Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sometimes a poem

Sometimes a poem comes out of nowhere and speaks to me.

Last night this one from Rilke found me via a podcast I was listening to. The translation here is particularly wonderful.

Here it is, from Sonnets to Orpheus II:

"Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower"
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Rainer Maria Rilke

I like listen to podcasts at night, just as I'm falling asleep. This beautiful Rilke poem was read by the philosopher and translator Joanna Macy, as part of her interview on Krista Tippet's On Being. You can listen to her read her translation here. Or the entire podcast, here. Both are worth the time.

I hope the poem speaks to you. What else finds you when you need to hear it?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Rules

Several years ago, my husband and I found ourselves repeating certain ideas again and again to our daughter, Ada. These weren’t directives like “Eat your green beans,” but more general instructions along the lines of “Stay calm, honey.”

At some point, the most-repeated phrases grew roots. We found ourselves calling them up in so many contexts that we couldn’t help but notice their significance. They started to feel like Rules with a capital R, and we even began calling them that. Naming them Rules felt a little strange for me, but it gave them a value and a shape that made them Real. And I needed them to be real, because it was soon clear that these would be guidelines for good habits for both my husband and me, too.

Like any family, we have regular little dos and don’ts that aren’t written down anywhere but are pretty well understood as law in our house. You heard these standards before, I’m sure: no running, don’t hit people, quiet voices indoors, don’t take your sister’s toys, clear your place when you’re finished, etc…. Such are important simply to ease the motions of living together in a household. And most of them are dictatorial and begin with negatives. Necessary, probably--but pleasant or life-affirming, definitely not.

So we might need the day-to-day standards, but, at least for me, they need a counterbalance so our house isn’t filled with negativity. I have felt how easily I could slip into dictator mommy mode. I admit there are often days that I feel so overwhelmed with the chaos that parenting can bring that it feels tempting to just impose martial law around here. I fight that urge. In the midst of a potential breakdown, I try to step outside myself and see how I might look to someone else if I were to get draconian. I hate that image of myself, and so I resist. I resist and I keep myself from calling up my own enraged voice, loaded with volume and DON’Ts. Instead, I try to get quiet inside, so I can listen to the voice calmed and assured by some of our Rules.

These other Rules feel like big ones, hefty and solid and filling space in the way a good piece of furniture can. I feel as if in cultivating these, I’m constructing a sort of heirloom, one that I can share with my daughters right now, as I practice the Rules on a daily basis myself.

We call them our family Rules, but they seem pretty universal to me, as each one appears to apply in countless settings. I’m sure my husband and I have unintentionally gleaned them from old, old sayings and philosophies, but put together like this as ours, they feel like ours, comfortable and homegrown enough that we can practice them unselfconsciously. I think that’s partly why we’ve been able to stick with them for seven years now.

When we decided to call them Rules, we actually wrote them down and assigned them an order. Eventually I actually framed them and posted them on a wall in the art studio. On some level, I felt strange giving them such an official space. But I also felt compelled to do it.

I grew up a free-range kid; no bedtimes, no set meal times, and lots of unsupervised space. And even now, and even though I am the one who wrote the rules, having a constructed code of conduct for my own family feels slightly foreign to me, and maybe a little threatening. Old habits die hard, I suppose. If, as a child, I had met a family who had a set of general rules posted on their wall, I would have snickered about them and their tightly-wound life. Given the right circumstances, I probably would have even tried to break a few of those rules ostentatiously in front of the parents, just to show off my own free-thinking self.

Clearly, I was actually starved for predictability and routine, and it takes no deep analysis to see that my flaunting rejection of healthy habits or structure was less about “free thinking” than it was envy.

Sitting down to consciously develop “rules” was like claiming new territory for myself. I like to imagine that I have the capacity for a certain amount of structure, but I recognize my own tendency to swing from one extreme to another like a Kirie-pendulum. The structure offered by our Rules literally is a counterweight to my urges to be flighty or self-centered or irresponsible.

