End of the year

Turning of the Year

December 30, 2015

Photo courtesy winterdove

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Here’s a New Year’s poem by Judy Ray, who lives and writes in Tucson. I like the way that common phrase, “the turning of a year,” has suggested to her the turns in a race track. Her most recent book is To Fly Without Wings, (Helicon Nine Editions, 2009). 

Turning of the Year

We never know if the turn
is into the home stretch.
We call it that—a stretch
of place and time—
with vision of straining,
racing.  We acknowledge
each turn with cheers
though we don’t know
how many laps remain.
But we can hope the course
leads on far and clear
while the horses have strength
and balance on their lean legs,
fine-tuned muscles, desire
for the length of the run.
Some may find the year smooth,
others stumble at obstacles
along the way.  We never know
if the finish line will be reached
after faltering, slowing,
or in mid-stride, leaping forward.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher ofPoetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Judy Ray, “Turning of the Year,” from The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers, (Whirlybird Press, 2012). Poem reprinted by permission of Judy Ray 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.

End of the year

The Year in Review: 2015 in Pictures and Posts

December 28, 2015

It seems like only yesterday that I was contemplating the fresh new calendar year of 2015, and yet here we are only four days away from 2016. In looking back over the year, I notice that I’ve chosen to write about—and highlight here—mostly 2015’s simple pleasures and everyday adventures—and that’s fitting for the theme of this blog. The one glaring exception is the post I wrote about the death of our dog. I haven’t chosen to share the details of every moment good or bad (you’re welcome), merely the ones I thought you would enjoy hearing about or  possibly learn from along with me. Even though I try to remain positive, and to focus on what good and useful things can be taken from difficult or painful experiences, life is rarely ever all good or all bad, but a mixture of both. Here’s a look back at my 2015 in pictures and posts.


Interrupting winter.


Completing a sketching challenge and Tanks 20th birthday.


Appreciating the delight of little things.



Picking blueberries and extolling the pleasures of journaling.


Making a summer bucket list and  going to the beach with Tank.


Cultivating pronoia.


Proclaiming my love for books.



Visiting the Chocolate Kingdom, banishing the B word, and beginning the grieving process for our dog. 


Joining the 30-Day Gratitude Photo Challenge and experimenting with essential oils.

Which brings us to December, where I’ve spent my time keeping the cat out of the tree, taking walks, and trying to finish up my 2015 reading challenges (I’ve finished Mount TBR, I have one book left to make a Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo, but I’ve no hope at all of completing the classics challenge.)

Onward to 2016!

What were the highlights of your year? What were some of your challenges, triumphs, and disappointments? What have you learned in 2015?

D.M. Dellinger

A Wish for You

December 23, 2015

“This is my wish for you: peace of mind, prosperity through the year, happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours, fun around every corner, energy to chase your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!”
—D.M. Dellinger

Happy holidays, everyone!

Good enough

Spirits of Blog Posts Past: The Good Enough Blog Post

December 18, 2015

Photo courtesy Laure Ferlita
This originally ran in December of 2011. The thoughts expressed are once again on my mind, so instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m reposting it. I’m pretty sure we could all use reminding.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of Good Enough. The painting trip to NOLA focused my attention on the concept as I created sketchbook pages that were far from perfect, but were “good enough” for their purpose: to help me remember a captivating place and group of people.

For me, that’s the biggest blessing: Good Enough is an antidote to perfectionism. How many times do we avoid trying new things, obsess over details, or become stalled by the idea that something must be Perfect, or even its cousin Really Good, before it sees the light of day? (I know this blog post could be better—I could spend hours “perfecting” it, but it still wouldn’t be “perfect.” I’ve already delayed posting it once because it wasn’t—you guessed it—Good Enough.)

The holiday season is a good time to focus on the concept of Good Enough. How easy it is to fall into the trap of searching for the “perfect” gift, decorating the house perfectly, cooking up delicious and special Christmas treats, and so on. All this on top of your regular, everyday life and its responsibilities! Frankly, that way lies madness and sitting in a corner, slugging down eggnog and biting the heads off gingerbread men on Christmas morning.

