Dear Readers:

I cannot possibly reprint all the poems, essays and "favorite columns" that my gracious readers have sent on -- my mailbox was jammed! Several of the most-often requested essays have appeared in this space within the last year, such as "Dead at Seventeen," "Maturity," "To Remember Me," "Golden Rules for Living," "Dogs Don't Have Souls, Do They?" "It Was Grandfather's Birthday," as well as my column lambasting Christmas newsletters, and the one that traditionally appears on New Year's Day.

Today, I promised to print the column that more readers had saved than any other. Here it is, along with one of the hundreds of letters I received accompanying it:

Dear Ann:

I am sending you the column that gave me the courage to "plant my own garden." I had been married for 20 years, and was totally miserable. When I read that essay, it made me realize that the life I had been living was not what I wanted or needed, and I was the only one who could change it. It helped me find the strength to leave my empty marriage and all the trappings that came with it -- a big house, a Mercedes, fabulous jewelry, glamorous vacations and a lot of unhappiness.

I moved out with my three beautiful children, and although it was difficult, I learned that I had the strength to make it on my own. It is now 13 years later, and now, I am married to a wonderful man. We have a modest life and two wonderful children, who adore their three step-siblings from my first marriage.

This poem opened my eyes to finding happiness within myself. It was an inspiration and a challenge. I hope you will print it again for others who are back there, where I once was.

Contented Now in Kansas City, Kan.

AFTER A WHILE

By Veronica A. Shoffstall

After a while, you learn the subtle difference

Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,

And you learn that love doesn't mean leaning

And company doesn't mean security,

And you begin to learn that kisses aren't contracts

And presents aren't promises,

And you begin to accept your defeats

With your head up and your eyes open

With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,

And you learn to build all your roads on today

Because tomorrow's ground is too uncertain for plans.

And futures have a way of falling down in midflight.

After a while, you learn

That even the sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,

Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure . . .

That you really are strong.

And you really do have worth.

And you learn and learn ...

With every goodbye you learn.

To find out more about Ann Landers and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.