I was going to tell you that I cling to the Rules as a necessity, but I don’t really. I don’t need to, as at least one or two of them visits me each day in my thoughts, unbidden. They are becoming /have become part of that internal voice I have, the calm one that knows what to do.

I’m trying to start that voice playing in my kids’ heads. I often ask the girls, midstream in some activity, “What’s the first (or second or third, etc) rule?” Bringing a rule into my consciousness often feels like pressing a pause button for me. It seems to have a similar effect on Ada and Esme, if for no reason other than it makes them stop their current activity for a split second to think outside of themselves.

Over the next months, I’ll share the rules individually. It’s amazing to me how useful they are for me, and many of things I think about during the day somehow come back to one or another of them.

Contrarian that I am, I’m going to start with the second rule on the list. It seems timely, as this summer and this fall have been full of moments of waiting for something to start, something to end--waiting, in other words, for a different time.

But the second rule bucks that waiting. The second rule is “Be where you are.”

Of course you recognize that rule from many ancient philosophies and modern spiritual practitioners, from Zen Buddhism to Eckhart Tolle. It’s not new by any stretch. But in the context of my own set of rules, I find it’s possible to make it personal, to make a practice that I can do outside of the boundaries of any set philosophy.
Here’s what I’ve found about Rule #2: Minute by minute, being where you are is a steadying thing. Strangely, being where I am makes me feel anchored and free at the same time. When I turn my focus to being present, suddenly I find I have a hidden well of quiet, one that runs deep, and is surprisingly full of space. Being in that moment frees me from the constrictions of wanting to be someplace else, sometime else. For those few moments, I can just be. And, even when I am feeling sad or miserable, being where I am surprises me by making me feel gratitude.

I call this one up when I notice myself longing for something different. For instance, my husband, due to unavoidable travel, recently missed a holiday with us. Over and over during that day, I naturally found myself wishing he could be home to share our celebration. I felt the lack of his presence as surely as I could feel the temperature of the air, or the solidity of the empty chair that sat at his place. Rule #2 pulls me away from that longing for a few minutes and asks me to notice the flouncy skirt and mismatched leggings my 4-year-old joyfully wears that day, and the particular expression my older daughter has on her face as she draws a detailed picture of a house filled with princesses. I notice the sound of our kitty as she brings me the catnip mouse I made for her, and the not-so-perfect turkey cutlets I cooked, the creamy potatoes, the crisp lettuce with my favorite dill dressing. When I focused my attention on these details around me, I noticed how tiny and simple and beautiful they each were. They converged for only a short space in time, and if I had been lost in longing land, I would have missed them, too. So I say softly to myself, “Rule #2, Be where you are.” And I am. For now.

What do you think of rules? Do you embrace them or buck them, or like me, a little of both? Does your family have them? What rules or habits do you practice, and how do they add to your life?

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Monday, May 17, 2010


I’ve been thinking of lines and spaces lately. Every leafy tree invites me to see it two ways: once as an image of the multitude of greens and branches, then once again in negative, seeing only the jagged splotches of sky between branches and leaves.

There’s one tree especially that I keep noticing for some reason. It draws me toward it every time I pass by it on the road leading northward to our street. It’s an ordinary tree, and I have no cause to notice it. It’s not standing alone, nor is it outwardly unique. It’s just a wide-spreading maple at the top of a small hill near the road. Regardless, something about it has caught my eye repeatedly for well over a week now.

There’s a hayfield next to the tree, and a long greystone wall that holds back the farm beyond and follows the road for miles. So maybe the open space that precedes the tree brings attention to this maple. But there are other maples next to it, behind it, across the street. It is only this maple, with its wide branches, that has captured my thoughts enough to notice it each day, to have it enter one of the bedtime stories I spin for my daughters, to write about it now.

Today I drove past the maple again, and as I approached, it dawned on me that perhaps it’s not the tree itself, but the overall outline of the tree’s shape that interests me. I slowed down and saw the tree in a new way. If one were to follow the top of the tree’s branches--the very points where they meet the sky--one might make a line drawing very much like a dot-to-dot picture that children do in coloring books. This morning I noticed that outline, and I noticed also that it was almost a perfect half circle. That must have some meaning for me. It felt right to recognize it. It was beautiful, round, welcoming--a sheltering arc rising above the field and road.

