The Tale of Beatrix Potter

July 29, 2016

I enjoy Beatrix Potter’s children’s tales with their detailed and charming illustrations, but after reading a biography of her a few years ago (Linda Lear’s excellent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, see links below), my respect and admiration for her grew until she became one of my heroes. In honor of her birthday yesterday, I want to share with you a little of what could be called “The Tale of Beatrix Potter.”

Once upon a time...Helen Beatrix Potter was born 150 years ago on July 28, 1866 in London. She was educated at home by governesses, as was the custom for girls of her social class. She and her younger brother, Bertram, kept a number of pets in the schoolroom, including rabbits, a hedgehog, mice, and bats. She observed these pets closely, sketched them, and wrote stories about them. During family holidays in Scotland and the English Lake District, she explored freely, spending hours observing and sketching what she saw. From 1881 to 1897 she kept a journal (in a code that wasn’t cracked until 1958) where she wrote down her observations.

She loved the study of natural history: archaeology, geology, entomology, and especially mycology, the study of fungi. Scottish Naturalist Charles McIntosh encouraged her to make her fungi drawings more technically accurate, and her studies resulted in a scientific paper on how fungi spores reproduce. Fungi expert George Massee delivered that paper on her behalf at a meeting of the Linnean Society, where women couldn’t even attend the meetings, let alone read papers. (Though I’m not enamored of mushrooms myself, I always think of her when an interesting one pops up in my yard.)

Her earliest published works included greeting card designs and illustrations for the publisher Hildesheimer & Faulkner. Her work on other people’s stories made her long to publish her own, so she adapted one of her earliest stories she’d created for a picture letter sent to the son of one of her old governesses. In 1901, Beatrix published The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself after several publishers turned her down. After seeing the success of the book, in 1902, the publishing firm of Frederick Warne & Co. decided they would publish it after all, if Beatrix would redo her black and white illustrations in color. After that, she wrote two or three little books a year, until 1930 when the last one, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, came out.

Beatrix was also a smart marketer, and created the first licensed literary character, a Peter Rabbit doll. She invented other toys, a Peter Rabbit game, and painting books for Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck.

In 1905, Beatrix became engaged to her editor, Norman Warne, but sadly he died of leukemia before they could be married.

After Norman’s death, Beatrix used income from her books and a small inheritance to buy Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey in the Lake District. Hill Top became a sanctuary for her, and she wrote and painted some of her most popular tales there, including The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. If I ever get back to England, I’d love to visit Hill Top Farm, which is part of the National Trust and open to visitors. 

Potter and Heelis on their wedding day
In 1909, she bought Castle Farm, the property across the road from Hill Top. Beatrix wanted to preserve the Lake District from development, and this was one practical way to do that. During this time, she met solicitor William Heelis who helped her with her property purchases. They married in 1913, when Beatrix was 47, and moved to Castle Cottage on Castle Farm. Happily married for 30 years, the Heelises were deeply involved in the community. In addition to her writing and art, Beatrix grew fascinated with raising Herdwick sheep, becoming a respected breeder and winning prizes at local shows. When she died in 1943, she left 15 farms and more than 4,000 acres to the National Trust.

Beatrix Potter’s work and life inspire me. I’m amazed by what she was able to accomplish at a time when not many options were open to women. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this remarkable woman, and that you’ll check out some of the links below.

Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter story? 

 “I have just made stories to please myself, because I never grew up.”
—Beatrix Potter

More Fun Stuff:
Many Beatrix Potter stories are available on Project Gutenberg
Miss Potter (fictionalized movie version of her life)
Stamps released by the Royal Mail

Arden Levine

Faced With Loss

July 27, 2016

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Faced by a loss, and perhaps by a loss of words, many of us find something to do with our hands. Here's a poem about just that by Arden Levine, published in 2015 in an issue of Agni Magazine. Ms. Levine lives in New York.


She tells him she's leaving him and he
bakes a pie. His pies are exquisite,
their crusts like crinoline.

He doesn't change clothes, works
in slacks, shirtsleeves rolled.
Summer makes the kitchen unbearable

But he suffers beautifully, tenderly
cuts the strawberries, pours
into the deep curve of the bowl.

