Category Archives: American Culture

Misguided Saints or Friendly Villains? Assessing Loved Ones In The Age Of Trump

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” –George Carlin

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” –Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

“That’s what people do who love you. They put their arms around you and love you when you’re not so lovable.” –Deb Caletti

Hello friend,

If you and I meet up any time in the next year–or maybe forever–and I don’t seem to remember how to act, it’s because I don’t. Truly, I don’t. I’ve forgotten. I may be dying to interrogate you, rip into you, gloss over you, or lavish you with empathy and good will–or all of the above simultaneously. What you get? I don’t know! Never in my life have I felt so torn about how to interact with people in general, but especially the people I have always known and loved. Ninety percent of my interactions are a form of torture. And I blame it all on Donald Trump!

Just kidding. Not about the torture, but about the Trump. (I am not here to litigate the President, really. We all know where we stand on him already, and I don’t expect to change that. My question today, as always, is ultimately about YOU.) I know he is only a symptom of a deeper disease–and I generally don’t even mention his name–but he makes the arguments stand out in bold, cartoon-like form, making it easier to highlight our differences of morality. So let’s go with it for the moment.

I suppose I have been tortured by a version of this syndrome all my life–a liberal, “bleeding heart” kind of soul born into a family, community, and region of the country that oozes conservatism–though most of my years were spent in happy denial of it. At some level, I could always say that I felt “different,” as though I didn’t quite belong, but I didn’t ever really do the work to crystallize what it was. I was blissfully unaware of politics and the ramifications of political beliefs on the lives of the people around us and the people of the world. I casually accepted the idea that all of those politicians in Washington were pretty much the same: White men who agreed on the problems but just had slightly different views on the solutions. I suppose I figured the rest of us were pretty much the same: it wasn’t our politics that separated us or showed some to be “good” and others “bad,” but rather our day-to-day actions and our morals. Politics seemed to be a separate thing and far less important.

And then I opened my eyes and started paying attention. It all changed pretty fast from there. Me, I mean. I changed. Not me, as in, who I was. But me in how I understood the world and its workings. The curtain got pulled back for me, and I couldn’t un-see what I had seen, though it would have saved me a lot of torment in the ensuing years.

Politics is morals put into policy form.

The policies–and, by extension, the politicians that espouse them–that you support tell so much about your character and your moral compass. At bottom, your politics reveal exactly what (and whom) you value. Simultaneously, they tell about what you are willing to swallow in order to make your values win. It is a crystallization of your priorities.

So, why do so many of the people from my past–people I have liked or loved, people I played with or share blood with, people who raised me–support a brand of morals that makes my skin crawl? How could we come from the same home and seemingly be moral opposites? And should that make us, if not enemies, then at least cordially not-friends? Are we deluding ourselves by thinking that the bonds of old friendship or family should endure even though we realize we are thoroughly incompatible morally? Should I be cutting ties, or do I have to just shine it on at reunions for the rest of my life, keeping my conversations agonizingly superficial in the service of tolerating each other? Or is there something more, some level of wisdom or grace that I can reach that allows me to fully embrace them again, the way it was before I could see these things clearly?

I want to know how to interact! Maybe more so, I want to be able to think better of the people I have been feeling hurt by and angry with, people who have been a big disappointment to me since I opened my eyes to the stark differences in our beliefs. I want that, but at the moment, I admit that it’s hard to see a path to the bridge.

This may seem random, but I think we need to talk about Jesus. As I have shared with you before, I am not a Christian but am a huge fan of the man. His example and his teachings are wonderful. In this era, though, I feel as though I have to defend Jesus from his followers. It truly makes my blood boil to listen to certain high-profile religious leaders as they not only cover for the despicable acts and policies of our current President but celebrate him and lean on their congregations to do the same.

But, as I said, I do not want to make this seem like it’s about Donald Trump. As easy of a target as he is in any discussion of morals, I would rather pull it back to a party level, but still stick with my guy Jesus. My pet theory–perhaps incorrect, but still mine and sure to offend even more people, but hey, I’m already in the deep end on this one–is that the “Christian coalition” (or “Evangelicals” or once upon a time the “Moral Majority” or however you would like to name the right-wing Christian movement) was willing to hitch their wagon to whichever political party was going to side with them on the issue of abortion. The Republicans signed on and have happily won a ton of easy elections out of the deal (hence the “Bible Belt” also being called the “Solid South” to signify that it votes solidly Republican).

But what policies did the Christians–and just so we are clear, I am not suggesting this applies to every Christian but rather to the movement and leaders (e.g. Franklin Graham) that try to speak for the religion–wed themselves to for the sake of abortion? How do they look after this deal? And, more importantly, how do you imagine Jesus would see it?

I have studied this guy Jesus fairly seriously, both as a kid and as an adult, and these are some of the traits and principles that stand out to me about him: generous, nonviolent, empathetic, welcoming, charitable, open-hearted, peaceful, forgiving, an ally to the outcast, opposition to greed, caring for the poor and the sick. When I look at the issues of the modern world that our political parties disagree on, I always shudder to think how he would feel about the side taken by the leaders and followers of the religion that bares his name.

Tax breaks for the wealthiest, leading to greater income inequality and a greater number of people suffering and impoverished. LGBTQ discrimination. Separating immigrant families who are fleeing war or cruelty at home–hey, like Jesus!–and caging children at the border. Gun laws. Expansion of the prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex. Civil rights and righting past wrongs to African-Americans and other minority communities. Guaranteeing health care for all. Protecting the environment. From what I can tell about Jesus, he would land on the exact opposite end of the political (i.e. moral) spectrum than the people who are supposedly carrying his banner.

Whenever one of these issues comes up and I ask myself that famous question, “What would Jesus do?” the answer inevitably turns out to be so different than the Republican/”Christian” response. That is deeply disturbing to me. I wish it were to them, but judging by the election results at all levels, it plainly is not.

Just look at the President. We will pull him into the discussion for a moment. I have no need to write the laundry list of his moral failings, but suffice it to say that in both his policies and his social (e.g. Twitter) messages to the world, he would seem to me to be a glaring embarrassment to not just his country, religion or political party, but to humanity. Horrifying things are said and done, and yet who in his party–whether a politician or an ordinary citizen–ever says, “Yikes! This time he crossed the line. That is unacceptable.”? As my wife is fond of exclaiming when at her wits’ end about these silent enablers, “How do they look themselves in the mirror? How can they live with themselves?” I would like to know.

Because I have Republican family members who practically spat in disgust when Donald Trump was a candidate for President. Until he became their nominee, that is. Ever since, I don’t hear a single negative thing about him from them, no matter how egregious the latest lie or slander or tantrum. All is well in their world. I would like an explanation for that.

But what I also want from them–and I know this sounds extreme and self-absorbed at first blush, but it is my truth–is an apology. I have been highly sensitive to racism my whole life, even growing up White in a thoroughly White community. And now I have a Black wife and two biracial children, as well as dear friends of color. Any neutral account of this President’s history before and in office show him to be plainly racist. You, as a supporter, can say all day long, “I am not a racist. I am not a racist. I am not a racist.” But if you pledge your support to a racist, what does that make you?

And I get it, there are more things about a politician than whether they are racist or not . So maybe you love your politician’s foreign relations philosophy or immigration policy or health care plan so much that you are willing to overlook their racist statements and actions, but does that mean you should not even acknowledge that aspect of it to someone who is hurt by your vote? Especially if you love them? Something along the lines of, “You know how I voted, and I know that must feel like a punch in the gut to your family because his racism is truly ugly and harmful. But the other issues are ones I couldn’t compromise on, so I felt compelled to vote for him despite serious misgivings about his character. I really do apologize for the damage his racism causes; I can only hope I am right about the rest and that our relationship survives it.” From my own experience, I will say that the votes of my family and friends for Trump have deeply hurt my feelings on this issue of racism. The possibility that they are blind to their hurtfulness doesn’t do much to salve the wound. It mostly makes me feel the moral divide between us is that much greater.

That divide tends to feel like a gulf, because, as I said, this is not just about Donald Trump, and I am sure it won’t disappear when he leaves office. This is about political issues that are shows of our moral character and thus our priorities. After all, conservative media spent decades portraying Hillary Clinton as, alternately, morally weak for sticking with a cheating husband, then frigid, calculating, ruthless, and finally, as corrupt and untruthful as Trump himself. But in the end, whether any of those cartoon-villain descriptions were accurate or not, she still stood for policies that revealed a morality far, far different than the policies of her opponent, never mind his well-chronicled character flaws.

So let’s be clear, I don’t think anyone in Washington is a saint. They play in an ugly game, and to rise to the top, they have probably done things that they don’t want to tell their mothers about. But you and I aren’t playing an ugly game. We are living this one life, and I, perhaps naïvely, presume that means we are trying to be good people and leave the world better than we found it. In this one life, we get to choose how we come down on every issue, and we get to step privately into that voting booth in every election and vote with our moral compass as guide.

But that’s the problem I am having and why old relationships have become so awkward and challenging. I get to see the election results and know the values and priorities of the people in my community. In the case of family members and some friends, I already know the way they vote, so there becomes no way for me to deny their moral positions. When I do the old, “What would Jesus do?” test and their votes come out on the opposite side of me and Jesus, it creates a crisis of conscience for me. Not because I doubt my political positions, but because I doubt my relationships.

I begin to wonder whether, in staying loyal to the person, I am betraying myself. Am I taking the high road with them but low-balling myself? Their presence in my life–at least on some level–feels like a violation of my principles.

But then they go and muck up my righteous indignation by doing what they have been doing all my life: being kind to me and my family or doing other good works for their neighbors or the world. They tell me funny jokes. They enjoy a walk on the beach or in the woods with me. We play sports together. Our kids are best friends. We take each other’s suggestions on great books and movies. We have an intellectually stimulating conversation or commiserate about our children, all of whom we love and want the best for. They act like friends and family are supposed to act. In effect, they make it complicated.

Humans are so darn messy! The so-called Good and the so-called Bad. It turns out neither is exactly what we call them. None of us are. We are all grey, all wearing one angel’s wing and one devil’s horn, showing them off alternately depending upon which angle someone is looking from. You are this to me, but you are also that. I can therefore not put you in a box. Knowing you requires nuance and perhaps a sacrifice, some boundaries, or even some cleverly placed blinders. That is frustrating because it is a lot more work. It’s so darn much work!

But what is the alternative? Solitude? That is tempting to me on many days, believe me, but I have mostly made peace with my decision to be a (somewhat) social animal. I know that I will have people in my life, and that means I must accept some degree of compromise of my many principles (I do like to have things my way!). It doesn’t mean I will accept just anyone into my life or that my current relationships have not changed from my end. As I said at the top, now that my eyes have been opened to the ramifications of political positions, everything has changed, but most especially my boundaries. But it is a murky task. I thought maybe in the course of this letter, I would come to a hard and fast conclusion on this. Like, “I can no longer commune with these people, even in our superficial way! The moral gulf between us is too wide.” But my heart does not seem ready for that extreme lockdown, even if it has narrowed the pathway in. I guess I have to learn to be okay with a little more messiness, a little more grey than I would like. I have to learn Grace. Grace is hard. But I suppose that is Life, isn’t it? It is not easy, and it isn’t clean. It resists boxes and absolutes.

The entrance of politics into my life has done so much more to muddy the waters. It is no wonder that new studies show that the more people pay attention to politics, the more stressed they are. But I cannot go back to denial. The cat is out of the bag. I have allowed the complexity into my life, and I want to be responsible with its ramifications. So, if you see me on the street and I seem a little wary, forgive me. In all of my balancing between assessment, acceptance, rejection, and practice of Grace, I no longer seem to know how to behave in public. It turns out I am a work in progress.

