A Good Life


I ruminate too much in January. The first week of the new year in particular, I get quiet and contemplative and I drink a lot of tea. Others make resolutions, but I try to ask questions. What does it mean to live a good life? How can I be a better person? And then, as the day wears on, What can I make for lunch, with a fridge full of old pancakes and deli mustard and eggnog? Could I persuade my housemates to go to the store so that I don’t have to put on real pants today?

Today I’ve been thinking about what makes for a good life, and waiting for someone else to go to the grocery store. I used to have a much grander idea of a good life. One that changed the world, perhaps. An extraordinary life, with big adventures and a career (whatever that means). Now, though, I don’t think that I am solely responsible for the state of the world. I am part of something bigger than myself, and I will do the best I can to be a useful, hopeful part of it, and to do good work. It’s the doing the best I can, rather than the outcome, that I have come to value. And I think a good life is about more than outcomes. Here’s my 29 lessons from 29 years, about living a good life:

  1. Drink good coffee. Make it in a French Press. Early in the morning, sit quietly with your coffee, read a bit, and soak up the new day. Unless you have young children, in which case, enjoy the chaos.
  2. Have a pair of cats. They’ll teach you about comfort, and remind you of the value of snuggling, and naps.
  3. Get a dog. He’ll teach you about love and patience and will welcome you home with absolute joy. He’ll also be a reason to leave work at a decent hour, to go outside every day, and to start to build your life around home rather than work or bars or other distractions. He’ll help you maintain routines.
  4. Wear comfortable shoes, and clothing. High heels aren’t worth it. Don’t suffer for the sake of something stupid.
  5. Don’t spend more than five minutes a day on your hair.
  6. Buy a good mattress, a nice comforter, good pillows. Sleep hard, and plenty. It’s one of life’s chief pleasures.
  7. Eat good food, but not too much of it. Except on vacation. Go overboard on vacation, because you’re somewhere new, and you should enjoy it.
  8. Travel while you’re young, as much as you can, to places that are cheap and friendly and exciting. You’ll be glad you did.
  9. Make friends who are into something other than drinking and clubbing. Rock climbing, bowling, cooking, contra dancing – once you get past 25 or so, these things are all actually more fun than the bar scene. Enjoy it in your early 20s, but when it’s not so fun anymore, ditch the bar scene for something better.
  10. Settle down when you’re ready. Have kids when you’re ready. And if you’re not ready, don’t do it. You don’t have to take those steps just because everyone else is doing it. Your life is your own, and it can be good with or without marriage or kids or home ownership or any of the other life steps that other people take. Follow your own path. And you don’t owe anyone children. Not your parents, not your parent, not society. The only good reason to have children is because you want to be a parent. Forever.
  11. If you have a wedding, don’t register for china or linens or sterling silver picture frames. Ask for pottery, or artwork. It’s the handmade stuff that you’ll treasure and want to hand down to your children.
  12. Do your laundry as if it’s a pleasure and a meditation, rather than a chore. Don’t avoid it, and definitely don’t think of it as a waste of time. The same is true for your dishes. Putting your house in order will keep the rest of your life more sane.
  13. Share your home with people who love you. Friends, roommates, parents, children, a spouse – just love them completely, ask the same from them, and be a family.
  14. Although it defies logic and explanation, there is such a thing as soulmates. Yours may be a romantic partner or a best friend; maybe you’ll even get more than one. You really will know it when you find it, I promise. And when you do find it, don’t let go.
  15. Find your tribe. For me it was the Quakers – good peaceful people who welcomed me into their community, who helped me find a peace of my own, and who shared my faith and my belief in social justice. And when I was in college, it was the writers, who read good books and made me laugh and smoked expensive cigarettes and my gosh, did we have fun. When I lived in Romania, it was the other people working with abandoned children, the men and women with a heart for the small and the scared and the abandoned, who never gave up and who taught me the language and how to do the work that we did without abandoning hope. And each time that I have found my tribe, I have felt that sense of home, of being where I belong. But I have gone long lonely periods of not being able to find them, after moving to a new place. But each time, they were worth looking for. Don’t stop looking until you find them. Don’t give up. Sometimes they find you.