Good Enough can be excellent. Or it can be average. It’s not settling, but as author Heather Sellers writes, “It’s celebrating the truth. Good Enough means you know when to quit.” It’s up to us to decide what gets our time, resources and attention—and how much of those resources we are willing to spend. Everything we do cannot be Perfect. I’m sorry, but it just can’t be.

So how can we embrace Good Enough? By applying the three Ls:

Lower our standards. Don’t have time to cook an entire holiday meal from scratch? I know from experience that many grocery stores have really fine options for the harried holiday hostess. Can’t work out for an hour? Take a 15-minute walk. Something is better than nothing, and it will keep us in the exercise habit.

Laugh when things go wrong, or don’t quite come out the way we envisioned. Laughter is a better option than tears, and others are more likely to relax and go with the flow when they see that we’re not overly bothered by the unexpected.

Love the opportunity, love the process, love the result. Sometimes we (I) forget that life is an adventure, full of new experiences, not all of which will seem “good” on the surface. It’s all a process, leading to the result of a full, rich life.

And repeat after me: Good Enough is…Good Enough.

Has there been a time when you’ve embraced Good Enough and found the outcome was just fine, or even better than you expected?


The First Ornament

December 16, 2015

Introduction by Ted Kooser: The first winter my wife and I lived in the country, I brought a wild juniper tree in from our pasture and prepared to decorate it for Christmas. As it began to warm up, it started to smell as if a coyote, in fact a number of coyotes, had stopped to mark it, and it was soon banished to the yard. Jeffrey Harrison, a poet who lives in Massachusetts, had a much better experience with nature.


It wasn’t until we got the Christmas tree
into the house and up on the stand
that our daughter discovered a small bird’s nest
tucked among its needled branches.

Amazing, that the nest had made it
all the way from Nova Scotia on a truck
mashed together with hundreds of other trees
without being dislodged or crushed.

And now it made the tree feel wilder,
a balsam fir growing in our living room,
as though at any moment a bird might flutter
through the house and return to the nest.

And yet, because we’d brought the tree indoors,
we’d turned the nest into the first ornament.
So we wound the tree with strings of lights,
draped it with strands of red beads,

and added the other ornaments, then dropped
two small brass bells into the nest, like eggs
containing music, and hung a painted goldfinch
from the branch above, as if to keep them warm.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Jeffrey Harrison, whose most recent book of poems is Incomplete Knowledge, Four Way Books, 2006. Reprinted from upstreet, No. 8, June 2012, by permission of Jeffrey Harrison 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. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


Scenes From a Morning Walk

December 11, 2015

Trying not to take for granted the beautiful place I live—despite the less-than-ideal climate, I do love to take a walk in the morning. The pictures in this post come from two different walks, but are indicative of what I see when I make time to look:

You can barely see it, but there's a hawk on the sign!

If we were to move, I think our trail would be one of the things I’d miss the most. Why is it we take for granted the simple pleasures that are always available to us?

What treasures, what simple pleasures, are right under your nose?


Share Some Happiness

December 09, 2015

Photo courtesy Thomas Muhl

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

What’s making you happy today?



December So Far

December 04, 2015

If the year were a car, someone just stepped on the gas. We’re accelerating—streaking down the road toward the end of the race that is 2015.

How did that happen? Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was exploring in Georgia?  Or a couple of weeks ago that I was interrupting winter?  Even though we’re only a few days into December, I've already enjoyed many simple pleasures and everyday adventures. For instance:

We’re expecting out of town relatives this weekend, so we decorated the house for the holidays. We haven’t done this since Prudy joined the household for this reason:

You might think that she’d stay out of the tree now that she’s a big ol’ cat rather than a tiny little kitten. You would be wrong. I remove her from the tree several times every day. Her general attitude seems to be, “How kind of you to place this giant cat toy in the family room!” My husband and son have a bet going on how many ornaments she’ll break (only one so far but it’s early days yet). Our most special or sentimental ornaments are safely displayed where she can’t get to them, but I imagine the tree will be somewhat ragged by the end of the month if she continues to be fascinated by it.

