biased because You’ve Got Mail is essentially a Pride and Prejudice remake. And although she asserts that Elizabeth Bennett is the greatest literary heroine of all time, I believe that Kathleen Kelly is the modern-day heroine that we need.

Because what we need most today is not super-human strength or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We need wisdom. And Kathleen Kelly is wise. Her wisdom is like a butterfly in a subway—unexpected and oh-so timely. And what better way to showcase her wisdom than with some of her best quotes? Her insights cover everything from courtesy, beauty, kindness, bookish acumen and life purpose.

5. “What are you doing? What is that? What are you doing? You’re taking all the caviar? That caviar is a garnish!”

Courtesy, people. Courtesy. Kathleen Kelly just realized that the Joe whom she met a day before was the same man who was trying to put her out of business. During this heated exchange, Joe spooned a large portion of caviar from an appetizer onto his plate. She gasps and rebukes him, and he responds by scooping the rest of it onto his plate just to spite her.

Just this: It’s Christmas time. It’s busy and stressful out there. As we drive, as we shop, as we interact and celebrate with friends, co-workers and family, courtesy, respect, patience, a kind word and a turning of the other cheek go a long way.

4. “I love daisies. They’re so friendly. Don’t you think daisies are the friendliest flower?”

I think of this quote every time I see daisies. Go buy a bouquet of daisies. You’ll feel better.

3. “I was able, for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And, of course, afterwards, I felt terrible, just as you said I would. I was cruel, and I’m never cruel. And even though I can hardly believe what I said mattered to this man—to him, I am just a bug to be crushed—but what if it did? No matter what he’s done to me, there is no excuse for my behavior.”

Our words matter. Written words and spoken words and words that angrily loop around in our minds. It all matters. I’m not advocating for the dissolution of discussions, dialogues or rebukes. It’s just that our word habits are a Pandora’s Box playground. It’s a mess out there. So many comments, online and in person, might as well start with the disclaimer, “Hello! It’s Mr. Nasty” and then continue with the diatribe. At least that would be honest.

Kathleen saw Joe Fox as a living, breathing human being. She did not excuse his behavior, but she did not want to let his behavior dictate her behavior. An eye-for-eye mentality leaves everyone blind. In the end, she was proved right. Her words did matter to him.

In the mythological story of Pandora’s Box, the one element left in the box was hope. Hope starts with us, with the words we choose to say and those we don’t. My words to my husband, to my kids, to my friends, to my neighbors, to workers in the grocery store and coffee shops and retail stores all make an impact whether I see it or not. Many words never need to see the light of day. Cruelty has never been and will never be a catalyst for change.

2. “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

I was barely 13 when my dad went to prison. I crawled into a shell of my own making. I was just trying to survive. My mom and so many people prayed steadily and without ceasing for me. God gifted me solid friends—he was faithful in how he surrounded me. And I had my books. I believe that God used literature to help me navigate these years and begin to thrive. I found hope, wisdom, encouragement, connection, laughter and an ability to evaluate all that churned in my mind and heart.

I read Anne of Green Gables, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Diary of Anne Frank and Ryan White: My Own Story. I re-read all things Laura Ingalls Wilder and devoured Christy by Catherine Marshall (still a favorite, and my whole family loves the mini-series). I connected with the characters as they encountered suffering and hardship, which significantly challenged their ability to hope. I felt their loneliness and isolation, but saw their courage, hope and tenacity.

I consider Robin Jones Gunn’s books to be in a category all their own. They have mentored me and counseled me at times when I would let nothing else in. I laughed, I cried and I grew closer to Jesus as I watched my “friends” battle the highs and lows of growing up. As they engaged with questions of faith, I did too.

This I know as Kathleen Kelly knew:

. . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. . . . I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)

1. “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small—and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.”

Kathleen Kelly wrestles with her place in the world, her identity, asking the question, “What is it that I do, exactly?”

The other day I asked my daughter to play quietly because I had some work to finish.

She innocently responded by asking, and I quote, “You have a job?”

I retorted, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

I had just re-watched You’ve Got Mail, and Kathleen’s quote felt like a balm and a bastion for my soul. Yes, I have a job. I have about 20 jobs if you really want to break it down.

I lead a small life.

Valuable, but small.

I’ve asked these same questions Kathleen Kelly asks. I believe that she knew, in spite of her doubts, that she had stewarded something special with her book store. She believed that the best books in the hands of children helped them become who they were meant to be—books that would become fused into a person’s identity and serve as a friend, a guide, a compass. She loved her bookstore and she gave her heart to it and to each person who walked through its doors.

This week I’ve felt overwhelmed, sad and teary, assailed by fears and doubts, wondering if what I’ve done and what I’m doing will make any difference. Yet, I know my life, although small, is valuable.

It takes courage to stake your place in a small sphere. To have faith that all the seemingly trivial nothings become a whole lot of monumental somethings.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Soak in and savor these words. You matter in the space where God has placed you.

Stephanie Carney

Author Stephanie Carney

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