Author Archives: William Rutten

Goals, Goals, Everywhere Goals: Aiming for a Bigger Life

“The moment you put a deadline on your dream, it becomes a goal.” –Harsha Bhogle, The Winning Way 

Hello friend,

I have never been much of a goal-setter. Don’t get me wrong; I have always been a dreamer and driven to do great things in my life. I have taken risks and made sacrifices in my attempt to leave my mark on the world. But I have done all that without setting many specific goals. I can’t say why exactly. It just didn’t feel like me. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to feel contained, and goals can sometimes feel like fences to me. I have typically preferred to trust my intuition on how much of something I need, where I need to push, and where to pull back.

But in the last few years, as I have continued to examine my life in my journal and in these letters to you, I have had this creeping sense of disappointment and regret as it has become increasingly clear that I have failed to live up to all of those dreams and ambitions. Eventually, I was bound to ask myself why, and I have been slowly allowing those questions in. I wondered if maybe it was because I haven’t pushed myself hard enough and consistently enough to make the big strides I imagine myself capable of. But why? After all, I had the dreams. I had the drive. I began to wonder if maybe I just didn’t have the right plan. Maybe I needed a new method.

Enter Oola.

A couple of months ago, my sister, who is into self-help/personal growth books and always has her eyes open for things that can help her and her business grow, treated me to a new book that she had been raving about. It was called Oola: Find Balance In An Unbalanced World. In it, the authors, Dave Braun and Troy Amdahl, write about the importance of living in a way that is balanced and growing in all the major areas of life, what they call “The Seven F’s of Oola”: Fitness, Finance, Family, Field (career), Faith, Friends, and Fun. In my old Life Coaching classes, this resembled what is commonly referred to as “The Wheel of Life”.

I am always on the lookout for tips on doing LIFE better, so I plowed through the meat of the book, taken in by the stories of these two guys and how the seven aspects played out in their lives. I knew they grew up in my neck of the woods and were of a similar age, so I also wanted to glean some insight into how they became successful and which tips I might borrow for my own life.

A couple of weeks ago, as I approached the very last section of the book, I was thinking I wasn’t getting much that was soul-stirring or deeply inspirational out of it. I was eager to be done with it, hoping to find something a bit more life-changing from my next read.

But in those last pages was a challenge that would change the entire experience for me. Well, at least I hope it will.

Whenever someone tells me they read my weekly letters or that they read my book, I always want to know if they do more than read it. Do they write their own journal entry about the questions raised? Do they engage someone in a conversation about it? Do they at least take some time to ponder the issue and how it intersects with their own life? I tend to think that the only way to get anything out of my writing is to truly engage with it: to ponder, to discuss, and hopefully to write about it. I definitely hope that my words will be more than just read. Speaking as the sensitive author, I don’t feel like my work can be fairly judged unless you have done the deep diving.

So there I was, beginning to judge the Oola book, when it turned the tables on me. It asked of me what I ask of my readers: to get out my pen and dive deep into the way these “Seven F’s” could change my life. The only catch: I had to set goals. And not just a few, but twenty-one: three for each of the seven areas on the Oola Wheel.

What a predicament! Of course, the idea of setting twenty-one goals–specific, measurable type of goals–was immediately off-putting to my personality, so I was inclined to reject the challenge outright. But. (Oh, the BUT!) But it seemed like my integrity was on the line. How could I defend my own writing’s quality from people who didn’t fully engage it if I wasn’t willing to fully engage this book? That wouldn’t be right. And the other, bigger BUT. But how can I keep rejecting goal-setting if my usual, comfortable method of just going with my gut hasn’t gotten me where I want to be in life?

The writing was on the wall. It was time to get out of my comfort zone. And so it came to pass that I took my pretty-but-somewhat-blurry dreams and gave them some definition, some real numbers, some deadlines.

I made goals. Twenty-one of them. Here they are:

FITNESS

  1. Get my weight to 203 by December 31, 2018. (That is somewhere from 5-7 stubborn pounds to lose.)
  2. Do a full yoga practice at least once per week.
  3. Add rowing to at least one cardio workout every week.

FINANCE

  1. Make more money than we spend each month.
  2. Get a higher paying job with benefits.
  3. Put $250 into a vacation fund every month.

FAMILY

  1. Have one Family Game Night/Family Movie Night per week.
  2. Have one devoted couple activity (game, TV show, whatever) per week.
  3. Take the epic Montana Road Trip by the end of 2020.

FIELD

  1. Get a “real job” involving writing as soon as possible.
  2. Spend time every week writing my next book.
  3. Join my wife full-time in her new business by January 1, 2020.

FAITH

  1. Meditate 15 minutes per day.
  2. Take a weekly nature walk practicing mindfulness and gratitude.
  3. Develop a nightly gratitude “prayer” or practice.

FRIENDS

  1. Connect with Johnny in person at least once every two months.
  2. Engage one new person in conversation each week.
  3. Re-connect with one different old friend by letter or phone call each month.

FUN

  1. Become a regular tennis player again–once a week–in the warmer seasons.
  2. Write my second book–spend devoted time every week.
  3. Practice the guitar at least three times per week for at least 15 minutes.

Of these twenty-one, the Oola guys recommend that while you can keep all of them and work toward them, it is helpful to pull out your top seven that would make the biggest impact on your life right now (it doesn’t have to be one from each area). I chose these seven:

  1. Make more money than we spend every month.
  2. Get a “real job” involving writing as soon as possible. (I also chose this as my “OolaOne”, the single thing that would make the biggest immediate impact.).
  3. Meditate 15 minutes per day.
  4. Write my second book, devoting time every week.
  5. Practice my guitar at least three times per week, at least 15 minutes each.
  6. Have one devoted couple activity each week.
  7. Re-connect with one different old friend by letter or phone each month.

There they are! It was a grind for me, I fully admit, but even my fluid mind is sitting here appreciating how concrete they all look in their tidy lists with all the details included. It definitely helped to use the popular goal-setting method called S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic, Time-based), as that kept me from being vague and slippery. These definitely feel more like the opening quote: like dreams with deadlines. Goals.

Having just finished the exercise, I can tell that all of the specifics are very new to me and my usual processing. My inner world is trembling a bit, no doubt. My cheese has been moved. But I can also see how this will be really, really good for me. That is, it will be really good if I follow this up with the appropriate action steps, like daily To-Do Lists filled with items that work directly toward those goals. I am excited, both to start achieving these goals and just to see my world through a new set of lenses. I think I needed it. No, I’m sure I did. Now that I have some goals, I am charged up and ready for action. I’m off to get my Oola on!

How about you? How do you do with goal-setting in your life? Open up your journal and examine the role of goals in your world. Do you have specific goals in your life right now? What are they? Are they far away things–like an advanced degree or retirement–or something you will accomplish within the next year? How aware of your goals are you on a day-to-day basis? Do you use them to guide your behavior on a normal day, or are they just something you check in with once in a while to see if life is generally heading in the right direction? How specific and measurable do you get in your goal-setting? Do you have exact dates and numbers in mind so you can be certain as to when the goals are reached? Do you have someone in your life who holds you accountable for your goals, or do you count on your own discipline to get you there? Would an accountability partner help? How realistic are your goals? Do you have a strong chance of reaching them? Do you gain confidence when you reach a goal, no matter how small? Whether or not you currently have goals or are aware of how balanced and growing your life is, does the concept of setting multiple goals in each area of your life appeal to you? Have you ever done something like this? So, go ahead. What are three goals you can make for yourself in each of the seven areas: health & fitness, money, family, career, faith/spirituality, friends, and hobbies/fun? In which area are goals easiest for you to make? In which area are you most likely to achieve your stated goals? In which area are you most likely to fail? Is systematic goal-setting foreign to you? How does it feel now doing it? Does it make you more eager to make a plan to achieve them? If you had to choose one goal to pursue that would make the biggest impact on your life right now, which one would it be? Are you willing to commit to that? What small steps can you take today to move in that direction? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which goals can you set to move yourself in the direction of your best life?

Go get it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it on social media. Let’s go after our dreams together!

P.S.S. My new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth, is available in paperback and ebook formats from many retailers. To get yours on Amazon, go to http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten Thank you for your support!

Grading Your Year: A Personal Report Card for 2017

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Hello friend,

The year 2017, as told through the screens on my phone, tablet, computer, and television, was just about the most absurd, infuriating, and demoralizing year imaginable. I had the feeling so often this year that, if we were being studied from afar by alien scientists, they would report that we are clearly devolving as a species, degenerating into a lower state of intellectual and moral being. I suppose there are plenty of “Year in Review” types of shows airing this week, but I don’t even dare to watch. I don’t much care to relive anything that people were talking about this year. It was pretty darn awful out there. I fear that if I admit to just how awful or try to delve into it, I will make for a most depressing companion at the New Year’s festivities. No, I think I will pass on assessing the great big world this year.

But how about my personal year in my little corner of the world?

That doesn’t seem nearly as depressing or daunting a task. After all, as I sit here in these final moments of the year, I still have a smile on my face and a mind eager enough to learn and grow from the lessons this year has provided. It helps, I know, that I process it every day in my journal, so I have some sense of how my report card will come out–I guess I can sense it was not all rainbows and butterflies, but I know it was one I would not trade, either–but I am open to being surprised by my assessment of the various aspects of my existence and how they were shaped by the events of 2017.

Hindsight has a way of casting a new light on things, dusting off some of the emotions and baggage of the moment and revealing its true essence and its value in the grand scheme of our lives. I think I am due for some of that clarity after what has been a most unusual year in the History of Me.

