Darkness and Light

January 30, 2013

“Help us be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.”
—May Sarton


One Size Fits...

January 28, 2013

During a recent purge of my son’s room, he handed me his bathrobe saying it didn’t fit. When I checked the label, it said “one size.” An obvious lie, as it does not fit my 6’1” beanpole son.

Advice is the same, have you noticed? Whether it’s advice on losing weight, animal training, child rearing, or how to increase your creativity, advice is everywhere—and much of it conflicts.

I’m happy to listen to advice (and some will tell you I’m also happy to give it). I’ve learned much from people who know more than I, saving me time and heartache. The advice is not the problem. The problem is when I put aside my own common sense or convictions to follow what someone else says I should do.

Guess what? There’s no “one right way” for everyone to do something.

Just as one-size-fits-all clothing doesn’t actually fit all (and aren’t we made to feel it’s somehow our fault it doesn’t fit?), one-size-fits-all advice doesn’t, either. Which doesn’t mean it’s not perfectly good advice for you, for me, for my best friend or my husband at some point. Sometimes it’s advice whose time has not yet come. Sometimes I recognize a piece of good advice, but I can’t follow it because my heart is just not in it.

Since I’m interested in self-improvement/educational type material and read a lot of it, in order to cope with the onslaught of advice, I’ve developed rules for taking it (or not taking it):

Does it make logical sense to me?

Is it possible to do without major disruption in my life?

Do I want to do it, or do I feel I should do it to please someone else?

Do I have to minutely follow complicated or multi-step instructions without deviation or else it “won’t work”?

Am I allowed to think for myself and ask questions without being made to feel that I’m stupid?

Keeping these rules in mind helps me gather the advice that will truly benefit me, and let go of what won’t. And that’s my advice on taking advice (but you don’t have to take it)!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? The worst?


The Books That Shape Us

January 25, 2013

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”
—Oscar Wilde 

Last year, as part of a multi-year “Celebration of the Book,” the Library of Congress opened an exhibit of 88 “Books That Shaped America.” According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, “This list is a starting point. It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books—although many of them fit that description. Rather, list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.” (The list did indeed spark conversation—as usual there was much squabbling about what was on the list and what was left off. Simply type “Books That Shaped America” into your search engine for proof.) While the physical exhibit has now ended, click here for the online version. 

The exhibit got me thinking about the books that have shaped me. Books have been my friends for as long as I can remember, and learning to read was one of my first goals when I was a child (along with learning to whistle and to blow bubbles with gum—I was an ambitious young lady). The books that follow are mostly not considered “classics,” but for some reason they resonated deeply with me, shaping my understanding of myself and the world. Here are just a few of the books that I consider have shaped who I am:

Product DetailsThe Anne of Green Gables series (L.M. Montgomery). Hands down my favorite childhood books. I didn’t just enjoy the stories: I loved Anne and aspired to be like her. She was smart, spirited, loving and she always tried to do right and help others. A girl could do worse than emulate Anne Shirley. Even now, every couple of years, I reread the series for the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance.

Sidetracked Home Executives (Pam Young and Peggy Jones). I loved the system of organizing household chores that these sisters created to move from “pigpen to paradise.” I really didn’t know how to stay on top of cleaning when I first got married, and their advice helped me figure it out. I still use some of their basic principles to keep my house running. This book was funny and charming and their 3 x 5 card program was super simple to implement.

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson). This book was a revelation of how non-fiction could be just as riveting and entertaining as fiction. Bryson tells a great story, weaving historical information seamlessly into the narrative of his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail. This book is funny, fascinating and educational all at once. I want to write like that.

Poisonwood Bible.jpgThe Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver). Another revelation. This was my first experience reading Kingsolver, and I was forever hooked. Up until I read Poisonwood, other than the occasional “classic,” I rarely read anything more taxing than an Agatha Christie mystery. I’ve read nearly everything Kingsolver has written, and continued to expand my fiction horizons.