How about you? How well do you balance your natural feelings for the people in your life with the new information you gather about their character as time goes by? Open up your journal and take a deep dive on this enormous and so-very-pregnant topic. How open and honest are your communications with family and friends on sensitive topics such as politics and religion? Are you able to really say how you feel and challenge them on their beliefs and your differences, or do you remain silent on these topics and pretend your differences don’t exist in order to keep the peace? Whether or not you talk about them, are you aware of the political differences you have with your loved ones? Do you know where they stand on the various issues and how they vote in elections? How much do you think about that? In what ways does it shape your relationship with them? Do your differences, even if unspoken, cause you to keep them at more of a distance than you might otherwise? Do your political similarities bind you together more tightly? Perhaps the dictating factor in all of this discussion regards how much weight these issues–and politics in general–carry in your life? Are you like me and feel very passionately about things like health care, the environment, or gun control, or do you not think much about any of these issues and not care to allow them to shape your relationships one way or another? If you are in the latter camp of not caring, does this idea of politics making or breaking relationships seem silly? Do you believe that politics are really just our moral values put into policy form? If not, then how do you see politics? But if so, why aren’t more people more invested in them? Whatever your level of investment, how do you deal with people you care about who have very different politics/morals than you do? Do you try to change their mind? Does it affect the quality of your time together, or the amount of it? Have you cut anyone out of your life for their political/moral beliefs? If these moral issues are as important as I think they are, shouldn’t they cause more relationships to break up? Do you feel weak or somehow in betrayal of your principles when you allow people with starkly different beliefs into your life and/or the lives of your children, especially if you take their positions to be detestable and their influence a negative one? How do you deal with a racist in your family? What other moral/political characteristics are hot triggers for you and cause you much tension at family reunions or other gatherings? Does a lot of this depend on how long someone has been in your life and how late in the game you learned of their moral shortcomings? For example, if your father is severely racist or your sister nasty to the poor, but you didn’t fully grasp this and gain footing in your own convictions until more recently, do you feel as though it is impossible to change your relationship dynamic with them because they have been with you–and good to you–for so long? Are you able to merge the new information you have with the old and manage the good and the bad, or do you tend to keep focused on only the good or only the bad? How about with new people in your life, like a co-worker whom you have become “work friends” with but then, upon getting closer, learned you were politically opposite? Now put specific political parties or politicians to all of those questions. How do you react to someone when you learn how they voted in the last presidential election? What if you were planning to meet a friend or family member somewhere socially and they showed up wearing a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat (or an Obama T-shirt)? Would your blood curdle? Would you say something? Would it instantly change your relationship? Think of the loved one who is farthest from you politically but that you still allow close to your heart. How do you pull that off? How much of it is denial? How much is it that you have witnessed them doing so many other good things interpersonally–being kind, generous, or compassionate–that you let the bad stuff slide? How much is that you are wise enough to see everyone as complicated and messy and that you have learned to just see through to the good and be more accepting of everyone? How do you think this whole issue varies between liberals and conservatives? I once wrote you a letter about my theory that conservatives tend to see liberals more as foolish and overly idealistic–but not morally lacking–whereas liberals tend to see conservatives as morally corrupt. What do you think? Are liberal-minded people more likely to keep the conservative at arms’ length and/or break off the relationship entirely because of perceived moral failings, or the other way around? Or equally likely? Is your tendency to see your politically opposite loved ones as good people who are just misguided, or do you tend toward seeing them as bad people who have done good things for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your relationships change when politics are revealed?

Do your best,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Let us try to better understand ourselves and each other so we can beautify the world!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself is appealing to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

The Pitfalls of Vanity: Do Your Looks Shape Your Life?

“Vanity is becoming a nuisance, I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye 

“How beautiful would it be if we could just see souls instead of bodies? To see love and compassion instead of curves.” –Karen Quan, Write Like No One Is Reading 2

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

This is the question that my son poses to me every morning before he leaves for school. The question follows several minutes of primping with his comb and product. “Are you sure?” he questions after I assure him that it looks great (and inwardly wonder what I have done wrong as a parent). Then, as I pull him in for a hug and kiss good-bye, he fends off any part of me that gets too close to his hair. He zips up his big coat but carefully avoids his hood or hat, willfully ignoring orders from my wife to cover his head against the frigid conditions outside. And off he goes into the world, not minding one bit his mismatched socks or ragged sweatpants but obsessed with the placement of every last hair on his pretty head. Did I mention he is nine? Dear God!

Meanwhile, when I leave for work a few minutes after him, the last thing to have touched my hair was my shower towel. No combs, no products, nothing. Not because I have lost all of my hair with age, but rather because I have made the conscious decision to look worse just to be sure I am not walking around like my son all day, constantly worrying how my hair looks.

As part of my job in this frost-bitten land, I go outside for extended periods a couple of times per day, then return inside and resume normal work and life events. In order to avoid hypothermia, that means attiring myself in snow hats and balaclavas and such, which, of course, are guaranteed to make an awful mess of the best of coiffures. As a person possessed of no small amount of natural vanity, I was initially vexed by this situation. Last Autumn, as I pondered the upcoming daily embarrassment of a messy mane, I figured I had two real options: 1) accept my vanity and bring some hair gel to spruce up each time I came inside, or 2) shave my hair down to a length that nothing can mess it up, essentially “conquering” my vanity by becoming willfully unattractive. I went with the second option. It is counterintuitive, I know, and dripping with irony, but it somehow made sense to me.

The day I first shaved my head, it took a lot of self-talk. “It’s just hair! It will grow back if you want it to. Other people have no choice about this. How bad could it be?” For a guy who has enjoyed compliments on my appearance for most of my life, it was a challenge. I will never forget when my wife first saw me post-cut: she looked startled at first, took a moment, then said, “Okay…,” and walked on (clearly a well-disciplined product of the old “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” admonition we all learned in kindergarten). Lovely. I couldn’t quite believe I had actually chosen to become less attractive. And all to avoid acting vain? But now would I become more aware of my appearance? I was spinning inside. In untangling my hair, I had somehow managed to tangle my psyche.

While I have, as the year has proven, become more conscious of my hair and its downgrade in appearance in certain circumstances–when I meet new people, when I have to be in a picture, when I appear in public next to my very attractive wife, etc.–I have definitely embraced the freedoms it has brought. I wear a cozy winter hat more than ever rather than sacrifice my comfort to keep my hair sculpted. My baseball caps come on and off during the day without a second thought, as do the hoods of my hoodies. I increasingly seek out opportunities to swim or play in the rain. It is a new brand of freedom, and I quite like it.

It has made me all the more aware, though, of what people–myself included–sacrifice in their lives to work around their appearance. I notice my wife’s hesitation every time swimming is mentioned, knowing how much time and effort it takes to get her and my daughter’s hair clean and styled. That feels like a tragedy to me, as I tend to think of my time in the water as a source of Joy and profound Peace. I see people avoiding activities that make them sweat because of the work required for their hair or make-up to be redone, or that they don’t look attractive enough when sweating (to say nothing of insecurities about how they look in workout clothes or swimsuits). They go out in the cold or the hot sun without a hat, like I used to do, and freeze or burn rather than get their hair messed up. They avoid biking because of the helmets. The list goes on.

Of course, it is difficult to disentangle our vanity with our desire to feel healthy and confident, making this a sensitive and confusing topic. I go to the gym every day, and I can’t say for sure how much of my effort is aimed purely at being healthy and how much is to avoid looking a way that seems less attractive to me. I am sure when I started lifting weights when I was a teenager, it was much more about vanity than it was about my health. Probably it has only swung the other way out of necessity in recent years, cognizant as I am of the aches and pains of my aging body and wanting to delay any major malfunctions. And though body image is way too big of a topic for today’s letter, suffice it to say that vanity is still heavily at play in my life even now, as I move to this age when I don’t imagine myself to be physically appealing to anyone.

Maybe it is this relatively recent shift in perspective that best explains my willingness to shave my hair for the sake of practicality. In a way, I suppose I have given up. Not in a “poor me” kind of way, but rather just in a way that is more accepting of aging and my place on both my life’s trajectory and on the pecking order for our society’s definitions of beauty and appeal. The reality is that I am past our standard mating age and that they don’t show pictures of guys my age in the fashion magazines. Instead of resisting those simple facts, I am beginning to acknowledge them and flowing accordingly. Acceptance. It is not as though I am giving up hygiene and social skills; I am just not pretending that I might be attractive anymore. I don’t think anyone will fight me on the idea.

But speaking of society and our social norms, this topic of vanity and the freedom to age “normally” has stirred up some thoughts that aren’t about me so much but about you and everyone else in my world. Like this one: Why has it come to be expected that women dye their hair? I understand that some people–men and women–of all ages do this for fun or “something different” at all ages. Whatever, I like creative expression. But think of how few women, especially, that you know who actually have grey hair. I don’t know very many. I just think of all the time and money people spend on this–not to mention the emotional energy–and can’t help feeling it is all such a waste. And yet I know society has trained me not to judge them–which I don’t seem to–because it is so thoroughly “normal” (though I must admit that, for reasons that I can neither explain nor justify morally, I feel myself being critical about men who color over their grey). Still, I can’t help noticing and feeling some extra bit of respect for those few women I do see who have embraced their grey. Unconsciously, I think I do the same when I see women who have adopted an “easy” hairstyle or wear little or no make-up even if it makes them appear “less attractive” according to our current standards of beauty. Maybe I am finally opening my eyes to the damaging effects of patriarchy and our collective shallowness, and it is leaving me disgusted enough to appreciate anyone who bucks the system.

I would love to think that this is just part of the process of my maturation and learning the wisdom that old people sometimes arrive at: that there is no inherent worth in physical appearance and thus no use in giving it so much power over our self-confidence and our time. But maybe it is a convenient bailout for me at a time when my appearance–other than my whiteness and maleness–is finally failing to give me any rewards. Because, while I have often chastised myself for “flaws” in my natural physical appearance, I am also quite willing to admit that I enjoyed the unearned privileges of being considered “attractive” when I was younger. I have no doubt that it helped me in the eyes of teachers, employers, peers, and prospective mates. I am grateful for that, as I know it shielded me from a lot of things that I have never even considered and colors my perspective on everything, including this very topic. It is highly likely that now, as just a regular, middle-aged, grey-haired dude who nobody looks twice at, I am finally getting on the bandwagon of “wisdom” and wanting to be more dismissive of appearance. Maybe rather than enlightenment, the best explanation for my evolution is that I don’t want to play society’s game anymore because I can no longer win at it (I’m taking my ball and going home!).

In any case, I am highly aware of the messages our society and the people around us send to everyone, but especially to kids and women, about our appearances. In the last couple of years, I have made a conscious effort to say nothing about a person’s appearance. No compliments, no critiques, nothing. I sometimes fail, but I am aware of it now when I do. As a parent of kids whose bodies are constantly changing and who are becoming full consumers of the barrage of messages out there in our society–my son is 9 and my daughter is 11–I am hyper-vigilant about what I say to them. Occasionally I will soften my stance and tell them how adorable I see them to be, but mostly I try to say nothing about their natural appearances. I try to choose other things to compliment them on, such as their kindness, empathy, or hard work.

Although I consider them blessed with physical beauty and likely to be deemed “attractive” by their peers as they mature, I don’t want them to get any more attached to their appearances than society will already mold them to be. I especially don’t want them to equate their appearance with who they are. I also don’t want it to be so much work, physically or emotionally. It’s why it disturbs me so much when my son obsesses over his hair before he leaves the house. He cares too much.

Is there any way to be a member of our culture and not be a little bit obsessed about your appearance? I was going to say it is to get so old that no one is looking at you for your attractiveness, but even most of the elderly people I know seem very focused on getting their hair just right and looking fresh. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have a problem with wanting to look good. I guess I just don’t want myself or my kids to miss any opportunities for fun and adventure because it might mess up our hair or cause our make-up to run. And mostly, I want us to walk through the world knowing that our value is not in our appearance, no matter what our society tells us. I want to let go of my vanity as best as I can, not to justify looking bad but just to live more freely, with one less master to serve. I may not turn any more heads on my path, but at least I will be choosing my own way.

