I spent a lot of time in the car over the weekend. I drove about 1,250 miles in all, and read poems in three different places, and generally enjoyed seeing people and, in between, having time to think my thoughts.
As I drove through cornfields, the radio was in and out, and I did that thing you do where you tune slowly through the fuzzy channels, leaning in to determine whether you’ve landed on the pleasant company of public radio or you’re driving through evangelical hell.
One of the things I like best about driving is having a chance to collect my thoughts in silence as I watch the landscape roll by. The Midwest is especially beautiful this time of year, fields half harvested, rows of corn standing tall above rows of stubble beside them. It put me in a contemplative frame of mind, and somehow I found myself writing as I went—poem ideas, things to look up later, thoughts to consider. I write fine in the car; it’s not like texting. I can write one-handed without looking, and although the page is a mess when I’m done, I can usually decipher it.
Somewhere along the way, I started a list. I thought to have a top ten list of rules for living, actually—it seemed like a healthy thing for anyone to do, if we buy into the Socratic notion that the unexamined life is not worth living.
But ten items didn’t do the trick for me. I had more to say, some of it expansive like the landscape, but some of it pretty trivial. I set a goal to write one hundred, but I ended up with 117 somehow—and crafted a rule to remind myself that random restrictions, even self-imposed ones, need not be followed.
By the way, I found this to be a strangely compelling writing exercise. It’s not one that hones craft as much as it’s one that compels honesty. I’m sharing here, but this is private writing. These rules are intended for me. I wouldn’t dare be slick with myself. I’d call myself out, just as I’d call out you.
I feel like I could write a list with a thousand items, or maybe 1,017. There is so much to say about a life. But here are the rules I came up with—a work in progress. A start.
1. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
2. Accept all people, even if you have to reject some of what they bring—spite, jealousy, meanness.
3. Receive sorrow as you would joy—its expression is a gift.
4. It’s best to reach out, two times, a million. You’ll have fewer regrets that way.
5. Don’t revel in winning when someone has lost.
6. Let loss be a catalyst. Don’t live there.
7. Put yourself inside other lives. Look in lighted windows and passing cars.
8. People may do wrong, even terrible things, but no one is lower than you.
9. Also, no one is better than you.
10. Develop a new skill. Work on something you’re bad at.
11. Limit time in front of the mirror. You can pick yourself out of a lineup.
12. It’s hard to spot your gifts. Know your good.
13. Sit outside at night.
14. Get to the water.
15. Remember that alcohol makes you feel bad.
16. Remember that sugar does, too.
17. Eat whole foods—things that look like how they came from the earth.
18. Move around. Look around. Walk.
19. Be inaccessible sometimes.
20. Don’t love your job; love your purpose.
21. If your job and your purpose dovetail, recognize how lucky you are.
22. Listen to people without judging.
23. Don’t revel in others’ errors.
24. Be attuned to patterns—even rows of corn stubble, a line of Corvettes on the highway. There’s meaning in patterns.
25. Engage in conversations that are over your head.
26. Find the depth you’re missing in simplicity.
27. Try new restaurants.
28. Turn off the TV.
29. Get eight hours of sleep.
30. If you can’t sleep, get up and do.
31. In the summer, look for signs of fall. In the winter, look for signs of spring. This is not a metaphor.
32. Sometimes when you’re driving fast, put your hand out the window and see what speed feels like.
33. Scream when you’re alone. Notice how rusty you are at this.
34. Remember you’re an animal.
35. Remember you’re made of God.
36. Be bold enough to try to make yourself whole.
37. Important question: Are you being faithful to yourself?
38. Quit being so insistent upon the self.
39. Express gratitude to an actual person every day. Deities don’t count.
40. Every now and then, spend a day out of time. Hide all the clocks.
41. Let yourself be vulnerable on a large scale.
42. Dance when you get the opportunity.
43. It’s OK that you’re bad at it.
44. There are a few things you’ll never be good at. Don’t let that fact keep you from enjoying them.
45. Find a systematic way to feed people who are hungry. I mean this literally.
46. It’s good for you to be hungry sometimes.
47. When traveling, give yourself permission to be a tourist.
48. Treat yourself to a nice hotel every so often.
49. Don’t hit people.
50. Don’t think about hitting people.
51. Drive long distances alone, no radio.
52. Try not to wear the same thing two days in a row. People think that’s weird.
53. Be as kind as you can to strangers—and push yourself to be even kinder than that.
54. Smile and you’ll feel better.
55. Laugh right out loud.
56. Don’t walk around with headphones on. Be present for other people.
57. Don’t check your phone in company.
58. Each life needs a great adventure.
59. Fall in love with someone who makes you laugh.
60. Take a deep belly breath every time you think of it.
61. Find a church you like and go, or find some other regular way to tend to your spirit.
62. Challenge or scare yourself.
63. Cherish a ridiculous phobia, like my fear of Wisconsin.
64. Don’t hoard your stuff in distant places. Get rid of your storage unit.
65. Don’t have more stuff than you can actively enjoy.
66. Clean something every day.
67. Some people belief ridiculous things. There’s no way you’re not one of them.
68. Be good.
69. Don’t be too obedient.
70. Steal pens.
71. Read every day.
72. Everything you read thoughtfully improves you.
73. Care about history.
74. See history in every place. Peel back the layers.
75. Doubt the linearity of time. Embracing this moment embraces every moment.
76. Call your mom.
77. Don’t expect your family to understand you.
78. Master the Irish goodbye.
79. Show up as yourself.
80. Try to be your best self.
81. Live a life that can’t be summarized in a bumper sticker.
82. Try to understand something that is beyond you.
83. Passionate people are more interesting.
84. Everyone needs a hobby.
85. Don’t let work define you.
86. Don’t work all the time.
87. Take a vacation at least once a year.
88. Do a better job of staying in touch.
89. Fix broken things or get rid of them. Don’t surround yourself with the energy of brokenness.
90. Think about flow—of air, of money, of love, of compassion.
91. Knock down obstructions.
92. You’re connected to every atom in the universe.
93. Act accordingly.
94. You are the unlikeliest of miracles, but here you are.
95. Your children are your chance to grab hold of a supernova. Do this every day.
96. Everyone else’s child is just as phenomenal. Treat them as such.
97. Racism needs only your silence to thrive.
98. Be about justice.
99. Don’t think in binaries when most of life happens on a continuum.
100. Don’t propagate bad thinking about gender. Mind your words.
101. Most change is brought about through language. Be judicious in its use.
102. Use your powers for good.
103. Love chance. It takes you to the best places.
104. Eat apples. You feel good when you eat apples.
105. Be faithful to all those who love you.
106. Things you must not wear: Heels. Pantyhose. Girdles. Underwires. Love your body, head to toe.
107. Look at your spine, made to bend all ways. You were built to be flexible.
108. Wear socks to bed and you won’t get cramps.
109. Drive a car for years after it’s paid for. That’s like a free car.
110. Go out of your way for roadside attractions.
111. Sex should feel good. You should do it a lot.
112. It’s not home without an animal.
113. Think regularly about the kind of life you’re living.
114. Change it if you want to.
115. Give yourself a secret name. This is not a metaphor.
116. Be the author of some new good.
117. Don’t let yourself be hemmed in by random restrictions, especially when they’re self-imposed.