She hadn't missed his hands since
last they drew her to his body.
Now she watches them stroke the edges

of the dough, shape it like cooling glass.
When the oven opens, his brow drips,
he brings his hands to his 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 ©2015 by Arden Levine, “Offering,” (AGNI Magazine, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Arden Levine and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2016 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.


Summer Rerun: Happiness Busters

July 22, 2016

Welcome to summer reruns! About once a month, I’ll be sharing a post from the archives. I hope you enjoy this one, from 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being present

Your Life Is Happening Now

July 20, 2016

“Make treating yourself a priority and always remember your life is happening now. Don't put off all your dreams and pleasures to another day. In any balanced personal definition of success there has to be a powerful element of living life in the present.”
—Mireille Guiliano


Dropping the Rope: The Power of Letting Go

July 15, 2016

 “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”—Eckert Tolle

I’ve done it a thousand times, but this time something went wrong. I was bringing Tank out of his paddock to go up to the barn, when another horse squeezed between us, pulling Tank’s lead rope tight. In response to the pressure, Tank pulled back, jerking the lead rope out of my hand. Because I didn’t have the good sense to drop the rope when I first felt a tug, the result was a severe rope burn on the palm and middle finger of my left hand. I spent the remainder of my time at the barn with my hand wrapped around an icy water bottle, and the rest of the week healing.

While this was an instance of literally needing to let go, it reminded me that there are plenty of attitudes, expectations, fears, worries, opinions, burdens, and limitations we—I —should let go of. We’re often taught about the importance of persevering—not so often about letting go.

I’m now of an age where letting go is taking center stage. My son is grown and my role in the family is changing. I’m becoming less interested in what others think of me, so I’m reevaluating what I do and how I do it. I’m setting aside certain desires and dreams to make room for new ones. None of this is easy, and it starts with letting go.

As you might have guessed, letting go does not come naturally to me. I’m more inclined to cling, to fight change, to stay rigid. What am I so afraid of? Pain? Discomfort? Chaos? Pain, discomfort, and chaos are part of life. Holding tight to that lead rope reminded me that holding on doesn’t protect me from pain. Sometimes it causes it. And here’s the thing about letting go:

It reduces the pain. If I’d dropped the rope as soon as I felt Tank pull against it, I wouldn’t have gotten hurt. I don’t know why I was hanging on so hard—there was no real reason for it. Sometimes we hang on so hard, and for what?

It allows us to regroup and move on. Tank trotted off only a couple of strides and the other horses did nothing but sniff noses or flick an ear in his direction. I was easily able to collect him and resume our walk up to the barn. Sometimes it’s only when we’ve let go that we see the way out of our difficulty, or the excellent alternative to what we were clinging to in the first place.

If we’re in a situation where we’re clinging hard to a person, belief, or outcome, and we’re miserable and frustrated much of the time, perhaps it’s time to at least consider letting go. Take a few minutes, close our eyes, imagine what it would be like to let go. Do we feel relief? Panic? Deep sorrow? Visualizing letting go might offer us the breathing room we need to see a better option for moving forward. If our attitudes and expectations rob us of happiness, we should let them go. If we’ve tied our happiness to a particular outcome that we just can’t seem to produce, it might be time to let that go, too.

In a case of perfect timing, yesterday, our yoga teacher, Tina, finished the class by reading us the following poem as we lay in final relaxation pose:

She Let Go

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear. She let go of the judgments. She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head. She let go of the committee of indecision within her. She let go of all the “right” reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go. She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go. She let go of all the memories that held her back. She let go of all the anxiety that kept her from moving forward. She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.
—Rev. Safire Rose

What are you clinging to? Is it time to let go?


End of a Summer Day

July 13, 2016

Photo courtesy Maurice Muller

Introduction by Ted Kooser: We hope that you will visit, from time to time, our archived columns at, where you may find other poems by the poets we feature. Today's is the third we've published by Sharon Chmielarz. a Minnesota poet with several fine books in print, including The Widow's House, just released by Brighthorse books.

Fisher’s Club

A roadside inn. Lakeside dive. Spiffed up.
End of a summer day. And I suppose
I should be smiling beneficently
at the families playing near the shore,
their plastic balls and splashes and chatter.

But my eye pivots left to a couple;
he is carrying her into the water.
He's strong enough, and she is light
enough to be carried. I see
how she holds her own, hugging
his neck, his chest steady as his arms.