How about you? How much does your appearance shape the way you go through the world? Open up your journal and your mirror? What do you see staring back at you? First, just describe your appearance without judgments. Next, throw in some judgments, first of your own preferences and then of what society would say are your best and worst features. Who do you think is easier on that person in the mirror: you or society? What accounts for the difference? Regardless of your personal judgment of your appearance, how hung up on it are you? First, how much time do you spend on it? Do you spend your morning in front of a mirror trying to get it just right? Do you go to a salon for cuts and colors? How about manicures and pedicures? If you exercise, is it primarily for health or appearance? What other ways do you spend your time focused on how you look? At what age did you spend the most time on your appearance? Were you most or least satisfied at that age? How about financially? How much money do you spend on improving your appearance? Has that amount increased or decreased as you have aged? What other aspects of your life do you sacrifice financially to be able to afford your beauty upkeep? Do you feel like it is a good investment? Finally, how about the emotional investment? How much of your heart do you leave vulnerable to the way you look? Does it stress you out? Do you think of your appearance as who you are? How has that affected your self-confidence throughout your life? With all of that investment of time, money, and emotion attached to your to the way you look, how has it determined how you spend your time? What activities do you avoid because they would mess up your look? In what ways has your ambition to look good limited your enjoyment of life? Have you ever been so disgusted with your vanity and its hindrance to your life that you did something to make yourself look worse just so you would toughen up? Have you done anything to your appearance purely because it was easier to maintain or allowed you to live more freely–shave your head, let your grey go, given up cosmetics, etc.–even though it made you feel less physically attractive? How did that work for you in the long-term? Were you able to stay committed to it, or did you return to your higher maintenance look? Even if you can’t quite commit to looking less than your best for the sake of comfort and convenience, are you still willing to admit that our society has an unhealthy fixation on appearance and lots of unrealistic and damaging ideals that we are expected to conform to? Are you more likely to resist or conform? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your looks shape your life choices?

Be a beautiful soul,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community? Let’s rise together!

P.P.S. If this brand of self-reflection feels appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Witnessing Magic: Which Historical Event Would You Experience?

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” –Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides To Die

Hello friend,

I have just had the most uplifting treat! I sat down to watch a documentary merely to learn some history and came away instead with a full heart and a smiling soul. And longing! Oh, how I longed to be swept away and taken back in time–a few years before I was born–to feel what those lucky people felt over the course of three long days on a farm in upstate New York. I longed to be with them at Woodstock.

That whole world of the middle-to-late 1960s is absolutely fascinating to me. I have done a lifelong, off-and-on study of this revolutionary era in American history, when norms and expectations were being questioned, challenged, and sometimes toppled, both by the groups who had so long been oppressed but also by the children of those who had created all of these norms and expectations in the first place.

There was a “counterculture” that did things like grow their hair out, oppose a war (relatively unheard of until then), resist racism and poverty, and yes, even take drugs. Music was a language they could share. Bob Dylan was one of many who sang for them:

Come mothers and fathers 
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Indeed, they were. There was a generation of people that were disillusioned by the America they had been sold and were actively bucking the establishment. And whether they were individually more focused on fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans, women’s rights, ending the war in Vietnam, or merely the conservative dress code and social mores of their parents, they seem to have each been buoyed by the progress on the other fronts. They were doing it together. The rising tide was lifting all of the countercultural voices, emboldening them to believe that real change could be made.

Young people with Freedom, Love, and Peace on their minds will make magic happen.

Riding that wave of idealistic unity and rebellion, and fueled by the music of their new generation, a few guys decided to put together an outdoor festival on a dairy farm in bucolic upstate New York. Billed as “3 DAYS of PEACE & MUSIC,” with the silhouetted image of a dove perched on the neck of a guitar on its advertisements, Woodstock became–and remains–the most epic music festival in our history.

But it was so much more than a big concert. It was a cultural touchstone. It was the subject of the PBS documentary I recently watched on Netflix called “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation.”

Woodstock was something I was vaguely aware of as a kid–it happened in 1969, a few years before I showed up in the world–kind of like Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement. They were so near to my lifetime but, as a sheltered kid in a small town with parents who weren’t about any of that stuff, 1969 might as well have been in the Stone Age. I had no exposure and thus was left to rely only upon my natural curiosity, which kept vague notes regarding what I should remember to learn about one day in the future.

That note was still left unchecked in my mind when I opened up Netflix last week to see what was new. There on my screen was the key to one of my lifelong curiosities and what is now one of the events I most wish I had attended in all of human history.

Watching the images from the film–both the aerials spanning the sea of humanity in the natural amphitheater of the hilly field as well as the intimate shots of the peaceful, joyous faces–and listening to voiceovers from the festival attendees as they unpacked their memories from the magical weekend that changed their lives, I could not help but envy them and imagine how I would have fit into such a unique scene, not merely as a fly on the wall but as a full participant.

Indulge me, please, a few too many quotes from those lucky souls, expounding upon everything from the sheer size of the crowd to the palpable energy to the depth of the impact the entire experience had on them. To begin, the first impressions:

“As you walked in, it hit you. Suddenly it just all came into view at once: this whole, enormous bowl full of people. It was mind-boggling.” –Michael Lindsey, attendee

“Coming over the hill, the feeling, the energy of that crowd was something I’ll never forget. There was so much power in it.” –Joel Rosenman, producer

“It was indescribable, the feeling that came over me of warmth and ‘Oh my God, there are this many people in the world that think like I think. There are all these people; I never knew there were that many people in the world!” –Laureen Starobin, attendee

“We walked up that hill, and we saw, you know, all these people our age, looked like us, dressed like us. You know: Us. I mean, it was just, it was like meeting your brothers and sisters. It was really beautiful.” –Susan Reynolds, attendee

“We were 400,000 kids on a hillside who were all vehemently against the war and, you know, for me it was like, ‘These are our people! We found our people!’” –Susan Reynolds, attendee

When the producers realized that they could not erect the fence around the farm soon enough to keep out people without tickets, they made the extraordinary move of announcing that they would no longer be charging admission, effectively losing themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process and ensuring the festival would be a huge financial loss. The generosity of that gesture was absorbed by the swelling crowd and seemed to multiply from there. Everyone just seemed to take care of each other, passing around whatever food (and drink and drugs) they had with all of those around them. They sang and danced together, made campfires for all, and slept next to one another under the big night sky.

But it wasn’t just the concert-goers who seemed to find the best of themselves in the experience. The locals, who considered themselves hicks and conservative country folk and many of whom staunchly opposed the festival and the “hippies” from the outset, became swept up in the wave of Love and Good Will that washed over their rural county. When, upon hearing on the second day of the festival that the food had run out and that trucks could not get through because of traffic jams, they made sandwiches and emptied their home pantries, donating everything they could to be helicoptered to the site to feed all the hungry festival-goers. Similarly, when medical supplies ran out, doctors volunteered their time and flew in on Army helicopters full of supplies to treat the people in need. Something magical was happening.

“This was actually kind of a functioning city out in the middle of nowhere, and we realized it was functioning because of people pulling together. It just had this feeling that this was ours. This was the new city; this was the alternative city. And it worked.” —attendee

“I remember sitting in the mud listening to Crosby, Stills, & Nash, looking at the sheer beauty of the night sky and wrapped in a blanket of Music. It was the feeling of oneness with it All.” –Katherine Daye, attendee 

On the third day (Sunday), an older-looking gentleman walked onto the stage. It was Max Yasgur, the conservative owner of the dairy farm that had been taken over by this ocean of young people. He, too, had been moved by the experience and had donated tons of milk and yogurt so that everyone could eat. He humbly stepped to the microphone:

“I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world. Not only to the town of Bethel or Sullivan County or New York state; you’ve proven something to the world. The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids–and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are–a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music, and have NOTHING BUT fun and music. And I God bless you for it!”

By the next day, Jimi Hendrix had played his iconic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the sea of people had risen from the mud and returned to the world, forever changed by the experience.

“If 400,000 people could get together and have absolutely no violence, absolutely no conflict, I felt like if we could bring all that love back into society, we could change the world.” —attendee

“The festival became a symbol of intelligence and humanity and cooperation and love and affection. It was the start of a phenomenal change in a lot of people’s lives.” –attendee

“I felt like I had finally gotten to fully experience what I was hoping the counterculture meant. Woodstock was a very powerful confirmation that, yeah, this is what you are looking for and you are headed in the right direction.” —attendee

“Everyone looking after one another, everyone caring for one another. I mean, once I experienced that, I made it the basis for the whole rest of my life.” –attendee 

That is some powerful stuff. It captivates me, I think, because of the “wave of Love” that seems to have taken over the entire production. The vibe. The energy. The feeling that seemed to sweep over all involved. I think it was something transcendent, something bigger than the sum of each person’s contribution. It was bigger than anything.

When I think of other historical events I would like to have been a part of, I think that what draws me is this sort of wave that Woodstock had going for it, this momentum of Love and Good Will that swept up everything in its path. I imagine being a part of the Civil Rights Movement, riding the wave on buses and at lunch counters, at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King. I imagine riding the wave as one of Jesus’s followers in his last few months. I bet the people at the launch of Apollo 11 for America’s “moonshot” felt that unity and excitement. Similarly, I can imagine wanting to be swept up in the frenzy of a hometown’s ride to a Super Bowl or World Series victory, especially being in the stadium for the final win. I remember my Black wife flying our infant daughter across the country and going out in the wee hours of the morning in the bitter cold just to be in the same city as President Obama’s first inauguration, so momentous was that occasion in her life and the life of so many people of color. She had to be there. These feelings–and the memories they stamp on our heart hearts and minds–are irreplaceable.

This is how I picture Woodstock. That wave of love.

It is the only way I can explain to myself why I am so particularly drawn to it. Yes, I love music, and it had that. But music alone doesn’t explain it. Because, really, I: 1) dislike crowds and sharing germs with strangers, much less sleeping in the mud with them and using porta-potties, 2) have never been interested in drugs, and 3) don’t necessarily know well or care for many of the bands performing. It has to be the wave. That feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself. Something beautiful and pure. A unity of spirit.

Maybe this is the reason why the documentary hits me so hard right now. Maybe the profound Unity and Love that defined the festival leave me shuddering and longing to this degree precisely because these are the things so sorely absent from our country today, 50 years after those transformed young people wandered off Max Yasgur’s farm and back into America. I mean, can you imagine putting 400,000 strangers in a field together in our era and come away three days later with no stories of conflict, violence, or animosity? It is absolutely unthinkable. Our wave seems to be sweeping as forcefully but in the opposite direction that theirs was. Give me Woodstock over this nonsense anytime.

It was truly a singular event in human history. I wish I had been there.

How about you? Which event or era in human history would you like to be a part of? Open up your journal and allow your fantasies to run freely. What event comes first to your mind? Did it happen during your lifetime and you were just somewhere else, or is it from a different era altogether? Was it something brief (seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Kennedy’s inauguration, the March on Washington, the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Super Bowl, or even a family reunion during your ancestors’ time) or did it take place over a number of days or months (following Jesus or Dr. King or the Grateful Dead, a sports season, or living in Rome at the height of its glory)? What is it about that event or era that appeals to you? Is it the people involved? The place where it happened? Is it about what it led to? How historically significant is your event? How much of it is personal to you or your family? Was it a part of a wave of feeling or a movement that people were swept up in? Have you studied it in depth or, rather, do you not know much about it but just have a romantic vision of it in your mind? Is it easier for your mind to fantasize about it if you know more or fewer of the specifics? Speaking of your imagination, do you think that if you were actually able to time-travel to your special event, would it be as good as you imagine it, or would it disappoint? Do you think the people there knew it was special? How well do most people do at recognizing the significance of their biggest life moments while they are happening? In your own life, have you fully absorbed your biggest moments in real time and recognized them, or was it only later that it struck you how important and impactful those moments were? Does that even matter? Is there an entirely different era that you would prefer to live your whole life in? What can that era teach you about the kind of life you want to live now? What can you do in your little corner of the world to create more of the kinds of moments that you will want to relive in the years to come? How can you create that wave of Love or that sense of true Unity, that feeling of being part of something special and pure and bigger than yourself? How confident are you that there are magical moments like that in your future? Which past example do you hope it most resembles? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which historical event would you go back and experience?

