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I was lucky enough to earn my master’s degree at a presidential library. This alone was pretty amazing, but the icing on the cake was that this library’s namesake was still living and very much involved in “his” school. “41” (as we affectionally called him) walked our halls and participated in class discussions almost daily. President George H.W. Bush, Mrs. Bush, and their bevy of spaniels were familiar figures in my life, and for those two years, we all felt special.

One afternoon during a rather difficult econ lecture, President Bush walked in and sat down. He always sat in the back, with his secret service and his dog. He often raised his hand like a regular student, to ask if he might contribute (please, um, yes).

And despite our differing political views, personal opinions, social or economic perspectives, we would listen.

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And on that particular day, the gods loved me because they allowed 41 to interrupt and essentially kill the dreadful economics lesson to impart a much more important one.

And it went like this:

We all know what it’s like to dump rocks into a bucket. We’ve all done the experiment at some point in our lives where you have a gallon of water and a bunch of different sized rockssome very big, some tiny pebbles. And the teacher tells you: if you put them in the bucket correctly, they will all fit AND when you pour the water in, none will spill out.

People always dump the pebbles in first. Every. Time. (Looking at each of us, in the eyeballs, like he was our grandfather, fussing.) Then they try to stuff the medium-sized rubble in, then finally, they pray the big rocks will fit. And let me assure you, from experience, they never do.

You must choose the big rocks first. You must pick them up, prioritize them, place them in the container ahead of everything else, THEN start filling in the leftover spaces with the little stuff. Only then, will they all fit and hold the water. Only then, will it make sense.

In life, you have to know what your big rocks are. You have to choose those first. If you don’t, if you forget who they are, or what they are, and then try to stuff them into your day, your week, your heart last . . . they won’t fit. And all you’ll be left with is the rubble that’s not important.

As you can imagine, I think of this all. the. time.

When I’m loading the dishwasher (big pots, first, Katie). When I’m thinking about my day and all that needs to happen (most important things, first, Katie). When I’m in a conversation with Steve and I’ve begun to feel angry or confused or discouraged (OK, what was my point? Big ideas first, Katie).

And then when I’m living this strange COVID reality, like all of you . . . what are my big rocks? Is it my kid’s writing assignment, uploaded perfectly with the correct font? Is it all clothes picked up, socks matched, chalk put away, counters wiped off? Is it the living list of “wishes”—toilet paper, canned beans, ham steak, Clorox wipes—that stays taped to my kitchen cabinet and doesn’t change much, only causing me stress and worry?

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It’s not. It’s none of those things. Those are all important, for sure. They cannot be denied or forgotten. But. They are NOT what I’d choose first to put in my bucket. At least, they better not be. I better not get confused or distracted about my priorities, for I think, my sanity and my family depend on me choosing wisely.

Mental health. Laughter. Sugar. Bike rides. Affection. Friends. Coffee. Compassion. Forgiveness. Support. Conversations. These are my big rocks lately.

What are yours?

Previously published on the author’s blog

Katie Gale

Hi. :) I'm Katie, and I'm a wife, mom and, what I refer to as a "human in training." I tell my kids all the time we're all just trying, every day, to be the best human we can be! And that means we're in lifelong training. I write and feature stories primarily about being a good human, motherhood, design, friendships and what my family calls "the high, low, and unexpected" of every day. I live in Boise, ID with my husband, children, and two Labradoodles. Steve is currently fighting COVID-19 (he's a trauma surgeon), so we don't see him much, but the kids and I are surviving on Zoom meeetings, boxed cake, and lots (and lots) of bike rides!

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