In Honor of Memorial Day

May 27, 2011

 “The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom, Courage.”

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
--Mark Twain

Wishing you a peaceful, free Memorial Day weekend.


The Letter From Home

May 25, 2011

My grandfather, when in his nineties, wrote me a letter in which he listed everything he and my uncle had eaten in the past week. That was the news. I love this poem by Nancyrose Houston of Seattle for the way it plays with the character of those letters from home that many of us have received. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

The Letter From Home
The dogs barked, the dogs scratched, the dogs got wet, the
dogs shook, the dogs circled, the dogs slept, the dogs ate,
the dogs barked; the rain fell down, the leaves fell down, the
eggs fell down and cracked on the floor; the dust settled,
the wood floors were scratched, the cabinets sat without
doors, the trim without paint, the stuff piled up; I loaded the
dishwasher, I unloaded the dishwasher, I raked the leaves,
I did the laundry, I took out the garbage, I took out the
recycling, I took out the yard waste. There was a bed, it was
soft, there was a blanket, it was warm, there were dreams,
they were good. The corn grew, the eggplant grew, the
tomatoes grew, the lettuce grew, the strawberries grew, the
blackberries grew; the tea kettle screamed, the computer
keys clicked, the radio roared, the TV spoke. “Will they ever
come home?” “Can’t I take a break?” “How do others keep
their house clean?” “Will I remember this day in fifty years?”
The sweet tea slipped down my throat, the brownies melted
in my mouth. My mother cooked, the apple tree bloomed, the
lilac bloomed, the mimosa bloomed, I bloomed.

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 ©2009 by Seattle Arts & Lectures. Reprinted from Wake Up In Brightness: Poetry & Prose by Students 2008-2009, Writers in the Schools, 2009, by permission of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Introduction copyright © 2009 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.


Happiness Busters

May 23, 2011

If you’re like me, you know what makes you happy. You probably sprinkle those things through your days, like chocolate chips in a cookie (speaking of things that make me happy…) to make life sweeter. But what about things that make you unhappy—your happiness busters?

Photo courtesy D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography
Some happiness busters you can’t do anything about. Unpleasant situations and tragedies strike us all from time to time. Fortunately, there are some you can change, and thus boost your level of happiness. Here are three to think about:

Comparisons. I can be feeling perfectly fine about myself and suddenly crash and burn because I started comparing myself to someone else…my neighbor, a fellow freelancer, a friend, even my husband! I look at my personality and accomplishments and feel inferior. How does she achieve so much in the same time I have? It sure looks like he is having a great time while I’m over here tongue-tied and sweating. You get the picture.

This is where my shaky self-esteem reveals itself. I tend to denigrate what I’ve done—“Oh, it’s not that hard to do such-and-such (because if I’m able to do it, anyone can)”—or compare what I perceive to be my weakness with someone else’s strength.

Comparisons in which I come out ahead can be dangerous, too. I become less empathetic—because, once again, if I can do it, anyone can! It’s easy to become critical of others when you “compare down.”

Guilt. I must have some sort of overactive guilt gene, because I fight guilt feelings all the time. Even when I’m occupied in something “productive” I find myself feeling guilty about not doing something else that’s productive. Crazy, huh? And the guilt alarm bells really go off when I do something just for me, which I do quite frequently despite the guilt. I may do whatever-it-is, but the guilty feelings shadow my happiness. It’s far too easy to let guilt become too large a part of the emotional landscape.

“What people think.” How many times do we do things—or avoid doing them—because of what other people think? Women especially have a hard time with this because we’re often raised to be people-pleasers. We want to be liked and we want to fit in. That’s not bad unless it causes us to give up essential dreams and parts of ourselves to do so.

I wish I could say I’ve conquered these happiness busters, but I’m still working on it. At least I’ve learned to recognize when they appear, and sometimes I even manage to banish them. It helps when I remember my belief that we’re basically all doing the best we can. Sure, we fail and make mistakes, but we’re human. At times, failures and mistakes are the best we can do while we stretch outside our comfort zones.

What are some of your happiness busters? How do you handle them?


Just Call Me a Tortoise

May 20, 2011

I like to apply lessons I’ve learned working with Tank and taking riding lessons to other areas of my life. One lesson I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is “It takes the time it takes,” and the corollary, “go slower to go faster.”

I’m not particularly patient. I want to get things done, and I want them done Right Now. However, especially with a horse, I’ve learned that some things absolutely cannot be rushed. They take the time they take, and you’ll be much less frustrated, not to mention safer, if you relax—and sometimes throw out entirely—your expectations. For me, when I’m learning something new (or teaching Tank something new), things go better when I take baby steps. Sometimes to my embarrassment, I’ve become the poster child for baby steps at my barn as my trainer often uses me as an example of someone who takes things slowly. I am not naturally athletic, and frankly, I’m also a big chicken, so yes, I do take things slowly. When I take a step forward too quickly, I often end up taking two steps back. What works for me in riding is breaking down every new skill into small parts, then practicing those parts until I feel completely comfortable with them. Then I can move on.

