Living Consciously

Paper Reindeer at the Ladies’ Aid

One of the skills in the “things I never particularly wanted to know” category that I’ve learned over this cold, snowy winter is the art of building fires in the wood-burning stove. Among the refinements I’ve figured out is that when you use old paper bags, tax returns, and bank statements for fire-starting, they ignite more readily if you first tear them into pieces.

The other day, as I squatted in front of the stove solemnly tearing paper with utterly irrelevant precision into halves and quarters and eighths, I was reminded of my mother.

What I remembered was a specific occasion, possibly a baby shower but more likely a meeting of our Methodist Church Ladies’ Aid Society. In either case, it was a sedate afternoon party for women, with a few little girls along by default. We were expected to remain quiet, well-behaved, and in the background. In exchange we got refreshments—most likely watery punch and homemade cake—and the chance to listen in on grownup conversations. Continue reading

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The Heart Rate-Boosting Exercise of Tidying Up

Tidying up. It’s a concept I strongly favor—well, at least theoretically. I have to admit I haven’t gotten around to reading Marie Kondo’s book yet, though I do practice a couple of ideas gleaned from it in a second-hand way.

One of the reasons I haven’t read it yet, I suspect, is the title. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a terrific title. “Magic,” of course, implies that change might be as easy as waving your wand or wiggling your nose. Then there’s “tidying up,” which is such a non-threatening concept. It sounds so doable, so manageable, so much less overwhelming than the huge, where-do-I-start tasks implied by “cleaning up” or “clearing out.” I’m just afraid that the process actually described inside the book might not be so simple and might involve actual effort.

I like the idea of “tidying up” as a dainty, leisurely, lady-of-the-manor phrase. It implies merely a little adjusting or patting into place. Just straighten a couple of pillows over here, pick up a coffee cup (Limoges or Wedgewood, presumably) over there, pinch the dried blossoms off of the begonia, and all is order and serenity.

In reality, of course, “tidying up” is what you suddenly feel a need to do if you get a text from a friend: “On my way, 10 min?”, or you suddenly realize you invited people for dinner at 6:00 rather than 6:30, or you glance out the window and see your in-laws’ car in the driveway.

The ensuing process is something like this:

Cram dirty dishes into the dishwasher, regardless of whether the ones already in there are dirty or clean. Continue reading

Categories: Just For Fun, Living Consciously | Tags: | 2 Comments

Missed Congeniality

“It’s a relief to have a meal with a young woman who isn’t scared to death,” the Very Minor Celebrity who was visiting our very small college told me. “The girl I sat beside at lunch was so nervous her hands were shaking, and the peas kept falling off her fork.”

It’s not that the Very Minor Celebrity was such a scary guy. True, his self-assured presence and trained actor’s voice, not to mention his advanced age (he had to be almost 30) gave him a sophistication that was more than a little intimidating. But the real reason the poor girl couldn’t eat her peas wasn’t his presence but the reason for his visit. She was one of the contestants hoping to be chosen to represent our school in the Miss South Dakota pageant and potentially have a shot at becoming Miss America 1970. He was one of the judges.

Even though I was perfectly calm enough to eat my peas in peace, I was also participating in the pageant. Continue reading

Categories: Fashion, Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , | Leave a comment

What Does “Adult” Mean?

As a child, I used to think there was a portal to adulthood that everyone passed through at some point—on their 21st birthday, maybe, or when they graduated from high school or college, or at some other magical milestone that I would reach someday. On the other side of that portal would be “the answers.” The confidence, wisdom, and grownup status to know, in pretty much all circumstances, what to do and how to do it.

By now I know better. If such a portal exists, I haven’t found it yet.

Oh, I know what “adult” means in the legal sense. It refers to someone who is old enough to legally vote, buy alcohol, enter into contracts, serve on juries, and do other grownup stuff like get tattoos or piercings without needing anyone’s permission. Continue reading

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If We’re 65

Turning 65. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite milestone birthday.

So many things about getting older are annoying. Vanishing hair, for instance. Those silver ones are fine, even attractive if the light is just right; it’s all their friends and relations that have disappeared who are the problem. Or joints that start to creak when you move and stiffen up when you don’t. And skin that begins to look and feel somehow too big for you.

Even worse are the reminders that, at 65, you have suddenly moved into a new demographic category. One populated by “those to be condescended to.” Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | Tags: | 1 Comment

Everyday Lifesavers

“I saved his life.”

Unfortunately, whatever lifesaving the sixtyish woman at the next table had done, it wasn’t exciting enough to make her raise her voice as she chatted with her husband about it. That one tantalizing phrase was all I overheard.

This left me to wonder about the rest of the story. Whose life? How did she save him? Rescue him from drowning, or a car crash or a conflagration? Give him a kidney? Was he a child? Was he even human? Maybe he was a dog or cat they had 30 years ago, for all I know.