I’ve been sulking about the weather, which remains stubbornly and unseasonably warm and humid. I predict simultaneous use of the central air and the fireplace on Christmas.

I saw Kinky Boots at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. 

I’ve had to start my horse on a fat supplement because he needs to gain some weight in preparation for the cold weather that will, eventually, I hope, come. That’s just all kinds of unfair.

I’ve been reading a lot. I just finished the delightful Cold Comfort Farm, I’m reading (or rereading) Elizabeth Peters’ Vicky Bliss novels, and I’ve started reading graphic memoirs (is that a thing?)—An Age of License (Lucy Knisley), and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Roz Chast). My reading challenges languish while I read at whim. 

Despite the full schedule (notice I didn’t say busy), I’m doing my best to think about what I’m doing and enjoy it, instead of rushing through it. No need to make that car go any faster!

What have you been up to lately? What plans do you have for the end of the year?

Michael McFee

Call Her Back

December 02, 2015

Introduction by Ted Kooser: This may be the only poem ever written in which a person claps the mud from a pair of shoes! Michael McFee’s poetry is just that original, in all of his books. His most recent is That Was Oasis (Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press, 2012), and he lives in North Carolina.


He stood on his stoop
and clapped her sneakers together
hard, a sharp report,
smacking right sole against left,
trying to shock the mud
from each complicated tread,
spanking those expensive footprints
until clay flakes and plus
ticked onto the boxwood’s leaves
like a light filthy sleet
from the rubber craters and crannies
where they stuck weeks ago,
until her shoes were banged clean
though that didn’t stop
his stiff-armed slow-motion applause
with her feet’s emptied gloves,
slapping mate against mate
without missing a beat,
half-wishing that hollow sound
echoing off their neighbors’ houses
could call her back.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Michael McFee, “Ovation,” (River Styx 83, 2010). Poem reprinted by permission of Michael McFee 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 submissions.


Gratitude Transforms

November 25, 2015

Photo courtesy Mayur Gala

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”
—William Arthur Ward

Happy Thanksgiving!

Everyday adventures

"Artists Need to Take Risks"--An Afternoon With Mary GrandPre

November 23, 2015

Mary GrandPre
On Saturday afternoon, Laure Ferlita and I attended a talk by illustrator Mary GrandPre sponsored by our local arts council. Though GrandPre is probably best known for her illustrations for the Harry Potter books, she’s illustrated seven picture books as well as created illustrations for many editorial and advertising clients. 

GrandPre was born in South Dakota, but her family moved to Minnesota when she was still a baby. She began drawing at age 5, went through a “Salvador Dali phase,” and later practiced drawing by copying black and white photos from the encyclopedia. After attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she paid her dues waiting tables as she built her portfolio and began to attract clients. Eventually she moved into illustrating children’s books, and it was her first one, Chin Yu Min and the Ginger Cat, that attracted the attention of executives at Scholastic, Inc., who were looking for an illustrator for a book about a young wizard. At first she planned to turn down the job because she was already busy, she told us, but after the publisher encouraged her to read the manuscript, she changed her mind. As she told Communications Arts Magazine, “It sounded like a nice job, so I said  ‘sure.’ I presented three cover sketches, they chose one, and I was pretty happy with everything. They were great to work with, and I think I remember them saying there might be more. At the time, it just seemed like another job.” GrandPre is grateful for the popularity of Harry Potter, but she’s just as proud of (and deservedly so) her other work, which includes The Noisy Paint Box, The Carnival of the Animals and Henry and Pawl and the Round Yellow Ball, a project she worked on with her husband, Tom.

Sketches from the creation of The Noisy Paint Box
I knew nothing about the process of illustrating books, so I was interested in how she described it. After researching her topic, she begins sketching quickly, often using tracing paper and ink. Sometimes, she said, she does get stuck, especially at the beginning of the process. She tries not to get discouraged if she ends up with nothing usable after a day of work, believing that there are no wasted days. “The next day will be better because of today,” she said. After some back and forth with the art director of the project, the sketches are finalized. She likes to have three to four months to complete the final paintings. She has worked in pastels, acrylics, oils, and charcoal, and has used collage in at least one of her projects.