Make your own wave,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community. Create a movement together!

P.S.S. If this way of self-examination illuminates you, consider purchasing my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Can You Love Your Country But Not Your Countrymen? IT’S COMPLICATED!

“Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” –from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok 

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” –Edward Abbey

Hello friend,

Last month we passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. When I woke up that ordinary day those weeks ago and started thinking about that extraordinarily awful day those years ago, I was transported instantly. I remembered it all so vividly: getting out of the shower to a phone call from my girlfriend, sitting transfixed in front of the little television in my office for hours, the emptiness inside me, the surreal feeling of actually going to a graduate school seminar that night and trying to have a discussion about something other than our completely changed world. The entire day was mind-bending and soul-wrenching. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Still, when last month’s anniversary came around, I struggled to fathom that 18 years had passed since that fateful day. So much water has flowed under the bridge in that time, and my country has revealed so much of its complicated nature.

I get nostalgic each September, first with those awful visions but then much more with thoughts of the beauty that followed. On this September the 11th, my attention was particularly drawn to the memes on social media about the way we, the people of America, came together in its immediate aftermath, with gestures big and small to show that we cared about each other and this country that we share. One example was a poster with imagery reminiscent of an American flag and these words: “I MISS 9/12. I would never ever want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper or lower class, Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat. We hugged people without caring if they ate at Chick-Fil-A or wore Nikes. ON 9/12, WHAT MATTERED MORE WAS WHAT UNITED US, THAN WHAT DIVIDED US.”

It reminded me of a book I read recently, an autobiography called A Dream About Lightning Bugs by the musician Ben Folds, who is several years older than I am but basically of my generation. He had made the difficult choice to keep touring in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feeling that people needed the music and the release it provided in that devastating time. Of those months, he wrote, “Anyone who was in the United Sates in the wake of 9/11 might recall that, rising from the ashes of the tragedy, something magical was also happening. People suddenly acknowledged one another in the streets, smiled, opened doors, and helped with groceries. Everywhere. I think this is often overlooked. As I toured the country, I saw a sense of community and humanity expressed that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.”

How sad is it that I miss what only a tragedy could incite?

We are one year away from a major election, so divisiveness is about to get extreme. Well, let’s face it: division and antagonism have been extreme for several years now. But I have no doubt that with the stink-stirrers who are going to be the central players in the coming show, America’s internal hatred is going to reach an all-time high. There will be tons of glorifying “us” and vilifying “them” for reasons real and imagined, despite the fact that we all belong here.

I know in advance–because I know how I feel here most days–that I will really detest the lows that we will have sunk to and the new “normal” we will have established in all this pettiness. “We” are America. As we enter the 2020s, the we I see in our collective mirror isn’t what I used to imagine we were. I say “imagine,” because maybe we were always this shallow and antagonistic. Maybe the modern age of cameras everywhere and social media and other perversions of media (hello, Fox News!) have not so much produced our lesser angels but rather simply revealed who we have always been. It was easier to imagine our country–the people and movements who make up our country and its character–as better, brighter, higher. You know, like the America that showed up on September 12, 2001.

Wrap your mind around this: the children who were conceived in those unified, harmonious months in America post-9/11 will be able to vote in their first election next year.

They wouldn’t even recognize the America that they were conceived into. That is really sad. As they are now beginning to raise their awareness of politics and our country’s position in the world, knowing only what they witness in these times, how lacking they must be in both hope and the confidence in our leaders–and our people–to do what is right and just.

There are just too many examples on all levels of our country doing things that we ought to be ashamed of. Why can’t we get some of this stuff figured out? Decent health care for all of us. Assault rifles that are unavailable to those of us not conducting military campaigns. Not caging children. Treating our politicians like public servants with whom we can agree or disagree on a policy-by-policy, action-by-action basis rather than like celebrities or deities to whom we offer our blind devotion simply because they belong to a designated political party. Acknowledging our role in the escalation of climate change and then taking actual steps to reverse our impact and to help make Earth habitable for our great-grandchildren. Ensuring fair elections. Simple stuff.

And it’s too easy to blame the government or the President or whichever political party is not yours. We–the citizens–are bad at this stuff, too. We create the toxicity. We tolerate the empty promises and shady dealings. We tolerate people getting rolled over by the system. We numb ourselves to the school shootings and the scandals and the record temperatures. We spout our own ignorance or hate or empty “thoughts and prayers.” We deny, deny, deny. We simply aren’t very good to each other.

That realization really, really aches to absorb. We are a hollow country right now.

How long can we last on just the founding ideals when we don’t actually act on them? Can we still be the shining city on the hill if we have dug ourselves a pit–or a “swamp,” as the lingo du jour goes–and dimmed our brightest lights? How do we become admirable, whether or not you think we ever were before? Short of our government suddenly making a bunch of wise, beneficent moves that might draw positive attention from the press and the rest of the world, how do we–the people–get back to that kindness and decency of September 12th? How do we get back to seeing ourselves, collectively, as occupants under the same tent, each responsible for all of our well-being, and believing that the person in front of or behind you in line deserves the very best of you?

I don’t want to have to wish for a “9/11 Version 2.0” just to get a 9/12 America. I feel like that is the weak way out of this and would only lead to a quicker and steeper return to our current shallow meanness. I believe we are better than that and should prove it the hard way: act by act, day by day, person by person. I have faith that we could pull this off. After all, we have done this before. That feeling that many of us remember, that sentiment that inspires the memes, those acts of simple decency that Ben Folds witnessed as he toured the country: all of that is evidence that we are capable of making each other’s lives–and by turn America itself–a better, more just, and more inspiring place to live. We just need to rise.

We need to. Because I am tired. I am tired of despising people who wear red hats, tired of feeling embarrassed by the actions of my representatives, tired of feeling isolated from my neighbors or family members based on which signs they put in their yard during election season, tired of the distance that we have allowed our screens and our busy-ness to create between us, tired of justifying my absence from the public square, tired of being disappointed in others but not doing anything to be a better example to them, tired of missing opportunities to take the first step to bridge these gaps, and, most importantly, tired of the shame I feel at allowing all of this to take place in my precious America. I am tired of being low. It must surely be time for me to rise.

How about you? Are you ready to rise up and be the kind of citizen and country that we can be proud of? Open up your journal and consider the best and worst of your country and what role you play in each. How do you characterize your country at this point in its history? Is it riding a good wave and showing off its best colors, or has it sunk to a place where all of its warts are showing? From your vantage point, are you more likely to notice and dwell upon the shortcomings of your government or of the citizenry? Does one group seem to rise and fall as a result of the other one, or do the people seem to operate independently of their leadership apparatus? Are you proud of your country? When you give your answer to that one, what does it actually mean to you? Do you mean that you are proud (or not) of the actions your government takes toward its people or toward other countries around the world–e.g. providing health care or good education to its citizens, joining a coalition military campaign to fight an evil dictator, providing humanitarian aid to war-torn or famine-stricken countries, etc.–or, rather, that you are proud of the way the people in your country act toward each other and proud of the causes that they stand up for at the polls and with their pocket-books? Do you believe it is important to examine the distinction between the two angles and flesh out your thoughts on each? How different are your answers on your pride for your government and pride for your people? Do we need to also add the layer of being proud of what your country theoretically stands for–things like Liberty, Equality, Justice–versus what it shows that it stands for in practice? How would you rank what you are most proud of in order from least to most: the people of your country, the government and leaders of your country as it currently stands, and the theoretical values that your country stands for? How disparate are these three categories in your country? Is that okay? At what point in your country’s history do you think the three categories were most in step with one another? How do all of these answers form your concept of patriotism and what it means to be a patriot? How patriotic can you be if you don’t have faith in the people of your country? Might it be of some benefit to your country to have a crisis–like a 9/11–to shake it out of the error of its ways? Does it require a tragedy to bring out the best in people and reveal our common humanity? What are some ways that you could be a better citizen? Are any of those things that you could begin to apply today? If everyone took on that challenge, how much better could things get? How do you imagine your country at its very best? What would the government be doing differently, and what would the ordinary people be doing differently? How would all of that affect your lifestyle and your outlook on the future? How can you rise to meet that challenge of creating a better place to live? Do you tend to look at the big stuff–government level–or the stuff that you can do interpersonally to make that difference? If we do the small, will the big begin to take care of itself? Can you start with the person across the street whose sign is different than yours? If not there, then where? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you love your country but not the people in it, and what good is the first without the second?

Reach out,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with the world. Reach out and rise up!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself appeals to you, consider purchasing my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Wing It Or Plan It: How Do You Go Through Life?

“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” –Victor Hugo

“The problem with a plan is that you fill up the blank page of a new day with a ‘to-do’ list before you get there. And if you’re not careful there’s no room for anything else.” –John C. Parkin

Hello friend,

I am caught in an existential crisis at the moment. My head is trying to convince my heart that it would be better off if I would just go against my nature for the short-term. And even though I can see the logic in it, my spirit translates that logic as clipping my wings and putting me in a cage. Thus, the spirit is railing against “the rules” of the brain with all its might, fighting for its freedom as though its very life is being choked out. I cannot be contained!

I am leading my family on a big adventure to the mountains in a few weeks, complete with camping, sightseeing, special adrenaline-rushing excursions, and lots of restorative communion with Mother Earth and The Man In The Moon. I have been looking forward to this trip for what feels like forever, and I could not be more excited to get out there under the big sky and “sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world,” as Walt Whitman once wrote.

I say I am “leading” not just because I have been out to the mountains before and feel at home in the outdoors, but mostly because my wife has given me complete responsibility for the planning and execution of this giant trip. Argh!

Other than the implicit pressure that comes with that responsibility–basically, “Make sure we all love it!”–I was initially enjoying the job as trip coordinator. I got to pour over maps–a favorite pastime of mine– to plan a general route that would cover a mix of my favorite memories from past trips and also some fun new stuff–like zip lining in the canyons and whitewater rafting–that will make precious new memories for all of us. There was a general vision in my head, but plenty of fluidity to allow for whims and spontaneity. We have a tent, and I was busy accumulating the other camping accoutrement. And the last time I was out there–just a couple of wee decades ago–there seemed to be campsites everywhere I turned. I figured that was about all there was to the coordinator job. Planning complete! Now back to the daydreaming…

Oh, if only it were that simple.

I had to go and start talking to people about it! From my siblings and friends, I was looking for insider travel tips for the national parks, camping suggestions, hidden gems, cautionary tales, and, as always, great personal stories of how the land and the adventure have affected them.

I started with my siblings, one of whom lives out there and two who have traveled extensively in the area. We met up recently for a leisurely family vacation, and the topic of this adventure was infused into nearly all of our conversations from the beginning. Far from confirming my happy memories and fantasies of open campgrounds and quiet trails in the forests–communing with Nature in blissful solitude–all I got were horror stories of how crowded the parks have become, what a nightmare it is to find campsites anywhere that haven’t been reserved (requiring multiple back-up plans), and how exorbitant nearby hotel prices are.

Instantly, I could feel knots growing in the back of my shoulders and the pit of my stomach. Stress. Dread. Despondence. This was not at all what I was expecting from the conversations, and definitely not the feelings I wanted to associate with my beautiful fantasy of a trip. And I was on vacation when all this came up! I didn’t want the feelings then, either!

