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A Witness to Grace

What was the most important day of your life? For one woman, it was a day in which she saw people respond to a devastating tragedy with selfless dignity. In this moving essay, the winner of the first Life Lessons contest, she recounts unforgettable acts of quiet courage..

By Aldra Robinson
Woman holding lettersShelly Strazis
Real Simple asked, What was the most important day of your life? And more than 5,000 of you answered. Deputy Editor Noelle Howey spoke to winner Aldra Robinson of Long Beach, California, about her moving and unforgettable essay, which can be found at the end of the interview.
 RS: How did you get the idea for this essay? Did you know you always wanted to write about this experience? That is, working in a hospital and witnessing tragedy as well as everyday acts of courage.
 Aldra Robinson: I was watching a medical drama on TV, and the storyline reminded me of my time working in an intensive care unit. There are so many stories I could tell, but my memory always returns to one family. I turned off the TV and grabbed Real Simple. The first page it opened to noted the essay contest. It was a coincidence that, in hindsight, doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence.
It’s been almost 10 years [since the events that take place in the essay], and I’m still in awe of how that family was able to handle something so horrific with such grace. Whenever I start to feel stressed by some self-created drama or work deadline, I think of that family and remind myself that nothing going on in my world is anything close to tragic, and even in the face of truly difficult circumstances, I can choose how I will respond. I thought it was a lesson worth sharing, and even if it wasn’t chosen, it might do some good to write it.
 RS: This essay can be tough to read, given its somber subject matter. Was it equally challenging to write? 
 AR: I hesitate to say that it was. Obviously, writing about it is nothing compared to living it. Most of my writing is humorous―or it tries to be, anyway―so writing about something that couldn’t be turned into a big joke was intimidating. When I worked in the hospital, at the end of my shift I would sometimes take the stairs instead of the elevator because I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. Writing the essay and sending it to strangers to read was akin to letting the world witness the tears. Oddly enough, it was rather freeing.
More than anything, I wanted to be respectful of the family. It’s easy to become overly sentimental when writing about something so tragic, and I didn’t want to turn their story into some cheesy after-school special or a sermon about the importance of organ donation. I just wanted to lift the family up and show the world how unbelievably powerful love is.
 RS: What is your writing process like? 
 AR: If being neurotic and unrelentingly critical could be considered a process, that would be the one I’d claim. I write grants for a living, so in my nine-to-five universe, I use an outline. But when writing creatively (my internal censor says, “You write creatively?”), I work best when I get out of my way, ignore the incessant inner critic, and just let the words fly. I’m prone to working in spurts because I’m a procrastinator, but when it’s a topic I love, I can lose myself. I edit best after a piece is written, because I would never get anything done if I edited as I wrote. I consider a piece finished when I’ve edited it to the point where I think it is horribly written and should never see the light of day. Then I send it on its way. At some point, surrender is the only option. (I did say neurotic, didn’t I?)
 RS: What book are you reading right now? 
 AR: It’s never just one! I’m currently reading The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones, and Sleepyhead Assassins, by Mindy Nettifee, and I’m rereading The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, and Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. I think this is the fourth time I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun. I want to be Frances Mayes when I grow up!
 RS: Do you have any future writing plans you’d like to share? 
 AR: I’m working on turning my blog, Consciously Frugal (, into a book proposal about green, frugal living (wish me luck). I am also building a website called the Martyr’s Manual ( The website is basically a tongue-in-cheek guide on how to be a do-gooder. I’ve worked in the nonprofit industry all my life, have been a green consumer long before it was trendy, and was essentially programmed to save the world by my strange and fabulous parents. Obviously I haven’t succeeded yet. But I have gained some really handy tips on how to live well on less and shop in a way that supports communities, and I carry some strong opinions about the importance of letting our little lights shine. Like a gazillion other crazy souls out there, I hope to find an agent and a publisher who share my passion for all things do-gooder and let me ramble on for pages and pages. Who knows? I’d like to hope that anything is possible.
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