So, how did I do?

Well, maybe it is healthy to admit to a failure right from the start. I know I deserve an “F” in the Finances/Career departments. I was horrible at that from start to finish, truly. Starting the year out having just lost my job last Christmas was certainly a harbinger of things to come. I struggled to find my way all year into something that both paid the bills and met my family’s other needs. Though I have tried to maintain my general positivity and my big picture perspective through it all, I admit to falling into moments of shame, frustration, and disillusionment regarding my aspirations and failings on this front as the year passed. I have chastised myself for both my failings as a breadwinner and my weakness in allowing those failings too much control over my emotions. So, definitely an “F” here.

Another thing I did not do very well with is my Friendships. It is true that as an unsocial and introverted cat, this has never been my strong suit. So, it isn’t as though I had a very high standard from which to judge myself. However, I found myself thinking more and more as the year went on that this is an area I want to do better with: both in making new friends and in staying well-connected with my old friends. Truth: I didn’t do very well with either. I am most disappointed in myself for doing a poor job of keeping up with my best friends, letting too long pass between visits and calls. Maybe a “D” here. Not good.

Okay, this report card is not looking so good at this point! I must have done something well….

How about Family? Yes, the family stuff was quite good this year on the whole. Though I again did poorly with calling my siblings and parents, I made a bigger effort to travel to spend time with them. That was immensely rewarding, both for me and for the children. Speaking of the children, the one thing I think I do consistently well is fatherhood. That was the case this year; we have had a great time, and my relationship with each kid is strong and loving. I wish I could say I did as well as a spouse, but I consistently fail to live up to my expectations there. Still, I have had fun with my wife and have tried to be supportive while enjoying watching her grow and blossom in her new endeavors. All in all, a good score here (let’s say “B+”).

As for my Health, I am grateful to say that I would give that a “B”. There are reminders everywhere of how dramatically one’s quality of life diminishes when health problems arise, so I feel quite blessed that my issues this year have been small. I have had little nagging injuries that have kept me from some activities, but no injury has shut me down entirely. As a guy who needs to be active to remain sane, I will take that as a blessing.

Looking back, I realize that I did not do quite as well as usual with my Spirituality, which also dictates my Psychology. I seemed to be less mindful during the day, less aware of the beauty and wonder of the Divine all around me. With that, I was somewhat less grateful than normal, having fewer of those bowled-over-and-humbled-by-the-absolute-magnificence-of-the-Universe moments than I am accustomed to. I have long believed that Gratitude is the mother of Happiness, so maybe I was a bit less happy this year than my usual state of Bliss. I can make lots of excuses for this distraction from my spiritual home base–joblessness, financial strain, self-induced pressure to finish my book, etc.–but the fact is that it is under my control, and I did not live up to my high standards this year. I would say “B-“.

As someone who spent all of his school years as a “Straight-A” kind of guy, these grades for 2017 are not looking very good to me. There is a ton of room for improvement! And though I am definitely disappointed in myself on multiple fronts, there is something that sneaked into the picture late in the year that softens the blow and even puts a smile on my face.

Is there a spot on the report card for “Fulfilled a Lifelong Dream”? If so, I want to give myself an “A” there. While I had worked on it for years, it was only in this year when I truly devoted my focus to not just working on the book but finishing it. It had been my biggest goal when 2017 started, and I felt the weight of that as Autumn came. The clock ticked loudly every day, and fears and doubts screamed at equal volume. But I reminded myself that, coming into the year, the way I said I wanted to feel all year was BRAVE. On I went. Then, finally, it was done.

Of course, there was relief for being finally finished, and there was excitement about seeing my creation out in the world. But the best part was the feeling it gave me way down deep inside, in a place that I would venture to call my soul. I guess I would describe it as feeling “solid” there, like a deep confidence at having done something substantial toward my life purpose. My foundation was cemented. That is quite a feeling. I hope that you will feel it one day if you have not yet. It will change your world.

I know that this effort and its incalculable reward came at the cost of some of those low grades in the other categories. And though I certainly wish they weren’t so low–I like to have my cake and eat it, too–I have to admit that, in the end, doing the work of my soul and cementing a foundation piece of my purpose made all the sacrifices worth it.

2017 was obviously not the year in which I sparkled across the board. It was, however, the year that I built a lighthouse, one that will keep on shining, providing me with a guide during the many storms that the coming years are sure to bring. I am at peace with the sacrifice and grateful for the light. Bring on 2018!

How about you? How would you grade your 2017? Open up your journal and ponder all of the various aspects of your life over the last year. Even before you dissect each one, how do you feel, generally speaking, as you sit here at the end of your year? Satisfied? Relieved? Stressed? Elated? Indifferent? If you had to describe your year in a word, what would it be? Okay, now look at the different areas of your life and build your report card. You can just go category by category, or you can start with all the good or all the bad. How was 2017 for your job and career path? Closely related to that, how was it for your finances? Better or worse than your expectations? Why? Did it have more to do with things under your control or out of your control? Did you remember that you are in charge of your attitude no matter what the circumstances were? How well did you choose that attitude? Okay, how about your friendships? Were you as good a friend as you want to be? Where can you do better? How about family? How happy were you with your relatives this year? Did you strike the right balance of time with them: enough to deepen your bonds, not so much to drive yourself crazy? How was your health and fitness this year? Did your body hold you back from doing things that you wanted to do? What grade would you give your spiritual life this year? How about your psychological state? Were you grateful? Did you feel connected? How much awe did you experience? Okay, big picture: how does your report card look? Do your scores in those main categories make it seem like a good year, or not so much? Now consider this: was there something else–some bigger event or accomplishment–that overshadowed the main categories and colored your view of the year, either for the good or the bad? Perhaps it was a major personal achievement that brightens the rest–like me with my book–or perhaps it is something like the death of a loved one, which darkens the rest. Now that you have considered the categories and graded your year in each, what grade would you give the year as a whole? Was it twelve months that you would gladly relive, or are you eager to move on? Leave me a reply and let me know: How does your report card for 2017 look?

Make each moment count,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s make LIFE together!

P.P.S. You can find my new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten and many of your other favorite booksellers, including barnesandnoble.com and iBooks.

Between Milestones: Where are you on The Map of LIFE?

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Hello friend,

“So, now you can start learning the guitar?”

That was the first thing out of my nine-year-old daughter’s smiling mouth about a month ago when I showed her the proof copy of my book that had just arrived in the mail for final edits. That was how she viewed the culmination of my years of dreaming and hard work: a chance to learn the guitar.

Perspective.

I had told her a while back that I have always wanted to learn to play the guitar and that I even got one–complete with an instruction manual–for Christmas several years ago, that it was right down in the basement in the unopened case waiting for me. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t played it yet. I explained to her that I really wanted to, but I hadn’t made the time yet because my writing was such a huge priority for me. As the reality of the eventual book approached, I told her that as soon as I got it published, I would finally unzip the case to that guitar and begin my education.

And though I wasn’t quite ready when she asked me a month ago–there were final edits to do and some tedious reformatting for e-book conversions–I am ready now.

So, a few nights ago, when I was absolutely sure I had finished by book stuff, I looked at the clock and was astonished to realize that I had an hour to myself without any pressing task that involved my life purpose.

Free time? FREE TIME!!!

It had been years–seriously, years–since I wasn’t pressed (and a little stressed) to get something done in any available moment. It was the strangest feeling! Like cabin fever in my brain. I truly did not know what to do. I had the realization, “So, this is when normal people watch all of these television shows I have read the names of!”

But then I realized: This is my moment! This is what I have waited for! I reached behind the bookshelf and pulled out the dusty case. My heart pounded in my chest as I reached for the zipper. And just like that, there it was. My bucket list item.

So, for the next hour, I put dents in my fingers as I fumbled through the first awkward notes. It was a frustrating and humbling hour, but it was also glorious. I was learning the guitar! After fantasizing about it all of my adult life, I was doing it. I was treating myself, too. Both of those things felt fantastic.

I have done it a couple of times since that night–not for an hour but a more realistic ten or fifteen minutes–and each time I get this weird sensation when I go to pick it up. It is excitement, but it is also guilt. I can’t seem to believe that it’s okay to take this little spot of time just for me. Granted, my daily writing time and my early mornings at the gym are also just for me–I understand that intellectually–but this guitar thing just seems different. Like goofing off. Cheating. Hence, the guilt.

I cannot even begin to count up the number of hours I put into making my book. It was an enormous investment of my mental and emotional energy, too, but tons of time. It was a labor of love, though. A beautiful grind. Whatever energy and time I had left after prioritizing my family first, I gave to the process of the book.

But now the book is done. What the heck do I do now???

Sure, the guitar training was a nice carrot to put out there as reward for finishing–and it is also a bucket list item just like writing a book was–but it is not as though I am going to devote my life to it the way I have with my writing. It’s a few minutes per day, a few times per week.

Maybe I should try to slow down and ease up on the pressure to get so much done, perhaps even try to get a full night of sleep regularly. After all, I have been mostly burning the candle at both ends since I had kids, at first because they were babies and then because I rediscovered my passion for improving people’s lives through my writing. After all of the late nights and bleary eyes, maybe I ought to take this chance to return to sanity and balance for the first time in a decade?

NAH!

I know myself well enough now that if I tried to become a “relax and watch TV” kind of guy, I would go stir crazy. There is just too much I want to accomplish in the rest of my numbered days on this planet. Heck, even after a few days of being free of the book tasks, I am already chomping at the bit.

