Pucker Up!

February 29, 2012

A horse’s head is big, and the closer you get to it, the bigger it gets.  Here is the Idaho poet, Robert Wrigley, offering us a horse’s head, up close, and covering a horse’s character, too. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Kissing a Horse

Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
we owned that year, it was Red—
skittish and prone to explode
even at fourteen years—who’d let me
hold to my face his own: the massive labyrinthine
caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
up the head to the eyes.  He’d let me stroke
his coarse chin whiskers and take
his soft meaty underlip
in my hands, press my man’s carnivorous
kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one, just
so that I could smell
the long way his breath had come from the rain
and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
from a world that meant no harm.

Reprinted from “Earthly Meditations:  New and Selected Poems,” published in 2006 by Penguin. Copyright © Robert Wrigley, 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.

Good days

A Good Day

February 24, 2012

Martha Beck wrote an article in the February issue of O Magazine about the difference between excitement and happiness. In it, Beck explains that “our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind…. But happiness—real happiness—is something entirely different, at once calmer and more rewarding.”

This article reminded me of my own recent contemplation of what makes a good day—a plain, solid, happy day. What would it look like? Am I expecting exciting events or major achievements? Peak experiences? Or is happiness for me something much more subtle? And once I understood what contributed to a good day, how many of these things or experiences could I incorporate into my days?

On reflection, my definition of a good day is pretty simple. First, I’d wake up on my own, without using an alarm clock. I hate being jolted awake, and even my clock radio can be a little jarring. Maybe I hate being told what to do (“Get up!”) first thing in the morning? In addition to a peaceful waking up, I would like my good day to involve the following, in no particular order:

Going outside. 


Doing something for someone else.


Writing, in a journal if nowhere else.

Paying attention to my animals.

Mostly eating healthy, real food.

Basking in some solitude in which to think.

Puttering around the house, setting things in order (NOT doing any major cleaning—do you think I’m crazy?)

Feeling like I have more than enough time to do what I want to do this day.

That’s one of my most treasured simple pleasures—feeling I have plenty of time. I seldom feel this way, however. More likely I feel behind and overwhelmed by the sheer number of things on my to-do list.

As Beck writes, “genuine happiness [is] abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.”

What does a good day look and feel like for you?


Keep the Channel Open

February 22, 2012

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not our business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
—Martha Graham

Everyday adventures

"Throw Me Something, Mister!"--Mardi Gras Fun Facts

February 20, 2012

I confess until recently, I didn’t know much about Mardi Gras—only that it involved parades, beads, and a reputation for debauched behavior. Even though many cities worldwide celebrate Mardi Gras (which takes place tomorrow), New Orleans is perhaps the most well-known location for major Mardi Gras festivities. On our trip to New Orleans in November, we stopped in at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World for a tour and sketching. Before that trip, I learned some fun facts about Mardi Gras and New Orleans' famous celebrations in particular. For instance: 

In New Orleans, Carnival season involves many invitation-only balls and supper dances hosted by “krewes” (private clubs). These balls are traditionally very formal, with elegant decorations, tableaux presentations, and dancing for the costumed and masked members and their guests. The krewes also stage more than 50 parades during the season in the city and suburbs of New Orleans.

Historically, masks were worn to many of the balls, and eventually it became traditional to wear a mask on the street on Mardi Gras day. However, in the early 19th century, people behaved so outrageously while hidden behind masks that they were forbidden for decades!

Even though (or perhaps because?) this festival has roots in pagan celebrations, Pope Gregory XIII made Mardi Gras a Christian holiday in 1582 when he placed it on the calendar on the day before Ash Wednesday.

The first North American Mardi Gras took place when two French explorers and brothers, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, found the mouth of the Mississippi on Mardi Gras day (March 3) 1699. They made camp, named the spot Point du Mardi Gras, and celebrated. Bienville later went on to found New Orleans.

King cakes begin to be sold on Jan. 6 (also known as King’s Day). The brightly colored cakes have a small plastic baby baked inside them. According to tradition, whoever gets the baby in his or her piece has to buy the next cake.

King cake--Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
On Mardi Gras day, there are parades all day long. Sometimes as many as two million people flood the streets of New Orleans to celebrate.

Revelers line the parade routes hoping for “throws”—beads, doubloons, cups and other souvenirs. According to several New Orleans web sites, it’s a myth that you have to expose a particular body part to get beads!

Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday.

