Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Steady Pounding of Days

Photo courtesy Dan O'Connell

Introduction by Ted Kooser: I’ve seen many poems about the atomic bomb drills that schoolchildren were put through during the Cold War, but this one reaches beyond that experience. John Philip Johnson lives and writes in Nebraska, and has an illustrated book of poems, Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town.

There Have Come Soft Rains

In kindergarten during the Cold War,
mid-day late bells jolted us,
sending us single file into the hallway,
where we sat, pressing our heads
between our knees, waiting.

During one of the bomb drills,
Annette was standing.
My mother said I would talk on and on
about her, about how pretty she was.
I still remember her that day,
curly hair and pretty dress,
looking perturbed the way
little children do.
Why Annette? There’s nothing
to be upset about—
The bombs won’t get us,
I’ve seen what’s to come—
it is the days, the steady
pounding of days,
like gentle rain,
that will be our undoing.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2014 by John Philip Johnson, “There Have Come Soft Rains,” from Rattle, (No. 45, Fall 2014). Poem reprinted by permission of John Philip Johnson and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2015 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


Monday, October 5, 2015

When Rules Don't Rule

Photo courtesy Ryan McGuire

“One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.”
—Bertrand Russell

I’ve been a good girl all my life. I (mostly) obeyed my parents, got good grades, did my best to fit in and please others. As an adult, I generally follow the rules, even if no one is watching. And while I think it is a good idea to be a law-abiding citizen, rules—especially unwritten, unspoken ones—can be taken too seriously. They can lock us into behaviors and beliefs that aren’t true, don’t serve us, and don’t reflect our deepest values.

Rules can become tyrants. Here’s an example: Last week, I returned a DVD to the library without watching it, thus breaking my unspoken rule: once you check something out, you must read/watch it. When I dropped the DVD into the return slot, I felt a sense of relief and freedom all out of proportion to the act. This made me wonder, what other unspoken rules complicate my life and keep me from the happiness I want?

I know I can be too rigid. What am I afraid of? That once freed from my rules I’ll run wild? Maybe. “Without rules, we may feel more vulnerable as if the looseness and lack of structure will lead us toward defeat,” wrote Leslie Levine in Ice Cream for Breakfast. “But rules can also be constricting, keeping us from stretching or even soaring every once in a while. If we can improvise—make up the rules as we go—it becomes easier to reach a middle ground, a place where rules help us grow and thrive.”

In her book Life Is a Verb, Patti Digh tells a funny story about the time she tried to order toast and a side of avocado slices in the middle of the afternoon at a restaurant and was told by the waiter that it would break all the rules to serve her those things—it was past toast time, and sides were only available with entrees. There are “toast rules”? she wondered.

She wrote, “It’s one thing to acknowledge the absurdity of other people’s rules; it’s another thing altogether to recognize and own the absurdity of the rules we’ve made up (helpful hint: They’re all made up, some so ingrained that we can no longer see they are Toast Rules). So when a rule pops to the surface, see it for the Toast Rule it is, made up to serve some social norm that is itself made up—or to serve the convenience of a waiter, where waiter stands for ‘person’ or ‘group.’”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” I think this is a useful distinction. I aspire to live by principles like treat other people the way you want to be treated and be kind. These reflect principles I value, that benefit me as well as others. Never return a book or DVD to the library without reading or watching it? Not so much.

Let’s examine our rules. Do they still work and have value? Rules often start with: I can’t or I should. Think twice every time those words start a sentence. We may be bumping up against a rule that no longer serves us.

Levine wrote: “Even our capacity for uncontrollable laughter is somehow diminished by the rules that govern adulthood. Instead of giving ourselves permission to be joyful and do the things that make us happy, we arbitrarily create rules that prevent us from enjoying as much as we can. So instead of lingering in the tub…, we bathe as fast as we can. Instead of celebrating our own birthdays…, we minimize the day and let it pass almost unnoticed. These made-up rules may give us some order in the short term but ultimately shortchange what could be a more fulfilling and fun life.”

What rules do you live by? What rules do you want to break?

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
—Katherine Hepburn


Friday, October 2, 2015

Smiley Says: Happy World Smile Day

Photo courtesy Gerd Altmann
In 1963, commercial artist Harvey Ball created the image of a smiley face for a “friendship campaign” for employees of an insurance company. The image was to be used on buttons, desk cards and posters. He was paid $240 for the drawing, which he said took about 10 minutes. To everyone’s surprise, this image became wildly popular in the 60s and 70s, so much so that Ball became concerned that the over-commercialization of the image had hidden its original purpose as a symbol of friendship and good cheer. In 1999, he declared that the first Friday in October should be World Smile Day, a day devoted to smiles and kind acts. His hometown of Worcester, MA, celebrated, and eventually events commemorating World Smile Day spread throughout the world.

Following Ball’s death, the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation was established in 2001 to honor him and continue sponsoring World Smile Day as well as supporting other grassroots charitable activities.