This is why I am writing this letter to you today. I took some time off from writing the letters in order to make the last big push on the book edits, but in that time I have often felt the tug in my heart that tells me I miss the actual writing and connecting with you. It is why Journal of You began in the first place: I couldn’t wait to get my voice out into the world and to try to make a positive impact on your life. So, this feels good to me right now, like I am finally reconnected again.

But I don’t think this is going to be enough.

That book project was a major deal in my little world. After pushing that big rock up the hill for so long–in addition to my weekly letters to you–I think that once this exhalation feeling wears off (as it seems to be now), I might feel a bit hollow without a new big rock and a new path up the hill. Because, I have to own the fact that, in my vision for my finite life, there wasn’t just one book listed on my Amazon Author Page. There were many, and they tapped into different subjects and different writing styles.

So, while I am purposely trying to give myself a moment to take a breath, to relax, and to appreciate the fact that I just checked my biggest bucket list item off the list, I also get the sense that I need to act on this antsy feeling and just dive into another big project. Because even though I see value in honoring a personal milestone and enjoying the moment for what it means to my life’s journey, I also want to be clear in my mind that this is just one step on that journey and that there are many more to go. I want to act like, “OF COURSE I did this huge-but-no-big-deal thing. There was never a doubt in my mind. So, let’s get on with the next huge-but-no-big-deal thing.”

I guess I want it to be normal in my life to achieve big goals and take on big challenges, to be constantly growing and knocking items off the list. Those milestones should be dropping like flies. Looking at my life so far, I plainly haven’t earned that brand of normalcy yet. It has been a lot of dreaming and experimenting and fantasizing and chipping away, not so much on the milestone-busting. I have been smaller than my expectations.

Does that mean I should accept this slow pace as the Real Me and bask in this one milestone as perhaps the only one I will ever reach? It is tempting (and probably others might say “realistic”). But giving in to that temptation and slipping into laziness and complacency is not me. I know that. I have decided it, and I know that I will keep deciding it as I continue to shape my life and legacy.

I may not have done as much as I had hoped up to this point, but I refuse to settle for one milestone, one check on the bucket list. I have not reached my peak at age 45. There are so many more mountains left to climb.  I better get going now. Onward and upward!

How about you? Where are you in relation to your life goals, and how do you react to hitting a milestone? Open up your journal plot out the map of your life. Have you hit any major milestones or bucket list goals? If so, what was it? A graduation? Promotion? Award? Creation? Opening your own business? Relationship? How did it feel? Were you more thrilled or relieved? Did you take a break afterward, give yourself some time to enjoy the accomplishment and recharge for the next? Or did you, rather, press on full speed ahead, propelled by the momentum of your achievement? Did you feel a letdown after your milestone, feeling that “What now?” of being without the goal to drive you anymore? Did you have a little reward ready for yourself when you hit it, like my guitar? Whether or not you have hit a major life goal yet, are you in hot pursuit of one now? What is it? How close are you to achieving it? Are you moving quickly toward it, or is it a slow grind? Do you get tempted to quit? What keeps you going? How devastated would you be if you didn’t get there? Regarding your big-picture vision for your life, how are you doing relative to your ideal? Are you on pace to get it all done? How realistic are your expectations for yourself? Are you living up to your potential? How does that sit with you? How important is it to have goals or milestones out there to reach for? Do they provide meaning for the struggles of life? Are these big achievements what motivates you, or is it other things, like relationships or simple pleasures or daily contentment? Leave me a reply and let me know: What role do big goals play in your life? 

Shoot for the stars,

William 

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it. Let’s grow together!

P.P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to check out my new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth, find it on Amazon at www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten I would so appreciate you reading and leaving a review. Cheers!

The Happy Place: Where are your fondest memories?

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” –John Banville, The Sea

Hello friend,

Have you ever had that day when your whole system is simply flooded with memories? You know the day: when every turn of your head reveals yet another precious ghost from a golden time in your life. Have you had that day? I had it just last week.   I think I am still floating there.

My Dad’s birthday was coming, and it just happened to coincide with my kids having a couple of days off of school. So, my siblings and I decided to make the most and venture back to our hometown and the house where we all grew up to celebrate my old man and bask in that rare and precious gift that is time together.

After school on Wednesday, my kids and I loaded up the car and headed across the endless prairie, finally turning into the old cul-de-sac in the midnight hour. We awoke in the morning to the sun shining and the sound of my nieces and nephew playing. It was going to be that kind of a day.

Amidst the morning hum of excitement of all the little ones being together, my sister was the one who instigated the nostalgia-filled day by plopping down on the floor in the middle of the great room with several boxes of old pictures from our own childhood days, when we were the age that our kids are now. Of course, I was sucked in immediately.

The first thing that jumped out at me from the photos was all of the physical things—the changes to my house, my neighborhood, and the people in the photos.

I marveled at the vegetation! When we built the house when I was three, the neighborhood was new and bordered farmland. We had a big yard with a wide parkland behind it between us and the next “addition” of our neighborhood, with a series of ponds connected by a stream splitting the grassy expanse. We had so much space to play! One year we turned the parkland into a multi-hole golf course. The photos showed me why: it was so bare and treeless when I was a kid, both my yard and the park. The pond directly behind my backyard was wide open for us to swim or skate, depending upon the season. Now it is socked in with cattails and lined with trees on one side. Our long, flat yard was the home of most neighborhood games, and the football endzones were between two trees on one end (a bird bath and a tree at the other). Now those trees span the entire width, leaving no room to throw the ball through. Those photos brought it all back, though: the golf, the swimming, the skating, the daily games of football or Capture the Flag or Kick the Can, and the view across the park to my buddy Red’s house, just a quick run across the old red bridge that no longer exists. So many vivid images, so many smiles.

I had a good laugh at how my house—I still call it my house—has changed through the years of photos, too. The linoleum floor made to look like bricks in the kitchen. The spectacular red carpets and wallpaper (so much wallpaper!). The gold sofa that lived for generations in different rooms. The original microwave (which we saved and actually had to use on this trip when the modern one broke!).

Of course, all of the changes in the people and the blasts from the past kept a grin plastered across my face the entire time. There was “the ugly phase” that we all took a turn at, usually in early adolescence. There were the mullets, the wonky glasses, the splendidly awful fashion choices. We did it all!   And there were all of the old friends and cousins, most of whom I have not seen in decades but all whose photos made me smile and laugh. You know, like the shots of my birthday parties, where we would always have the challenge to eat all of our cake—angel food with raspberry sauce–and ice cream without hands.

I messaged a couple of the photos to a few of the old friends, but mostly I lamented that I have lost touch with almost everyone. Still, I was reminded of what a glorious childhood I had, filled with amazing friends and so much family. There in the house that I grew up in—the center of the Universe, it seemed as a kid—those photos had nostalgia coursing through my veins by mid-morning.

I got up from the photos to venture out to the yard to enjoy the children. They had already hooked up with the kids next door—nieces to the very kids I grew up with—and were playing kickball in the yard where I played so many neighborhood baseball games when I was their age. I grabbed my daughter and walked her over to show her the dry stream bed that I crossed every Summer day to get to the tennis courts that were always my happy place. I was a little emotional sharing the memory with her. How do you adequately convey to someone that they are walking right in the footprints of your happiness?

After lunch, we all walked on the road over to those tennis courts. On the way, my sister and I marveled at “the big hill” of our neighborhood, the one that was so big and daunting that we dreaded the thought of climbing it and usually ended up pushing our bikes up. It reminded me of the time when a neighbor kid and I sat sideways on our skateboards with our feet on the other guy’s board and rode down that hill in what I was sure would be the most dangerous feat of my lifetime. My sister and I laughed at how tame that little rise looks now. Perspective.

We arrived at the tennis courts, the site of so many memories and countless hours. Each Summer day, my brothers, neighbor boys, and I would cross the stream and play for hours and hours. I remember nights playing until it was so dark that we couldn’t see the ball until it almost hit us in the face. I thought of all the battles we had. I thought of old Mrs. Wade, who lived across from the courts, hanging out in her garden just in case anyone swore. I laughed at the thought of the Ovind boys, a couple of older, hockey-playing brothers from the other side of the neighborhood who would show up once in a while with their racquets and shout swear words and insults at each other all the way through their grudge match, drawing the ire of old Mrs. Wade. Ha!

I remember meeting another little kid from the other side of the neighborhood there one day. He had called me to arrange a match, and when he showed up, he had the fanciest racquets I had ever seen. I was in awe, as I had just graduated from my wooden racquet to my Mom’s metal one, and his were “boron” (the equivalent of gold, as far as I knew). He talked like he was a pro, too, since he played in real tournaments already. I was completely intimidated by his wealth and experience. Still, I kicked his butt, and he acted like a spoiled brat the whole time, throwing his racquets and screaming enough to get Mrs. Wade outside for a warning glare. I would never have believed that that same punk, about a dozen years later, would become my best friend for life. Life is so weird! Beautiful, but so very weird.

That tennis court is grown over with weeds now, and the neighborhood has built a playground on half of it. Still, the fences are there, and as I sat there on the bench looking out across the old court (and on to Mrs. Wade’s house—she is still there!), I was nearly overwhelmed by all that was flooding my heart and mind. How does a kid from frigid, windswept North Dakota find his home on a tennis court? Sitting there last week, I was so wildly grateful that I did. I was on the verge of tears, but for some reason I laughed instead. Happy tears.