Baby steps work great for other pursuits, too: cleaning and reorganizing the house, learning to draw and paint, changing diet and exercise habits and so on. The beauty of baby steps is that if each small step is solid, you’ll find yourself making steady progress. You’ll be less likely to stagger forward then backward in fits and starts. In this way, you will go slower to go faster.

Of course, this is what works for me. Each person has his or her own best method for personal growth—my baby steps may drive some people absolutely mad with frustration. This is where you must listen to your heart for direction. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa, so please ignore this advice if you’re more like a hare than a tortoise. Few things make me crazier than to have someone tell me my way is wrong and I should do things differently!

Sometimes I get frustrated, and wish I could progress a bit faster than I do and I have to remind myself that it takes the time it takes. Overall, this slow and steady method works for me. It works for Tank, who gets anxious when he’s not sure what he’s being asked to do. We plod along, tortoise-like, but we’re going forward. And that’s what matters.

Just so you know, this is not a self-portrait...
“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” --Confucius



May 18, 2011

“We live in a culture that denigrates rest. We think that we need to fill every moment with action. Some people have difficulty with even an instant of silence.”
-- Rabbi Naomi Levy

Simple pleasures

Word Girl

May 13, 2011

One of my greatest simple pleasures is one I couldn’t escape even if I wanted to: words. I love words. Fat ones, skinny ones, juicy ones, sleek ones that say just what you want them to say. I love them in prose, in poetry, in crossword puzzles and song lyrics—even in dictionaries and thesauri. Though I’ve never read the dictionary, when I look something up, I find myself wandering through the opened pages looking for gems. For instance, did you know that thingummy (an alternative of the earlier thingum) is in the dictionary, and is defined as “thingamajig”?

I love words that sound like what they describe: buzz, hiss, murmur, boom, clank, sniff. I love words that conjure up images and emotions: ephemera, molten, doppelganger, begrudge, noodling.


“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”—Mark Twain
I jot down favorite words, words I don’t know the exact meaning of, and phrases that capture my imagination. My favorite crossword puzzles feature plays on words, and there is a certain feeling I get when I know I’ve got the right word for the clue, even when—especially when—it involves an unusual usage.

I count myself lucky to work and play with words every day. There’s nothing quite like the little frisson that runs up my spine when I read or write just the right word. The perfect turn of phrase (and isn’t that a lovely, artisan-like expression?) feels completely satisfying. Words are more than my tools. They are my friends.

What are your favorite words?


I Was Always Leaving

May 11, 2011

When we're young, it seems there are endless possibilities for lives we might lead, and then as we grow older and the opportunities get fewer we begin to realize that the life we've been given is the only one we're likely to get. Here's Jean Nordhaus, of the Washington, D.C. area, exploring this process. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

I Was Always Leaving

I was always leaving, I was
about to get up and go, I was
on my way, not sure where.
Somewhere else. Not here.
Nothing here was good enough.

It would be better there, where I
was going. Not sure how or why.
The dome I cowered under
would be raised, and I would be released
into my true life. I would meet there

the ones I was destined to meet.
They would make an opening for me
among the flutes and boulders,
and I would be taken up. That this
might be a form of death

did not occur to me. I only know
that something held me back,
a doubt, a debt, a face I could not
leave behind. When the door
fell open, I did not go through.

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 ©2008 by Jean Nordhaus, whose most recent book of poems is Innocence, Ohio State University Press, 2006. Poem reprinted from The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 21, no. 4, Winter, 2008, by permission of Jean Nordhaus and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 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.


“To Take Delight”

May 06, 2011

I finished a large (for me) writing project late on Wednesday, and when I shared that information with a friend the next day, she said in an email, “That must feel good to have those articles done and delivered! Hope you're taking time to savor that feeling.”

Uh, not really.

What I did instead was rush right into the next things on my to-do list. Because other areas of my life had been neglected while I concentrated on my deadline, instead of taking the time to feel good about what I’d just done, I felt I had to leap into action and get those areas back in line. Instead of focusing on what I'd done, I focused on what was left undone. It wasn't until after I read and thought about what my friend wrote that I began to allow myself to savor a feeling of accomplishment.

To savor is to take delight in something. Accomplishing something you set out to do, like meeting a challenging deadline, is something to savor. I write frequently about slowing down and appreciating what we have—probably because these are lessons I’m still learning. These concepts are important to me. Perhaps through reading and writing about them, I’ll finally learn the lessons for good. Or maybe those lessons don’t get learned “for good”—rather, each time I revisit them, I explore some new nuance or facet of the concept. I think I do a pretty decent job of appreciating the good things in my life...maybe it's now time for me to learn to take delight in my own accomplishments.

Maybe you can help me with this process. How do you savor your accomplishments and the good things in your life? Whatever you do, I hope you have much to savor this weekend.

Something to savor

Everyday adventures

Different Roads

May 04, 2011

“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness.  Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost.” 
--H. Jackson Browne


There Goes the Neighborhood

May 02, 2011

I'm up to my eyeballs in article writing (thanks, Michele!), so I'll just share this photo with you:

We have a number of retention ponds in our neighborhood, and this little fella (girl?) lost his way and found himself in our neighbor's yard a couple years ago. (That's my husband's hand.) We helped him to his destination where he went his merry way.  

Now don't you want to move to Florida?