It’s simple to be part of World Smile Day: “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile.”

Share your experiences on Facebook or Twitter, or just with those you love. And happy World Smile Day!


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Do You Do What Feeds Your Soul?

Photo courtesy Stefanus Martanto Setyo Husodo

“Paying close attention to those things that bring us joy is critical to creating a life that we love. Whether it’s making things, hiking, studying, or working with people…if it feeds our soul, gives us energy, transports us out of time and into a space of flow…we are meant to do more of these things. These gifts help make us the unique individuals we are. These gifts energize us, nurture us, and move us to a place where the fullness of our joy spills over to others. I wish I could banish the guilt most of must feel over spending time doing the things we enjoy!”
—Kathy Davis, Scatter Joy


Monday, September 28, 2015

When You'd Rather Go Back to Bed

It’s a gray Monday morning. It’s still hot and humid. My Tampa Bay Rays are playing the last few games of their season, trying to avoid being last in their division. It was too cloudy last night for me to see the lunar eclipse, which I had been looking forward to. Today I just feel generally grumpy. I have plenty to do, but I’d rather go to bed with a stack of books.

On days like this, I remind myself that these are not real problems. Having no place to sleep and not enough to eat, those are problems. But when I feel grumpy, it doesn’t make me less grumpy to be told I have no reason to be grumpy. Instead, I’m kind to myself, working into my day some of the simple pleasures I love most. For instance, today I’m enjoying:

A Pumpkin Spice Latte, purchased with the last of a gift card from my son.

A good cuddle with her:

And her:

A literal stack of books from my library (I went overboard on the hold requests):

Into every life, gray Monday mornings fall. We can weather them better if we have a few simple pleasures easily available to fortify us. What are some of your favorite ways to cope with a gray Monday?


Friday, September 25, 2015

How Keeping a Time Log Boosted My Happiness

Since 2012 after reading 168 Hours, by Laura Vanderkam, I’ve periodically used a time log to get a sense of where my time goes each day. I track my time for one week, and I always find it eye-opening. This time I took it one step farther by asking myself the three questions Vanderkam suggests we ask when evaluating time logs: What do I like about my schedule? What do I want to do more of with my time? What do I want to spend less time doing?

What do I like about my schedule?

I am incredibly lucky to be in charge of my schedule. I don’t go to an office every day to work for someone else, and since my son is grown, my days no longer revolve around his school and activities. My appointments and obligations are mostly ones I’ve chosen. I have the flexibility to experiment with my schedule, shuffling blocks of time for various activities: writing, errands, exercise, barn time, household chores and so on.

What do I want to do more of with my time?

I want to write more and read more. Since I’ve decided to get serious about my writing again, I’m shooting for 20 hours a week spent writing, marketing, and educating myself on either topics I want to write about or ways to improve my writing. I want chunks of time for reading during the day instead of waiting until evening when I’m too mentally tired. I want to add an occasional artist’s date to my writing schedule, not in addition to the time I’ve allotted for writing, but as a part of it—filling the well.

I also want to spend more time walking outdoors and with Tank when the weather finally cools off. That will require some shifting of working hours.

What do I want to spend less time doing?

Watching TV. I enjoy watching a few shows and the occasional movie with my husband, but I find that I keep watching when our show finishes and suddenly two hours (or more) has gone by.

Cooking and working in the kitchen. We eat at home 99 percent of the time, and I do most of the cooking. I don’t love cooking, but we want to eat healthfully, so I try to make most of our meals myself. I spend a great deal of time (at least a couple of hours a day) in the kitchen, between making meals and cleaning up after them. How can I simplify our meals and clean up so that I’m not spending so much time in the kitchen?

Understanding how I actually use my time (rather than how I think I do) helps me work better and play better. I realize how much control I have over my schedule, and I’m reminded of how productive I really can be, and that yes, I do spend time doing things I love: playing with Tank, reading, eating dinner with my husband every night. My time log is a snapshot of a full and interesting life—and that makes me happy.

Tracking your time can be a huge help if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels or you have no idea where your time goes. Evaluating the results of your time tracking can help you see what’s working well, what isn’t, and if there are any unnecessary activities sneaking in. If you want to try time tracking, you can download Vanderkam’s time log here

What do you want to do more of with your time? What do you want to spend less time doing?


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Drumming of the Woodpecker

Photo courtesy Joan Greenman

Introduction by Ted Kooser: In this fascinating poem by the California poet, Jane Hirshfield, the speaker discovers that through paying attention to an event she has become part of it, has indeed become inseparable from the event and its implications. This is more than an act of empathy. It speaks, in my reading of it, to the perception of an order into which all creatures and events are fitted, and are essential.

The Woodpecker Keeps Returning

The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.

There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.

But where is the female he drums for? Where?

I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

Poem copyright © 2005 by Jane Hirshfield from her forthcoming book “After” (Harper Collins, 2006), and reprinted by permission of the author. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. American Life in Poetry ©2005 The Poetry Foundation Contact: This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.