Though it was late in Autumn, the day was unusually warm, giving me the rare gift of a flood of Summertime memories. I don’t get back to my hometown in the Summer anymore—usually just Christmas—so perhaps the avalanche of memories was due to a backlog of Summer images just waiting to be released. Whatever the case, I loved it.

We picked some apples at an old family friend’s house by the tennis courts, then walked home and played basketball in the cul-de-sac where I learned to ride a bike (and later broke my arm falling off a bike while trying a foolish trick).

It was still a balmy, glorious late afternoon when I escaped the crowd and set up my portable hammock in the corner of the backyard, hitched to the tree that marked a corner of the old endzone, the spot of my very first career dreams: the future John Stallworth or Lynn Swann for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As I lay there and tried to write in my journal, I kept being distracted by my surroundings. Literally everywhere I turned, a new wellspring of memories flooded my system. I could name who once lived in every house across the park, all the games I had played in the backyard, all the times I had thud-thudded across that old red bridge with my sleeping bag under my arm on the way to Red’s house for a sleepover.

Everything. I remembered it all.

“I have so many emotions swimming around inside of me,” I wrote that afternoon. “It feels that way, too, like my stomach is being used as a pool and the memories and emotions are literally swimming around in there. It is all a lot to process. It knocks me off-center a bit.”

I suppose it is good to be shaken in that way from time to time. As often as I dispense advice about being present and living in the moment, I realize that some of best present moments involve looking back at past moments and having a good belly laugh or a contented grin. Maybe even a good cry.

So I let myself swim. I admit: I am hopelessly nostalgic when the moment sneaks up on me. Often, the memories come to me unbidden, usually when something in a journal entry sparks a happy thought. What I learned last week, though, was that to get the full effect, to be truly flooded with the memory, I need to go to the source. I am just grateful I still have a room there!

How about you? Which places in your world spark the fondest memories? Open up your journal and wander through the settings of your life story. Which spots hold the most memories for you? Your childhood home? A grandparent’s house? Your school? A Summer camp or lake cabin? A park or sports field or theatre where you spent lots of time? A workplace? A vacation spot? A whole town? What about those places draws out so many memories? Is it just that you spent a lot of time there, or was it something special that you did there or the special people attached to the memories? Do your best memories come from the place you spent the most time? Who are the people in your favorite memories? Are they still in your life or just in your memory? How about the place itself? Is the place of your favorite memories a place that you can still return to? When was the last time you were there? When you are there, do the memories come flooding back to you in an overwhelming way? Do you try to take it all in and let it affect you? How nostalgic are you? How much effort do you make to visit places that hold good memories for you? Is there one place in particular that you have never been back to that you would most like to visit again simply for the rekindling of memories? Are you good at going places in your mind and feeling the full effect, or do you need to really be there to relive your best memories well? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where is the place of your favorite memories?

Light up the place where you are,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. And share your memories. Tell your story. It is the best way I know to build bridges across difference.

A Day in Hell: Exploring Humanity At Its Worst

“We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.” –Douglas Preston, The Monster of Florence 

Hello friend,

For a guy who thinks of himself as a bearer of all things GOOD in this world–Love, Peace, Kindness, Compassion, and Inclusion–I am regularly shocked and disturbed by my deep fascination with our history of absolute awfulness toward one another.

Truly, I cannot quite understand how the study of large-scale human evils captivates me, but it does. As a lifelong film buff, one genre that has consistently drawn me in is War movies. Watching them—some of my favorites are The Thin Red Line, Schindler’s List, Platoon, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Black Hawk Down–I am usually sick to my stomach from start to finish, aching from the anguish felt by all of the families who lost their loved ones in the fighting, aching for the wasted potential of these beautiful lives, and aching from the ignorance, greed, and senselessness that led to it all.

I have almost no tolerance for either violence or senselessness in my life, and it seems like war is both of those things in their purest forms. It is the absolute antithesis of me. And yet, there I sit, glued to the screen when one of these films is on, unable to deny the entrance of this purified evil into my heart and mind. I allow it in. I must. That is how it feels, anyway.

I have never been one to turn away from reality intentionally. I may have been in unconscious denial a time or two, but I want to know the Truth of the Life around me. That includes the Darkness that runs counter to the Light I try to shine. Though I look for the good in the world everyday and in the people I meet, I am aware of the bad. Because of my curious nature, I feel compelled to dig deeply into each as it comes.

So it is that, when I watched Platoon when I was about 13, I was absolutely mesmerized by the very awfulness of humans. We were worse than I had ever imagined! We were inhumane. I had to understand this somehow.

I watched more movies, of course, but the thing that held my focus far better was the Holocaust. I was aware that there had been many, many attempts at genocide over the course of history, but there was something about the Nazis and the Holocaust that overwhelmed me and drew me in simultaneously. Maybe it was the sheer numbers—six million people murdered. Maybe it was the machine-like, efficient nature of it. Maybe it was America’s complicated involvement in it, first in looking the other way and later in helping to ending it. Maybe all of those things, but definitely because everything about it—the systematic and unfounded demonization of a people of a people that became “subhuman”, the absolute unfairness of their treatment even before their removal from their homes, the silence of the “good people” near and far, the horrors of their treatment in concentration camps, and of course, the gas chambers themselves—reflected this mesmerizing inhumanity that I have never been fully able to wrap my mind around.

I can’t stop learning about it, because I have a compulsive need to understand things. Because I still can’t quite comprehend how we could have done this, I keep trying to see it from a new angle, something that will deliver me from this agonizing bewilderment.

I have read many books on the topic. I have written reports on the sociological factors that were at play in the rise of Nazism and the subsequent persecution of the Jewish people across Europe. I have been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC a few different times, choosing to carry that awful heaviness around with me all day instead of visiting dinosaur bones, art galleries, or monuments. I have been to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and tried to put myself in her shoes. All of that was painful but definitely helped me to understand.

But by far the single most impactful experience of my obsession with inhumanity—and truly one of the very few most memorable and painful days of my life—was the day I spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration camp in Poland where 1,500,000 people were murdered. That is 1.5 MILLION! The sheer volume is hard to fathom, I know, but it is essential to grasping the depths to which human depravity can sink.

I had planned for that day for some time and tried to steel myself for what I was to witness. As was the case for everything in this strange fascination of mine, my mind was divided between eagerness to learn about it up close and repulsion by the very thought of standing in the heart of darkness, literally following in the footsteps of humanity at its absolute worst. As it turned out, nothing could prepare me for the experience.

After a full day of touring the camp alone, I made it to the train station and melted into the cold metal bench outside. As I waited for the train to come to take me back to Krakow, I opened up my journal and let it all drain out of me. Here is what I wrote:

18:12 Saturday 19 September 1998 Ośwìecim, Poland

I don’t know how to begin. Truly I do not. As I stepped onto the grounds of the place, I felt something. It was small, but it was there, deep within my core. It surely began there, but there it did not end. What it was that I speak of, that thing that began there, was a cancer. And with each photograph and each display and each fact on each wall in each building, that cancer spread. I could feel so distinctly each new cell it overran. There is that place in the chest and gut that hurts so much and feels so hollow when someone loses the one he loves. That space can only be the soul. It was in that space, definitely, that the cancer began. I knew that place. At first it felt as though a surgeon with a dull, jagged scalpel was cutting it out of me slowly until he had every last bit. But then I realized that it was not being excised from my innards. Rather, there was no surgeon but instead the horrible, painful cancer. God, did it hurt! Like I was being slowly shredded from the inside out. When I knew it had every last cell in my soul, it passed slowly through the rest of me. With each new image in my face, a new cell it engulfed. It was the agony of a slow death. There were just so many images, so many visions of horror. It would not ease up on me. And there was nothing I could do to save myself. I was on the train. It flowed into my lungs and made breathing a constant struggle. I often had to stop to force out a breath and suck another one into my constricted chest. The python had me wrapped up. I was dying. It seeped into my stomach and intestines, cramping me and doubling me over with nausea. My hips and shoulders were next. They tightened and fought for every move. I was being decimated by this awful virus. I was feeling so helpless. It overtook my neck. Movement was painful and breathing nearly impossible. Still the images continued to flash. Images like the room about 100 feet long by twenty feet deep full of hair that piled over my head, hair from exterminated millions of human beings, cut to make cloth for the living. And images like the young girl’s three identification photos taken on entering the camp. Her hair was awfully shaven and she was desperately fighting to hold back the tears and be strong. Images of the standing cells no larger than my shower at home that were enclosed in brick darkness and made to hold four suffering men at a time, standing the night through after twelve hours of labor and no food or water. It was images like these that kept the cancer spreading. It went into my thighs and upper arms. I couldn’t move them much anymore, but the cancer seemed to force me along as it overran me. It took over the rights to my extremities near the end. I could just sense that I held a bit of my mind for myself yet. But it was still creeping. When I wandered through the old barracks, dreaming in the endless stacks of wooden bunks three high and uneven, I could see the emaciated, sick, and filthy men, women, and children wallowing there in the cold at night, climbing over one another and onto the muddy floors to shit or piss, if they had the strength to. I could feel them being tortured, beaten, and brutalized. And I could sense their knowing that their sickly vessels would be undressing to be gassed and burnt any day. That this was the end of some awful, awful sickness. Soon would come Deliverance. But still they were there. Still sick and hungry. Still scared. Still horrified. I could see all of this. And when I walked through that sick, sick gate at the end of the railroad track where the vast unchosen majority went immediately and all went eventually—down the stairs into the undressing room and into the showers of Zyclon-B and to the crematorium—when I walked through that gate, the cancer took all of me. I was a puddle of horrified cancer. I looked into that murky pool of water where the ashes were dumped. It was thick and ugly and mushy and awful. I thought, this is what I have become today. This is what this whole experiment, this unspeakable atrocity, amounts to. It is a murky puddle of ashes. A pool of death. Every one of us is there in that ugly mess, all of us wet and sick and dead. All of us ashes. And this is Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

It is hard to read that even now, 19 years later. The images still haunt me. The thought of all of those unique, special individuals—1,500,000 of them in that one place and 4,500,000 more in other camps like it—dying because someone chose them to be demonized and so few of the “good people”–including their neighbors and including people in America–stood up to the injustice of it. It still has the power to make my stomach turn.