Refuse to Choose (Barbara Sher). I’ve read and liked several of Sher’s books, but this one helped me understand why I flit from interest to interest, and why so many things sound fascinating to me. I’m a “Scanner”—a person who scans the horizon, eager to explore everything out there instead of zeroing in on a single pursuit. I want to learn about so many things, and pursue so many hobbies, how can I do it all? My favorite of Sher’s tools is what I call the Six-Year Calendar of Happiness: a list of the major interests I want to pursue in the next six years (as opposed to trying to pursue them all at once). I admit I haven’t been able to follow the calendar as well as I’d like because my current interests (my horse, learning to sketch and paint in watercolor) are time consuming enough that I really don’t have much time for other interests. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on things like learning another language or doing cross stitch projects. It just means they keep getting bumped back on the calendar.

When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter). Authors Hirschmann and Munter believe that dieting turns women into compulsive eaters obsessed with food. Instead, if we stopped hating our bodies, we would be learn to accept them, feed ourselves what we really need, and stop trying to measure up to society’s “ridiculous and impossible standards of female beauty.” I read this when I first noticed that I could no longer eat anything I wanted and not put on weight. (Sadly.) I believe it did keep me from hating my body, though I still struggle with true acceptance. I think I’m more balanced in my approach to eating and my body because of this book.

The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho). I read this for a book club, and I loved the simple story with its inspirational message to follow your heart. After reading this, for the first time I realized I actually had dreams to follow and that it was OK to do so.  

Ursula K. Le Guin said, “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”  Through our reading we shape and reshape our opinions, our beliefs, our lives. These are just a few of the books that have shaped me. What books have shaped you?

P.S. I’m excited to tell you that later today my bookshelves and I are being featured in Danielle’s (A Work in Progress) Lost in the Stacks: Home Edition series. Come by, sneak a peek at the book bounty and say hello.

Domestic diplomacy

Domestic Diplomacy

January 23, 2013

Photo courtesy Rodrigo Valladares

Though most of us are not formally known as diplomats, many of us learn to be experts at domestic diplomacy, and the sorts of complex negotiations we find ourselves in can require a lot of patience. Here’s Dan Gerber, who lives in California, showing us some of that patience. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]


When you are angry it’s your gentle self
I love until that’s who you are.
In any case, I can’t love this anger any more
than I can warm my heart with ice.
I go on loving your smile
till it finds its way back to your face.

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 ©2011 by Dan Gerber. In 2012, Copper Canyon Press will publish Dan Gerber’s Sailing Through Cassiopeia. Poem reprinted by permission of Dan Gerber. Introduction copyright © 2013 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.


You Said It

January 21, 2013

Do you know how much I love reading comments? Whenever I put up a blog post, I eagerly wait to see what you have to say in response. I read every comment and try to respond to each one. It means a great deal to me when you say something nice about the post, of course, but I also love to hear your thoughts on the topic of the day. In return, I try to visit as many blogs as possible and leave my own comments—even if it’s just a sentence or two so the blogger knows someone has read and understood her (99% of the time it’s a her) words. We all like to be seen and acknowledged, don’t we?

For several months, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a post quoting you, my wise and witty readers—and today’s the day. Since I’ve been blogging these past three years, you’ve followed my ups and downs and chipped in with your advice and encouragement. Below you’ll find just a few of the comments that have made a difference to me in the last three years, in no particular order. Comments have been edited for length, but not changed in meaning.

Sara: “A friend once told me to buy 5 x 7 cards and whenever you have ‘light’ moment or one that's happy and totally present, you write it down and keep them in one of those albums you can buy at a pharmacy for pictures.

Whenever you're feeling a loss of light, you look through it and remember the times when the ‘light’ was there.” 

Laure: “Some of my happiness busters are being overly tired, too much ‘news’ that I can't do anything about, and some of the ones you mention.