The Rex organization, which debuted in 1872, is responsible for the official Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold), for starting daytime parades, and for the anthem of Carnival, “If I Ever Cease to Love.” Every year, the organization chooses an outstanding civic leader to reign over Mardi Gras, and this person is known as Rex, King of Carnival. Rex arrives by boat on the Monday before Mardi Gras, and is conveyed to City Hall in a carriage where he accepts the keys to the city from city leaders. On Mardi Gras day, he rides his float through the streets of his kingdom.

Laissez les bon temps rouler! (“Let the good times roll!”) 
Do you celebrate Mardi Gras?

Want to know more? Check out Mardi Gras New Orleans  or New Orleans Online.


The Value of Mystery

February 15, 2012

A wise friend told me that since the Age of Reason we’ve felt we had to explain everything, and that as a result we’ve forgotten the value of mystery. Here’s a poem by Lisel Mueller that celebrates mystery. Mueller is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet from Illinois. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.] 

Sometimes, When the Light 

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

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 ©1980 by Lisel Mueller, from her most recent book of poems, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Poem reprinted by permission of Lisel Mueller and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 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.


And the Reward Goes To...

February 13, 2012

Over lunch recently, a friend and I discussed why we don’t feel happier than we do. While we have the normal, everyday stresses most people have, we’re currently not coping with any major problems or crises. We figure our baseline level of happiness should be higher than it is. We weren’t complaining about it—just wondering why it was so. We felt like we should feel happier.

As I thought about this on my way home, I realized one reason could be that even though we don’t have any crises to deal with, we don’t have any major good things happening either. At this moment, our lives are filled with lots of work, a few annoyances and irritations, and not a lot of reward.

Reward. Perhaps that’s part of the key. We’re bulldozing through our tasks, not taking time to first notice and then reward our accomplishments and contributions. All work and no play make Jill an unhappy girl.

Most of us expect to bear a certain amount of responsibility and strive for achievement—after all, we’re grown ups, and grown ups take care of themselves and help others. However, when we don’t take time to notice and reward ourselves for what we accomplish, we risk burning out. If we wait for others to notice and reward, we’ll be waiting a long time. When was the last time someone complimented you for turning in a report on time, or even noticed that you mopped the kitchen floor? Just because something is expected of you doesn’t mean that it’s not worth rewarding. Most people I know tend to be pretty strict with themselves—work first (paid and non-paid), play/reward rarely…if ever.

I say it’s time to take rewards into our own hands, and to start doling them out liberally—to ourselves. Here are some basic principles to consider when thinking about rewards:
  • If you finish your allotted day’s work early, don’t pile on more in an effort to “get ahead.” I’ve made this mistake. Reward yourself by doing something fun instead. 
  • Work in small treats throughout the day instead of saving them up for the evening when you might be too tired to enjoy them.
  • Make sure the scale of the reward fits the accomplishment, but don’t limit your rewards to small things. Big accomplishments—or a series of small accomplishments—deserve big rewards.
  • Choose a reward when you’re setting your goal. Knowing you have your reward to look forward to can help you get through some less-than-happy to-dos.
  • Keep a file or list of rewards—tear out catalog pages or bookmark websites with items you’d love to have, for example. Make a list of things you enjoy doing (see below for some suggestions) that could be used as rewards.
  • Keep a running list of your accomplishments, completed tasks and contributions to others. It’s easy to forget what you’ve done, and just as easy to focus on what you’ve left undone.
  • Start a reward fund: put a small amount of money in your fund every time you accomplish something, and use the money for future rewards.
  • Choose rewards that you love and that will motivate you, not what someone else might enjoy—or that you think you should enjoy.
Here are some possible rewards, large and small:
  • Music. Listen to your favorites, or spend time exploring downloadable music and try something new.
  • Reading for fun—not for work or self-improvement. I’ve got a cup of tea and book waiting for me when I finish this blog post.
  • Spa services like massage, manicures or pedicures.
  • Fresh flowers.
  • Eating at your favorite restaurant, or buying take-out so you don’t have to cook.
  • Jewelry. It doesn’t have to be expensive— has a multitude of cute pieces for less than $50. You could also buy a charm for a bracelet or necklace to commemorate your achievement.
  • Adding to a collection.
  • Allowing yourself a small food treat—a piece of good quality chocolate or a rich cup of coffee, for example. I know this goes against much of the advice given for weight control, but the emphasis here is on small. Buy the best quality you can afford.
  • Time off—whether it’s an hour, a day or even a weekend. Take time to do exactly as you please. Or do nothing at all.
  • Nap.
  • Matinees—watch a movie, either at a theater or at home, in the middle of the day. I don’t know why, but this feels so decadent!
  • Attending your favorite sporting event.
  • Playing with your dog.
  • Practicing a hobby—whether it’s baking, painting, quilting, photography, or what have you. You may already take time to do your hobby, but if you think of it as a reward, you’ll assure yourself some guilt-free time to spend on it.
  • Weekend getaways, with a spouse or by yourself.
Rewards can boost mood, help us get through difficult tasks and situations, make life more enjoyable, even make us feel loved. Maybe you’re already rewarding yourself and you don’t realize it, or you feel guilty about it.  Start noticing your accomplishments, and notice what happens afterwards. Reward yourself appropriately today and you’ll be far more eager to get back to work tomorrow.