I have made the effort to understand the darkness in each of us and the greater Darkness that we have all contributed to in events like the Holocaust or human slavery. I know the Psychology and the Sociology, even the Philosophy. But sometimes, like on that grey Autumn day in Poland 19 years ago, all of the knowledge in the world cannot shelter my heart and soul from being torn to shreds by the utter depravity of which we humans have proven ourselves capable of time and again.

I suppose we need the reminder though, at least occasionally. Because when I hear the rhetoric of certain politicians who seek to demonize certain groups based on religion or skin color, and when I watch their supporters march down the streets with flags and torches and swastikas, when I see these things and hear people trying to ignore them or normalize them, I feel like I owe it to those six million Jewish people who died in the concentration camps to remember how it all started and how the silence and denial of the “good people” allowed it to continue.

If I am to face up to the Truth of the Life around me in its entirety—not just the good stuff—I also need to draw the necessary parallels to our past and do my best to see that we do not go so deep into the Darkness together again. That is the best way I know to see to it that those six million did not die in vain. I will face the Darkness for them.

How about you? How deeply are you willing to explore the very worst aspects of our inhumanity in order to understand us more completely? Open up your journal and consider what you allow into your consciousness. Do you let yourself be open to the heartless and vile ways that groups of humans often treat each other? When you look at things like slavery, genocide, and war, what do you think their pervasiveness across history says about humans in general? Are we as evolved as a species as we like to believe we are? How much different are we than the other beasts? Are humans more special than other species? If you like to think of us as highly evolved and advanced, how do you explain the baseness and depravity that seem so common across cultures and time? Do you allow the things like genocide, human trafficking, and war to get under your skin and really pain you? Is there a big enough majority of good in the world to overshadow all of the bad that we do and keep you somewhat in denial of it? Are we better individually or collectively? Does humankind’s propensity for evil fascinate you like it does me? What massive failings of humankind do you take the time to truly study? Wars? Slavery? The Holocaust? Apartheid? Genocide? Environmental abuses? Racial injustice? Sexism? Abuses of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples? Does your greater understanding of an issue make you more or less upset about it? Which topic are you most likely to take a deep dive into next? Even understanding all of the horrific ways in which we have treated one another, do you still have hope for the future of humans? What is the worst thing we have done? How do you explain that to yourself? Leave me a reply and let me know: What have our moral failures taught you? 

Rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s be real and grow together!

Can We Talk? Opening Your Mind To Broaden Your Horizons

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” –Frank Zappa

Hello friend,

How many times, in the wake of an event that has spurred divisiveness and dragged out the worst sides of politics and social media trolls, have you actually struck up a thoughtful, deep-diving, and respectful discourse with someone from the other side of the fence?

Never, right?

In those moments when everyone’s nerves are raw and the sense is that people who disagree with you are evil at worst and foolish at best, it is usually best to avoid the interaction altogether. You know that if you get into it, you are probably going to let your anger get the best of you and say something you will regret (or should regret), leading to a spiral of hurt feelings and walls up, with no one hearing—much less considering—anything the other side is saying (or shouting).

It is even worse on social media, where, if you share your thoughts—or someone else’s video or blog or article that makes your points better than you can—the trolls come to pounce with every snarky meme, crude oversimplification, and attack on your character that you can imagine. That typically leads to a series of angry retorts from both sides and a growing divide between. More walls.

It begins to feel useless—even unhealthy–to ever say anything about any topic of importance to anyone at all.

I mean, sure, it is nice to talk about issues that matter to you with people who agree with you. They tell you that you are right, maybe even give your main points a little more clarity and nuance. You come away from the discussion with even greater conviction. But how much difference are you really making? Are you enlightening any of those who are ignorant on the other side? Are you changing any new minds, making progress toward that critical mass of people who will make the greater societal change you are hoping for?

While the choir definitely needs to hear the sermon, too, at some point the message needs to travel beyond the thick chapel walls.

It was with this frustrating but ordinary reality that I went to sleep on Sunday night. When I awoke in the early hours of Monday morning, there was a message on my phone from my sister, who had just arrived in Las Vegas with her family the day before, letting me and the rest of our family know that she was safe. I quickly got up to speed on the mass shooting, the numbers for which were updating as I read.

So began the typical week in America when something like this happens, as it so often does. First it is the “thoughts and prayers” moment, immediately followed by—or joined with—people jockeying for position in the gun control debate.

Of course, it never goes anywhere. I already reminded you how public debate happens. Anyway, after a few days of anger, insults, and trolling, our attention wanders to the next hot topic. But in those few days, things are definitely tense and combative. The number of articles written and posts shared spikes, as does the animosity between the two sides and their propensity to dig their heels in and refuse to listen or engage in anything resembling productive dialogue.

America. 2017.

It was right in the thick of this national drama—and my personal frustration about it—that I happened to get a private message from an old school friend whom I had, until a recent, brief contact, hardly heard from in twenty years.

I had, on Monday afternoon, shared two articles on Facebook that I thought were important and helpful thoughts about this moment in our country, good fodder to journal about or discuss with those who are willing to engage this thorny topic in this difficult time. The first one shared grief about the Las Vegas massacre and also bridged into why it is important to again begin to raise the issue of tighter gun laws. The second article was purely informational, a series of charts and graphs explaining America’s unique relationship with guns and gun violence.

I am, as I have made clear many times in these letters and on social media, quite liberal on most of the thorny issues we face—or fail to face, as the case may be—in this country. So I am sure that those two pieces I shared on Facebook on Monday afternoon came as no surprise to my old friend from school.

No, the surprise belonged to me. It was Monday evening when the private message showed up on my tablet. He explained that he had read the articles that I had shared that day and wanted to better understand where a guy like me was coming from so he could have a broader perspective. He gave a little personal history on living in areas with different levels of gun violence and a brief explanation of his gun control perspective, which, you may have guessed, did not match mine. He reiterated that he was merely looking to gain perspective.

I was blown over. Honestly, I had to read his short note over a few times to be sure of what I had just read. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was truly shocked. Delighted, but shocked.

I suppose it is a sad commentary on us all that the occurrence of someone from one political/philosophical bent approaching someone from another (“opposing”) side and asking simply if the “opponent” would better inform the questioner about the opponent’s view so that the questioner could see the issue more clearly would seem such a rarity as to cause shock. But, as I said, “America. 2017.” Here we are.

I, of course, jumped on the opportunity. I knew the potential dialogue was fraught with landmines and that we both might end up cursing the other for being so foolish as to not accept our arguments and blindly convert our positions on gun control, but I was too giddy at the possibility of this rare gem in the form of a genuine exchange of different ideas and opinions.

I stayed up past my bedtime that night, all riled up by both the topic and the chance to open a mind. I wrote out my basic arguments on the issue, then passed on a letter I wrote to you about the topic a few years ago. The next morning I happened upon a video that I thought clarified my perspective a bit and passed that on. Later in the morning, he sent along a couple of notes in response to my points and tried to lay out his position for me in greater detail. The next day, when I finally had time to write down my thoughts—as you know, I have a lot to say—I sent a long retort, explaining how his argument did not seem logically consistent and putting in a few more angles to plug my own position. Finally, he attempted to clarify his position again.

The entire exchange took place over 48 hours, from Monday to Wednesday evening. And believe me, lots of energy was expended, both emotionally and in terms of time and effort. Because I must admit, I was totally into it the entire time. I was invested in learning more about his perspective, so I eagerly awaited his responses each time. And I spent a lot of thought on how to best express my own perspective in a way that was thorough and respectful. I was clearly engaged, that made it all the more rich and meaningful.

And amazingly, I did not get angry during the exchange. I definitely scratched my head a few times trying to make his view seem logically consistent. Maybe I thought he was in denial about some things and short-sighted on others. But I understood where he was coming from. On the receiving end, I admit that I didn’t especially like it when he referred to people who share my views as “infantile, childlike, and naïve,” but I let that slide off me—which is very unlike me—because it was also very informative about his position, which he was being honest about. It didn’t feel like he was trying to deliver me a personal cheap shot. The whole vibe of the exchange was very genuine: passionate but not offensive, honest but not cutting.

And even if I did get worked up in the process, it was a small price to pay for the broadening of my horizons and a greater sense of compassion for others who don’t share my worldview. I was–and still am–deeply grateful for the trade.

I have wondered, in the few days since the dialogue concluded, if we could have had such an open, authentic exchange on such a sensitive topic—especially given the proximity to the tragedy—in a face-to-face setting and still been both respectful and heard. Would we have, in our quest to get our points across in as rapid an exchange as conversation usually is, been talking over each other and been triggered to anger, personal attacks, or caricatures of the other’s view? I am not so confident.