The words to one of the Eagles' songs, Already Gone, keep running through my mind,
‘ oftentimes it happens we live our life in chains/That we never even know we have the key.....’

How often do we hold ourselves down, back, under, less than, not good enough, not enough and so on, when really…we are more than enough and far more? We just don't understand we are the key.”

Laure: “To my way of thinking there are seeds of bad in all good things that happen and seeds of good in all bad things that happen…it is up to us which we cultivate.”

Elizabeth: “I agree with Laure—there are seeds of both in every experience…and with Kathy and the story of the farmer—time will tell which is good or bad.

It seems to me that it is nearly always up to ME in how I choose to see an event. Sometimes stepping back to observe the big picture is all I need to adjust my thinking.”

Kathy M: “The older that I get, the less hard I am on myself and on others. I wish that I had done many things different, but, look, it has all turned out fine in spite of myself.

Long ago I heard that regret in a way insults the person that I was long ago, before I knew better. Life is a journey, and perhaps when we are better at forgiving ourselves we become better at forgiving others.”

Timaree: “Sometimes we get frozen in the litany of things happening all around of which we have little say. Mother Teresa used to tell people when they asked what they could do, to love and take care of their families. That's our first and most important job and when that is taken care of, we can branch out. Like you, I would love to see a world of people being kind to one another. It has to start somewhere and if taking care of ourselves gets us going then let's do it. I read on another post today about a smile that led to one thing and then another and another. That's something we should all be able to do—give a smile. They can be contagious as a yawn.”

And though I didn’t include quotes from you in this list, I deeply appreciate the continued friendship and input of Claire, Cheryl, and Danielle. (And I miss you, Meredith!) I thank you for all your encouraging, wise, funny and delightful comments. And because you all have made such a difference to me, I pass on the “Wonderful Team Member Award” to each one of you. (Thank you to Kathy of Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy who passed this on to me.) I know some bloggers aren’t big on awards, but I liked this one because it honors the thoughtfulness of blog readers. Feel free to accept and pass on if you wish. If otherwise, just know that I (and all bloggers) appreciate your taking the time to comment on our work.

If you choose to participate, the rules are as follows:
  1. Thank the nominator and link back to their site (Thanks, Kathy—see above).
  2. Display the award (see below).
  3. Nominate no more than 14 readers of your blog you appreciate and leave a comment on their blogs to let them know about the award.
  4. Finish this sentence: A great reader is…Someone who reads in a spirit of curiosity and openness, takes what she can from what she reads and lets the rest go. 

25th Anniversary

That's a Quarter of a Century

January 18, 2013

Yesterday I started my day with a workout, then cleaned our master bath and went grocery shopping. It sounds like an average Thursday—and it was, except for the fact that it was our 25th wedding anniversary.

My husband and I celebrated the day by exchanging cards and small gifts, then going to see Les Miserables, a movie we’ve looked forward to since we first saw the trailer months ago. Does that sound unromantic? I admit it’s not a trip to a bed-and-breakfast complete with champagne and chocolates, but we’ve done our fair share of that. After 25 years, we’ve learned that romance is wonderful but it’s not the only thing that keeps a marriage strong. Being honest about needs and wants, putting in the time and effort to keep a home running and income flowing, working together as well as playing together—these things, unromantic as they are, hold a marriage together over the course of a lifetime.  Romance is only the beginning. Marriage is acting loving when you’re not feeling that way, forgiving when you don’t think you can, and finding someone who is willing to do the same for you. Just like happiness is not just about “happy” events.

My husband and I have built a life, a family, a home together, and that’s worth celebrating in small and large ways. Yesterday we celebrated in small ways—with flowers and chocolates and a movie. Later this year, we’re planning a just-the-two-of-us trip (when we finally decide where we want to go) where we’ll have a little more time for romance. I’m looking forward to it.

So, so young...