I tried to let them slide by me: “Oh, I suppose I have a bit of research ahead of me when I get back home next week. No big deal.” But inside, I could feel the awful churning and the knots. These were not going to allow themselves to be stifled. Because I know myself quite well after all of these years with my journal, and I was absolutely certain of two things that would ruin a day–or many–on my dream adventure: 1) chasing around in vain all day trying to find a place to spend the night instead of exploring the natural wonders (and even the prospect of chasing around the next day), and 2) getting stuck without a place and being forced to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a high-season tourist hotel in some town away from where I really want to be. I am not willing to accept either of those options on this trip; it means too much to me. Hence, the churning and the knots.

They kept building and building for a few days as I labored at denial. At last, they got the best of me. While my children, siblings, and extended family frolicked in the laziness of a day at the lake, I closed the door to my bedroom and bunkered down with my books, maps, phone, and tablet. I needed to make some reservations.

Yuck! Even that word makes me feel constrained: RESERVATIONS. Maybe it is a silly class thing: I don’t want to be associated with something fancy enough to require “reservations” for me to get in or to keep other people out. Maybe it triggers my dislike of crowds and feeling cramped: if you need “reservations,” there must be limited space (and I hate limited space). And maybe it is just my natural distaste for the tedium of research and planning: I just want to be there and flow with it.

I see as I write this that the last one is a loaded issue for me. I do not appreciate the grinding of details and numbers and other minutiae that remove me from the experience of the thing. I want to be in Montana; I don’t want to plan the budget and research and book the hotels and campgrounds and excursions and plot the exact movements of the days so I can be in Montana. I just want to be there! The details only serve to annoy me.

I chide myself for this petulance, as I know it reveals the spoiled child aspect of my personality. I want things to be easy for me. I get irritated when I have to be bogged down with the details rather than the big picture, or if I have to labor too much to get what I want. It is the same stuff that I lecture my children about. But I am a middle-aged man! My frustrations reveal the part of me that has yet to grow up. It’s a little embarrassing.

On the other hand, I am trying to become more accepting of myself and allowing space for my imperfections. I get that I am a little bit spoiled. I get that Life is a challenge and things like making ends meet and getting to do all the things you want to do is not the norm, but I still expect that for my world. I have always had people in my life that have been sympathetic to my cause and have filled in the gaps of my personality quirks, most especially my parents and my wife.

My wife–bless her heart–does all the stuff at home that my mind (well, let’s be honest: every fiber of my being) rejects. She fills out forms and deals with insurance companies. She does product reviews and full-scale research for every major (and most minor) purchase. She looks at bank statements and retirement documents. She books airline tickets and knows the password for Amazon. She even talks to the cable company! All things that make me want to shut down and hide in a cave. It is why this trip-planning experience has proven to be such an odyssey of travails for me. All of this is her element and her role in the relationship. I am completely out of my water! It is quite pathetic, actually, because of course I understand that regular people do this stuff every day. My stress and the fears that my soul will be crushed under the weight of the planning are silly, no doubt, but I still feel them. (Thank God I live with a grown-up!)

I once heard discipline defined as “freedom within the form.” That idea has always stuck with me. Freedom within the form. It seeps into my mind now as I try to make sense of my predicament. It strikes me that what I need for this trip is not so much complete freedom but rather this freedom within the form. I need discipline. The only way I can feel free to wander freely along the streams and sit by the campfire gazing peacefully at the enormous night sky is to have all these reservations in place ahead of time. The only real constraint is knowing I have to be in certain campsites or hotel rooms each night of the trip. These are the milestones. What I do in between those nights–which mountains I climb or rivers I cross or roads I travel–is left to the stirrings of my soul. When I look at it like that, it is so much more palatable. Sure, I still have to go through this torture of research and reservations and holding myself to a plan in order to gain that disciplined version of freedom, but I suppose that is the price of the ticket to this show. Sometimes you just have to pay it (or so I keep telling myself).

I am addicted to Freedom and will always desire that ability to run wild and to wander without limits. I won’t ever stop preferring to trust in the Universe to provide and simply winging it. I will always want a big, wide-open space that is safe to play in so I can just do my thing. I suppose that in grown-up life, what makes the safe playground is plenty of money, things like health coverage and a low crime rate, and some well-made plans. Unless I can get someone else to provide all of that for me–“Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”–I better get used to earning my freedom by working to create a big enough and safe enough form to play in. I may never become a happy planner–it is probably just not in the DNA–but I hope I can find the wisdom to summon that little bit of discipline that will make me a much happier camper. Yeah, I think I’ll plan for that!

How about you? Do you prefer to plan things out or fly by the seat of your pants? Open up your journal and process your preparations for some of your bigger life events and adventures. When it comes to the big stuff–trips, weddings, work events–do you like being the planner or just showing up and going with the flow? Does planning too many details or every minute of the day excite you or take the fun out of it for you? Which gives you more self-confidence: going into a situation knowing you have a plan, or coming out of a situation just fine despite entering without a plan? Do you tend to worry if you don’t know what is coming next? On a scale of 1-10, how spontaneous are you? What is the biggest thing you have ever just winged? How well did it work out? What did that teach you about yourself? What do you think about that idea of discipline as “freedom within the form”? Is that something like a middle ground between being an obsessive planner and a freewheeling floater? Does it work for you to lay down milestones–like me figuring out where we are going to sleep each night–and then give yourself freedom to do what you want between those markers? Does it give you more stress to plan hard or to be without a plan? How much can you plan for your next adventure before it becomes too planned? Where is that line for you? Are you the same way in your regular life as you are with special events? Are you good with the grind and details of things like monthly bills, insurance, taxes, retirement planning, subscriptions, and the like, or does that stuff feel like a completely different planet to you (as it does for me)? Do you feel like you need a “real adult” around to keep your life in order so that you can be “free” and wing it? Are you that adult for someone else? If so, do you hold it against them or just accept that we all have different strengths? Do life partnerships work better when there is one planner and one winger? Do you keep a real schedule that you access regularly? Do you appreciate its convenience or resent it for running your life? Whichever way you feel, do you think the plan is necessary for some degree of peace of mind? How has your planner vs. winger dynamic evolved as you have moved through life? Which way do you tend to be evolving toward in the long-term? Does that feel right to you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you plan your way through life or just show up and roll with it?

Gulp down every moment,

William

P.S. If today’s topic resonated with you, please share it and grow our web of contemplative beings.

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself invigorates you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

How Valuable Is Your TIME?

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

Hello friend,

I think I have finally reached the point in life when I understand that the worst thing you can do to me is take away my time. I see now that it was always true but that I just didn’t realize it. I was running around in denial or confusion, I suppose, never minding too much if you dragged me along somewhere on your agenda or if my time with you did not inspire or engage me. I was not much offended by that. I went along. “What else do I have to do?” I passed the time. I wasted it. I spent it. But I didn’t really use the time. I didn’t make the most of it. And I didn’t realize what a tragedy that was, what an abomination. I realize it now.

I don’t know when it started for me. I know I was acting on my repulsion to time-wasting before I was aware of it. Somehow my soul knew. It sent the signal to my body. I would get antsy and irritable.

I once worked as a low-end manager for a large corporation. It was part of my boss’s duties–as assigned by his boss and the boss above him–to have a weekly one-on-one meeting with each of the managers who worked under him. I should probably mention that I have never known a mentally lazier, less invested or engaged person in my life; the one and only reason he held his job was because of who he knew above him in the chain of command. It was like a character out of a farfetched movie. Anyway, in addition to the weekly management team meeting, he and I had our one-on-one meeting in his office. I would enter and sit in the chair in front of his desk with a pen and a notebook open just in case anything important came up (spoiler: it never did). He would say hello from his desk and then swivel in his chair and sit with his large back to me and look at his computer for several minutes as if he were engrossed in some deep reading and I were not even in the room. Then he might come out of his reverie and say something like, “Uh, I guess your numbers are looking pretty good again this month…” and then drift back into remote silence. (As I said, it was like a movie scene.) He would do that a few times over the course of a half-hour, then finally swivel back around and say, “Okay, buddy, you got anything for me?” By that point, even if I did have an issue that I could use some executive assistance with, I was too exasperated with the time I had just spent doodling on my note pad and looking at his large back that I was ready with a quick “NOPE!” and a sprint to the door. Beyond just the disbelief that this type of person could exist and be well-paid for his time, I always left that room thinking, “With all that I have to accomplish in my jam-packed twelve-hour work day, that part did no one any good.” That was when I also grew accustomed to the thought, “Well, that’s 30 minutes I will never get back!” I came to hate that idea.

I think my experiences in the wasteland of unnecessary–and unnecessarily long–corporate meetings probably ushered me directly into the next phase of my working life, when I downgraded my responsibilities and time commitments so I could be efficient when I was there, have hardly any meetings, and get out of there to do the things with the people (my wife and kids) that made every moment feel sacred and priceless. I didn’t care that I had to give up money and prestige to do it. I just wanted my moments to count.

It is from this vein that sprung my efforts to be the best and most present father I could be. That vein is also the source of this entire Journal of You experience, including a book and more than five years worth of letters to you. I want to make the moments–even the “spare” ones–meaningful to me and impactful to everyone whose lives I touch.

I see this sensitivity to time all over my life now. I have become highly averse to traffic and other unnecessary time spent in the car. I avoid most errands like The Plague, unless I can string them together into one trip. I chose a job that was about four minutes from my house and feel like I hit the logistical jackpot with how it fits into my children’s schedules (and I have almost no meetings!). I had a follow-up appointment after a surgery that ended up being basically a “How are you?” kind of deal that I could have handled with a one-minute phone call, and I was at least as annoyed with them for wasting my time to go there as I was for the crazy money they charged me for it.

As I write this and perform this scan of my life both past and present, it becomes so much more clear as to why I have always hated small-talk. I always thought it had only to do with a lack of depth and true connection, just making noise to pass the time–like watching television–and keeping everyone (except me) comfortable/unchallenged by keeping it all superficial. Because that alone would be enough to make my skin crawl. But I see now that the previously undiscovered part of my frustration with the small-talk experience that characterizes most interactions in this society is the time-wasting aspect. I think of all the times I have finished a conversation and thought to myself, “Well, that was a complete waste of time! Neither of us know each other any better now than we did five minutes ago. What a missed opportunity!” It is like death by a million cuts, all of these conversations that eat up the days and years of our rapidly-dwindling lifetimes. I have donated enough blood to that cause. I don’t want to die that way anymore.

I feel like I need to set up some sort of fence or filter through which every request upon my time must pass to make it onto my docket. That filter is probably just a simple question or two, maybe something like Does this make my life feel bigger? or Does this resonate with the Me I am trying to become? I imagine that keeping only the engagements and the people who can pass that kind of test would leave me feeling much less buyer’s remorse for the way I have spent my time.

I just want everything I do to feel like it is worth it. The people I hangout with. The work I choose. The media that I consume. The curiosities and passions that I pursue. The meetings I take. The conversations that I join. The causes that I take up. I want every last bit of it to feel like it was worth the investment of the most precious resource I have: time. From here on out, I will guard it with my life.

