Living Consciously

Digesting Everything I Needed To Know

Robert Fulghum may have learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but I didn’t. Possibly because I never went to kindergarten.

But I did learn, not quite everything I needed to know, but a lot of useful and interesting stuff from Reader’s Digest.

In a household where both parents and all four daughters were avid readers, there was a lot of competition for the fat little magazine when it showed up in the mail every month. My memory is that it often had the bad timing to arrive on housecleaning days, which meant Mother would stash it somewhere until the work was done. There it sat on top of the fridge, out of sight but not out of mind, its unread jokes and stories a distracting temptation while we vacuumed and dusted. It was a strong incentive to be the first one to finish, of course—though, oddly enough, quite often the person who got to it first was Mother.

Reader’s Digest was a predictable mix of material that was mostly condensed and republished: a long excerpt from a nonfiction book, at least one story of a dramatic rescue or recovery, short pieces of insight and observation, and, of course, the jokes scattered throughout the pages like chocolate chips in the cookie.

I read the whole thing. It’s a bit surprising, all these years later, how many things I remember. (None of which I can think of right this minute, but I could call you later when they surface in my brain. Would two a.m. be convenient?)

I do recall the awfulness of one story about a girl who was about 11 or 12 (close to my own age at the time) and dying of leukemia. During her last days in the hospital, her parents told her if there was anything she wanted, they would do whatever they could to get it for her. She had just one wish: to see her brothers and sisters one last time. But hospitals then didn’t allow kids under the age of 14 to visit, and rules were rules. As I remember it, the parents didn’t even ask. The best they could do was sneak the oldest sister in for an illicit visit. The unkindness and unfairness of that sad story made me angry at the time. It still does.

As an adult, I continued to subscribe to Reader’s Digest for years. While its formula didn’t vary much, the content did evolve over the years as society changed. This was brought home to me once when I bought a box of books at a garage sale. In it was an aging little paperback of “Playboy Party Jokes.” I opened it, prepared to be suitably shocked. But the book was even older than it looked; I had already read most of the jokes in Reader’s Digest.

One of my high school teachers warned us not to use Reader’s Digest as a source for any assignments. Always go back to the full version of an article wherever it was originally published, he said, because “they chop off the ending to make room for all the jokes at the bottom of the pages.”

This was sound enough advice as far as it went, but even as a teenager I knew he was mistaken about the editing process. The Reader’s Digest editors may have made lots of cuts, but they used their red pencils more like scalpels than hatchets. It’s an example I try to follow as an editor myself. Possibly some of my current or former clients may disagree. Unfortunately, their comments had to be deleted due to lack of space.

Categories: Just For Fun, Living Consciously | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Thankful for Small Things

When it comes to being thankful, of course what matters most is family and friends—those wonderful (well, most of the time) people who make life such a joy (well, most of the time).

But I’m grateful for plenty of minor things, too. Such as:

Bathrobes. On a cold morning, nothing quite matches the cozy pleasure of slipping into a soft, fleecy robe that wraps you in warmth from chin to ankles. Then there are luxurious silky robes that make you feel like a Hollywood star from a lavishly costumed 1950’s movie. Cool cotton robes just right for summer mornings. Practical terrycloth robes. Given enough cash and closet space, I could easily become the Imelda Marcos of bathrobes.

The taste of a crisp slice of apple with peanut butter on it. And the fact that grocery stores now have so many scrumptious varieties of apples—Gala and Fuji and Honeycrisp and more—besides the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smiths I remember from childhood.

Peanut butter itself, for that matter. (Hint—try it in oatmeal.) Thank you, George Washington Carver.

Seeing deer in our yard. Sometimes, like this morning, it’s the flash of a white tail disappearing into the trees. Sometimes it’s a browsing mule deer that acknowledges us with the twitch of a big ear as we walk past, but who isn’t even concerned enough by our presence to stop chewing.

My African violets that bloom so beautifully year-round, in spite of the haphazard care that they get.

Colored pencils and calligraphy markers.

The washer and dryer right there in our very own laundry room.