I was impressed with how kindly and patiently she answered audience questions that ranged from “How can I encourage my child who loves to draw?” to “I’m writing a children’s book—how do I find a publisher?” After her talk, we were able to examine some of her work close up, and it was beautiful. She grew up attending Catholic school and church, and she mentioned that one of her early influences was the glow of the light coming through stained glass windows. I think that same glow fills her work.

GrandPre tries to do something different in each project. It’s important to her to keep growing. “Artists need to take risks,” she said. “I want to be challenged and try new things. If not, I’d rather wait on tables.”

You can learn more about Mary GrandPre and see some of her work on her website, marygrandpre.com


Small Changes Coming to Catching Happiness

November 20, 2015

After six years, it’s time for a change. This blog was never intended to make money (except in my wildest fantasies), and good thing, too, because it’s been a crashing failure in that regard. It was intended to be a creative outlet for me, and a way to make connections with other like-minded people. In that regard, it’s been a complete success. But now it’s time for me to put my primary writing focus elsewhere—on building my freelancing business. You may have noticed a couple of other changes as well: I’ve updated “About Me” and streamlined the sidebars. (Don’t worry if your blog was in my sidebar—I’ve added it to my feed reader and still plan to visit often!)

I love writing for Catching Happiness and will continue to post here, just not quite as often. My plan right now is to post once or twice a week instead of two to three times a week. I’ll continue to share simple pleasures and everyday adventures, as well as bits of happiness news and other happy little things. I still love to hear from you, so please share whatever is on your mind via the comments section, or by contacting me directly. Thank you for taking the time to visit and comment over these past years—your words mean more to me than you know.

Andy Rooney

What Does Your Happiness Depend On?

November 18, 2015

“For most of life, nothing wonderful happens. If you don’t enjoy getting up and working and finishing your work and sitting down to a meal with family or friends, then the chances are you’re not going to be very happy. If someone bases his happiness on major events like a great job, huge amounts of money, a flawlessly happy marriage or a trip to Paris, that person isn’t going to be happy much of the time. If, on the other hand, happiness depends on a good breakfast, flowers in the yard, a drink or a nap, then we are more likely to live with quite a bit of happiness.”
—Andy Rooney


Happy Little Things: Essential Oil Aromatherapy

November 13, 2015

It’s funny how things start. In yoga class, the teacher offered us a dab of a stress-relieving essential oil during our final resting pose. I don’t know if it alleviated my stress (which was pretty low after practicing yoga for an hour), but it smelled lovely. In the back of my mind, I decided I wanted to buy a bottle of that scent to have on hand, simply because it smelled good.

Then, after thus stimulating my reticular activating system, I began to see information about essential oils and aromatherapy everywhere. Friends began to use and sell different brands of oils. I remembered that one friend of mine used essential oils on her horse to help calm her after another friend asked me about trying them on a pony at our barn who is especially high strung. I wondered if using essential oils in a diffuser would make our house smell better (we rarely open the windows because of the humidity so I think it smells stale in here) and maybe even boost our moods and immune systems. Maybe I could find some essential oils to improve my ability to think and concentrate when I’m writing!

So with my mom’s help, for my birthday I bought a diffuser, a set of oils for the aromatherapy beginner, and a book on basic aromatherapy. Since then, I’ve been experimenting with the oils and the diffuser and have found several combinations I like: eucalyptus and lemon for the kitchen, peppermint for my office, lavender in our bedroom at night. I only have one diffuser, so I move it around the house with me as needed. I plan to use the oils in making cleaning solutions for the house, and also find a way to use them in my car—either a diffuser meant for the car, or simply a cotton ball with a bit of oil on it. I have a lot to learn about what each oil is good for (and I still haven’t bought that first bottle that started all this) but I’m enjoying the simple pleasure of finding out. Essential oils are my newest happy little thing!