How about you? How ferociously do you protect your limited time? Open up your journal and consider the ways you pass your days. What are the things in your life that feel most like a waste of your time? Do you have hobbies–e.g. watching TV, Facebook, YouTube, drug or alcohol use, video games, etc.–that eat up large portions of time but don’t make you feel any better? Why do you continue to give them your energy? How about the people who aren’t worth your time or energy but still receive your attention? What is it about these people? Is it logistically impossible to remove them from your life? If so, how could you make your interactions with them more valuable? Are you too afraid to have the uncomfortable conversation that could help them rise or remove them from your life? Is that conversation more uncomfortable than keeping them in your life and dragging you down? Are there certain places that always leave you wishing you had never gone there? Can you stop? Are you aware of the things that waste your time as you are doing them, or is it only in hindsight that the recognition comes to you? How much of your job/work life ends up feeling like a waste of your time, and how much feels very productive and worthwhile? How much do you drag things out at work just to fill in your required hours? If it were left entirely up to you, could you streamline your workplace and significantly shorten everyone’s work week while maintaining productivity? What are the very best ways that you regularly use your time? Is it in communion with certain people? What makes the time with those particular people so valuable? How can you get more time with them or people like them? How about your best activities? What about that activity time distinguishes it? Is it the mere doing of the activity–e.g. I love the feeling of hitting a tennis ball–or is it the things that come along with the activity (the exercise, the camaraderie, the connection with Nature, etc.)? How can you work more of that activity into your schedule? Is there a different activity that you have been wanting to try that you sense would also be worth your investment? Is there some place that always nourishes you and makes you glad you went there? Can you get there more often or find those same feelings elsewhere? Better yet, can you bring its qualities to you? What would your life look like if it were filled with only things that felt like a good use of your time? Starkly different than your current life, or only subtly so? How close could you reasonably get to that ideal version? What would you choose as a filter question(s) to help you make better decisions about who and what to allow into your life and your schedule? Would that be enough? Can you begin to use that filter immediately? What is holding you back? On a scale of 1 to 10, how selective/picky are you about what you allow onto your docket? Does all of this really boil down to a question of your own self-worth, i.e. is this about believing that you are worthy of only things that lift you up and speak to your soul? Are you worthy (Hint: YES!!!!!)? Leave me a reply and let me know: How valuable is your time?

You are so worth it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with loved ones or your social media network. It is a profoundly important topic with an answer whose deadline is pressing.

P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of questioning yourself and examining your life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Does Your Hometown Still Feel Like HOME To You?

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” –Pascal Mercier, Night Train To Lisbon

“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and have never been before.” –Warsan Shire

Hello friend,

I noticed something this week as I was plotting my big Summer trip to the mountains, and it has left me wondering about my place in the world. And if I ever had one.

You see, in order for me to get to the national parks in Wyoming and Montana, I have to pass through the state where I grew up and have so many fond memories. It is a super-long drive, so we will need stopping points along the way, to stretch our legs and to spend the night and such. When I finished plotting a couple of preliminary routes for the adventure, including not just the trip highlights in the mountains but also the long paths to and from my current home in Minnesota, I sat back with some satisfaction of having covered everything I most wanted to see. I was giddy with the fantasies of all that we will experience. And then something struck me: We will be going right through my homeland–twice–and I never once considered stopping in my old hometown.

It was an unsettling realization. “What does that say about my life?” I wondered. “Have I so lost touch with the place that formed me and is the scene of so many memories?” That unsettled feeling has lingered. Why wouldn’t I be eager to go back?

To be fair, I still make it back at Christmas every year. We stay for at least a few days in the house where I grew up. I smile when I drive by my old schools and tell my kids stories of the crazy things we did and who lived in each one of the houses. I get a kick out of it. And I should get a kick out of it; I had a great childhood. My memories are nearly all positive ones from that place. My yard was the centerpiece of tons of neighborhood games. I enjoyed school and sports and had good friends. I even went back and stayed for a couple of years as an adult, and even though I was mostly engaged in internal pursuits at the time and didn’t get out on the town much, I still appreciated being “home”.

So, what has changed? Or has anything changed?

From this distance of years and miles, I wonder. Did I ever feel truly rooted there? Was I ever “at home” in my hometown? I can feel the doubts creep in even as I ask the question.

I have never done very well on belonging measures. Though I am a huge lover of playing just about any sport, my favorites are the more solitary ones (e.g. tennis). And though I have teams that I root for, you will not find me wearing their jerseys or otherwise identifying with the crowd. I have always felt myself to be the “black sheep” of both my nuclear family and my extended family, never quite feeling the same connection or acceptance that it seemed the others felt toward each other. And I suppose you could say the same when it came to the people of my hometown. Despite having friends that I loved and enjoying my time, I never seemed to fit in with the prevailing themes and attitudes. Relative to the town’s vibe, I was not one of the gang.

I don’t know how much of that can be chalked up to the old, “It’s not you; it’s me,” justification. Maybe I am just unable to fit in, to latch on and allow myself to feel welcomed and connected. After all, I have lived many different places on my journey, and I have kept in touch with very few people when I have left, and I have yet to find the one place that feels just right. So, there is a good chance it is not so much the issue of my hometown somehow forsaking me, but rather that I am just not the guy for it.

However, I can also now see some things from this distance that I could not see as kid, or even as a young adult, that undoubtedly played into this lifelong feeling of alienation in the place I call home. The town and I just have (and had then) completely different sensibilities, and even moralities. When I think of the things that I am drawn to or feel passionate about in my life, I think of things like social justice issues, diversity, the arts, free expression of our unique selves, the ocean and the mountains, healthy living, environmental protection, charity toward those who have less or have been otherwise cast out or discriminated against, and other “liberal” political issues. When I think about my hometown, I don’t associate any of those things with it. I would certainly be a fish out of water if I tried to live there now, and though I could never have articulated it when I was younger, I have little doubt that my unconscious or subconscious minds sensed the same disconnect.

In the last decade or two, I have been aware that when I go back to my hometown, I am really going back to my house and, to a lesser extent, my neighborhood. I love the house where my parents live, the one that I grew up in, partly because my parents are there and partly for all of the wonderful memories still waiting for me there, waiting to enchant me and make me laugh and smile and feel a little bit of everything else, too. I am a sucker for nostalgia, and that place has it in Spades.

It is why I walk through the parkland and the few streets surrounding my house every time I go back, too. I like to wander off alone and let my mind drift to those halcyon days of innocence and freedom. I loved those days and feel so grateful for my long-gone time both in my home and in those safe streets, streets that didn’t even have lines painted on them, much less curbs or streetlights. I didn’t need them; I knew the road home.

So I go back into those city limits at this age merely to get to my little cul-de-sac and that house that holds my parents and my memories. The last few years, I have been talking myself into letting that place go, too, increasingly aware that they could sell it any time or, worse, that they won’t be alive to keep it “home” for me anymore. I know that when they leave it, I won’t ever return to that town again. I won’t have a reason to. I will instead hold it happily in my heart and mind, thinking of it often and kindly, just as I do now. But I will know, deep down, that it is no longer mine, if it ever was. The connection will be lost. Only gratitude will remain.

How about you? How closely connected are you to your hometown? Open up your journal and uncover the ties that bind you. How would you describe the place where you grew up? What kinds of things did you do? Who were the people you hung out with? What were your favorite parts of your town or neighborhood? What did you do there? Did you feel safe? What were you involved in? Church? Sports? School stuff? Clubs? Did you feel intimately connected to your town? Were you proud to be from there? If you were in sports or other activities in which you represented your town, were you glad to do so? Would you say you were happy growing up? How much do you think that affected your level of connection to the place? Is your feeling about your particular house or neighborhood different than your feeling toward your town? Why and in what ways? How did your degree of connection and feeling of “being at home” in your town change as you aged through elementary school to high school and young adulthood? Did you feel that typical teenage sensation of wanting to escape the binds of your town–the rules, the people, the prospects, etc.–and move away somewhere where the grass was greener? In your young adulthood, did you feel any inclination to move back to your hometown if you had left it? What has kept you from going back if you are not there now, or what has kept you there if you are? How closely aligned are your sensibilities (interests, morality, politics, etc.) with those of your hometown in general? Given your answer to that question, as a practical matter, are you and your hometown a good fit? How much does that matter to you in terms of making you want to be there (even to visit) or not? Do you still have people there that keep you connected to the place? Are you able to visit the home(s) where you grew up? How closely connected are you to that place? Does the feeling of home–whether the town or the building–evaporate when the people you shared it with go away? Do you feel like you have yet found the place that feels like your true home? If not, do you expect that you will find it someday (asking for a friend)? How much does it matter, especially if you are with the people you love? Do you think that your hometown will always sort of feel like home, no matter how much you liked it when you were young or how good a fit it is for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Does your hometown still feel like HOME to you?

Rise above it all,

William

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P.P.S. If this way of introspection works with your sensibilities, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

Soul Sucker or Soul Stirrer? The Role of Screen Time in Your Life

“If you are losing your leisure, look out! It may be you are losing your soul.” –Virginia Woolf 

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hello friend,

It is no secret that I am seriously prone to guilt? Well, let me clarify that. I am not much for guilt from other people; in fact, if you try to guilt me into doing something, I will almost certainly withdraw from that situation (and you) entirely. Self-inflicted guilt, however, is an unfortunate staple of my personality. I can make myself feel bad about the least transgression, like skipping a day at the gym or not writing letters to you as often as I once did. If it involves me not taking advantage of every opportunity to live my best life, I am vulnerable to an internalized flogging. And anxiety. I get antsy when I am not obviously growing.

So it is that the other day, while taking stock of my current life and my degree of contentment and longing, I noticed a most interesting and unusual phenomenon: despite the absence of any “big rock” that I am progressing daily in the direction of my dreams, or any major soul-stirring new dream that I am forming in my mind, I am feeling uncharacteristically serene and accepting of my status. At least for the moment, my relative lack of “progress” is not freaking me out. And I am starting to wonder if that alone should freak me out.

Am I getting complacent in my middle age, losing my passion and idealism? Am I allowing my dreams to slip from my once-stubborn grasp? Is my spirit dying, its light snuffed out by laziness and busy-ness?

Possibly because none of those things are true, or, just as possible, because I am unwilling to allow those thoughts into my head, I have decided to take a look at my habits from a totally different perspective. I need these new lenses in order to make more clear to myself just why my mind and soul are feeling pretty engaged without one of those big, obvious dreams or achievements that I am usually striving toward and that put wind in my sails. What are these more subtle forces at work that have been invisible to my eyes until now?

Interestingly, it was–quite literally–right there in front of my eyes all the time. Media. Screens. All of the information and art that I absorb on a daily basis.

When I have finished working and then spending the bulk of my “free time” face-to-face with my greatest inspirations–my children, my writing (either to you or in my journal), and Mother Nature–there are these last few fleeting moments of the day. They are usually found on a cardio machine at the gym early in the morning or in my bed as my eyelids get heavy at the day’s end, but I am always on the lookout for moments to steal.

It is in these precious moments that you can find me with my tablet–I hardly ever use my phone–which holds my books and, for the special occasion, my Netflix account. In recent months, I have found myself in turns fascinated, inspired, devastated, and mesmerized by what I have learned through that screen. And that is exactly what it has been: an education.

Allow me to share of the marvelous gifts my favorite device has bestowed upon me in recent months, just in case you are in need of some ideas for your own enrichment and growth.

Believe me, I wish I could share tons of movie suggestions, but my schedule and priorities don’t allow for two-to-three-hour blocks of time to sit and focus (if it did, you would get many more letters from me, or perhaps news of my next book). I did, however, catch the film Bohemian Rhapsody on a plane ride, and I recommend it. It jelled nicely with the main focuses of my education lately: the 1960s and 1970s (though the film is actually more of the 80s), and the culture around the music of that era. I have been drawn to this era for an unusual reason: because, in theory, these are the decades that would shape my parents’ late adolescence and young adulthood, yet neither my mother or my father has ever seemed at all engaged with the politics and music of that dynamic time–the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, rock ‘n’ roll, the Motown sound, drugs, etc.–a phenomenon that befuddles me. It is also the era that flowed into my childhood, so I am trying to better understand my upbringing and the world I came into (better late than never!).

In the absence of Hollywood movies, I have used my random and stunted Netflix time (usually once per week at the gym) on documentaries, often about musicians. I have been fascinated by The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke, Bowie: The Man Who Changed Everything, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Studio 54: The Documentary. The one that I am completely engrossed in now, that I can see will take me some months to finish its multiple parts, is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. It is eye-opening, blood-curdling, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. But so detailed and informative. It is a lesson I have needed, one that perhaps we all need. I hope you will give it a look.