Bad puns and wordplay. Such as the editor’s favorite breakfast, synonym rolls. Or the fish in schools who sometimes take debate. Or, perhaps appropriately to the season, the fact that the roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. Who got that way, of course, from too much Pi.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Toasted Dust and Toasty Toes

There’s nothing quite like the cozy pleasure of turning on the furnace for the first time in the fall. Oh, you can postpone it for a while, even when the mornings are getting cool enough so you wake up and are tempted to pull the covers up to your neck and stay tucked in for another few minutes. You know that during this “shoulder season,” you might need to put on a jacket to go out and get the morning paper, but it’s still likely to get up to 80 degrees before lunch time.

But eventually comes that first genuinely cold morning when you know the time has come. You get out of bed, reach for your short summer bathrobe, and realize your goosebumps are telling you it’s time to scurry over to the closet and get the heavy winter robe instead. You put it on, then perch on tiptoe to minimize the contact between your bare feet and the cold floor while you rummage through the clutter in the bottom of the closet for your slippers.

Wrapped up but still shivering, you go down the hallway and nudge the thermostat up from 50 to 70. Almost immediately the furnace, which has been hibernating since the middle of May, comes to life with a soft rumble. Warm air begins flowing out of the vent in the bathroom, bringing with it that distinctive autumn aroma of toasted dust.

When you go out to the kitchen to make coffee, you linger at the counter while it brews, your toes stretching in the delicious warmth coming out of the vent below the cupboard. You curl up in your chair under an afghan, cold fingers wrapped around your first cup of steaming coffee, contemplating the cold-weather pleasures of soups and sweaters and bread baking in the oven. The house begins to surround you with comfort.

And you didn’t have to do anything but adjust the thermostat. No chopping wood, no carrying coal, no building fires. It’s practically a miracle. All you’ve had to do is wave your magic wand—er, pen—over your checkbook and pay the gas bill.

*By the way, it’s much easier to celebrate the joys of crisp fall mornings on a late-October day when the predicted high is 70 degrees.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 2 Comments

A Life Well Lived “In the Middle of Nowhere”

I recently met a woman who lived not far from where I grew up in south-central South Dakota, and she asked me where my family’s farm was. When I told her, “Fifteen miles north and west of Gregory,” she said, “But that’s in the middle of nowhere!”

Well, we didn’t think so. We were only six miles from the highway, after all. To qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” surely you’d have to be at least 20 or 25 miles from the nearest pavement.

I will admit, though, that when it rained those six miles turned into a formidable obstacle of slippery, sticky gumbo. Even in later years, after the roads were graded and graveled, driving on them after a rain required a judicious amount of care and respect.

I remember one visit to my parents back when I was a single mom with two young children. It rained heavily the night before I needed to head home, and I was a little nervous about those six miles of gravel-over-gumbo between the highway and me. I loaded the kids and our stuff into my little Datsun station wagon, braced myself, and took off. We slipped and slid a few times, but made it with no real problems. After those first six miles, the rest of the 250-mile trip was a breeze.

After I got home, I made the usual “We’re home safe” phone call to my parents. My dad happened to answer the phone. I said I hadn’t had any trouble getting through the mud. He chuckled and said, “You didn’t know you had a guardian angel following you, did you?”

After I left, he had gotten into the pickup and driven a half mile behind me all the way to the highway, just in case I slid off the road and needed some help. I never even knew he was there.

My father almost never said, “I love you.” What he did instead was do “I love you.” That day, his actions said “I love you,” as clearly as if he had shouted it.

More clearly, in fact. He could have told us goodbye with big hugs and said, “I love you so much”—and then stayed comfortably in the warm house and had another cup of coffee. Instead, he put on his coveralls, went out to the pickup, and drove six miles through the mud to the highway and six miles back. He was there behind me just in case I needed him.

Ten years ago, my parents drove out to Rapid City because my father had an appointment with the cardiologist. They stayed at my house for a couple of days. Since my dad, at age 82, wasn’t comfortable driving in city traffic, I served as the driver while they were here. But the morning they were to leave, I drove my car to the clinic and they followed me. When my dad had seen the doctor, they started for home.