  16. Learn an instrument. Learn a language. Learn to paint. Have fun doing it.
  17. Read good books. Lots of them. Get recommendations from your friends.
  18. Spend your money on experiences. Don’t get sucked into buying crap you don’t need. And stay away from big box stores. There is almost nothing in Bed, Bath & Beyond that you need to buy. I promise.
  19. Really celebrate holidays. Spend them with your family, or your friends. Build traditions. The festive parts are some of the best parts of life.
  20. Take care of yourself. Eat as well as you can, don’t smoke, find an exercise you like and do it regularly, get enough sleep. You get this one body. Live well within it.
  21. If you really hate your job, it’s okay to quit and find something else. Work can be hard and repetitive and boring, but it shouldn’t be absolutely dreadful. And it shouldn’t be full of people who are mean to you. Work with people you like and respect. It makes all the difference.
  22. It doesn’t actually matter whether other people like you. You need friends, you need to be loved, but you don’t need everyone you meet to be your friend or love you. If someone doesn’t like you, try being nicer to them, but if that doesn’t work, just forget about them and focus on the people who do like you. In the end, what you think of yourself matters far more than what other people think. Work to be someone you can like and respect.
  23. Try to take other people’s words and actions in the spirit in which they are intended. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t take things too personally. Learn to let things go.
  24. Be tolerant. Even if you don’t like someone else’s way of being, you enjoy your freedoms because of the tolerance of others, so don’t force your ways upon other people.
  25. Everyone gets one colossal screw up. And I mean colossal – an affair, a DUI, cheating on a college exam. At some point in life, most people will find themselves wondering how they could possibly have screwed up so badly. You can come back from making a terrible choice, an epic mistake. You can learn and change and grow. Forgive yourself, but don’t do it again. And you can forgive others for theirs, and help them change and grow. But if they do it again, that’s a pattern, and if you keep trying to help them, you’ll probably just wind up enabling them.
  26. It’s okay to give up on a toxic relationship, but it’s also really hard. Stop giving a person the benefit of the doubt when he or she just keeps hurting you. Friends, coworkers, lovers…they’re definitely going to mess up, piss you off, hurt your feelings, but not most of the time. Not if they love and respect you. And you are worthy of love and respect, no matter what. We all are.
  27. Do what brings you joy. This life is so short. A Tuesday night is a perfectly good time to build a blanket fort and have a living room camp out with the kids, and that campout is more important than your routine. Your day off? Don’t spend it working from home. Go ice skating, or on a date, or sign up for dance lessons. Get off the couch. Get out of the office. Go.
  28. More hours does not equal more productivity. That’s a myth, perpetuated by employers who think clock watching is a good way to gauge employee performance. Don’t work an 80 hour week, not only because work can’t be the only thing that matters to you, but because there comes a point where you actually get less productive from spending more time on a thing. Know when you’re spinning your wheels. Learn to take breaks.
  29. You’re going to die someday, and that’s okay. Don’t be too afraid of death. Think of it like going home after a long and epic and memorable adventure. Everyone else is headed the same way eventually – you’ll see them on the other side. Believe it. Have faith, and do not fear. Nothing you do will guarantee you a meaningful or gentle death, so live a brave life, and hold onto it, and try to make it count. And don’t ask why, when others die, because the only answer we have for sure is that we all someday must leave this world behind. Dying is often brutal and pointless, and it’s almost always sad, because it means a goodbye to a world that we love, full of people we love even more. But life is the point – miraculous and sometimes beautiful and full of opportunities to love and be loved. Without death, it wouldn’t be precious.

It really is precious, this life of ours. I’m still trying to figure out how to live a good one, and learning as I go. But I’m absolutely certain that the coffee is worth it and the high heels are not, so at least I’ve figured something out!


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