Prior to this one, the “special” (not exactly a documentary) that truly captivated me was Springsteen On Broadway. The things that most interest me in the world are people’s stories, especially if told by the people themselves. Springsteen’s performance in this, from a storytelling perspective, is brilliant. The occasional musical numbers are just gravy. I highly recommend it.

Watching these documentaries has only increased my thirst for more of them. The ones on my wish list after I finish The Vietnam War are Planet Earth II, Brené Brown: The Call To Courage, The Seventies, Our Planet, Bobby Kennedy For President, The Story of God, How The Beatles Changed The World, Mountain, One Strange Rock, and Ken Burns’ The Civil War and The West. I think Netflix mostly exists just to tease me about my lack of time to watch its countless delights!

But there are even more books to read. I read with my 8-year-old son, I read with my 10-year-old daughter, and I read alone. And even though the children get the final say on the titles we read together, most of the books are enjoyable and enriching for me, too. My son and I have been reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which, mostly because it has inspired him to become a Greek Mythology expert, has taught me so much about a subject that I have long wanted to study. And it is entertaining. Another clever children’s series that an adult can appreciate is Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Last week, I also finished (alone) a sweet book by Alex Gino called George, about the experiences with cruelty and courage of a fourth-grader who is transgender. I then passed it on to my son, who read and enjoyed it this week. My daughter and I are currently quite engrossed in Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting By 7s, about a young genius dealing with the sudden death of her family.

I have in recent years come to appreciate books for middle grade kids and have no trouble recommending them to adults. I had earlier caught onto that feeling about adolescent/”coming of age” tales such as Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, both of which I strongly recommend. I find that a great children’s book is, without trying to be, also a great adult book.

But I still love to read my own grown-up books, which are usually something in the Biography/Memoir section but spread out into other areas of nonfiction and fiction as my intuition guides me. One recent, highly-detailed, biographical portrait that supplemented my study of the 1960s and 1970s–and the music thereof– was Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. It is fascinating (if a bit tabloidish). I have also recently had a very personal look at both mountain climbing and rape culture through the eyes of one of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer, in Eiger Dreams and Missoula, respectively. At the moment, I am in the middle of Azar Nafisi’s thoughtful account of the myriad devastating effects of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Reading Lolita In Tehran. It is opening my eyes in a whole new way, taking my heart and mind to places I had never imagined.

But that is just what good media does, right? That is the potential of these screens we are always staring at: to stimulate our brains, to open our hearts, and to inspire our souls. In short: to lift us up, to expand our lives. Growth.

This, I can see now, is the answer to the puzzle of why, in the absence of any huge dream that is currently propelling me forward by the power of its hold on my enchanted soul, I am still feeling the tingles in that soul and the stretching of my heart and mind as they open with new knowledge and inspiration. It points to something that I clearly needed a reminder of: not only am I, at my core, a dreamer and a follower of my dreams, but I am also a student. It is in my soul’s code. I simply love to take in what is new and different to me. I get excited to try what I haven’t tried, whether that is a foreign language or a physical skill or another person’s story. I want to see, feel, and do it all so I can know better how the world works and how everyone else experiences it. When I feel those things stagnating in me, I become anxious and irritable. Unhappy. This is why I am in constant search of enrichment opportunities. My radar is always up. Basically, I am addicted to Growth.

With that realization, I can see why I have continued to be buoyed without my usual life-saving device: the big rock.

I have no doubt that before long, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and I will need to do something that satisfies my other soul compulsion: to contribute. I will need to help others rise in a more obvious way than I am now.

But for now, it is nice to know that when I my tank is running low, I don’t have to feel so guilty about turning to my screen for inspiration. There is some magical stuff in there! I plan to mine it well and allow myself to be lifted.

How about you? How do you use your screens and your media? Open up your journal and assess your relationship to your devices and your leisure time. How big of a role do your screens play in your life? What percentage of your leisure time is spent in front of a screen or page? What do you do with them? Movies? TV series? Sports? Video games? Books? Articles? Social media? Word games? Other apps? How much of that screen time would you describe as relatively mindless? Do you feel guilty, as I do, if you reach your threshold of “just passing time?” How much of your mindless time is necessary (i.e. you need it to decompress from daily stresses)? How much of it is really just wasting time? Which screen-based things that you do are inspirational? Which are entertaining? Which are educational? Which grow your life in other ways? What are those ways? Do you gain more of your leisure time enrichment via screens and pages, or via other hobbies? By what margin? What are the best movies you have watched lately? Which one(s) stand out as being particularly enriching? Which have moved you the most? Do you have any documentaries that have changed your perspective on the world? Which TV series do you find yourself recommending to others? A few weeks ago I was moved to tears by the comeback of Tiger Woods, and I always love the human stories covered during the Olympics. Do you watch sports? How engaged does the “human drama” element of sports get you? How would you rate your level of enrichment and personal growth via social media? Does the negative ever outweigh the positive? Do you waste time there? What other apps would you recommend to someone looking to be inspired and/or educated? What have you been reading lately? Do you prefer books or articles? Which blogs do you read? What have you read in the last year that has really stuck with you? Has anything changed your life dramatically? What has reminded you of Who You Really Are? Are you satisfied with the role of screens in your life? What would you like to change about them (e.g. more or less time on them, more books, less social media)? How about your leisure on the whole? Is it not just relaxing, but enriching? Do your hobbies inspire you and make you a better person? Are they enough to round out your work life and make the whole package seem fulfilling, even if temporarily? Do you cycle back and forth from being passive and content with your free time to needing to do something truly “meaningful” and life-changing? What is the proper balance? Leave me a reply and let me know, What is the role of leisure and screen time in your happiness?

Grow and grow,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with someone who might be enriched by it. Grow your world!

P.P.S. If this way of introspection appeals to your sensibilities, check out by book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Do You Have A Busy Life Or A Full Life?

“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” –Henry David Thoreau

“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.” –Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

Hello friend,

I returned to my job on Monday after a wonderful, relaxing vacation. Everyone at work also had the previous week off for Spring Break, so it was a fresh start for all, back to the grind of our hectic work days and schedules full of activities, events, and errands. It was obvious from the beginning of the week that this transition from the ease of vacation–whether it was an actual “vacation” on a beach, water park, ski slope, etc. or just a bunch of days of “I don’t need to be anywhere” at home–to the hectic Normal was jarring to people of all ages. There were a lot of stunned looks in the hallways as people tried to find the groove of that very fast lane that we all seem to occupy in our usual routines.

I found it fascinating to listen to people summarize their respective weeks off, especially the ones who didn’t “go on vacation” but rather stayed home without working. There were so many comments to the effect of, “It was just SO NICE to not have to be anywhere!” or “We didn’t do much of anything, and that was just perfect!” Everyone seemed to be in agreement that having no big agenda, To-Do List, or time commitments–whether in town or out of town–was just what the doctor ordered.

I felt that way on my vacation, too. Even though I was out of town and staying at someone else’s house–in theory, not completely on my own terms–every day was very much a No Schedule/No Obligation operation. It was my desire to be at the beach for part of the day, but I wasn’t very particular about which part. I wanted to be at the pool or playing outside with my kids, too, but that could be worked out around the beach trips. I could write in my journal any time. The only things I set a clock for all week were my morning trips to the gym, which I did just to leave the rest of the day wide open for whimsy. Every day eventually became filled with fun, peace, and the people I love most.

Full. Not busy.

It made me wonder what I could do to bring a little (or a lot) more of that vacation sensation to my “real” life. I mean, I realize that I can’t just stop having commitments and obligations. I go on vacation–and get that liberated vibe–because there is no job to go to that week. There are also no piano lessons to drive to. Or basketball practices. Or band practices. Or volleyball. Or track. Or soccer. Or Girl Scouts. Or play dates. Or grocery stores. Or library. But that’s not real! I can’t just unschedule everything that we are committed to doing every week. Can I?

I have had the conversation with my kids more than once about priorities and trying to narrow down the extra-curricular activities to what is most important. But the truth is, everyone at my house struggles with this one. My kids don’t say no to any organized activity. For my part, I think of all the choices for sports and activities that they have now that I didn’t have when I was a kid, and I hate to deny them of any of these wonderful opportunities. Perhaps I am living a little bit vicariously though them, or maybe I just want to have no regrets later about how much I exposed them to and how strongly I encouraged them to engage their world. In any case, between their appetite for activities and my weakness for indulging them, they are scheduled up and thus, as their chauffeur, so am I.

And here arises the question I often find myself hashing out in my mind: Isn’t it okay to be busy if you enjoy all the things you are doing? I use this argument constructively when I start to feel sorry for myself about not being able to fit all of my priorities into my schedule. I lament that I have stopped meditating and haven’t picked up the guitar in months because all I do outside of work is play with my kids, take my kids to their activities, and write. Then I retort to my disappointed self: “But I love writing and being with my kids!” So, how bad can it be? Is my life really so tough if my biggest problem is that I have to decide which of my most favorite activities I have to leave out of my schedule?

This dovetails with my parenting challenge and how to help organize my children’s lives. Everyone says that kids these days are being ruined by being overscheduled–“They don’t know how to JUST BE KIDS anymore!”–and that we parents would be better doing our duty if we gave them less to do and more free time to figure out how to make their own fun (“But NOT with screens!” So many rules….). But what if my kids really want to do all the things they are signed up for? What if, despite enjoying a day of lounging around in front of the TV and reading and playing Legos and having friends over and such, they love even more to have basketball practice or piano lessons or a Girl Scouts troop meeting (or all three!)? They prefer the busy life.

My life is different, though. Whereas they want to be involved in things mostly because those things involve other kids and the making of friends, with the exception of playing with my wife and kids, the things I want to do tend to be solitary pursuits. I want to fill my hours writing, walking in Nature and taking photographs, learning the guitar and the piano, meditating, and reading in my hammock. Those are the things that make me feel full.

I guess I want to be busy feeling unhurried.

I want to end each day thinking, “Wow, I was going nonstop at my favorite pursuits all day long! It was fun, enriching, fulfilling, and exhausting. And my only lament is that I didn’t have time for more of these things. I can’t wait for tomorrow!”

That kind of busy has to be good! It may be tiring and may still appreciate a slow vacation, but it is undeniably good.

What I am beginning to see as I write this is the difference one’s approach and attitude regarding this busy-ness makes. “Busy” can show up as deeply engaged and present in meaningful tasks that continue one after another, but it can also show up as rushed, strung-out, and frazzled. Both people may have a full schedule, but one moves through it in Peace, and the other does not. The first person is gaining from her experience; the second person is losing.

A life cannot be full if it is being depleted. That’s simple logic.

While I definitely think being busy can make it more difficult to feel fulfilled by one’s life, it doesn’t have to. It depends upon what is keeping you busy and how much Peace you find within your many activities. That Peace is the difference between doing many things quickly and being in a rush.

I despise being in a rush.

In some of my years as the manager of a tennis program, I was in a mad rush. After teaching my 45 enjoyable hours per week on the court, I would rush into my office and do all of the other things necessary to run the club business and take care of my personal clientele. Twenty or more rushed and ragged hours per week later, I was feeling nothing but burnt out. I had neither the time nor the energy to engage any of my passions or interests in the scant moments that remained. My life was very hectic, and while I enjoyed most of my work, there was way too much of it to feel satisfied by the entirety, and not enough of everything else to feel fulfilled. I was out of alignment, lacking Peace. Busy, not full.

In most of the years since then, I have kept very busy, but at a different mix of activities. As soon as my children entered my world, I cut out the crazy hours and most stressful aspects of my work life. Those hours were filled to overflowing with all the love and chaos that babies and toddlers provide. I was blissfully ragged. Busy, but full.

When the kids got near the end of the toddling, Journal of You began and filled every spare moment. There was still no breathing room in the day and no full nights of sleep, but I did meaningful work, spent lots of high quality time with my kids, and pursued a dream that made my heart sing. Busy? Oh yes! But very, very full.