What’s your favorite way to reward yourself?

You deserve a reward--let's play!


The World's Most Expensive Salad

February 10, 2012

Behold the harvest:

This is why gardening and I are not the best of friends. I start off all filled with ambition and plans for delicious homegrown produce, and this is what I get:

Even though I love the feeling of picking vegetables and herbs from my own plants (a genuine simple pleasure), I am really not the world’s best gardener, and I think my time and money would be better spent by participating in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group. I’d like to think I have a green thumb, but the results prove otherwise.

Maybe I’ll stick to orchids.

Is there anything you would love to do better?


Preparing to Bloom

February 08, 2012

“Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: There have been many circulations of the sap before we detect even the smallest sign of the bud,”
—George Eliot, Silas Marner

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Anne's Gifts

February 06, 2012

Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Anne Morrow Lindbergh is one of my favorite writers—and one of my heroes. Tomorrow will mark the 11th anniversary of her death at the age of 94, and in honor of her memory, I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned about her.

 I don’t remember how I discovered her writings, perhaps in my creative writing class in high school, but as a teenager, I was attracted to the romance of her life. She, a quiet, shy and studious girl, fell in love with dashing aviator (and “America’s most eligible bachelor”) Charles Lindbergh. Anne left behind her more privileged and intellectual background and embraced the action-filled life Charles lived. From the moment they announced their engagement, the media hounded them. The very private Anne Morrow became part of “America’s golden couple,” and the very public bride of a hero.

With Charles’ instruction and encouragement, Anne earned a private pilot’s license, and also eventually became the first woman to hold a first-class glider pilot’s license. These feats were unusual, because at the time women didn’t enter into “masculine” pursuits like aviation very often. She served as her husband’s radio operator, navigator and co-pilot on several long flights charting potential routes for commercial airlines. Eventually, Anne was the first woman awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal for her duties as “crew” on two of these survey flights. These flights, in sometimes dangerous conditions in their single-engine airplane over uncharted air space, brought Anne and Charles closer and were some of their happiest times together. (Later in life, Anne received several more awards for her contributions to aviation.)

Anne and Charles had six children, though tragically, their first child, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and killed at the age of 18 months. For many years, Anne felt continually pulled between her roles—her diaries show a constant battle for time and space to write and think, all while raising children and accompanying Charles on many of his flights. As she writes in the introduction of Locked Rooms and Open Doors, “But on the other hand, the trip [an Atlantic survey flight], especially as it was prolonged for five and a half months, separated me from my child [their second son, Jon], the most healing and nourishing element in my life. It also crowded out any possibility of a quiet contemplative coming to terms with grief, for me a necessary inner process, and it meant a long interruption in the work I had just restarted of writing my book [North to the Orient].”

Despite the many demands on her time, Anne produced 13 books, including five volumes of diaries and letters. Her most famous book, Gift From the Sea, a collection of essays about women’s roles, was inspired by a vacation on Florida’s Captiva Island. North to the Orient, was 1935’s number one bestseller.

Despite a number of serious challenges to their relationship, Anne and Charles remained married until Charles’ death in 1974. Anne continued to write after his death, though she did not publish any more books.

I want to be like Anne Morrow Lindbergh in the sense that I fully enter into life while still retaining a sense of myself and my own work. She was able to move beyond her comfort zone and achieve more than she ever dreamed possible. It encourages me that she felt the same work/family tug of war I do, even though she lived in a different time and under different circumstances. I’m not alone in feeling torn between the needs of my family and my own ambitions.