I usually think of the Internet—especially the Comments section of posts—as the place where people are at their most cowardly, hiding behind their keyboards to deliver cheap shots, knowing they do not have to see the face of the person whom they are trying to hurt. But in this case, I think the distance between us helped in that it gave us time to form our thoughts more clearly before we sent them, or at least allowed us to send along a clarification (or supporting articles, videos, etc.) later. It felt more thorough than a regular face-to-face or phone conversation this way. And obviously, I think the fact that we are old friends and have good will toward each other helped to keep it from devolving into the kind of shallow, crass exchanges you see online.

When I think of the exchange as a whole, the word that comes to mind is refreshing. Maybe I had lost too much faith in my fellow humans, but I simply didn’t imagine myself having that kind of dialogue this week (or any week, honestly). As I mentioned, the initial request itself floored me. Even had the discussion gone nowhere of great interest, just that simple request for better understanding—“Help me gain perspective” is my new favorite phrase—would have been enough to restore my faith in humanity for a little while. The fact that the dialogue that followed this beautiful plea was fruitful is all the more refreshing. I wish such a mind-opening gift upon everyone. I know I am up for another!

How about you? Are you open-minded enough to have a meaningful exchange about a sensitive issue with someone who comes at it from a totally different perspective? Open up your journal and consider the degree to which you are willing to both share your own thoughts respectfully with an “opponent” and also give serious respect and consideration to their views, building a true dialogue together rather than a fight. Which of the big issues are you most passionate about and get your blood boiling the most when you listen to the other side’s claims? Gun control? Racism? Health care? Immigration? Climate change? Abortion? Income inequality? The list goes on. Which ones rattle your cage the most? How well-versed are you in your side’s arguments? Well enough to put up a good fight in a debate if necessary? Are you eager to put your views out there and engage debate, or do you shy away from giving your opinions, even if they are strongly held? What is your typical reaction when you hear someone from the other side of your hot-button issue give their opinions? Do you get fired up immediately? Do you get so agitated that it would be difficult to engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue on the topic? Have you ever been approached by someone who thoroughly disagrees with you on a thorny issue and would like to challenge your beliefs? If so, how did you respond and where did it lead? Has it ever ended well? It is my thoroughly biased belief that people who keep a journal have stronger foundations for their beliefs because, through their journal writing, they have considered the topics more thoroughly than people who don’t journal. I am not saying that we journal writers are more passionate about our opinions or even always correct, just that we are more likely to have logically consistent positions that can be expressed clearly. Do you agree? (Here’s a hint: you have to write one to find out the answer!) Have you ever had your view of humanity refreshed by a single exchange? Have you ever had a situation like mine and been engaged by someone who knowingly disagrees with you but who simply wants to broaden her view of the world? Would you prefer to do it face-to-face and all-at-once or through writing over time? How about the flip-side: have you ever approached an “opponent” with the humble request, “Help me gain perspective.”? On which issue would you most like to submit that request? From my experience this week, I would highly recommend it. Do you dare? Leave me a reply and let me know, Can you open your heart and mind enough to engage an opposing perspective with respect?  

Blossom and grow,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Dialogue is good!

Hurricanes & Health Care, Russians & Racists: How do you deal with it all?

“Perhaps there could be no joy on this planet without an equal weight of pain to balance it out on some unknown scale.” –Stephenie Meyer, The Host

Hello friend,

I got a big jolt on Monday night right before I fell asleep. I was in bed doing a very quick perusal of the day’s news on my tablet before I was to begin my usual book reading that always knocks me out. I popped on the ESPN app and noticed a picture of the Dallas Cowboys kneeling in a national anthem-themed protest, the last of many that seemed to gobble up all of the oxygen over the weekend. Then I flipped over to Facebook, and one of the first things that came up on my Newsfeed was a post from Dan Rather, who was sharing his thoughts and a photo slideshow about the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. His thoughts are always poignant, and they led me to click on the link to the slideshow. What I saw was absolutely heartbreaking, an island decimated by the storm and so many of my fellow Americans without power, water, or help from a country that had just spent the last couple of weeks falling over itself to help the people and communities ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

It was quite a jolt, as I said. It was bedtime, though, so I forced myself to let it go and get to sleep. The jolt came right back to me the next morning, though, as I began my breakfast. My first, almost-panicked thought was, “Did I forget to share that slideshow??? People need to know!!” So I opened up Facebook on my phone, found it again, and shared it.

As the day went on, I was increasingly fascinated by my intense reaction to the images from Puerto Rico. Not my sadness or my empathy—that part was totally normal for me. The part that intrigued me was the terror I felt at missing this important news while it was happening. I realized that my panic at not absorbing the full extent of the devastation of Hurricane Maria on my fellow human beings was borne out of one thing: GUILT.

How could I have given those poor folks in Texas my emotional investment one week during Harvey, and those poor folks in Florida my emotional investment the next week during Irma, but then hardly notice when these poor folks in Puerto Rico were in even worse condition last week?  

I was very disturbed by this. My conscience was definitely eating at me. I felt like I had failed my moral obligation by not paying closer attention and lending my positive thoughts and my voice through my writing and social media posts, if not through direct monetary donations to the cause. I try to give voice when people are in need, to raise awareness and empathy, hopefully leading to both emotional and monetary resources being lent. But I had definitely let this one slip past me.

I started questioning my focus, looking for reasons why I had let my guard down and missed lending a voice to people who clearly needed all the help they could get. Maybe I was just looking for a good excuse. If I couldn’t get relief for my guilty conscience, I at least wanted an explanation to settle my mind.

I didn’t have to look far. It was right there in my journal entries and my social media posts and shares. I had spent the last several days deeply embedded in the controversy around the national anthem protests. This has actually been a pet project in my head for the last year, but it seemed to overtake the nation last week in the wake of the President’s incendiary comments and the reactions by football teams. It was a firestorm, at least in the view of the media that ultimately decides which topics will gain the most buzz and largest viewing audience.

I, of course, got into it. As I said, I latched onto this topic with Colin Kaepernick a year ago and have become increasingly invested, so I have read a lot about it, from both the historical and factual side of it as well as the many opinions swirling about. So, even though I think that much of the reaction from NFL teams was hypocritical and more of a response to the attack by the President rather than actual concern for injustice against people of color, I took advantage of the attention the topic was getting again and shared what I thought were some solid, helpful articles on social media. My attention and emotions were definitely on the topic, anyway. And since they were there, they were NOT in Puerto Rico. So, I missed it (or nearly so).

By way of excuse-making, though, it was totally obvious that nearly everyone missed it. The coverage on all of the networks and news outlets seemed as focused as I was on the national anthem and NFL’s response to the President. It was the media-driven firestorm that distracted us from the real storm in Puerto Rico and the desperate American citizens trying to survive in its wake.

I am definitely not trying to blame this on the media. They have taken more than their share of criticism this year, much of it unfair. Still, it is fascinating to me how completely dialed into the coverage of the previous hurricanes in Texas and Florida they were and then how clearly NOT dialed into this one they were.

I have no doubt that the NFL’s battle with the President over the national anthem is more sensational for the media to cover than the third consecutive week of hurricane coverage—is “hurricane fatigue” a real phenomenon?—but this situation in Puerto Rico is beyond tragic. I know that by the middle of this week it finally gathered some traction in the news, but we were all about a week late on this one. And when you are dealing with the health and welfare of fellow human beings—not to mention fellow Americans—that is a full week too long.

I know my guilty conscience was earned, but I think I am not the only one who should be feeling those pangs.

My point here is not to wallow in that guilt or to make you wallow in it—really, it’s not–but really to wonder about our responsibility toward the events of the world around us and how spread out our emotional energy amongst the wide array of issues.

Living in America in 2017 with the President that we have, it feels like one crisis or drama after another. We don’t need actual hurricanes to stir up our fears and our outrage or engender empathy toward people getting a bad deal; we have human-driven storms already (dozens of them) for that. We are living a storm! At least that is how it feels to me.

So, after I have used my journal or my wife or Facebook or whatever as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on for things like anti-Muslim travel bans, threats of the loss of health care, Nazis and White supremacists marching in our streets, Russian corruption of our government, the killing of another unarmed Black person by police, or the White House denying climate change, it is hard work to then add forest fires (the thing that no one paid attention to before they weren’t paying attention to Puerto Rico) and three consecutive hurricanes to the emotional load I am carrying.

I know some of those are things to be outraged about and some of them are things to feel empathy about—and some are definitely both—but what if my outrage and my empathy get emptied from the same barrel? It feels like I only have so much emotional energy to give these dramas, and whether it is my heart breaking for the people in Puerto Rico or my outrage at the government’s slow response to it, I feel like it is all draining that barrel.

I just don’t know what to do about it. I want to be here for my world, an active participant in fighting injustice and helping those in need. But, just like last week, I feel like if I keep my eye on one ball, the others all fall out of the sky. I hate the helplessness and guilt I feel when that happens. I just don’t know how to spread it out the right way.