It took a second look to see it. But something in me must have noticed it right away, and kept calling my attention until I really saw the tree.

Last year I celebrated my 10th anniversary of learning to draw. That sounds too self- congratulatory, so I’ll be more precise. The series of classes I took in 1999 were technically drawing classes, but I wouldn’t say that’s what I found so life-changing about them. Even now I’m not particularly good at sketching, but I absolutely love to do it. There was something life changing, though, in those lessons. I learned to see.

Learning to see? Talk about self-congratulatory. Honestly, though, the world did change for me visually. Everyday things, things that I had lived with or walked past for my entire life--these things suddenly changed. Objects like teapots or screwdrivers, chairs, paving stones, an apple peeler, a pear, a tree--these all shifted from their ordinary selves into lines, and shape, shadows alternating with light. The world undulated with color, and and individual colors broke into strange and exciting combinations. I was practically dizzy with letting my mind re-vise them.

My new perspective distracted and thrilled me for months--I learned all of this while we were living overseas, and it simply added to the exciting, exotic feeling I had of living so far away from home. When we returned to the US, I retained a great deal of my giddiness about “seeing,” but I fell back into a routine and just enough of the magic faded so I could about my life without reeling every time I noticed the color of a glass of milk or the curve of a teacup handle.

In the past few years, I’ve learned a little bit more about how to “see” through a camera’s lens, to recapture an element of what I am noticing in a moment. It’s far from perfect, and I’m not a photographer by any stretch, but some of my photos are good enough for me to enjoy later, and that seems enough for me.

There is a difference to seeing and being seen, and I while I might often have a camera to my eye, I am seldom in front of one. It’s my dread to be tagged in a Facebook photo. I skulk out of view when I see someone swinging a camera around, readying a shot.

I have a disconnect between what I see in the outside world and how I see myself. I look in the mirror, and I think, “Not too bad. Not perfect, but not bad.” I like myself, and for the most part, I like the way I look. However, the scale and my clothing are reminders I need to lose some serious weight, and last month I finally listened. I’m on a good path, and I’ve dropped 6 pounds so far. Again, not bad. I’ve cut sugar from my diet, I’ve been feeling increasingly strong. Most shockingly, I’m actually enjoying working out. I put on my loose(r) pants and head out of the house knowing all of this, wearing my confidence like a must-have accessory.

Last week we visited a goat farm, not too far down the road past the maple tree, in fact. I brought our camera, and got some great pictures of Esme running after (and with) the baby goats. She captured a few for hugs, and so did I. My husband took a photo of me, laughing as I cuddled a soft brown and white kid. I felt a twinge of self-consciousness, then let it go.

I downloaded the photos later that night and discovered, to my disgust, that I still don’t recognize myself.

As fantastic and confident as I might feel, the camera (and everyone else, I presume) sees something different. In fact, people who have known me for only the past 5 years have no other template for Kirie. I’m just that same old chubby mom they see in town (I cringe as I type). I don’t know which is worse--to be only known as the chubby mom, or to be recognized by people from my long-ago life accompanied by a thought like “Hey, didn’t that girl used to be small and cute? What happened?”

I get myself all worked up for nothing, I realize. Do I consider the appearance of my friends? No. These harsh judgements I reserve for myself alone. Honestly, I know that few people even really care a whit about how I look. Oh the vanity.

If one were to look at that photo of me with the goat, to follow the just edges of my clothing--the very points where they meet the sky--one might make a dot-to-dot picture that captures the general shape I fill. It is not a shape I recognize. It is not a shape I claim as my own, obviously.

But like the maple on the hill on North Road, there is something in my outlined and foreign shape, something hidden, something special waiting to be seen. There is more to me than what I must appear to be on the outside.

