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 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 (, 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.


When Rules Don't Rule

October 05, 2015

Photo courtesy Ryan McGuire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey Ball

Smiley Says: Happy World Smile Day

October 02, 2015

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

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

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

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