Happy National Nothing Day

January 16, 2013

According to Chase’s Calendar of Events, National Nothing Day was created “to provide Americans with one National day when they can just sit without celebrating, observing or honoring anything.”

This day is just for you—so relax and enjoy it. (To learn more about National Nothing Day, if it’s not too much trouble, click here.) What won’t you do to celebrate?

 “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”
—Lao Tzu


A Global Vision of Happiness

January 14, 2013

Product Image
One of the best things about having a blog that focuses on happiness is “having” to read various happiness-themed books. I recently stumbled upon a cool one: The World Book of Happiness, edited by Leo Bormans. Bormans asked 100 experts in the field of positive psychology to sum up their work in 1,000 words or less, using terms the average person would understand. These insights were to be research based, not “spiritual philosophy.” Here are a few tidbits to whet your interest:

Once basic needs are met, more money does not equal more happiness. This is called the Happiness Paradox. (Stavros Drakopoulos)

While happiness can be pursued, we shouldn’t use the laws for outer achievement (“brute force and adrenaline-charged action”) in that pursuit. Instead, we should become “happiness detectives,” by observing our feelings, nurturing good times and always looking for new ways to increase happiness in ourselves and others. (Michael Hagerty)

In order to flourish, we should allow ourselves to feel (smile, laugh, cry when we need to), see, listen, taste and smell—participate in all the joys of life. Appreciate who and what we are, and anticipate and open ourselves to support from others. Ask for support if necessary, and provide it to those who need it. We are resilient, able to bounce back when faced with negatives, becoming stronger in the process. (D.J.W. Strumpfer)

Three universal components of happiness: Enjoyment—“possessing certain things that give one (passive) pleasure; contentedness—“the equilibrium between needs and satisfaction”; achievement—“the fulfillment of one’s capacities…doing what one enjoys.” (Doh Chull Shin)

We don’t need to feel obligated to be happy and shouldn’t think of happiness as a right. Sadness is a normal and healthy emotion, and is sometimes necessary and worthwhile. If we want to feel happy again, stop doing things that make us miserable, stop thinking about our own happiness and reach out to help someone else. (Grant Duncan)

Happiness is like a muscle—there are many things we can do to “train” it. Focus on happiness (instead of unhappiness) and it grows. The pursuit of happiness involves mind, body and spirit, and there are things we can do to nurture each of these aspects of ourselves which will help us develop greater happiness. (Miriam Akhtar)

I expect to be dipping in and out of this book for a while, and I’ll be sure to share with you any new or profound discoveries.

If you had to sum up what you’ve learned about happiness, what would you write?


Less Is More

January 11, 2013

Between sickness (nearly recovered from) and jury duty (completed), I’ve been a bit delayed in my customary reflection on the past year and planning for a new year. Even so, in the past couple of weeks, an odd little theme has appeared in my thinking: “It’s all too much.”

A few years ago, I read a book by organizer Peter Walsh called It’s All Too Much and ever since then, that phrase pops into my head whenever I’m overwhelmed. As you know, that’s just what I’ve been feeling lately.  Instead of choosing a word of the year or setting out to remake my life, I’m just…not. At least, not right now. I’m not setting new goals or embarking on bold new adventures. I’m simplifying and downsizing.

I just have too much—books, food, possessions of all kinds, hobbies, interests and the wonderful blessing of friends and family relationships. I really am grateful for all that I have—I’m not complaining! I have, however, allowed my life to get out of hand. I have too much, and I try to do too much. Nearly every day I find myself putting aside activities that would feed my soul or work that really means something because I’m drowning in the sheer mass of life, much of it menial and unimportant.

So 2013 begins with a purge—of the physical (How many empty boxes does one need? Does this old radio even work?) as well as the non-physical. Activities I take for granted will be scrutinized—do they really need doing? By me? At this particular time or to that standard?