I have never seen such a careful dunk,
half-dunk, as he gives her. That beautiful
play he makes lifting her from the water.

And I suppose I should be admiring
the sunset, all purple and orange and rose now.
Nice porch here, too. Yeah, great view.

But I have never seen such a loving
carrying as he gives her. Imagine

being so light as to float
above water in love.

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 ©2015 by Sharon Chmielarz, “Fisher's Club,” from The Widow's House (Brighthorse Books, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Sharon Chmielarz and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2016 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.


Meet Jean Kerr

July 08, 2016

If I could pick one writer whose writing “voice” and persona I would most like to emulate, a top contender would have to be Jean Kerr. It’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard of her, so let me introduce you.

Jean Kerr, bottom, with Barbara Bel Geddes
Photo via  Flickr
Jean Kerr (1922-2003) wrote plays and essays, and was most popular in the 50s and 60s. Her essays were gathered into collections such as Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and How I Got to Be Perfect. She was married to the Pulitzer-prize winning drama critic Walter Kerr, with whom she often collaborated on plays. They also had six children, five boys and a girl!

Somehow I stumbled onto her books when I was a pre-teen in the 1970s. Why I should have found a middle-aged playwright and mother of six so irresistible is a mystery, but I was immediately enamored. Her essays made me laugh out loud. (Once I remember reading something of hers while in church and muffling my giggles while my mother glared at me.)  I think I identified with her because of the picture she painted of herself: tall and less than graceful (that was me, too), smart but slightly awkward and unsure of herself (also me). Despite “those children, and that dog,” her life seemed full of challenging work and a loving family. I wanted that, too.

She sounded happy.

Kerr met her husband, Walter, when she was still in college and he was an assistant professor at a different university. They were married in 1943, and in 1946 they wrote The Song of Bernadette, a drama that closed after only two performances. Their later collaborations were more successful, including a revue called Touch and Go and Goldilocks, a musical.

Kerr’s most popular play was 1959’s Mary, Mary, a comedy about a divorced couple discovering that they still loved each other. One of the longest-running productions of the 1960s, it was also made into a movie starring Debbie Reynolds. Her last play was Lunch Hour (1980), and starred Sam Waterston and a post-Saturday Night Live Gilda Radner.

In 1957, her collection of humorous essays, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, became a best seller. The book was eventually adapted into a movie (starring Doris Day and David Niven) as well as a sitcom that ran on NBC from 1965-1967.

More of Kerr’s essays became the books Penny Candy and The Snake Has All the Lines. In 1979, How I Got to Be Perfect pulled together many of the essays from the previous books. 

I’ve spent a few happy hours rereading Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and How I Got to Be Perfect while I wrote this blog post. Here are a few tidbits:

From the introduction to Please Don’t Eat the Daisies:
“I do have a compulsion to read in out-of-the-way places, and it is often a blessing; on the other hand, it sometimes comes between me and what I tell the children is ‘my work.’ As a matter of fact, I will read anything rather than work. And I don’t mean interesting things like the yellow section of the telephone book or the enclosures that come with the Bloomingdale bill….
“For this reason, and because I have small boys, I do about half of my ‘work’ in the family car, parked alongside a sign that says ‘Littering Is Punishable by a $50 Fine….’”
“Out in the car, where I freeze to death or roast to death depending on the season, all is serene. The few things there are to read in the front-seat area (Chevrolet, E-gasoline-F, 100-temp-200) I have long sine committed to memory. So there is nothing to do but write, after I have the glove compartment tidied up.”
On taking her children to the beach:
“It was my plan to loll in the deck chair and improve my mind while the happy children gamboled and frolicked on the sand. That was my plan. Their plan was to show me two dead crabs, five clam shells, one rusty pail they found under two rocks, the two rocks, two hundred and seventy-two Good Humor sticks, one small boy who had taken off his bathing suit, one enormous hole they dug (and wasn’t it lucky the lifeguard fell in it, and not the old gentleman…), fourteen cigarette butts, and a tear in Gilbert’s new bathing trunks.”
From “Letters of Protest I Never Sent”
“The Ever-Krisp Curtain Co.
Dear Sirs:
In what mad burst of whimsy did you adopt the slogan ‘These curtains laugh at soap and water’? Now, I begrudge no man his flights of fancy. We are all poets at heart. And when I purchased my Ever-Krisp curtains I did not really expect them to burst into wild guffaws or even ladylike giggles the first time I put them in the sink. (As a matter of fact, with five small boys and one loud Siamese cat I don’t want to hear one word from those curtains.) But, in my incurable naivete, I did take your claim to imply that these curtains actually survived contact with soap and water. I don’t mean I expect them to remain ever-krisp. I’m quite accustomed to ever-limp curtains. I did, however, expect them to remain ever-red with ever-white ruffles. As it happens, they are now a sort of off-pink strawberry ripple, which of course doesn’t go with my kitchen.
(I also rediscovered the origin of a phrase I use from time to time, “What I am really looking for is a blessing that’s not in disguise,” attributed to Kerr’s mother.)