I am in that in-between time of fat and fit. I am embracing the ambiguity as much as I can, feeling the dissonance of feeling healthy but looking heavy. In equal parts I hate and love this sensation of being in flux. I hate this time, knowing my new feelings are hidden. And I love this time, feeling silently willful, knowing that I can make the changes happen, regardless of how I’m perceived or not. It’s as though I have a secret engagement--one to myself--an engagement that only I and a few people know about. I’ll reveal this new relationship with myself eventually, I know, and I will celebrate.

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Monday, April 12, 2010


I woke up last week to see the trees in the yard tinted pink and dusty green, on the very brink of bursting into buds. It literally happened in the space between dusk and dawn, it seemed. Spring always sneaks up on me that way, and as much as I try to resist it (and I do, for some perverse reason), I end up giving into a not-quite-but-almost insidious joy that blows in on the warm breeze along with the pine pollen and the scent of green unfurlings.

Poems sneak up on me, too. With perfect timing, this one by Phillip Larkin found me on Sunday.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Late Winter Bustle and Bluster

For much of the winter, the winds here have been fierce and seemingly ever-present. When it's really raging, the wind makes a nearly constant droning sound as it courses through the tops of the trees behind the house. For days that sound reminded me of something I couldn't quite put my finger on--something metal and unnatural. Then it hit me--it's like that hollow sound made a marble circling the bottom of a cylinder or metal garbage can. It's an unnerving sound, and yet exciting in that shivery way, too. It makes me want to bustle around the house, making things cozy. My grandmother's old expression forms in my head: "Time to get cracking."

I do bustle. I've noticed that my days have a definite seasonal rhythm, and it's pleasantly reassuring, especially against the backdrop of the wind. Late winter brings a routine that lacks the magic of Christmas preparation, but taps into a deep need for comfort and--there's that word again--cozy. The very first things I do most mornings reflect this. Take a peek in my 7 am kitchen, and you'll see me turning up the heat, setting the kettle on the stove, and, many mornings, starting a fire in the belly of the kitchen woodstove.

I admit I love the pioneer mama feeling I get from doing these things around the kitchen. Is it ridiculous to admit I love bringing in the wood for the stove? Oh yes. But I know I love it only because it's optional. One morning last week, as I was lugging in a bunch of logs, I was nearly giddy with the prospect of feeding the fire. I put the wood into the stack by the stove and paused to admire my industry, stopping just short of hooking my thumbs into my pretend overall straps and rocking back on my heels with a self-satisfied, "Yesirree."

If you met me when I was younger, you would never have guessed that I would be so eager to create an over-folksified version of myself. That Laura-Ingalls appeal has only really surfaced in my adult life. Baking bread, making laundry soap(?!), heating the house with a woodstove--these are all a bit over the top Laura-ish, and doing any of them gives me the same sense of "yay-me!" industriousness. And I'll be the first to tell you that it's a farce. Laura Ingalls, I love you, but I can only go so far. I'm too much a fan of electricity and water and hygiene to do much beyond feign self-sufficiency.

I've been thinking about this lately because some of our mornings are so damn stressful. With the lunches that need to be made, breakfasts burning on the stove, a three-year-old who runs away from me half-dressed when we are pushing to get out the door, and an eight-year-old who always finds "one last thing" that has to be done before the bus comes, tell me this: Just where do I get off thinking that I have time to fiddle with the woodstove to get cozy? At first blush, it really seems that I'm probably adding to my own stress.

But honestly, I think I get such satisfaction from things like this specifically because I do them for no other reason than my own free will. Making a fire when you have a perfectly good heating system is fun simply because it's optional. It's an extra that I do just because I feel like it, and because looking at that little fire chugging along is reassuring. The wood fire is there because I willed it to be. Clearly, it's a sharp contrast to the way my mornings run otherwise, and it's a needed difference that actually reduces my stress. The bulk of time between waking and getting Ada off to school is mostly about doing things not because I feel like it, but because they just need to be done. Starting a day with lighting the stove is like putting a capital at the start of a declarative sentence: I still exist as something outside of the routine; I retain my free will.