I don’t consider having too much a “real” problem. I’m not suffering heartbreak over it. I realize I’m lucky to be in this position when so many people around the world face true need. But getting rid of excess will help me appreciate what remains while cutting down on waste, guilt and chaos. Spending less time and money on what doesn’t matter will free up more for what does. I look forward to seeing what fills my life when the excess is gone.

What do you have too much of?

Koi Pond

Beneath the Quiet

January 09, 2013

Among the most ancient uses for language are descriptions of places, when a person has experienced something he or she wants to tell somebody else about. Some of these get condensed and transformed into poetry, and here’s a good example, by Susan Kolodny, a poet from the Bay Area of California. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Koi Pond, Oakland Museum

Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple
and a patch of gray. One with a gold head,
a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins
like half-folded fans of lace.
A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one,
and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water.
They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us
as we lean on the cement railing
in indecisive late-December light,
and because we do not feed them, they pass,
then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop.
“Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them,
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
perhaps another species, living in the shadow
of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white,
seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses,
unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet.

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 ©2011 by Susan Kolodny from her first book of poems, After the Firestorm, Mayapple Press, 2011. Poem first appeared in the New England Review, Vol. 18, no. 1, 1997. Reprinted by permission of Susan Kolodny and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 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.

Everyday adventures

Doing My Civic Duty

January 07, 2013

I was chosen for a jury today, and tomorrow I’ll be at the trial—so 2013 is starting off with a dose of adventure. I don’t know exactly why, but I find the whole jury duty process stressful. Possibly because I’m in an unfamiliar environment with a lot of unknowns: Will I get lost driving downtown and be late for my summons? Will I have to stand up and talk in front of 29 other prospective jurors and the court officers? Will I get a lunch break? Will I be chosen for a jury? Will the trial be long and drawn out and, oh my gosh, will we be sequestered?! (I know, I watch too many crime shows on TV.)

No, yes, yes, it’s not supposed to be, and no. So hopefully, I’ll be back with you here on Wednesday.

Unless I’m sequestered, of course.


I Accept: Reading Challenges in 2013

January 04, 2013

Even though I read a lot in 2012 (112 books!), I was unorganized about it, I didn’t read the classics I wanted to read, and I allowed my to-be-read (TBR) stack to proliferate ridiculously. I also didn’t participate in any reading challenges, and I missed that. I don’t need prodding to read, but I like the feeling of working towards a goal. So this year, I’m going to participate in two reading challenges, both sponsored by Bev at MyReader’s Block.

I desperately need to do another “Off the Shelf” challenge, and there are several floating around out there with varying degrees of rigor. I chose Bev’s TBR challenge because it’s simple, I like the button and the mountain references! I’m shooting for the Mont Blanc level: 24 books from my TBR pile, and if it goes well, I might upgrade to the Mt. Vancouver level (36 books). Even so, I really am going to have to put myself on a book-buying diet. Even 36 books will barely put a dent in my stack. Perhaps it’s time to go through and purge the piles again.

Vintage Reading  Challenge 2013 Signup
The second challenge is another Vintage Mystery Challenge. I participated in Bev’s VMC in 2011 and loved it. I found some great, new-to-me authors (and revisited some old favorites). This year, Bev has come up with categories that sound like lots fun.  To be eligible for a prize, there’s an eight book minimum using the categories she’s provided, which include things like “Colorful Crime: a book with a color or reference to color in the title” and “A Calendar of Crime: a mystery with a date/holiday/year/month/etc. in the title.” I haven’t chosen all my titles yet, but I think my first choice will be Gladys Mitchell’s Spotted Hemlock (“Murderous Methods: a book with a means of death in the title”). I’m planning to look for new authors and books instead of just rereading old favorites…though I’m sure one or two will sneak in.

Do you participate in reading challenges? Which ones? Do you have any reading plans for 2013?


In the New Year

January 02, 2013

“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear,
but around in awareness.”
—James Thurber