What’s your newest happy little thing?

Armed services

Verses for the Armed Services

November 11, 2015

Photo courtesy picaland

Introduction by Ted Kooser: During World War II the government endorsed the publication of inexpensive paperbacks for persons serving overseas. Jehanne Dubrow, who lives and teaches in Maryland and whose husband is a naval officer, here shows us one of those pocket-sized volumes. This poet's latest book is The Arranged Marriage, (University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

Armed Services Editions

My copy of The Fireside Book of Verse
is as the seller promised—the stapled spine,
the paper aged to Army tan—no worse
for wear, given the cost of its design,
six cents to make and printed on a press
once used for magazines and pulp. This book
was never meant to last a war much less
three quarters of a century.
                                                I look
for evidence of all the men who scanned
these lines, crouched down in holes or lying in
their racks. I read the poems secondhand.
Someone has creased the page. Did he begin
then stop to sleep? to clean his gun perhaps?
to listen to the bugler playing taps?

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2015 by Jehanne Dubrow, “Armed Services Editions,” (Bellevue Literary Review, Vol. 15, no. 2, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Jehanne Dubrow 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.


Should We Pursue Happiness?

November 09, 2015

Albert Camus said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Does this mean we shouldn’t try to seek ways to be happier? Should we just “get over it” and live the life before us?

Well, that depends on what we mean by happiness.

If we’re confusing happiness with pleasure, maybe. Continual chasing of pleasure and feel-good moments will not bring deep and lasting happiness. Being afraid of or avoiding negative emotions will also backfire, because frankly, no life is devoid of experiences that feel sad or scary and there is a lot to be learned from those experiences. But happiness as I define it here on the blog isn’t just pleasure—it’s a deeper, wider, more all-encompassing emotion. An emotion that includes joy and pleasure, but also satisfaction after achieving something worthwhile, or living up to my ideals in a difficult situation. It also encompasses contentment and a feeling of well-being. So many facets of happiness make achieving it easier as well as more worthwhile.

We run into trouble when we feel we should always feel happy. Negative feelings are normal. Thinking we shouldn’t have them can make us even more miserable. We shouldn’t pursue feelings of happiness at the expense of everything else. That would be like eating only chocolate and never eating spinach and expecting to be healthy. Maybe the spinach doesn’t taste as good as the chocolate (at least to me it doesn’t), but it offers nutrients chocolate doesn’t. I want to be strong and healthy in both body and mind, and I can’t do that if I only eat chocolate…or pursue pleasure. We should be open and accepting of the richness of all our emotions, even times of sadness, fear, boredom, or frustration. These emotions often bear a message of change, or wake us up from sleepwalking through life.

I can’t say that I’ve been especially happy the past two weeks. And yet—I have. I’m heartbroken over losing our beloved family dog, but somehow the breaking open of my heart has allowed in the caring and understanding of others, and in those moments, I’ve felt loved by and connected to them in ways I hadn’t before. The crack in my heart has released my feelings of love and gratitude for those people, and for the many other rich gifts in my life.

What does pursuing happiness mean to you?


What's to Fear?

November 04, 2015

Photo courtesy Autumn Mott

“Nearly everything we’re afraid of is going to happen anyway, so what’s to fear? There is no secure or unchanging ground, and we make ourselves safe only when we see and accept the way life is. Utterly spontaneous and impermanent. When it is time to laugh, we laugh. When it is time to weep, we weep. We are cheated of nothing in life except that from which we withhold ourselves by ego’s narrow bounds.”
—Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash Cold

30-Day Gratitude Photo Challenge: 2015 Edition

A Month to Be Grateful: The 2015 30-Day Gratitude Photo Challenge

November 02, 2015

I’m joining Dani DiPirro’s 30-Day Gratitude Photo Challenge again this year (I wrote about last year’s here and here). I figure concentrating on what I have and am grateful for will ease the pain of what I’ve lost.  Plus it’s fun!