As I watched them pull out of the clinic parking lot onto Fifth Street and head north, I knew they shouldn’t have any trouble. All they needed to do was stay on that street all the way through town to I-90.

Still, after waiting a minute, I pulled out onto Fifth Street and headed north myself. Staying back far enough so they wouldn’t notice me, I followed them through town until I saw them turn onto the Interstate. It really wasn’t necessary, but I was there behind them just in case they needed me. It was my turn to be the guardian angel—to do “I love you.” Just the way I learned it from my father.

In the years since, as our parents have aged and needed more help, saying “I love you” has become much more common. But my sisters and I have also had plenty of opportunities to do “I love you,” especially in the past few months. Our father spent most of the month of July in the hospital. On July 23 he had a heart attack, and on July 27 he died.

In the days after his death, as we wrote his obituary and made arrangements and supported our mother, I found a great deal of comfort in two things. One was the stories and memories we shared, with plenty of laughter as well as tears. Another was realizing the great respect and love that so many friends and members of the extended family had for our father. I always knew that he was a man of integrity who could be relied on. I always knew I was proud to be his daughter. I hadn’t fully understood how much, in his own quiet way, he touched and influenced so many people. Even in a place some people might see as “the middle of nowhere,” his life made a difference.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 8 Comments

Don’t Follow Good Advice Too Closely

As bike wrecks go, it wasn’t that spectacular. I was pedaling along with the rest of the family—not racing, not trying to ride with no hands, not doing anything except follow my stepdaughter along the bike path. Until she cut a curve too short, swerved off of the pavement, tried to swerve back on, and crashed. I jumped/scrambled my bike over hers somehow and crashed just beyond her.

Yes, I was wearing a helmet. But my cheek still connected with the concrete hard enough to make my ears ring. Until then, I always thought seeing stars only happened in cartoons.

While I sat on the pike path collecting myself and realizing that blood was starting to drip from my scraped wrist, a woman who had been behind us stopped to inspect the damage. She told me earnestly, “That’s what can happen when you follow too closely.”

In that moment, I learned one of those difficult life lessons that are so good for one’s character.

Oh, not the lesson about staying a safe distance behind another cyclist. (And why is it, anyway, that people who ride bicycles are called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers?”) Believe me, I had already figured that out for myself.

No, what was good for my character was realizing I had developed enough internal wisdom and poise that I did not swear at this woman or call her names. Not only because I was too shaken up. Not only because it might have shocked the children. But because a) it wasn’t worth the trouble, and b) I recognized that she was well-intentioned and even caring in her own way. Never mind that her way was interfering, pushy, bossy, annoying, and condescending.

Or, worst of all, that she was right.

It’s a good thing, all these years later, that I’m over it.

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The World As Seen By . . .

Not everyone sees the world the same way I do. By now this no longer surprises me, though it sometimes leaves me bemused, baffled, or bewildered. I do understand, really I do, that having a perspective different from my own does not make people “wrong.” Of course, bless their hearts, it doesn’t necessarily make them right, either.

We are told that the best way to understand someone else’s perspective is to walk a mile in their shoes. Or at least to walk a few steps, if those shoes happen to be three-inch heels with pointy toes. So in the interest of broadening my perspective, here is how I imagine the world must look to some of the people whose point of view is different from mine.

Celebrity chefs: We all have plenty of time to cook and ample funds to buy only the finest organic ingredients. We all have convenient access to lavishly stocked grocery stores and markets selling local produce. Our kitchens all have generous pantry space fully stocked with exotic ingredients that are never past their expiration dates. We have a complete and well-organized array of cookware and utensils. Our knives are always sharp. We have no picky children who will only eat peanut butter and jelly on white bread with the crusts cut off. We know and appreciate the difference between quinoa and spelt, and none of our family members or close friends think kale is a NASCAR driver.

Fitness instructors: Everyone looks better in Spandex. We all have time to work out every day. And we all want to.

