At the time I had no use for that book, nor anything like it. The ordinary did not interest me. I felt myself on the verge of an extraordinary life. But the popularity of the book provided diversion to the bookstore staff. Perched on a walled platform in the center of the store, we quite literally looked down upon the well-dressed visitors who came in to browse before the opera, and the locals who came in search of the latest thriller or literary prize winner. Every bookseller knows the feeling of trying to help a person who knows exactly the book they want, they just don’t happen to know the title, or the author. In those pre-digital days, we flipped through slippery pages and scanned the lilliputian typeface of an enormous volume called simply, Books in Print, to try and help them find what they wanted. For an entire year people came in asking for Fulghum’s book. The problem was the name. People couldn’t get it right. “There’s a book about kindergarten,” they’d say. Or, “I’m looking for a book called, ‘Everything I Really Want I Already Had But Didn’t Know It.’” And we would try not to laugh, until one day we completely lost it when a woman came in and demanded a copy of that popular book, “you know, the one about the first grade!”
Fortunately, my disdain for little books of wisdom like Fulghum’s did not survive. At various times since, I have fallen in love with many books one might loosely categorize as Spiritual Self-Help. The Four Agreements. The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success. Authors like Wayne Dyer and Eckhart Tolle. When I divorced, a little book called How to Survive the Loss of a Love offered granular advice on self-care that got me through some very tough days. But for a time I still resisted the mother-of-them-all. Chicken Soup for the Soul. I had read something about a shady marketing plan that moved the book to best seller status, and I decided (without reading a word of the book) that it was not for me.
Then I decided to move to Berlin. My brother came to bid me goodbye at the airport and gave me a tattered copy of, you guessed it, Chicken Soup for the Soul. I took it with me. Not to read, but as a symbol of my brother’s love. About six months later, the moment came. I don’t remember what happened that day. Another audition, another rejection, perhaps. An unwelcome longing for the boyfriend I’d left behind. I don’t know. But something inspired me to pick up that book. I sat on the floor under ceiling-high windows, the half-hearted Berlin winter sunlight falling on the page as I read story after story, tears streaming down my face.
I loved it. And I’m not alone. The Chicken Soup franchise is thriving. Thanks to my sister, I now have a copy of Chicken Soup for the Sister’s Soul. And those who know me will not be surprised to learn I also own Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul. They may be the airplane reading of the spiritual liturgy, but I have come to cherish the kind of books I once dismissed, and I will always make room for them on my bookshelf.
The year Fulghum’s book came out, cable news was taking root. CNN’s coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in the 24/7 News cycle, and the digital information superhighway that would change our lives forever was being constructed. In Kindergarten, Fulghum compares the feeling of consuming too much “high-content information,” to the shuttering of his old car’s engine after being given a high octane fuel. He said it gave him the “existential willies.”
These days, many of us have the existential willies. We read, watch, and scroll a lot. We are less in danger of being uniformed than we are of losing ourselves in chaos and misinformation.
Jack Kornfield, the author of another gem of a book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, used to give a talk every Monday night at a meditation center in West Marin. Many Mondays I made the drive to hear him. Though his talks were profound, and for me often revelatory, he usually began by reminding the hundred or so of us who had gathered, that he wasn’t going to tell us anything we didn’t already know. His talks, like Fulghum’s book and the Chicken Soup stories, are not diatribes. They are gentle reminders. They bring us back to ourselves, sometimes after a long, unconscious hiatus. When we hear their words, we pause. We feel seen, because for a moment, in the midst of life, we see ourselves.
Those moments can last a lifetime. My parents, who are almost ninety, still talk about a book from the 50’s called, The Lonely Crowd. It helped them to frame and understand their experiences coming of age in mid-century America. From Montaigne to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, books and blogs on how to live a better life come and go. Some are remembered, some forgotten. But for someone, somewhere, they provided the right idea, in the right way, at just the right time.