I enjoy and welcome the chance to slow down and ponder the many things I’m grateful for and, I admit, take for granted. I’ll post my daily entry on Facebook and on Instagram if any of you want to follow along. If you want to join in, click here for DiPirro’s post announcing the challenge, and here for the list of prompts.

Today’s theme is “Inspiration.” So many things inspire me in different ways that it’s hard to pick just one. I’m inspired by the beauty of nature, by music, and by people I look up to, just to name a few. Since I’ve been reading the book What Makes Olga Run? I’m especially grateful for the inspiration of older women who live vibrant, exciting lives on their own terms. Reading about Olga Kotelko makes me push myself just a little harder during HIIT class and encourages me to believe that getting older doesn’t have to mean I can’t do the things I want to do anymore. While I have no desire to be a master’s level track athlete like Olga, I do want to be able to walk, bike, ride Tank, and do yoga for as long as possible. I don’t want to be held back from doing the things I want to do because my body is too weak or out of shape to allow me to. Seeing and reading about examples of people still active and vital in their 90s inspires me to believe I can be that way, too. (Ms. Kotelko died in June of 2014 at age 95. You can read more of her story here.)

What are you grateful for today?


Grief Is the Price We Pay For Love*

October 30, 2015

 “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
—Anatole France

I have sad news to share today.  We lost our little dog, Scout, last Saturday, and we are deep in sorrow. She was 16 ½ years old. I apologize to those of you I know personally if I haven’t shared this news with you directly. It’s because I haven’t been able to face talking about it with you—I cry every time I have to share the news. 

The past six months have been difficult. Scout was deaf; almost blind from cataracts; suffered from terrible nasal allergies that made her sneeze, wheeze and cough; and she had “doggy dementia.” She rarely made it through a night without getting up to relieve herself, and afterward she often wandered through the house, getting stuck behind toilets, doors, and pieces of furniture. She occasionally got lost in the backyard she patrolled for so many years and had to be rescued. She required medicating several times a day and became agitated if her routine was disturbed. At the same time, she ate well, bounced around the house a little every day, and there was life in her eyes. We knew her days were numbered and tried hard to make them comfortable and happy. She deserved it.

Scout's the one licking his face
Scout came home with us as an eight-week-old puppy after “choosing” Nick (we’d intended to bring home a different puppy from the litter, but she followed him around and he fell in love with her). The two of them were best buddies from day one. Once she was house trained, she slept in his bed with him at night. They dug holes together and swam in the pool, and she joined in any game in which he was participating. She knew several tricks, including sit, shake hands, roll over and play dead—dropping onto her side if you pointed your index finger at her and said, “Bang!”—though sometimes you had to “shoot” her several times. She caught and killed plenty of squirrels and snakes, including more than one coral snake. (In a way, we were surprised she didn’t meet an untimely end since she was a typical Jack Russell Terrier—a tough little dog with a big dog’s attitude.) She received Christmas presents and birthday parties, just like the member of the family she was. The last few years of her life, she finally slowed down and preferred snoozing in her own dog bed to sleeping with a human, and spent more of her daylight hours sleeping than playing.

We are each coping in our own ways. The guys are able to leave the house to go to work every day, while I struggle with looking for her and not seeing her, with cleaning up her nose prints on the window, washing her dog bed, and disposing of all her supplements and medications. Yesterday I thought I heard her sneeze in the next room and realized it was just my imagination. I know that life will eventually feel beautiful again and that Scout’s memory won’t hurt anymore. Right now, though, thinking of her is equal parts love and pain.

Scout was a happy dog through her whole life, and she brought countless hours of happiness to our family. We were lucky to have each other, and we’ll never, ever forget her.

*Queen Elizabeth II


The Garden of Compassion

October 28, 2015

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

Big Magic

If It's Friday, It Must Be Time for Link Love

October 23, 2015

Happy Friday to you—I hope you’re enjoying some lovely fall weather wherever you are. After a few days of cool-ish weather, we’re back in the high 80s with humidity. It’s time for me to bathe and clip Tank before he melts into a puddle. Here are a few happy links for you to explore while I cope with my hairy beast. 