How about you? How do you spread your emotional energy around in these turbulent times? Open up your journal and write about the issues that move your needle and your process for balancing them in your head and heart. What types of things in the world get you stirred up? Presidential tweets and character issues? Racial injustice? Health care? Humanitarian crises? Forest fires? Religious persecution? Terrorism? National anthem protests? White House firings? Hurricane damage? Congressional ineptitude? Climate change denial? Taxes? Potential wars? White supremacists? Are your hot button topics more things that make you feel sad and empathetic, or things that make you feel outraged? Do you think that these things draw from the same well of energy? That is, does depleting your supply of one leave less of the other, at least at the temporarily? Do you ever feel bad that you emptied your barrel on “outrage issues” rather than “empathy issues” or vice versa? How big is your capacity to spread yourself amongst all of the issues that seem to run roughshod over our world today? Are you able to stay updated and also engage with them all emotionally? If not—and you are human, so I am guessing you cannot—how do you manage your attention and distribute your emotions according to your priorities? Are there certain issues (e.g. politics) that you just avoid altogether? Do you take “timeout” periods when you basically bury your head in the sand to replenish your heart and mind for the inevitable next round of drama? Do you “tagteam” the issues with friends or family members so that you can share the burden and use each other for emotional support? Do you feel guilty for “missing” an issue—like my lateness to Hurricane Maria—or do you see that as necessary for survival? Are most of these issues as big as we make them out to be, or are we overblowing them? Has the news media gotten us all hooked in their web by making so many things seem so urgent and necessary for us to attend to (then immediately moving on to something else)? I would love to hear how you spread yourself out, because obviously I am struggling with it? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you distribute your empathy and outrage in these emotional times?

Be Peace first,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, I hope you will share it with others. Let’s support one another!

Do You Let Yourself Be Happy?

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” –Abraham Lincoln

Hello friend,

This week, I was at the library with my daughter. After we had found her books, she wandered over to the Wii games, which are next to the movies. As a lifelong movie lover, I couldn’t help but stop and browse. It didn’t take long, of course, to find a few that got me excited and longing to watch. Then I caught myself in my daydream, had a good chuckle, and thought, “Yeah, right! When am I EVER going to find a couple of consecutive hours to watch a movie???”

That clarity about the reality of my life and schedule comes from years of experience being me. I definitely place strict boundaries around the few things that are my highest priorities and don’t allow anything to interfere with them. Because of that, the other things that are only somewhat or fairly important to me tend to get left off the schedule entirely. I don’t like that so many things that I enjoy have fallen by the wayside–and that other things that I am curious to learn have not been explored—but I have never been able to come up with a solution that sits right with me. I am just so protective of my big loves.

Because of my strict adherence to my highest priorities, I am definitely hanging out with my kids as much as possible every day. I am getting in a workout before they wake up every day. And I am sneaking in a little writing time every day. The love, challenge, wellness, and sense of fulfillment I get from this combination of priorities allows me to maintain the very high level of Happiness that has been a part of my identity for the last twenty years. But is it enough?

Are my strict boundaries and elimination of other categories of joys effectively limiting my happiness?

That thought freaks me out. The very last thing I want to do is limit my own happiness.

A few years ago, I read an article that got shared around social media about a palliative care nurse who listed what she came to believe to be the “Five Biggest Regrets of Dying People”. It was great fodder for journal entries, because of course I wanted to check in with myself to be sure I was not going to have those regrets. In one form or another, I have asked you about the regrets in these letters over the years, things like daring to be authentic, not working too much, staying in touch with loved ones, and having the courage to express your feelings. Those were all very clear to me.

But there was one regret on that short list that seemed to elude my grasp: I wish I had let myself be happy.

“Let myself.” There was something just vague enough about this idea when I was processing the others that I decided to leave it alone. I didn’t address it. But somehow, the idea has stuck with me all this time. I haven’t forgotten it. Or, maybe, it hasn’t let me forget it. In any case, it is time to face it.

How does one let oneself be happy? Or, perhaps it is better addressed from the other end: How does one KEEP oneself from being happy? 

I tend to think of Happiness as something you choose. You have to make the decision and keep making the decision. I am sure that sounds oversimplified and perhaps naïve, and maybe I will cop to that. I definitely think it is a choice—that concept is simple—but I think the choice itself is a complicated one.

Happiness has some layers to it. Everyone has a different idea of what goes into it. I once wrote to you that my version of “Happiness Stew” consists of Authenticity (living your Truth), Connectedness (to the Divine and/or loved ones), an atmosphere of Progress and Growth, a pervasive attitude of Gratitude, and lots of “Good For The Soul” activities. A few years later, that recipe still sounds about right to me.

So, given those ingredients, how do I imagine either letting myself be happy or keeping myself from being happy?

In some ways, I think each of these ingredients can play a part. Of course, living authentically—being unapologetic about who you are and what your soul calls you to do despite what others expect from you—can grant you the freedom to do more of the things you love and truly find your tribe in the world, both of which can play a huge role in your happiness. Living a life that does not honor your calling would make true Happiness a challenge. I have certainly tried hard on this one throughout my adult life, and I have reaped the benefits in my heart and soul in proportion to my authenticity. I have concluded that fake is ultimately unhappy.

Having that feeling of being connected to others and to something greater than yourself tends to give our existence a deeper meaning and value, which can lead to, at worst, greater satisfaction, and perhaps greater happiness. Isolating yourself would certainly seem to take away that “meaning” aspect–or at least change the meaning—and potentially diminish your happiness. On this front, I can admit to some successes and some failures, or at least doubts. I have definitely felt connected to the Divine, a feeling very much shaped by my spiritual and scientific worldview. With people, though, I have been more hit-and-miss. Much like my priorities mentioned at the top, I have kept almost all of my attention on a small number of people, mostly my family. Those relationships have been richly rewarding, but I cannot help but feel I have not cast my net wide enough and reached out to all of the people that I could have in an effort to truly find my tribe when it comes to like-minded adults, in or out of my career interests. That is a potential stone unturned when it comes to how certain I feel about letting myself be happy. For the moment, I will just say that my suspicion is that I could be happier if I could find that tribe.

Continually learning and stretching your limits—the atmosphere of Growth—provides that edge that keeps life interesting and engaging, which are, again, crucial.   On this Progress front, I feel like I have done pretty well most of the time. I have spent a great deal of energy on trying to expand my mind, expand my knowledge, and expand my empathy. There are still many more books to read, skills to learn, and places to visit, but I have been pretty consistent with my efforts and feel greatly rewarded every time I lean into my growing edge.

The “Good For The Soul” activities—the things that make you feel full of peace and joy and love–is another aspect of the Happiness Stew that I have been keen on trying to maximize. Running through the sprinkler, snuggling up with a good book, tickle fights with my kids, and writing this letter to you are just a few of the many ways I try to sprinkle my life with the good stuff, the stuff that just feels right. I do think Happiness is possible without a full schedule of these activities, but they certainly put the cherry on the sundae of Life. Prioritizing them in my schedule—and being fully engaged in them during their time—is truly a way of letting myself be happy.

Conversely, I can see how consciously choosing to deny yourself these treats and smiles would be regret-worthy later on. I have always fancied the idea of learning the guitar, as I would appreciate the challenge but then, even more so, I would have so many good-for-the-soul moments in playing songs and singing. I smile even as I type these words to you about playing those songs. I can see how I might be legitimately denying myself a greater Happiness by choosing to not begin this learning. That prospect makes me shudder.

Despite the importance of all of these Happiness components—Authenticity, Growth, Connectedness, and Joys–I can’t help but think that in the end, the single most important contributing factor in the degree to which you allow yourself to be happy is the presence and pervasiveness of Gratitude in your life.

After all these years, I find it to be no coincidence that the year I began writing in my journal every day was the year I began my life of uninterrupted happiness. Of course, I would love to make the direct leap from Journaling to Happiness—or even to advertise that all happy people journal—but I think that would be a bit of an oversell. No, the real link I claim is the one between Journaling and Gratitude. I have always said that the beautiful thing about the clarity I gained when I started journaling is that it made obvious the countless gifts in my life. Suddenly I was so much more thankful for it all—truly, the whole thing—and so much more aware of each individual gift that I had not recognized as such before. It was only after spending some quality time really soaking up all of that gratitude and the implications of it that I realized fully for the first time that the deep, enduring Happiness that had enveloped my entire existence was due to this newfound, profound gratitude that I had been feeling.

I also realized that I got to choose that gratitude. I had to keep cultivating it, consciously and intentionally. I recognized that the best way for me to cultivate it was through my daily journaling. I found that it had become my habit to write about my many blessings, and that writing always seemed to put me in a mindset to notice more and more blessings. It snowballed, and suddenly I was seeing gifts in places I had not noticed them before. As my recognition grew, so grew my gratitude. As my gratitude grew, so grew my happiness. Soon both were so entrenched that I could not imagine either ever leaving me.

And they haven’t. In twenty years.

So, have I let myself be happy? In so many ways, I would have to say it is more like I made myself be happy. I chose myself happy. Every day. Every journal entry. Every “Life is beautiful” tagline at the end of each entry as a reminder. For a while, I chose those words, chose to find the blessings, chose Gratitude. After that, though—I think as a reward for my choosing—it was all there was to choose anymore. That, for me, is Happiness.

How about you? Have you let yourself be happy? Open up your journal and write yourself through this rich and rewarding topic. Probably it is easiest to begin with your own recipe for Happiness. What are the core ingredients? Does my recipe ring true to you? If not, what will you add or subtract? Is Happiness a choice? Okay, now that you have defined the main ingredients of a happy life, try to determine if you are getting your fill of each. In what aspects are you doing very well? In what aspects are you falling short? On a scale of one to one hundred—with 100 being Supremely Happy—how happy are you? How does that compare to the other people in your life? Now look at the main issue of the day: How happy have you LET yourself be? Is your rating as it is because you have held yourself back? In what areas of your life have you sabotaged your Happiness potential? Have you let Fear hide your light or keep you from making connections? Have you stayed too much in your comfort zone? Have you followed the pack instead of the beat of your own drummer? Have you denied yourself your good-for-the-soul activities, thinking they were too childish or self-indulgent? In what other ways have you stymied your happiness? Are these things enough that you can envision “I didn’t let myself be happy” as one of your deathbed regrets? Are these things you can change before they get to that point? What step can you take today to allow yourself to be happier? Will you make that move? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: How happy have you let yourself be?