I've noticed also that there is a gentleness to the routine of bustling about a woodfire, or kneading bread, it's gentle in the way that smearing cheese on bread and zipping lunchboxes is not. When I'm going through the motions with the fire or the kettle or the flour and dough, I get the sense that I'm tapping into something with deep, primitive roots. I feel connected to a long line of women who nurtured and prodded, and brought forth the morning with the crack of a spark in the stove. The morning routine is lonely sometimes, and sometimes its repetition makes me feel cagey. But there are sisters and mothers, and aunties and grandmothers behind me, tending the homefires as the shadows recede.

What routines do you embrace, or flee? What small actions do you take in the day to connect with something bigger than yourself?

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mind Games

There is an upside to being suggestible. When I think about my suggestibility, I usually don't think about as a positive thing. Rather, I'm stymied by the countless ways I can arouse anxiety in myself. You see, I count myself among that special group of people who hears about one catastrophe or another in the media, and suddenly finds reasons to believe that I may be the next to experience it. It's not hard for me to imagine, after watching a horror flick, that some ghoul is creaking across the floorboards to strangle me in my sleep. Show me a sandwich that has a bite shaped like the Mona Lisa, and I'll see it, I promise.

Clearly, these are not the upsides to being suggestible. Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and here is mine: I can play fantastic mind games with myself. I guess you could say that all of that self-induced anxiety is a game, but it's more of a torture. The real games are ones that always benefit me. Here are a few that make life easier for me:

Mindgame 1: Alarm clock
At times, I have terrible insomnia--the kind that interrupts a sleep in the dark hours and pesters endlessly until dawn. Over the years, it's lessened, thank goodness. I've developed a good bag-o-tricks to deal with it. Among my best is this little mind game.
Regardless of the time, I imagine, vividly, that my alarm clock is just about to go off. In the imagined scenario, there is no room for hitting the snooze--I need to be up and ready for some unavoidable obligation, and I need to be ready for a long, long day full of activities. No time left to languish in bed--time to get up, even though the day will be tediously long and full of obligations.
When I do this one right, with convincing detail, I am immediately exhausted. I long to stretch out in bed. My eyes fight staying open. And suddenly, I am back to sleep. Voila!

Mindgame 2: Sitting too long

If you travel, you are bound to have times of sitting and waiting that seem interminable. Being on a runway for hours is probably one of the worst, but even a good transcontinental flight can make you feel restless. Leg exercises may help, but getting relaxed is even more helpful. For situations like this, I call on this mindgame:

Years ago, my brother and I took a train trip across Sweden. As timing had it, we had chosen one of the busiest travel days of the year, and our tickets were for non-reserved seats. Essentially, we were forced to play musical chairs with the savvy Swedes who had reserved seats. Every seat was filled, and so we stood for nearly 6 hours. The only breaks we had were stolen moments when the train stopped to let more passengers on and off. What a relief it was to sit, even for a minute, on those just-vacated train benches. Of course, we were immediately tapped on the shoulder and asked to move by the rightful occupant of said seats. The train ride seemed endless! Being forced to stand so long was a perfect food for my imagination, though.

When I find myself in a situation where I have to sit, I conjure that train ride across Sweden, where sitting was impossible. To do it right, I have to vividly recreate that sense of frustration I felt, that sense of endless standing. Then, I imagine that suddenly a seat is made just for me, one I can keep for the rest of the ride! Oh relief! How I appreciate that seat!

Mindgame 3: too hot/too cold

I'm a Chicago girl by birth, where winters are legendary for their blustery cold. When the wind whips just so, you'd swear you're in the arctic. And the -20 degree reading on the thermometer only sustains that illusion.
Now I live in the northeast, where winter is a different shade of cold--not as biting as the midwest, but a deep-in-your-bones, damp kind of cold. The funny thing is, I sort of love the cold, on most days. However, there are a few times every winter when I feel as though I can't bear it for a second longer. This happened a few days ago after I took the girls to swimming lessons. The pool is indoor, of course, but it's also on a section of the island that opens up onto the bay, and it catches the most direct gusts off the ocean. BRRRR! As we trooped to the car, I pulled out another mindgame to share with my shivering daughters. Here it is:

