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Ways of Seeing: Johanna Nichols: Words to live by — Keep on flossing

If Bob Nist weren’t a dentist he could be a stand up comic. The best part about my appointment with the dentist was his Midwestern brand of humor. His jokes were like bad puns. It was his timing — the way he drawled them out — that made them funny.
His hygienist was another story. An appointment with Charlotte was torture. She dug into my gums and left me bleeding. Then, the verdict would be a recall in three months. If I got into the habit of flossing, I might make it to six months. It was worth a try.
To go to seminary, I had to leave Bob and Charlotte behind. But I continued to floss all the way to California and, three years later, east to Maine. I flossed in 30 states. My dentist in California was excellent, but he had no sense of humor. The hygienist was gentle and never scolded me. You call this cleaning?
When I was ordained in Maine, the minister from my home church gave the sermon. She began with a greeting from my dentist, Bob Nist, who sent this message: keep flossing!
Sometimes, when it had been a grueling day, when the ancient boiler acted up, when my daughter called from somewhere to say she’d run out of gas and could she please be rescued, when the finance committee was grumpy, and I’d held the hand of someone in pain who was afraid to die, when I came home to a dark house, and I was tired to the marrow, I looked longingly at the bed and thought — just for a second — wouldn’t it feel wonderful to slide between the covers with debris between my teeth?
And I’d hear that voice in my head. Keep flossing, Johanna. You are your own best dentist.
So, how do we establish a good habit? There was a time when I decided that I wanted to make some major changes in my life. My goals were specific: to eat healthy food and exercise regularly. I realized that I would be more likely to succeed if I had support. I signed up for a program where, for one week, I ate three healthy meals a day, meditated every day, and danced and/or walked every day. By adopting those behaviors for a week, I figured I might have more success continuing with them.
I asked a neighbor to become my walking partner. We walked down the road to Tripp Lake and back five mornings a week. I was accountable to her. I knew that she would show up on days that I didn’t feel like walking. I started a morning meditation practice — a book of daily readings. Our family was already eating pretty well, so it was mostly a matter of being more mindful. No complaints from them! When I slack off, I miss the benefits, and I want to return.
In childhood I picked up good habits from my family and teachers. I was expected to make my bed, pick up my toys, help with chores, and be polite. The family motto was: if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. I still like to get into a bed that is made, tidy up around the house, and do the dishes after a meal. I learned along the way: If you’re going to do something, do it well. I was curious about what my daughters would say about the habits they picked up from childhood, so I asked them.
Here’s what they shared: wear a seat belt, brush your teeth, eat healthy food, don’t litter, offer your help to others, chat politely with service people, be on time, budget your resources, be prepared/make a list, complete one thing before beginning another/pick up before leaving somewhere. Of course, they have created healthy habits of their own. I don’t dare ask them what bad habits they picked up, but I know that they love chocolate as much as their mother and grandmother!
I can’t say that I love to floss, but I am still flossing, and I have to thank Bob Nist, DDS — a Midwesterner who told bad jokes with a drawl — and Charlotte whose mission was to terrorize people, and she had the tools to do it. 
Johanna Nichols is a grandmother, writer, and Unitarian Universalist minister emerita. She welcomes responses to these columns at [email protected].

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