I recently picked up a lovely copy of Gift From the Sea at my library’s bookstore—I’ll end this post with some of Anne’s words on the topic of solitude taken from it:

“For it is not physical solitude that actually separates one from other men, not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…. Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.”

If you want to know more about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, check out Kathleen C. Winters’ biography, Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air, or pick up one of Anne’s collections of diaries and letters.


No Passport Necessary

February 03, 2012

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”
—Jean Rhys

I’ve always thought one of the great benefits of reading is the peek you get into other lives and cultures. Non-fiction is great for this of course, but fiction also brings other places and cultures to life. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit for real—but I’ve visited many more places, and stayed much longer, through the books I’ve read.

Here are some of my favorite destinations, and the books, both fiction and non-fiction, that have taken me there:

Greece—As a teenager, I discovered Mary Stewart’s novels, several of which are set in Greece. My Brother Michael (Delphi), This Rough Magic (Corfu) and The Moon-Spinners (Crete) ignited my interest in visiting Greece. Four and a half years ago, I took my battered copy of My Brother Michael with me when I finally had the chance to walk in the shadow of the ruins at Delphi. Can you resist this description: “Ahead of us the mountain thrust that great buttress out into the valley, the river of olive trees swirling round it as the water swirls round the prow of  a ship, to spread out beyond into a great flat lake that filled the plain. High up, in the angle where the bluff joined the mountain, I saw it, Apollo’s temple, six columns of apricot stone, glowing against the climbing darkness of the trees behind. Above them soared the sunburned cliffs; below was a tumble, as yet unrecognizable, of what must be monument and treasury and shrine…. Above, the indescribable sky of Hellas; below, the silver tide of the olives everlastingly rippling down to the sea.”

Prince Edward Island, Canada—As a devout Anne of Green Gables fan, I still hope to visit good old PEI in person—definitely a “bucket list” travel destination.

Maine—Sarah Graves pens a terrific series of mysteries set in Maine (The Dead Cat Bounce is the first one), and Drinking the Rain was one of my favorite non-fiction reads last year. 

England—I’m a big fan of mysteries—and many of my favorite murders take place in England. Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers and many more authors show us the history of London or the tranquil countryside while mining the dark side of human nature. On a more peaceful note, Susan Allen Toth’s My Love Affair With England made me want to rent a flat, unpack and stay a while—and Scotland Yard’s services were not required.

Here’s an excerpt from Toth's piece on England’s footpaths:

“Our path turned out to be a rocky track, an easy half-mile walk, that took us gradually over a slight incline and then down to the shores of the lake. The track cut across the top of a moorland that seemed absolutely deserted, not even any sheep drifting over its barren slopes. It was late September, and under heavy gray skies, the grass looked almost brown, and the empty fells as if they had already fallen into a winter sleep.

“Devoke Water lay in a shallow bowl formed by treeless gray-green fells. The surface of the lake was absolutely still, a steely gray that seemed a mirror image of the lowering sky. An old boat house, which seemed abandoned but was securely locked, looked as ancient as the landscape to which it now belonged.”

Italy—After reading The Enchanted April  or A Room With a View, who wouldn’t want to visit Venice or rent a castle overlooking the Mediterranean? (Both of these books have been turned into lovely movies that will further whet your desire for a trip to Italy.)

In addition to these, I’ve visited New York City with Nero Wolf and Archie Goodwin, Egypt with Amelia Peabody and the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona with  Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee—I could go on and on, but I want to know:

Where has your reading taken you? Where will you go next? Where do you think I should go next?

(Visit Danielle Torres' blog here for a list of 13 books set in the Middle East!)

National Poetry Month

Winter Sun

February 01, 2012

It seems to me that most poems are set in spring or summer, and I was pleased to discover this one by Molly Fisk, a Californian, set in cold midwinter. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Winter Sun

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.

The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.

And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation ( of Poetry magazine.  It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Poem copyright ©2010 by Molly Fisk from her most recent book of poetry, “The More Difficult Beauty,” Hip Pocket Press, 2010.  Reprinted by permission of Molly Fisk and the publisher.  Introduction copyright ©2011 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.

NOTE: Poetry magazine, published by the Poetry Foundation, will give away an unlimited number of free copies of the April 2012 issue to book clubs and reading groups that submit their request by March 23. This is in honor of National Poetry Month and the magazine's centennial. Click here to request your reading group's free copy.