Anonymous online commenters: All politicians are corrupt power-grabbers. All public employees are incompetent and overpaid. All rich people are greedy, selfish crooks. All poor people are either (a), hard-working, downtrodden victims, or (b), lazy, addicted, cheating parasites. Everyone who disagrees with the commenter is stupid. The world is not only headed for hell in a handbasket; it’s hovering just above the flames and going down fast.

Home/decor/lifestyle magazine publishers: Our living spaces are creatively enhanced with art objects, old stuff repurposed into quirky new stuff, pops of fashionable color, and artfully placed heirlooms. We redecorate beautifully for every season and holiday. Our children’s toys are so cleverly sorted and stored that they are always neatly put away. Our closets are optimized and organized. Our socks all match.

And best of all, our homes have no clutter. No boxes of stuff stacked in the garage, no plastic bins bulging with Christmas lights that may or may not work, no guest rooms with under-the-bed stashes, no closets that are dangerous to open. The materials for all our creative ornamentation magically store themselves . . . somewhere.

Twitter users: Every opinion, philosophy, bit of life wisdom, or clever thought can be expressed in 140 characters—and should be.

Two-year-olds: Other people? Who cares how they see anything? It’s all mine!

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What Mother’s Day Cards Don’t Say

(I wrote this several years ago. It’s still true.)

I hate picking out Mother’s Day cards. Oh, not because I don’t love my mother. I do. I also like my mother, respect her, admire her, and enjoy her company (except maybe for all those times when she beat me by more than 50 points at Scrabble). I’m deeply grateful that she’s a part of my life. But it’s still hard to find a card that suits her.

Mother’s Day cards are generally divided into two styles. First there are the neutral ones, those with the carefully worded, noncommittal greetings. They’re generic enough for almost anyone. You might send them to your mother-in-law, or your neighbor, or your aunt—or your mother, if the two of you didn’t get along very well. Those don’t exactly convey the loving message I’d like to send.

Then there are the other cards—the soppy, sentimental ones. These must be produced by writers who are trained by attending a boot camp for greeting card writers. They spend six weeks locked in windowless rooms, where they are required for 15 hours a day to read and reread Little Women and the more sentimental novels of Charles Dickens. Only then are they considered qualified to write Mother’s Day verses.

The problem with these cards is that they aren’t written to or about real people. They try to invoke an idealized version of “Mother” who is endlessly patient, kind, understanding, loving, dedicated, noble, and self-sacrificing. This mythical creature is a mishmash of June Cleaver, Ma Ingalls, and the Virgin Mary, with touches of Florence Nightingale and Lassie thrown in for good measure.

Real mothers aren’t like that. Nor, in my opinion, should they be. Still, I love my mother, and I’d like to send her a suitable card. If I could find one, these are some of the things it might say:

For my mother—
• Whose walls are decorated, not only with her own beautiful quilted creations, but also with antlers of her own deer.
• Who patiently spent long-ago summer evenings helping small daughters fish when she surely would rather have been left in peace to tend her own line.
• Who taught me that preparing a meal for 25 or 30 people doesn’t have to be a big deal.
• Who took loving care of her own elderly mother and mother-in-law.
• Who taught me that, in times of crisis, sentiment might be noble but practical action is a lot more help.
• Who taught me that half the fun of playing Scrabble comes from knowing the meaning of the words you use—but there’s still nothing quite like using the “Q” on a triple word score.

And who taught me that being an adult—whether you’re a parent or not—means showing up, day in and day out, and doing what needs to be done. And if, in return, someone gives you a little chocolate once in a while, that’s not a bad deal.

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Second-Hand Good Judgment

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. Anyone over the age of, say, two and a half knows this saying to be true. Some of us with a few decades more maturity might even be willing to admit it

But it’s also true that, once in a while, good judgment grows out of someone else’s bad judgment. Humans, being wise and adaptable creatures, can sometimes learn valuable lessons from watching what happens to those around us.