For those of us who move forward best by taking baby steps: “5 Ways to Create a Life You Love Without Making a Major Change.” Also remember this: “It’s okay to live—and love—the life you have.” Sometimes we forget to appreciate what we already have.

The world is full of good things. Here are 99 of them.

“The Magic of Going Slow” has so much in it that resonates with me right now. For instance, “Nothing truly great has ever come out of stress” and “Always choose the path that feels right and kind in the moment. Happiness first, awareness first. Then decision and action.” 

Most of us (all of us?) have an inner critic who gives us trouble. Check out “Five Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic” for ways to boost your confidence. (I wrote a similar piece: “Shut Up, Inner Critic.”

Every now and then, it’s helpful to check in with ourselves to see if we’re living in a fashion that supports and feeds our bodies, minds, and spirits. Sandra Pawula’s “9 Questions to Liberate the Real You,” can help you evaluate how you’re doing. 

The marvelous Elizabeth Gilbert has a new book out, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Her interview with Marie Forleo is worth a watch (caution: some adult language):

And just in case you can’t wait another minute to read something I wrote, here’s your chance: “Driving I-5 in the USA,” my entry for the wesaidgotravel.com writing contest.

Back to the Future

Great Scott! It's Back to the Future Day

October 21, 2015

That’s right—today (Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015) is the day Marty McFly time-traveled to in the second of the Back to the Future movies, the imaginatively named Back to the Future II.

While we’re not zipping around on hoverboards or in flying cars, we do have a few of the futuristic (in 1989) tech advances mentioned in the movie, including video calls and fingerprint technology. And as of this writing, the Cubs are still in the playoffs. Barely.

The Back to the Future movies were great fun when they came out—and they might just warrant a rewatch, especially since we are now “living in the future.”

That’s heavy.

If you enjoyed the Back to the Future movies, which was your favorite?


Banishing the B Word

October 19, 2015

Would you describe yourself as busy? Most of us do—and most of us are. Most of us have considerably more to do than we have time for, at work, at home, and even in our leisure hours. That’s the way our culture has been set up, and it’s become a common way for us to think about ourselves. And even though we sometimes complain about being too busy, secretly we’re often just a little proud of how in demand we are. Busyness is often something we’ve chosen.

Why do we like being busy? Busy feels important. Being busy excuses us from things outside our comfort zones, or things we don’t want to do (“Oh, I’m so busy, I just don’t have time for…”). Busy keeps us from thinking too deeply about our lives and whether or not we’re happy.

I’ve decided I don’t like being busy. Busy makes me feel rushed and out of control, two feelings I hate. Busy makes me feel stressed and inadequate. When I tell myself I have a busy day ahead, I rush through it, trying to get everything on my to-do list done, when really what I should do is take a careful look at everything on the list, and winnow it down into something manageable. This might mean organizing errands into an efficient order, putting something off to another day, or even skipping it altogether (newsflash: nobody came to arrest me when I didn’t put up the fall decorations this year).

My upcoming week is a good example. In addition to all the things I already do, I have a hair cut, an appointment with a saddle fitter, and an evening out with a friend scheduled. I’ve also got several errands to do that I’ve already put off at least once, including buying office supplies, making a deposit, and going to the library to pick up and drop off books.

The reality is I can handle all this in a state of harassment, feeling overwhelmed and “busy,” or I can change my attitude, plan my days carefully, and stay in the moment instead of looking too far ahead. I can simplify in other areas by planning less complicated meals or skipping certain household chores, and I can build in buffer time to recover. Most important of all, I can simply refuse to rush. If it turns out that everything on my list simply can’t get done, I’m going to jettison the least important thing(s) and not worry about it. (But that haircut is definitely happening!)