I am mostly rolling that way now. I write to you less often now than I used to, only because I work more and couldn’t keep going on so little sleep. I find that to be a bummer–I want to write much more–but it is a compromise I have agreed to (for now) in order to maintain that sense of balance and Peace. I am also very protective of my time and don’t say yes to things that don’t align with my priorities. The activities I have carefully chosen keep me very busy, but each one is done with a sense of Peace and intention. I am clear that I have chosen this life. I may be constantly tinkering with it in hopes of improving it because I am never satisfied, but I am also wildly grateful for it. I have never been bored. In fact, I wish there were 24 more hours in each day to add those Nature hikes, guitar lessons, and letters to you. And yes, I fully appreciate each one of those No Schedule/No Obligation days of vacation that I get. But there is no doubt that despite the busy-ness of my life–and perhaps to some degree because of it–I feel very, very full.

How about you? How busy is your life, and how does that busy-ness affect your happiness? Open up your journal and walk through your typical week. How crazy is your schedule? How long is your normal work day? Does it cause you to miss things that are important to you? Is your job stressful while you are there? How much do you love the work? Do you feel a sense of Peace and fulfillment while doing it? Do you have to bring the work home with you? Do you bring the stress or joy home with you? What occupies your time outside of work? How much of that time is devoted to children or other people that depend on you? What percentage of that time is personally enriching and a source of great joy? How much is stressful? How much do you begrudge these people depleting your stores of time and energy? How much of your time gets eaten up with the regular tasks of living (e.g. grocery shopping, preparing and eating meals, medical appointments, traffic)? Do you go to the gym? Do you have any classes that you attend or clubs that you belong to? Do you have self-imposed deadlines or practice times that you must stick to for things you are passionate about, like my writing? What other things fill up your time and have the potential to make you feel rushed? With all of the things you have mentioned so far, how full is that schedule? How much of that time fills you up? How much depletes you? How much time is left for leisure? What do you do with that “just for you” time? Does it make up for the more stressful and depleting parts of your schedule? However busy you are, is there enough Peace in your activities or downtime that, on the whole, you are able to feel balanced and full? Do you ever get bored? Why or why not? Is boredom a symptom of having not enough to do, not being interested in the things you do, not having enough passions or curiosity, or something else altogether? Whose schedule would you like to trade with? What is it about theirs that you envy? How can you put some of that into your schedule? Would it make your life more fulfilling? What would you include if tasked with drawing up a schedule for your ideal normal week? How has your degree of Busy changed across your journey? How has your degree of Full changed? Is there a correlation? What conclusions can you draw? Are those conclusions universal, or do they seem to apply only to your personal path? What is the right balance for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is your life busy, full, or some degree of both?

May Peace be with you,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it on your social media channels. Let’s all be full!

P.P.S. If this way of examining your life appeals to you, consider purchasing my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Your Personal Utopia: Where Should You Live?

“There are no conditions to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.” –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Hello friend,

Yesterday I was shoveling out the end of the driveway where the snowplows had buried us for the 84th time this week, straining with each heave to toss my scoops over the 7-foot mountain ranges that now line my entire driveway as this awful season stretches on into Eternity. Since misery loves company, I struck up a conversation with the lady across the street, who was also out risking a heart attack or slipped disc as she plugged away at her own buried drive. As every interaction in Minnesota goes these days, we got right into grousing about the interminable Winter and the awfulness of shoveling, cursing our lot in life. In the end, it all seemed to boil down to: What the heck are we doing HERE???

Because seriously, of all the wonderful places to live, why, oh why, did I choose this place where, for almost half the year, we only go outside to shovel and complain about the cold? It just doesn’t make good sense!

I get this way every year by the end of the Winter. But honestly, I am usually there by Christmastime. That way I have a few solid months to loathe myself for my foolish life choices.

I mean, it is not like I didn’t know who I am and what I like when I moved here seventeen years ago. I like warmth, preferably of the year-round variety. I like mountains. I love the ocean.

Three words to describe my state: cold, flat, land-locked. Hmmm…..

How did I go so wrong? More importantly, can I make this right before someone finds my body at the end of one of these Winters looking like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining? Where is the ideal place for me?

My wife has gone through this process with increasing determination the last few years. The Minnesota Winters are really wearing on her, so she has begun to scout locations for an imminent move. She likes nothing more than to scour the Internet–the woman knows her product reviews–so this is no ordinary scouting. She knows about individual school districts, temperature and precipitation fluctuations, voting patterns, and all kinds of diversity measures. Last year’s destination was Aurora, Colorado. Whenever the temperature dropped or the snow fell in Minnesota, she was sure to give me an update on how lovely it was in Aurora that day. This year’s darling is Charlotte, North Carolina, which, of course, is even easier to contrast with Minnesota in the Winter (and the Autumn…and the Spring). So I am hearing about this one on the regular. Are either of those places just right for me, though?

The other day, I got so tired of the cold and snow that I actually attempted to systematize the question. I wrote down a list of factors that I would consider for my next hometown. Climate was an easy one. Then there were things like Topography, Region, Economy/Job Market/Cost of Living, Size, Diversity, Safety, School Quality, and Proximity to Loved Ones. Then, going across the top, I listed some cities or areas: my current home, my wife’s two most recent obsessions, then a few other spots that I have either lived (Los Angeles), vacationed (Southwest Florida), or considered (Portland, Oregon). Then I went down the list of factors and gave each place a “+” or a “-“ or, in some cases, both (+/-).

All of the places on the list got generally positive scores. In some categories, I was ambivalent and gave the town the +/- (e.g. Charlotte tends toward the liberal side of the political spectrum–a positive for me–but it lies in the very conservative Deep South, which feels totally off-limits all the way down in my bones). And while some had more plus marks than others, it quickly became clear that some factors weighed much more than others, but different for different cities. For example, where I currently live, there are lots of plus scores, but there is the one glaring minus (Climate) and also an overwhelming plus, Proximity to Loved Ones.

That last one, it seems, weighs far heavier than all the rest. Or at least it has until this point. Before we moved here–almost seventeen years ago now–and were beginning to search for options other than where we were in Ohio, my only request to my then-girlfriend/now-wife was that we move closer to our families, who were spread across the Northland between Wisconsin and Montana, with our parents both in North Dakota. As Fate would have it, she was offered a good job right where I was thinking about: St. Paul, Minnesota. And even though we don’t see our families all that often considering how close in proximity we live, it still just feels good to be nearby. And we get together just often enough that the grandparents and cousins are the favorite people in my children’s lives. The proximity got us here, and the closeness keeps us here. Well, that and the inertia that grows from being someplace for a long time, and particularly from my kids getting to the age where they really value their friends and their school and such, to the point that they realize it would stink to have to start all of that over.

There are other oddities about the checklist method, too. One thing that jumped out at me was that when I thought about California–not that I would move back to Los Angeles, but the San Diego area is appealing–it seemed to check more of my boxes than the others, and yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to seriously consider moving there right now. And it wasn’t just that it failed the Proximity to Loved Ones box, but something vaguely distasteful (perhaps some combination of high population, high cost of living, and my uncertainty about raising my kids there). I am not sure, but it was clear that it could not be explained by plusses and minuses.

It must be stated that the bulk of any decision is, “Will this work for my wife and kids?” If it were just me, my answers would be completely different.

So, what do we really want? For a temporary argument’s sake, let’s remove the Proximity to Loved Ones factor. We want to be in a fairly large metropolitan area (that is for my wife). We definitely want diversity (i.e. we need to see people of color in our schools and stores). We want it to be warm much of the year–all of the year would work for me–and have mild, relatively brief Winters. We want it to be progressive politically. We want it to be naturally beautiful and verdant, tending toward the majestic (the ocean or mountains); this one is for me. We want a decent cost of living and good job opportunities. We want it to feel like an active, healthy community. We want great public schools. We want it to be safe.

Here are some typical thoughts that come to me as I try to find the right place: I need to go somewhere warm. Arizona? No, I like lush vegetation; no deserts for me. Georgia? I am NOT going to the Deep South with my multi-racial family and dealing with the racism that has not gone away, not to mention the rest of the conservative politics. Okay, California? Very tempting, but there is that vague, unnamed worry that is specific to California. Florida? That turquoise water is quite enticing, but again with the politics. Alright, then I am going to have to change my climate tolerance to “mild” instead of the real warmth that I want. How about the mid-Atlantic area nearer Washington, DC? The climate is good, but I have never wanted to live on the East Coast (other than New York City, and that was only temporary and youth-driven). Kentucky and Tennessee still seem like the South to me. How about St. Louis? It seems like a decent compromise weather-wise, but everything I am told about the racial dynamics there scares me off. Texas is a non-starter (though I hear Austin is nice). There are no cities or enticing landscapes on the Great Plains. Anything below Colorado is too much desert. Montana’s Winters are not as bad as Minnesota–and I love being there–but it is homogenous, conservative, and too sparsely populated.

What does that leave? Well, there is still the Denver area. And the Pacific Northwest. Is that it? It strikes me just how much of the country gets excluded when racism and politics matter. And then throw in Winter, and seemingly another half of it gets crossed off. Very little is left.

I am starting to see how my Mom, when I talked to her a couple years ago, told me that she never really liked the town she lived in most of her adult life, but she could never think of a better place to go. I can also see how my neighbor lady and I, as we were commiserating the other day while buried in snow, couldn’t come up with the perfect place to move to if we decided to ditch our shovels. Would some suburb of Denver or Portland–or even San Diego–suit my family better than this suburb of Minneapolis? Probably. But more importantly, will my disdain for Winter be overpowered by proximity to family, general inertia, and my children’s friendships, keeping us experts in shoveling and complaining until we are retired, or at least until the kids leave? It pains me to say that it seems highly likely.

Needless to say, I spend a lot of time cursing my ancestors about this topic. If only they had, as they were crossing this great land, determined that North Dakota was inhospitable and headed South and West, at least to the mountains and perhaps all the way to the ocean, my family would be scattered around those scenic, balmy parts rather than this frozen flatland.

But here they reside in their own frigid towns on the North Plains, and thus here I reside in order to feel close to them. Blood is thick and runs deep. But will it be thick and deep enough to keep me here if another Winter is this long and awful, or will I cut the rope and set off in search of my perfect place? Time will tell…..

How about you? What place is best-suited to your needs and inclinations? Open up your journal and flesh out what matters most to you and what keeps you where you are. You can even make a grid like I did with factors, locations, plusses, and minuses, if that suits you. What are the factors that belong on your list, the ones you deem worthy of consideration when deciding a home base? Beyond the ones I listed above, what would you add? Are some of the things I mentioned not at all important to you? What are your big ones, those that really hold sway in your mind and heart? Is Proximity to Loved Ones big for you like it is for me? How about Climate? Do things like Politics and Racism play a role for you like they do for me? Okay, based on your factors and giving full weight to your biggies, which places in the country seem like they would be good matches for you? Are they all over the map or concentrated in one region of the country? Would you consider going out of the country? Have you seriously considered some of these spots before, or is this exercise causing new cities to pop up? Do you have a long conversation in your head, like mine above, that gradually excludes areas and narrows it for you? Now, write about where you currently live. How does it score for all of your factors, especially the big ones? Which factors brought you there in the first place? Do those factors still play a major role? Considering what you have now established as your priorities, how well does your current town fit into your ideal model? Are there other places that you came up with in your narrowing that are a better fit for you? A lot better? What keeps you from leaving your current home? Is it that one big factor that seems to trump all the others? Is it inertia? Fear? What is the likelihood that you will move to one of your ideal locations in the near future? What is the likelihood that you will ever leave your current home (or at least before retirement)? Is that answer okay with you? Can you be happy and content just about anywhere? Are you content where you are now? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where should you be living?

Fortune favors the bold,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. We all could benefit from some introspection.

P.P.S. If this type of deep questioning of your life and your values appeals to you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.