Somewhere in a box, on a shelf, in a room, in my house is a framed printout of a list of fundamental rules to live by. The list is Robert Fulghum’s, and the heading reads, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” That is also the title of the essay where Fulghum presents these elemental precepts. It’s also the title of the book where the essay appears. The book was a big hit in 1988, and 25 years later, Fulghum still swore by the list. He’s still alive and I’m guessing he continues to stand by it.
I had never heard of Fulghum or the essay when I came across the list on the Internet 15 or more years ago, but I had small children, and the list seemed exactly what I needed to temper my favorite saying, often repeated to my boys, that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. So I printed the list, but it would be easier to find it on the Internet again than locate the box where it eventually ended up. The list would hold no surprises. It is so basic, so self-evident, that I shouldn’t have to find it anywhere, nor remember it, but simply consult my understanding of the world. You don’t have to read a description of yourself to know the clothes you’re wearing, nor search your memory of getting dressed this morning, but merely look down at yourself. Yes, my red turtleneck and my old jeans. Same with the rules you live by: just look at yourself and your behavior. Being a decent person is not that hard, and you can see your cherished maxims as if they were displayed like bracelets on your wrist, jangling slightly: clean up your mess, put things back, share, wash your hands, don’t hit.
I was reminded of the list on a chilly December afternoon because my mother mentioned in an email her idea of turning her house in New Mexico over to the local astronomy club to put visiting astronomers up for the night. “No, Mother,” I wished to say, because turning the house over means, what? Letting the astronomers in? Moving aside for them? Moving out altogether? “No, Mother! Don’t be so munificent!”
But why not be, as long as you don’t violate one of Fulghum’s imperatives? He tells us to share, but is there anything in his list about giving away, or not giving away, the shirt on your back or the roof over your head? No, there is not. So, if you are thus inclined, why then do it. But the weather in Asturias so far that month—in Spain, in Europe even—made me shiver at the idea. Perhaps I might remind my mother of the ancient maxim, everything in moderation? Which was hard to credit on that icy, windy, wet afternoon, hail coming down, the light outside the windows an extravagant yellowy green, the fire popping, thunder rumbling by and shaking the house. The cat luxuriating by the fire was oblivious to the commotion, and the German shepherd sheltering on the porch was all too aware of it. He pressed against the window, turning his beseeching eyes on me. As if I could explain the weather, diminish his fear, or offer him hope.
I felt supremely content. To be inside, to have nowhere I needed to go, to have a stack of firewood by the wood stove, to have plenty of sympathy for the fearful dog, and to see that there was no moderation in that three-week spate of rain and cold. Nor any reason that I could see to be moderate in exception to the rules for the cowering dog. He wants in? Let him in! He wants up on the sofa? Let him up! His paws are wet and dirty even after a wipe? Let there be mud! He wants to hide his nose under the pillows? Go at it! Hide, my friend, while there’s somewhere to hide! Because I’m curious about that box. What else is in it? I think I’ll just go find out.
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