That’s the frustrating part: I don’t know. And I never will. Because as an unrepentant but courteous eavesdropper, I do know it’s bad manners and worse strategy to lean over and say, “I didn’t quite get that—could you please speak up?”

After I finished wondering about the other woman’s mysterious lifesaving, my mind took the next logical path. I started wondering whether I’ve ever saved anyone’s life. Continue reading

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The Perfect Christmas Tree

Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)

But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)

These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Leaving the Lights On

Even by the standards of an early-morning person like me, 8:30 p.m. isn’t really late. But in the short days of late November, when you’ve just staggered off of an airplane at the end of a day that started 20 hours earlier on a different continent, 8:30 p.m. can feel like the deep, dark middle of a very long night.

But the plane landed promptly, my friends were at the airport to pick me up, and when we turned from the dark street into the dark driveway of what I expected to be our dark house—there was light. My daughter had stopped by to turn up the thermostat, and she had left the porch light on for me. Plus the light inside the entryway, plus a lamp shining warmly through the front window.

The impact of this simple gesture went far beyond the practical kindness of making it easier to lug my bag up the steps and unlock the door. The light allowed me to walk into a warm, bright haven instead of a cold, dark house. It made me feel safe and welcomed me home.

And I was reminded of one of the stories my father told. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 4 Comments

Person to Person

Way, way back in the olden days, when telephones had rotary dials, making a call meant putting one finger (or, for those with thick fingers or manicured nails, the end of a pencil) into the hole by the appropriate number, rotating the dial all the way to the right, letting it spin back to the left, and repeating for each number. Which is why we still often say we “dial” phone numbers, even though touch-tone phones with buttons started replacing rotary phones in the 1960’s.

Back when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not to be made thoughtlessly, you could dial “O,” get an operator, and place a person-to-person call. Not just to a given number, but to a specific person at that number: Mr. Jones in the purchasing department, or Uncle Albert, or your mother. Such a call cost more than a talk-to-anyone call you placed yourself, but if the person you asked for wasn’t in, the call wasn’t completed and there was no charge. A whole generation of college students found this useful. After a holiday or weekend visit home, placing a person-to-person call to themselves at the home number was a free way to let Mom and Dad know they had arrived safely back at school.

Today, the Internet allows us to communicate freely, easily, and almost instantaneously with vast numbers of people all over the world. The very idea of placing a phone call with the help of a human operator—and paying by the minute for it—seems almost as cumbersome and outdated as sending a telegram or writing a letter with a quill pen dipped in ink.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Every electronic communication we send out—an email, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a shared photo or video, a comment on social media—every single one is still a person-to-person message. Thousands of people might see or read or share it, but each one is a separate human being responding in an individual way. Even an automated robo-call or bot that targets huge numbers of random recipients originates from some real live person somewhere. And all that spam is received by separate people whose irritation and inconvenience is downright personal.

So, on the outgoing side, before you post or text or send any other kind of communication, it might be helpful to stop and consider whether it’s worth sending. I doubt that many of us would go to the trouble and expense of placing an expensive person-to-person long-distance call just to yell at someone or call them an idiot. Maybe it’s not a good idea to do essentially the same thing just because the Internet makes it easy.

And on the incoming side, we can take advantage of one very useful feature of the person-to-person call: If you are the one it comes to, you don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to participate in divisive or insulting messages, crude jokes, drama-stirring incitements to indignation, pseudo-sentimental appeals, unsolicited ads, or anything else you don’t want in your life. Every incoming communication comes with a choice to take it in or ignore it. You can read or view it or not, respond to it or not, disconnect from its sender as much as possible, make liberal use of spam filters, and choose not to waste time and energy on junk. No person-to-person message can be completed unless you say yes to it. You don’t have to be “in” to every piece of spam that comes your way.

Categories: Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Improper Nouns; Tedx Rapid City Talk

World peace. Everybody, from preachers to political leaders to beauty pageant winners, seems to be in favor of it. But nobody seems to know how to create it.

However, I recently had a revelation. I discovered one common factor tied to many of the beliefs and behaviors that separate us into “us” and “them.” This insight has the potential to end prejudice, cyberbullying, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and all sorts of other extreme isms. Which could lead us to world peace.

Here’s my discovery. The real problem at the heart of all these isms is—adjectives.

Specifically, adjectives being improperly used as nouns.

Of course, you all know what a noun is: a person, place, or thing. And an adjective describes a noun. If you see me wearing a pink jacket, you wouldn’t stop at the adjective and call it a “pink.” You’d finish the sentence with the noun “jacket.”

But all too often, when we refer to other people, stopping at the adjective is exactly what we do. We forget to finish the sentence with the noun “person.”