In addition to changing my attitude towards what I do, I’m also experimenting with the following ways to banish the feeling of busy:
  • Making time for idleness. That means doing nothing. Not reading, not watching TV or web surfing. Even just for a few minutes a day. Tim Kreider writes in “The Busy Trap”: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
  • Not allowing work to bleed into leisure time. I find this especially hard since I work and play at home. What I’m trying is setting certain hours where I will only do leisure activities, whether it be reading, sketching, watching something on TV, etc. I won’t try to fold laundry, read emails, brainstorm article ideas, or clean the kitchen at the same time.
  • Choosing my top three most important tasks and making sure they get done. Then the rest of the day is cake. (And if I finish early, instead of adding more work to my list, why not add more play? I should reward myself for my efficiency!)
  • Becoming more mindful of what makes it on to my to-do list in the first place.

So what am I going to replace busy with? Some terms I’ve heard others use to describe their lives include diverse, focused, rich, multi-layered, and full. These words have a much different feel than busy. I think I like full the best. A full life makes me feel happy.

At this time of year especially, we seem to gear up and become whirling dervishes of action, filling our days with activity and busyness in the face of the oncoming holidays. Instead of taking on more and more, why not take at least one thing off the to-do list today? How does that feel?


Field Trip Friday: Chocolate Kingdom

October 16, 2015

Baby cacao tree and pods

This edition of Field Trip Friday takes us to Kissimmee, FL, just outside of Orlando, where my partner in adventure Laure Ferlita and I “forced” ourselves to join a chocolate factory tour at Chocolate Kingdom. The tour was interactive, which means we got to taste things!

Though the tour was a bit goofy (somewhat touristy and aimed at children), our guide was cute and enthusiastic, imparting tons of interesting facts and history, and information on how chocolate goes from cacao bean to delicious treat. We also ordered custom chocolate bars which they made in front of us. I chose dark chocolate, pecans and caramel. Yum.

I learned quite a bit about chocolate. For instance:

Chocolate is made from a seed that comes from a fruit tree. The name of the tree, Theobroma Cacao, means “Food of the Gods.” The seeds/beans grow in a football-shaped pod. “Cacao” (ka-KOW) is the raw unprocessed form, which will later be called “cocoa” after processing. Each tree produces about 2,500 beans a year, and it takes about 400 cacao beans to make one pound of chocolate. Though it is native to Central and South America and grows throughout the tropics, about 70 percent of cocoa comes from West Africa, according to the National Confectioners Association’s Chocolate Council.

Cacao fruit
(photo courtesy Darias Martin)

Cacao pods mature throughout the year, and contain about 30 to 40 beans covered in a sticky pulp, which is also eaten and used in drinks. At this point, the beans themselves are bitter. After the beans are harvested, they are fermented (sweetening the flavor and making them more chocolatey), dried in the sun, and shipped to a factory. Factory workers sift the beans, weigh them, and sort them by type. They are roasted, cracked and winnowed, and the resulting pieces of bean are called “nibs.” We tasted some of these on the tour, and while they’re not sweet or even very chocolatey-tasting, I liked the flavor—they’d be good on ice cream.


The nibs are crushed and ground into chocolate liquor (there is no alcoholic content, despite the name). The liquor can then be crushed in a press to remove the cocoa butter (eventually producing cocoa powder), or be made into chocolate with the addition of sugar, vanilla, more cocoa butter, and milk (for milk chocolate). This chocolate will be refined, mixed, and otherwise processed to produce the chocolate we eat.

Other miscellaneous facts I found interesting:

Cacao beans were used as currency in early Mesoamerica.

Chocolate can have notes of berry, citrus, black licorice, cinnamon, mushroom, toast, and other flavors, according to one professional chocolate taster. Where the chocolate was grown, under what conditions, and how it was processed helps to determine what flavors the chocolate will have.  

The melting point of cocoa butter is just below our body temperature of 98.6—that’s why it melts in our mouths.

Sadly, the chocolate I brought home after the tour is just a memory. But, I hear Chocolate Kingdom participates in a Festival of Chocolate every year in Tampa—sign me up! 

What’s your favorite chocolate treat?

John Phillip Johnson

The Steady Pounding of Days

October 07, 2015

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 (www.poetryfoundation.org), 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.