Here are a few second-hand pieces of good judgment I have learned:

1. Before I walk on the treadmill, I always tie my shoes in double knots. I learned this from the experience of a friend whose shoelace came untied, caught in the roller of the treadmill, and pulled her to her knees for several very painful minutes until she could loosen her shoe enough to escape. But that’s not all—while I walk on the treadmill, I always use the safety cord. The magnet on one end must be attached to the treadmill in order for it to operate. The idea is to clip the other end to your clothes, so in case you slip or trip or are the victim of your own loose shoelace, the treadmill will stop instantly when your falling body pulls the magnet loose. Any time I’m tempted to not bother with the clip, I remember what my friend’s legs looked like. You generally only see scabs that impressive on the knees of novice nine-year-old roller skaters.

2. If I need to hang a picture, change a light bulb, or reach something on a high shelf, I take time to go to downstairs and get the stepstool. Or at least I go to the dining room and get a sturdy wooden chair. Because I learned the following from one of the members of my family: even if you’re in a hurry, and you’re just going to do one quick little thing, and the only chair in the room happens to be one on wheels, it’s really, really not a good idea to stand on that chair. True, you might save a minute or two by not taking time to go get something less mobile to stand on. But that isn’t much of a benefit when you balance it against spending several hours in the emergency room waiting for the doctor to set your broken wrist.

3. If I have my cell phone in the back pocket of my jeans, and I need to answer a call of nature, I first park the phone somewhere safe like the bathroom counter. I formed this habit after another member of my family had her phone slip out of her pocket and land with an embarrassing splash in the toilet. I also learned from her experience that one possible way to dry out a phone is to seal it into a bag of uncooked rice for a day. It may or may not work but is worth a try. If nothing else, the pain of being out of communication with the wider world for 24 hours serves as a reminder to be more careful in the future.

Careful, the way I am, with my phone-protecting behavior. Okay, there was that one time. Yes, I left the phone on the counter in someone else’s house. Yes, I was traveling at the time and had to drive some 50 miles out of my way the next day to retrieve it. But at least it was dry when I got there.

Really, the whole incident was so trivial I don’t even know why I mentioned it. But if you gain any good judgment from my humbling—er, humble experience, you’re more than welcome.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 1 Comment

The Spirit of the Christmas Letter

Even though I don’t receive many of them (maybe more would come in if I sent out the occasional Christmas card?), I like Christmas letters. In the hands of someone creative like my niece, the annual update is a delight. But since I’m addicted to stories, I find Christmas letters at least mildly interesting even if the sender is someone I hardly know, like the daughter-in-law of my mother’s cousin once removed.

I’ve never sent out a Christmas letter myself, which for a writer is something of an embarrassment. Maybe this is the year to try it. See what you think:


It’s been another above-average year at our house. We got our usual promotions and bonuses at work, enjoyed entertaining our many friends, and gave back generously to the community in our usual ways. We’re both still wearing the same size clothes as we wore in our 20’s, we never disagree or raise our voices, and our children are all outstanding in their fields.

One of the grandchildren just received an acceptance letter from Harvard—not bad for someone who is still in preschool!! His parents are excited, of course, but they think if he does well in kindergarten next year he’ll probably get offered a scholarship at Stanford, so they aren’t making any commitments quite yet.

In June I bought a quirky little painting at a garage sale for five bucks. Turns out it was an original Picasso!!! The appraiser on Antiques Roadshow valued it at three million dollars! We sold it at Sotheby’s this fall—our accountant is still figuring out the tax consequences of that little capital gain!!

Sparky won Best of Show at the Westminster dog show this year!! Not bad for a rescue pup from the animal shelter! We weren’t going to do the show circuit, but the trainer simply begged us to let Sparky compete—she said he was the closest thing to a perfect Southern Basset she had ever seen. Now he’s in great demand as a sire, which makes it a little awkward when we explain that having him neutered was one of the requirements when we adopted him. Oh, well, at least he enjoys drinking out of the silver cup with his name on it!

And finally, my blog was among the finalists for the prestigious “Five-W” (Wit and Wisdom on the World Wide Web) award this year! I was deeply touched, even though I didn’t win. The judges said even though my stories about Sparky were entertaining, I would have done better with more cute kitten videos. Maybe it’s time for another visit to the animal shelter. Just don’t let Sparky know!!