Let go,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Share Happiness!

Dear Mr. President: an open letter

“In America, anyone can become President. That’s the problem.” –George Carlin

Hello friend,

Don’t you ever wish you could get the undivided attention of the leaders of the world and give them a piece of your mind? You know, just sit down over a beverage and try to get them to understand the world from your perspective or try to change their mind on a few things. Or maybe you imagine yourself as the principal and them coming into your office to sit while you stand over them and read them the riot act (my elementary school principal was a frightening dude, so this visual works for me!). Maybe you want to praise them for their wisdom and their class in handling a recent crisis, or perhaps you would rather berate them for the way they have let your country lose its place in the world order. Whatever your agenda, I bet you have imagined one of these conversations (or monologues) with some leader somewhere along the way.

Well, I am not sure if you have noticed, but the guy who lives in the White House these days seems to evoke some pretty strong sentiments from the citizens of the country he is charged to lead. I am one of those citizens.

I have read the Tweets and watched the press conferences. I have studied his appointees, his agreement withdrawals, and his proposals. I followed the seemingly endless presidential campaign very closely, and I have continued to follow the presidency.

It would be an understatement to say that I have an opinion on the matter. I can’t imagine that anyone in America with a head above ground does not have an opinion on the matter! But you know how delicate, emotional, and often combative political discussions can get. It can be hard to be fully honest and feel safe. And sometimes, just for our sanity, we try to bury our heads about what is going on, right? Because with one dramatic turn of events after another, to fully process them all just might be unhealthy.

So I was thinking this week that with the news cycle a little more off politics and onto other disasters, this might be just the time to think a bit more clearly about how we might address this polarizing character at the head of our government. And what better way than our journal, of course! The safest depository for sensitive or inflammatory ideas. It’s perfect! And so, a letter to the President….

Dear Mr. President, 

I am writing to you today because I would like to get some things off my chest. These are just from me. Though my political bent is definitely to the liberal side of the spectrum, I don’t affiliate with any party and don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself today. One voter, one citizen.  

I’m actually a deeply concerned citizen. Frankly, I don’t appreciate your style of leadership or the direction you are steering our country from a policy perspective.  

As far as your personal leadership style and the way you come across as the figurehead of America, I am a deeply embarrassed citizen. I have followed several Presidents in my lifetime and have disagreed with many (sometimes most) of their big decisions or policies. I never deluded myself into thinking any of them were saints. I don’t need my President to be a perfect soul. However, your words and actions have failed just about every moral test I can imagine.  

I often think of this stuff in terms of my children and how they would see it or be affected by it. Up to this point in my life, I can imagine thinking it would be really cool if the President—from either party–were to come to their school to address them or to come by our house for dinner. Despite our political differences, I believed the President would act with class and grace and be a good example to my kids. Now, if given those opportunities, I would keep my children home from school that day and deny the dinner request. It wouldn’t be worth the risk of what you might say or do. That’s a shame.  

I find it disturbing and disheartening how often I hear or read or think of your actions being characterized as “beneath the office of the Presidency.” I don’t need to make the list—it seems that you follow your press clippings closer than I do—but again, it is enough to make me feel bad for the kids. “The Office” seems to be now permanently diminished for your successors. With so few things left in the world to feel some reverence for, it saddens me that you have singlehandedly robbed all the future kids of our nation of something special.  

And again, it is not as though I was expecting a beacon of morality when you entered the office. Whether through your history of housing discrimination, the Central Park Five, birtherism, the Mexican rapists, the anti-Muslim stuff, mocking the disabled, and the Access Hollywood tape, it was clear long before the election that you were—both publicly and privately—anything but a model for social justice and inclusion. Still, I held out a sliver of hope that even if the presidency didn’t chasten you a bit, as others predicted, that it might just tone down the frequency and blatant nature of crassness and bluster.  

I probably would have settled for you just stopping the Tweets. But no, you seem intent upon throwing gasoline on any sparks you may have ignited and making volatile situations exponentially worse, doubling down on your missteps rather than walking them back (never mind apologizing). For someone who bragged so often of his presidential temperament along the campaign trail, your absence of wisdom, grace, and simple personal control is frightening.  

Probably by now you have guessed that I am not much of a fan of your policy proposals, either.  

If you hadn’t already lost the respect and support of people around the world by the time you pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement—if you recall, the polls suggested you were already vastly unpopular globally—that was certainly the moment, for me, that it felt absolutely obvious that the United States was no longer to be considered the leader of the world, and maybe not even ONE OF the leaders. It seems that in trying to “put America first,” you ended up placing America last and all by itself. The feeling I came away with was, again, embarrassment.  

Your recent plan to revoke DACA, your anti-Muslim travel ban, your pardon of civil rights violator Joe Arpaio, your encouragement of police to be more rough with suspects, your ban on transgender people in the military, and your wink-wink “denouncement” of neo-Nazis and White supremacists following the nightmare in Charlottesville—not to mention the many things you said and did prior to becoming President—have all created an atmosphere in which so many more people in our country today feel unsafe and unsupported.  

I am not here to argue about whether or not you are a White supremacist, but what I do want to make perfectly clear is that your words and your actions have helped create an atmosphere in which White supremacists feel increasingly emboldened and comfortable as a part of our everyday, “normal” society. If you truly are not a White supremacist, I hope you are appalled by that. It seems that you are not.  

One of the things I have noticed since you became President—and for a long time I could not quite put my finger on it—is that the country seems to be suffering from a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is this extreme sense of apprehension in the air, like we are constantly worried about which calamity will show up in the next news cycle. Who will you have offended? How will you embarrass us next? Who is getting fired? Which of my loved ones am I going to have to comfort? Who will I have to march for? Are you going to be impeached? Are you getting us into a war? 

With your itchy Twitter finger and your raw nerve of an ego, we just don’t know what madness will await us when we wake up the next day. This state of heightened anxiety, multiplied by that that awful feeling of vulnerability for so many of our citizens based on your actions, is perhaps your most damning legacy.  

So yes, it’s true that a small part of this is just that I wish we had elected someone whose political leanings were more like mine. I am disappointed that the environment is under fire, that climate change is being denied, that your return to “law and order” is leading to increasing injustice, that solid contributors to our society are being sent away, that you cannot find a way to get more people access to health care at a lower price, and that you seem intent on widening the gap between the rich and poor. I am fairly sure I would feel much of that disappointment with anyone from your party in office. I am used to that sense of loss; I can deal with that.  

So you see, Mr. President, my takeaway feelings from your time in the White House are not direct results of you and I not sharing a political party. No, instead I get two overwhelming sensations when I think your effect on our country. The first is embarrassment. I feel such shame that during the campaign you showed us exactly who you are, and we still elected you. We have lost our place in the world as result, and for me, I have lost any sense I had that we are a country to brag about and that others might look to for an example, that “shining city on a hill” that one of your predecessors often described.  

The second overwhelming sensation that overtakes me when I think of your presidency is sadness. As I mentioned earlier, so much of how I view these things is as a parent and a teacher of future generations. Growing up, I always thought of the President as someone who, in public at least, spoke and acted with class and represented America in a dignified way. The kids today get a guy who mocks the disabled at campaign rallies, famously talks at work about sexually assaulting women, and frequently calls people “losers” in public. It doesn’t seem fair to the kids.  

It saddens me that you are the guy that this generation of kids has to see as the example of what the President acts like, and it embarrasses me that the world is watching us and that I have to explain to my own kids that their fellow citizens knew who you were and still elected you. That is a difficult conversation. The embarrassment is for me. The sadness is for the kids.  

So, Mr. President, I wish I had more words of praise for you, because I would much prefer to be doing that right now. Despite all of this, however, I am still hoping, as I was the day you were inaugurated, that you will find a way to temper yourself, to control your ego, and to act in a way more befitting of the leader of a great country. I am still hoping that you will open your heart and your mind to the greatness of the people of this country—ALL of the people: not just the White, male, straight, and Christian ones. I am still hoping you will choose words and policies that make all of us feel safe and respected and welcome. And finally, I am still hoping that you will close your Twitter account. I wish you and your family good health and happiness. 

Sincerely,

William

How about you? What would you like to say to the President? Open up your journal and unload your thoughts. Remember: it is a safe space; no one will ever have to read it but you. As is the case every week, I only shared mine as a jumping off point for you. My guess is that your letter will look a lot different than mine. But how? Is your letter more complimentary? What specific things would you like to praise him about? What about the other side: what specific issues do you want to berate him about? Charlottesville? The Wall? The travel ban? Dreamers? Health care? Climate change? Would you like to address his character and the example he is setting for children? How much of what you would say is driven by what you were expecting when we was elected (whether you voted for him or not)? Has he disappointed you relative to your expectations, or has he been better than advertised? What do you want him to do more of? Less of? Would you share some personal stories of how his presidency has affected you and your loved ones? How can your words help him? If you are mostly angry, how can you find words that are both a release for you but also helpful to him? Do you think there is anything you could say to bring about a positive change? I dare you to try! Ask yourself: What would you like to say to the President?

Speak Truth to Power,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Let us help each other to use our voices for good!

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!