Here’s just one example: “creative.” It’s a perfectly respectable, reliable, responsible adjective. But increasingly, I’m seeing it used improperly as a noun—calling people who make beautiful or interesting things not “creative people,” or “people doing creative things,” or even “creators,” but “creatives.”

I think this is actually a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, to use a term that’s broader than “artist.” But ironically, it has the opposite effect. It twists the descriptive adjective creative into a label that only applies to the “right” sort of people.

As a writer, I get to be a “creative” who belongs over here. If you make photographs or music or paintings or quilts, you’re creatives, too. Come on over here with me—we’re “us.” But if you’re a scientist? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? Or a plumber? Nope, so sorry. You’re not creatives. Never mind all the complex and creative problem-solving that your work requires. You belong over there—you’re “them.” We’ve been arbitrarily and artificially divided into separate groups.

But what about all the other adjectives we misuse so often that we don’t even notice? Aren’t the divisions they create just as arbitrary and artificial?

Words like white. Black. Native. Muslim. Christian. Victim. Liberal. Conservative. Rich. Poor. Redneck. Disabled. Homeless. Elderly. We use these as nouns so commonly that even the dictionary calls many of them nouns. But what they really are is adjectives, words that describe the noun “person.” Any time a word is used as shorthand to define a given group, that’s an adjective. Any time a word is used with “the” in front of it and “community” behind it, that’s an adjective.

Much of the time, when we use adjectives improperly as nouns, there’s no malicious intent. It’s just a handy verbal shortcut. But, just as with the word “creative,” we are twisting descriptions into labels.

And there are several problems with labels.

First, they often come attached to baggage—all the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations we each form out of our own complex experiences. This baggage can lead, not just to using labels, but to using ugly, hateful, hurtful ones; labels intended to put more distance between “us” and “them.”

A second thing about labels is that they tend to stick. And when you stick on a label, you hide whatever is behind it. If I categorize you with a label like “liberal” or “redneck” or “homeless,” I see you one-dimensionally. I put you into a box and make that one aspect of you the only thing I see. I disregard everything else that makes you unique and individual.

Third, labels limit the ways we see ourselves as well as others. They give us only one or two ways to define our tribes. As humans, we evolved to belong to communities—to small family groups and larger tribal groups. It’s possible that our survival may have depended on thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” on defending our people and our resources against outsiders.

But in today’s world, our survival may depend instead on broadening our view of “us,” expanding the way we define our tribes.

Imagine an enormous stadium filled with thousands of people from all over the planet: male and female, all ages, different races, different nationalities, different abilities, different walks of life. Imagine walking into this huge and diverse group. Where would you belong? Who might be like you? How would you find your tribe?

It would be easy to start with the obvious, as we so often do because that’s where we are comfortable. I, for example, might define my tribe as white people, or female people, or older people. All those adjectives legitimately describe aspects of who I am. But if grab one or two of them and stop there, I overlook all the other tribes I might belong to.

Here are just a few of them: People who write. People with children or grandchildren. People who have been widowed or divorced. People in 12-step programs. People who love to read. People who can’t recognize their own faces in the mirror without corrective lenses. In this enormous gathering, there are dozens of tribes each of us might belong to. In fact, once we start finding common experiences and characteristics, potentially everyone in that vast gathering could become “us” instead of “them.”

Of course, in order to identify those tribes, we need to be willing to discover people instead of labeling them. To have conversations. And you can’t really have a conversation with an adjective.

By now you may be assuming I have something against adjectives. Not at all. They are useful words with important work to do. Suppose, for example, I have just robbed a convenience store and am running off down the street as fast as I can go with a case of beer in each hand. When the clerk calls the cops, it would certainly be a good idea to use adjectives. To describe my gender, my race, my age, my physical appearance, my height, and even, God forbid, my weight. This is exactly what adjectives are for.

I don’t suggest we should stop using adjectives, just that we use them more carefully and consciously. That we remember that their purpose is not to define us, but to describe aspects of who we are. Of course these different aspects matter. Things like our race, our religion, where and how we grow up, our abilities and experiences—all these shape who we are and how we are in the world. It’s ridiculous to pretend they don’t exist. But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that one or two of them are the only things that define us.

Organizations that support people with special needs encourage us to use phrases like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” To see the person first, not the disability. All I suggest is that we extend that same courtesy and respect to everyone.

Would this really lead to world peace? When I suggested that it might, of course I was exaggerating. But . . . not entirely.

Being more conscious of our adjectives is a simple thing. Something each of us can do. But because that small shift in our language can create a shift in our thinking, it has the potential to make a big difference.

So why don’t we try it? To choose not to stop at the easy adjective, but to always get to the end of the sentence, where the person is. To focus on the part of speech that matters most—that essential, human noun.


This is a talk I gave at Tedx Rapid City on June 28, 2017. It was a wonderful opportunity and an exhilarating experience—at least after it was over! I’ll post a link to the video when it’s available in a few weeks.

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