"Every Contact Leaves a Trace"

January 13, 2017

I’ve been thinking about a forensic investigation technique lately—and not just because I like reading mysteries. No, it’s because I recently came across Dr. Edmond Locard’s principle of exchange, which states, “Every contact leaves a trace.” This principle is the basis of forensic science—trace evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA, footprints, or fibers, can now be used to link people or objects to crime scenes.

Every contact does leave a trace, and not just forensically speaking. The people around us, and what we allow into our surroundings and our minds, leave traces on us and in us. We all have people in our lives who inspire, energize, and encourage us, and thank goodness for them. We probably also know people who drain us of energy or leave us anxious and irritated after every encounter. To protect our happiness and overall mental state, we can seek out the people and things which lift us up, while minimizing contact with the people and things which leave a negative trace.

I try to walk the line between hiding from the legitimate problems in the world and allowing them too much space in my head. I know what I choose to read and to watch leaves a trace, so I don’t choose to read or watch certain things, no matter how worthy they might be. I surround myself as much as is in my power with things I want to leave a trace on my world. My office especially is a place that holds symbols and talismans of inspiration, as well as reminders of love others have shown me, and things I aspire to.  I’m also fortunate enough to have a great deal of control over the people I interact with, and therefore most of them leave positive traces.

What about the traces we ourselves are leaving? It bears remembering that we have the power to influence others with our words and actions.  After all, happiness is contagious.

With every interaction, we touch others and they touch us. What kind of trace will you leave?


Each Unnamed

January 11, 2017

Introduction by Ted Kooser: A while back we published a column in which I talked about my delight in the many names of kinds of apples, and mentioned Louise Bogan's marvelous mid-century poem “The Crossed Apple.” Here's yet another fine apple-name poem for my collection, by Susan Rothbard, who lives in New Jersey.

That New

At the market today, I look for PiƱata
apples, their soft-blush-yellow. My husband
brought them home last week, made me guess at
the name of this new strain, held one in his hand
like a gift and laughed as I tried all
the names I knew: Gala, Fuji, Honey
Crisp—watched his face for clues—what to call
something new? It’s winter, only tawny
hues and frozen ground, but that apple bride
was sweet, and I want to bring it back to him,
that new. When he cut it, the star inside
held seeds of other stars, the way within
a life are all the lives you might live,
each unnamed, until you name it.

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 ©2012 by Susan Rothbard, “That New,” from the Cortland Review, (No. 58, 2012). Poem reprinted by permission of Susan Rothbard and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2017 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.

12 Week Year

Planning Practices for a New Year

January 06, 2017

During the week between Christmas and Jan. 1, I begin my official year-end wrap up and planning for the next year. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I do set some big, overarching goals at this time. Or try to. I have a problem with big, overarching goals. Oh, I can set them all right, but I struggle with the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty practicality of how to get from here to there. I’m going to try something new this year, which I’ll get to later, but first, I’m going to share with you some tools I use for planning my goals for a new year.

Year-End Review

Before I get into any goal setting, I look back over the past year to see what I’ve accomplished and where I’ve fallen short. This year, I used Marie Forleo’s three-question review, but I also wrote down a list of some of the more mundane things I did that nevertheless were accomplishments, such as reading 109 books, posting to Catching Happiness 106 times, and starting a regular sketching practice (three months and counting). While I fell short on working on my book idea, riding Tank bridleless, purging my house of unneeded items, and various and sundry other goals, 2016 was a better-than-average year for me. I took a moment to savor those accomplishments before moving on to…

Goal Brainstorming

Next, I start writing out all the things that are floating around in my head that I would like to see accomplished in the coming year. This is where I allow myself to dream big, and I include as many of the nagging tasks I’d like to see finished as I can think of. This year, I’ve made a list called “70 in ’17”—70 things I want to happen in 2017. Some of these are writing goals (complete a draft of that book, write some haiku), some are household goals (buy new light fixture for kitchen nook, stain the chairs on the front porch), and some are just for fun (do puzzle with M, buy some new music, go to Fannin Hill with Tank). My idea is to work from this list as I sit down to plan each month.

12-Week Planning

This is the new thing I mentioned above. I recently read The12-Week Year, and I’m experimenting with 12-Week planning. I’m hoping this will solve my problem with carrying out my bigger goals by helping me break them down into much smaller, more do-able increments. So far, I’m still struggling a bit with that—my perfectionism (fear in disguise?) is hampering my ability to choose and break down appropriate goals, but I’m making progress.

Word of the Year

As I’ve done in past years, I choose a word of the year to guide me. Previous years’ words have included open, light, passion, and quality. This year’s word is “deeper.” I want it to encourage me to stop skimming the surface and go deeper, to find the riches that are buried. Be less superficial, more real. Do fewer things, but do them better.

Vision Board

For me, this is just pure fun. I like playing with pretty pictures! I create two—a larger one for my office, and a smaller one to go in my daily planner. I choose images and words that make me happy and draw me to them, that symbolize for me something I want more of in my life.

In January, all things seem possible. It’s in the actual doing that we sometimes run into problems. All this planning, for me, is intended to keep me on track. I share these practices with you in case there’s anything here you might like to try for yourself.

How do you plan for a new year? Do you have any goals or dreams for 2017 you’d like to share?

Jean Hersey

How Will You Shape Your Year?

January 04, 2017

“A new year is a gift, a small piece of infinity, to do with as we will. Things happen. We grow (we hope), and we learn willy nilly. Life moves around us, life moves through us to others, and the year gradually accepts its pattern. We give, we take, we resist, we flow. Our reachings, acceptances, rejections, our hesitancies, courage, fears, and our loves, all these form the shape of the year for each of us, as individuals, as part of a family, as a member of a community.”
—Jean Hersey, The Shape of a Year

New Year

And a New Year Begins

January 02, 2017

I hope you had a most happy and refreshing holiday season. Even though it was 85 degrees on Christmas Day, we enjoyed hosting family for a meal, and apparently we were very good this year, because we all received delightful gifts.

I regret nothing
I spent last week sleeping in, puttering around, dreaming and making plans for 2017, reading, and (let’s be honest) keeping Prudy out of the Christmas tree until I could take it down yesterday. This year’s broken ornament count: two. Not bad.

For me personally, 2016 was an excellent year, and I plan to build on that success in 2017. I have fun plans for Catching Happiness, too—so stick around!

Happy New Year—may it bring you much joy, growth, and meaning!