Wait. You don’t believe any of that? Not even the Picasso? Drat; I knew I should have said Grandma Moses instead.

Maybe this will work better:

It’s been a year pretty much like any other, with family, friends, work, play, and the usual share of ups, downs, and sidewayses. Until this fall, when a health concern in the family brought home to us that the idea of “live life to the fullest, because you never know what might happen” is a truism because it’s, well, true.

The person involved is doing well—nothing is life-threatening or even life-style threatening or in need of treatment right now. But in the process of unraveling this medical issue, for me one fact has moved from the theoretical to the actual. We are all going to die, and so are the people we love most in the world. Someday. Possibly sooner, hopefully later. We don’t necessarily get to choose when.

And in the meantime, we are very much alive. The world—in spite of the fears and wounds and resentments and even evil that we humans harbor and sometimes inflict on one another—is filled with opportunities for kindness, love, and joy. It really is important to count our blessings, appreciate our loved ones, and savor one moment at a time.

It’s almost impossible to talk about something this important without sounding like a parody of a self-help guru. Like so many other things, living in the now is hard to put into words and is best learned by practice and example. The example that inspired me this Christmas morning came from one of the small grandchildren. Ignoring his “real” gifts for the moment, he was intently focused on popping, one at a time, the little inflated sacs in a piece of bubble wrap.

Gifts, and the opportunity to savor them, come in a multitude of ways. Merry Christmas.

Categories: Living Consciously | 1 Comment

Holiday Overachieving and Great Ideas

This time of year, it’s easy to feel like an underachiever. It’s not just all the ads and articles and advice about creating “perfect” Christmas gifts or Christmas wrap or Christmas cookies or Christmas dinners or Christmas decorating. It’s the people—admit it, we all know a few of them—who actually do all that stuff.

This year, as it happens, I’m doing more hands-on Christmas preparations myself than usual. Oh, we still haven’t done any decorating or put up a tree. No cookies have been or will be baked in our kitchen. Almost no shopping has been done, either.

But I am making gifts for several family members. As I often do, around the first of December I had a Great Idea for creating something handmade. Usually I consider factors like the days left till Christmas, the steps required to turn the idea into reality, and the probability that the Great Idea will result in a Not-So-Great Product, and I decide not to even try.

But this year I decided to actually carry out the Great Idea. Right now I’m in the middle of making a batch of Christmas gifts. I’m not doing it because I think I should. I’m not doing it because I think the recipients will be blown away by my creativity and overwhelmed with gratitude and keep these things forever. (Well, okay, I would like just a little bit of that. Not too much, though—it might make me think I need to do something similar next year)

I’m doing it because it’s fun. Mostly. There was that one little problem with figuring out how to make this part work, and that other little problem with getting another part to come out right. But I’m pleasantly surprised: Not only am I enjoying the process, but the reality of the almost-finished product is astonishingly close to the Great Idea as I imagined it.

And along the way, I had another Great Idea. This one deals with all the people I see as holiday overachievers. The ones who show up at a “please don’t bring anything” gathering with a little handmade gift for everyone or a batch of beautiful Christmas cookies. Or who wrap presents so beautifully that the wrapping itself is a work of art. Or who decorate every room in the house and has three color-coordinated trees in the front window.

Why should my response to any of that be a kneejerk flash of guilt, a feeling that I am a less-than-adequate human being who doesn’t quite measure up? Why should I care if someone else does a lot of elaborate holiday preparation that I don’t even care about or want to do? It has nothing to do with me, after all.

So here’s my Great Idea: Instead of feeling like an underachiever in those circumstances, I’m going to say something like, “Oh, you must have had fun creating this.”

If they did have fun, then more power to them. And the appreciation of people like me doesn’t much matter. It’s just a little bonus for them, the icing on the cookie, as it were.

If they didn’t have fun, that’s too bad, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, either. After all, no one forces any of us to do anything around the holidays. If stressed-out overachievers don’t like what they’re doing, they can come up with their own Great Idea and just say no.

And they shouldn’t feel guilty. Even if the rest of us miss out on some Christmas cookies.

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