If you want to read Kerr for yourself, her books are out of print, but used copies are available, and you can download Please Don’t Eat the Daisies for free here. You can also check your library for her work—mine has one of her books and one of her plays. Some of the essays feel dated, but many of them still amuse.

You can also take a peek at the Kerrs’ former rather fantastic and unusual house (which she referred to jokingly as the “Kerr-Hilton”) by clicking here.

Funny but not mean-spirited or crass, bemused, occasionally flustered, but always able to rise to the occasion (though not always successfully) and laugh about it later—that’s the spirit she brought to the page. I haven’t found another author quite like her.

Do you have a favorite not-so-well-known author? Please share!

Henri J.M. Nouwen

Keep Choosing Joy

July 06, 2016

Photo courtesy Morgan Sessions

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
—Henri J.M. Nouwen


Kindness Is Hard. Also, Kindness Is Easy

July 01, 2016

Photo courtesy Valentin Sabau

It seems like it should be simple to be kind. After all, to be kind, we don’t have to perform extraordinary acts, give away large sums of money, or make huge sacrifices. Kindness is a much cozier, more approachable concept, as simple as offering a smile, a few genuine words of compassion, or a listening ear.

Why does that feel so hard sometimes?

I’ve been thinking about kindness a lot since I wrote the post here. Actively attempting to perform acts of kindness, rather than waiting for an opportunity to present itself has proven to be more challenging than I expected, even though kindness has always been a value important to me. Many questions and decisions arise. How to be kind? Who needs kindness? What will be the best thing to do for them? What about the man on the corner holding up the sign? What about the emails in my inbox wanting money for good causes, causes I believe in? What if someone takes advantage of me? This is a good chance to give up the illusion of control. I can’t know what’s in another’s heart, whether they’re taking advantage of me or not. I can know what’s in my heart.

I still have a lot to learn, but here are a few conclusions I’ve drawn after two weeks of deliberately trying to practice kindness:

Become aware. Maybe this is for me alone, but I tend to walk around in my own little world, consumed by my thoughts and imaginings. I’m sure I miss opportunities to be kind simply because I’m oblivious. I’m making more of an effort to pay attention to what’s happening around me, actively seeking ways to be kind, listening more closely to friends and family. What you notice multiplies—noticing opportunities to be kind has opened my eyes to more opportunities.

Start small and close. Be kind to your loved ones. Think about what you do for your family as kind actions, not requirements. There are a few chores around my home that I truly dislike (and sometimes resent). When I think about them as kind actions for people I love, I’m much less irritated by them (the chores and the people). Also think about what acts of kindness come easily to you—maybe you love baking and sharing your creations with others, or you’re great at finding exactly the right words of encouragement. Start there.

Use your words. Phrases as simple as please, thank you, can I help? might be just what someone needs to hear. Consider your tone of voice, too. How many arguments start over tone of voice rather than words themselves?

Fill your well. It’s hard to be kind to others when you’re unkind to yourself. Meet your needs for rest, nourishment (physical, mental, and spiritual), pleasure, and adventure. Don’t be stingy with yourself so that you have something to draw from to be kind to others.

Follow your heart. When you have a kind impulse, follow it. When faced with a choice, ask, “What would be the kind thing to do?”

Retain your boundaries. Being kind doesn’t mean being a doormat. Kindness is not “niceness,” bending your desires to suit someone else’s agenda.

Kindness sometimes feels awkward and scary. Putting yourself out there makes you feel vulnerable, offering a gift that might be rejected or misunderstood. It’s a risk you’ll have to take if you value kindness and want to bring more of it into your life. Start small, and see where it takes you.

How can you be kind today?