I imagine that it is one of the hottest days of the year, and we are stuck, our will, inside a stuffy, sauna-like house. There is no air conditioning, no fan, no water to drink. The heat is so heavy it brings up strange smells from the wood and walls, and I don't want to breathe in the sticky air. Suddenly, I discover a hidden (and forbidden) door, a door that leads into a cool room, where the wind is almost icy, and the cold is clear and bright. I step into the room, and the cold feels lovely...such a relief.
This type of imagining works for times that are too hot, too. I reverse the settings, and I can replicate a similar relief in the opposite direction. When I described the scenario to the girls and asked them to make-believe with me last week in the freezing parking lot, the whining (mine too) had stopped altogether, and we found we were all actually feeling grateful for the cold by the time we made it to the car.

If I shrink my own head a little bit, I notice that each of these scenarios involves a sort of bucking of authority to meet my needs. The relief is that much more pronounced because it's a little subversive. Hmmm.
Essentially, what these mindgames seek to do is to force me to appreciate the moment as something pleasurable, not torturous. They only really work if I am really starting to feel tortured by the present situation.
Plato connected pleasure with meeting an intense need. His classic example was the quenching of thirst--how wonderful that first sip of water is after being thirsty. Indeed, these little scenarios of mine do seek to "trick" my mind into feeling that the current state actually does "quench" a need. Instead of seeking to control the situation, I seek to control my perception of the situation. Psycho babble, mindgame, call it what you will--it works.

What mindgames do you play?

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

One little word for 2010: May it be a year filled with Delight

Inspired by my friend Irene Latham, last year I chose a single word as a theme for the new year. My word for 2009 was enjoy. It was a great focal word for me, and having chosen it publicly, I thought of that word a lot more in 2009 than I usually would have. Forming the word in my thoughts was like a call to attention, and it forced me to see the happier side whatever situation I was in. Just thinking "enjoy" made me enjoy life more, and that made my one little word take on a significance I hadn't expected.

For my one little word for 2010, I started mulling over choices early, back in November. I take everything so damn seriously, and of course, this was no different. I actually worried, "What if I choose the wrong one?" Ugh. I amaze myself with my own capacity for melodrama.

Fortunately, I let myself relax into the process of considering individual words. Many words stopped by for an audition: focus, dream, here, play, invent, see. Some even had a callback. But the right word was still out there, until it was literally whispered in my ear one evening in early December. Robert Krulwich, of the amazing podcast Radiolab, mentioned how the word "delighted" is woefully underused. It stuck in my head, and I thought of the word the next day as Esme and Ada were grinning with excitement about their new advent chocolates with star shapes stamped on them. A square of chocolate, not even half an inch wide. It was such a small thing, but clearly it produced so much delight. Exactly.

So delight it is, my one little word for 2010. Krulwich is right to say it's woefully underused. I can't think of the last time I heard someone say, "I'm delighted!"

It feels a little old-fashioned, but it's all the more appealing to me because of it. I think it's hard to use the word delight in a time like ours, where campiness and mockery set the tone all too often. Delight is innocent in that it's unabashed. If you are delighted, it's obvious. It floods out of you, into your expression, your posture, your voice. Such clear expression is a gift, to the person feeling it, and to everyone else around as well.

For 2010, I want to be that person, who delights, who is delightful, who feels unabashedly delighted. I want to be in the presence of people who shed their skin enough to feel that, too, to just be filled with it.

To start, I'm leaving the Christmas tree up a few more days, which is a few days later than we would normally leave it up. Yes, the house is chaotic with decorations and new toys and old toys. The crisp clean feeling of a tidy house is still out of my reach. But the tree, which my husband carefully grew for us over the past four years, and which has a sweet little open spot that is perfect for the big straw stars we hang--ah, the tree is delightful. It sparkles against the snow, and it still fits the room, it still feels right there. Frankly, I am still delighted by it. Choosing delight--it stays. I hope to choose such little delightful things again and again over the next year, and notice that flood of feeling that comes each time. I send those wishes to you, too.

What word will you choose for 2010?

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